(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on February 15, 2015)
Last Sunday after the service, I had a great and very honest conversation with someone.
Talking with him cemented something in my own mind, and that’s what I want to share with you today, my own thoughts as a result of that conversation.
I’m really glad that we spent months carefully looking at what Jesus actually taught in the sermon on the mount. I’m glad we challenged ourselves last week to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. I think it’s the kind of corrective that we on the Evangelical church side of things need to have. Wisdom, building on the rock and not sand, involves our actions. It involves us doing what Jesus teaches. It isn’t just about what we believe. I’m glad we emphasize the importance of trying to do what Jesus teaches.
For me, that goes hand in hand with something else, another aspect of life with God that is also in the “essential” camp. I’ve lived long enough and watched my own successes and failures enough to realize that if life with God is only about obeying and doing what Jesus said, there is going to be a problem. I don’t seem to have it in me to do it all the time.
That conversation last week after service reminded me how important it is to hold two things together: yes, Jesus taught us how to live, and there are many ways throughout history that the church has failed to call us to those difficult things. And yes, it is also true that Jesus offers more than just teaching. The faith that we share as a community here at Newberg Friends also believes that Jesus has broken the power of sin by dying and being raised from the dead. The life and death of Jesus give a power to our lives that I have not found elsewhere, the power to actually live as we were born to live.
Our community stands on those two things: Jesus as teacher, and Jesus as resurrected Savior who transforms us. For me, for us, to leave out the transforming power of the death and resurrection of Jesus is to miss something essential. Teaching and the cross go hand in hand.
Today’s passage is, in many ways, the perfect bridge in that regard.
From where we have been–focusing on Jesus teaching–we are trying to get to where we are going–to Good Friday and Easter. But first we go through the season of Lent. Lent is a time of reflection, of testing, of giving up, of examination, in order to prepare ourselves to walk with Christ as faithful disciples: walking the way to the cross, and to the joy and power of resurrection.
Lent looks at our frailty, our struggles, our temptations. It’s a season to be honest about how we sometimes fail of our intentions…we don’t always do what we mean to do. We aren’t always able to follow Jesus’ teaching.
Lent sees this examination of our sin and failure as part of the healing process…part of how we name, reject, and repent our wrong choices…part of how we join Christ’s journey to the cross by dying to our own wrong desires…all in the hopes of experiencing God’s power of resurrection. It’s a journey of hope, ultimately! Lent is an invitation to be real, not fake. Lent fights through denial and keeps us from covering up.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, there’s a powerful section that finds the bridge between where we’ve been to where we are going, that reminds us of the power of the cross and how the transforming power of God, resurrection power, is at work in each of us.
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus ‘sake. For God, who said,’ Let light shine out of darkness, ‘ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all- surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7, TNIV)
Verse 5 gives me a measuring stick as a pastor.
When I preach, my responsibility is to place Jesus Christ in the spotlight, as Lord, as the one in authority. It is to place myself as servant to the church…not the face of the church, not the figurehead.
It’s a measuring stick for all of us, in the sense that the message we give to the world is Christ and Christ’s transforming power…not ourselves, not our goodness, not our kindness, not our achievements.
We are given this to strive for, and then we are given a promise of what God will do. GOD “made his light shine in our hearts”. God binds God’s self to us somehow, and the brightness and glory of God fills us and shines out to the world. This is the treasure! The treasure of the whole universe is the glory and light and presence of God!
At Christmas, we celebrate how Jesus, the Light, became human and entered our world. This is going a whole lot further…the glory and light of God that was fully displayed in Christ now is shining in OUR hearts! In OUR lives!
The treasure and the glory and the power and the majesty of God not only came and walked the earth in Jesus Christ; now that treasure lives in us, shines out of us. What an earth-shattering statement!
“…we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Just so there is no doubt in your mind, the analogy here is that the amazing thing is in a fragile thing. Perfume and other wealthy treasures were kept in jars of clay-not jars with lids that could be removed. The only way to get the good stuff out was to break the clay jar. Power, light, and glory, then, are stored in something fragile and able to be broken. In fact, that’s exactly the point. Remember verse 5? It’s not me, it’s not you who are supposed to be in the spotlight getting the attention. We get the awe-inspiring reality of the glory of God living in us, and that’s who is supposed to get the attention.
But just like God risked cramming the fullness of divine glory in a weak and fragile peasant baby, God also places the fullness of God’s presence and glory in weak and fragile us. And this one simple verse, capturing what I think is the heart of Christian purpose, tells us that God’s power is best seen in our frailty and brokenness.
So many people have developed this important truth in my life.
I went back this week to Marva Dawn’s book, “Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God”, because I can’t overstate how formational it’s been in my life. She traces with fierce determination the theme of weakness and frailty and brokenness throughout the bible, and redeems it by showing over and over again it is precisely there in the weakness and brokenness that God’s presence and power always shine.
And yet, she says, the American church especially seems to strive for polish and success. The message we too often give is “follow these rules and your life will turn out well”. “Why,” Marva Dawn writes, “are a large proportion of today’s churches in North America not living out of weakness?”
Through every book of the New Testament, she shows that God “tabernacles”, God lives, God puts his tent right where human weakness is. Beginning with the Hebrew slaves freed from Egypt, God lives with them in a tabernacle tent in the wilderness, and that “dwelling” and “tabernacle” word are picked up all through the New Testament as well…including, remember, the beginning of the sermon on the mount where Jesus says it’s the poor and weak and persecuted who are blessed.
Our weakness, not our success, shows God’s glory. Our brokenness, not our beautiful, put together selves, lets the treasure of God be seen for what it is. The power which lights up our lives isn’t ours. We don’t possess it. We didn’t earn it. We don’t make it.
It is God living in and through us. Look further with me as Paul fleshes this out.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus ‘sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Corinthians 4:8-11, TNIV)
Despair and hope, life and death, frailty and power are held together here.
We are hard pressed. Life is full of difficulty and pain, so much so that it seems as if our frail lives are going to be crushed and destroyed. But it isn’t so! It isn’t so because of the treasure, the gift, the amazing power and glory of God which GOD chooses to place in our weakness. We are not abandoned or crushed or destroyed, and it is because of an amazing paradox.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Not only are we ourselves frail and weak and broken, but Paul says we add to that by taking on and carrying around the death of Jesus. We can never forget that our savior died a cruel death, that the cross we all hold up as our symbol is a means of executing the worst criminals.
Our daughter Natalie brought a gift home from South Africa for Elaine.
It’s an ostrich egg. It looks beautiful, and it even has intricate carvings on the shell. But think about this from the ostrich perspective. This beauty can only come with death. Death had to come to the baby ostrich inside.
Like the cross, interwoven with the beauty is death. It sits now on our shelf, and often in the evening Elaine turns on the battery powered candle inside, and the light shines through the cracks and holes of this sign of death in a beautiful way. Just like this image Paul is driving forward all through this chapter.
Paul pushes so much further.
Not only do we carry Christ’s death around with us in this frail, broken clay jar of a life. Not only that, but “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake…” Our call is to follow Christ. We don’t get to protect or beautify the fragile clay of our lives. We give ourselves over to the reality of difficulty, because when others see us with our real frailty, when Christ lives in us with resurrected power in our weakness…that is when the spotlight is rightly put on God. That is when people see Jesus as Lord, not us as the focus of our message.
This has been God’s consistent way. Bill Kellermann writes, “At every turn it appears an absurd mismatch…a babe and the kings of this world, a messiah of utter folly and the power of death. But that is precisely the method that God has chosen in the incarnation. God risks everything on the power of powerlessness.”
Barbara Brown Taylor gives voice to how scary this is! Our savior suffered and died! She writes,
“Here is the best man God ever made, who has done nothing but right all his life, and what is his reward? Not ripe old age with grandchildren hanging on his sleeve but early violent death on a cross. This death ruins all our efforts to turn the Bible into a manual for The Good Life. No one who has heard the story of Jesus Christ can mistake where following him will lead, which makes the gospel itself a text of terror for all who wish to avoid suffering and death.”
Embrace suffering and failure and weakness.
Carry around Christ’s death, be given over to death for Christ’s sake. Why? Marva Dawn answers it this way: “Dying to the law, dying to our selves, dying to our attempts to use our own power to accomplish God’s purposes are all part of the gospel of grace–the end of ourselves and therefore the possibilities of new life with Christ, in vital union with him.”
This is the paradox but the power. When we feel the brokenness of the clay jar of our lives, the solution is not to strengthen the clay. It is not to paint over the cracks and make it look ok. It is our brokenness and weakness that God looks for as the place to pitch the tent to live in. It is coming to the end of our own power, not propping it up or denying our failures, that we experience the new possibility of a united life with Christ, a life of resurrection power.
When we carry around the death of Christ with us, we do it “so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (4:11b)
This is where our hope is grounded! We join Christ in death, and we join Christ with resurrected life!
It isn’t just an illustration or an inspiring story. God is actually renewing us inside each day while we’re getting crushed on the outside. In fact, one day the body will fail and die…but the good eternal work that God has been doing will be brought to completion in eternity. Listen to the end of 2 Corinthians 4
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, TNIV)
Here is the hope and power! This is God’s way. God’s power thrives and shines and grows and transforms when we accept our brokenness and weakness. But it’s so hard. It’s hard to tell our spouse we were wrong and we’re sorry. It’s hard to admit we didn’t do what we were supposed to at work, or that our mistake is what caused the company to lose the sale.
But throughout my adult life I have seen exactly what is all through the bible: God’s power shines in our weakness. God dwells with the honest, broken, contrite hearts.
This is why I don’t lose heart. I have seen and felt God renewing in the middle of wasting away. I fix my eyes on the unseen things, the permanent things, not the visible power structure of our world that seem to win so often. God is at work! And God will be seen when you and I face our weakness, let God live in it, let God change it, let God shine through it.
We do not lose heart!
I invite you into Lent, which begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Don’t lose heart in this season where we examine our lives and look at our pain and failures. We’re heading to the renewal, to resurrection! Being real about our clay lives is how God shines brighter.
To close, here is a prayer from an anonymous Puritan long ago:
“Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine. Let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley.”
(After the service, Gail Hutchinson let me know the prayer is not anonymous. It was written by Arthur Bennett, as an introduction to a book of prayers he edited. The book is titled “The Valley of Vision”.)