“Paradox”Dr. Marion D. Aldridge 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12 Year B - Second Sunday in Lent
“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For 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 God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” – 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Harry Truman once said he was tired of financial experts and advisors saying to him, “On the one hand, this could happen, and on the other hand, that might happen.” He wanted someone to say, “This is the way it will be. No doubt. No questions.” President Truman said he wanted a one-handed economist.
One of the outcomes of a good education, at least in my life, is the tendency to be cautious. I have a preacher friend about whom someone said, “He may be wrong, but he’s never in doubt.” I tend to be just the opposite: I may be right, but I’m never totally sure I’m correct.
This short passage in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth points us to the paradoxical nature of humans attempting to live the Christian faith: one the one hand… on the other hand… It’s a seemingly impossible task. In fact, at one point, in Paul’s first letter to this same church, he calls preaching the Christian message a foolish endeavor. The old television show would say we have entered the Twilight Zone when the impossible begins to happen.
Forgiveness and grace: do you think any big corporation would put either of those words in a mission statement? “Treasure in clay jars” is not ordinarily a viable business model, but that’s the assignment of the Christian church.
The Bible encourages us to make the effort. God sets the example. Miracle of miracles, when we fail, we are offered grace and forgiveness by the same God who demanded that we aim for perfection.
When I was in high school and college, I loved brainteasers that seemed impossible to solve, but which had a fascinating, clear, and indisputable solution.
As I’ve gotten older and hopefully a bit wiser, I’ve discovered some things that seem hopelessly contradictory can, nonetheless, both be true. Everybody knows the hare is faster than the tortoise, right? But, we tell the fable of the tortoise and the hare to our children to explain why sometimes slow and steady wins the race.
Life is like that. “A stitch in time saves nine,” and “Haste makes waste.” Both are true.
Rabbi Edwin Friedman got my attention with the idea of paradox in his book, Generation to Generation, which deals with anxiety in family systems. His thesis is this: the more that fixing a particular person or solving some particular problem dominates a family, the less likely is that person to change or that problem to be fixed.
Forcing solutions is seldom a good idea for long-term change. Nobody ever found serenity through gritted teeth.
Rabbi Friedman’s advice is pure paradox: Instead of doubling down on the effort to make another human being change, let go.
We who are alive are always being given over to death.
Don’t do what comes naturally—since that is obviously not working. Learn to let go, relax, and laugh. Do the reverse of what everybody expects. Detach.
When one of my daughters was thirteen, she was mad at me for some reason, and stomped up the stairs toward her bedroom. I called her back down to the bottom of the steps and said, “This is how you stomp up the stairs,” and demonstrated for her some heavy-duty stomping. She laughed and I laughed, and I have no memory of why either of us was angry.
We should not make fun of someone in a serious conflict, but creative alternatives instead of intensifying disagreements should be an option.
Let’s look at our text, beginning in verse 5. Paul, who is not known as a man of great humility, says emphatically, We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord…
That’s always the best place to begin. Start with Jesus. Oddly, in the typical hymnbook, more hymns start with “I” or “my” or “mine” than with “Jesus.” One popular Baptist hymnbook has sixteen songs that start with “my,” and forty-seven begin with “I,” as opposed to only twenty-seven that begin with “Jesus.”
Verse 6 allows us to name this paradox, and the name is testimony. Even though the primary narrative of a Christian concerns the lessons we learn from Jesus Christ, we tell those through the lens of a single, individual life. Paul’s life. Your life. My life.
Paul tells us to let our light shine. There’s something powerful in saying, “Once I was lost, but now am found. Once I was blind, but now I see.”
Testimonies are good things when they tell a story about how we came to follow Jesus.
I love to hear people give their witness to how they became a person of faith. I also love to hear how they face daily challenges as a Christian. Ordinary life means that somebody has to cook supper, and someone has to earn a living, but if we’re going to call ourselves Christian, we need daily time with Jesus. Both/And versus Either/Or.
Paul’s testimony is recorded several times in the book of Acts (e.g., chapter 9, verses 3-9), and his account of his conversion is captivating. Paul is struck blind on the road to Damascus, encountering the Risen Christ. It’s not a common story. Most people in church in these early years of the twenty-first century are part of a congregation because they came through those sanctuary doors in some way as children, brought by their parents or a relative or a neighbor.
However, we arrived, here we are, and each of us has a story to tell. We should be able to tell it. Our testimony should not be a book with just one chapter. What happened over the past twenty or thirty years? That’s what people want to know: If you were blind and now you see, what do you see? Tell us about your pilgrimage. How has the light of Christ affected your daily living? In a world dominated by darkness, where, and how, and how often does the radiance of Christ shine through you?
We’re too bashful about our faith experiences. We need to be sharing our strength, wisdom, failures, and hope with others. People are drawn to a genuine spiritual experience. People know the complicated truth of their own lives, and respect integrity when they hear it.
Richard Hansen describes paradox as “the wild territory within which most ministers live and work.” Paradox is very difficult for literal-minded people to handle. To them, the world is black or white, good or bad, Republican or Democrat, beautiful or ugly. Yet, the world is full of irony, incongruity, and paradox.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Paul, without embarrassment, tells his story of disappointment and triumph. He acknowledges, in verse seven, that this treasure of Jesus Christ, our salvation, is contained in a very limited, breakable, fragile clay pot. The God of the Universe somehow also resides within us. What a paradox!
In today’s text, Paul’s words rise to pure poetry.
In chapter 4, verses 8-9, Paul speaks of being…
Afflicted but not crushed,
Perplexed but not driven to despair,
Persecuted but not forsaken,
Struck down but not destroyed.
In fact, the entirety of scripture is at its height when there is paradox:
Old man Abraham and old woman Sarah are too old to have children—until they have a child, Isaac. Paradox.
The Pharaoh of Egypt threatens to kill all the baby boys in the Jewish ghetto—until his own daughter adopts one of the little boys, the one named Moses, and raises him in the palace. Paradox.
The giant Goliath frightens all the soldiers in the army of Israel—until the little shepherd boy David volunteers to fight him. Paradox.
An unpretentious young maid named Mary is called on by God to give birth to the child who would be known as the King of Kings. Paradox.
This King of Kings is humiliated, tortured, crucified, dead, and buried, but on the third day, he rises from the dead. Paradox.
Throughout his years of teaching and writing, Paul often promotes this concept of paradox. Just a few paragraphs after this passage, in the same letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) Paradox.
About the Writer; Dr. Marion D. Aldridge was born in Savannah, GA and raised in North Augusta, SC. He is a graduate of Clemson University with a Bachelor of Arts degree and received Master and Doctoral degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He was recently awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
Marion has written several books, the most recent Overcoming Adolescence, a book for grown-ups who have not yet grown up. (http://www.helwys.com/sh-books/overcoming-adolescence/ )
He has also written hundreds of articles for South Carolina Wildlife magazine, Tennis Magazine, Sandlapper and others. He is married to Sally and has two adult daughters, Jenna and Julie. Marion especially enjoys fishing and baseball games with his grandson, Lake.
Scripture and Music:
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
“Freedom and life are ours.”
“Are Ye Able, Said the Master “
“Have Thine Own Way, Lord!
“How Firm a Foundation”
“Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines”
“This Little Light of Mine”
“I’m tradin’ my sorrow”