Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Second Sunday of Luke, September 29, 2019
II Corinthians 4:6-15; Luke 6:31-36
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Seeing that it is the God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, the same also shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (II Cor. 4:6)
In the beginning, when there was naught but darkness, with the earth formless and void, in chaos and without order, God commanded the light to shine out of the darkness, and He said: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3).
Ancient peoples saw the moment preceding creation as a moment of primordial chaos, though in Genesis this is itself attenuated because that formlessness and void is not present from all eternity but is instead itself an act of initial order and creation by God, Who it is said “created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), which is then followed by the description of that initial creation as “formless and void.”
It is into this darkness and formlessness that God speaks light. And this is the context that St. Paul invokes when he says “the same also shone in our hearts.” Our hearts are thus likened to the darkness of creation before light came into it at God’s command. Without the light of the creative Creator shining into our hearts, we are also formless and void.
And it is not that there is no order at all nor total chaos there, because we already do have some light, being creations of God and beneficiaries of His common gifts to all mankind, but without this hopeful light of Christ’s salvation and resurrection shining into our hearts, we thus may be said to be formless and void.
And it is hope especially that I wish to speak of today.
Paul goes on to say that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” We are as clay pots, as mud that has been shaped and heated to become something beautiful to serve as vessels of hope, but we are nonetheless breakable—easily shattered. And we are made of lowly stuff. It is out of earth that He made us, perhaps so that when the light of hope is found shining within us, it would be all the clearer, as Paul says, “that the exceeding greatness of power is from God, and not from us.”
It is because of this divine creative hope shining in the darkness that Paul may say, “We are pressed on every way, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; smitten down, but not destroyed.” This is what it means to be Christian, that we should be always be struggling, always be subject to the impinging darkness, and yet not overcome.
There are surely times in our life in Christ when we feel that we are indeed overcome, that we are pressed, perplexed, persecuted and smitten down, and that the dark powers have won. But if we are overcome or believe that we are overcome, it is because we have turned from hope. It is because we have given ourselves over to despair, which is a word that means perhaps mostly literally “un-hoped.”
In despair it is not only that we are failing to hope but that we feel that we have had hope removed from us, that it was something we had but then was emptied out. Our earthen vessels became void, and the nothingness within was formless.
In moments like this, which can be extended and sometimes even last for years, where we have the sense of trudging through a dry, choking wasteland, carrying toward some unknown end and often for some unknown purpose, if we will turn our eyes upward, we may see in the darkness a single star shining into the eye of our hearts. And in that star of hope from God Himself, the star of grace, we see a promise that is above all the horrors of this world, untouched and unsullied by any evil hand.
Is it any wonder that, since the shaping of the world into order from formlessness and void in Genesis was begun with a light shining in the darkness, that the coming of Christ into this broken world of chaos and horror would also be begun with a star shining in the darkness? Is it any wonder that the abolition of death should be announced with the same sign which signaled the beginning of life? Is it any wonder that this same light should shine into the darkness of our own hearts to begin their re-creation? It is indeed a great wonder of perfect poetic symmetry.
It is this light of hope shining in our hearts that enables us to do what Paul describes, to carry on without distress, without despair, not forsaken, not smitten down. But if we are to do that, we have to look on high and see that star of hope.
How do we do that?
Paul gives us a clue here. In the midst of the struggle, he says that we must be “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
So what does that mean? He is referring to the struggle being not merely struggle, not just gritting our teeth and trudging onward. The Christian struggle is not just living one day after the next because that’s all there really is to do and because we see nothing else. That is the way of despair.
The Christian struggle is not knowing what will happen, even if it is very bad, and struggling forward in the hope of that light from God. To struggle as a Christian is to turn struggle into asceticism. Asceticism is disciplining our bodies, minds and hearts to be oriented toward Christ, to lift our eyes always toward the light of hope that may be shining only distantly for us but is still shining.
Paul does not say that we bear in our body merely “dying” but rather “the dying of the Lord Jesus.” He does not say that we are merely “delivered to death” but rather “delivered to death for Jesus’ sake.” There is a sense of orientation, of goal and purpose, here. If I struggle, it is a struggle not just in the midst of sorrows and pain, but a struggle toward Christ.
And I do not struggle thinking that it is my struggling that will overcome my difficulties. Rather, the struggle is with expectant hope that Christ will overcome even the whole world. And it is because of Christ’s victory that I may “be of good cheer” (John 16:33).
If I struggle, it is to participate in Christ’s own struggle. And in that struggle, I also then may participate in Christ’s own victory. Thus, I bear about in my body the dying of Jesus so that I may have the life of Jesus.
Therefore, Paul says: “But having in us the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, ‘I believed, and therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, and therefore we also speak, knowing that the One who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up through Jesus, and will make us stand together with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the grace, which is multiplied through the thanksgiving of many, may abound to the glory of God.”
The final, shining star of hope that we see is the hope of resurrection: “The One who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up through Jesus.” So because the resurrection is coming, because the resurrection of life and not of judgment is coming for those who are in Christ, we struggle to remain in Christ. It is not the struggle that raises us up to newness of life and hope, but rather being in Christ that makes us part of His own resurrection. And that star of resurrection is a star of hope that will never wink out even until the world’s ending.
To Christ, the Light of the world, be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.