‘Strength in Despair’
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
(January 19, 2014)
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
One of the most popular TV show these days is the Biggest Loser: a reality TV program on channel Ten about a group of obese people who are determined to loose their weight with the help of professional fitness trainers. Each participant usually tells a similar story: that she is not happy with her body; that she believes that her obesity has obstructed her from having and doing the things that she wants in her life; that losing weight will change her life forever.
Indeed, the slogan of the program is No Pain, No Gain; and, throughout each series, we are invited to witness how the participants, through blood, sweat, and tears, do a range of physical and emotional exercises geared toward the final goal: losing weight. At the end of each series, we are invited to witness the drastic change that each has achieved; how their body is transformed from overweight to ‘ideal’; and how, as the result, their life has also changed for the better; that all their pains have not been in vain; that they all live 'happily ever after' with their new body.
The problem with such program, I believe, is that 'happily ever after' is the stuff of tales an legends, nor real life. Unfortunately, in real life, not in ‘reality-TV show’, not all pains produce gains. In real life, we are often left empty-handed and disappointed, no matter how hard we try.
The prophet who wrote our passage today from Isaiah understood this very well. He began his ministry with high expectation. He felt that God had made his mouth like a sharp sword and he himself like a polished arrow (v.2), yet, his effort had been in vain. The people of Israel had failed to listen to him. He said, in verse 3, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity ....” The word ‘nothing’ is the same word that is used in Genesis to explain the chaotic condition in the universe before creation. The lament also takes us to the book of Ecclesiastes within which the preacher of the book declares, “(V)anity of vanities! All is vanity (1:1 - NRSV)." 
Friends, following God is never an easy task. Ministry, whether it is done voluntarily or professionally, is challenging. People often feel discouraged and disappointed in their ministry, just like the prophet in Isaiah today. Many have said how their effort has yielded no fruit and, because of that, how they have lost their passion in ministry and their hope in the church.
But, in the midst of his despair, there was a blessing in disguise for the prophet in Isaiah. The experience somehow helped him to see more clearly the very core, the very foundation of his call. In verse 3, immediately after his lament, he said, “(Y)et surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” He found that God was the sole reason why he did he did. Others may have forgotten him, God had not.
Just like the prophet in Isaiah, the psalmist of Psalm 40 also depended, in times of trouble, on God alone, not on other people or idols (v.4), which were worshipped, by many people in Israel, alongside Yahweh, the God of Israel. The psalmist did not even depend on the sacrifice or offering (v. 6), which was often used as tools to manipulate or control God to do what the person, who offered the sacrifice, wanted to do. He found his hope only in the fact that God had given God’s ear to him (v.6). In other words: God gave God’s full attention to him. He was valued as beloved in God’s eyes.
Indeed, in a therapy session, the therapist’s full-attention to his client is the foundation of healing. no healing can ever occur in therapy without the client feeling heard, understood, and appreciated by the therapist. We may thus think of this psalm as a therapy session between the psalmist and Go; and here in this encounter, God fully accepts and listens to the psalmist unconditionally. No wonder that the psalmist hoped in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Friends, disappointment is not the exception, but the rule in ministry. Let me say this again: disappointment is not the exception, but the rule in ministry. It is NORMAL when we are disappointed at some stages in ministry. One even is tempted to say that if one never experiences disappointment in ministry, than one, perhaps, has not immersed oneself completely into one’s ministry because a person who gives everything to answer God’s call is always vulnerable. By lying his heart and his soul on the altar of God’s call, a person has risked himself to experience pains that accompany such brave act.
When I was doing my field placement as a theological student, I had the privilege to know an Australian couple who lived in Pakistan to teach English to refugees from Afghanistan there. While they were in Pakistan, they met a young Afghan refugee who was a Hazara, a minority group in Afghanistan who were often treated badly because of their physical appearance. They met him when he was selling t-shirts on the streets. He was in Pakistan with his brother (who was later killed in a bomb attack in a church in Pakistan). This couple took the boy to Australia and adopted him as their son.
Back in Australia, this couple kept in touch with groups of Afghan refugees, especially the Hazara people. One day, however, their adopted son got into trouble with other refugees from Afghanistan. He was punched in the head. These people found out that their adopted son had converted to Christianity from Islam and this was deemed to be unacceptable. Sadly, as this couple once said, such incident was not uncommon. It is a sad fact that many refugees brought with them the traumas from back home; the conflicts that we hope they have left behind.
This couple said that there were times when they understandably felt that enough was enough; that they would like to sever any contacts with the Afghans. The incident involving their adopted son was supposed to be their last straw. Yet, the last time I was in contact with them, they were still doing what they had been doing for years: serving the Afghan refugees in Perth. They were open and honest about their disappointment, but it never really stops them from being faithful to serve those people whom God loves.
Indeed, pain and disappointment are not the full picture of any ministry. The readings both from Isaiah and Psalm do not end in disappointment, but in hope. In his letter, Paul too reminded his fellow Christians in the city of Corinth that Christ would strengthen them. Their ministry was not theirs. God, who had called them, would also enrich them in their journey. Paul declared in verse 2 that those who had been sanctified and called as saints, had also been enriched in words and knowledge. These words are true for those Christians he originally addressed, and for us.
To be made saints doesn’t mean, however, that we are better morally and spiritually than other people. To be sanctified as saints, or be made holy, simply means that we are set apart by God to be God’s servants; and Paul declared that God who had set us apart would also equip us; that God would enrich our testimony; that God would strengthen us to the end (v. 5-8).
Too often we forget that the source of our strength in life and in our ministry is God, not our selves. The reason why we serve God in the first place is not our talents, or ability, or knowledge, but because God has called us to serve God and the world that God loves; and Paul called this God, who has called us into ministry, as faithful (v.9). God who calls us will never leave us alone. God who calls us will equip us with what we need.
Paul named these call from God and faithfulness of God as grace (v. 4). Indeed, it was the same grace that operated during the time of our prophet in Isaiah and the psalmist of Psalm 40, even though they gave no name for it. God’s grace was the one that nurtured the prophet in Isaiah; God’s grace was the one the strengthened the psalmist in our psalm reading today; God’s grace was the one that empowered the Christians in the city of Corinth; God’s grace is also the one that has called each one of us into ministry today, regardless of our background or situation.
God’s grace was the one that transformed a slave trader like John Newton, the author of the popular hymn that we sang before, Amazing Grace, to become an evangelist and an abolitionist, a person who opposed the slave trade in his time. In the third verse of the hymn, he said,
God’s grace has brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
John Newton, together with the prophet in Isaiah, the psalmist of Psalm 40, and Paul, knew very well that his life and ministry was not his own making, but God’s. The Grace of God had taken him from darkness to light. “I am a ‘wretch’”, said John in the first verse of the hymn, yet God’s grace had saved him. The word ‘wretch’ echoes the words ‘poor and needy’ (v. 17) that the psalmist of Psalm 40 used to describe himself and his situation, “but the Lord takes thought of me,” he said (v. 17).
Friends, being in ministry is like being in tension of two poles: one pole is joy and excitement; the other pole is disappointment. I believe that those who can survive long in ministry are those who can manage the two poles wisely. There is always a risk in answering God’s call, yet there is also the promise that God will accompany us along the way; that, in God’s eyes, not in our or other people's eyes, our effort is never in vain; that God will strengthen us; and that God’s grace will lead us to a place we never dream of before.
 Long, Bill, Epiphany II--January 20, 2008, on http://www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIV/Is49II.html (retrieved on January 16, 2014).
 Together in Song – Australian Hymn Book II (Harmony Edition), Australia (1999): Harper Collins Religious, song number 129.