Sunday, June 25, 2000

2 Corinthians 4:5-12 - “Down But Not Out”

Pentecost 2 (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, June 22, & Sunday, June 25, 2000
First sermon at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Manitowoc; first sermon after being ordained

I have dreamt of this sermon for a long time. Ever since I started thinking about going to the Seminary during my freshman year of college, I have thought about what this sermon would be like, the first sermon at the church that had called me to be pastor. Oh, I preached during my time at the Seminary, and I preached on vicarage, but this is the sermon I thought about. I had always wondered what stories I would tell about myself so that you would get to know me, learn about my life.

But as I thought about that and read the Scripture passages for this the second week after Pentecost, St. Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians really struck me. I realized that you did not call me to preach stories about myself. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love to tell stories, and I will use stories that are about my life in my sermons. But if I ever let those stories become the sermon, please stop me. If I tell stories, they should only be to help you understand the Scriptures. But in reading Paul’s words, I realized that the stories I had wanted to tell you were all to make myself look good, look great.

Paul did not preach about himself. He did not tell countless stories about himself to make himself look great. He only preaches about Jesus Christ as Lord.

However, Paul does clearly say that he has faith in Christ. It is at this point that we might think that he is going to start preaching about himself. Yet, even when Paul talks about his faith, he talks about how God gave him the faith, it is not his own. Then he says that he keeps this treasure, the treasure of faith, in a jar of clay. While God had given him a wonderful treasure of faith, Paul is still just a jar of clay, fragile, easily broken, sinful, dying. Paul is not going to brag in himself or his faith. Paul does not want to cover up his brokenness, sinfulness. Paul doesn’t want to fool anyone into thinking he is something that he is not. Paul doesn’t want to lie.

And he doesn’t want us to miss the best part. Paul is broken, persecuted, put into prison, cast down, tempted, in many difficulties, tormented, dying. He is down but not out. Paul doesn’t want anyone to miss the fact that he has hope when there is no hope. He is down but not out, because Christ was down but not out. Christ was nailed down to the cross, put down into the tomb, but don’t count Him out, because Christ had victory over death. That same victory is Paul’s victory.

So the dying you see in Paul works life in us. That’s how this passage ends with such a strange statement. How can death in Paul work life in us? Because to see that Paul can have hope in the face of all the terrible things he is going through is to give us hope as well. If Paul can have hope in Christ in the face of death, well, that means we can have that same hope. To see that Paul is down but not out, means that we can know that we are down but not out. The death in Paul works life in us.

That’s the best part; that’s what Paul doesn’t want us to miss. That’s why Paul doesn’t tell stories about himself to make himself look great. He doesn’t want to make himself out to be a jar of steel, something invicible, because why would we care then that he had faith. Sure, Paul, if you’re invicible, it is easy for you to have faith, you have nothing to fear. If Paul hid his fragile, broken nature, then it could not encourage us and give us hope. But Paul doesn’t hide it. He is down but not out, and he is going to make sure that we know that he is down, living by a hope that comes from God.

So I too realize that if I told you stories that made myself look great, it would do you no good. Sure, Pastor Squires, it is easy for you to have faith, because your life is so great. You tell us about your great life all of the time. What about us who have to struggle with sin, sickness and death? If I preached about myself and made myself look great, it would do you no good.

I too want to show you my death. I do not want to hide my brokenness. I do not want to hide my sinfulness. I am a jar of clay. I come to you making many mistakes in life. I have hurt people along the way. I do not always handle arguments well. I do not always make Christ first in my life. I come to you under the persecution and temptation of Satan who just in these first 10 days of ministry tempts me with thoughts like, “If only you weren’t a preacher, you could do this.” I come to you broken, sinful, tempted, dying, down but not out. I do not want to hide the fact that I am a jar of clay, because I do not want to hide the best part from you: I am down but I am not out.

I come also having received the gift of faith. God has enlightened my heart with the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. In Christ, we see God’s glory, that He would come and suffer and die for us in order that we might have salvation. God has given me faith; this is not from my own. I have hope when there is no hope. I am down but I am not out. I want you to see in me the dying of Christ so that you might see the hope in His death, so that death would work life in you.

So now I turn to look at you—jars of clay, one and all. You before me are a dying crowd. There is brokenness here, sinfulness, disease, decay. You are under the persecution of Satan for your faith; you are wearing the cross of Christ.

And in that I see life.

Do not hide your brokenness from me. Oh, I want us all to turn away from sin. By the power of the Holy Spirit, I want us all to learn more and more each day how to live as God’s children.

But do not lie. You are sinners. Don’t try to hide that from me. I see already that there are broken things around here, broken on the outside, a community where everyone does not know Christ, and broken on the inside, a congregation like all other congregations of Christ where we forget that we know Christ. Because in seeing your brokenness, how you are cast down by life but not destroyed, by seeing the death of Jesus in you, I see life. The death of Jesus in you works life in me. I see that you are a jar of clay with a treasure from God, the treasure of faith inside of you. I see that you are down but not out. I see that you have a wondrous hope, a hope for eternal life, a hope to be in the light of Christ when before there is only this dark world. I see life here at Redeemer. If you can have hope and faith in the midst of you struggles, then I too can have that same hope for eternal life even when my own life gets me down.

I see life in this broken vessel. I see the hope that you have in Christ, a hope that we can share with others. When people come to us saying that they feel as if life has got them down and out, we can say that they might be down but they are not out. We can show them our fragile, broken, dying bodies and say, “In Christ, I have life.”

If someone came and stood at the back of the sanctuary who did not know anything about Christ or the church, and they saw us here before this altar where we say that God’s presence is, and then heard us talking about how God demands righteousness and does not tolerate sin, and then saw us stand in this very place and say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner,” well, that person in the back of the sanctuary would like we were crazy. Why would you admit that you are sinners? You know God doesn’t like sinners. But it is then that that person would realize that we have a hope that is not from ourselves, a hope for eternal life that comes from God. We come to God admitting that we are jars of clay, because He has given us a treasure of faith, a salvation which is more sure than trying to hide our sinfulness. That person at the back of the sanctuary would see death in us and it would work life in them.

So may we in our ministry together not hide our dying, so that we might show the life of Christ to others. May our ministry together be down but not out. May others always see in us the hope of eternal life, a hope in the face of death. May my preaching not be about myself but always about Jesus Christ as Lord, and may that always be our message: that Jesus Christ has saved us from being down and out and has given us the hope of salvation. Amen.