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Provocative Piety


2 Corinthians 2:14-17
April 5, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 16:35 in the audio file.



Or, Magnifying Our Ministry (Not Our Misery)

The L2L leaders met via screen yesterday and I asked for any feedback related to sermon topics, as in, has there been too much focus on the current COVID events? Have the messages so far been helpful? Is it time to move on? One of the men pointed out that there is an elephant in the room, or rather, the elephant is in quarantine, so we might as well talk about it. Another said that we are all still waking up every day in the middle of uncharted waters, so some additional effort to figure out where we are is not yet wind lost to the sails.

I’ve been reading more and thinking about the “emergency powers” that a government claims for itself in a crisis, and leaving aside whether that is a good idea, it has caused me to consider these Lord’s Days as a kind of “emergency preaching.” We are not out of the woods yet. The guide said we only had a little more to go before we’d be out into the open field, and then he said, “Sorry, I meant another month.” And, okay, what do we do?

This is the fourth crisis measures message. So far I’ve reminded us that these light and momentary (by comparison) afflictions are increasing our capacity for eternal glory; we don’t lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). I reminded us that trials are testing and refining our faith; we rejoice even in heaviness (1 Peter 1:6-7). Last Lord’s Day I collected some of of Solomon’s wisdom for waiting out whirlwinds, and reminded us that God establishes our households through tempests when we fear Him.

Today I want to talk about the household of God, and encourage us as a church to remember our place in culture and our purpose(s) in the world. Paul wrote to Timothy about how to behave “in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Just as there are household economics and family responsibilities for sake of productive property, so there are principles of productive property for the church. But our business is not to make money, our business is one of buttressing the truth. The truth most central to us is the truth about Jesus: God made manifest in the flesh, vindicated as God by the Spirit in His resurrection from the dead, proclaimed as Lord among all peoples, ascended in glory and preparing to return (1 Timothy 3:16). God is building His household, in numbers and in strength and in unity, and He calls every member of His household to godliness.

The truth is something we proclaim, yes, and it is something we embody. This is godliness. He has not made us a library, but a living household. We are not merely containers of data or conduits of information, though truth is obviously something that can be organized with syntax and transferred by sentences. We are learning what to believe and how to behave. We are to live in the world with three-dimensional godliness.

The men who’ve read C.R. Wiley’s books are familiar with the word piety, a Godward “mode of life.” Those who are reading Calvin’s Institutes may have read the introduction about Calvin’s own piety and his understanding that the study of theology is driven by a desire to know God not mainly to satisfy intellectual curiosity. Truth feeds piety, and piety hungers for truth.

Paul began his first letter to Timothy: “the aim of our charge is love the issues from a pure heart and good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:5). As I said back in January, as a minister I desire the assembly to be more like Jesus, more joyful, and more jealous-able. I want us all, as the household of God, to have provocative piety.

The dictionary definition of provocative slants toward something annoying or irritating. I’m not calling us to be the church bus of the sisterhood of squeaky wheels. That said, we ought not to be afraid of being called annoying, or worse. We ought to be causing a strong reaction, provoking response, and it could go a couple ways. Don’t be caught off guard, and don’t forget who you are.

The apostle Paul knew about political quarantines, though his was actually called prison (in Philippi in Acts 16, and in Caesarea in Acts 23) and house arrest (Acts 28). Even when he was free, there were times when he was isolated, and discouraged, and restless.

When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I didn’t find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:12-13)

Even the most ridiculous dualist (who exalts certain work as more spiritual) has to grapple with Paul’s heaviness here. He was supposed to preach, and could even tell somehow that people wanted to hear him since “ door was opened,” yet his “spirit was not at rest.” He didn’t just miss an opportunity, he walked away from being productive.

(And this reminds me that I wanted to clarify after the message last Sunday, that when I recommend being productive during this time, I am not trying to put more pressure on you. I mean, be steadfast. I mean, don’t collapse. I mean, watch TV on purpose rather than just out of panic.)

Paul’s troubles could not take away the truth of his participation in Christ’s triumph.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14–17)

The triumphal procession was an event that even if the Corinthians hadn’t seen in person, they knew about. It’s the sort of subject that if someone hearing the letter read said “What is that?”, immediately everyone within earshot would start describing and piling on and filling in what others left out.

After certain conditions were met in a military effort, a Roman General might have a victory parade thrown in his honor. The expense, the attention to detail, the offerings to the gods, the humiliation of the prisoners of war, the music and colors and glory of the triumph were a show.

Part of the parade included incense, and Paul calls Christians the smell in Christ’s triumphal procession. We’re a smell that provokes a reaction from everyone. “Through us spreads the fragrance,” “we are the aroma of Christ.”

But the smell we give off doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. Our aroma is not on a on/off toggle, but it is a watershed, either/or.

There are two categories: “those who are being saved,” indicating that one could be at various stages in the process, but the saving process is at work in them. Then there are “those who are perishing,” again, the work of death leads to more and more deathly definition. The fragrance is the same, but beauty is in the snout of the sniffer. If you were a prisoner, the smell would not be a good association.

As those who are being saved we smell like life to some. You all have been like a May bouquet to me as I hear about or read your posts about how you are embodying the fragrance of Christ in this crisis. You are looking to find and serve needy people. You are coordinating and cooking meals. You are applying for unemployment with disappointment because you want to work rather than because you can collect easier money without working. You are taking online classes to learn things and increase your image-bearing skills. You are building organization systems for your houses. You are wearying yourselves to take care of your employees. You are submissive distancing, seeking to honor (for now) the orders from our magistrates.

Beloved, you are magnifying your ministry. You are not tooting your own horn, but you are shining your lights.

In Romans 11:13-14 Paul said that he was magnifying his ministry, in Greek: τὴν διακονίαν μου δοξάζω, common words for doxology and deaconing, glorifying his serving, in order to make his fellow Jews jealous. We talk about this not just because God still has a place for Israel, but because how we live and minister matters. It is provocative piety, and it’s not just for apostles.

We are, for the time being, ordered to stay home as much as possible. We see the dangers of that, not just for our mental health, but for the poor and for society and possibly for liberty. There is a sense in which we are waiting out the whirlwind, but there is another sense in which we are chomping at the bit to get back out there and do it better.

I am not a fan of what’s been called the Benedict Option, named after Benedict who created rules for monks and monasteries. Even before this pandemic, so much of our society was failing. Like monks we could retreat into our discipleship communities until the socialists eat up all the corn, like the seven ugly cows, then we pop out of our bunkers and rebuild. There is rebuilding to be done, not later, now.

As the household of God adorn the truth. Paul used that phrasing to slaves in Titus 2:10. If slaves, those without civil liberty or social influence, can make the doctrine of God look good, so must all of us.

Also, remember that as we magnify our ministry, we will provoke some, maybe even the majority, to contempt. The ones who are perishing don’t always perish quietly. Spiritual death is punchy, not anemic. They will see our good deeds and talk like we are evildoers (1 Peter 2:12).

Think about how this applies in the coronavirus emergency. They will hear us say that we care about all lives, including those who have lost their livelihoods, and they will say that we are unloving, or just greedy. They will hear us ask questions about the data feeding the panic models, or ask questions about what makes something essential compared to inessential, or ask questions about how we can avoid having the government pay for all our things, and say that we are anti-science.

It is very possible that we are being set up as Christians, set up to be shamed and criticized and blamed.

Our love of assembling, which is still Constitutionally protected and Trinitarian and called for by God Himself (Hebrews 10:25), could be used against us. In France and in South Korea the coronavirus spread could be traced to church services. Our love of neighbor could come to be used against us, since that is Christ’s command for His people, and others may decide for us that we must love our neighbor by avoiding him. Or we must love our neighbor by reporting him. Love your neighbor, or else.

Among “those who are perishing” were some who were irritated that Trump played to his Evangelical base by using the word “Easter” rather than a calendar date and talking about churches being full (this was more than a week ago, but the irritation was real). As believers we lament celebrating together, and some call that selfish of us. Don’t we care about all the lives we can save?

I am thankful for how united many of us are on the issues confronting us. That shared worldview is a blessing of God’s grace. It also appears not to be shared by most of the people in our county and State. It’s one thing for the media to panic, we expect that. But the majority of replies to our mayor’s announcements of closures and to the governor’s orders are that we still are not shut down enough. My observations are anecdotal, and social media is a limited sample size, but it is not good.

It is good, on the other hand, because we have the truth. We are not peddling ra-ra, self-help, stay-safe messages. We are not magnifying our misery, as individuals or collectively. We speak with sincerity, we speak with hope, we seek to be persuasive, and we seek to please God. Wisdom is justified by her deeds.

So keep adorning the truth, and be prepared for when that ggravates the foolish (Proverbs 29:9). Use your spiritual gift, and don’t be surprised at the fiery trial (1 Peter 4:7-14). May God make us a household of provocative piety, and may be make us #blessed.


Charge

Do not grow weary of doing good. Magnify your ministry. As you have opportunity, do good to everyone and especially those of the household of faith (Galatians 6:9-10). Not everyone will like how it smells, but God is not mocked. May your piety take root downward and bear fruit upward.

Benediction:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12, ESV)