How would you like a job offer like this – an offer for a job that someone assures you will provide a meaningful opportunity to help other people in their lives and provide for yourself financial security that will keep you set for the rest of yours. But if you take this job, that someone says, “This will be your future: You will work one hundred forty hours a week. You will not be allowed any breaks at any time during the day. Once a day you will be allowed to eat some bread in the place where you are currently standing. Twice a day at unannounced times your co-workers will take turns throwing stones at you. Three times a day people will come in from the neighborhood and bombard you with insults and complaints. Just sign here on the dotted line and all this will be yours…” I would have to think there would hardly be any one of us, if anyone at all, who would foolishly sign on the dotted line for such a foolish job like that, if you knew your future in that job would be like that.
Your past has hopefully not been filled with anything like those kinds of things, but if you had known in advance some of the bad things, some of the tough things, some of the tear-causing, anger-arousing things that have been part of your life, how eager would you have been to sign on the dotted line and step into that next chapter of your life? Maybe not all of us have had those kinds of physically hurting, emotionally draining, spiritually testing experiences, but I assume many of us would agree that “It’s good we don’t know the future!” It would be very hard to move forward if we did.
What about the apostle Paul in our Lesson for today? That catalog of things he endured as an apostle of Jesus Christ almost takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Just skim with me briefly the details he mentions, beginning in verse 24 six lines down – fives times beaten with lashes, one time pelted with stones, three times in a shipwreck at sea, spending a night and a day in the sea on one of those occasions, called upon by the Lord to be on the move to share the gospel, which caused him to be in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from Jews who felt he was a traitor and from Gentiles who felt his message was completely foolish, often going without sleep, often being hungry, often not having enough heat to warm him or clothes to cover him, and, besides all that, feeling in his heart the pressure of his concern for how his fellow believers were doing, knowing that many of them might be going through the very same kinds of things he was going through – and maybe even worse.
Don’t you think that before the Lord called the apostle Paul to be the apostle Paul, if he known his future would be like that, he would have said, “That job’s not for me, Lord. My life is quite good right now the way it is. I have had a great education. I am a respected citizen in my community. And I have a meaningful job that the High Priest himself gave me to go round up all those people who call themselves Christians, so they can be put into jail where they belong,” which is exactly what Paul was doing before the Lord changed his future and had him become not only one of those Christians himself, but also one who would be hunted down by people who were just like the person he had once been.
But what did all these things that had happened to him — which he said he was boasting about – lead him to end up really boasting about? The very last line of our Lesson tells us this: “If I must boast, I will boast in the things that show my weakness.” Isn’t that the end result the Lord leads us to in his Word, whenever we think of all the things that have happened to us in our lives – or that may happen to us in the future? They are all meant to show how weak we are without Jesus and how humble we need to be because of Jesus.
It can be humbling – and it can hurt — to have to say something like that, but in what good ways have the details of your life humbled you? For example, if you hadn’t known how weak and completely unable you were to get God to love you, what would you have thought about how you needed to get God to love you? You would either have thought you yourself could do enough to get God to love you, or you would have thought you could never possibly do enough to get God to love you, because you kept messing up. Do you know how empty a life it is for people who think they don’t need Jesus to get God to love to them? I would suspect that many of us have felt that emptiness when we tried to fill ourselves up with prideful thoughts about how good we are or how thankful God should be to have a person like us be one of his children, who certainly isn’t as bad, at least, as that person over there. Or do you know how depressing a life it is for people who don’t know or who don’t think it’s possible that Jesus did everything necessary to get God to love a person like them? Again, I would suspect that many of us know that spiritual depression very well, because of the hopeless, driftless, helplessness we have experienced at those times when we felt unloved and unlovable. The bottom line is that in his love for us God has humbled all of us to know that he not only could love a person like me, but also that without question he does love a person like me, because of the one who became so weak and humble for a person like me – my Lord Jesus, the one in whom we boast. In other words, everything in our future is meant to help us know that we need – and to know that we have – everything that our Lord Jesus Christ did in the past. And our God will do everything necessary – and allow to happen to us anything necessary – to keep us strong enough to know that our strength comes when we know we are weak, because our strength can only come – and does come — from our Lord.
Because knowing that is so important for having any meaning in life now and for being able live in heaven after we die, that’s why Paul wrote these words of our Lesson. What the Lord had allowed to happen to Paul in his life is also what the Lord wanted him to make use of to help others in their lives – the very same thing our Lord wants for you and me to do in our lives and in the lives of others, as well.
Look back again, if you would, at the opening verse of our Lesson to see what that means: “Whatever anyone else dares to boast about – I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast about.” All those things that Paul says he boasted about – all those beatings and all those dangers – about all those things Paul says it was distasteful for him to speak like that, since he knows that God’s children aren’t to boast in things about themselves. The only reason he was doing that kind of distasteful, foolish boasting was because he was warning these Corinthian Christians not to fall to the prideful boastings of false teachers who were trying to get them to fall away from a complete dependance on Jesus Christ and to look instead at themselves and how they lived good lives for the certainty that they belonged to their Lord and had pleased him enough to get him to love them.
Besides the false teaching which endangered their salvation, what also riled the apostle Paul was that these Corinthians knew better than that from what they had heard Paul and his missionary partners preach to them, and they were naively, foolishly falling to these traveling preachers – perhaps comparable to some of the various media preachers – who were seeking to make a name for themselves and were looking for personal prestige and were hoping for financial gain, with the result that the Corinthians ended up, Paul said in the verses right before our Lesson started, being exploited and taken advantage of by these false teachers and falling for the boastful things they were saying about themselves. So, that’s when Paul started this section today in a way that was basically saying, “Okay, if you want to hear boasting, here’s some boasting,” with the implication that if anyone who was looking for personal gain from preaching would know the kinds of difficulties the Lord had him go through for preaching the true message of his Word, that person would never have done it. But that’s also why the apostle Paul makes sure to bring it all back in the end to that last verse to make sure we all know that we really can’t boast about any of the things we go through in life, except in the fact that they help us know how weak we would be without Christ and how strong we are with him.
That’s the message you and I can also can help others understand a little bit better as we have the opportunity – to warn people not to fall for a so-called gospel message that makes life look easy because of what you can do – and to comfort people with the true gospel message that God will take you through everything you do go through by helping you remember what Jesus went through to be your Savior, the one who has promised he loves you – and that he always will.
One last thing. In a certain sense Paul did know the future. When God converted Paul to become a Christian while he on his way to a place to persecute Christians, God had a prophet named Ananias baptize him a few days later, and God told Ananias this about the person who was originally coming to that city in order to put people like Ananias in prison, “Ananias, this man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name…. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” We don’t know how specific God got, but we do know that the same comfort which kept Paul going in his life keeps us going in ours. Because of Jesus, we do know the future – our eternal future – end even though we may rightly say it’s good we don’t know the future about many things, it’s very, very good that we do know that one. God help all of us to remember that forever future with Jesus, as we may be called upon to go through the future things we maybe don’t so much want to know about right now. Let’s help each other go forward toward that for sure future in this future by holding on to the one who has been holding on to us with all his might all along. Amen.