II Corinthians 4:1-6
The Apostle Paul is putting himself into a very dangerous spot in our passage this morning. He’s putting himself into the trust of a group people who do not trust him at all. On the surface, this is a rather stupid thing for him to do. It is brave, but stupid. It is a whole lot like showing up at the camp of your enemy clad only in your underwear. It is exceedingly unwise for anyone to place themselves into the vulnerable position of saying, “OK, I know you folks don’t trust me one bit, but because you don’t trust me, I’m placing myself into your trust.”
Alert readers of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth will quickly discover that the Apostle Paul was not deeply appreciated by many if not most of the Christians living there. And that is, of course, putting it rather mildly. They despised him. They were convinced that he was a fraud. They thought his preaching was pathetically boring, and they seriously questioned his ability to have any authority over them at all. And so, knowing this, rather than fight, Paul is going to throw himself into their laps and arms and hope for the best. And he begins that process by making it clear that he is in existence only because of God’s mercy. If anyone had a clear sense of what God’s mercy was all about, it was the Apostle Paul. Paul’s biggest problem, before he became a Christian, was he always believed that he was on God’s side. He believed that he was a pretty faithful dude, and that part of his faithful responsibility to God was that he would do his best to eliminate this new cult that had arisen among some folks who believed that the recently crucified Jesus was not only alive, but also the Jewish Messiah. That’s another whole story, of course, but I wondered this week, how many people are there out there this morning, somewhere at home or shopping at Wal-Mart , who haven’t yet become Christians, who sincerely believe, like Paul once did, that they, too, are on God’s side. Or that they have no need God’s mercy or that they’re good with God, and that God is good with them. They feel comfortable with God, and would certainly never think that they were opposed to God. Nobody wants to be opposed to God; that would make the superstitious quake.
But when Paul became a Christian, he came face to face with God’s mercy. Actually it was a face to face encounter, but that also is another story. It is safe, and appropriate to say that without God’s mercy at work in his life, that Paul was as good as dead. In fact he might very well have been dead if not for God’s mercy. And so Paul grasped the wonder of God’s mercy. He understood it, he comprehended it, and he realized that without it he would have had no hope. And not only would he have had no hope, he would have had no ministry. Paul makes a direct link between God’s mercy extended to him and the ministry to which he is called.
What is it about God’s mercy that motivates us? Do we fully comprehend the vastness and the greatness of God’s mercy as it is extended to us? Or do we still have those feelings that we are good to go without an encounter with God’s mercy? That we’re just fine not having to think about God’s mercy? That we’re good with God and God is good with us? And all is well.
Paul says that it is because of God’s mercy that he does not lose heart. I think it is impossible to describe how utterly profound that idea is. I can’t give it justice. It is because of God’s mercy that we do not lose heart. When the rest of the world wants a piece of us to destroy, when the rest of the world wants to divide and conquer our souls and our minds, and to create confusion and despair in our hearts, God’s mercy holds us fast and fills us with hope and courage to face what’s next, even though, and especially when we don’t know what that next thing will be.
And it is also because of God’s mercy that Paul is willing to put himself into the trust of people who do not trust him at all. I think everybody on the planet has a good idea of what good preaching is, and so did the folks in the church at Corinth. And their idea of good preaching did not include the kind of preaching that the Apostle Paul engaged in. Their idea of good preaching had more pizzazz and more power and lot’s more perfumery (I like that word, don’t you?) than Paul was capable of delivering. The folks in Corinth, if they had TV sets would have much preferred the TV preachers, for a whole lot of reasons.
But if Paul wasn’t a very good preacher, he was a very good writer and that compensated for his lackluster preaching. And so he says of his preaching, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides;” (that’s a huge slam at some of the other preachers who had gained popularity in Corinth) “We refuse to practice cunning” (another slam at those very same preachers) or to falsify God’s word; (another, very big slam) “But by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.”
And here’s where Paul makes himself extremely vulnerable. Here’s where he walks into the enemy camp with only his underwear on. Paul says to the folks in Corinth, if you listen with your hearts and with your consciences, you’ll see the truth. That’s brave. Paul is saying that it is only by God’s mercy that he does what he does, and that ultimately it is God’s mercy that will eventually vindicate him. There’s truth to be heard, and if the folks in Corinth will listen, they will hear God’s word, receive God’s mercy themselves, and they’ll develop a whole better opinion of and attitude toward the Apostle Paul. Now, did that actually happen? We don’t really know one way or the other. The jury is still out, but those who enjoy a bit of speculation, tend toward the idea that Paul and the folks in Corinth never quite did pull it together. In spite of Paul’s constant overtures, they never did quite reconcile, they never did quite get to a happy spot with each other. And that’s sad. But it is too late for us to fuss over it much. But what is not too late is that when there is trouble or misunderstanding among us, that all of us make the royal effort to be reconciled as soon as possible. Too often it is much easier to run away from reconciliation than it is to face it straight on. Paul was a face it straight on kind of guy and that’s why he made himself so vulnerable to the folks in Corinth.
There’s just one other thing that I’d like to chat about this morning, and that is the credibility problem that Christianity faces in our world today. It is nothing new; Christianity has always had a credibility problem. Before the Apostle Paul came face to face with Jesus Christ, he was absolutely convinced that the brand-new Christian Church was an evil cult and that it needed to be destroyed, and eliminated.
Nowadays, there aren’t a whole lot of people out there who think that we’re an evil cult, but there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t give a hoot about us one way or the other. Those folks are convinced that the Christian Church has outlived its usefulness and that it is totally irrelevant to life in the real world. That the Church is a misguided throw-back to silly and superstitious times, that it is ignorant and ancient, and that it had better keep to itself.
And so we’ve got a credibility problem, but really, it’s got two sides to it. On the one hand, we’ve got critics who delight in slamming the church and making public statements about how irrelevant it is. And these folks usually have access to the media. Most of them, however, are folks who’ve never sat down and read the Bible to see just what it is that motivates all of us to do the things that we do. An then, on the other hand, we’ve got nut-jobs in our own camp, who usually, have also not really taken the time to listen to the Scriptures, and who, usually through the media, presume to speak on behalf of all of the rest of us, thereby characterizing all of us as nut-jobs, which then leads to the charge of irrelevancy that the rest of the world is only too pleased to level against us, and around and around the circle it goes. (Big breath)
The net result of all of this, as the Apostle Paul says, is that the beauty of the Gospel gets veiled, and that the wonderful message of God’s mercy goes unheard and maybe even unspoken. And so very few needy souls ever encounter the glorious depths of God’s mercy. The Apostle Paul is prone to writing very long sentences, but this one bears hearing again. He is speaking about all of those folks who see no relevancy at all in the Gospel. It is verse 4: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Aha! We want to say. It’s the devil that’s done this! It’s the devil that’s taken over the world and blinded the eyes and hearts and minds of unbelievers! It’s not our fault at all! The devil has done it, no wonder we’ve become irrelevant!
Not so fast. It ain’t that easy. As tempting as it is, we can’t blame all of our troubles on the devil. The devil isn’t the god of this world, God is the God of this world. The prophet Isaiah would never let us off that easy, especially after he spent so much time reminding us last week that God is sovereign over every aspect of all of creation, including, stars, rulers, princes, and the rest of us grasshoppers.
So what is the god of this world? It is an idol, it is an idol promoted by the devil, but it is an idol nevertheless. And the idol is ourselves. It is our propensity to believe that we are self sufficient and powerful, and that our desire to achieve rugged individualism is the highest and greatest good that we can possibility attain. We are the god of this world, because we are the god of ourselves. We have no need for God or for anyone else. It is a terrible deception and it keeps us miles from God’s mercy, and years from seeing God’s light.
And so our only response to this, again as the Apostle Paul implies, is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel all the more. This means that we may also have to make ourselves more vulnerable. We might just have to show up in the enemy’s camp wearing just our underwear, trusting the Spirit of God to open up stubborn hearts. But all along the way, because we have indeed received God’s mercy, we will not lose heart. And we will not lose heart because we know that there are others out there who desperately need to experience God’s mercy. So, let us with boldness and joy allow God to let light shine out of darkness, and to allow him to let that light shine out of us into this dark, dark world.