Since 1971, America has set aside the last Monday in May as a federal holiday to recognize and honor those who have given their lives in service to their nation. From Arlington National Cemetery to local graveyards throughout the country, the number of those who have paid the ultimate price to protect our lives and freedoms is staggering. (Estimates place the total at over 1.1 million.) Which begs the question; why do people volunteer to serve in the armed forces, when they know full well that there is a very good chance that they might come home in a flag-draped casket? It’s naïve to think that every volunteer enters the military because of fierce patriotism and love of country – although there are many who do. In years past, many didn’t have a choice – they were drafted. There are others who join to take advantage of the GI Bill to pay for school, some volunteer because they desire the structure and discipline and purpose the military offers, and still others enlist simply because they don’t know what else to do. Whatever the motivation, every enlistee must weigh the long-term benefits against the short-term risks: college aid, structure, discipline, a regular paycheck against leaving behind family and friends and the real possibility of physical or psychological trauma or death. This morning Paul leads us to place more than just a career path in the scales to be weighed, he urges us to weigh our entire lives in God’s scales.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is largely a defense of his ministry over and against some false ‘super-apostles.’ Apparently one of the accusations these false apostles leveled against Paul and his coworkers was that they couldn’t possibly be genuine servants of God because to all appearances, God had abandoned them. And to all appearances, they were right. Paul and his companions faced hardship everywhere they went. Later in the letter Paul lists the afflictions he faced; he had been stoned and imprisoned, shipwrecked three times, he experienced hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness and danger and death. (2 Corinthians 11:23-33) To all the world it seemed as if God was against, not with Paul. The Christians in Corinth were being tempted to turn away from the Gospel Paul had preached – a Gospel of cross and crown; to a false gospel that promised health and wealth and success right here and now.
The words before us are Paul’s defense of his Gospel ministry. He says: It is written: “I believed, therefore I have spoken.” With the same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak. Why would anyone follow and preach Christ when it often leads to hardship and suffering? Paul quotes the Psalm we sang earlier, Psalm 116. Paul didn’t preach Christ because it made life easy and enjoyable; he preached Christ because he believed the Gospel’s promises. That’s the first point we always need to remember as we face suffering for Jesus’ sake – God’s love and mercy are not found by sight – in our outward circumstances – but by faith in his promises. Paul was a living testimony to this; so are we. If someone walked into church this morning and looked around, what will they see? Fantastically wealthy, healthy, successful and happy people? Or people who are pressed on every hand by the anxieties of life, who suffer through poor health, financial struggles, family conflict and emotional trials? They may question what we’re doing here since following Christ doesn’t seem to offer many earthly, tangible benefits. And what would our answer be? You’re right! You have nailed the Christian faith on the head! The primary promise of the Gospel is not to give us earthly benefits now (although we can all testify that God has blessed us far beyond anything we deserve) but the certainty of forgiveness and peace with God now and life with him forever.
We can be sure of this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. On the last Sunday in Easter, it’s fitting that Paul one more time centers our hope and faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s confidence and our confidence is not in what we see in our lives, but what Jesus did in his life. He was born in Bethlehem as our divine and human substitute. He grew in wisdom and stature before God and men. He obeyed God’s will perfectly in our place. He suffered rejection, temptation, hunger and loneliness – but he never doubted God’s love. And at the end of it he shouldered our sins; sins of doubt and complaining and discontent with what God gives us and how he leads us – and he carried it to the cross where he endured the cursed death and punishment of hell we deserved. What did it all mean? What impact does Jesus’ death have on us? On Memorial Day weekend, we find the answers to those questions in a tomb. Only unlike every other tomb on earth, this one is empty. The empty tomb proves that Jesus has earned the righteousness we lack before God, and gives it to us through faith. The empty tomb proclaims real peace that no human army has ever achieved: the end of the war between God and man. The empty tomb proves that because Jesus’ precious blood is covering our sin on the scales of God’s justice, we don’t have to fear anything because no hardship, no sickness, no financial distress – not even sin and death – can separate us from God’s love. The empty tomb gives us courage to face whatever life throws at us because we know that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will kick open our tombs and raise us to life, too!
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. Christians are sometimes characterized as being so doped up on religion that they are detached from reality. But Paul didn’t deny or ignore the ugly realities of life. He owned the fact that he experienced more pain than pleasure, received more hostility than praise, in following Christ he was content to shoulder the cross before receiving the crown. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12) Any form of Christianity that preaches glory and success here and now is not really Christianity. Any Christianity that does not confess with Paul that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22) is actually a religion of Satan.
We don’t have to look very far to find confirmation that Christians are wasting away, either, we only have to look in the mirror. We may not face starvation and nakedness like Paul did, but setting aside our first and best every week for God’s kingdom while balancing the mortgage payment, education expenses, food, childcare, retirement – all while fighting against the sins of worry and greed – is a lifelong battle. God has not called us to risk our lives traveling the world to preach Christ, but he has called us; he has called us to be children and parents, spouses and employees, friends and neighbors, church members and citizens; and every one of those callings demands sacrifice in one way or another, it demands that we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus. We may not be whipped or stoned for our faith, but we do live in a society that mocks our faith, with coworkers and friends who distort our faith, family members who have drifted from faith, and Satan plants doubts in our own hearts about our faith. God has not given us a definite thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) to keep us humble, but when, like Hannah, our bodies don’t work as God intended, when we have to carry around a bottle of oxygen, when bikes and fishing poles are replaced by canes and walkers, when we visit the pharmacy as regularly as the grocery store, when we need glasses and contacts just to be able to see, hearing aids so we can hear, crowns and dentures to be able to eat we are humbled because we see that we are wasting away. Satan loves to pile those hardships on the scale and point to the aches and pains and stresses and sorrows and lead us to think: “God doesn’t care about you, he’s abandoned you; just give up, it’s not worth it.” But when those temptations come – and they will come – don’t deny the reality of hardship, embrace it like Paul did. Embrace it by throwing away the scale that our world uses to measure life – the scale that measures everything by what we can see, by how much we have or how much we have lost – and measure your life on the only truly accurate set of scales – God’s set.
Yes, outwardly you are wasting away – but inwardly [you] are being renewed day by day. How? That butterfly on the banner didn’t begin life looking light and beautiful. It started out as an ugly, hairy caterpillar that one day crawled into a cocoon and to all appearances died. Paul says the same is true of believers. When the signs of age begin to appear in our bodies and minds, it becomes clear that the threat of the Law is real, that the soul who sins is the one who will die. (Ezekiel 18:20) Because we sin, we will die; the only question is when. These bodies belong to a world that is infected with the terminal disease of sin. Our only hope is in God’s promise to renew us through the resurrection. In a very real way, this lifetime is preparation for eternal life. And that truth gives us the right perspective. It keeps us from falling for the world’s lie that we can achieve immorality for ourselves in the sense that given enough time, money, and ingenuity we can conquer any disease and even death. If we fall for that lie, we will find our lives and our faith tied to this body and this world. But when this body breaks down, we are forced to run back to God, to trust his promises, to commit ourselves to his care. That’s how, even as our bodies waste away, our real life, our faith is renewed and restored day by day.
Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (Not that trouble earns us eternal glory, but that God uses trouble like a knife to cut one cord after another that holds us to this earth and its glory.) Just as those who join the military have determined that the benefits outweigh the risks, so Paul says that on God’s scales, the scales that weigh life not in terms of momentary pain and pleasure but in terms of eternity, the troubles we experience now cannot even compare to the glory that awaits us. What are 70 or 80 or 90 years of pain and disappointment in this world compared with thousands upon thousands of years in heaven where [God himself] will wipe every tear from [your] eyes [and] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away? (Revelation 21:4)
And so, with Paul we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. It really is all about Easter. It’s all about believing that Jesus died but God raised him to life. It’s about focusing not on the hardship we see, but on the tomb where we don’t see Jesus’ living body and our tomb which God will empty one day. When you look at life from that eternal perspective, you can see how God uses trouble now to prepare you for eternal glory.
So as you weigh the purpose and meaning and direction of your life – make sure you’re using the right set of scales. The hardships may seem to outweigh the pleasant times in life – don’t deny it, embrace it; because that puts you on the same path that countless believers – including Paul and Christ himself – walked before you. Weigh life on God’s scales and you will see that our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So our prayer is not only “Lord, take away my troubles,” but “Lord, take me away from this troubled world.” And come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.