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Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries

 

Christ Our Comforter  audio

2 Cor 1:1-11 

You may have heard of Arch Hart, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary in the US. He visited Australia several times in the 90s to lecture about stress and depression. One of the interesting things he said was a piece of advice he gives to ministers. He said never take your day off on a Monday if you can possibly help it. Why? Because that’s the day you’re most likely to be depressed and instead of being revived by a day off you’ll just waste it. And I can understand what he means. Imagine you’re the pastor of a church that’s wracked by divisions; where people are arguing over theology and how to apply it to their daily lives; where some of the congregation are involved in immoral behaviour and are even boasting about how sophisticated they are and the rest of the congregation just turn a blind eye; where every time you preach someone will complain that it was too long, or too simplistic or too complicated; where they point out that the other preachers are obviously far more gifted than you are; where they object to anything new. Monday would be a pretty depressing time wouldn’t it?

Now, I hope you realise I’m not talking about Steve here. I’m actually thinking about Paul’s experience at Corinth; because that’s the sort of Church he had to deal with there. If you read his first letter to the Corinthians, you’ll get an idea of the issues they faced. They were a very gifted Church but they’d allowed all sorts of problems to emerge.

Their theological and moral problems are largely dealt with in the first letter, but there was still one major issue confronting them. It wasn’t theological, so much as sociological or cultural. They had a problem with their understanding of the nature of Christian leadership. Their background, of course, was the first Century Greco-Roman world where leadership was about strength of personality, being forceful, a great orator. Theirs was the cult of the hero: of Hercules and Zeus. In the first letter we read about the objections that were raised about Paul’s leadership, the way people compared him to Apollos, apparently a great orator, or Peter, whose strong personality comes out so clearly in the gospels. But Paul wants to draw them away from these secular models to a more realistic, Biblical understanding.

Now before we go any further let me suggest that the culture he addresses in 2 Corinthians is in fact not much different from our own. Think about it: what’s your image of the ideal leader? Whether it’s a politician or the captain of a sporting team or a business leader, what sort of attributes would you expect of them? Would you be looking for someone who was strong, purposeful, confident, high achieving, successful, eloquent? Now think about what you’d look for in a Christian leader. Does that word Christian make any difference? My guess is that for many it doesn’t. Even in the church we have an image of leaders who are strong, forceful, confident, eloquent. We hate the stereotype of the vicar as the bumbling idiot; sweet but inoffensive; kind but ineffectual. We want a leader who’s strong, who can do no wrong, who’ll be an example to the flock, who’ll lead us to victory over our opponents.

But what’s the model we have for ideal leadership in the gospels. Well, it’s Jesus isn’t it? Jesus, who humbled himself and became like a servant; humbled himself to the point of being taken away and hung on a cross. We have as our model a leader who was first and foremost a servant.

Now this is an important issue for both leaders and those who are led. If you’re a leader in the church, at whatever level, ask yourself, ‘What image am I trying to project?’ Does your strength as a leader come from your personal strength of character or from your close mimicking of Christ? Are you first and foremost a servant or a director?

For those who are part of the congregation that’s being led, what characteristics are you expecting to see in your leaders? Are you looking for the ways that God will show his power in his Church despite the weakness of your leaders? Do you accept their weakness? Do you accept your own? Well, they’re the sorts of question that’ll arise as we begin to work our way through the first part of 2 Corinthians between now and Easter.

But that’s all by way of introduction to the book. Let’s now think about these opening few verses as Paul discusses the way he’s suffered for the gospel.

Paul’s Troubles

He begins, after the usual introduction, with an opening prayer. It’s the sort of thing you would have heard in a Jewish synagogue at the beginning of the service. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation.” He’s recalling his readers’ minds to their Jewish heritage, to the prophets and kings who, like him, suffered for their faithfulness to God.

As Job said, this is the lot of everyone: “Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)

 So, here, Paul is reminding his readers that what he’s experienced and what they’ll experience is normal for any human being. Of course in his case it’s been extreme. Look at v8: “8We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” Now there are lots of guesses as to what Paul is describing here. Was it the riot in Ephesus as a result of his preaching when he could easily have been killed by the crowd? Or was it the opposition in Thessalonica and Beroea and his subsequent time in Athens on his own? But whatever it is, it seems that he was severely depressed by it, to the point of wondering whether life was worth living. See what he says in v8: “We despaired of life. We felt like we’d received the sentence of death.”

You may know just how he felt: so worn down by trouble that you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. As Job said it’s part of the human condition to be beset by trouble, by worries, by stress, by loss.

I’m sure there are people in this congregation who have experienced a whole range of trials and tribulations in their life. You may have suffered abuse of one sort or another, either as a child or as an adult. You may be someone who suffers from depression. According to Arch Hart somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population will suffer from clinical depression at some time or other. You may be one of those who have suffered the loss of loved ones. Parents or spouses or children or grandchildren who have died; perhaps spouses who have abandoned or betrayed you. Some of you may be separated from your loved ones by great distances, or by family breakdown. There are some who are suffering or have suffered from debilitating illness, perhaps even life threatening illness. You may have been unfairly treated as a result of racism or age or your socioeconomic situation or your level of education.

Every one of us will have suffered in one way or another. But here’s the tricky bit: when we’ve suffered in such a way it’s so easy to feel weakened by it, even to consider ourselves a failure as a result of it. Sometimes you’re so weakened by it that you can’t even pray about it.

And that’s where, again, it strikes home for us. Because you see, we have this self-image as Australians that doesn’t allow for weakness or failure. One of our tennis stars was known for a while for pulling out of tournaments as soon as he felt a bit of pain, or felt sick; and people criticised him for it.

I wonder if you’re old enough to remember Dean Jones. The story’s told of a time in 1986 in Madras when Dean Jones and Alan Border were batting. It was incredibly hot and humid. Dean Jones got to 170 but he’d been vomiting after every shot so he told Alan border he needed to go off. Border said to him, “Well, off you go then. We’ll get someone tough out here. We’ll get a Queenslander.” Needless to say, Dean Jones stayed and ended up scoring 210. But the point is: failure was not an option.

So what does that say to you or me when we look at our weaknesses? How do we deal with the fact that we’re weakened by the various things that have happened to us in our life?

Well, let’s see what Paul has to say about it.

Christian troubles create a community of care

First of all he says that our suffering, our weakness is something that God will use to strengthen the community of God’s people. Christian troubles act to create a community of care. Look at v4. “God consoles us in all our affliction so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”

The first place we should look for comfort is to God. That’s the pattern throughout Scripture. But the way God comforts us now is so often through other believers; who themselves have experienced trouble and have received comfort from God. Even at those times when you think to yourself “There is no comfort to be had here”, the presence of Christian brothers and sisters who love you can be enough to hold you steady as you suffer.

It’s a universal truth that trouble binds humans together in a way that prosperity never does. You know the old saying: "A friend in need is a friend indeed." The great Australian myth of mateship was born out of adversity, out of people having to band together to survive in the harsh conditions of the outback or in times of war or during the depression. And let’s face it, if you’re suffering some particular trouble, who is it you look to for comfort? Isn’t it someone who knows what you’re experiencing? Someone who can say, "I know exactly what you're going through. I've experienced just that in my own life."

I was at the supermarket this week and there was no-one at the deli counter and the woman next to me and I both commented to each other on how bad the service was. Our mutual frustration bound us together in that brief moment. 

Can you see the opportunity this gives you if you’re someone who’s experienced trouble or sadness in the past; opportunity to use that experience to stand with someone else who’s experiencing something similar- not to offer them advice, mind you, just to be with them in their suffering.

Christian troubles link us with the experience of Christ himself

But secondly Christian troubles link us with the suffering of Christ. He says “the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us.” Jesus suffered as a sign of his solidarity with us. His suffering on the cross was such as to absorb all the punishment due to rebellious humanity. But I think Paul’s also thinking about how Christians continue to participate in Christ’s suffering as we experience opposition. He talks about that in Colossians 1. There's a sense in which we're somehow joined to Christ in his suffering as we too suffer opposition in his name.

And like Christ’s suffering our suffering too, has a purpose.

Christian troubles have a purpose

1 They help others

We’ve already seen how the comfort with which we’ve been comforted can be passed on as we comfort others. God will use our experiences to help others, if we’ll let him. Paul’s suffering is first of all for the sake of sharing the gospel with others. But it’s also so he can pass on the comfort he’s received to those to whom he ministers.

2 They help us

But secondly, the result of his suffering even to the point of death, was that he was forced to stop relying on himself, and to begin to rely on God who raises the dead. Now I imagine that Paul would have been the totally self-reliant type. That’s certainly the picture we get from the description of his earlier life. But the truth is, most of us are just as self-reliant. We’re trained to be from an early age aren’t we? We’re taught the Australian myth of self-reliance. Real Australians manage with what they’ve got.

So what do we do when we find we can’t deliver? When we collapse half way through the game? When we burn out because we’ve worked longer hours than anyone else, just to prove how able we are?

Well I hope we never come to that point because we’ve read God’s word and heeded what it says. What does it say? Look at v9: “we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again.”

God uses the troubles we face to turn us back to him, to remind us that we need his help, his strength and power if we’re to finish the race, if we’re to serve him effectively.

3 They teach us all to keep praying

But finally, they teach us all to keep praying. v11: “As you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” It’s all too easy to underestimate the power of prayer. But it’s when we begin to realise that we can’t work in our own strength that we start to see how important it is to ask God for his strength.

The older I get the more I realise how much I need to rely on God’s power, not my own. In fact I’ve always needed to do that. I learnt a long time ago that I’m very much limited in what I can do, both in terms of natural ability and in terms of time and energy. And the longer I live, the less time and energy I seem to have. But with God working through me I can still do good things; despite my weakness, despite the things I may suffer as I go along.

You too can do amazing things for God, no matter where you’ve come from, no matter what you’ve suffered. The question is, what do you do when suffering comes to you? It will, and there’s no point denying it when it comes. Nor would I want to diminish its impact on anyone. But what do you do with it? Do you complain that you don’t deserve it? Do you curl up and hope to die? Do you give up because you’re of no use to God? Perhaps you take the opposite tack? Do you pretend that it doesn’t matter, that you can rise above it? Or do you do what Paul does? Rely on God who raises the dead? Do you look to see how God might use it, to comfort others, to drive you back to dependence on him, and to remind you to keep praying?

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