Beyond All Measure

June 10, 2012

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Recently someone emailed me a list of announcements from church bulletins that probably communicated something quite different from what was intended.  These are not made up; they actually appeared in church bulletins.  Here are a few I particularly enjoyed:

“Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale.  It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house.  Bring your husbands.”

“Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 PM.  Please use the back door.”

“The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’”

And my favorite: “Don’t let worry kill you off—let the Church help.”

“Don’t let worry kill you off—let the Church help”—as funny as that is there is unfortunately a little truth in it.  The Church, like the world, is filled with people who worry—people filled with anxiety about everything from how other people perceive them to financial stress to marriage problems to health problems to family dysfunction to report cards to weight issues—I could go on and on.

Sometimes people ache with anxiety without being able to pinpoint any specific cause.  In the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” from their masterful 1968 album Bookends Paul Simon sings this about a young man on a long bus ride with his girlfriend, Cathy: ““Cathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping.  ‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.’”

This anxiety, this sense of being “empty and aching” is not reserved to any specific age group—everyone gets in on the fun.  I recently read Rolling Stone magazine’s special edition, The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and coming in at # 33 was the 1976 Ramones self-titled debut album.  Singer Joey Ramone said this about the songs on that album: “Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration – the feelings every­body feels between 17 and 75.”

And sometimes the Church only adds to people’s anxiety.  Sometimes the Church burdens people who already feel burdened with guilt and anxiety by adding even more guilt and anxiety with sermons about things they should either start doing or stop doing, sermons often neatly packaged with three points and a poem.

Sometimes the Church inadvertently helps kill off people who worry.

My all time favorite Washington Redskin is #44 John Riggins (of course J).  Maybe he was onto something when at a party back in 1985 he famously called out to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “Come on,Sandybaby, loosen up!”  When it comes to anxiety and worry we probably all need to loosen up, but it’s not that simple is it?

The good news is that Scripture does not turn a blind eye to anxiety.

Today I’m preaching from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.  Of Paul’s thirteen letters in the New Testament this letter is by far his most vulnerable.  Paul describes the hardships of his missionary work this way: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

And later in this letter Paul lays out a litany of his suffering and anxiety:

“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  25Three 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; 26on 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;* 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” 2 (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

Paul then concludes this litany of his suffering by revealing his anxiety: “And, besides other things,” he writes, “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:28).

Even the Apostle Paul was no stranger to worry and anxiety.  In today’s passage from his Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul specifically addresses the anxiety related to aging, and shows us that God gives us hope even there:

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure1” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).

The bad news is that “our outer nature is wasting away.”  (A word of clarity for all you Parrot Heads out there, this “wasting away” is very different from “wastin’ away again in Margaritaville” J).

Our outer nature is wasting away.  Yes, we can stem the tide of the effects of aging for a time through proper diet, exercise, dying our hair and the like, but our outer nature is still wasting away, and death still awaits us all—as the Sons of Bill sing in their song “Santa Ana Winds:” “There ain’t no skating by, we’re all gonna die, no matter what the plastic surgeon told you.”

Some people experience this sense of wasting away not only with their physical decline, but in being trapped in situations beyond their control—be it a miserable job or a loveless marriage or being single while not wanting to be single or unrelenting family dysfunction or some other circumstance in which they feel stuck, feel like they’re wasting away.  And yet God offers hope even in the midst of those places.  God is still renewing our inner nature day by day.

A few weeks ago in Sunday School some of the kids fromChristChurchdrew pictures and wrote letters for people in prison, people who literally feel like they are stuck and wasting away.  One of the prisoners wrote a heart-felt thank-you note that gives us a picture of what it looks like to be outwardly wasting away while inwardly being renewed day by day.  Here is part of that letter:

“Greetings in the name of Jesus, I wanted to thank you for the card of encouragement I received from your church.  Thank you to the precious child who wrote the note.  It is in orange and aqua and in very neat handwriting.  I have it on my picture board so I can see it each day and be encouraged…Two thousand years ago Jesus sent His disciples to preach the gospel and today your church is carrying on that commission.  I’ve only been serving God for 6 years, 4 months and as of today, 28 days.  I am a babe in Christ myself but on December 31st 2005 I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit in my cell inMemphis,Tennessee and I fell in love with Jesus and God’s Holy Word.  I’ve not been the same since… Thank you again for the card and I’ll add your church to my prayers and ask God to open His storehouse of blessings and pour them out upon you.  Your Brother in Christ…”

The good news is that although “our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit to minister God’s love and grace to us increases more and more and more.

And the good news gets even better, for Paul continues: “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” 1

Think about that for a second.  All the suffering Paul mentions in his Second Letter to the Corinthians—the beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, going without food and water, the constant opposition to the gospel, the discouragement, the anxiety—all of this he refers to merely as “this slight momentary affliction.”

This is encouraging because often the sufferings and difficulties in our lives often feel like anything but slight or momentary, don’t they?

On June 8, 1941 C. S. Lewis gave an address atOxfordUniversityentitled “The Weight of Glory,” which was later published in a collection of essays of the same name.  He beautifully describes this “weight of glory” that awaits us in heaven:

“Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.  And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

When things are going well it is not difficult to write about “the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,” to have the hope that while our outer nature is wasting away God is renewing our inner nature day by day.  But when we or a loved one is dying, when the outer nature is literally wasting away right in front of our eyes, it is quite difficult.

About twenty years after he delivered his “Weight of Glory” address, C. S. Lewis watched as the outer nature of his beloved wife Joy wasted away due to bone cancer.  After her death he wrote a book about his grief under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk, a book that ironically some of his friends gave him to help assuage his grief.  After his death this book, entitled A Grief Observed, was published under C.S. Lewis’ actual name.  Listen to how Lewis begins:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing… At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed.  There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.”

Throughout A Grief Observed Lewis, like Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, reveals his suffering and anxiety.  And he also asks the questions that always surround grief, especially the “why” questions to which we are never given answers.  And yet toward the end of this book Lewis reveals his hope:

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.  But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’  It is not the locked door.  It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.  As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question.  Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand’… There is also, whatever it means, the resurrection of the body.  We cannot understand.  The best is perhaps what we understand least.”

“The best is perhaps what we understand least.”  That is true not only when it comes to trying to understand “the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,” but also when it comes to trying to understand the source of this hope, the source of this “eternal weight of glory”—the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love that is also “beyond all measure.”

Perhaps the largest measurement of distance is the light year, used in measuring the distance between stars and galaxies.  The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.  A light year is the distance traveled by light over the course of a year, or, about six trillion miles.  And yet the love of God, like “the eternal weight of glory,” is beyond all measure, even greater than millions of light years.

And yet our experience of the love of God tends to be episodic.  There are moments when the love of God feels farther away than six trillion miles, and moments when it feels closer than our skin.  There are moments when we are overwhelmed by the love of God in a prison cell and moments when we watch the outer nature of a loved one waste away, feel nothing but hurt, and ask, “Why?”

In her teaching at the women’s retreat a few months ago Carey Morton, a member ofChristChurch, movingly described the euphoria of experiencing love when it is present and the ache when it is not:

“Is there anything headier than the sudden presence of one we love in our sphere?  Love’s arrival seems (and is) a miracle of connection in which another’s life runs alongside and within our own.  It alters what we know to be true about ourselves; it shifts our perceptions and purposes; it makes us lose words, lose weight, lose our minds. What a glorious and terrifying surrender to the life of our hearts!  And because it matters to us, because the beloved matters more than ourselves, we ache when love leaves, or when our feelings grow unanswered” (Interruptions as Invitations from God by Carey Morton, 2/25/12).

Carey is exactly right—“We ache when love leaves.”

But as real as this ache is, the love of God is even more real.

The remarkably talented British singer Adele, who won 6 Grammys this year, sings about this kind of love in her moving cover of Bob Dylan’s song, Make You Feel My Love.  Here are a few of the verses:

When the rain is blowing in your face

And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love

When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawling down the avenue
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true
Nothing that I wouldn’t do
Go to the ends of the earth for you
To make you feel my love

The good news of the gospel is that even though your outer nature is wasting away, your inner spirit is being renewed day by day because of the love of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ reached past the millions of light years that you may feel separate you from the love of God, was beaten black and blue and with a cross on his back crawled down the avenue for you, and who in His death on the cross proved once and for all that there is nothing that He wouldn’t do to make you feel His love, a love beyond all measure.

It is this love beyond all measure that God offers you in the places of the deepest anxiety in your life, in the places in your heart where you are empty and aching and don’t know why.

It is this love beyond all measure that will one day make all the suffering of your life seem but a slight momentary affliction compared to the eternal weight of glory.

And it is this love beyond all measure that will ultimately beckon you inside the door of heaven—where you will not only meet the Apostle Paul, Joey Ramone, C. S. Lewis, and Joy, but also all your loved ones whose outer nature wasted away before your eyes.

And there with all of them you will forever feel the love of the One who went to the ends of the earth for you; there you will experience once and for all “the healing of that old ache.”

Amen.

Bible References

  • 2 Corinthians 4:16 - 17

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