First Reading Genesis 3:8–15
8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14 The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Psalm Psalm 130
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O LORD, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. 3 If you were to keep watch over sins, O LORD, who could stand? 4 Yet with you is forgiveness, in order that you may be feared. 5 I wait for you, O LORD; my soul waits; in your word is my hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord more than those who keep watch for the morning, more than those who keep watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, wait for the LORD, for with the LORD there is steadfast love; with the LORD there is plenteous redemption. 8 For the LORD shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
Chapter 4 13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture — “I believed, and so I spoke” — we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Chapter 5 1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Gospel Mark 3:20–35
20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When [Jesus’] family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
DON’T GIVE UP
Have you noticed that some people can’t seem to win, no matter what they do? It’s like one lady I heard about. True story. In 1957 Richie Ashburn, center fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, swung and hit a foul ball that went into the stands and hit a spectator named Alice Roth. As she was being taken away on a stretcher, Ashburn slammed another foul ball . . . and hit her again. I guess some people can agree with the lyrics of the song made famous on the TV show Hee Haw, “If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all.” But I guess we all can say we’ve had days like that.
Pastor Alan Carr tells about an advertisement, by the Hayden planetarium, that once appeared in the newspapers in New York City. It was an invitation for anyone who would like to make the first journey to another planet to submit an application. Within a matter of days, over 18,000 people applied. These applications were then given to a panel of psychologists, who upon reviewing them concluded that the vast majority, of those who had applied, wanted to start a new life on another planet because they were discouraged by life on this one. Again, I think many of us can relate to that feeling at least once in our lives. Some people experience discouragement with life that is so deep that they would like to go somewhere else–even another planet–and make a new start.
The loveable loser Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons often felt that way. Once he told Linus, “Sometimes I feel like I want to run away from everything.” Overhearing the conversation, Snoopy reflects, “I remember having that feeling once when I was at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. I climbed over the fence . . . but I was still in the world!” That’s the problem with running away from our problems, we really don’t escape. We might avoid them for a bit, but eventually our problems always seem to catch up to us. The real problem is we can never escape who we are.
St. Paul was one who had as many problems as anyone–and likely more than most people. After his encounter with the living Christ on the road to Damascus, he was never again able to enjoy the comforts of family life. He spent years traveling under the most primitive conditions. He was persecuted, shipwrecked, beaten, thrown in prison and according to tradition, was martyred. He made enormous sacrifices for the cause of Christ and the kingdom and yet he was constantly criticized by people both inside as well as outside of the early church. Yet he never seemed to get discouraged.
He reminds me of the guy Larry Olsen cites in his book, Outdoor Survival Skills. According to Olsen this guy had been out of food and water for days. His lips were parched and bleeding. His tongue was swollen. His legs were bruised and his feet were raw. Some of his bones were almost peeking through his skin as he dragged himself across the desert. He was scraped from the rocks and the blowing sand had scoured his back and arms. He was insect bitten and tormented by cactus needles. His skin was blistered by the merciless sun. As he crawled over a little rise, he propped himself up on one bleeding elbow, looked across the burning wasteland and said, ‘You know, a few more days like this and I might get discouraged.’”
St. Paul, I think, could relate to that and yet Paul never got discouraged, never gave up, never felt sorry for himself. Paul was never overcome by discouragement because he had an enormous faith in God. Listen again to what he wrote in today’s lesson from 2 Corinthians 4: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our slight and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands . . .” It’s a magnificent statement of faith.
Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth is an intensely personal letter written in response to the reports he had received from Titus, about the Corinthians’ response to his first letter. Though many in Corinth had repented of some of the behavior that had Paul so concerned, there were some false teachers who tried to undermine Paul’s efforts and sought to discredit his ministry. Paul shared his heartfelt love for the church and some of the trials and sufferings he had endured for the sake of Christ. The passage, we’re looking at today, gives some insight into Paul’s ability to handle the setbacks that were a major part of his life. But what gave Paul the strength to overcome discouragement and continue to minister even while facing persecution and imprisonment? The answer is his immoveable faith in God.
Yes, Paul was an amazing man. Most of us, if we had experienced all the setbacks that Paul had, would be whining and complaining for all the world to hear. We would probably be like Tevye in the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye kept up a running dialogue with God, giving God credit for the good things that happened to him but was also lamenting everything that went wrong. In one particular scene, his horse goes lame. There Tevye sits dejected by the side of the road with his lame horse. “I can understand it,” Tevye says to God, “when you punish me when I am bad; or my wife because she talks too much; or my daughter when she wants to go off and marry a Gentile, but . . . What have you got against my horse?!” It’s not too difficult to identify with Tevye if we’re being honest. It’s hard to be thankful when praying, without throwing in a few complaints as well. But from what we read, Paul wasn’t like that.
No matter what happened to Paul, he seemed to be able to roll with the punches. Paul was able to go with the flow because of his amazing faith in God. It’s the kind of faith you and I need. People who have faith when battling against overwhelming odds can and do inspire the rest of us.
I’ve mentioned before the inspirational former basketball coach at NC State, Jim Valvano. As you might recall, Jimmy V. was diagnosed with a terminal cancer in June of 92. Just eight weeks before he died he gave a speech for the ESPY Awards presented by ESPN. It’s an amazing speech which you can find on YouTube. While accepting the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, Valvano announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research. He also stated that the foundation’s motto would be, “Don’t Give Up . . . Don’t Ever Give Up.” That was certainly true of this coaching legend.
During his speech the teleprompter stated that he had 30 seconds left. Valvano looked at the teleprompter and then at the crowd and said, “They got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen. I got tumors all over my body and I’m worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds.” His speech included this statement: “To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
Valvano’s memorable ESPY acceptance speech became legendary. He closed by saying: “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all.” He could have been rephrasing St. Paul’s words, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day . . . For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands . . .”
There’s something else we need to see in this passage and this is that Paul’s confidence was founded on the resurrection of Christ. Because Paul knew Christ is alive, he also knew life conquers death, hope conquers despair, and love conquers hate. This is an attitude that we need when we are tempted to give up on life. It’s the sure hope that because Christ lives, tomorrow will be better than today.
Bible student and preacher Vance Havner once noted that our Christian experience has three levels. First there are “mountaintop days.” These are the days when everything is going well and the world looks bright. We’re grateful for these mountaintop days, but truthfully they don’t do much for us or for those around us spiritually. If we live charmed lives and are continually boasting about how good God has been to us, we’ll only hurt those around us who are going through difficult times. And such good fortune will probably leave us with a shallow faith that has never been tested. A charmed life will ultimately be to our detriment. But sometimes life is like that, mountaintop to mountaintop.
The second part of life consists of “ordinary days” when we work at our humdrum, everyday tasks. On these days we’re neither elated nor depressed. This, of course, is where we spend most of our time. When we’re young, such days are boring. As we grow older, such days are reassuring. How many of us have reached the point when we think boring is good? As my father used to say, “No news is good news.” Finally there are those “dark days” of life when we trudge heavily through confusion, doubt, despair, and discouragement.
Sometimes these days string out into months or even years before we begin to experience a sense of relief and victory. These are the days that test our faith. Nevertheless, these days offer three valuable benefits. The first of which is that they offer the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth. When we’ve been through a time of testing, it gives us confidence that we can handle the next test.
Painter John Sargent once painted a panel of roses that was highly praised by critics. It was a small picture, but it approached perfection. Although offered a high price for this painting on many occasions, Sargent refused to sell it. He considered it his best work and was very proud of it. If it were indeed so valuable, why hold on to it? He kept the work so that whenever he was deeply discouraged and doubtful of his abilities as an artist, he would look at it and remind himself, “I painted that.” Then his confidence and ability would come back to him.
All of us have been through difficult times—some of us through times more difficult than others will ever know. Rather than allowing those times to make us bitter, by God’s grace, we can use those times to make us better. We can look at those days like Sargent did at his painting, and we say to ourselves, “I made it through that, and with God’s help, I know I can handle the next test that life sends me.” Dark days can give us confidence. The second benefit dark days can offer is that they can be a great opportunity to witness to our faith.
Many years ago an architect planned that the walls of the Royal Palace in Teheran, Iran be covered with sheets of beautiful mirrors from Paris. But when the shipment of glass arrived from Paris every mirror had been smashed in travel. The entire shipment was destroyed! The grand entry could not be completed.
Just as the workmen started gathering the broken pieces together to discard them, the architect said, “Wait a minute. I’ve got an idea!” He then took a hammer and broke some of the larger pieces into smaller pieces. He gathered them up in his hands and walked over to the entry. He then put some glue on the wall and arranged the tiny pieces. He did this several times until he had an enormous montage of broken mirror pieces. At no point were the mirrors broken alike and at no point was the angle exact. Today, the Royal Palace in Teheran is a dazzling brilliant display of prisms, reflecting light! One visitor stood in awe and described the result like this: “Broken to be more beautiful!”
At some point in our lives we might give that same testimony, “Broken to be more beautiful!” Anybody can handle the mountaintop days of our lives. It’s when we can look to God’s help to enable us to handle the dark days that our lives become a living testimony to our faith in God. As we sometimes say, God will use our mess as a message and our tests as a testimony. Finally, when we go through life’s dark days, we’re better able to empathize with others who are experiencing dark days themselves. Our experiences can bond us to one another. In such a setting, you’re better able to share the love of Jesus Christ. Richard E. Gribble tells about an old man, a recent convert to Christianity, who used to come to a mission hospital every day and read the Gospels to the patients.
One day the man was having trouble reading, so he went to the doctor for a checkup and eye examination. The doctor examined his eyes and discovered that he was going blind and would probably be totally blind in a year or two. After this day there was no sign of the man at the hospital; no one knew what had happened to him.
Eventually a young man found him and brought him again to the mission hospital. The old man explained that the reason he had not been reading to the patients since his diagnosis was because he had been working very hard to memorize the Gospels while he could still see. “Soon I will be back at the hospital,” the old man said to one of the missionaries, “and I will continue my work of teaching the Gospel to the patients.” Now there’s a man of faith.
There was a man that wasn’t going to be defeated. If he was going to lose his sight, so be it. But he wasn’t going to let that affect his ministry. Instead he was going to memorize the scriptures and teach them from memory. Can you imagine the impact this man had on all the patients when he returned to teach in that hospital? Paul too knew about dark days. He writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day . . .” This is the believers’ hope.
It’s this same hope that caused Stephen to look up into the face of those who were about to murder him for his faith, and rejoice. It’s that same hope that caused believers in the early church to willingly allow themselves to be hauled into coliseums and be fed to lions and wild beasts and be set on fire and used as streetlights– all because they wouldn’t recant their faith in Christ. Hope says, “Though I walk through the Valley of Death, I will fear no evil.” Hope says, “This, too, shall pass.” Hope says, “I will not give up or despair, for all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.” Do not lose heart!
This is our witness to an unbelieving world. It’s a life full of the love of Jesus Christ whether life has us on a mountaintop, in a deep valley or on the level plain. It’s the assurance of knowing that wherever we are, whatever we’re going through, God is always with us.