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“An Army in Tatters”

2 Corinthians 4:5-18
Bob DeGray
January 15, 2006

Key Sentence

When the battles knock you down, you’ve got to let the hope get you back up again.


I. The battle knocks you down (2 Cor 4:5-12)
II. The hope gets you back up again (2 Cor 4:13-18)


        Several years ago I wrote a story about the 101st Airborne Division in World War 2's Battle of the Bulge. The 101st was the elite U.S. Paratroop Division that jumped into Normandy on D-Day. In December 1944 they were in reserve, recovering from the unsuccessful ‘Operation Market Garden’, when Hitler launched his Ardennes offensive. Rushed to the front by truck with little in the way of supplies or equipment, the 101st was soon surrounded by the remaining elite of the German Army in the Belgian town of Bastogne. There they repulsed numerous tank attacks, until they were almost entirely out of food, ammunition, and medicine. The Germans sent an envoy demanding the Americans surrender. General Anthony McAuliffe, commanding the 101st, famously replied ‘Nuts’. The next day the weather cleared, and Army Air forces were able to drop much needed supplies.

        That episode, along with others in Italy and the Pacific, showed that the American soldier wasn’t quite as wimpy as the Europeans and Japanese thought. Even when the odds turned against them, even at times as an army in tatters, those soldiers, including my father, showed they had the moral and physical fiber to get up again and fight. That’s one of the reasons they came to be called ‘The Greatest Generation.’

I. The battle knocks you down (2 Cor 4:5-12)

        This week we’re looking at 2 Corinthians 4:5-18, a passage that encourages believers, even when knocked down, even when ‘an army in tatters’, to get up and continue in the fight, not because we’re ‘the greatest generation’ but because we have a Savior who is strongest when we’re weak, a promise that stands when we fall, and a hope of glory that far outweighs our light and momentary afflictions. There is a simple truth here I want to emphasize as we look at this passage: when the battles of life knock you down, you’ve got to let the hope get you up again. Let’s begin by recognizing that in this life even believers get knocked down, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, starting with 5-7: For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

        In 2nd Corinthians, Paul has been defending his actions as an apostle; the Corinthians had been deceived into thinking that his weakness, his delays, his awkwardness made him some kind of second class messenger. But Paul is teaching that weakness is a tool God uses to show his strength. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. But believers, like the Corinthians, in whose hearts that light has shown, ought to have more insight into God’s principle of working through men’s weakness.

        So Paul describes the attitudes of those who have seen ‘the glory of God in the face of Christ’. Such people don’t focus on themselves, but on Christ Jesus as their Lord. They see themselves as servants of Jesus, servants of others for the sake of Jesus. And that life philosophy, which Paul claims for himself, is the same life philosophy that ought to dominate our thinking: ‘I’m a servant; Jesus is Lord’. As John the Baptist said ‘He must increase, I must decrease’. Our culture teaches us to look out for number one. But Scripture teaches us over and over to make ourselves servants of the one who is really Lord. Scripture exalts God, exalts the glory of Jesus and teaches us to be realistic about our own weakness.

        Paul says ‘we have this treasure’ - the light of Christ ‘in jars of clay’ Earthen vessels were the lowest form of pottery in a culture where pottery was the equivalent of our plastic - useful, but commonplace. Paul may have been thinking of a common little pot used to hold an oil lamp - a beginner’s exercise for a potter. Or he may have been thinking of Judges 7:15-25, in which Gideon's remnant army of 300 men takes on a huge host. The 300 surround the enemy at night with torches hidden in earthen pitchers. At the blast of a trumpet, the pitchers are smashed, and the light of the torches revealed. At the same time these 300 blow their trumpets; the enemy armies panic, turning on each other, and Gideon wins a great victory. Paul’s point is that we are like the clay pots of Gideon and his men; when we are broken, the light of the gospel is shed abroad. When we are broken, our strength or power is not seen, but God's is. When we are broken by adversity, opposition, and suffering, God's power is revealed, and God's work is accomplished in a way that does not glorify the "clay pots" but God. We have this treasure in earthen vessels, Paul says, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

        Clay pots get broken to reveal the light within, clay lamps are insignificant compared to the light they house, and in the same way believers are vessels which when knocked down, when broken, allow the light of God to be revealed. We should not expect to live our lives as believers from a position of strength, but from a position of dependence. Paul goes on to say in verses 8 and 9: 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. This is the heart of the passage, from the point of view of ‘an army in tatters’. Paul clearly teaches the unwelcome truth that the Christian life and the ministry of Christians cannot be expected to consist of easy victories and smooth sailing. The lives in this room, of this group of believers, are not some kind of fairy tale where everybody lives happily ever after. We live in a war zone, with enemies around and enemies within and in a group of believers this size at any moment there are many who have been knocked down, hard pressed, perplexed and even persecuted. There are marriages in this room that are hard pressed right now; there are finances in this room that are knocked down right now; there are health situations in this room and relational situations in this room and heart struggles in this room that perplex and confuse.

        Notice what Paul says: yes, we are often an army in tatters, we can look around the room and easily get discouraged by all the individual struggles and circumstances. But by the grace of God we know that despite these things this little platoon is not crushed, not in despair, not abandoned, not destroyed. When I originally conceived this sermon, months ago, I thought about telling you the story of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, one of the greatest ‘armies in tatters’ ever. Dogged by lack of supplies and exhaustion, his starved troops defeated armies twice their size over and over. Their uniforms were literally in tatters, their shoes gone, their diet green corn and apples, but they continued to get up and fight.

        That would have been a good illustration of being hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. But instead I want to illustrate the same truth on an individual level by telling you about a new friend I made in Mississippi. His name is Danny Sprayberry and he’s the work coordinator for the relief teams that go on these trips. In fact, he’s key to this operation, the one who lines up the work, and as a roofer of 25 years, the one who makes sure the materials are on site and the work gets done right. He was God’s answer to our prayers for good effective work. But he’s also a testimony to God’s work. Just over a year ago, in November 2004, Danny’s wife of 25 years died in an automobile accident. He told me the story; he’d followed her to town a few minutes after she left that day and came on the accident, came on her body. It’s got to be one of the most devastating losses anyone can ever experience, and Danny and his three children walked through a dark valley of depression, guilt, anger at God and just plain sorrow. After Katrina, Danny’s first cousin Jimmy got involved in the relief effort and began to organize the work we eventually joined. But they had no one doing Danny’s job - it was hit or miss for the teams. So one day, happened to be the first anniversary of his wife’s death, Danny got a call from Jimmy who said “don’t you think you’d feel better if you came down here and helped some people.” And after thinking about it for a few days Danny did - and it’s transformed him and restored him to life. God used that crushing blow in Danny’s life to prepare him to bless many in the Gulfport area, and he used the hurricane as the means of healing for one of his children.

        When the battle knocks you down, the life of Jesus is revealed. Paul says 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. Paul is convinced that the more Paul gets out of the way, the more Jesus will be seen. The battles of life reveal Jesus - getting knocked down and getting back up again reveals Jesus. Dying to self and living for him reveals Jesus. Paul says it clearly in Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

        There is a broad Scriptural principle at work here, that of dying to self and living by faith for him, and it empowers all radical service. We are given over to death so that his life can be revealed. That’s why Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Always remember that in the Roman world there was only one reason to take up your cross - and that was to go to your crucifixion. Jesus says “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” When you get knocked down you lose your life, but when you get up you find your life in Jesus. That’s the principle here; that’s the lesson of Danny Sprayberry.

II. The hope gets you back up again (2 Cor 4:13-18)

        ‘He who loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Paul is convinced that trusting in Christ gives the believer hope and expectation. Listen to 2 Corinthians 4:13-15: It is written: "I believed; therefore I have spoken." With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. 15All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

        Paul quotes from Psalm 116 in which the Psalmist continues to testify to his faith in God even when greatly afflicted. Paul says that he will continue to speak the Gospel boldly and teach the truth of the Christian life to these Corinthians because his faith is firmly placed in Jesus and his hope is in the promises Jesus has made. Paul is touching here on the heart of the Gospel message: it is a message of salvation by God’s grace and through faith: Paul believes, at a heart level, not just mental assent, that God raised the Lord Jesus from death, and that that death was effective for the forgiveness of sins, so that the gift of resurrection and eternal life in the presence of God is now available to him and to his readers, and that this gift of God’s grace will touch a growing number of people for the glory of God.

        Paul teaches all this explicitly in Ephesians 2: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast.” The hope believers have is that the God who has already raised us up from the death of our sins through Christ will also raise us up from the death of our bodies and give us new life, just as he did in raising Christ from the dead. In other words, to put it in its most simple terms: believers in Christ know - that’s what Paul says, ‘we know’ - that there is a life beyond this life. And that makes all the suffering of this life fade to nothing because that new life is one spent eternally in the presence of the one who loves us and who gave himself up for us.

        It is this hope and this promise and this truth that gets us up when we are knocked down, that keeps us going when we’re in tatters. Paul expresses it so triumphantly in our closing verses 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 16Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

        Just as verses 8 and 9 express the heart of all who are knocked down by the struggles of the Christian life, so these verses express the triumph of all who hope in Jesus: ‘therefore we do not lose heart’. Because we know the hope of the resurrection and because we embrace the principle of dying to self and living for Christ, we do not lose heart no matter what our external circumstances. Outwardly we may be, like Paul, wasting away. In fact we all are: everyone in this room is closer to death now than you were when the service started. The process of wasting away never stops in this life, and only gets worse as we age. But in that new creature which Christ has formed in you by salvation, there is a reverse process going on; you are being renewed - being made new again, day by day. The mental picture I have of this is that clay pot, being gradually eroded from the outside, but at the same time being gradually gilded from the inside, layer by layer, so that when the clay has all sloughed off, the glorious golden vessel within will be revealed - the beauty of the heart, not of the outward appearance. I just have to tell one more Gulfport story. Our second house, the one where we removed the roof and re-roofed it, was occupied by an eighty-one year old lady, who had raised on her own seven children, and had 35 grandchildren, 35 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. She’d had a stroke and wasn’t always very clear in her speech, but she was up and moving and helped with the picking up of her roof as we removed it, and when she wasn’t she was inside studying on the Scriptures with her teen-aged grandson. She was outwardly wasting away, but had the inner beauty of a heart devoted to Jesus.

        Paul teaches us that the raggedness of this world, the tatters of our army, being knocked down, is a light and momentary affliction. The word affliction means ‘pressure’ in the physical sense, such as the pressure of the pulse, and "oppression" in the figurative sense. But this oppression, by eternal standards is only ‘momentary’; Christian adversity is transient; and it is ‘light’, light weight, something of no consequence. The troubles Paul faced were easy to bear because they were "without substance”, especially in comparison to the “eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” This glory to come is of much more consequence than the light pressure of our afflictions. It far outweighs them; it’s all out of proportion. And this eternal weight of reflected glory is something our momentary, light troubles are achieving for us now. Affliction doesn’t give way to glory; affliction produces glory - it has the effect of producing in us a glory that will shine in eternity: it lays down inside the jar of clay the layers of gold that will soon shine in the light of the presence of God.

        No wonder then, that the path of wisdom is to fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. The verb translated ‘fixing our eyes’ literally means "to examine" or "consider" something critically to determine its worth or lack. The temporary thing that is seen is this ‘jar of clay’ that is declining with the passage of time. The permanent, unseen reality is the regenerative overhaul that the Spirit is undertaking, which is only observable now to the eye of faith, but will be the evident reality in eternity. So the question becomes, where do you have your focus, and what motivates you? If your focus is on the afflictions, on the battle, on the suffering, on being knocked down, then you won’t get up, you won’t live selflessly, you won’t carry on by faith, and the glory of God will not be revealed in you. But if your focus is on the victory of Christ, the light of his face, the promise of resurrection and the hope of eternity, then these afflictions can be, to you, light and momentary compared to that glory, and you will get up and carry on and honor God.

        For we fix our eyes not on what is seen - the world’s reality all around us - but on what is unseen - the already achieved and sure victory of Jesus, and the glory of being part of that. One of the great moments in literature - and film -is focused on one of these armies in tatters that gets up, sets its eyes on the glory, and wins the victory. King Henry the Fifth of England has been campaigning in France, hoping to win back sovereignty over lands claimed by the English. His army, though undefeated by the French, has been decimated by disease and hunger and lack of supplies. The much larger French army has been closing on them and now threatens them with almost certain annihilation. In Shakespeare’s immortal telling, the king’s counselor Westmoreland finds him among the English soldiers and says “O that we now had here but one ten thousand of those men in England that do no work to-day!”

Henry responds, but talks to his troops, the famous St. Crispin’s day speech:
        What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
        If we are mark'd to die, we are enough to do our country loss;
        and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honour.
        God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, or care I who doth feed upon my cost;
        It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
        such outward things dwell not in my desires.
        But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
        God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
        As one man more methinks would share from me for the best hope I have.
        O, do not wish one more! Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
        That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart;
        his passport shall be made, and crowns for convoy put into his purse;
        We would not die in that man's company that fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
        Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd, and rouse him at the name of Crispian.
        He that shall live this day, and see old age,
        Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
        and say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
        Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
        And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
        But he'll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day.
        Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words- Harry the King,
        Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
        Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
        This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
        From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered-
        We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
        For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
        Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition;
        And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
        Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
        And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
        That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Get up, brothers and sisters, and read these verses with me: 7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 17For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.