Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:3-10
I was young at nineteen, and I was the oldest one there in the collection of 17-19 year olds. It was the summer around the 4th of July. This means fireworks were involved. Given the young age of all present and the presence of explosives our decision making skills were not at our best. So after close that evening, we were setting off fireworks in the parking lot of Pizza Hut. Today, the Mortar tube fireworks that shoot a ball high in the air to explode in a shower of sparks are common but back then they were new, and we launched one up. Back in 2000 when this happened, Indiana had some weird firework laws. It was legal to buy explosive fireworks in the state but it was against the law to actually use said fireworks. This is something we all knew, and it became keenly relevant. It was right about the time the third one was going to be launched that the police officer showed up. The owner of the fireworks snatched the mortar tube and very un-smoothly hid it behind his back. The officer rolled down his window and asked “were you boys launching fireworks?” Me and another person said yes. At the same time, the two other people said no. That led to a very awkward moment of silence. Knowing we were busted, the two fibbers changed their answer to yes and waited for the officer’s next move. He continued, “I just wanted to know what they were called and where you bought them at? I need them for a party in a couple of days.”
Fireworks have a way of attracting our attention don’t they? In some ways if you have seen one firework show, you have seen them all. Yet, every time they start they just grab our attention. Chinese folklore claims that fireworks were invented by accident. The story goes that roughly 2,000 years ago a Chinese chef was experimenting with new spices in doing so he mixed charcoal, Sulphur, and saltpeter. The mixture burned well, and it was discovered that when compressed the mixture became explosive. The firecracker was born, and the Chinese would go on to develop true fireworks. It is impossible to verify the accuracy of the story, but I really like it because the legend is the kind of story that touches on deeper truths. The story involves common elements that on their own are not special. However, when combined they become something explosive that can capture everyone’s attention. We find a similar message in this morning’s scripture.
It is easy for us to forget when reading Paul’s writings in the New Testament just what is we are reading. We are so used to reading them as scripture, that we can forget that Paul originally wrote them as letter to specific churches to address specific problems. From what we have recorded in the scriptures, the church in Corinth was one of the more problematic churches that Paul worked with. However, it is sometimes hard to tell exactly what Paul is addressing and this morning’s scripture is a good example of that. This morning’s scripture comes from a section of 2 Corinthians that biblical scholars call the “great digression” because it seems that Paul rambles on a bit. The fancy term we might use today to explain the section this morning’s scripture is “narrative theology.” This morning’s scripture has a lot of theological truth in it, but like all of the “great digression” it is in the context of Paul’s ministry. We kind of get a sense that this section gives a glimpse to how Paul’s experience as a minister of Christ has informed his beliefs. This is a concept that might be comfortable for us, because this is a very Methodist concept. One of the unique hallmarks of Methodism, is the emphasis we place on our faith being experiential. Faith is not a passive activity but something we experience and live out in our lives. In turn are experience then becomes a lens through which to better understand our faith. There is a strong sense that Paul is doing something similar in this section of scripture, and perhaps many of us can relate to the experiences that Paul has seemed to have.
There seem to be two experiences that really informed Paul’s writing of this morning’s scripture. The first, is that there are some people who just do not get it. As Paul writes, the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. Paul was writing in a context that is over nineteen centuries old, but verse 4 of this morning’s scripture is as relevant in 2018 as it was in 55: “the god of this age (the devil) has blinded the minds of unbeleivers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.”
That rings true today, and I realize that for some of you it may ring true because it hits too close to home. I realize that for some of you, a person you care for is one of those people who’s mind is blinded to the light of Christ. You have no doubt shared your faith with them, you have testified to the miracles in your life, and you have pointed the works of God happening all around them. Perhaps you are at your wit’s end because it does not seem to matter what you do or say, there heart is hard and their mind is blind to the Truth that is easy for you to see and that is staring them in the face.
If that is your experience then I think there are two take aways from this scripture. First, if the people you care about have not yet turned their hearts to God. It is not your fault. This morning’s scripture states, “for what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Hear those words, it is not on you. If you have shared the gospel, if you have proclaimed the salvation offered by Jesus Christ to those you care about that do not believe, then you have “let your light shine out in the darkness.” It is not your job to save them, that is Jesus job. Which is the second take away to remind ourselves. Jesus works miracles, including giving sight to the blind. If our Lord Jesus Christ can rub some mud on a guy to allow someone who has been blind from birth to see, then Jesus has the power to open up any mind to his love.
The second experience of Paul’s that seemed to inform his writing in this morning’s scripture is the hardship that he experienced. When Paul wrote about being hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and stuck down he was speaking from a place of deep experience. The book of Acts records time after time when he was threatened, beaten, and imprisoned. His letters record times he was betrayed and disappointed. The life of a traveling missionary was not an easy one in the first century. There were times of being hungry, exposed to the elements, and left uncertain what is happening next.
Again, many of us can relate to Paul’s experiences. You too have hardship and suffering in your life. While you may not have experienced true persecution many of us have had experiences where we feel hard pressed by too many things pushing on us all at once, we have had experiences where we feel perpelexed between a bad choice and a worse choice, and many of us have felt like where have been struck down. Something happens that leaves us feeling gutted and collapsed on our knees unable to breathe by the shock, the pain, and the enormity of it all. Yet in the midst of Paul’s experiences that were that way, he never despaired, he never felt crushed, and he knew that he was never abandoned. No matter how bad life got, his hope never faltered because he know the all-surpassing power of God was with him. His hope was in the death and resurrection of Jesus, for that reason he did not lose heart because he knew his hope was secure and that no amount of hardship could ever diminish or strip that hope away. Those who have faith in God through Jesus Christ have that same hope. No matter what happens in life, no matter how uncertain things seem, or how much our heart hurts we can have the assurance that we are forgiven, we are loved, and we children of eternity.
Paul’s experiences helped give validation and focus to his faith, they were a lens that better helped understand his beliefs. In the same way we can see God through the lens of our own experiences. Doing so will help strengthen our understanding of faith, but it can also bring separate elements together and make connections. For instance, I think this morning’s scripture gives us the recipes for spiritual fireworks.
Remember, according the legend fireworks were first created by mixing separate ingredients and applying a little pressure and heat. We find the separate ingredients in this scripture, and again you own experience might validate these ingredients in your life. First we have a desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who are blinded by it. The second ingredient we have is a hope found in Christ, a hope that causes us not to lose heart no matter what. These treasures, are found in as Paul writes jars of clay. A clay jar is an ordinary, everyday vessel and he uses that expression to mean us, ordinary everyday people. However, when we mix those two elements and then add the all surpassing power of God found in the fire of the Holy Spirit, fireworks happen!
Shane Claiborne is a Christian advocate and community leader. In his book The Irresistible Revolution, he tells a story of an encounter he had that shows what these kind of spiritual fireworks look like . He lived in a fairly run down part of Philadelphia. Shortly after moving into this neighborhood he and a friend needed to go to the grocery store and walking there took them under a bridge where many of the cities more undesirable residences gathered. They specifically noticed a woman who looked to be specifically down on her luck. On their way back, she was still there, and they invited her to come eat with them. At their house, after the meal, the woman asked “You are Christians aren’t you?” When they replied they were, she said could tell, because they were shining. Fortunately, the story does not end there. A couple of years later, Shane Caliborne was talking about his ministry at a Christian conference, and a woman came up to her. Shane did not recognize her at first, but it was the same woman from under the bridge. She told him, “I know you do not recognize me now, because I am different. Now, I am shining too.” Shane concludes this story by affirming that she indeed was.
We truly do shine out like a light in the darkness. Our desire to share Jesus with those who do not see, moves beyond our wishes and words. We become living testimonies. When our world should be falling apart, but we are not crushed, in despair or destroyed we are powerful and undeniable testament to the power of God. Just like a firework cannot help but draw the attention of everyone who sees it, that kind of faith garners attention. As Paul wrote, the “life of Jesus is revealed in our body.” When our lives are defined by the hope we have in Christ, then we shine.
May you remember that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” May that knowledge be a source of unending hope in you. May you live that hope out, and be a living testimony. May that hope, which can only be found in Christ Jesus, shine out in your life. May the testimony of your faith light up the sky like a firework, that brings sight to blind minds, hope to the hopeless, and glory to God.