Today I am preaching on just one phrase from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians in which the Apostle, describing his gospel ministry, states, “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.”
We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.
Our lives are full of obstacles, things that slow us down, things that we have to work around, things that we think “impede our progress.” Sometimes life can feel like one never ending obstacle course.
Some people complete obstacle courses for fun. There is an obstacle course called the Tough Mudder, a 10 to 12 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces that is set-up in various places around the states. To date about half a million people have completed the Tough Mudder, which raises money for the Wounded Warrior Project. The Tough Mudder includes some creative obstacles, like the Boa Constrictor, a claustrophobic’s nightmare that involves crawling through pipes that take you through freezing mud; the Fire Walker, which involves running through a trench of blazing kerosene-soaked straw; the Mud Mile, in which you plod through a mile of waist-deep sludge; and the Funky Monkey, swinging your way along monkey bars that have been greased with butter, with an icy cold pond underneath.
The final obstacle of the Tough Mudder is called Electro Shock Therapy, described in their website as follows: “Sprint through a field of live wires — some carrying as much as 10,000 volts of electric shock. Watch out for hay bales and deep mud or you will face-plant into some electrifying mud. Some try to stealthily wind their way through the wires without getting shocked, while others barrel forward to get through as quickly as possible. Either way, you are guaranteed to get zapped with as much as 10,000 volts of electricity and it does NOT tickle” J.
Many of us try to handle the obstacles in our lives similarly—we either try to “stealthily wind” our way around them or “barrel forward” to get through them as quickly as possible. Either way, we cannot avoid get zapped.
Some of the obstacles in our lives are external, like traffic jams, bureaucratic red tape, or the complex labyrinth involved with trying to speak to a an actual human being when telephoning a large company and pressing one digit after another to speak to “this representative” or “that representative.”
Many of us face obstacles at work, from overbearing bosses to budget shortfalls to personality conflicts with fellow employees to jockeying for position for promotions to unexpected layoffs.
When I went through the process for ordination twelve years ago there were many obstacles, including a battery of psychological and personality tests. One of these tests was the Rorschach “inkblot” Test, which involved my sitting with a very eccentric and slightly scary psychologist who showed me card after card of inkblots and asked me in a thick German accent, “Vat do you see? How does it make you feel?” I remember making up responses to try to mask the fact that all I saw on every card was a blob of ink and the only thing I felt in his presence was fear—without doubt two of the weirdest and most unsettling hours of my life J.
Relationships are often replete with obstacles as well—communication breakdowns, resentment, projecting our feelings on others, unresolved conflict, walking on eggshells around certain people, it goes on and on. How many times have you found yourself trying to “stealthily wind” your way around or “barrel forward” through the emotional obstacles of a gathering of extended family?
Some people have physical obstacles. A couple weeks ago one of my daughters graduated from middle school. There were the usual awards for excellence in academics, athletics, citizenship, and even perfect attendance (special thanks to the parents who sent their kids to school when sick because even though they made other kids sick, they did get that all important perfect attendance award—kudos to them J).
One student who graduated has numerous physical obstacles and is restricted to a wheelchair. When this student’s turn came to climb the stairs and walk across the stage to receive his graduation certificate, he literally could not do it. So he was gently lifted up out of his wheelchair, and carried up the stairs and across the stage to receive his certificate and hugs from the principal, and as he did so the audience erupted in applause. There was not a dry eye in the room.
Many people struggle with internal obstacles like anxiety, depression, negative thought patterns, self-destructive behaviors, or addiction. For some people guilt from the past is a major internal obstacle, as singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee puts it: “(I’ve been) checking my closets since I don’t know when, surely life is more than leaning how to live with your skeletons” (from Earth Has No Sorrow Heaven Can’t Heal by the Vigilantes of Love).
Ethan Richardson, who served this past year as one of our Christ Church Fellows and is a frequent Mockingbird website blogger, wrote a book entitled This American Gospel, in which he brilliantly connects the gospel with various radio broadcasts of the National Public Radio show This American Life. He observes the connection between the external and internal obstacles we face:
“Physical limitations, of course, have their internal corollaries. It is not just that we want to be bigger, faster, stronger; we want to be all things to all people; we want to be God. We want people to love us. We want others to have to puzzle over the complexities we casually spout off. We want them to see us as morally decent and sacrificially loving—a rich person in all senses of the word. We want to project self-assurance, self-sufficiency, and self-fulfillment. And we scurry to gather as much as we can, for as long as we can… the ladder has no final rung” (p. 30, 32).
Even gospel ministry includes a myriad of obstacles. In today’s reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul mentions some of these obstacles: “As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger”6 91(2 Corinthians 6:4-5).
The obstacles in our lives never end. Indeed “the ladder has no final rung.”
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that when it comes to your relationship with God, every obstacle have been removed by Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.
And even though Paul is clear that gospel ministry is filled with internal and external obstacles, he is equally clear that it does not involve putting still more obstacles in people’s lives: “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.”
When Jesus became incarnate He emptied Himself of His divinity and became fully human. He entered the obstacle course that is life on planet Earth.
And throughout His earthly ministry Jesus removed obstacles for other people.
To the unclean lepers who faced social obstacles and were forced to live outside of town Jesus offered His healing touch.
To notorious sinners—like tax collectors and the woman at the well—who faced obstacles surrounding their reputation Jesus offered His friendship. He talked with them, ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them. The religious leaders mocking referred to Jesus as a “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
To those oppressed by obstacles of demonic possession Jesus offered deliverance.
For others Jesus removed the physical obstacles of blindness, deafness, and lameness.
When it came to showing people that God is a God of love and compassion and grace, Jesus put no obstacle in anyone’s way.
In fact, Jesus had little patience for the religious leaders like the scribes and Pharisees who thrived on putting religious obstacles in people’s way. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,* and lay them on the shoulders of others,” Jesus said, “but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).
And on one occasion when His disciples acted as obstacles for little children who wanted to see Him, Jesus commanded them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).
What happens when obstacles are removed from people’s lives? Here is one example…
In the 1950’s there was a young woman who worked inNew York Citytaking reservations for an airline. She was a gifted writer but her job left her very little time to write, and she was quite discouraged. Years later she wrote about what happened on Christmas Day 1956 as she celebrated with a wealthy couple named Joy and Michael Brown:
“There was an envelope on the tree addressed to me. I opened it and read, ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’ ‘It’s a fantastic gamble,’ I murmured, ‘It’s such a great risk.’ My friend looked around his living room at his boys buried under a pile of bright Christmas wrapping paper. His eyes sparkled as they met his wife’s… Then he looked at me and said softly, ‘No honey, it’s not a risk. It’s a sure thing’” (From Harper Lee: Hey Boo, a documentary from the PBS series, American Masters).
The writer was Harper Lee, and the book she wrote that year was the manuscript that became the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The gift of grace she received that Christmas morning removed the obstacles and gave her the freedom to write one of the great novels of the twentieth century.
When Jesus became incarnate He not only took on the obstacles that we all face as human beings, He also took on the obstacle of sin, so that we could be completely forgiven and given a brand new start—as Paul put it earlier in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21).
In fact, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51), symbolizing the removal of every obstacle that separates you from a relationship with God.
Jesus did this because He loves you that much, because He does not want any obstacle to separate you from the love of God.
I recently watched a recent documentary on the making of one of my all time favorite albums, Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 album, Bridge Over Troubled Water (yes, the entire documentary was just about the making of this one album J). As Paul Simon was reflecting on the writing of the title track he had this to say:
“I have no idea where it came from. It just came all of the sudden, you know, one minute it wasn’t there and the next minute the whole line was there. It was one of the shocking moments in my songwriting career and I remember thinking this is really considerably better than I usually write” (from the documentary, The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, 2011).
The song, Bridge Over Troubled Water is pure gospel, and some of the lyrics go like this:
“When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all
I’m on your side when times get rough and friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down…
I’ll take your part when darkness comes and pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down”
“Like a bridge over troubled water” Jesus laid down His life for you on the cross. He took your part. He died to remove the obstacle of sin so that you can experience the eternal grace and love of God.
And in His death on the cross not only did Jesus remove the obstacle of sin, He also gave us hope when dealing with an obstacle each of us will one day face, an obstacle that try as we might we cannot “stealthily wind” our way around or “barrel forward” to get through. This obstacle, of course, is death, the final insurmountable obstacle in each of our lives.
John Donne (1572-1631) was an Anglican priest and poet who served as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral inLondonin the early seventeenth century. In Holy Sonnet X he beautifully and poignantly describes Jesus’ victory over the obstacle of death:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
So today if you are feeling weary and small from being zapped by the internal and external obstacles in your life, perhaps you can be comforted by the good news of the gospel.
The gospel is about the removal of obstacles, not adding more of them, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.”
Jesus has removed the obstacles of sin and death.
There are no more rungs on the ladder. In fact, there is no more ladder at all.
Jesus’ death ensures that you are loved and forgiven by God, and that as John Donne wrote, our death is but “one short sleepe” from which we will “wake eternally.”
And in the meantime, God gives you grace in the midst of every obstacle in your life, especially the ones you are unable to overcome. None of those obstacles can separate you from His love.
And one day Jesus who took all our obstacles upon Himself will gently lift you up out of the wheelchair of your mortality and carry you up the stairs and across the stage to receive your gift of eternal life and hugs from your Heavenly Father.
It’s a sure thing.