A baby girl was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood. She was raped at age nine and became pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy. And yet she managed to overcome this cruel beginning of her life. And now Oprah Winfrey is best known for her multi-award-winning talk show “The Oprah Winfrey Show” which was the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. She has been ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and was for a time the world’s only black billionaire. She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world.
And then there was the man who at the age of 39 contracted an illness which was assumed to be polio. As a result of this illness he was paralyzed from the waist down. He remained unable to walk again the rest of his life. Yet ten years later after this terrible illness he ran for the office of the President of the United States and won. Franklin Roosevelt held the office four consecutive terms and was a central figure in world affairs in the 20th century.
It is amazing how some people can go through incredibly difficult times and yet come out on so victorious. History is replete with wonderful examples. Our epistle reading says, “For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.”
The famous first words in Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled are, “Life is difficult.” Then Peck goes on to say, ‘This is a great truth, but most of us can’t see it. Instead we moan more or less incessantly, noisily, or subtly, about the enormity of our problem. As if life is supposed to be easy for us, and therefore what has happened to us has never happened to anybody else before, at least not in this excruciatingly painful or insoluble way that it has burdened us.’
Peck says that he wrote these words not because as a therapist he hears his patients say that, but because he has been tempted to say that himself. You could call it the “Law of Exceptionalism,” the idea that this has never happened before, at least not to the degree that it has happened to me. “Exceptionalism.”
There is the cartoon which probably most of us have seen which shows a huge desk, a huge CEO sitting behind the desk in a huge leather chair. Standing meekly in front of the desk is a man in work clothes, obviously a lowly employee in that corporation. The worker says to the boss, “If it’s any comfort, it’s lonely at the bottom too.” Life is difficult for everyone. Someone once said they didn’t like Lent because “I’m not into suffering” as if suffering is optional, as if it is an adopted lifestyle. Well Jesus was not into suffering either. You remember he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me.” But when the time came for him to go with the soldiers who he knew would take him to be beaten, mocked, and ultimately crucified, he went. We are told that for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising its shame.
God said, “Let light shine out of darkness. What happens when your life goes dark? What happens when life gets tough for you? You see, it is not a matter of if life will get tough; it is a matter of when life gets tough. It is not a matter of if one will suffer; it is a matter of when suffering comes.
St. Paul tells us that we have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. Clay jars? What clay jars is St. Paul talking about? Do you have a clay jar? Well, yes you do. It is also known as your body. Clay jars are a common metaphor in the ancient world for human weakness. In the ancient world everyone had clay jars and these pots were used for everything. But because they were made from clay they broke easily. If you dropped them or knocked them hard they would crack or break. As we age we feel more and more like a clay jar. We begin to feel more and more fragile; more and more easily broken.
What is this light that shines out of darkness? What is this treasure that we have in our clay jars? How can we have hope and joy in our sufferings, in our troubles, in our struggles in life? What does our Scripture say? The light that shines out of our hearts is that light of knowing God through knowing Jesus Christ.
The light that comes out of the darkness is the hope and joy that springs out of our hearts in in the depths of our troubles. God sent Jesus Christ his Son to live among us so that in our troubles we now know that God knows how it is to go through hard times. The law of Exceptionalism does not apply to us. We know that God understands and that we are loved and cared for. In our troubles and frustrations we now know that despite what seems to be going very wrong now, this is not the final chapter. The Apostle writes, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are persecuted but not forsaken.” Why and how can this be? It is the case because God is with us and will not forsake us. We know he loves us—how? He sent Jesus to die on our behalf. We may not understand why in the world God allows this or that to happen, but we can still have confidence that God is in control and we will understand at some point. We do undergo hard times, but God stays with us through those times. Our bodies, our clay jars develop cracks and chips and begin to crumble. But Scripture tells us that the victory that overcomes the world is our faith! How do we have hope and joy in times of darkness? How do we have hope and joy in times of great affliction when life is difficult? We have it through our faith, our faith in God. Jesus told us to not despair because he has overcome the world. And we can too! We overcome it through our faith in Christ. We have confidence because he rose from the dead we will be given new life. We overcome it through remembering that this world is NOT our home. We cannot put our hearts our desires here on earth and expect to be satisfied. Our earthly desires are doomed to failure. Jesus never promises that life here on earth will be trouble-free. In fact, he promises just the opposite. And that is why he tells us to lay up our treasures in heaven. In fact there will be times when this becomes our only option. There will times when what we want out of our lives right now cannot happen, so we have a choice. We can be unhappy and frustrated with God or we can change the focus of our hearts and lay up our treasures, our desires in heaven.
Am I suggesting in any way that this is easy or that it is a simple matter? It is not easy! I too struggle with this; every Christian does. Yet Scripture is true. The apostle tells us that this extraordinary power to trust Him and be filled with his joy and hope comes from where? Not from within us, but from God. You and I are indeed clay jars. We are indeed brittle and fragile. The power to live in joy and hope comes from God and through Him.
Life is difficult. It is true. It has been and continues to be difficult for many people. We see some who despite horrible obstacles succeed. Others we know fall to despair and bitterness. But, God is good and God loves you and me so very much! Let us continue to have faith in his love and let us continue to lay up our treasures in heaven and let the light of God’s life in us be visible to all. Amen