读经：诗118:17-29 西4:2-18 耶16:1-17:27
Glorified in Defeat
I will never forget a conversation I had with Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Franciscan monk and preacher to the Papal Household. He was about to be involved in a public debate with one of the ‘New Atheists’ in Italy.
I asked him whether he thought he would win the debate. He replied that he did not know. He said he might lose. ‘But,’ he added, ‘the Lord can be glorified in defeat.’
Jesus turned the world upside down. He reversed the values of the world. Supremely, on the cross, Jesus turned the world upside down. In an act of ultimate humiliation and apparent defeat he brought the greatest victory the world has ever known.
It was said of his followers that they were ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6, NRSV). In each of today’s passages we see how this works, and how the Lord can be glorified in defeat.
1. God can bring success out of apparent failure
Psalm 118:17-29As I look back on my life, God seems to have used the difficulties and defeats more than any apparent success.
The psalmist has clearly been through a difficult time. He writes, ‘God tested me, he pushed me hard’ (v.18a, MSG). Yet he is full of thanksgiving, praise and rejoicing: ‘I will… give thanks to the Lord’ (v.19). ‘This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (v.24).
He is full of thanksgiving because he sees that God is able to bring success out of apparent defeat. He writes, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ (v.22, AMP).
Jesus is the supreme example of God bringing success out of apparent failure. He is the stone that the builders rejected, which has now become the cornerstone of the church. Jesus quotes this verse in Psalm 118 as referring to himself (Mark 12:10). Peter too makes this application (1 Peter 2), pointing out that Jesus is ‘the living stone – rejected by human beings but chosen by God’ (v.4). Jesus is now the chief cornerstone in the church on which the whole church rests.
Our response should be like the psalmist: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever’ (Psalm 118:29).
The worship song, Cornerstone, has beautifully articulated this in its chorus:
‘Christ alone, Cornerstone
Weak made strong, in the Saviour’s love
Through the storm
He is Lord, Lord of all.’
Lord, thank you so much for the way in which you bring success out of apparent defeat. ‘You are my God, and I will give you thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you’ (v.28).
2. God can use you in spite of your circumstances
Colossians 4:2-18At times we are distracted by many ‘if onlys’. If only we were married. If only we were not married to the wrong person. If only we were in the right job. If only we didn’t have to go to work. If only we didn’t have so many children. If only we did have children. If only we lived in the right place… But God used Paul in spite of his circumstances, and almost because of them!
Paul writes, ‘Make the most of every opportunity’ (v.5, MSG). We cannot all be ‘successful’ but we can all do our best in whatever situation we find ourselves. Paul writes that they are to tell Archippus, ‘Do your best in the job you received from the Master. Do your very best’ (v.17, MSG).
Paul was extraordinarily gifted. He had a vital message to proclaim to the world. We would have expected that God would place him in a position of authority and power so that he could best use his gifts and proclaim his message.
However, God allowed him to end up in prison. He ends the letter, ‘Remember I am still in prisonand in chains’ (v.18, AMP). Yet the Lord was glorified in his apparent defeat. God turned Paul’s situation upside down. Almost 2,000 years later we are still reading the words Paul wrote while in prison. God used his words to change the world.
Your words are powerful. Paul writes, ‘Let your speech at all times be gracious (pleasant and winsome), seasoned [as it were] with salt, [so that you may never be at a loss] to know how you ought to answer anyone [who puts a question to you]’ (v.6, AMP). We need wisdom to know when to speak, what to say and how to say it.
God also used Paul’s prayers to change the world. Here is another challenge to our priorities. He writes, ‘Devote yourselves to prayer’ (v.2). The world considers prayer a complete waste of time. Paul saw it as the highest priority of our lives. He commends Epaphras because he is ‘alwayswrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured’ (v.12).
He wants his readers to pray that ‘God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should’ (vv.3–4).
Here is yet another challenge to our priorities. Paul does not want them to pray for large crowds to come and hear him – rather he prays that he may proclaim the message clearly.
Paul doesn’t want them to pray for an open door to the prison, but an open door for the message of the gospel to be proclaimed. Rather than looking to the future when you might be in a better situation in which to serve God, focus on how you can serve God in the present, whatever the situation.
Lord, help me to get my priorities right – to devote myself to prayer and proclamation whatever my circumstances. Give me wisdom today to know when to speak, what to say and how to say it.
3. God can make the ‘worst of times’ the ‘best of times’
Jeremiah 16:1-17:27‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ These are the opening words of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.
Again, we can see that God can be glorified in apparent defeat. A ‘year of drought’ can become a ‘year of bearing fruit’ (17:8). I recently heard Rick Warren say, ‘One of the things that I believe is that bad times are good times for the church. The good news gets better as society gets darker, because our light just shines brighter.’
He continued, ‘In the 1930s [recession] there were two things that increased: theatre attendance and church attendance. People were looking for escapism and they were looking for meaning. The economy is very tough in the US right now; it’s tough globally. This really is a good thing.’ Rick’s point was that ‘This is the time for us to expand and push out, not for us to retreat.’ The worst of times can be the best of times.
Something like this is expressed in this passage. Jeremiah continues to warn of the coming judgment because the people have followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts instead of obeying God (16:12). He cautions us against the danger of deceiving ourselves: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things’ (17:9).
We can easily deceive ourselves. If we want something our minds can present a variety of reasons why we should have it. We can easily justify ourselves even when we are in the wrong.
This is one of the reasons we need to stick close to God (v.7, MSG). We need to be constantly checking ourselves with the Word of God and the wisdom of the Christian community, or else our trust can end up in the wrong place. The Lord says, ‘Cursed are those who trust in mortals, who depend on flesh for their strength and whose hearts turn away from the Lord’ (v.5).
On the other hand he says, ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit’ (vv.7–8).
Again, God turns things upside down. ‘When heat comes’ we would expect the leaves of the tree to dry out and turn brown. Yet because the tree is planted by the water it sends out roots by the stream and the leaves are always green. The psalmist likens this to the person who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him, that person will not fear nor worry when heat comes.
There are times in your life when the ‘heat’ increases. You are tested by difficult circumstances and challenges. If you stay close to the Lord, trusting in him, God is able to turn things upside down. ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him’ (v.7).
Lord Jesus, you brought success out of apparent defeat. Thank you that I can trust you even when circumstances seem to be against me. I put my trust and confidence in you today.
‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.’
Trust is being able to let go and give oneself, or a situation, over to God, without holding back. It is a child in a parent’s arms, never doubting for a moment that they are safe.