[This religion column appears in section B-3 of today’s (1/06/13) Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. Currently, the paper does not include their local columnists pieces on their website. With their permission, here it is.]
I admire people in the ministry who hang in there and finish well. Few have done better than John Piper, 66, at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. On Sunday December 30, he preached his final Sunday sermon as senior pastor for the congregation he has led for thirty-two-and-a-half years.
Piper’s influence is far-reaching. Thousands of pastors look to Piper to read the tea leaves, and he rarely disappoints. He has written 40 books. More than 400,000 people follow Piper’s twitter feed (@johnpiper) and thousands regularly go to Piper’s ministry website (desiringgod.org) to find resources for their ministry.
So I was eager to hear what Piper would say to his congregation in his final sermon. After thousands of sermons, Piper preached from II Corinthians 5-6, encouraging his parishioners to live joyful lives in the midst of a broken, hurting world.
The sermon is entitled: “Sorrowful Yet Always Rejoicing,” a phrase taken directly from II Corinthians chapter 6. In this New Testament letter Paul essentially describes three elements of his faith: the repeated sufferings he endures, the character he tries to maintain and the paradoxes he embraces in his walk with God.
Piper decided to land right in the middle of this discussion in II Corinthians. After reading the text, Piper said above everything what the world needs from the church, “is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.”
For decades this poignant message has marked Piper’s ministry, and his final sermon was no exception. Thus, he maintained that though Christians are happy people they are not overly chipper. “There is a plaintive strain in the symphony of our lives. I think Jesus was the happiest man who ever lived. And O how sorrowful! A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.”
Some people hear this message and say, “Oh, so Piper thinks what people need is a morose, sullen heavy atmosphere of solemnity?” No, what people need is to see and feel indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
For Piper, then, the walk of faith never is just playing games. Nor is it a platform for the same self-help movement that the world offers every day. People need “the unfathomable crucified and risen Christ embracing them in love with blood all over this face and hands. And they need the thousand-mile-deep rock of God’s word under their feet.”
Should Christians be seen as happy people? Of course! A thousand times yes. But they need to see that happiness is “the indomitable work of Christ in the midst of our sorrow.” Thus, the character we display is not one of being embittered and frustrated and angry and resentful by all the afflictions and hardships and calamities and sleepless nights, all of which the apostle Paul describes he himself has endured.
To the end of his life, the apostle’s spirit was not broken by the pain and turmoil of his ministry. Piper maintains that “In the Holy Spirit, he has found resources to give and not to grumble. To be patient in God’s timing, rather than pity him. To be kind to people, rather than take it out on others.”
This in spite of the many paradoxes that faced him and that each of us faces. So in your walk of faith don’t be surprised when some honor you and some dishonor you. Or when some slander you and some praise you. Some may call you a fake, even a religious hypocrite.
This is to be expected. Here preacher Piper stands firm, looking out on the congregation and saying to not be surprised if they continue receiving a mixed reception (some honoring and praising them, some dishonoring and slandering them). He reminded them that Jesus said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
In the midst of his trials, the apostle Paul felt the tension of many paradoxes inherent in his walk of faith. And Piper pointed these out. For example, though most of us are nobodies in this world, we are known by God, and that’s what counts. Though we may have to endure many human punishments, some leading to death, repeatedly God has spared us from death. And one day he will raise us from the dead.
Though we are sorrowful people, we always are people who rejoice. Here Piper is crystal clear: “Yes, we are sorrowful. There are countless reasons for our heart to break. But in them all we do not cease to rejoice, one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian life!”
We may be seen as poor in the world’s eyes, yet we make many rich. “But we don’t live to get rich on things, we live to make people rich on Jesus,” said Piper. The apostle Paul was not a Christian, and not working in the ministry, for the worldly benefits it can bring. Those things were an obstacle to him.
Piper agrees and says that instead of commending our walk of faith by wealth or prosperity or comfort, we should commend it with this line from the old hymn: “When all around our soul gives way, he then is all our hope and stay.” In other words, don’t be surprised when things don’t go your way.
The world does not need to see our joy in the midst of good health and wealth and when everyone is speaking well of us. They already have that. “But indomitable joy in the midst of sorrow – that they don’t have,” insists Piper. “This is what Jesus came to give in this fallen, pain-filled, sin-wracked world.”
At the end of his sermon Piper simply read from Romans 8, saying “that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Before stepping away from the pulpit he reiterated one last time, “Let the world taste your indomitable joy in suffering and sorrow.”
Don Follis has been a pastor in Champaign-Urbana for more than 30 years. He has mentored more than 200 pastors and missionaries throughout the United States. His can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on twitter at @donfollis. (Copyright 2013 by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Champaign, IL 61820 & reprinted with permission.)