She was only twenty-four years old when she died. Suffering with dementia, she had tramped around her parents’ house, while they absented themselves in a world-wide tour, trying to recoup their finances. After Susy's death on 18 August 1896, her famous father Samuel Clemens, whom you probably know as Mark Twain, raged at everyone near and far. And in particular, he raged at God. Earlier in his life, Twain had been raised in a Missouri Presbyterian home, attended a fashionable Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut, and counted a minister as one of his best friends.
But his daughter’s death knocked the props of his remaining vague religious beliefs out from under him. His books after her death would seize the opportunity to rail and blaspheme, most famously and succinctly put in his private notebooks two years after Susy’s death, “God's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.” And in his final unpublished novella, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, Twain’s main character admitted that “there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream.”
On one level, we can understand how the pain of life that Twain knew could take his breath away and even crush his spirit. After all, we are here today to mourn a loss that we don’t understand, to wrestle with a providence that leaves us afflicted, perplexed, struck down. Perhaps the question for you is not so much, “Why do people, like Mark Twain, lose hope?” Rather, the question might be better put, “Why do people not lose hope?” Even more, in the face this undeniable and painful sadness, why should I not lose hope?
There are strong reasons why you and I should not lose heart; we find them here in our text this morning. What we discover is that our hope is not tied to what we can see, what we can touch, what we can hold. Rather, our hope is anchored in the One who is unshakable, in promises that are infallible, and in realities that are far more real than anything our senses can know.
You see, the Apostle Paul here describes his life and ministry in terms that describe our lives. He notes that he has the treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in “jars of clay.” And these jars are subjected to incredible stress: affliction, perplexity, persecution, striking down; dying. And yet, though these jars of clay crack and flake, God by his grace holds them together. Even more, God points Paul to the ultimate and painful lesson he is teaching: “to show that the surprising power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). And so, though Paul is dying day by day, it is working life for him and others.
As a result, even if the face of tragedy, of nearly dying twice, of all that he faced that would crush most of us—he is able to declare, “So we do not lose heart.” And we wonder—how is it that Paul did not lose heart? How can it be that we might not lose heart in the face of these events that take our breath away?
1. We do not lose heart because we appraise this life and the life to come properly (4:16-18).
And the way we learn to appraise this life is by heeding the vast difference between “this age” and “the age to come.” In this age, our outer man is wasting away. We know this experientially—we experience sickness and pain; we have surgeries, hip and knee replacements, heart by-pass surgeries; we know that in this age, our physical strength is wasting away.
In this age, we experience “slight momentary afflictions.” Though Paul qualifies these afflictions that we experience as “momentary” (in reference to time) and “slight” or “light” (in reference to weight), they are afflictions nonetheless. We experience the loss of loved ones—of fathers and mothers, husbands or wives, brothers or sisters, children or children yet to be born—and we know, we feel that these are painful sorrows. They might be momentary and slight, but they are still afflictions and sufferings.
In this age, what we see is transient. As we experience these afflictions, we become convinced that this world is passing away. This world is transient; and our lives here are but a vapor, a breath, a fleeting moment.
By contrast, in the age to come, our hearts, our real selves, already being renewed day by day, will then enjoy “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension.” In the age to come, we will experience all those unseen things that are eternal. Now all we know is transient—our loved ones, our plans, our accomplishments all will pass from remembrance for they all are temporary. But then all we know will be permanent—for the City of God is built with foundations that no man can destroy.
For now, we live in this time between times, experiencing fully the tension between already having the treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God and not yet experiencing the fullness of that knowledge in the resurrection. But since we know this tension, we properly appraise this life and the life to come. In the midst of our sorrows, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.
Rather, we recognize a necessary connection between these human, earthly sorrows and afflictions and the coming weight of glory: “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.” And because we know these things, because we know that this age is transient, but the age to come is eternal, we do not lose hope. Rather, we trust that even in our sorrows, God is working out his perfect salvation for us.
2. We do not lose hope because we know that God is preparing a resurrection body for us (5:1-5).
What Paul tells us here is this: because we look to what is eternal and not to our transient sufferings, we know that even when death comes to us and destroys the earthly tent of our bodies, we have “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
This is nothing less than the promised resurrection body that is imperishable, that knows neither corruption nor decay. No longer will we house the treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in “tents.” Then we will store such knowledge in “buildings” that will never be destroyed or replaced, imperishable bodies like our Lord’s resurrected body.
And it is this expectation and hope that helps us in the midst of our groaning in our present condition. Twice Paul notes that presently we “groan” (5:2, 4), longing to have our present mortality swallowed up by immortality. This groaning is made more intense by the reality of the tension that we experience—for we already “have” a dwelling from God, but we have not yet put it on over these temporary clothes. We long for this, we groan as we experience our burdened estate—burdened with sin, sickness, and sorrow. We earnestly desire the immortality of the resurrection.
And yet, as those who believe in God, we wait patiently. For we have a great confidence that all God promised will come to pass. In fact, we have a guarantee—the Holy Spirit given to us to assure us that God will accomplish this purpose. And the Holy Spirit also stirs up these longings for immorality within us, using our sorrows to turn our hearts to the glories of the life to come—the resurrection body, the new heavens and new earth, and the full knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
As a result, we do not lose hope. Not only have we rightly appraised this age and the age to come, but we also know that God is preparing a resurrection body for us. The Triune God intends for his eternal life to swallow up our transient earthly lives and for his resurrection body to serve as clothing over our temporary earthly “tents.”
3. We do not lose hope because we believe that ultimately we will be with the Lord (5:6-10).
Paul sets forward yet another antithesis that is charged with the tension that we experience. In this age, as we are “at home” in these “jars of clay” that experience decay and as we long to be clothed with the immortal bodies that God has for us, we recognized that we are “away from the Lord.”
As a result, we do not live by sight—we do not yet see the Lord face-to-face. Rather, we live by faith—trusting that God will keep his promise, guaranteed by his Spirit, to raise us as he raised Jesus from the dead and to have his life swallow up and conquer our death. But in the age to come, we will live by sight. We will receive all that the Triune God has promised, all for which we have hoped.
In the meantime, we live with the deep tension—we struggle with sorrow and loss, with grief and hurt. But even as we wrestle and struggle and know the painfulness of these real emotions, we do not lose hope:
· because we have come to appraise this life and the life to come properly;
· because we know that God is preparing a resurrection body for us;
· because we believe that ultimately we, and all those within God’s covenant of grace, will be with the Lord.
We rightly love the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. But I wonder how Caspar Olevianus viewed that question in the years after he wrote it. After all, when his patron Fredrick III died in 1676, about 13 years after the catechism was published, the new elector of the Palatine was Lutheran. He immediately and Olevianus arrested; finally, he was expelled from his home and forced to wander through Europe. This one time preacher and university professor, the famous author of the Heidelberg Catechism, finally found work as a tutor for a wealthy family and a pastor in a small, insignificant church; and in that capacity, he died at age 50 in 1587.
As Olevianus wandered through Europe, expelled from the home that he had known, the friendships that he had forged, I wonder how the words comforted him:
My only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.Like Olevianus, as we move through our lives with sorrow and joy, we must always remember that our only comfort, our only hope is not found in things or people that we can see, touch, or hear. Rather, our only comfort and hope rests on our faithful Savior Jesus Christ who watches over us and ensures that all things must work together for our salvation. We cling to this hope in this age as we walk by faith, and not by sight.