II Corinthians 4:7-18
Not many of us here this morning would describe a particularly horrible time of suffering in our lives as a slight momentary affliction. In fact very few of us would ever describe any kind of suffering that we have endured as a slight momentary affliction. I don’t think it would even cross our minds. In fact, if I might be so bold, it sounds rather foolish to me. It trivializes suffering. To me, a slight momentary affliction is hearing a mosquito just before I swat it, and long before it attaches itself to my arm. That’s a slight momentary affliction.
And so we have to ask ourselves this morning, what in the world is the Apostle Paul talking about? Has he lost his mind? Has he gone nuts? He gives us this great long list of terrible, horrible, awful things that he has endured; things that have the potential to undo not only him, but us too, and he sums the whole miserable thing up by concluding that all of this is nothing more than a slight momentary affliction. Nothing to see here folks, you may think it looks bad, it may look like horrible suffering, but it is nothing really, nothing to be concerned about, keep moving folks, just go about your business.
I think that most of us probably take our suffering quite seriously. Suffering is not a trivial matter with us. When we are afflicted with suffering, we don’t joke about it, we don’t laugh about it, and we certainly don’t deny the awful reality of it, whether that suffering is present in our own lives or in the lives of others. As Christian sisters and brothers, we have trained ourselves to feel and share the pain that others are enduring. We sympathize and we empathize, and we comfort and assist one another when affliction visits our church family. That’s why being part of a Christian fellowship is so special. Here in this place is caring and compassion that can be found in no other setting. We are able to do these things for one another only because the power of the risen Christ is dwelling within us. Otherwise, we could not care enough to care. It is as simple as that.
But we do care, and that’s why we are troubled when the Apostle Paul seems to trivialize the enormity of human suffering, because in our own experience of suffering it has been neither slight, nor momentary whether we have witnessed it in our own lives or in the lives of the ones we love.
And all of us know, that the Apostle Paul was no stranger to suffering. None of us could ever say that he led a charmed life. He had it bad, really bad. In his epistles he sometimes provides us with great long lists of all of the horrors he has endured. The book of Acts is chock full of his mishaps and miseries. I’m pretty sure that I would not willingly submit to the dangers, toils and snares that Paul struggled with on almost a daily basis. If given the chance, I would not choose his life to be my own. I’ll stick with my own, thank you very much.
And here in this passage Paul gives us a list of some of the stuff he’s been through, and the implication is that he is not alone in this suffering, but rather it is something that he shares in common with every faithful follower of Jesus Christ. He says that we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Affliction is a many horned malady, isn’t it? There are all kinds of afflictions that come into our lives, humanly motivated, or otherwise. Most of us here this morning could name at least one person, or one thing that is an affliction to us. But we are not crushed. I like that word “crushed”. Crush is what happens to a bug on the windshield or a mosquito on the arm. But we are not crushed. There is a power that sustains us when we are afflicted. We do not come to the end. We are not finished. Paul says in verse seven that that power comes from God.
Paul goes on to say that we are perplexed, but not driven to despair. This is a really tough one. This is jumping feet first into the mysteries of this life. This is asking those “why” questions that don’t have any answers. This is the emotional and spiritual struggle of the soul. This is what keeps us awake at night without any sleep or resolution or answers, and sometimes without any peace. But in all of this, we are not driven to despair. Perplexity can certainly lead to despair, but at some point, if we allow it, God will simply step in and say, “My child”. And we will discover that that is sufficient. We have known this from times past.
And then Paul reminds us that we are persecuted, but not forsaken. Paul is quite adept here as a writer, because this little turn of a phrase draws us directly to the cross of Jesus. It reminds us that our Lord endured persecution throughout his ministry, and that he was in fact, as he died, abandoned and forsaken by God. That horrible separation from his God and Father is seared into our hearts by Jesus’ own words at the most vulnerable moment of his life: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But there is also a glorious mystery in those words. Jesus blurted those words of great agony, because he was, at that moment, bearing the weight and the burden of our sin. And because the weight and the burden of our sin has been lifted from us, we need not fear being forsaken, even in the midst of terrible persecution. When it seems as though we are the farthest from God, God is the closest to us. We will not be forsaken. Jesus has already been forsaken for us. Instead, we will be loved and held and embraced.
The last item in Paul’s list is struck down, but not destroyed. Think of this as knocked down, but not knocked out. As tiny a man as my father is, he was also a boxer, and quite proud of it. It was his sport. It kept him physically fit. It is probably why he still lives. I love my father, but I am utterly repulsed by the sport of boxing, although I will never tell him that. To me, boxing is the senseless beating of another human being. It is barbaric. The early Christians, however, were not immune from being beaten in this way. In most cases, it was someone else’s sport that led to their beatings. And many Christians were not only knocked down and knocked out, but they were also killed. Paul managed to live through all of his beatings, but he died of what we now euphemistically refer to as collateral damage.
And so Paul is making a subtle transition here, and so he begins to talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus. And he makes it clear that our present lives, however they are lived out, demonstrate both the death and the resurrection of our Lord. Yes, we are afflicted, but not crushed. Death is present in us, but so is resurrection, even now, at this moment. We may even physically die, we may be knocked down and knocked out, yet we will live.
And because of this, Paul says in verse 16, that we do not lose heart. We do not lose heart. We do not lose heart. Even though death is present and wasting us away, the power of resurrection is alive in us and growing and being renewed within us more and more every day. And so Paul can say with full sanity, that all of our troubles are but a slight momentary affliction. I love the English language and I love it even more when a play on words in the Greek translates perfectly into a play on words in English. The Greek word behind our English word “slight” means “light”, or not heavy or bouncy or dare I say trivial? But our English translators have gone the extra mile and they’ve made a funny. And it’s a stroke of genius. And I can almost imagine them sitting around that translating table saying “Yeah, let’s do it. It is a perfectly legitimate translation and it will give some old Baptist minister up in the willy-wags of Maine the opportunity to make a big deal out of it.”
So here it is verse 17, out loud: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…” That’s heavy my brothers and sisters, very heavy and I wish that I had noticed it earlier in the week, because I would have changed the title of the sermon. (I can do that before it goes up on that interwebby thingie.) But it is heavy and it is deep and it is profound because it firmly declares that today is preparation for tomorrow, and tomorrow is a lot longer than today. Today is short and momentary compared to tomorrow, because tomorrow is forever. And tomorrow is eternity and tomorrow is glory, and we are headed for glory every day and glory is very, very heavy compared to the light momentary afflictions that we endure today. But that heavy is good, very good. And Paul says that we can see it coming, because God’s people have eyes right now that can see what no one else can see, and that’s because we are the mud. That’s right, we are the mud. Last Sunday I mentioned the English guide to the worship service that we received when we went to church in Puerto Rico. In that, there was the line, “We are the mud.” In English, we would probably prefer the word, “clay”, but mud is so much more expressive of the reality. We are the mud. Buckets of mud, says Paul. But in this mud is treasure. And that treasure is the awesome power of God that flows in and through and out of us. We can see that which is unseen. And because of that power we can see through and beyond today and into tomorrow, into glory, and we can understand the awesome weight of that glory. And that is why we do not lose heart.