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Good morning. Go ahead and open up your Bibles if you have them with you to 2 Corinthians chapter 4. You wouldn’t know it, if you were to see me today huffing and puffing around my neighborhood, but I used to be a runner back in the day. I ran cross country in high school. I met all the requirements; you had to be able to put one foot in front of the other many, many times in a row for a long time and it was the max amount of coordination required, so it was a good sport for me. Some of you also might have run cross country, especially maybe if you were on the basketball team or the wrestling team or the tennis team, perhaps your coach required you to participate in cross country in order to get in shape for your sport. We had a number of those folks on my team. Cross country, of course, is that sport where your sport is everyone else’s punishment. You do whatever everybody else does when they get in trouble, you just, that’s just what you do. What cross country maybe lacks in terms of coordination requirement it makes up for though, I think, in the requirement for heart. You have to have heart. Whether you’re the fastest person on the team or the slowest person on the team, just finishing the race requires a good amount of heart. You’re not running in front of, this may come as kind of a news flash for some folks, but you’re not running most likely in front of thousands and thousands of cheering onlookers, long stretches with just a couple of people running through, empty trails in the woods, perhaps occasionally emerging to a small crowd of mostly interested parents cheering you on, but you can’t rely on the crowds to carry you in cross country. Many, many times, many races I can remember wanting to quit, this is just too hard.
And Paul, of course, in his first letter to the Corinthians compares the Christian life to a, such a race, a race requiring great endurance, which he must discipline his body. He says lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. What would be behind that kind of disqualification? We might venture to guess losing heart, a temptation that we can imagine Paul himself must have known, and it’s understandable, this temptation to lose heart in the Christian life.
Last Sunday evening, if you were able to be with us for our lessons in carol service, Pastor Kevin was taking us through several responses to the question, how to answer the question who is Jesus? Two of which he said were inconsistent, two of which alone were consistent responses to who Jesus is. Who is Jesus? Two responses that were consistent, only one of which was a consistent Christian response, namely to confess that Jesus is God. Jesus is the Lord. He is my Lord, He is my King, and as such He deserves the whole of my life, that I would give all that I am, sacrifice everything, lay it as His feet, at His disposal to use for His purposes. Something perhaps easier said than done.
Hard for some of us even to say that, hard for all of us to live that, at least at some point, but the same, same Jesus who lay sweetly as a baby in a manger of hay grew up to be a man who told people that in order to follow Him, in order to follow Him you had to take up your cross, deny yourself daily, and die. You had to turn around, begin to swim upstream, embark on a pilgrimage not unlike the Israelites we’re studying in our evening service in the Exodus. Somewhere between being set free and the Exodus and our justification, not yet arrived at our Promised Land, our glorification, on a wilderness pilgrimage in which we like they at times are tempted to turn back.
We know that Paul faced this temptation and yet did not lose heart, at least not to the point of quitting. He says, in 2 Timothy, the last writing we have from him before his own death, ‘the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.”
However, just two verses later, he writes of Demas. “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Earlier when Paul wrote to the Colossians, he said Luke, the beloved physician, greets you as does Demas, Demas one of his fellow workers. It’s always been one of the more sobering verses in Scripture to me. Demas in love with this present world has deserted me and gone back to Thessalonica. Demas lost heart. He turned around, he went back. Truth is, the Christian life, the true Christian life, is really hard. Hard enough for all of us at times, perhaps some of us even more than others, to be tempted with losing heart.
And yet in spite of all that he faced, Paul did not lose heart and he says to us this morning we don’t have to either. It’s a short passage that we are looking at this morning. It’s a common passage. Many of you have read it before, perhaps studied it, even memorized it, but there’s valuable insight here for us, valuable insight into how to fight against this temptation to lose heart.
Before we jump in, though, let me just acknowledge this morning that what we are looking at this morning does not exhaust the potential threats to our faith, the sources of discouragement, even depression, anxiety, despondency; they’re varied. Physiological realities often come along and play even with spiritual ones that result in these kinds of struggles. So there may be more that we need to do, more help to be sought, but there is certainly not less than what we see in Paul’s writing this morning.
Specifically he gives us three insights to look for in our fight against the temptation to lose heart. Facing the reality of our situation, finding encouragement in what God is doing, and focusing on the right things.
Read with me 2 Corinthians chapter 4, verses 16 through 18. “So we do not lose heart, though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
The first thing Paul points us to is the necessity of facing our reality. So we do not lose heart, he says, though our outer self is wasting away. Quick note here, when Paul talks about the outer self versus the inner self, he is not talking about just a physical body versus an internal spirit as though one were more valuable than the other, as though in the end the great Christian hope is that this inner spirit we somehow liberated from a physical prison. The Christian hope, the Christian worldview, does not anticipate a new heavens and a new earth, a new creation filled with disembodied even though perfected spirits. No, the Christian worldview, the Christian hope, is an entirely physical one. Resurrected physical bodies of the redeemed, filling up the new heavens and the new earth.
And while all of us in some sense, all of us as humans are in some sense wasting away as Paul describes here, he is talking specifically about Christians in this passage. He’s talking about the old self versus the new self. Those who, as he says in chapter 5, have become new creations in Christ. If anyone is in Christ, he said he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And the new has come for those of us in Christ this morning, and yet this old self, this old man, Paul says, is wasting away. It’s probably not a news flash. But maybe a little more clarification here before we move on would be helpful. Well, there are two types, two kinds, of wasting that Paul could be talking about here, I think both within the scope of what he’s hitting at.
Several months ago I was sitting with my kids, watching a football game on the couch, and my wife took a picture from behind and posted it on Instagram as she is prone to do, without asking my permission, and some brief comments about what a great dad I was to include my children in watching the football game. I think it’s great, men, by the way, don’t you, when we get credit for watching football? It’s just a really nice bonus. It was a little bit of a burden to include them at certain points in the game, but pleased to have them there. Nonetheless, as I was looking at this photo, meaning to be a commendation of me, I couldn’t help but notice this oddly larger than I thought spot where hair I’m pretty sure used to be, some of you in the balcony can attest to that reality even now, but our bodies are wasting away. Signs are just all around us, in those we love and in ourselves.
We could go on and on about examples this morning, disease. We gather each week Tuesday mornings to pray for you as a congregation. As I look over the list of prayer requests that come in, I’m often overwhelmed by the number of you facing cancer or those you love. Other kinds of diseases; it’s nearly overwhelming.
Sometimes when I’m up here, assisting in worship, I look out and I see your faces, and I know what you’re fighting, what you’re facing, or those that you love, and I want to weep because I know what it costs, what it means to sing the things that you’re singing, to say what you say is true. I know how much you need those things to be true. Disease, mental illness, disability, aging and death.
We have six children. If you don’t know us well, our next to youngest is 4; he’s at that point where he’s starting to become a little bit aware of the aging process. His name is Charlie and Charlie is getting aware of our aging. He says I don’t want to become a daddy, not really because he does not want to become a daddy, because he knows that if he becomes a daddy, then daddy’s gotten really old. And he doesn’t want daddy to get old. My wife, if you know her, has the tendency to be a bit of a Debbie Downer, at crucial times even. We gave our kids a dog, a puppy, for Christmas and we are celebrating this little fluffy ball running around the kitchen and my wife, for some reason, thinks of this thing to tell the children. I asked her permission to share this, she said it was fine. She said, you know, Aunt Mary, her sister, they’re going through a really sad time right now. Their dog is 13, 14 years old and he’s getting ready to die. So, we have a really happy time and this puppy is going to be with us for a long time, but there will be a sad time, too, when we’ll have to say goodbye. It’s like Christmas morning, you know? A little bit later, Charlie, who’s becoming aware of this whole process, sits down next to me, he leans over, whispers in my ear, and he says, “Daddy, I’m sad about my dog dying.” I said “buddy, I don’t think we have to think about that a lot right now. Let’s just, we can deal with that later.”
There are signs we all experience at some point or another. You don’t have to be a Christian. You don’t have to be a Christian to experience this kind of wasting, you just have to be human. You have to be human in a fallen and broken world, it’s an inevitable part of life in this world. And I think it’s included in Paul’s thinking because notice what he says in chapter 5, verse 1, “for we know that if the tent which is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” If this tent, his metaphor for our present bodies, is destroyed, when he says eternal building in the heavens, he is speaking of a hope peculiar to Christians, but destruction of this earthly tent is an experience that is common to all humanity. And I believe it’s included within the scope of what Paul describes when he speaks about our outer self wasting away. It’s certainly included in the experiences that threaten to cause us, even as Christians, to lose heart in our Christian pilgrimage. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why it’s so important to have a theology that paints right expectations of what God actually promises in this life. It’s very easy to lose heart. Wrong expectations can cause us to abandon our faith because we’re wrongly informed about what God actually has promised to do for us. We can lose heart as a result of these inevitable sufferings of living in a fallen world, facing these sufferings, sufferings that God does not promise to eradicate in this life, even for those of us who are believers. What He does promise is that He will use them for our good, which we’ll come to in a moment.
And while this general suffering, this kind of inevitable wasting, is certainly within the scope of what Paul is talking about, I think it’s a bit nearer to the mark to look at another type of wasting, what for the sake of alliteration we might call intentional wasting. Not intentional in the sake that it’s intentionally sought. Paul was not a man with a martyr’s complex, but rather a wasting or a kind of suffering that comes from living an intentional kind of life, making intentional kinds of choices, choices to deny one’s self, to pick up your cross, and to follow Jesus.
How do we know this? Look again at the text with me, verses 16 through 18. It’s actually part of a larger argument for Paul. We don’t have time to consider it all this morning, but if we look back at verse 1, he says therefore, in chapter 4, “therefore having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” It’s the beginning of a longer section in chapter 4 that’s capped by these two phrases about not losing heart, all in the context of ministry, discussing not losing heart in the ministry that God has given to Paul.
Or look again at verse 17, this light momentary affliction Paul uses here for the word that we have translated affliction, a Greek word called thlipsis, which is used 45 times in the New Testament, almost exclusively in the context of persecution or resistance one experiences based on faith in Christ.
And Paul describes what he’s talking about more fully if we looked at verses 7 through 12 here in chapter 4 as well, and you get a sense for what he really has in mind. “But we have this treasure,” he says, “in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck not but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies, for we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus always may be manifested in our mortal flesh, so death is at work in us, but life in you.”
Paul doesn’t conceive of a version of the Christian life, the true Christian life, that doesn’t involve some measure of this kind of wasting, this kind of intentional affliction. In a world in rebellion against God, living intentionally for Christ certainly might include something like imprisonment or perhaps even the loss of your life. Many have been placed in harms’ way on account of their faith in Christ, exposure to prison or physical pain, disease or physical deterioration. For us in America, this kind of threat’s more remote, at least for now. But it’s not as though living intentionally for Christ, engaging in gospel ministry, serving our neighbors, doing our work, relating to our family in intentional ways, seeking to honor Christ and advance the Gospel is not going to cost us nothing. Perhaps sadness, or heaviness of heart as we bear the burdens of others, we feel their pain, we enter into the pain of their experience. Maybe depression, begun or even aggravated by ministries that we find ourselves involved with. Spurgeon, the famous preacher, is well-known for his many bouts with depression, deeply aggravated by the ministry that he was engaged in, and yet persevered. Perhaps it’s exposure, a loss of privacy or personal space. I know that not all of you are extroverts, and that can be a great cost to bear. Isolation, on the other hand, or loneliness for some of you, resulting from your faith in Christ, social isolation, estrangement from your family. Maybe it’s a financial strain or loss, a loss of a promotion or even a job so eagerly desired. Some of you are still living in undesired singleness, because of your commitment to follow Christ. Some of you are living in an unhappy marriage, because of your commitment to follow Christ. Some of you have said goodbye to your children in order to allow them to follow Christ.
The point is that regardless of whether these are intentional or inevitable varieties of affliction or wasting that we’re experiencing, neither is insignificant. Neither is insignificant. The reality is wasting hurts. And if you’re anything like me, you don’t really like hurting. I know what some of you are facing. I know that it’s not easy. I’m not making light of it this morning and neither would Paul. He, too, faced this threat of losing heart. Why else make a point of saying “we don’t lose heart” unless it was a reality, unless there was a potential of actually losing heart? I’m actually encouraged to discover that my temptations, my real temptations, are not just described by those who wrote the Bible but were actually experienced by them as well. We know now that Paul was not just some coach who had never played as a player but he knew the challenges of living this Christian life. That’s helpful for me when I look at what he has to say, to know that he was experientially acquainted with what he’s writing about. My own temptation is to stop looking, stop listening, stop feeling, stop engaging, to want to curl up inside my own little confines of family and food and sport and comfort and safety. To hide away from the world is a distinctly non-Christian way of looking at life, simply trying to avoid suffering by disconnecting with the world around you.
Besides our own disqualification, what would be the cost of our losing heart? What would be the cost? Think about how different the world might be. How much good would have gone undone. Hospitals never built, those who recovered from treatment or care experienced during a plague, left to die. Those who didn’t recover left to die alone, without comfort. Inhumane social structures and cultural practices left unchanged. Untold numbers of babies and children left unloved, uncared for, left to perish. Or perhaps a little bit closer to home, neighbors of yours alone during the holidays, coworkers unvisited in the hospitals, homeless unfed, children unloved, prisoners unwritten to. I know that not all of this good work has been done by Christians, but much of it has. And because of our faith, and at real cost to those who have done so.
Most importantly, most importantly, millions upon millions would never have heard of Christ, and died without reconciliation with God and without hope in heaven.
And I think it’s just here that this inevitably of our wasting actually helps us to not lose heart in that kind of radical, intentional life. The freedom that comes from facing reality is that we can waste well. Wasting is inevitable, and when we embrace that it allows us, it frees us to engage in this intentional kind of wasting because in the end there is really no other option. So why not give our lives away freely?
Here’s what Paul is saying: Don’t waste your wastings. Don’t waste your wastings. Waste, waste it well.
And so the first way to avoid losing heart this morning is to simply face, face the reality of our situation, the wasting away of this old man. It’s an important first step. But at least for me it would hardly be sufficient, to keep me from losing heart, simply just facing the facts. There’s not much there to differentiate, I think, the Christian from the cynic at that point. It’s fortunate that that’s far from where Paul stops. We must face the reality of the wasting away of the old man, but he also wants us to find encouragement, to find encouragement in the reality of what God is doing in the inner man. Not alongside of or in addition to all of these sufferings, afflictions, and trials that we face, but actually in and through them. These trials are not incidental to the good work that God is wanting to accomplish in us. They play a central role. And we need to find encouragement therefore in what God is doing.
Look at the second half of verse 16 into 17. Our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Paul points to two realities here, what God is doing internally and what God is doing eternally. Look at what God is doing internally. Our inner self is being renewed day by day. He is doing a renewing work. Notice the passive tense there. We are being renewed. This is not something that we are doing, this is something that God is doing and look at what he is doing while this old world, this old body, this old mode of existence, is in fact wasting away and the final experience of our salvation, our glorified, our resurrected bodies, are yet to appear. The new creation is already being seen among us in seed form. Heaven really is, the kingdom of heaven really is breaking in here on earth and you can see that whenever someone comes to Christ, a new creation is begun. And while Paul says it is a treasure housed in jars of clay, you can truly see that treasure growing in its beauty in those who are freely giving themselves over to it.
John Piper writes in his book Future Grace of Evelyn Harris Brand. She grew up in a well-to-do English family. She attended the London Conservatory of Art, operated in high elite circles of society, but she followed her husband to the Kolli Moloi mountains in India to serve as missionaries. Her husband died just 10 years later at 44 years old, leaving her a widow and heartbroken. She returned home to England and after a year of recovery decided to return to India, as Piper says, pouring her life into the hill people, nursing the sick, teaching farming, lecturing about guinea worms, rearing orphans, clearing the jungle land, pulling teeth, establishing schools, and preaching the Gospel. She would break her hip in a fall at the age of 67 and despite her son and others pleading with her that this was enough, she had given enough, come home, retire, she refused, finally dying among the people she loved at age 95. The villagers buried her in a simple cotton sheet, per her instructions.
Listen to what her son had to say about her at the end of her life. He said she had wrinkles, she had wrinkles, this is what he had to say, wrinkles as deep and extensive as any I’ve ever seen on a human face. She was a beautiful woman. Piper goes on to note that the last 20 years of her life she refused to allow any mirrors to be present in her home, as he says that she was consumed with ministry, not mirrors. A coworker once remarked that Granny Brand was more alive than any person he had ever met. By giving life away, she found it.
The truth is this morning if we live long enough, all of us will end up looking like Granny Brand, externally at least. The wrinkles cannot be held at bay. The question is what will happen to us internally, what will happen to the inner man or the inner woman. What will be the final result there? Few of us are called to that kind of ministry, but all of us are called to this kind of life.
I’ve seen this kind of phenomenon not just in the biographies of old, now buried missionaries, but right up close at home with present day saints. I don’t publicly brag about my in-laws or my parents a lot, but I’ve seen this reality take place in simple unheralded but costly ways they’ve given of themselves to others, volunteered countless hours to serve the church, they’ve been good neighbors, they’ve gone outside their comfort zone, they’ve led Bible studies, they’ve given hours and hours away to those in need, taken them into their homes, given away as much money as they’ve kept. You won’t find their names in any of the Who’s Whos of theologians or missionaries, but you will see the same principle at work in their lives, this paradox, this paradox of growing beautiful in the foreglow of heaven even as we intentionally waste our lives on others here. I’ve seen it in them, and I have had the privilege of seeing it in many of you as well.
Paul says this is a dally process, not like a day-to-day refreshing every morning, putting on the makeup and heading out for the day, but one long ongoing daily process of renewal. The application here is to be encouraged, be encouraged that the beautiful work that God is accomplishing in you, if you are in Christ, even as you suffer the effects of following Christ in a fallen world.
But to be careful how we measure that. I might have mentioned this example’s illustration here before, but we have a door in my house to a closet we open up and we mark the kids’ progress in height, kind of where they grow. If you’ve been there, you might have seen it, lots of little marker marks. The kids love that kind of thing. I’ve gotten over it, I guess, because mostly I don’t show much growth anymore, but they love to be marked and they’ll say “daddy, can you come over and mark me?” and I’ll try to find the last little line, the last little mark, “Oh, you know, son, the last time we marked you was just two months ago, we’re probably not going to see a whole lot of growth. It doesn’t work like that. It’s happening. You’re growing. But we may not notice it if we try to mark it this quickly.”
It’s not unlike that for us in the Christian life at times, this kind of internal renewal can be hard to see day by day, but we can take courage that God is at work, take a longer view of what God has been doing in your life, and be encouraged at what he is doing in your life. He is at work. Not just internally, either, but eternally. In fact, the two, Paul says, are tied together. He says these light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all.
I know that if we’re honest, it often feels like anything but light and momentary. I mean, I know this is my head, but when some of these things happen in my life, I see a different response coming out, for they don’t feel light and momentary. More often, the question is like the psalmist in Psalm 13, how long, O Lord?
But Paul isn’t saying that they feel light and momentary, he’s saying they are light and momentary, when and only when we compare them to the glory that’s coming. I’m encouraged by this because the Bible doesn’t seek to trivialize my pain. The Bible doesn’t seek to trivialize or minimize the pain that I’m experiencing in my life. It contextualizes it. Eternal weight of glory. Notice the comparison here: Not momentary, but eternal; not light, but weighty. In other words, the glory to come is beyond comparing to the afflictions that we experience now. Paul says beyond all comparison. Actually hides two repeated words in the Greek here. It’s like Paul can’t find just one word to describe what he wants to say and so he takes one word and repeats it twice. It’s actually a Greek word you would recognize, hyperbole. Paul says this eternal weight of glory is like hyperbole and hyperbole compared to the sufferings of this life. It’s like he’s saying exaggerated beyond exaggeration, or these, this eternal weight of glory is exceedingly beyond exceeding the burdens, the afflictions, of this life.
In fact, the word for weight that Paul uses baros in 4:17, this weight of glory, is the noun form of a verb that he uses in chapter 5:4. Look at chapter 5, verse 4: For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened (barou). Paul uses these words to describe our wasting in this present life, for while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened. Two terms so similar, the same root. So close together I can’t help but think that they are connected in Paul’s mind. He means for us to pick up on the connection here, they have to be connected. Paul’s not overlooking the temporary burden we’re experiencing, he’s not denying it, he’s not diminishing it, he’s not trivializing it, he’s contextualizing it, rightly weighting it. He wants us to rightly process it. There is a future burden, weight of glory, that is exaggerated beyond exaggeration, or that goes exceedingly beyond exceeding the present burdens of this life, so the ESV, I think, makes good sense in the way it translates it: Beyond all comparison. What’s the point of even trying to compare the two?
Of course these relatively light and momentary afflictions are not just compared to the glory that’s coming, they have a role in preparing us for it. Or it for us. They’re not automatic, not like a vending machine. They don’t work automatically, they’re not meritorious. Our afflictions do not justify us. We are justified only by the afflictions of Jesus Christ, and yet in some mysterious way, Paul says they are preparing or producing for us this eternal weight of glory. They are tools in the hands of God in this mysterious building project that He’s doing in us. We may not understand it, but we can trust it, and we can be encouraged by it.
Our final self, if you’re in Christ, will be perfected, not just physically, but morally, spiritually, and socially. In every way. It will be, as Tim Killer refers to it, the glory self. The glory self. I love that description, and for Christians that’s the self that is coming. Free from sin, free from sin and from all its many symptoms. The glory self. That’s the goal we should be focused on, the self we should be seeking, longing to see revealed, and the question this morning then, the question for us this morning, is what are you focused on? The glory self, or the going self?
What a prime question to be asking ourselves on New Year’s Eve. What will we focus on in this coming year? The glory self or the going self. You can tell by what you’re investing in. One of the prime ways you invest in the glory self is by giving the going self away. Of the prime ways that you can invest in the glory self is by giving the going self away, that is by sacrificial living. So where are you spending yourself? Where am I, where am I spending myself? Jesus said where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Consistently investing in the going self over the glory self leads to losing interest in God’s glory and our part in it. It leads to losing heart.
You can also tell what you’re focused on by your reactions to these afflictions, by what you’re investing in and by your reactions to these afflictions. These are less controlled because they’re so often unanticipated. They’re just reactions, responses in a moment, conditioned by the true longings of our hearts and therefore revealing the true longings of our hearts. Our longings that are significantly shaped by what we’re focused on, by what we’re looking at.
Which makes Paul’s final encouragement so important, to focus on the right things. To focus on eternal things. Verse 18. “As we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
It’s another helpful, kind of expansion of our understanding of faith. If we think of faith, our definition of faith like a diamond, this is twisting that diamond to another angle, examining another facet, helping us to understand, continue to flesh out the fullness of what it means to have faith, what is faith, what is it to believe? It’s not just an intellectual ascent. It’s not less than that, but it’s more than an intellectual ascent. Faith is, faith is looking. Faith is looking intently. And Paul tells us what we ought to be looking at. Things that are unseen more than things that are seen.
Notice how he defines the things that are seen. The things are seen is those things which are transient, are those things that are passing away, and the things that are unseen as things that are eternal. It’s important to keep those connections together so that we understand what he’s telling us to look at. Not things that will never be seen. Paul’s not telling us to look at things that will never be seen, but things that are not yet seen. Looking by faith at what we will one day see by sight.
Why? Why do we need to look at the things that are unseen? Why is this so important for us in the Christian life? Gary Thomas writes a book Sacred Marriage. I encourage, or require, I guess, those young couples going through premarital counseling with me to read Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage. We discuss it together. I find it helpful to have right expectations about marriage, but also just about the Christian life, and he puts a lot of things in helpful context. He says, for example, that he feels sorry for Christians who try to live an obedient Christian life without thought of heaven. He feels sorry for Christians who try to live obedient lives without keeping heaven firmly in their sights. He says that meditating on the heavenly life, the afterlife, the next life for the Christian is for him one of the most beneficial spiritual exercises. It helps him to say I can endure this present affliction/struggle/trial because it will not always be this way.
It’s a little bit long of a quote, but let me, he has something valuable to say to us here. Listen to what he says: “Cynics will say I’m falling into Marx’s trap. Marx, you’ll recall, called religion ‘an opiate for the people.’ Yet Marx had it exactly backward, at least as far as his words pertain to Christianity. Opium deadens the senses; Christianity makes them come alive. Our faith can infuse a deadened or crippled marriage with meaning, purpose, and – what we so graciously receive from God – fulfilment. Christianity doesn’t leave us in an apathetic stupor; it raises us and our relationships from the dead! It pours zest and strength and purpose into an otherwise wasted life. God never promises to remove all of our trials this side of heaven – quite the opposite! But he does promise that there is meaning in each one. Our character is being perfected; our faith is being built; and our heavenly reward is being increased.”
I’ll share another of my temptations with you. I shared this with our young professionals’ community at least once, probably more. One of my temptations is the L.L. Bean catalog, just to let you in on that. I don’t actually get the L.L. Bean catalog, but you know the pictures that I’m talking about, like on the cover of L.L. Bean catalog there is the family, right, but usually they’re in focus, the really nice lake house is a little bit out of focus, but you can tell it’s nice, in the background. They’re down on the dock of the lake and they’re in their lounge chairs, hanging out, they’ve got a fire that certainly will never get out of control and probably put itself out at just the right moment. They’ve got kids who are playing, they might slightly in focus/out of focus, they’re there enough to be appreciated but not enough to be annoying and get in the way of a good time. The friends are all happy and cooperating, everybody’s enjoying their beautiful warm clothes that are keeping them at just the perfect temperature in the slightly nippy air outside, but the fire is toasty, it’s a good time, and the dog… This is how I know it’s not true, ’cause I just got a puppy. The dog is sitting there. You know, he’s a perfectly groomed Golden Retriever usually, something like that, and he’s laying there just tongue half hanging out of his mouth, looking happily at his family that he adores, and everybody adores one another in that L.L. Bean picture. It’s a perfect moment. It’s completely staged, but it’s a perfect moment. It’s one of my temptations, to look at those pictures. And you might say, well, I’m just looking, I am just looking. But looking too much, looking too long, leads to longing, and longing leads to living. And looking and longing and living for things that are passing away leads to losing heart. It’s critical that we look at the things that are not yet seen.
How do we do that? How do we look at things that are not yet seen? I have two, three suggestions this morning. There could be lots. Two that are not so impressive, and one that’s not so common, perhaps.
First of all, read our Bibles. Pray. Make a daily habit of communing with God in His Word and in prayer. Not unlike breathing, that we would just breathe in what He has to say to us, breathe out what we have to say to Him, that we would commune with God in a daily habit of word and prayer.
And then weekly Sabbaths. I love the way that Randy Pope, who’s a pastor down in Atlanta, has described the Sabbath. He says we all live on a treadmill. You don’t have to be a Christian to experience that either. We live on a treadmill type of life. And many of us as Christians can treat the Sabbath like this is our day to get off the treadmill, go over to the couch, sit down, and relax for a moment. And the Sabbath is for rest. But it’s also for worship. And so Pope says that we should get off the treadmill, but not just go over and lay down on the couch, the Sabbath is our opportunity to get up and go over to the window, get up and go over to the window, fling it open, and look out onto eternity. We have so much day-to-day, Monday through Saturday, that pulls our eyes and our hearts down here, the Sabbath is an opportunity for us collectively, together as families, as individuals, as a family of God, as a congregation, to come together, go over to the window, and look out, gaze, breathe the air of eternity, into our souls to see the things that are not yet seen.
I know that’s fairly ordinary, right? Read your Bible, pray, go to church. Fairly ordinary. But incredibly powerful when practiced over a lifetime.
Let me give you one more that, I know those are not so impressive, give you one more that maybe isn’t’ so common. I think this is important for this day and age because all of us have unprecedented access to sermons, to podcasts, to blogs. We can stuff ourselves silly with more and more content. And it’s not unhelpful to get content, more Bible studies that we could attend, and yet we can do that so much that what we’re getting never really has a chance to sift its way down from our heads down into our hearts where it begins to shape what we actually long and hunger and thirst for. And so let me give you another encouragement.
Linger. Would you linger? Would you linger on the Sabbath? Would you linger in God’s Word? Would you, instead of moving on to next sermon, perhaps take an opportunity to just let one word linger, sift, sort, seek, search your heart. Let you see eternity and actually long for it.
How? What? What do we need to be looking at? Three great realities Paul mentions in the broader context of our passage. More than this, but just take these three from his, from the context of our passage right here. The great transaction. Chapter 5, verse 21: For He, Christ, for our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. God made Christ to be sin on our behalf, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God, the great transaction.
The application 5:17-18: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come. All this is from God who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” The application.
And finally the completion. We’ve already talked about it this morning in 4:17: “For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” And glory which Jesus says in John 14 that He Himself has gone away to prepare for those of us who are His. All presently unseen, at least not fully, but all realities that someday will be seen in all of their glorious outcomes. And see how they’re all centered on Jesus?
It can be a temptation this time of year, we just finished packing up Christmas decorations last night at our house. It can be a temptation to just move on from Christmas, pack up the boxes, put away the lights, say goodbye to the loved ones, get back to work. But the incarnation should not be something that we just celebrate four Sundays a year. The incarnation is where the presently seen and the presently unseen actually meet together, the invisible God in human flesh in the person of Christ. And with Him the promise that because of what He would do in that flesh on our behalf that all of us who trust in Him will one day be able to stand again in God’s presence, unashamed, unafraid, perfectly and eternally whole, glorious in a word.
I love, I really love like all the Christmas hymns and carols. I love this time of year because I love singing them, I love listening to them. One of them is “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s not really a song about Bethlehem so much, but more about what happened there, who inhabited here. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The hopes and fears of all the years, the hopes that we so easily attach to futile, secondary substitutes which time after time fail and disappoint us, discourage and dishearten us. The fears that so easily overwhelm and threaten to consume us. The hopes and fears of all the years, met in thee, in Bethlehem, not because of Bethlehem, but because of Christ, because they are met in Christ. Because in Christ the invisible became visible, God became man, promise became fulfilled, heaven came near.
And because He didn’t stay just a little baby in that manger, but he grew up to be a righteous man, zealous for His Father’s house, and He took that righteous record, He went to the cross, He died and hung there on our behalf, a substitute in the place of rebellious sinners, He that knew no sin becoming sin for us, so that in Him we might forever become the righteousness of God.
Apart from Jesus, apart from Jesus we have no right, we have no right, no reason, to take heart. But because of Christ, in Christ, we do. We take heart.
And so for today, and this year to come, we can take up our cross, we can deny ourselves, we can follow Him into a sacrificial life of love and pain and paradoxically deepening joy that will soon give way to a glory beyond all comparison.
The holiday season is a season, rife with invitations to parties and get-togethers and family gatherings. Let me just close with two brief invitations. First of all, maybe you’re here this morning out of habit. Or maybe you’re visiting family or friends for the holidays and you’ve just joined us to be with them. And maybe you’ve heard something this morning that’s touched on the discontentment, the discouragement that you’ve come to know in a yearly ritual of New Year’s resolutions that never seem to hold the wasting of life at bay, that always lead in discouragement and disappointment. Maybe you’re hoping or looking for something more, not another cheap promise of a pain-free life, or a life free from worry, suffering or loss, but of a life where all that is, all that is transmuted into agents producing glory.
I want to invite you this morning, I want to invite you to join us in this paradoxical journey of joy into glory that comes with following Christ. And perhaps you are a Christian, you are a follower of Christ here this morning. I just want to say first this, this sermon is not first for you. This sermon was first for me, because I know my own heart. I know that probably as much as anyone in here this is a struggle for me, to lose heart, to temptations. So I want to invite you, I want to invite you to join me to face the reality of life in this present age, the inevitable passing away, the opportunity to engage in intentional kind of living, where we waste well for others, to invest in the glory self over the going self, and to look, to really, really look on the things that are as yet unseen. It wouldn’t be a bad set of New Year’s resolutions for us to take on in this New Year.
Let me pray for us as we close.
Father, thank you for Your Word this morning, the opportunity to gather, contemplate, meditate, think about just a couple of short verses, but profoundly powerful as we think about the realities we face in this life, whether merely as fellow humans, certainly as fellow followers of Christ. Father, I pray that You would help us this morning. Not to turn away, not to shrink back, not to lose heart. Help us to face the reality that we’re placed in, help us to face it well, to waste ourselves well, help us to fix our eyes on those things that are as yet unseen, to find encouragement in what You’re doing in us even now and what You’re preparing for us as we wait for Christ’s return, or our call to be with Him. Encourage us this morning, not just to feel good about ourselves or about life, but encourage us to take heart, that we might give ourselves away to others for Your sake, for the sake of Your name, for the sake of Your glory, for the good of our neighbors, for the glory of Christ. And we pray it in His name. Amen.