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October 27, 2019 Sermon

“Poured Out, Used Up, Forgotten, Crowned in Glory”

Old Testament Scripture: Joel 2:23-32

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

New Testament Scripture: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: “Poured Out, Used Up, Forgotten, Crowned in Glory”

Rev. David Hawkins

Have you ever had one of those days? You know, the kind of day when you can’t get anything done, when the fates conspire against you? My dad used to call this being out of sync, where you need to bale the hay because it’s at the peak of dryness, and the baler throws a plunger arm, and you need to go to town and get a new one, and on the way down, the car gets a flat tire, and after you change the tire, you arrive at Western Implement just to realize you left your wallet at home, so you go home to your wallet, and you go back to the store, and pick up the part, take it out to the field, and discover that they have given you the wrong part, and now it’s starting to rain. That kind of day. Out of sync.

The Apostle Paul has had a long string of these kinds of days, days where everything seems to go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. One of the most poetic descriptions of hardship I’ve ever heard is from Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians where he is comparing himself to some false evangelists that are causing problems for him. He says that he has been subject to much greater hardships,

“with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

And today, Paul again is detailing his not very fun life, especially now, in prison, deserted, alone, facing execution. While most of Paul’s writings are difficult to date, tradition holds that this is the last letter Paul wrote before he died, so his fears are not exaggerated. He is weak, tired, and about to be killed. He has every right to be a little depressed, maybe even a little winey. He has lived his whole life in service to God, and has dedicated the later part of his life to Jesus Christ, and now he finds himself with nothing to show for it.

Paul would make a terrible prosperity gospel preacher.

And this is why I have such a problem with the prosperity gospel. It’s a gospel that preaches that if you have enough faith, if you live life right, pray right, God can’t help but bless you with riches, good health, happiness, however you define blessing, you will get it, if you believe hard enough. And even worse, it teaches that if bad things do happen to you, you didn’t pray hard enough, or someone in your prayer circle isn’t praying hard enough on your behalf.

But Paul’s life and writings completely throw this idea out on the garbage heap. Paul doesn’t, not for moment think that he is in jail because God is punishing him for some sort of sin, or that if he had just had a better prayer life, he would be released from prison with a ticker tape parade. No, Paul is where he is, experiencing what he is experiencing, and he doesn’t blame God or himself. It is what it is, and if be God’s will that he is released and survived to fight again, so be it. If not, he has run the race with grace and truth, and is ready to face his maker. He knows that there is no deal he needs to make, no tit for tat, no quid pro quo. He has lived his life as well as he could, and now, it appears that it is coming to an end, and he is ready for that.

And you know what? We don’t like that. We don’t like the fact that our actions count for nothing when it comes to God’s favor. That our good clean living doesn’t guarantee wealth or happiness, or long life. We don’t like it that bad things happen to good people, or that good things happen to bad people. It’s not fair. It’s not just. It seems like God doesn’t care about how hard we’ve tried to be good, to do good.

And it brings up another problem, that of keeping other people in line. How do we get people to behave, if we can’t use the old carrot and stick? What is in it for them, to be good, if there is no guaranteed reward? And what’s the point in not being bad, if there’s no guaranteed punishment? Society will go to hell in a handbasket if we don’t use the threat of hell and the promise of heaven to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Don’t deny it, that’s how we think, we can’t help it. We are a transactional people, and we like to think that the world makes sense.

But then, there’s Paul. Paul, who dedicated his life to the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. There is no other, besides Jesus himself, who has had a more profound effect on the Christian Faith than Paul, and look at him, imprisoned, beaten, deserted by his friends (but, he says, don’t hold it against them!), and near death.

It isn’t fair. It isn’t just. It isn’t right. It doesn’t make sense, to us, and maybe not even to Paul. You can hear hints of his frustration with the way he has been forgotten, left to die. He quickly returns to the more orthodox line, but, there is just a moment, just a moment where he indulges in just a small amount of self-pity.

And I think that this moment is the moment where I think I really like Paul; this moment of all too human acknowledgment of pain, of misery, of desperation. He tells the truth about how he feels, like a drink that has been spilled on the ground, wasted, gone, useless. As though his life was for nothing.

And this moment of human frailty, for me, makes this letter so true. Paul, the founder of churches, the evangelist to the gentiles, the persecutor turned protector and defender of Christianity, feels pain. He feels hopelessness. He feels loneliness. He feels separation. And for a moment, just a moment, he lets his mask slip, and let’s Timothy, his student and friend, know it.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know what sort of problems were plaguing Timothy’s church. There are hints of bad theology, of disruptive congregants, of outside influences. And it’s clear that these problems are weighing heavily on Timothy, and now they are weighing heavily on Paul.

And maybe, that’s why Paul let’s his true feelings out for once, to let Timothy know that sometimes ministry is hard, and that sometimes it feels like you’ve lived in vain, that you have been taken for granted, that your life’s work is for nothing.

And so Paul, perhaps, shares his own pain, in an effort to remind Timothy that we are not running this race in order to win favor from other people, but in gratitude for Christ’s work on our behalf.

And we need to hear this from Paul. We need to know that our work is not in vain, even when it feels like it is. We need to know that we are remembered, and loved, even when the darkness surrounds us, and we only feel alone and lost.

Because it happens to all of us, from time to time. Times of grief, times of disappointment, times of failure, times of depression, these happen to the best of us.

But it’s hard to admit it. Especially as Christians, it’s hard to admit it. It’s hard to admit that we too, don’t always feel the joy of being a Christian. We don’t always reflect the positive attitudes we think that being a Christian is supposed to encourage. It’s hard to be sad, when our entire religion is based on the resurrection.

But we are sad sometimes. Jesus was sad when his friend Lazarus died. He was grieved and angry when he knew he was about to die on the cross. King David grieved over his son Absalom. Job despaired over the loss of his family. Naomi wept over the loss of her husband and sons.

Grief is common to all of us. Emotional pain is part of life. But we don’t want to admit it. We don’t want to let anybody know, because we think that means we are somehow less Christian.

And this reluctance to show grief is especially prevalent during the holidays. And the holidays are especially conducive to grief. Family members missing from reunions, traditions without familiar faces, and insistent warbling of good tidings and joy from the loudspeakers in Walmart.

It’s crushing to be alone during Christmas. And trying to put on a happy face makes it worse. Being with people who are happy makes it worse. Trying to tell yourself to get it together makes it worse. And worst of all, who can you talk to about it? You don’t want to dampen anybody’s holiday, and so you don’t tell anybody. You smile and you laugh, and inside, you die.

This year, for the first time in my ministry, we are going to arrange for what is called a “Blue Christmas”. It’s a service for those who have experienced loss and find the holidays difficult. It will be on December 1st at 5:00 PM, with opportunities to meet with a counselor, if you like, and refreshments and therapy dogs for cuddling.

Part of grief is naming the grief, and we plan on doing that. Another part is sitting with the grief, and we plan on doing that as well. And finally, part of grief is to move into the next part of living, know that it will be different. And while we can’t do that part on December 1st, we can provide some resources for how that might look, and perhaps offer some guidance.

It will be a somber service, but not maudlin. It will be careful and deliberate, but not depressing. Above all, it will be truthful and honest, and will offer those who come and opportunity and a space to name their pain and their grief in the knowledge that God hears them, and that in Jesus Christ, they have an understanding and sympathetic listener, one who has felt the same pain and loneliness that they have.

Paul has given us a glimpse of his own pain. He has let us know that even the best of us get down from time to time. This is a gift. And while he moves quickly to the happy thought of receiving a crown in Glory, not all of us can move so quickly to the empty grave without spending some time in the Garden of Gethsemane first.

And this OK. It’s OK if we feel down. It’s OK if we hurt, if we are depressed, if we just can’t seem to shake the dark times. In other words, it’s OK to be human, and to suffer the same sort of distress that even the Apostle Paul and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ experienced. And when it’s time, we too will lift our heads in triumph, knowing that we ran the race that was before us as well as we could, and receive the crown promised to us.

To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

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