June 01, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
There is an old saying that sometimes a person “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The idea is that sometimes we become so wrapped up in one thing that we lose sight of the larger picture. Sometimes this can be humorous. So on a TV show you may see a man who is obsessed with getting his tie knotted just so. Hence, he spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror until the tie is perfect and he has achieved that small crease just below the knot. Satisfied that he now looks good, he walks out of the house totally oblivious to the fact that his pants have a big rip right on his backside!
Viewed from the right angle, something like this has happened when it comes to Mark 3. Many people have walked away from this chapter fretting to the depths of their soul the so-called “unpardonable sin.” We worry what the precise contours of that sin may be. We worry that someone we know may have been guilty of it. We worry that we may have accidentally committed this very sin. So in the past we preachers have tried to address this matter very often through the traditional line, “If you are worried about this sin, then you didn’t commit it.” Others of us have suggested that this most perilous of sins isn’t a one-time lapse. For the consequences to be this eternally dire, the person in question must be a hardcore anti-God figure who never accepts the Lord’s work even for a moment.
But however we deal with this pastorally and theologically as preachers, the point is that we need to remember that many people have become obsessed with this particular part of the chapter very nearly to the exclusion of all else. Hence, what we sometimes come close to forgetting is that there are two rejections of Jesus in Mark 3. But when we become obsessed with the ins and outs of the unpardonable sin, we tend to ignore the fact that Mark 3 shows us also another unhappy way to view Jesus and that we need to avoid that attitude, too. For this we look at Jesus’ family and the role it plays here.
Jesus’ mother and brothers have apparently not yet become members of Jesus’ band of disciples. They have been following Jesus in a literal sense but not in the more important sense of discipleship. They have followed Jesus to check up on him, to observe what he has been up to. But the result of that kind of following is a dire conclusion: Jesus is off his rocker! He has become something of a family embarrassment, a public spectacle that they are eager to whisk out of sight. They want to take Jesus home, put him to bed, keep him quiet for a while, and then see if all this talk about casting out demons and the kingdom of his Father abates.
As some commentators have pointed out, it appears that it was particularly Jesus’ engagement with the demonic that was causing Mary and Jesus’ brothers to arch their eyebrows the sharpest. It all seemed a little bizarre to them. In verse 21 they say literally that they had to get him on home because Jesus was exeste, a word meaning to stand outside of yourself. Even today we may refer to a person who is an emotional wreck as being “beside himself” with grief. The idea is that someone has taken leave of his senses (or his senses have taken leave of him) and so what remains for the time being is a person whose emotions are unchecked and unregulated. This is the family’s assessment of Jesus.
Apparently all Jesus’ talk about invisible kingdoms of God and the casting out of demons led members of his own family to the conclusion that Jesus was seeing things that no one else could see and the reason was simple: he was out of his everloving mind!
We probably can give the family a break—no one in history, after all, had ever before had to deal with having the Son of God as a close family member. Still, to look at Jesus and chalk up his words as delusional, incorrect, incoherent—that is a pretty bad thing to do, too. It’s maybe not an unpardonable sin but it may well be a sin in which we sometimes participate Whenever we pick and choose from among our Savior’s words, deciding on our own which to take seriously and which to chalk up as no more than metaphor or something that doesn’t apply to us in the modern age, aren’t we essentially saying that sometimes Jesus said things that no one can take seriously? Mark 3 shows us that there is indeed more than one way to reject Jesus. We do well to pay attention to the lesser one sometimes and not let undue worries about the big one eclipse this for us.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
The key question in Mark 3 is easy to spy: what is the so-called unpardonable sin? The religious leaders in this chapter had crossed a vital line and Jesus responds in dire terms. Certainly it is true that what they said was laughable and easy to refute, as Jesus ably does. But here is a piece of folly that is not just dumb, it’s blasphemously heinous. Across the spectrum of life there are any number of things that people may say or do that are flat out stupid. People make foolish choices all the time. People mount specious arguments that can’t hold water for two seconds. They make illogical statements that are self-defeating. They face a choice of actions and, with clear eyes, choose the one thing that will hurt them the most. Folly happens and it happens all the time. But Mark 3 shows us the ultimate example of what counts as culpable folly, a form of foolishness that is so dire that it cannot be chalked up as a mere mistake or a momentary lapse of judgment.
Jesus says that the religious leaders have shown that they live in a morally inverted, spiritually upside-down world. By their own choice they have made darkness their light and have rejected the true Light as the worst form of darkness. What can be done for people who insist on looking at the world that way? This is the essence of blasphemy. Blasphemy is at bottom a form of theft. Blasphemers steal holy language and symbols, associate them then with ugly and awful things, and so rob God of the chance to get through to us via his chosen form of revelation. So if the KKK can take the symbol of the cross and transform it into a symbol of racial hatred instead of what it really is (namely, a sign of reconciliation among all races and between God and the entire world), then God loses a key piece of how he wants to convey his love to us.
Seen this way, it’s clear that most churchgoing, devout folks really need NOT worry that they somewhere along the line inadvertently committed this sin as though it were a single act, a one-time lapse. In reality, this sin ties in with a larger (blasphemous) view of life that is almost certainly never the situation that applies to Christian people.
But some of the religious leaders were at the very least dancing on this perilous line (Jesus does not say they had committed the sin but only that if they do, there’s nothing for it). In the opinion of the scribes, Jesus was himself a devil. If Jesus seemed to have inside information as to the goings-on in the demonic realm, the explanation was simple and obvious: pulling a page from the old “it takes one to know one” playbook, the religious leaders lambaste Jesus as being himself a demon incognito.
It was a ridiculous thing to say, and finally completely foolish, too. Why would the devil be shooting himself in the foot? What kind of military commander blows up his own tanks? No, if Jesus seems to be plundering the realm of the devil, it’s because he had already bound and gagged the devil himself and so now his lesser hosts were easy targets for Jesus. Jesus did his work not because he had the power of the devil but because he had already demonstrated power over the devil.
That seems obvious enough unless . . . you live in that morally inverted realm to which I just referred. In that case it’s quite possible that nothing is going to get through to you.
Not even, apparently, the grace of God.
How easily we preachers can sometimes miss the wider context in our narrow focus on the lection at hand. In the case of this passage in Mark 3, it is vital to notice the frame Mark placed around this incident (Mark does this a lot, after all). Just prior to this in Mark 3:13-19, we find Jesus appointing the twelve disciples as Apostles, as the “sent ones” who would one day become his heralds in bringing the gospel to the world. Then, immediately following this incident, we encounter the well-known “Parable of the Sower” in Mark 4 that reminds us that the seed of the gospel will inevitably fall on many kinds of soil, the majority of which (alas) will prove to be not receptive to the subsequent growth and flourishing of that seed. Plunked down in between those two incidents is this scene of terrible rejection of Jesus by both his family and, less surprisingly, by the religious leaders. If the disciples-cum-apostles want a preview of what will face them in the future as they go forth to sow the seed of the gospel, they need look no further than how their Lord and Master is treated here! We ought expect no less today.
In Mark 3, those who try to turn the work of God into the work of the devil show by so doing that they are so far gone, so deeply enmeshed in a spiritually inverted reality, that there is no reaching them. Some of you will recall the dwarves as depicted by C.S. Lewis in the last book of the Narnia series. The dwarves had been brought by Aslan the Lion into the glories of the New Narnia, which stood for heaven or the kingdom of God. These stubborn dwarves sat smack in the middle of a sunlit meadow full of wildflowers and were being fed fruit and vegetables more exquisitely flavorful and fresh than anyone had ever before imagined was possible.
Yet their minds were darkened, their hearts were cold. And so they were convinced they were sitting in the middle of a stinky old stable being fed moldy bread and cow manure. When one of the other characters asks Aslan what can be done for these hapless figures, the answer comes back that nothing can be done. When black becomes white and white becomes black, when evil is good and good is evil, people are gone. God can’t get through to them. The reason the unpardonable sin can never be forgiven is because it will never, ever be recognized as a sin. Even if God came to such people bearing the sweet fragrance of his grace, all these people would smell would be the stink of a rotting corpse. They won’t be forgiven because they cannot be forgiven and they cannot be forgiven because they have come to believe that the gospel’s elixir of life is strychnine: pure poison.
1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20
Author: Scott Hoezee
Growing up, Samuel had watched the old priest Eli behave like Milquetoast vis-à-vis his wretched offspring, Hophni and Phineas. Probably even as a young boy that sad spectacle was enough to make Samuel shake his head in disbelief and disgust. Eli was such a nice guy—how in the world had he raised two boys so singularly self-absorbed and corrupt?
Well . . . that was then. Fast forward a few decades and Samuel could hardly bring himself to consider his own boys, Abijah and Joel. They’d taken over the family business as prophets over Israel but the problem was: they had actually made it into a business. These two young men configured themselves into For-Profit Prophets. Sure, they’d adjudicate a case for you but don’t expect any pro bono work like happened with dear old Dad—a prophet’s gotta eat after all and so nominal fees will be charged. And surely God doesn’t need all of the various sacrifices you bring before him—he owns the cattle on a thousand hills, after all, and so won’t even notice if we keep the tenderloin section of your sacrificial cow.
It didn’t take long before the people got sick of the shakedowns and the fees and the invoices Joel and Abijah kept mailing out to their more deadbeat customers. But the people still loved and revered Samuel and so could not quite bring themselves to telling him the full skinny on his boys, saying instead the more generic, “Well, Samuel, your boys . . . they’re not like you. We really got used to you and your ways and don’t care for the new ways of the boys. All things considered, we think we’ll be better off with a king. You know, like the other nations. They all get to have kings to take care of the nation so why not us? Why should Yahweh’s own people—of all people—be the odd ones out in not having a sovereign?”
Well it upset Samuel a lot, probably because he knew deep down the real reasons for the request and it just hurt. If as a father he had done a better job in avoiding the Eli Syndrome, none of this would have happened, after all. So he tells God, “My whole legacy is shot. The people want a king because I failed.”
“Not a bit of it,” God replies. “It’s not you, it’s me they are rejecting.”
It was a kind and gracious thing for God to say, especially since in a proximate sense the fact of the matter was that it was Samuel and his heirs that were being rejected at the moment. So God spared Samuel a bit of the pain by taking it upon himself. Of course, in a broader sense, God was right, too. He had called Abram, had made parents out of childless senior citizens, had worked through dim-witted Esau and crafty Jacob to set things on course to establish the mighty nation God had promised. Even while the people were in Egypt suffering a cruel enslavement, God was nurturing a nation, a people, whom he eventually led out of that wretched place with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm. He gave them his Law, a gift really—the Owner’s Manual for the cosmos. It was meant to make them flourish, be safe, happy, well. It was a guidebook for shalom.
But now, after all that, the people say that while the idea of God as their true King was nice, they wanted somebody whose image they could actually engrave on a coin without breaking some commandment or another. You know, like the other nations.
Alas, the “thing” was, Israel was never supposed to be like the other nations. They were supposed to be distinct, set apart, holy. They were supposed to be unlike all other kingdoms because they were the beachhead for cosmic salvation. It was the “other nations” that needed saving, after all. But Israel would not do any of those peoples any good if all they managed to do was become a chip off of their fractured blocks.
So God has Samuel try to instill the fear of politics and conscription and taxes into the people, but to no avail. Their minds were made up and, amazingly, God shrugs the divine shoulders and as much as says, “Fine. Whatever. But be careful what you wish for . . .”
Israel would have centuries of time to live with the consequences of this request. They’d suffer plenty under the ministrations of corrupt kings until finally the got carried off into captivity by other nations’ kings who did what the people wanted: viz., treated Israel like any other nation.
God being God, however, he knew how to make lemonade out of lemons and so eventually found a way to wrap up even his promises for the Messiah inside the notion of Israel’s having a king. Jesus would come as the ultimate King in the line of David (Saul won’t work out worth a toot, after all) and under the aegis of His particular reign and rule all the bad stuff associated with kings would disappear in favor of someone who would truly rule for shalom. Centuries later a follower of that particular man would hail him as “King of kings and Lord of lords” even as one of Israel’s own prophets would predict that “of the increase of his government there will be no end.” And that will be a good thing, not a bad one.
As preaching texts go, this story of Israel’s hankering for a king may not seem particularly inspiring. It seems like no more than kind of a sad little story: Samuel lives to see the downfall of his own house, the people reject both Samuel’s heirs and the holy God who had led them out of the land of Egypt and settled them in the land flowing with milk and honey. But maybe there is a bit of grace and hope here even so. Yes, a lot of the bad things God warned the people about would happen. But in the longest possible run something else would happen: a new King would come. He’d arrive in no less than Jerusalem one day, humble and riding on a donkey, on the colt of a donkey. And he’ll be anointed King not in some elaborate ceremony on a red carpet and wearing some deep purple robe but naked and impaled on a spit of wood. It would be a thorny crown that made him King but from that sacrifice, a whole new kingdom would arise and one day in that kingdom, all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Thanks be to God.
From Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, Harper & Row, 1988, pp.70-71:
“’Who is this King of glory? The LORD, the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!’ proclaims the Psalmist (Ps. 24:10). This rich metaphor is used again and again in Scripture. Yahweh alone was King over Israel, the prophets thundered: to be feared, to be loved, above all else to be obeyed. When the people decided they wanted a king of flesh and blood like all the other nations, Samuel warned them that the consequences would prove tragic, and history proved him correct in every particular. In the long run Israel as king and kingdom vanished from history altogether.
“When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, it was as King and Son of David that his followers hailed him. If it was a king like David the conquering hero that they were looking for, they were of course bitterly disappointed. What they got was a king like David the father, who, when he heard of his treacherous son’s death, went up to his chamber and wept. ‘Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ he cried out. They were the most kingly words he ever uttered and an uncanny foreshadowing of events some thousand years off.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 138 is a psalm of praise to God for deliverance from some kind of trouble. Its content suggests the psalmist’s enemies have done all they can to silence that praise. However, the psalmist remains utterly determined. Perhaps his foes’ opposition has even made him more determined than ever to praise God with “all of his heart,” in other words, as Raymond Van Leeuwen writes, “from the deepest center of the poet’s being.”
God’s adopted children can hardly hear this psalm without hearing a tone of defiance. The poet’s enemies have directed their anger toward her. Her neighbors may be bowing down not toward God’s temple but toward the earth’s kings who claim either to be divine or to represent their gods. However, the poet insists, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all of my heart … I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name” (italics added). After all, she recognizes that Yahweh alone is the God of heaven and earth who deserves her praise.
It’s instructive that the psalmist praises God first of all not for what God has done, but for who God is, for God’s faithfulness. When God’s children take the time to praise God, it’s often primarily for things God has done. Even the psalmist praises God for what God has done, for God’s act of deliverance. However, that doesn’t come until after he has praised God for God’s character, for God’s love and faithfulness.
In that way Psalm 138 serves as an excellent model and even liturgical resource for God’s children who want to praise the Lord from the deepest center of their being. It also offers those who teach and preach the psalm to reflect with hearers on the shape of our prayer lives. After all, people are naturally in such a hurry to ask God for things that they pay scant attention to God’s loving and faithful nature.
Even when the psalmist finally gets around to praising God for what God has done, he starts with God’s “exaltation” of God’s name and word “above all things.” In other words, the psalmist doesn’t begin by praising God for what God has done for him, but for what God has done, in a sense, for himself. God has exalted God’s “name,” another word for God himself, above all the gods whom people assume vie with God for power and their attention.
This God whom the psalmist praises from her very core faithfully pays loving attention to “the lowly,” perhaps including the psalmist herself. While people naturally take notice of those who can do something for us, of the high and mighty, Psalm 138 reminds us God pays attention to both the ordinary and the extraordinary, to the common and the uncommon. In fact, God is so attentive to human affairs that God even knows the proud from “afar.” In other words, God knows the evil intent of the proud.
Psalm 138 offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own perceptions of God. In a culture that often views God as very passive, this God is very active. This God rescues and protects, keeps and hears, looks on and knows, preserves and stretches out God’s hand, fulfills and refuses to abandon. In a world that knows so little unconditional love and faithfulness, this God is always loving and faithful toward all God has made and makes.
In fact, Psalm 138’s poet is so determined to praise God for who God is that he doesn’t even get around to praising God for what God has done for him until more than halfway through the psalm. It’s not until verse 7 that he praises God for God’s preservation of him. Though his enemies have chased him into the midst of trouble, perhaps even into the “valley of the shadow of death,” (cf. Psalm 23), God has spared the poet’s life. Though his enemies’ anger has flared against him, God has stretched out God’s hand to save the poet, much like God’s stretched out God’s hand over the Red Sea’s threatening waters to save the Israelites.
God has even graciously granted the psalmist “boldness” and “stoutheartedness.” So though her enemies may angrily threaten her, the psalmist can courageously praise God with her whole being. Verse 3 offers the Bible’s only use of the word translated as “stoutheartedness.” The phrase may literally mean something like, “You strengthened me with strength in my soul,” an allusion to the courage with which the God fills the psalmist’s whole person.
Yet the psalmist isn’t content to be the only person who praises the Lord. In fact, he isn’t even content with just God’s Israelite sons and daughters singing the Lord’s praise. No, verses 4-5 express the psalmist’s longing for even the earth’s kings, many of whom think of themselves as gods, to join in that chorus of praise to Yahweh, the true God of heaven and earth. Psalm 2’s poet professes that God rules over even the world’s kings and nations. Now Psalm 138’s poet prays that God will work so that God’s praise spreads like ripples from the “lowly” to the kings of the earth.
It may seem ironic that this prayer forms the literary heart of Psalm 138. After all, it’s not just that the earth’s kings often thought of themselves as “gods.” It’s also that those kings may have been some of the enemies who threatened the psalmist. Yet the psalmist prays not for their restraint, punishment, or even destruction, but for their conversion. Right in the middle of a psalm that both praises God and pleads for God’s help, the psalmist turns her attention away from herself and onto the kings whose praise God longs and deserves to hear.
Yet the poet ends this psalm of wholehearted praise to God with a plea for God not to abandon the works of God’s hands. This may seem like a bit of a “downer” after verses 4-5’s grand eschatological vision of the kings of the earth bringing God their worship and praise. However, it reminds us that while the world’s kings and nations will someday join creation’s chorus of praise to God, not all of them do so yet. Psalm 138 reminds us that, as Van Leeuwen notes, “God’s kingdom, and its righteousness, saving rule, is ‘already and not yet’.” God and God’s children’s enemies, sin, Satan and death, never stop attacking God’s people for even a moment.
So we join the psalmist in praying for both God’s sustaining presence and the complete coming of God’s kingdom so that the whole creation can join the psalmist in bowing down to the Lord of heaven and earth. In that way Psalm 138 echoes the apostle Paul’s confidence that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a resident of Ruleville, Mississippi who worked very hard on a plantation. However, because she tried to register to vote, she was fired from her job. She was later arrested and beaten senseless for trying to help others register to vote, sustaining injuries that would plague her for the rest of her life. She was a member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party that tried to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
On August 22 Mrs. Hamer appeared before the convention’s credentials committee to tell her story about trying to register to vote in Mississippi. The unspeakable suffering and deprivation she’d endured at the hands of white oppressors couldn’t squelch this grace-filled Christian’s boldness. Threats of repercussions for it couldn’t stifle her stoutheartedness as she told some of the most powerful men in America, “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you.”
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Author: Stan Mast
This is the second Sunday of what the church has traditionally called Ordinary Time. The label is misleading. It doesn’t mean that the next 6 months of the liturgical are just ordinary days, devoid of anything special, dull time, boring time, time to be endured. This is called ordinary time because the church gives each Sunday a number, an ordinal. In this ordered time, we are neither feasting (as at Christmas or Easter) nor fasting (as at Advent or Lent). Rather we are waiting with watchful expectation for the Second Coming of Christ. Our reading for today reminds us that the daily suffering of the ordinary Christian life is actually achieving for us something so extraordinary that it literally cannot be described—“an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
That evocatively beautiful phrase arises in the context of Paul’s (continuous) defense of his ministry. Under attack by critics who claimed that he wasn’t really an apostle, that he used underhanded methods in his ministry, and that he was pocketing the offerings he received for the poor in Jerusalem, Paul fought back for the sake of the Gospel. If they could discredit him, they could undercut the Gospel. He has spent the first part of this chapter talking about the suffering he has endured as an apostle. Verse 15 is his conclusion. “All this (suffering) is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”
Early in my ministry, as I struggled not only with my ministerial inadequacies, but even more with personal and family suffering, this verse was an epiphany for me. My suffering was going to be used by God to spread his grace to more and more people. I was, to paraphrase verse 7, a “cracked pot” through whose cracks the grace of God could flow. My brokenness would be used by God to show people his grace, so that more and more people would give thanks to God for his grace. And in the end, my suffering would bring glory to God. Knowing that even my suffering was being used by God to help my congregation enabled me endure, if not enjoy those early years.
But it’s not just that your suffering does something for other people, says Paul. It also does something for you, something unimaginable. It “achieves” glory. “Therefore, we do not lose heart.” The last time I preached on this text was at the funeral of a friend who had died after suffering long and hard. I knew I had to be careful in how I preached this rich text, so I said, “How can we not lose heart at a time like this? Your body and your mind gradually waste away through an unimaginable sequence of developments. First those little signs that irritate and worry. Then a host of tests and a diagnosis—it’s Parkinson’s. Then it’s cancer here and then there and then everywhere. Then it’s this treatment and that complication, back to the hospital and then home and, finally. hospice care at home. Then it’s almost total loss of life’s quality, and finally a deep sleep and death. How can you not lose heart? When your loved one slips away from you an inch at a time, so that he isn’t the same person you loved all those years, how can you not lose heart? When death finally separates you from a man who has been such a huge part of your lives for as long as you can remember, how can you not lose heart? It’s enough to break your heart.”
Paul’s cure for a broken heart is to look ahead to that “eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison.” A Christian who had suffered much in life put this thought in contemporary language. “In the light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life filled with the most atrocious torture, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
That kind of Christian talk infuriates critics of Christianity. Indeed, some Christians are embarrassed by what seems to them an overly simplistic Christian response to the terrible suffering of the human race. Some time ago I ran across a review of a book by David Blumenthal, entitled, Facing an Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. The reviewer praised Blumenthal for confronting “more honestly the profound evil we find in the everyday midst of human life,” and for refusing “to tie up his theology into systematically neat or comforting packages.” The best thing about the book, says this reviewer is that Blumenthal “gives no singular or final answers” to the problem of suffering.
I fully agree that we have to take suffering seriously as we preach the Good News. But the fact is that the Christian faith does have a final answer to the problem of suffering. It is summarized in these words of Paul. There will be an end to the suffering of the saints, says the Gospel, an end so glorious that it is beyond comparison with anything we have suffered in our earthly existence.
That surely is not all there is to say about suffering from a Gospel perspective. There is, as Mr. Blumenthal put it, “no singular answer to the problem of suffering.” Indeed, the complete Christian response must show how sin and Satan cause suffering, must wrestle with the sovereignty of God, must explain how suffering contributes to sanctification and benefits other saints (see above), must always maintain a clear focus on the suffering of our Savior, and must bow before the mystery of suffering in a world ruled by a good and all-powerful God. It is simply not true that all the Christian faith has to offer in the face of the world’s terrible suffering is “pie in the sky by and by.”
But it is also true that you have not given the whole Christian response to suffering until you have spoken about future glory. Or to put it differently, you have not really told the old, old story of Jesus and his love until you finish the final chapter. One of the great claims of the Christian faith is that human history and individual human life is a story with an end. The Good News for those who have “believed and spoken” (as Paul puts in verse 13) is that their story has a glorious ending. For those presently living in a chapter of the story that is filled with great suffering, such talk of future glory may seem a cheap comfort. As Dostoyevsky has one of his characters say in The Brothers Karamazov, “Making up for it in the end doesn’t make up for it.”
In our text Paul responds to that condemnation of future glory by saying, in effect, “You have no idea.” Literally, you have no idea. We think analogically, in metaphors, by comparison. “This is like that.” Our translation of verse 17 uses the word “outweighs,” which isn’t as good as another translation that says, “beyond compare.” The Greek there uses the word hyperbole, which means a comparison that goes overboard, an exaggeration, an overstatement. In fact, Paul uses the word twice, hyperbole into hyperbole, meaning that there is simply no way to exaggerate or overstate the glory. No matter what comparison you use, it won’t come close. When you compare the sufferings of this life with the coming glory, there is simply no comparison.
That’s why Paul dares to say that our sufferings are light and momentary. In using that word “momentary,” Paul is not denying that suffering drags on and wears us down. He is simply assuring us that in comparison to eternity, any suffering is but for a moment. Somewhere Dostoyevsky tells the story of an atheist who died and was dismayed to find that there is indeed life after death. Indignant, he shouted, “This is against my principles.” For which he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion miles in the dark, after which the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he would be forgiven. “I won’t go!” he said. “I refuse on principle.” He lay down, for a thousand years. Then he got up and went on. It took him more than a billion years to walk those quadrillion miles. But he made it. As he walked through the gates of pearl, after he had been there only two seconds, he cried that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion miles but a quadrillion quadrillion. That’s why Paul uses the word momentary.
In comparison to the weight of glory, our troubles are also light. The word trouble there is a word that means pressure, that which weighs heavily on us and squeezes out of us all the joy and peace and hope and light. When you feel the weight of glory, says Paul, you will realize how light the weight of suffering was. Indeed, the weight of glory will fill you with joy and peace and hope and light. What a strange idea—a weight that fills. What can such glory be like? To what can we compare it?
I’ve always appreciated the way C.S. Lewis used his imagination to give us a vague sense of that glory. In his classic, The Great Divorce, he has a group of hell dwellers take a bus trip to heaven, where they are given one more chance to let go of the sin that landed them in hell. He describes those hellions as little more than indistinct smudges of carbon, grey shadows living in gloomy houses without roofs in a climate where it constantly drizzles. In a particularly memorable scene, one of the hellions suddenly cries out in pain. He has stubbed his toe on a daisy, which in heaven is not the frail flower we know on earth, but something so solid and strong, yet so beautiful that it is like a diamond. And then he meets an old friend from earthly days, but he doesn’t recognize his friend. The friend has been transformed into a creature so radiant, so beautiful, so solid, so filled with the weight of glory that the hellion can barely look upon him.
The Bible uses a number of images to help us picture the glory to come—a house with many rooms, a city with streets of gold and gates of pearl, a garden with a river running through it. Here in II Corinthians 5:1, Paul adds a personal image—a building, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. He compares our present bodies to an “earthly tent,” flimsy, vulnerable, and wasting away. Someday this earthly tent will be folded up and put away, but that won’t be the end of us. There is this future glory of another dwelling (oikos, oikodomen).
I am understating it when I say that this lovely verse is fraught with difficulty, a difficulty we began to encounter in verse 16, where Paul’s distinction between “outwardly” and “inwardly” makes some wonder if he is adopting the Greek distinction between body and soul. Those same folks worry that Paul is talking in 5:1 about the intermediate state, which, they say, is a Greek import into the essentially Jewish Gospel. We all know, they say, that the Christian hope is fixed on a physical resurrection and a new world, not on some intermediate state where we live in a disembodied condition in a far off ethereal heaven.
While acknowledging that the de-Hellenizing project has some real value, I would urge the preacher not to get lost in that debate. This text is designed to put the suffering of preachers and parishioners in a Gospel perspective, and that perspective focuses on glory. Whether we conceive of that glory as a resurrected body like the body of the Risen Christ or as a mysterious heavenly body we receive immediately after death, a new heaven and a new earth or an intermediate state with Jesus in heaven, the point is the glory to come.
I’ve skipped over some fascinatingly difficult issues. For example, how do our troubles “achieve for us” that glory? Catholics talk about the merit of our sufferings. Protestants hate that idea because it seems to undercut the Soli Gracia of salvation. Suffice it to say that Paul is assuring us that our suffering is not wasted, that it actually achieves something so good we cannot imagine it.
For another example, there is Paul’s wonderful definition of faith as “fixing our eyes” on the unseen and eternal. The word there is skopouvton, which might be translated “scope it out.” It means to concentrate intently, as through a microscope or telescope, gazing by faith on what others cannot see. Faith is not a glance or a casual look; it is concentrating very hard on the unseen God and his seen Son. In fact, that whole business of seen and unseen, temporary and eternal, could be homiletically fruitful. But I’d suggest that we focus on suffering and glory. In a world that groans with suffering, we should focus on the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison so that “we do not lose heart.”
Though many will already know the story, I would use it anyway because it is such a classic example of showing rather than telling. I’m referring the end of The Last Battle, the final book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The children whose adventures in Narnia are told throughout the Chronicles have been killed in a car/train crash. Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in those stories, tells them that they are dead, but says it this way. “The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended; this is the morning.” Lewis concludes: “For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page. Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has ever read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”