Charles Spurgeon was once asked to preach in a church where the people did not like long sermons. Knowing what he was like, someone warned him before the service started that if he was still speaking at midday, most of the congregation would simply get up and walk out. He started his sermon like this:
'Friends! I have two messages to give today: one for the saints, and one for the sinners. Firstly, my message to the sinners is...' and he preached on. At 12 o'clock, he announced, '... and that concludes my message to the sinners. All sinners present may now depart, for what I have to say now concerns only the saints.' And everyone remained sitting through the second half of his sermon.
In a similar way, I have come tonight with two messages: one for the people who sail through life, those who are without a care in the world, free of all problems and difficulties, and one message for everyone else.
The message for those who sail through life all calm and untroubled is this: please be gentle with the rest of us. As you might have guessed, the second message is slightly longer.
Most of us, when we are honest, have to admit we sometimes find that life, even as a Christian, is difficult. Do you find unexpected problems facing you at every turn? Do friends let you down? Do people you thought you could trust betray that trust? Do long cherished plans have to get changed or laid aside at the last minute? Have you ever found - at last! - a place where you could minister effectively, and then discovered you had no peace there?
All these things have featured in my life, and some are continuing to appear. The Apostle Paul suffered from all of them. If this is true of you also, then the first thing to say is: don't worry.
Many christians react when problems and difficulties arise by feeling guilty. 'I must be doing something wrong. God is obviously not blessing me. They have the idea that if you are really spiritual and in tune with God, then you should be serene and untroubled in all circumstances.
Now, I am not trying to suggest that it is wrong to be serene and untroubled - simply that you should not expect it all the time. Look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as He wrestles in prayer. Look at Paul pouring his heart out in letter after letter to all those stupid churches. They did not have serene, untroubled lives, and if we are to follow in their footsteps, neither shall we.
We know that Paul suffered all the things I described earlier. Many of them are mentioned in the first two chapters of his second letter to the Corinthians. Please, make time to read them. Notice that Paul does not ask why he is suffering all these frustrations and let-downs. He knew that God's grace is given, not to enable us to avoid difficulties, but to enable us to overcome them.
2 Corinthians chapter 4 has a special place in my affections. It was the passage that God used twelve years ago to change my life. And, though I did not realise it at the time, the very first verse explained what He was doing and why. 'Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.'
'We have this ministry.' What ministry? It is described back in chapter 3, verse 6. Paul explains that God 'has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant' - a covenant which is not 'of the letter', which is not legalistic and dead, but one which 'is of the Spirit' because 'the Spirit gives life.'
Was Paul unique in being called to this ministry? Of course not! Did this ministry die out with the early Church? No. Is this ministry of the new covenant restricted today to full time Christian workers, Priests, Missionaries and Evangelists? No, no, no.
We are all called by God to serve - that's what the word 'minister' means - to serve a dying world. We are all called to be ministers of the new covenant. To show by our lives and explain by our words that there is a better way to live, that God's grace is more than sufficient, if only people will receive it.
We have this ministry. How? Because God has made us competent. Not because we are clever enough or strong enough or holy enough, but because God has done everything required to make us competent as ministers of the new covenant. You may not feel that this is the case, but God has done it nonetheless.
We have this ministry, therefore we do not lose heart. From a human point of view, what an odd thing to say! Humanly speaking, we might say that because the need is so great and the job is so big, our hearts sink whenever we consider it. So why does Paul say the opposite?
Firstly, when God gave us this ministry, He gave us all we needed for it. This is a truth repeated time and time again in the Bible: the passage already quoted in the previous chapter says that our competence comes from God. Or, from 2 Peter 1:3, His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.
Secondly, we do not lose heart because we have this ministry. The need is great and our resources may seem small, but at least there is something we can do. Our part may be small, but each one of us has a part, and large or small, each part is essential. I cannot do everything that needs to be done, but I can do something. And if I play the part God is calling em to play, then I can leave in His hands all the other equally important things I have not been called to do.
And, thirdly, we do not lose heart because this ministry we have been given gives our lives purpose and direction. We are not aimlessly filling in time by singing hymns until we are called up to Heaven. No there is a work which God is calling us to do on this Earth. And this work gives our lives shape and direction.
Remember: the context is that Paul has been suffering all kinds of difficulties, dangers and frustrations. But suffering alone is not destructive. Think of the athlete straining to win a race: his body may be in agony, but there is nothing destructive about that agony. Think of the farmer, out in the fields all day, struggling to get the crop in before the weather turns: by the end of the day every muscle is aching, and there is nothing wrong with that.
No, what is destructive is pointless suffering. The suffering that seems to be caused by random chance - that is what we have difficulty in coping with. Like the road crash earlier this week, or when Sue and I lost the baby. It seems so pointless. And the answer, or a part of the answer, is to affirm that it is not pointless: God knows what He is doing.
Of course, He did not make it happen. But, at least, He permitted it, and He must have permitted it for a reason. We may not know what that reason is in this life, but the reason is there,and that is what matters.
In general, Paul saw very clearly that the suffering he went through was a part of the cost of the ministry he was involved in. Like the rest of us, he could not always see it straight away, and that is what the 'thorn in the flesh' passage later on in chapter 12 of this book is at least partly about - Paul receiving the revelation that the suffering he was experiencing was related to his work and ministry. Is that a revelation some of us here also need to receive?
So we do not lose heart when we suffer because we have been called to exercise a ministry, and that ministry involves spiritual warfare, and any form of conflict produces suffering. Suffering is, if you like, a part of our job, just as it is for the athlete and the farmer.
Now, you might think we have exhausted verse one, but there is one small point remaining. It is by God's mercy that we have this ministry. God does not need me, or you, or any of us.
God did not send an evangelist to meet Saul on the road to Damascus, He went and did the job Himself. He could, if He chose, do the same for everyone. But He chooses instead, to rely on us. He chooses to raise us up to the status of co-workers with Him. This is an expression, not of His need, but of His mercy.
He knows that we need to be needed. And, in his mercy, He makes Himself dependent upon our obedience.
It is important you understand this. Alan, our son, has reached a helpful stage. Everything I do, he wants to help. So when we can, we let him. He carries cups through to the kitchen. He puts rubbish in the bin. We think of things to do so he can help with them. It is great fun, it is a Source of immense pleasure and delight, and it is essentially a game. It does not matter. If Alan does not bring a cup through to the kitchen, Sue or I will do it.
But God does not play games with us. To use the analogy, if we do not bring the cup through to the kitchen, it stays where it is. The jobs He gives us are for real : if we don't do them, they don't get done. He takes us seriously. Maybe sometimes, we need to learn to take ourselves and the ministry He has given us more seriously.
So this is another reason why we do not lose heart. It is not simply my life and my ministry at issue. If I lose heart and fail to exercise the ministry God has given, God Himself suffers. His plans and desires are frustrated. And the people He has chosen to touch and bless through me remain untouched and unblessed. We do not lose heart because there is too much at stake, because it matters to God that we remain faithful.
I had hoped to speak on this whole passage, but most of it will have to wait. Instead, let us skip down to the end: verses 7-12. (Read them).
There are three final points that need to be made.
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Why? Because that is fundamental to the way God works.
When you were saved, what happened? You committed your life to Jesus, you received eternal life, the Holy Spirit came to dwell within you. Life changing events, but your outside appearance probably remained pretty much the same. Old friends might have recognised there was something different about you, but at least they recognised who you were.
On the inside, you were a new person, but on the outside you were unchanged. Today, if you are a christian, you have at your fingertips the all-surpassing power of God. You carry the presence of God wherever you go. If others could see that, the people you pass in the street would fall down and worship you. If they knew the power at your disposal, the richest and most powerful man in the world would Serve you in fear and trembling.
Of course, that is absurd. You and I know we are just ordinary people. What we do not know, what we do not real ise most of the time, is the incredible treasure we carry around in our ordinary jars of clay. God's wisdom keeps the jars looking and feeling ordinary, so that nobody will get confused between us and the glory we have been given.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
Don't expect to be in a constant state of victory. Or, rather, understand the nature of the victory we have been allowed to share. It is the victory of the cross. It is a strange victory, in the eyes of the world, to die in shame and agony.
And through Christ's victory on the cross, we have been given the ability to persevere. So whatever the world throws at us, we can take it and remain undefeated.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body. So, then death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
The only path to resurrection goes through death. This is, of course, central to the meaning of baptism: if you want to be resurrected, you must first die and be buried.
It is amazing the number of christians who want to share the resurrection life of Jesus, but who are not prepared to share His death. I do not know what carrying around in your body the death of Jesus will mean for you. What I do know is that if you wish to be spiritually fruitful, you must embrace the cross. You must be prepared to die whenever and wherever God tells you.
This brings us full circle. We started with Paul's sufferings and saw that he did not allow than to make him lose heart or hinder his minsitry. And we have finished by seeing that death and suffering, which is a part of death, are essential parts of an effective ministry.
I will not pretend that this has been easy. Much of what has been said will not be directly for you tonight. But something will be. So I would ask you to be silent for a few moments, and allow Father to speak into your heart the words He wants you to take away.