2 Corinthians 2:14-17
March 25, 2018
My kids tell me that I am competitive when we play games like Monopoly, RISK, or Parcheesi. I suppose that I can’t help it — I like to win and, isn’t that the goal of playing any game?
It really doesn’t matter what you are engaged it, playing a game, competing in a sport, running a business, or running for political office. Whatever it happens to be where, in the end, someone is going to come out on top, it’s good to be the one on top. Yes, we are all taught to be gracious when we lose, but it feels so much better to win.
In American history, the striving to be first and best is the basis of what we call “American Exceptionalism.” And while in our modern age, this notion is played down in some circles, I think that it is usually a good thing because historically it comes from two things:
First, it comes from the Protestant doctrine of Vocation — the idea that we are to do all we do to the glory of God and in Jesus’ name — thus, our best is the only option. Tied in with that is the notion that there is no higher or lower calling, but we are different parts of the body of Christ and we need each other’s excellence to thrive.
Second, because historically, in particular with the wars we have faced, we have held the moral high ground. We might debate some of our current wars, but the majority of the wars we have faced in our history, we have fought against unjust governments.
Now, my purpose is neither to go on about American history, politics, or ‘Just War Theory,’ but to apply this idea that we all can relate to to the life of the church.
And when this idea is applied to the life of the church it is called “Triumphalism.” Now, like “American Exceptionalism,” it gets a bad rap in many circles and is sometimes considered excessive bragging — and thus is not polite.
And, to be fair, if we are bragging about ourselves or our accomplishments, or our wisdom, or our heritage, or our wealth, our success, our numbers, or anything else that might begin with the words “us” or “our,” then Triumphalism would be arrogant and blowing our own horn — something that James calls “evil” (James 4:16).
But, if we boast in the Lord — in his accomplishments, in his wisdom, his works, his election, his will — then that is a different matter entirely. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:31 and again in 2 Corinthians 10:17, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
God says much the same thing through the prophet Jeremiah, when he writes, “‘Let him who boasts, boast in this, the he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:24)
And so, every Sunday when we gather for worship, we are boasting in the Lord — who he is and what he has done. Thus, when we, in the spirit of 1 Samuel 1:24, “consider the great things he has done for us…” we boast in the Lord. When we consider, in the spirit of Judges 15:18, what a great salvation Christ has worked for us, we boast in the Lord. When we consider simply Psalm 95:3 reading “what a great God is our God and a great king over all gods,” we are boasting in the Lord.
But this is not limited just to times when we come together at church. Every time that you or I tell others about what a great God we serve and about the Gospel of salvation, in all of this, we boast in the Lord.
My fear, though, is that much of the church in America does not do a good job in doing the first (boasting in the Lord in corporate worship) and doesn’t bother to do the second (boasting of the Lord in our evangelism).
And if that is the case with you this morning, my aim is to use this time to shake you out of your doldrums — your listless faith — and your spiritual blahs and challenge you to live triumphantly — Remember folks, we do know the end of the story and Jesus wins and the church turns out triumphant.
On the Christian Calendar, this Sunday is set apart as Triumphal Entry Sunday — we know it better as “Palm Sunday.”
It is a Sunday where we typically honor many things… the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, his final Passover with his Disciples, the unridden colt of the donkey and its fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, and the garments thrown down for Jesus to walk on (a sign of submission to the king — see 2 Kings 9:13)… but it is called “Palm Sunday” because of the palm branches waved by the people — something that had nothing to do with Passover and everything to do with Jesus, for palm branches are a sign of victory.
But this is not just an earthly victory, they are symbolic of the spiritual victory of the Messiah over his enemies — to use theological language, the “Eschatalogical Kingdom.” And thus we find in Ezekiel’s vision of the new Temple in chapters 40 & 41, there are palm branches etched into the walls and then again in Revelation 7:9, when the multitudes are coming in, they are waving palm branches…and no, Revelation is not so much looking back at the Triumphal Entry so much as the Triumphal Entry is anticipating Revelation.
Again, this is a sign of the Messiah’s triumph over sin, death, and the grave.
So, for starters this morning, I want you to think about your life and the way you live it out as a Christian…would it be described as triumphant?
Maybe you need a benchmark.
How do you behave when you have won a game of monopoly?
How about when the Steelers win the Super Bowl…or the Pirates, when they get close to the Pennant as they did the other year?
Or closer to home, when the Bulldogs win a football game or a wrestling match.
Or, maybe it is the time you got straight “A’s” on your report card — or when your children or grandchildren did. I remember the first time I got straight “A’s” — it didn’t happen until I was in college and it was a really big deal for me.
Do you get my drift? So, how does your Christian life measure up?
Now, to give you another description of what Triumphalism looks like in our lives, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 2… where Paul describes his mindset not just in preaching, but when he works with the church as a body.
He begins in verse 14:
“But thanks be to God, who in Christ, leads us in triumphal procession and through us, spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”
Let’s stop there because to understand what Paul is saying, you need to understand his metaphor about fragrance or perfume.
There are pleasant smells and unpleasant smells in this world and the idea of “smelliness” is used in both a literal as well as in a figurative sense.
So, for example, when Jesus commands that Lazarus’ stone is to be removed, Martha’s objection in John 11:39 is based on the idea that “he stinketh.”
At the same time, after Dinah’s brothers avenged the honor of their sister, Jacob is worried that now he will “stink” to the inhabitants of the land (Genesis 34:30).
Negative pictures, but positive as well.
The Song of Solomon speaks about the pleasant nature of the perfumes and scented oils that the Shepherd girl anoints herself with…and later in Ephesians 5:2, Paul speaks of Christ’s offering as a “fragrant sacrifice” to God.
The other thing about scents is that they linger in the air even after the person has moved on. I’m sure you have noticed that when you have been around someone wearing a strong cologne or perfume.
Back when I installed flooring for a living, I put down baseboard in a McCormick spice warehouse in Maryland. I spent 2 days putting down cove base and while working in the large warehouse, the scent of the spice was so strong that it not only gave me a headache and impregnated my clothing with its scent, but also, our work-van smelled like spice for a week.
Do you get the picture that Paul is making here?
Christ leads us in triumphal procession, but as we pass along, we leave behind a fragrance — and what is that fragrance? The knowledge of God.
So, I’ll ask you again about a triumphal life.
After knowing you — after spending time with you — do you leave behind a knowledge of God? Do people learn about God from what you say and from how you live? Do they know about God by interacting with you?
If not, what are you going to do to fix that problem?
My concern is that the world is the way it is today because Christians aren’t leaving behind much fragrance at all…or perhaps they fear to wear the perfume of the knowledge of God because they fear attracting attention and persecution…then again, didn’t Jesus say, “blessed are those who are persecuted for my name’s sake”?
Think about it…
Verses 15-16 continue the idea:
“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 and to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
There are two more aspects to this metaphor…
First, in the Old Testament, burnt offerings to God were described as a pleasing aroma to him. If you’ve ever spent time around a barbecue grill, then the idea is pretty easy to understand.
Second, in anointing the Priests and Kings, fragrant oils would be poured over their heads in such a quantity that the fragrant smells ran down and were absorbed in their beards and heads and clothing. That way, anyone coming near them would know that these men were anointed and set apart, and even after he passed, the odor remained as a blessing to those he came into contact with — and Peter describes all of us as priests…Think about it.
To those who accept the knowledge of God, the blessing of life to life and to those who reject it — it is a reminder of judgment and death. It is our testimony to a fallen world.
So, who is sufficient for these things? None of us… God calls us to serve him first and then qualifies us — it’s all about him.
And because of God’s call, Paul can write that we are not peddlers of the Gospel…trying to make a buck by preaching God’s word — we are men of sincere calling, commissioned by God and it is in His sight that we speak.