This is the sermon I preached Sunday night at the opening service of our East Missouri Pastors’ Conference. CH
“The Burden of Our Ministry and the Basis for Our Joy” (2 Corinthians 4:5-12)
The theme for our conference this year is “The Joy of Ministry.” Ministry as a joy, rather than a burden. And tonight, in our opening service, we want to deal with both aspects of that equation, namely: “The Burden of Our Ministry and the Basis for Our Joy.”
Oh, and let me say right at the outset, while this is a conference designed for pastors, and thus this sermon is geared especially toward those in the ministry, I trust what we say now will be applicable in many ways to all of us here tonight, pastors and laypeople alike, whatever our vocation in life may be.
“The Burden of Our Ministry and the Basis for Our Joy.” Let’s start out by recognizing the burden of our ministry. Yes, there are certain burdens associated with the pastoral ministry. It is not all sweetness and light. Paul says as much, doesn’t he, in our Epistle reading for tonight: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. And this is not the only place where St. Paul speaks like this. Later in 2 Corinthians, in chapter 6, he writes of what he has had to endure as a servant of God: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” And in chapter 11, the same thing. He speaks of labors, imprisonments, countless beatings, often near death: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Now I don’t think anyone here has gone through even one-tenth of the hardships Paul faced for the gospel. We live in softer times, at least here in America. But that is not to say there are not hardships–there are. You know it as well as I. There is the struggle to fit everything in that we know we should be doing in a day or in a week: Personal devotions, prayer for our members. Theological study, keeping up our languages. Making the visits on the shut-ins, and the hospitalized, and the inactives, and the prospects, not to mention our “old faithful.” Bible classes, catechesis, service planning, bulletins and newsletters. Oh, and then there’s writing the sermon–and trying to make it a good one every time, not just cranking out 15 minutes of tired old clichés. Let’s see, what have I forgotten? Funerals, weddings, baptisms, and all the associated counseling that goes with those things. And then there’s the Winkel, and the circuit forum, and keeping up with what’s going on in district and synod.
And what about our family? Yes, what about our family? Are we able to squeeze in family devotions and family meals? What about the burden that is placed on our wife and kids? Are they getting half a husband and half a father? The balancing act we face can be tough. Now pile on top of that what many of our pastors face, which is getting paid thousands of dollars below the district guidelines, and the hardships are magnified.
Then there’s the pressure we face from our congregations: “Pastor, we’re dyin’ out here. Our numbers are down. Attendance is down. Offerings are down. We need you to produce!” So often pastors are judged by the “Book of Numbers.” Produce the numbers or perish–in the parish!
But maybe the toughest hardships we face are the ones we feel inside but others cannot see. That sense of guilt for having not done enough. The guilt of knowing that I’m really not all that spiritual of a man. My dirty conscience. My sense of failure–as a pastor, as a husband, as a father. And Satan will play with these things, using our minds as his personal dartboard. Our enemy is especially out to get pastors, to demoralize us and disable us.
All of these things–all of this is the burden we bear as pastors. Testing, temptation, tentatio. Afflictions, Anfechtungen. The burden of our ministry is real. It comes with the territory.
So where do we find joy in all of this? What is the basis for our joy? Let’s consider a couple of options. One is what I’m calling a “performance-based joy.” That is, we rejoice when our performance is pretty good, and we can see some tangible results. “Pastor, that was a really good sermon,” and then they quote some part of it that shows they were really listening. That’s nice to hear. Or “Pastor, you have the best Bible classes. What you said today–I never heard that explained before.” Ah, that goes right to the sweet spot, doesn’t it? Performance-based joy. Or maybe our own “Book of Numbers” is looking pretty good. Attendance is holding steady, maybe going up a little. Offerings are up, and the congregation voted to give you a raise. The wife is happy. So you think to yourself–maybe not in so many words, but the thought is there: “Well, look at yourself. You’re a success! You’re making it! The congregation is growing. The other guys are looking up to you. The DP is impressed. Why, it must be my winsome personality and solid professionalism. Soon I’ll be climbing up that ecclesiastical ladder.” Again, performance-based joy.
Now is there a grain of truth here? I suppose. That’s what can make it so subtle and appealing. There is a creative, image-of-God thing going on when we can look at what we’ve created–a well-written sermon, perhaps–and say, “That was pretty good.” And it is a joyous occasion when we see new members coming in, joining our congregation. Or when you see those light bulbs going on over people’s heads when they finally “get it” in one of your Bible classes.
But the danger is that here we can take our eyes off of where the credit and the glory ought to go–namely, to God–and we begin to think that we deserve the praise for what is happening. No, we are only unworthy servants. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.” I’m reminded of my confirmation verse: “Trust in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him. . . .” But do we acknowledge him, really, not just with lip-service, but sincerely, at the forefront of our consciousness?
Because the truth is, people are not joining the church because of you–or at least they shouldn’t be joining the church because of you and your smiling face and your winning personality. If they are, they’re in trouble and your congregation is off-kilter. No, people join the church because that is where Christ is; that’s where they can find their Savior. “Sir, we would see Jesus.” And people don’t sit in the pew and listen to you for 15 or 18 minutes a week because you’ve got such a golden voice and such funny stories–or at least they shouldn’t be listening for those reasons. No, it’s because of the gospel you’ve been given to preach. That’s where the power lies–in the Word. So really, it’s not “our ministry,” is it? It’s the Lord’s. It’s his performance that counts–and that is utterly reliable.
So instead of a “performance-based joy,” I’m going to suggest to you another option. And that is, a “promise-based joy.” Promise-based joy–joy that is founded upon the unshakeable promises of God. This is a joy you will never go wrong with, no matter the circumstances. Promise-based joy, beginning with the promise of the gospel itself, a joy in which we all share, pastors and laity alike, all the baptized. It is the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation, centered in the cross of Christ. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is God’s promise for you, my friend! Believe it! You will not die, but live! You have eternal life in Christ! He paid the price for your sins. He conquered death and the grave and Satan your enemy for you! He is your champion. He is your risen and living and returning Savior.
Dear Christian, brother or sister, you have a promise-based joy, whatever the burdens you bear. Hear the voice of Jesus say, once again: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Come and find your rest in Jesus, even in the hustle and bustle of a busy life. Even that burden of guilt you bear. Come and lay it down. In fact, Jesus your Savior has already carried that burden to the cross for you. Your sins are forgiven, all of them. Come to Christ here in the Sacrament and receive that forgiveness in his body and his blood. Find new strength for ministry and faithfulness in your vocation. And discover joy–real joy, true joy–afresh and anew.
Oh, and then there are the promises especially for us pastors. Jesus tells his apostles: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” You see, it’s not up to you. This is Jesus’ church, and he will build it. Or likewise, when our risen Lord sends out those same apostles to baptize and to teach, he assures them: “For lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Jesus is with you, pastor, in your ministry.
Yes, the joy of ministry is, at bottom, always a promise-based joy, based on God’s performance, not ours. This promise-based joy is founded upon the utterly reliable, always efficacious, church-building, ministry-empowering, word and promises of our loving God.
Because of Christ Jesus our Lord and his saving gospel, here is a promise you can rely on, whenever you are feeling the burden of the ministry–listen, this is for you: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”