"Take Heart"      2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1   June 14, 2009
There are certain books that are known for their first lines. Here's one.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." You got it. Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.
"Life is difficult." These three words will also go down in history as one of the most famous first lines of any nonfiction book. Anyone know where this phrase came from? "Life is difficult" are the opening words of one of the best-selling books of the '80s and '90s: The Road Less Traveled (Scott Peck, 1981).
These first lines came at a time when we were beginning to experience just how difficult life could be from a variety of perspectives. The world “as we knew it” was breaking up, and another world -- the postmodern world -- was being born.
In that one major upheaval (80s & 90s), there was an avalanche of other breakups: our careers, families and ministries were all affected. We began to realize that we were educated to live and move and have our being in a world that no longer existed. Life is difficult, and life hasn't gotten easier.

“Life is difficult” are words Paul could have said many times in his life and ministry. But Paul has more to say than "Life is difficult" . . . To say “life is hard” is only a half-truth; and the problem with any half-truth is the other half. In this case, the better half.

Life Is Difficult, but, God Is Good. Therefore, take heart for God is with you.
As Paul wrote to the various struggling Christian he urged them time and again not to "lose heart." Persecuted by Jews, ridiculed by pagans, often misunderstood by new believers, Paul refused to "lose heart." Sometimes it seems the worse things got for Paul, the more reasons he found to "take heart".
In 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (which precedes today's reading) Paul admits to having felt "afflicted," "perplexed," "persecuted" and "struck down" -- yet the apostle's heart remains intact, even cheerful.

What sorts of things cause us to "lose heart" today? Few of us ever face the kind of intense persecution Paul and other first-century Christians experienced -- yet our spirits sag and drag about as if our life and faith were oppressive burdens.

Fear is one of the biggest causes for heart-less-ness today. Some of us fear where we live -- crime is everywhere and seems to know no boundaries. How can we feel safe when children are armed with guns? Fear robs us of any sense of security in our lives, and w/o security our spirits get sick. All our high-tech security systems, electronic bugs and beepers don't seem to be able to keep crime at bay. Slowly, we lose heart--if left to ourselves.

We also "lose heart" because we lack confidence in ourselves, our abilities, our worth. We feel small and insignificant compared to the global problems, the worldwide crises that are beamed into our living room on the news each night. Our sense of purpose (and desire to do something) is stunted with fearful thinking. Without confidence to take heart, it falls flat.

Paul knew the kinds of fears and disappointments, rejections and defeats his early Christian brothers and sisters were facing. He knew from personal experience the kind of heart sickness that could develop from a steady diet of persecution, betrayal and failure. When Paul counsels his fellow Christians in his letters not to "lose heart," he does so knowing he has found the perfect protection from "heart failure" -- faith in Jesus Christ.

The most common way we lose heart is by fixing our gaze on the externals, the "outer nature" as Paul calls it, of our lives. If Paul had trusted in the physical, transitory things in life, he too would have lost heart.
Instead, the apostle experienced his world on two levels at once -- the outer world and the inner world. The outer world was the place of conflict and despair, persecution and pain. Paul's "outer nature" necessarily had to live there -- suffering and deprivation are real, and, like Paul, we live in the midst of them.

But these are all external to our heart of faith. Paul could take heart, because he knew nothing external could harm his inner nature. The inner nature in Paul was Christ himself. Growing in Christ for Paul was a process that continued throughout a Christian's life, a process not complete until the whole "inner nature" is filled with Christ.
How did Martin Luther put it?

"And tho this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo his doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him."

Paul could not lose heart because at the center of his being, there was Christ. No matter what kind of fears assaulted( or doubts assailed) him in the outer world, the Christ within was "renewed day by day" and ever growing stronger.
In a sense, Paul considered the nature of the outside world somewhat of a "conditioning center" – where by the "momentary afflictions" buildt him up in preparation for the "eternal weight of glory."
Karl Bart puts it this way, “The Easter message tells us that our enemies -- sin, the curse and death -- are beaten. Ultimately, they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more.” ( Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), 123.)
This is exactly what Paul and Luther were convinced of that gave them the power to proclaim God’s word boldly against opposition.
We don't lose heart because of the "weight of glory." The "gravity of grace" does not flatten us out -- it buoys us up. In every instance where the world tells us it is time to give up, throw in the towel, forget it, lose heart -- the spirit of Christ within us takes hold and takes heart.

The writer of Hebrews defines faith as the ability to see the invisible in the visible, the eternal in the earthly. On Earth, where we are "strangers and foreigners," life is difficult. But “take heart,”  God is good:
We have a "heavenly homeland" or "city" where Jesus' disciples really belong, and toward which we journey. Life is difficult: We live in a world of unfulfilled promises and realities. But God is good: We journey toward a future where God's design for creation will be fulfilled.
Do all of your long-range plans seem to be turning into short- range disaster?
Take heart: For "it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry."
--2 Corinthians 4:1

Do things around you seem to be going from bad to worse?
Take heart: For "our inner nature is being renewed day by day."
--2 Corinthians 4:16

Do you feel as if you have nothing to show for all your efforts?
Take heart: For "we will reap at harvest-time."
--Galatians 6:9

Do you feel as if the weight of the world rests on your shoulders?
Take heart: For Christ "endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart."
--Hebrews 12:3
. . . In all these things, we are more than overcomers . . . I like how William Barclay puts it,
“No man need fear the years, for they bring him nearer, not to death, but to God.”

We may be sore pressed, but not hemmed in.
We may be at our wit's end but never at our hope's end.
We may be persecuted by humans, but never abandoned by God.
We may even get knocked down but not knocked out.
Paul’s resiliency came from knowing that in Christ, we have the ultimate victory.
"The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). Can there be any more incredible words in the Bible than these? Any more encouraging words than these? A greater blessing than these?
"Things" don't just happen.
Faith makes things happen.
Prayer makes things happen.
Love makes things happen.
Hope makes things happen.
Take Heart!
Let us pray: . . .
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
  June 2021  
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