Just Sittin’ in the Saddle

(This is the first of nine weeks of devotionals on Mondays. Each will be an edited manuscript of the sermon content, with discussion questions at the end.)

Imagine you were going to go on a long hike – a multi-week adventure of even hundreds of miles. And, of course, living where we do, our minds would immediately go to the longest hike in the world – that of the Appalachian Trail.

This is not something you would just decide to do one day, and then head out for a couple of months on the 2160-mile path through 14 states. No, you would want to research such a venture; you would look for a guidebook – particularly one that was written by someone who has already done the distance and is familiar with the terrain and all its challenges.

A quick research online found that there is a vast array of guidebooks to help people traverse the Appalachian Trail successfully.  It was a very simple online search to find a plethora of such resources that are available. Taking on a monstrous endeavor like this, you just know that there are going to be some difficult challenges – ups and downs, rugged terrain, the complications of where to camp or find shelters along the way, and the reality of needing to replenish supplies.  And then there is the issue of adverse weather, as not every day is going to be ideal. So you would want advice from a trail veteran about what do you do when it rains or snows.

The Christian life is not dissimilar to such a high-mileage, multi-state hike like the AT.  Many speakers and writers have picked up on this “hiking” illustration, one of them being the well-known Christian writer Eugene Peterson who wrote a book entitled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”

And over a period of nine weeks, I would like to address with you a total of 11 topics that have settled in my mind as categorical truths from my decades of experiences on this long walk in the same direction of following Christ. Perhaps these observations and perspectives might help you as you traverse similar terrain upon your Christian life venture.

As we head out on our hike together, let me draw your attention to one particular overarching truth that we’ll come back to, over and over – What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. He wants us to lean back on Him. He doesn’t want us to follow our natural, earthly (dare I say “sinful”) inclinations to constantly be running off the path and into the woods … or following side trails that look more interesting or easier to traverse.

Each week will also include a theme and a statement. For this first week and this first topic …

  • Theme – Endurance and routine faithfulness, though not dramatic, is honored by God over the long haul.
  • Statement – 95% of faithfulness is just sitting in the saddle and continuing to ride the horse.

I’m not a Pentecostal, not close!  But even I would wish to experience big, bold, miraculous appearances of God all over the place, but it doesn’t happen most of the time. We think Bible characters had God hanging out and talking to them every day. But, in fact, there were often long stretches of time between divine appearances.

So I believe that most days, even for the great characters of the Scriptures, were rather mundane – days where it was necessary to recall previous promises of God and to live in faith and obedience, even when not everything in life was going perfectly well.

Likewise then for us, we should not expect that, simply because we know Christ and are in an eternal relationship with God through our sin debt being paid, that God should make all the circumstances of our lives to be happy. The place where that happens is called “heaven.”  And though we live in another “H”-town – this place called Hagerstown – you might have noticed that it is a bit short on pearly gates and streets of gold (though Potomac Street there in the “arts district” of downtown does sparkle!).

Yes, we may have some incredible life experiences where we see God show up in some amazing, even miraculous, sort of way. For many people, that was their experience in coming to Christ in salvation; there was an amazing intervention of God that changed everything. And even for those of us who had a conversion experience that is less dramatic, we can look back and see the multi-faceted, gracious hand of God in varied circumstances and coincidences that positioned us to hear the gospel and respond in trust.

Along the road of the Christian life, there are occasional times where God’s divine intervention is clearly evident – some moment, some encounter, some close call, some fortuitous circumstance, some person who spoke to us a powerful word that was as if God sent them (because, actually, He did!).  And you glory in those moments; you never forget them.

But still, those moments – so awesome, amazing and miraculous – are not often weekly experiences … or monthly … or even yearly. Those events can be separated by years of rather mundane living. It is kind of like investing. Sometimes you might buy shares of a particular company, and soon thereafter is a rapid rise in value and a great increase in your investment. But that is rare. More often, portfolio growth of investments comes from a distribution of resources that realize gains, almost imperceptibly, over a very long period of time.

And that is how our “faith investments” should be seen. It is not so often about the miracle of the moment, but rather the day to day trust and obedience of doing the next thing – doing the right thing, avoiding the wrong thing … and doing it over and over, day after day.

And so, my title for this first theme is “Just Sittin’ in the Saddle” … yep, again, 95% of faithfulness is just sittin’ in the saddle and riding the horse.

So Randy, you might ask, are there any Bible examples of this that you can point to?  Well, let’s go for the grand slam on the issue of faith, the veritable “father of faith”, and look at the life of that fellow named Abram … actually, Abraham.

We really don’t need to go much farther than his name! It means, “father of many” … like the father of a multitude of people. But he would go for many years without seeing a child born. Imagine when he went to the bank and the teller would see his name and ask him, “So, how many children do you have?”  And he had to stammer … “Well, actually I don’t have any children.”

Surely there were more than a few awkward times and unusual events in the life of Abraham. Let’s take a few moments to quickly review the big events of his life. His calling from God is recorded for us in Genesis 12:1-5 …

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.

It had said in verse 30 of the previous chapter about his wife … Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

So, quickly, let us rehearse the major movements and events of Abraham’s life over the next several decades …

Abraham journeys on toward ultimately coming into the land of Canaan. He was very wealthy, with large herds. Conflict arises between the shepherds of Abraham and those of his nephew Lot, and Abraham proposes that they separate. Lot chooses the better and more fertile areas. And after they depart, God says again to Abraham in Gen. 13:14-17 …

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”

God says essentially… “Abraham, sit in the saddle, ride the horse, trust me.”

The situation of Lot living near pagan cities turns out poorly for he and his family, especially his salty wife. He is taken captive by some people from the East, and Abraham has to go and rescue him … being blessed by Melchizedek on the way home.

Abraham continues to wait. He sees no offspring, fearing his household will have to pass on to his primary servant. But God again repeats the promise, again telling him to sit in the saddle.

Now 11 years go by. Sarah is impatient and has a plan with her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.  A son is born, named Ishmael, but this is not to be the fulfillment of the promise. Between the end of Genesis 16 and the beginning of chapter 17, anther 13 years have passed, and Abraham is now 99 years old. God again comes to Abraham with the promise of a son to be born the next year. Abraham laughs, Sarah (age 90) laughs … but God’s word comes true.  Isaac is born.

Even so, there are multiple troubles and conflicts with varied people groups in the land. There is more difficulty with Lot, relative to Sodom and Gomorrah. But Abraham does what is right in varied steps large and small, trusting God in all things. He is sitting in the saddle.

And then the greatest challenge comes with the calling to go and offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. This will be the major theme of a later piece of this series. But again, Abraham obeys, believing that even if he is to be sacrificed, God will raise him up and thus fulfill His promise of a great nation through this offspring. Abraham stays on the horse.

After another couple decades, Sarah dies. Where is she to be buried?  Abraham has no ground over which he has ownership. He has been living all these years in the Promised Land of Canaan as a nomad. He then buys a piece of ground – a cave – for burial, and this will be the only ground he ever owns in the vast land promised to him and his descendants.

He next makes arrangements through servants to secure a wife for his son Isaac, and Rebekah becomes his bride … later bearing a set of twins, Jacob and Esau. More years pass, and Abraham dies at the recorded age of 175. His family was growing, though he himself did not see it that much personally. The story goes on to speak of the expanse of the nation of Israel, ultimately with the family moving to Egypt at the time of Joseph’s ascendancy there. The size of the family at that time totaled 70 people … 400 years later, at the time of the Exodus back to the Promised Land, it numbered about 2 million.  None of that would have happened if Abraham had not been faithful to “sit in the saddle and ride the horse.”

So let’s summarize with some evaluations about the life of Abraham …

  1. The big “God events” in his life did not begin until he was already an older man.

OK, so it is true that people are recorded in the Scriptures as living longer lifespans than we know. But even so, since Abraham lived especially long, he was at least what we would know as middle-aged to late middle-aged at the time God called him.

Why did God choose him?  We don’t know … why does God choose any of us?  He was from an idol-worshipping family, most of whom he left behind. He departed one of the most prosperous cities of the ancient world, doing so at the peak of his life and business prosperity. God said essentially to “get on the horse and ride.”

  1. He was called out of a pagan culture and lived his life surrounded by the same.

This was a total life change. And it was not like there were other people on similar journeys with whom he could associate. There was no church/synagogue/small group Bible study. Yes, we can feel isolated at times in our faith, but imagine how it was for Abram.

  1. Abraham didn’t really know where he was going when he departed his homeland, and he didn’t really get all that was promised when he got there.

There are times when I’d like to just get up and go somewhere for a while, but I have a place to come back to. Abraham had immediate family, servants, herds upon herds … and surely to hundreds of local acquaintances he had said, “I’m going somewhere; I don’t know where; I’ll just know when I get there and God tells me.”  Yep, riding the horse.

  1. God did not “show up” every day … every month … nor even every year.

We talked about this a good bit already … like the 13 years where apparently nothing really happened. Don’t you imagine Abraham really wondered during that time if he was doing the right things and had truly heard the voice of God. But he remained in the saddle.

  1. He was far from perfect and had numerous failures requiring a “faith recovery.”

We know how imperfect we are, and it is a great encouragement to us to see that some of the best characters of Scripture also had their failures. But we should see from Abraham that it never deterred him from ultimate and final faith in the word of God in his life. If you fall out of the saddle, the right thing to do is to get back into it and ride on.

  1. He lived in a suspended state of “dream fulfillment.”

Imagine the thousands of days of being in the fields with the herds, of seeing the mountains and valleys all around him, all of them promised to be his possession and that of his descendants … a family he did not really have, as he stood upon dirt he did not own. The dreams, the promises – they were awesome!  But there was no reality to support them. But, he endured … in the saddle.

  1. He endured through many “it doesn’t make sense” circumstances that crossed his path.

This too will be its own theme later in this series. But Abraham had many experiences that didn’t make sense, especially that command to sacrifice his only son. And he wondered also why Ishmael could not just be the heir … that boy he loved so much. And why did God make him wait, year after year after year?

  1. The reason Abraham never completely crashed was because he had his eyes on bigger and better stuff.

If Abraham only had in mind what he could see, he might well have been overcome by doubts and difficulties. But he ultimately remained in the saddle of faithfulness because he had a bigger picture in mind. How do we know this?  Because this aspect of his life and character is written about in Hebrews 11. Here is essentially God’s summary evaluation of Abraham’s life (11:8-16 …

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Abraham could stay in the saddle because he had the bigger of picture of eternity informing his entire values system. The lands promised to his family descendants … cool stuff!  But it was all merely temporal and non-eternal. He was not just a nomad physically; he also was spiritually. And that is an attitude that makes all the difference!

And then one final evaluative point to make about him …

  1. Because he never succumbed to becoming a quitter, he earned the biblical names of “servant of God” (Gen. 26:24), “friend of God,” (James 2:23), “father of Israel” (Matthew 3:9) and “father of all who believe” (Romans 4).

Notice the increase in value of these names … Servant of God (that’s nice) / friend of God (that’s more intimate) / father of Israel (therefore of God’s redemptive plan) / father of all who believe (he really is, as the old kids song says, “Father Abraham”).

He is all these things because, even with his imperfections and mistakes, and all the crazy experiences of life, he rode the horse of faithfulness.

This is the point for us to take away: Getting to where we want to go … completing the long, long trail of the Christian life that we are upon … is not about the accumulation of many fabulously great moments, but rather is about the routine faithfulness in the small things of daily life. And these small things of obedience and eternal values add up and reproduce, even when it does not appear that much is happening, and even when we are discouraged and downhearted.

Keep doing the right things as you learn what are the right things from the right discipline of learning them from the Word of God. I would encourage you to regularly be thinking about how to tie even the mundane things of life into the stuff of eternal values, especially through the relationships of family.

We are like seeds, like trunks of trees.  We may not see the fruits or experience all the harvest. But we can live rightly and look to invest in others. They will shoot out branches from us, with stems and leaves and blossoms … and ultimately flowers and fruits. We can only mess it up by getting discouraged and getting off the horse. Stay in the saddle. Stay planted.

I’ve gotten discouraged so many times. I’ve tried to quit many times. I’ve tried to change ministries, go to secular careers, whatever. But God has never let me do it. He regularly has made it clear in those darkest hours that I’m to shut up, sit in the saddle and keep riding the horse.

So keep a focus on eternity and building the kingdom of God. And though sometimes it feels like the cinches of the saddle have loosened and I’m 180 degrees off from where I should be – meaning I’m under the horse and riding belly to belly – I’ve found that God is faithful. And looking back, He has always had me in the right place; and though I thought I wanted to be somewhere else, I rejoice that He met my every need all along the way. And there is fulfillment and soul satisfaction in that.

No, God has never failed me. My role is this: to remember (the theme) … Endurance and routine faithfulness, though not dramatic, is honored by God over the long haul.

Week One Items for Discussion

What do you find in the story of Abraham that particularly gives you encouragement in walking the Christian life?

Share some experiences in your life where you find yourself somewhat lost in the routine and the mundane, perhaps wondering where God is at.

How might you turn these times of waiting and wondering into that which has eternal value and merit?

How does having an eternal perspective help you to have a healthier current perspective about the things and the events of this world?

Have you had Christian life experiences in the past where you felt that God was not appearing to be doing much to help you, but that you are now able to see His ultimate timing and direction proving His faithfulness to you?

How might you encourage others to sit in the saddle and ride the horse?

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“Corinthians Conclusion (and Future Writings)”

C’est fini!  It’s all over!  It’s finished!  The end of studies and writings about the Corinthian letters. Am I glad about that?  You bet!  This experience was a little bit like a previous study in Ecclesiastes – very interesting and enlightening, but filled with so many conversations about difficult and dark topics that it feels good to move on and read something different!

But I hope this has been a good experience for you and for the church. Many people have been very expressive and kind in comments about the series.

Yes, we have issues as sinners in this world. I’m a mess; you’re a mess. But as we’ve been saying weekly, we also have answers – thanks to the inspired writings of Paul and the work of the Spirit of God through the Word. There is a balance. As our old friend Chris used to often say, “We are more deeply sinful and flawed than we ever imagined, but more loved and forgiven that we could have ever hoped for.”

So even as we recognize in our own church family in our own context in the tri-state area that we can be like the Corinthians at times, we have greater resources to move toward godly living together and toward the end of being lights that shine for God in a darkened world.

This will mark the end of devotional writings to accompany a sermon series for quite a while – likely until September. The upcoming schedule does not lend toward writings, and beyond that I confess to needing a bit of a break from it. I may write a few isolated devotional thoughts on the topics being covered or whatever else drives me to the keyboard.

The next five weeks will feature individual topics from a missionary guest, a sermon each from Tim and Trent, and two from me.

The summer series will be called “The Dog Days of Deep Doctrine” and will be a review of the 10 points of the theological statement of the Evangelical Free Church of America – our denominational fellowship.

The fall series will be called “Reflections on the Christian Life.”  I’m really looking forward to sharing nine themes that are my life-experience summaries of the big ideas about what living for the Lord is all about.

Don’t forget to read the Scriptures over the summer! And you can also go back to previous series and writings on this page – either as a first time through them or to review some other portions of Scripture. There are now a total of 1,304 devotionals on this website.

So, unless I lose you to the summer moon above, I’ll see you in September.  (If you’re younger than a Baby Boomer, ask someone from my generation what that means!)

“The Work of Restoration” (2 Corinthians 13:1-14)

Like me, I’m sure you are all rather sick of the political environment in which we live with endless investigations that merely breed more investigations. A phrase we always hear is that “there needs to be an investigation to get to the bottom of this.”

Paul is saying to the Corinthians in this final chapter that he is coming to visit them and that there is going to be forthright conversation and accountability … and the end result will be that the truth of all things – Paul’s credentials and life, their lifestyles and values, etc. – will all be “gotten to the bottom” so to speak. It might hurt during the process, but the results were going to be good. God’s power would be at work.

In the second paragraph, the phrase “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” is usually understood by interpreters to be in the sense of a self-examination about the reality of their salvation – theologically-speaking, their positional standing as either true believers or falsely thinking they were saved. More likely it has to do with sanctification – testing themselves to see if they were truly living in a way that exemplified the life of Christ within. That is how they certainly should be living. This is a good test, one that should lead toward corrective modifications.

And Paul moves on to speaking about what was his highest hope as a result of his coming and whatever painful process may ensue: restoration. He desired to see them in right relationship with God, with each other, and with he himself. It would take work and intentional effort, no doubt. And thus he comes right out and says that, even before he arrives, they should “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”  I like that!  Could we just go ahead and use that as a new purpose statement at Tri-State Fellowship?  Let’s head that way!

So, did it work in Corinth?  We don’t know from the letter, but we do know from a passage in Romans that they did work through this process successfully and arrive at a good place as a church community. He spent three months in Corinth during which time he wrote the Romans letter. And in 15:23,24 he said, “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain.”  The Corinthian situation had been successfully dealt with. Restoration achieved.

The work of living together in faith in the church is one that is never fully done. We never completely arrive. There is a continual need to spur one another along toward godliness. There may be some difficult seasons, but if the desire to always work actively toward being in restored relationships is sought, we can successfully deal with our “issues.”  Yes, we got issues, but we’ve got better answers!

2 Corinthians 13:1 – This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” [Deut. 19:15] 2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, 3 since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. 4 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.

5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? 6 And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. 7 Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. 8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9 We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. 10 This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All God’s people here send their greetings.

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

“Longsuffering Love” (2 Corinthians 12:11-21)

Over 20 years ago there was a situation in the church with an individual who was living a dual life. On one hand, this person was valuable in the church for the public ministry skills presented; but on the other hand, this person had a rough edge at times and was known to be living a less than exemplary life out in the world. Soft ways of encouraging and discipling the individual were not entirely rebuffed, but neither were they producing fruit.

Everyone in leadership had come to the point of concluding that strong words were very necessary, likely leading to a break in relationship. That is … everyone but me. Due to my friendship with the person, I was still holding onto hopes that a positive change might yet ensue. It came to a moment where those on the board looked at me with some statements like, “Randy, you have to see that we’ve done everything we can do!  It is time to move on!”

They were correct. It was time. But I was so sad about it and was surely deep into extra-innings extensions of grace. And I think I have generally been that way over the years. I’m usually (though maybe not absolutely always) willing to walk a long way with someone in hopes of restoration. It is kind of a pastor thing, I suppose.

But I have to say, as I look at Paul and the Corinthians, I would have never put up with them so long and gone through all that he did with them and their accusations and ingratitude.

But there really is something good to be said for an extensive display of grace, though it is not worth much unless it is additionally filled with strong communication that is enveloped in love and desire for truth and righteousness to prevail. It is not “loving grace” to allow a person or group of people to continue in sinful and errant ways. Strong words need to be said. And Paul surely was up to this task as well.

He takes the role of a parent here. And he had earned that, as it was descriptive of the relationship he had with them. And a part of this equation was that they did not owe him anything and he would not be looking for anything – the same as in the past. He just wanted to give to them, doing so in genuine love. And through all of this he hoped they would be repentant and that their mutual relationship might be restored as he speaks of what would hopefully be his third trip to visit with them.

Yes, there is a role for longsuffering love. But that love is a verb, not just a noun (this will be a sermon theme in the fall). And love as a verb demands the hard action of genuine conversation about what is not correct in another person’s experience, while also pointing in hope to a better place. It is all a part of being a family together.

2 Corinthians 5:11 – I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. 13 How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!

14 Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? 16 Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! 17 Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not walk in the same footsteps by the same Spirit?

19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. 20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.

“Strength in Weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

(For some reason, this devotional either did not post on Thursday as scheduled or was somehow dropped online.)

I knew a person back in New Jersey who was called of the Lord into ministry, surprising pretty much everyone. He was born illegitimately, with a doctor talking his mother and grandmother out of seeking out an illegal abortion at the well-known place for it at a particular farm along the river. Being adopted into a church-going family, he did meet the Lord through the work of their local church. Getting involved in youth ministry as a teen, he was not one of the boys you’d expect to end up as a pastor … though maybe as a part of the music team … maybe? But he was more than a bit too earthy in speech and over-aggressive in competitive ventures. Yet somehow, while in college, he ended up surprising everyone by excelling in theology and academics, eventually becoming a church pastor.

You get what I did there?  Yes, I talked about myself in a third-person fashion, which is what Paul continues to do as we open today to 2 Corinthians chapter 12. As mentioned yesterday, this passage continues the previous thought – Paul “bragging” about his credentials and experiences that did indeed qualify him over the “super-apostle” frauds who had captured the ears of the Corinthians. And again, we’ll see that these “credentials” were of the sort that demonstrated the reality of Christ’s work in and through Paul – using him in spite of his weaknesses. Only God could do this, therefore Paul was validated by the evidence of this divine strength working through him.

Paul mentions an out of the body experience that he had some 14 years earlier. Not knowing the exact nature of it as technically in the body or out of the body, he knew that it was extraordinary. This was before his missionary travels. We might take from this that it involved a preparatory event for Paul’s years of labors yet ahead – years that would be filled with astonishing experiences requiring an extraordinary endurance beyond the lives of others. Clearly, he was chosen for something very special as an apostle to the Gentiles for the great advance of the gospel worldwide.

In any event, it was amazing. A person chosen for this incredible work and given such incredible conversion and preparatory experiences might have moments where he would begin to think, “I really am a pretty big deal!”  That would be rather natural.

To remedy this tendency, God in grace gave Paul a reminder as to who was actually in charge and making the great things happen. The Apostle called this his “thorn in the flesh.”  Scholars over the years have debated as to what this was. It is rather certain that it involved some sort of physical malady.

A common suggestion is that it was an opthimalic condition that was possibly even a bit grotesque to view. Supporting this is that Paul used others to write his letters, only rarely speaking of something being in his own handwriting in large letters.

Another primary suggestion is that Paul may have had some sort of speech impediment. We’ve read several times in this series about his appearance and oratorical skills not being extraordinary as compared to those especially gifted in this way. Whatever, by natural appearance, he was unimpressive.

The effect of the “thorn” was to keep Paul humble, while also using it to display the power in his words and ministry as sourced in God, not the flesh. It was a principle of life for Paul, that when he was weak, then he became strong IN CHRIST.

There is timeless truth in this big idea for sure. Yes, it is nice for any of us to have natural gifts, whatever they may be. But they aren’t ultimately worth much without the power of God working through them, or better yet, through our weaknesses and frailties. It is therefore a great privilege to be weak and to see God display his strength in and through us.

2 Corinthians 12:1 – I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

“Boasting about Failure” (2 Corinthians 11:16-33)

After having grown up in the same area for the first 22 years and then going off to college, marriage and seminary studies in Texas, at age 28 I returned to my home town as a pastor. We built a home less than a mile from where I grew up, and I began to serve for 11 years in a community where most people remembered me as a child.

I have often joked that, like Jesus, I returned to my home town, but that I actually had more success in preaching than he did in Nazareth!  Here is what happened to Jesus after he preached in his home town: (Luke 4:28-30) All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Hey, nobody did that to me in New Jersey!

For me to (seriously) say that I was more successful than Jesus Christ and that my teaching was more truthfully excellent is as ridiculous as the Corinthians saying that the pseudo-apostles who had come into the church were greater than Paul because they were more slick and outwardly popular. It is valuing appearance over substance, the outward beauty over the inward reality.

If you think about the life of Jesus, though there were moments of apparent success and large crowds at various times (especially when Jesus was doing miracles), ultimately they turned against him and affirmed his crucifixion. That does not appear to be success. He was beaten and reviled.

In our reading today (the thoughts which form a unit with the next passage scheduled for tomorrow), Paul takes on a unique communication device of writing from the perspective of his critics. They considered him a fool and a failure, and so he went along with them to brag about his “failures.”  Yes, he had plenty of rough experiences, even though his genetic and historic credentials as a Jew were as good as any of his critics, likely even superior.

After stating this, he admits that it is certainly true that he has suffered greatly. And he gives a litany of experiences that would have killed almost anyone – beatings, deprivations, enemies and dangers galore! And he adds to this the mental agonies he endured in worrying about what was happening in all the fledgling churches.

He says that this boasting does elevate his weaknesses. But how is that a good thing?  Recalling an early experience that set the standard for the craziness that would mark his like, he reflects on the experience of escaping the city of Damascus in a basket!  It set a tone … a paradigm … that ministry life was going to be rough, but God was going to be faithful in the midst of it all.

This was likewise the story of Christ’s incarnation. His journey was marked with opponents and much suffering of all sorts. It was more often very difficult than it was glorious. It ended on a cross.

So, what is more like Christ: magnificent successes in measurable components of the material world, or identifying with Jesus in a life of suffering in a world hostile to the gospel?

We too are living in a hostile environment, though less than what many fellow Christians experience in remote corners of the earth or what has oft been the common experience of thousands of martyrs over the years. Being hated and reviled should not be a surprise, and it is not a mark of failure. It can even be seen as a success. We might need to remember this more and more as our culture is daily flying off the rails of our Judeo-Christian past.

2 Corinthians 11:16 – I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

“Speaking Jersey” (2 Corinthians 11:1-15)

Did you know that Tarsus – the hometown of the Apostle Paul – was in New Jersey?  I think it had to be, after reading our passage today in 2 Corinthians 11!  This is the way people in Jersey talk to each other – Boom! In your face! Boom! Add in a bit of snark! Then a wisecrack, also with some sarcasm. You build to a climax, and out comes exactly what you think in the bluntest terms imaginable.

Clearly, the Apostle Paul had his fill of hearing about these false teachers and self-proclaimed “super-apostles.”  Again, we can see that they had degraded Paul’s speaking ability as “untrained.” And though that obviously stung, Paul knew he had spoken the truth.

Adding to the annoyance for Paul surrounding all of this was the fact that, unlike these errant opponents, he had not taken money for his services in Corinth. Rather, he was supported from elsewhere.

The church in Corinth was being deceived, illustratively even as Eve was fooled by the serpent in the garden. As in that instance, truth was questioned, and a beguiling substitute was offered. Though the Jesus being taught in Corinth and the gospel being espoused was alleged to be genuine, it was of an entirely different sort. It was categorically wrong.

This rebuke was more than Paul just standing up for himself. It was rather because of the depth and extent of love he had for the Corinthians that he was making these bold statements and categorical denunciations.

And finally, it all comes pouring out. These frauds were false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And beyond that, they were directly connected to their true boss, Satan himself. Like the Evil One’s outwardly beautiful appearance in the garden, they operated with the same modus operandi. The day would come when justice catches up to them.

Because of Paul’s genuine affection for the Corinthians, he needed to stand up, speak Jersey, and call out these jerks for who they really were. And he does.

Every once in a while, it becomes the role of those in leadership in a church to make a strong stand. Yes, we try to model kindness and the longsuffering love of Christ, not answering harsh words and actions with more of the same. But just as Jesus went a bit ballistic in cleansing the Temple one day, there comes a time when, in love, strong words and actions need to be taken to protect the body of Christ. I’ve had to do this on a few occasions. Though from Jersey, I actually don’t like doing it. But it is the correct thing to do in order to protect the dearest thing on earth – God’s program for this dispensation – the Church.

2 Corinthians 11:1 – I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness. Yes, please put up with me! 2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

5 I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”  6 I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. 7 Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so. 10 As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. 11 Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

“Valid Ministry Measurement” (2 Corinthians 10:1-17)

I suppose it happens in a majority of fields of endeavor, not just in church ministry. I’ve been continuously employed in local church work for 40 years, though have on the side dabbled in a few other occupations. And in all of these, I have seen people who really think they know what they are doing but who are in reality far short of their self-evaluation.

I have seen it in my occasional service at Antietam Battlefield. A giant bus filled with high-paying tourists will pull in with a guide from … well … who knows where. They’ll be gathered around this fellow who is speaking in a loud and authoritative voice, but who is boisterously pointing in the wrong direction when describing battle actions and combatants.

I have seen it when coaching runners. A few other teams sported vociferous coaches warming up their athletes in all the wrong ways … with methods that seem correct, but that were counterproductive and even harmful. It was sad to see naturally-gifted athletes decline over the course of a season rather than advance.

And I have so often seen this same thing in the religious world. The most glaring examples are the mega-ministry stars with large media ministries. An inordinate number of these have come crashing down over time. And even on the local level in the places I’ve lived, along comes an exciting preacher dude with energy galore, and people leave churches to flock around him and his upstart ministry. And then something blows up, or the starlet exploits his fast-rising fame to vault himself to a larger ministry in a more prominent place, leaving the people behind to try to hold together a fragile following built more around a personality than the person of Christ.

Paul has saved his most difficult and awkward topic for the final quarter of his letter – the subject of boldly dealing with and confronting the opponents of the apostle and thereby of the truth. They needed to be dealt with and removed; the Corinthians needed to return to the truth that had been the pure gospel message of their salvation.

By measurements of this material world, these self-proclaimed leaders were impressive. They had credentials and a level of excitement beyond what Paul produced. They saw Paul as a weakling – all bark and no bite. They said his speech was unimpressive. Likely these folks were fun to listen to; but likely also, when they got done, you couldn’t actually remember what they taught. They probably had style … likely some great stories as well. It felt good. There was energy. Paul was just a meat and potatoes guy by comparison.

But real growth, not just in numbers and excitement, has to do with people growing in their faith and in their desire to expand the gospel message near and far. It is the stuff of regular faithfulness on a daily basis. It may not be glamorous all the time. But it can be measured by lives changed over a longer period of time. This is the inner work of the Spirit, not the outer work of the flesh.

The work that really counts is that which God commends, not that which simply finds the accolades of the masses. And this quiet, but faithful, service can indeed bring pleasure – the joy (the boasting) of being used by God to do His work in His timing and His way.

The Christian tortoise beats the pseudo-Christian hare … again.

2 Corinthians 10:1 – By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! 2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. 3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.

7 You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. 8 So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. 9 I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11 Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.

12 We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. 14 We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. 15 Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, 16 so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. 17 But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” [from Jer. 9:24] 18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.

“The Zinnia Principle of Giving” (2 Corinthians 9:1-15)

As Paul continues to prod the Corinthians toward making good on their intentions for generously giving toward the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, he elaborates on the benefits of giving toward the Lord’s work. Paul really did believe that the Corinthians were going to be generous and not give merely in a reluctant fashion. And this enthusiasm for giving is the theme of most of chapter nine.

Giving generously is fun!  Really?  Yes!  And Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver.

We need to see the joy in what we give, not thinking about what we’ve lost. Our anticipation should look toward all that will come of the gifts for the advance of the kingdom.

The word for cheerful is hilaros – a Greek root of the word hilarious. It is simply hilarious fun to be a part of something so big as what God is doing in the world.

Giving really is fun. At the Good News Club we do weekly at the Jonathan Hagar Elementary School, I will sometimes stick a mini candy bar in a note or card to one of the kids by slipping it in their school bag or handing it to them on their way out the door. And I look forward to hearing what they’ll say later.

What we get in life is consistent with what we give. Paul teaches that reaping is consistent with sowing.

I was planning all winter to double the size of my garden this year. In the fall I even moved the fence panels in place to be able to do it. But, now it looks like too much work for the time available, so I’ve decided not to do it; and therefore, I’m not going to have a double harvest. It is a principle … sowing sparingly = reaping sparingly.

The idea here from Paul is to state a principle and insure confidence in generosity, not initiate a self-serving motive so that you can get more. This passage is saying that you can trust God to take care of you and meet your needs (not your excessive desires, necessarily).  You simply have no need to worry or hold back from faithful giving.

Over my four decades of pastoral ministry, I have heard thousands of complaints and disappointments from Christian people trying to find their way through a sinful world. Even with the peace of eternal confidence in ultimate salvation, there is sadness in this mortal world. But I have never-ever even once had a person tell me that they regretted giving to God. No person I’ve ever met has said that being generous toward the Lord’s work was the dumbest thing they’ve ever done … though I’ve heard the opposite stated as a life regret!

And then Paul also teaches that sowing and reaping seeds leads to generations of harvests, both to meet one’s own needs and to be able to give away even more.

When growing up in New Jersey (the Garden State!), my father planted zinnia flowers around the edges of our large garden. They’re the most amazing plants. In the fall, after they die off, the flower portions can be taken and stored away for seeds for the next year. Once they dry out, you rub them together and they provide for you literally thousands of seeds to plant. Every year, you just keep getting more and more of them.

And there’s a spiritual principle in this. The picture is of seed >> plant >> more seed >> more plants >> much seed >> many plants, etc., etc.

This is the way the kingdom of God grows. And you can be a part of this, or you can just be a dead-end plant. There won’t be any fruit or praise to God from it. But who knows what can become of your service and seed-planting generosity, as a little bit can go a long way.

2 Corinthians 9:1 – There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people. 2 For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action. 3 But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. 4 For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. 5 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.

6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” [from Psalm 112:9]

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

“Taking Pains about Money” (2 Corinthians 8:16-24)

It has often been said in ministry circles that there are three primary categories of sin and failure that can ruin a spiritual leader and his service: money, sex and power. We have surely seen all three of these play out very publicly in the broader evangelical church in America over recent decades. Moral issues have recently been especially publicized in a whole variety of denominations and churches. And since the beginning of this new year, a very prominent pastor of a large church has been removed because of his over-authoritarian and arrogant way of leading. Regarding money, just Google search “richest pastors” and link after link will come up of the “top ## most ridiculously wealthy pastors in America.”  (I didn’t make the list.)

These sins ruin the lives of more than merely religious leaders, that is for sure. But there is something more shocking about it when servants of God commit these offences, even pilfering money that was given with the intent of “giving it to the Lord” for spiritual work. It is all very sad.

But the allure of money is nothing new. Paul told Timothy to teach – “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Tim. 6:17)  It just is natural to see the possession of money as the possession of security and opportunity. But along with this may come temptation when around a lot of cash in any unaccountable situation.

In the context of the offerings being collected in the Macedonian churches and in Corinth for the purpose of sending it on for the needs in Jerusalem, Paul was acutely aware of the need for secure accountability. Today, this section of chapter 8 addresses this matter. What we have is a letter of commendation of three individuals who will take the gifts to Jerusalem, along with Paul frontally addressing the need for it to all to be done in an openly, honorable fashion that was above reproach. He surely knew that there were opponents in Corinth (and elsewhere) who would like to use this as an opportunity to cast aspersions upon the Apostle.

Paul speaks of the quality of the life of Titus, a man known to the Corinthians already. Not only was he honorable, but of his own initiative he was especially passionate about this particular offering and all that it represented. As well, Paul references two other Godly individuals who would be a part of this effort. They are unnamed, either because they were already known to the Corinthians or that they would be introduced by Titus. In any event, they were highly-regarded in effective ministry and character in Macedonia.

It must have been a difficult and even dangerous undertaking to accomplish this task in that era. It was not like you could put the funds from Thessalonica, Ephesus and Berea in the local branch of the Mediterranean Bank in Macedonia, add to the account in the branch bank in Corinth, and withdraw it from the Jerusalem branch in Palestine.

Recognizing the nature of sinful man, Paul writes a wonderful statement that is timeless in application: For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.

2 Corinthians 8:16 – Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. 17 For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative. 18 And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. 19 What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help. 20 We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. 21 For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.

22 In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you. 23 As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. 24 Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.