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A Breath of Fresh Air

Sometimes the best way to build up God's kingdom is to encourage his workers.

Focus: Sometimes the best way to build God's kingdom is to brace up his workers.

I want to read three brief passages, first from 2 Corinthians 7, beginning at verse 5:

"For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more" (RSV).

And then from 2 Timothy 1, beginning at verse 15:

"You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, and among them Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus" (RSV).

And then this verse from 1 Thessalonians 5:l1: "Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing" (RSV).

All Christians experience discouragement.
In the middle of Paul's charge to Timothy, the man begins to reminisce. That's the privilege that goes along with advancing years. He begins to think of some unpleasant memories, and in those he names two individuals, Phygelus and Hermogenes, people who at one time were close friends of the apostle but now had deserted him. One wonders why he singled them out. After all, he just said, "All in Asia had deserted me."

For some reason he selects two of them and names them, forever. Perhaps it was because they were at Ephesus, and he wants Timothy to beware of them. Perhaps it was because at one time they were close, intimate friends, and their departure hurt more. At any rate, it scorched the soul of the apostle. And he calls them by name when he lists them as deserters from the cause.

Then he balances that unpleasant memory by pointing to Onesiphorus, also a little-known disciple. But this one had come to the great city of Rome and, at no small risk to himself, had searched diligently until he had found the apostle. He'd come to see him. And he'd not only come on one occasion, but he had gone repeatedly to that dungeon. So Paul declared, "He often refreshed me." Or as one translator has it, "His visits were like a breath of fresh air." Or, "His visits were like a tonic to me." Or as James Moffatt describes it, "Many a time he braced me up."

The apostle needed to be braced up. He was down: "All who are in Asia have deserted me."

Back in the area of the country where I grew up, we had a specific term for Paul's problem. It wasn't in the medical dictionary, but it was a precise term, and it was a descriptive term, and to hear it is to know precisely the nature of his problem: Paul had the "mully-grubs." He was really down.

And it wasn't the first time Paul had been down. He was down also when he wrote that severe letter to the Corinthians, when he found out the terrible immorality in that crowd and wrote them a severe letter. Paul was always putting himself in a position where he would really be down and need a tonic.

I suspect many of us grew up in the era when tonics were popular. I remember my mother always started a couple of months before school each fall getting us braced up, ready for the school year. I don't believe the Watkins man, who ran a route even out as far as I lived, ever offered a tonic that my mother didn't try. She finally settled on a gosh-awful concoction.

I called her the other day, and I said, "Mother, what was the name of that tonic?"

She said, "I think it was three sixes."

"Well, I don't know what the beast looks like," I said, "but I know what he tastes like."

It was hideous stuff. It was so bad that after taking that stuff for two months, we were glad when school started. After we'd gone a couple of months and didn't come down with a cold or flu, Mother was reinforced. She knew the tonic did the trick, and next year she'd really be stocked up on the stuff.

The apostle Paul had the mully-grubs. He was down. He got down fairly often.

One of the problems I had with going into the ministry was my inability to see a human being who was in it. It took somebody coming to our pulpit that acknowledged that he too had the mully-grubs to make the ministry an option for me.

How did Paul say it while he was waiting there at Macedonia? He said, "I didn't have any rest. I had fighting without and fears within." That's telling it like it is, Paul.

You see, he'd preached one of those sermons that preachers don't enjoy preaching (though our people think we do). He'd confronted them with the demands of the gospel, and he had said, "Christ calls us to holy living, and you aren't living holy lives." He laid it out. (You can read it in 1 Corinthians.) He shaped them up. And then he waited around to see how in the world they were going to take the message. He had sent Titus over to check to see whether or not he would ever be welcome in the same environment again.

We know those sermons. We don't like to preach them, but we have to if we're going to be faithful. We do it now and again.

Phillips Brooks said there are two people you need to avoid: the timid surgeon and a timid preacher; neither will do you any good. When Paul saw what he needed to say, he said it, and then he was eaten alive by all the fears and the doubts about how the crowd would take it.

God uses imperfect people to encourage others.
So Paul prayed for a miracle there in Macedonia. He prayed for a miracle, and in walked the man Titus. Isn't it amazing? He's looking for something spectacular and in walks Titus. Paul says, "The God who comforts the downcast comforted me by the coming of Titus."

Aren't you amazed that the Lord can use imperfect people? He really can make us that word of grace when he wants to speak to another who is down, who is terribly discouraged.

I think about those disciples. They understood practically everything Jesus tried to say. And yet I shudder to think how it would have been to be him if he had not had them. I was proud of them, as you are, that time when most of the people left them. Jesus started talking about the cross, and many turned away.

Jesus said to those remaining, "What about you? You going too?"

"No, Lord. No. You have the words of eternal life. We're going to stick with you."

When Jesus came to the end of his life, he was looking at that cross. I believe there was a strong note of gratitude in his voice when he said, "You are those who have continued with me in my trials."

Maybe they didn't know how to say it, but just being there, they gave him some encouragement. When he went to the Garden of Gethsemane, he went for two things: he went to get encouragement from God and he went to get encouragement from his disciples. We know they slept, but they didn't always sleep. Sometimes they were there, now and again they came through. I shudder to think what his life would have been like without that encouragement.

I think about Jacob, how he cheated his brother, Esau. He gained the right of precedence that was not rightfully his because he wasn't the eldest son. He incurred the wrath of Esau, so he ran; he escaped with his very life. After rearing a large family, he came back to Canaan.

He didn't leave his father-in-law feeling too kindly toward him either. In fact Laban was the slippery character that made him work twice as long to get the woman he wanted. But we meet a more slippery one in Jacob, because when Jacob came back to Canaan, he brought more wealth with him than he had left behind.

Then he had that wonderful experience by the Jabbok, when he was converted. But he still had to face Esau the next morning. He went out there, and he sent that huge company of wealth, all those animals, as a peace offering to his brother.

When Esau sees him, he runs, falls on his neck, and hugs him and kisses him. And he says, "What does all this company mean?"

Jacob says, "It's to gain favor from you."

"My brother, I have enough," says Esau. "My brother, I have enough."

And Jacob says, "Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God."

You mean because someone we've wronged has been given grace to forgive us, to say "Brother" after we've been anything but a brother, they can see in our face the face of God?

"Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God."

God-given encouragement changes lives.
I shall never forget my student days at Emory—not my seminary days, but after I'd served a parish for a time and went back for an advanced degree—I remember being one of the oldest people in the class. And there was another there who had also served in a parish for some time. He sat on the other side of the room from me. And we didn't relate too well, I suppose, to the younger students because we had our own agenda, our reasons for being there. We didn't have too much in common with the younger students.

I remember one day going over to see this man, who happened to be a black man (he was the only black person in the class). At the end of the class, I said to him, "How about having lunch today?"

He said, "Fine. Where do you want to go?"

I said, "Well, let's try the cafeteria."

We went to the cafeteria and enjoyed lunch and began to talk about our churches. He serves in one of the largest predominantly black Baptist churches in the country. We began to talk about our work. And out of that talk grew a friendship, so that the rest of our time during our residency, we were together most of the time.

Toward the end of our residency, he invited me to go home with him one weekend to preach in his church. I gladly accepted the invitation. It was a great church. I was waiting my turn to get up to preach, and he said something in his introduction of me that choked me up so much I found it difficult to continue.

He said to the congregation, "I want you to know that I set a deadline on the day I met this man. I told God that morning that if I didn't meet someone that day who said hello to me and wanted to spend some time with me, wanted to be my friend, then I was giving up my education. I was coming back home."

And I got all choked up, and I still do, because what I had done was such a small gesture, it was nothing—"Let's have lunch together." And out of it I not only found one of the best friends I have, but God used that word, unknown to me, as a word of encouragement to him in a time of bleak despair. Isn't it amazing that God can let an imperfect person be an expression of his word of grace?

I remember reading a story not long ago about the "elevated train" in Chicago—a train that sits on a high track when it comes into the downtown area. A young man was riding that train day after day as a commuter. And as the train slowed up for the station where he got off each day, he could look through an open curtain into a room of a building and see a woman lying in a bed. She was there day after day, for a long time, obviously quite ill. He began to get interested in her since he saw her every day. Finally, he determined to find out her name. He discovered her address, and he wrote her a card, assuring her that he was praying for her recovery. He signed it: "The young man on the elevated."

A few weeks later, he pulled into the station, and he looked through that window and the bed was empty. Instead there was a huge sign: GOD BLESS YOU, MY FRIEND ON THE ELEVATED!

Many times the difference between health and illness is a word of grace—a caring gesture from someone who embodies the very spirit of him who is the ultimate encourager. People are waiting, and isn't it marvelous that God can use the likes of us!

And he has throughout history. I think about David Livingstone when he climbed into the pulpit of a little church in Scotland. He'd honed his sermon. He'd prepared it so very well. He wanted to be a great preacher. He wanted to go give his life on the mission field. And when he got up to preach that night, he flapped his wings, but he couldn't get off the runway. He tried, but finally he forgot his sermon altogether; so he apologized to the people and left in great shame.

But Robert Moffat, the famous missionary, was there. And Moffat came up to him after the service and said, "You can be a great and wonderful servant of God. Why don't you go to medical school?" Today you can't mention Africa without thinking about David Livingstone. But what would have happened to David Livingstone without Robert Moffat?

And what would have happened to Paul without Silas? Silas was there in that prison, too. He helped him sing at midnight. You think he could have sung a solo? He helped him sing at midnight. We need that support. It may not be a saint in the spotlight; it might be a saint in the shadows, but we have to have those saints as well.

I was glad when I went one day to Philippi and discovered this little church about two miles from Philippi. They've named it St. Silas. I said, "Thank the Lord for Silas." If we didn't have people like Silas, if we didn't have a support system, we couldn't maintain our faces, because we all get the mully-grubs. It's a universal problem.

One scholar said that Paul's statement, "All who are in Asia deserted me," should not be read literally, that instead it is the sweeping assertion of a depressed man: "Everybody, everybody, everyone is gone!" Paul needed an Onesiphorus—someone to help put perspective on his problems.

Sure, you may have lost Phygelus, but you've got Onesiphorus. You may have to lose Hermogenes, but you have Timothy. Without people like that, we lose our perspective. We can't stand up to life. Even Jesus, our Lord, got down. What did he mean when he said, "Now is my soul heavy"?

Thank God for those persons in our lives who come as a breath of fresh air, who come into our lives just when we need them, and who are willing to pay the cost, to pay the price of putting themselves out to be something for somebody else.

And it is costly. When Paul sent that word about Onesiphorus, he said, "May the Lord have mercy on the household of Onesiphorus." There are those who believe that this man had paid the supreme price for his friendship with the apostle. It was a risky thing to go around that city asking questions about a condemned criminal, someone who was not a friend to Caesar. And it may well be that he had already paid the price for that friendship.

It costs something to put ourselves out, but oh my, where would we be if people had not put themselves out for us?

A week ago yesterday, I went over to South Georgia to conduct the funeral of the man who was a surrogate father to me. He had left elaborate instructions concerning his funeral. One of the items was that I should see to it that his casket was placed in such a way that he was facing the spot, the place, in the sanctuary where fifty years earlier he had met Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

I met that man through his 10-year-old son. His 10-year-old son came to hear the new associate pastor. I was 18 years old when I took that assignment. I was preaching my second sermon, and he was swinging his feet on the front pew. I was trying to remember my sermon, and he was swinging his feet, and I was mesmerized by him! After a while, I gave it up, and I had the people stand for the benediction.

Afterwards he came up to me (he was a chubby little guy), and he said, "Brother Bill, how about coming to our house and having lunch?" And I thought, Well, he owes me that. I went home. I met his family.

I went back to college. I forgot about the incident until a couple of weeks later. I went to my mailbox, and I pulled out a letter that rattled when I pulled it out. I opened it, and out fell fifty-seven cents in pennies, nickels, and dimes. And inside the envelope was a little letter from that boy:

"Dear Brother Bill, I'm sending you my egg money to help you go to school to learn to be a better preacher."

I remembered where his father worked. I called him and said, "Mr. Morris, how can I send this money back? I can't keep it."

He said, "I have news for you. You have to keep it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, he's taking better care of those chickens than he ever has in his whole life. He's sending you every penny of his profit, and he has publicly stated his intention to send you his egg money for as long as you go to school." He added, "If you send it back, you'll break his heart."

For years he helped me go to school. (And he flew over in his private plane to check on this investment not long ago. He has sent hundreds of people to school.)

There came a time when I got that little boy's letter, and I didn't laugh; instead, I'd go back to my room and get on my knees and say, "O God, help me to be worthy of that little boy's sacrifice." And suddenly, C's weren't good enough any more. And just getting by didn't cut it for me. There was coming up within me a rising desire for excellence, which I had never known before. And at the root of it all was a little boy who was laying down everything for me, and I couldn't stop him. I just had to respond to it.

It was a long time before I realized that Christ was like that little boy. Christ is laying it down for all of us. We can't stop him. He's the supreme encourager. He builds us up. He believes in us even when we don't believe in ourselves. We can't stop it. We can't reverse what he did on the cross. We can only respond.

"Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up just as you are doing."

© William Hinson 1992
Preaching Today Issue #114
A resource of Christianity Today International

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William Hinson is author of The Power of Holy Habits (Abingdon Press).

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Sermon Outline:


I. All Christians experience discouragement.

II. God uses imperfect people to encourage others.

III. God-given encouragement changes lives.