2 Corinthians 4:7-18 with Philippians 4:4-7
Last in the series “Laughing with God”
In the days of sailing ships, a terrible storm arose and a ship was lost in a deserted area. A lone surviving sailor washed upon an uninhabited island. In his desperation, he prayed daily for God to help and rescue him, but he never once saw a passing ship. Over time, he built a crude hut and stored a few items he recovered from the wreck.
One day, as the sailor was returning to his hut after searching for food, he saw a column of smoke. As he ran, he saw his hut in flames. All was lost. Now not only was he alone, but he had nothing to help him in his struggle to survive. Shocked and overcome with despair, he spent a sleepless night wondering what would happen to him and questioning whether life was even worth living.
What’s your reaction? That poor survivor – what bad luck! He can’t possibly go on, can he? He’s frustrated and hopeless, feeling like all his efforts have been for nothing. Even though we’re not stuck on a deserted island, maybe some of us can relate to his feelings. Is there any reason to hope? This sounds like a “glass-half-empty” situation.
Often in life, we experience circumstances that are unexpected, unforeseen, unfortunate, tragic, even just plain wrong. We sometimes default to a negative outlook on them.
But I wonder: But what if we did not label present circumstances or situations when things do not go our way? How would our mental health be in the present if we didn’t hurriedly stamp things in our present or our past? Rather than simply complaining or being negative about a present moment, what would it mean for us to encounter every circumstance in life as having the possibility of something good to result?
One of the faithful figures of the New Testament and leaders of the Christian faith who knew suffering and hardships was the Apostle Paul. He wrote many of the letters in the New Testament showing how he saw God at work in the world. He carried the message of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, including modern day Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Italy. He knew his road in his life and ministry would be rocky and difficult. Yet he shows that our present circumstances are fooled.
Our text today comes from the letter known as 2 Corinthians. In the book of Acts in the Bible, chapter 18, we read about Paul’s ministry in Corinth. He went there and established a church. However, leaders among the Jewish community complained about Paul to the Roman ruler.
By the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians, other Christian missionaries and teachers had come through saying that Paul was not a real apostle and therefore, his ministry was illegitimate. In chapter 11 of 2 Corinthians, he listed the suffering he faced in his ministry, as a way to defend himself, basically saying, “If I were a fake, would I have endured all of this?” There, in verses 22-33, he catalogs what he’s experienced:
His list included: getting 39 lashes five times; beaten with rods, three times; stoned, once; flogged countless times; jailed too many times; shipwrecked, three times; all kinds of dangers; and on top of that, anxiety for all of his churches every day.
What a rough life Paul had, and all because of the good news of Jesus Christ! As I stand before you today, I don’t know if I could ever endure such suffering. Do you think you could? It had to be overwhelming, all too much to bear. It would be natural for someone in Paul’s situation to look at these struggles and be discouraged and depressed, feel forgotten and want to give up.
How you and I look at our present sufferings can make a huge difference in our lives. We see it all the time. We dwell on our past circumstances, sinking into despair, and that colors the way we look at our present circumstances. Our life feels and seems hopeless. We lose our sense of joy and purpose. We become cynical. Sometimes people in this place in life walk away from anything that is good and beneficial in life, convinced that they somehow don’t deserve the good and must deserve all the challenges they’ve faced. They engage in self-defeating and self-damaging behavior.
Let’s pick up the story of that poor, stranded sailor. The next morning, he went down to the sea, and there, to his amazement, he saw a ship offshore and a small boat rowing toward him. When the now-rescued sailor asked the captain how he had known to send help, the captain answered, “We saw your smoke signal yesterday, so we came as quickly as we could to find you.”
Sometimes our limited vision prevents us from seeing possibility in tough situations. But God rows into the isolated and dark places of our lives. God rescues us in our despair and offers unfailing hope so that we can face the present and the future unafraid.
In our passage today, Paul offers another summary of his struggles and suffering that doesn’t go into a negative attitude. He wrote:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (4:8-10, emphasis added)
How could he experience all these hard things and not feel crushed, despairing, forsaken or destroyed? Paul knew that God took the initiative to reach to us through Jesus Christ. God laughed out our present circumstances of being separated by sin and despair. And Paul knew that God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us to new eternal life and hope. So Paul could laugh with God at this present circumstances in life and trust that God was at work in the midst of every to redeem the moment for God’s glory.
Therefore, when he was later in a Roman jail knowing that he would likely face execution, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Philippi that brings with joy and hope. Near the end of the letter, he wrote:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Because of his life in Christ, Paul knew and experienced joy that the Bible describes. In Proverbs 17:22, we read, “A joyful heart helps healing, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” We’ve all seen and experienced hardships as part of our journey in this world. But the way we face those hardships can bring about healing or dry up our lives.
There is a moment in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah when the people have returned from exile and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. A priest and scribe named Ezra read the Law of God to the Jews gathered, and when they heard it, they began to weep, because they recognized how they had fallen short. But the governor Nehemiah told them, ““Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Hopefully this April has turned you into a fool. A fool for Christ who laughs with God at life. We laugh with God at death because Christ overcame death. We can laugh at the impossible because we know that with God, all things are possible. We laugh at our legalistic efforts to earn God’s love, when we realize it’s a free gift of grace. We laugh at our notions of stuffy respectability and become fools for God. And we can laugh with God at life and all its circumstances, because we remember that Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The word “might” suggests that abundant life is ours if we choose. It’s a choice that leads us out of emptiness and despair into a life overflowing with joy. Go and laugh with God.