On Saturday mornings I quite often do a run in our local park - a 'Park Run' which some of you might have heard of. And it's always a bit of a shocker when you're running round, thinking you're going at a pretty decent pace, and then suddenly someone pushing a buggy runs past. Or even a double buggy! And it does make you lose heart as you're running. You think, is it worth keeping going?!
Well the Bible tells us that the Christian life is a bit like a race. And I wonder what it is that makes you tempted to lose heart? Like me in that run, it might be looking at others and how much more gifted and effective they are. Or it might be other things. Maybe you asked someone to a Big Question event this week and didn't get a very positive response. Maybe you're a new Christian – and you're excited about this good news but your friends or colleagues just don't seem interested. Maybe it's your own battle with sin – you make progress but then you have another fall. Maybe it's seeing others turn away from following Jesus. Or maybe it's just the hard work of serving and making the effort to meet with the church family. You look at friends who seem to have a very relaxed Sunday, with a lie-in and more time for family. It can be easy to lose heart as Christians can't it?
Today, as a one-off between our sermon series we're looking at this great chapter in the book of 2 Corinthians. Its author, the apostle Paul, was also tempted to lose heart. And he had plenty of reasons to do so! Paul was facing opposition and personal attacks from certain people in the Corinthian church. They were pointing out the fact that Paul didn't look very impressive compared to them. And they were saying that Paul's weakness and suffering showed that he was a fraud. Paul definitely had suffered. Back in chapter 1, verse 8, he writes:
"we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia"
We don't know exactly what the affliction was, but he says that he was weighed down by it. Later on in the letter he tells them that he's been shipwrecked, he's been short of food, he's been in great danger, and he's been beaten and imprisoned. And yet…despite all these things, his clear take-home message in this chapter is don't lose heart. It's there in verse 1 at the beginning, and he says it again at the end in verse 16. We don't lose heart. Don't lose heart in standing up for Jesus. Don't lose heart in doing ministry. Don't lose heart when it feels like a struggle. Keep going! Keep going! We're covering the whole chapter so we won't be able to cover everything in depth. But I want to point to 3 key reasons why Paul says don't lose heart! He says,
- Firstly, don't lose heart – because we have this ministry by the mercy of God!
- Secondly, don't lose heart – because God works victoriously through believers (even in our weakness).
- And thirdly, don't lose heart – because we have a glorious future beyond all comparison.
1. Don't lose heart – because we have this ministry by the mercy of God!
So let's get stuck in. Take a look with me at verse 1:
"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart."
When we see the word 'therefore' it's always worth taking a look back first. And in chapter 3 Paul reminds the Corinthians that the message he has is far more glorious than the law which was given to Moses. Paul tells us that the law, the commands given to God's people in the Old Testament, brought death and condemnation! Not because the law wasn't good – it was perfect - but because it made them aware of how far short they were of God's acceptance. It showed up how sinful they were.
I'm sure many of you will know that when you grow up playing a musical instrument, you often have a slightly deceived idea of how good you sound! But when you record yourself for the first time, you often get a bit of a shock. Nothing is hidden on a recording. You listen back and realise you have a long way to go. And the law is a bit like that. It brings a realisation that we're not where we thought we were. And we're not what we should be. And as such, Paul calls it the ministry of condemnation, or death.
But Paul then compares his ministry with the ministry of Moses and the law. And he says – our ministry is so much more glorious! There's no condemnation in Jesus. And so our ministry is one which brings freedom and life! It wasn't our doing. It was only by the mercy of God. And that's the ministry that Paul's talking about in verse 1. He says:
"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, [this ministry that brings life and freedom rather than death and condemnation] we do not lose heart."
It's clear that one of the reasons Paul doesn't lose heart and is able to keep going even throughout real trials, is that he never loses sight of how he has this ministry in the first place. He has it only by the mercy of God. Paul knew that better than anyone. If you know Paul's story, you'll know that he had been living a life that was clearly against God. He'd been persecuting Christians. And he had an amazing conversion on the road to Damascus. He didn't deserve it, but God opened his eyes to the truth. And Paul knows that wasn't just true for him, but it's true for everyone who comes to faith. It's the same for every one of us. Have you ever wondered why some people refuse to believe despite having heard the truth again and again? Well, Paul says it's due to spiritual blindness. Here's how Paul puts it, verses 3-4:
"And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."
The reason why people reject the gospel is that their hearts and minds are veiled. They're blind to the truth. It's not that the gospel itself isn't clear; it's just that people can't see it, just as the sun isn't less clear because blind people can't see it. Where it says "The god of this world" it's with a small 'g' and it means Satan. He's not a real god, but he is treated that way by many. He's a defeated enemy, but he's still active. He hides from people the truth of who Jesus really is. But it doesn't mean that people aren't responsible. The Bible tells us that all of us are "without excuse" - we see enough and know enough to make us responsible. And so I think what this is saying is that the unbeliever has made decisions along the way that give Satan a foothold. And they allow themselves to go with it. The shocking news is that the Bible tells us we were all in that position. We had our backs turned to God and we're giving Satan a foothold. But if we're believers, God has rescued us. Take a look at verse 6:
"For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
The Bible teaches that none of us turn to him of our own accord. None of us deserve to be rescued by God. But Paul tells us that God reached out to us. Not just any God, but the only true God, the God who had the power to say 'Let light shine out of darkness' back at creation. He's chosen to shine into our hearts. He's shown us mercy. Paul knew that he'd been given his ministry by the mercy of God. God had worked powerfully in him. And so he didn't lose heart. Do you need to remember that afresh this morning? We so easily forget, don't we? Well Paul didn't lose heart because he knew that God had worked powerfully in him to bring him to faith. And he also didn't lose heart because he knew that God continues to work through him as a believer. That's my second point.
2. We do not lose heart – because God works victoriously through (weak!) believers (v11)
I'm sure most of you have seen antiques roadshow. People bring in random antiques from home and an expert examines them. He tells them a bit about their antique and the owner pretends to be interested but really they just want to know the price. And we all secretly love that bit where we see the owners face drop when they find out their painting isn't worth £1million – it's actually just worth £50. But it's also great isn't it, when occasionally something out the loft, or some unexpected place, is valued and it's actually worth thousands of pounds. And just like we might not expect a £1million painting to be in the loft, Paul says that there's treasure in an unexpected place. Take a look at verse 7:
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us."
What is this treasure? It's what we've just looked at in verse 6. It's "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ". It's knowing Jesus and encountering the life-transforming glory of God. It's the gospel. It's a fantastic treasure but it's in an unexpected place, because it has been given to weak and frail humans.
You see, jars of clay were the cardboard coffee cups of the ancient world. They were the throwaway container. They were used for water and olive oil and no-one would have noticed them much. And Paul's saying – that's what we're like. That's what humans are like. Just like clay jars are formed of dust, so are humans. We're weak and frail or at least we're heading that way. We don't last all that long in the grand scheme of things. And yet, Paul says, despite that, we have been entrusted with this glorious treasure from God! The treasure of holding out the gospel and pointing people to Jesus. It's better than any other treasure. But it's in jars of clay. It's in us. I wonder if you feel inadequate for this treasure? Maybe you don't feel very good at sharing your faith with others. Maybe you wish you had a bigger brain and better-thought-out answers for your friends' questions. I mean, wouldn't God be better to use someone more impressive? Someone more confident or more eloquent or more intellectual. Who are we to have this great treasure? If we've understood how amazing this gospel treasure is, then we'll see that it's right that we might feel like that.
But God's not like the owner on antiques roadshow who didn't realise he'd got a Picasso hanging in the garage. Instead, God chose to put this treasure in clay pots. Why would God do that? Verse 7 tells us – it's to show that the power belongs to God. It's because God doesn't want people to be preoccupied with the container. Or to be more impressed with the messenger than the message. It's not about us being on display. It's about God's power being on display.
That's what life's like as a Christian. We're not powerful ourselves but we are jars in which God shows his power. And paradoxically he often chooses to do that through our weakness. He doesn't work in spite of our weakness, as if it would be much better if it wasn't there. He actually displays his power through our weakness. And Paul's weakness and his struggles were obvious. But even with the opposition he's facing, he doesn't try to hide them and look impressive. Instead he is happy to highlight them. He does it in a fantastic way in verses 8 and 9. Take a look:
"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed"
I like how one author paraphrases these – he says, Paul is:
"Squeezed but not squashed
Bewildered but not befuddled
Pursued but not abandoned
Knocked down but not knocked out"
Paul knew God's power. Not in an outwardly impressive way. Not in a way that meant he never had to face difficulties. But in a way which meant he could endure. I like what author Phil Arthur says here:
"Taken together, these four images tell us that Paul was a hard-headed realist with no romantic illusions about his service for God. Far from depicting himself as a spiritual superhero blazing a trail of success like a comet across the first-century sky, Paul portrayed himself as a groggy fighter reeling from a succession of near-lethal blows, surprised to find himself still on his feet and sure that if he was still standing, it was only by the grace of God."
Paul knew that his struggles don't mean he's been forgotten by God. In fact, he knew that the experience of power in weakness isn't a surprise at all. Why? Well because he's a follower of Jesus. Jesus who was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. Jesus who died so that we might live. Jesus whose death was part of God's amazing plan all along. And despite looking weak - it was the greatest point of history.
If you don't know and love that good news… if you're not already a follower of Jesus yourself - I'd really encourage you to look into it. And pray that God would remove the veil from your eyes and shine into your heart.
And if you are a follower of Jesus, note here that Paul isn't ashamed to proclaim that good news truthfully and clearly. In verse 2 he says "we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word". He doesn't try and jazz it up so that it looks impressive or powerful like his opposers. He doesn't pretend that it's a way for us to gain power, or get wealthy or become successful in this life. No, he proclaims the good news truthfully and clearly. He follows in Jesus' footsteps, even when that means hardship and sacrifice. And he doesn't lose heart - because he knows that God works victoriously through believers – even in our weakness.
So brothers and sisters, let me say to you today. Don't lose heart. Keep going. Know that God is at work through you even when you can't see it. We don't need to swagger around like we've got it together as a church family. We're fragile jars of clay. But we're jars which are releasing the aroma of grace and gospel. And we're called to keep going and keep standing up for Jesus. One way we might want to do that this month is to invite folks along to one of our Big Question events. And let's be bold in inviting folks.
Well we've seen that Paul had a clear understanding of the mercy he'd been shown by God and the privilege of his gospel ministry. We've also seen that he knew God's power in his weakness. But as we look at all he went through: prison, shipwrecks, persecution, anxiety about the churches he'd planted, how was it that he kept going? How was it that he didn't lose heart? In one word, he didn't lose heart because he had 'hope'. He didn't lose heart because he had 'hope'. That's my final point:
3. We do not lose heart – because we have a glorious future beyond all comparison (v17)
Take a look at verse 17:
"For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison"
Paul calls our struggles and trials and difficulties light, momentary afflictions. I heard from some friends who are missionaries about some other missionaries in North Africa who left the country to go to a conference in Europe. And when they tried to cross the border back into North Africa, they were stopped and told that they had been found to be doing Christian work and they wouldn't be allowed back in. Their home was in this country. They'd lived there for years with their family. And yet they couldn't get back in. They knew they might never see their house again and all their possessions. They might not ever see their African friends again. Imagine if you went up to them and said 'don't worry, they're only light, momentary afflictions!' I imagine some of us don't feel like our struggles are light, momentary afflictions. So is Paul being a bit flippant about the difficulties people go through?
I don't think so. In chapter 1 Paul says that he's deeply weighed down and he despairs of life itself. But here he fixes his eyes on the eternal weight of glory. And what he's saying is that the load which seemed hard to bear, now seems like nothing in comparison to the hope of heaven. The hope of heaven where there will be a full restoration of all things. We'll be resurrected to a new life where there'll be no more struggles. No death. No crying. No pain. And we'll be living in perfect relationship with our creator. That hope is what kept Paul going. It's what stopped him losing heart.
And the question for us as we finish is this. Do we hope for heaven like Paul? Do we believe in it in a way which impacts our day to day so that we don't lose heart? Or is it just something we've signed up to but don't really think about? For Paul, serving the gospel was costly. But he didn't lose heart – because he knew he had a glorious future beyond all comparison.
I've been to two funerals in the past two weeks. And whilst it's been very sad to mourn the loss of friends, it's really brought home the reality that Jesus has defeated death and so we have a hope of heaven. To finish, listen to this verse from a song we sang at one of the funerals:
"There is a hope that stands the test of time,
That lifts my head beyond the beckoning grave,
To see the matchless beauty of a day divine
When I behold his face!
When sufferings cease and sorrows die,
And every longing satisfied.
Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul,
For I am truly home."
Don't lose heart. Keep standing up for Jesus. And let's pray.
Father God, please help us to grasp that hope of heaven which is beyond all comparison. Help us not to lose heart. And may we be a church family that treasure the gospel, even in our weakness, and proclaim it faithfully. In Jesus' Name. Amen.