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19 Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived and won the crowds over. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing he was dead. 20 When the disciples surrounded him, he got up and entered the city again. The following day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.
21 Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the good news to the people in Derbe and made many disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where 22 they strengthened the disciples and urged them to remain firm in the faith. They told them, “If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles.”
2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 17-18
8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.
17 Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. 18 We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.
Paul reflected Hebrew history and Jesus’ example in what he taught some of the first Christians he converted in Asia Minor. A crowd who thought they had killed Paul with stones had dumped his body outside the town of Lystra! With utter honesty, and perhaps a dash of defiance, he said, “If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles.” As we read last week, he could call episodes like that “temporary minor problems,” and keep looking ahead to eternity with God.
Lord Jesus, you sent Paul and Barnabas traveling through unfamiliar, hostile territory. Often you just ask me to be a good neighbor, or to be your presence in my workplace or school. Give me courage to do whatever you ask. Amen.
I don’t think there is anyone reading this today who can’t identify with Paul’s reference to “temporary minor problems,” though many of us might not call the problems of the last two years “minor.” Paul experienced stoning, abandonment, shipwreck, confusion, depression, harassment, rejection, conflict within the church, and more. None of those seem “minor” either, but Paul is looking at them from another point of view, which lets him “pass through many troubles” (Acts 14:22), and recognize that they are temporary. This point of view makes him able to say “We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.” (1 Corinthians 4:8)
I remember a nice lady, who was really trying to be encouraging, patting my hand and telling me that going through breast cancer, multiple surgeries, and chemotherapy was just God’s way of building my character. I also remember sobbing to my husband that I thought I was enough of a character already, and all I wanted was to be well. The nice lady wasn’t wrong, exactly. That experience gave me an appreciation of life that I didn’t have before, and a depth of empathy that allows me to offer a different kind of grace and understanding to others. I do not, however, believe God sent me cancer in order to bring those things to me. Living as a human being, flawed and sometimes frail, brought me to the oncology department, not God trying to teach me a lesson.
The blessing of that and other difficult experiences on my trip through life has been, every time, finding God walking right there with me. It has been realizing that I will never be alone, that God is always present and sees me and hears me call out–in desperation, in fear, and even in anger. God is also present to open my eyes so that I see the promises of eternity when the reality of this world is hard to bear, and to promise, “The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). It is the reality of God’s presence and the promise of that eternal reality that keeps Paul going, and can keep us all from being “knocked out.
* William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976, p. 111.
** Wright, N.T., Acts for Everyone, Part Two: Chapters 13-28 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.