“Indescribable” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! This is the second Sunday of November and the second week of the three-week series Grateful. If you have been reading or sharing the Grateful devotional journals, this morning’s text is taken from this past week’s readings on Giving. The readings for the first week of November were about People, and next week’s readings will be about Christ. This morning is kind of a combination of Giving and Christ, with the last verse of 2 Corinthians 9:15 “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” as our controlling idea.
In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul discusses the Christian duty to provide financial support for Christians in Jerusalem who were facing economic hardship because of the famine in the 40s of the first century. At that time, it was a new concept to Christians to raise money for other people many miles away whom they had never met. The fundraiser was likely collected in the majority of the churches in Asia Minor and Greece. The Bible mentions contributions only from the churches in Macedonia, Achaia (Corinth was its capital city) and Galatia. Historians believe Paul spent close to ten years raising money for these Christians. Fundraising, even for a good cause, has never been easy. During the collection, a controversy arose that strained Paul’s relationship with the church in Jerusalem. The Apostle Peter refused to worship with the non-Jews in the Antioch church, and Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy over this; the church in Jerusalem sided with Peter. We do not have reliable historical information about what ultimately happened to the money which Paul
The ”indescribable” gift which Paul mentions in verse 15 is not a human gift of money or an agricultural tithe or of hours of work for the church. It is God’s gift to us, and to anyone who is open to accept it: it is the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The word “indescribable” appears no where else in the New Testament. It means, of course, something which cannot be described, but especially something which goes beyond our ability to speak, or to describe in words.
Some other translations use adjectives other than indescribable: see which of these options resonates with you:
Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.
Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!
I like that last one the best: it isn’t that we aren’t allowed to speak about the gift of Jesus Christ, it’s that the gift is too wonderful for us to describe in words.
This puts me in a bit of a pickle as a preacher — trying to describe something which is too wonderful for words. So I’m going to come at this idea of indescribable giving in a time-honored way: I’m going to tell you a story. My apologies to Myron Miller, who I have already shared this story with — I think I told you at the time that it would probably appear in a sermon sometime. This is not my story — I heard it on a program called Story Corps on the radio; it brought tears to my eyes so that I had to pull over on the way to work. It is a true story — I don’t remember all the names of all the people involved, but it doesn’t matter.
Story Corps interviews and records people’s stories. The initial interview was recorded in 2018 with a firefighter, Bart, who had been diagnosed with cancer and told that he would not survive it. The interviewer asked him about his career, and if there are specific events he remembered as a firefighter. He told the interviewer about a fire more than 25 years ago. It was February, and he was called to the home of a family whose electricity was out and who had been using candles for light, and had gone to bed with a candle burning. It was 2:00am and their home was engulfed in flames. Bart ran upstairs looking for people in the house, and saw a bedroom with bunkbeds — there were probably children in the house. He knew that children often hide when they are frightened or injured, so he searched upstairs, and found an eight-year-old girl hiding in the bathtub. He got her out of the house alive, but she was badly burned, and was taken immediately to the hospital. All he knew was that her name was “Mayeisha.” He couldn’t stand to go to the hospital because he was afraid he’d hear that she had died of her burns. He never heard what happened to Mayeisha.
28 years later, when he was being treated for cancer, Bart went to Wal-Mart, and the cashier who waited on him was a woman in her thirties who had scarring on her hands and face. Her nametag said Mayeisha. He said, “I don’t want this to be uncomfortable for you, and I respect your privacy if you don’t want to talk to me, but were you in a fire when you were a young girl?” Mayeisha was the girl he had rescued as an eight-year old. She had survived and was able to
function with few handicaps from her injuries. She had not known the name of the firefighter who rescued her, and he had never found out what happened to her.
Story Corp interviewed Mayeisha and Bart together in 2020. It turns out the doctors had been wrong about the cancer, and Bart was in remission after treatment. Mayeisha thanked him for saving her life and for giving her the opportunity to grow up and be an adult. And Bart told her how many times he had wondered about what happened to her and hoped she was alive. And then he said this: “Thank you for your courage. I knew even 28 years ago that you were a fighter, and I thought of you while I was being treated for cancer and there were days I just wanted to give up. Thinking of you gave me strength.” That’s when I had to pull off the road and take a few moments to gather myself.
I know firefighters have an important job and that there are times — we hope not many — when they put themselves in danger to rescue someone who might perish otherwise. That’s inspiring all by itself. I would have expected the woman who was alive because of him to say “Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.” But what got me was to hear this firefighter thank her for her courage and her example, and tell her that it had given him courage and strength, as well. Obviously we are the people who have been saved; whether we were adult or children, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, we were — or we are — the one who was hiding in a burning building and unable to save ourselves. Praise God that we have been saved, even if we may always carry scars from the ordeal. Those scars are a testimony to what we have survived. My question is, what are we giving back to the One who saved us? Maybe Jesus Christ doesn’t need courage and strength the same way a man undergoing cancer treatment does, but I’m pretty sure there are things which Christ wants from us — maybe even things which Christ needs from us.
Chapter 9 verse 13 says, “Through the testing of this ministry, you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your sharing with them and all with all others.” Could God accomplish God’s will on earth without us sharing the gospel of Christ or giving anything to anybody? I believe God can do anything, everything with or without us — but I also believe it is our calling, our duty, our obligation, and our privilege to share thanksgiving to God. Being grateful, that is, saying “thank you” is a fine place to start, but it is just a start.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, these chapters of 2 Corinthians are part of a fundraising letter from the apostle Paul, but they are so much more than that. They are a prescription for how to glorify God: we glorify God by acknowledging what God has done for us. Through the indescribably gift of Jesus Christ, we were saved from a burning building: a building we set on fire ourselves, accidentally, or more likely, on purpose. People who set their own houses on fire might deserve what they get, but instead, Jesus found us and saved us. Jesus died so that we could be found and saved, and not have to experience the deadly consequences of our actions. No preacher should have to tell you to be grateful for that.
But I hope as we contemplate being grateful, we would also consider what we owe to Christ, and maybe even what our responsibility is to other folks whose houses are in various stages of conflagration. We are not Christ, we are not the source of salvation, but how could our gratitude become generosity for others? We who are saved have responsibility: to do our best to live as Jesus would, to encourage others, to share what we have been blessed with; maybe even to say, “Hey, there’s smoke coming out of your house: I know someone who can help with that.”
I don’t pretend to be able to describe something which is too wonderful for words, but I can point toward the God who loves me and the Son who saved me and the Spirit who sustains me. I can thank God for the sacrifice and the gift of Jesus Christ and I can practice the most sincere form of gratitude, which is to model my life on the pattern of Jesus Christ. I once was lost, but now am found. May God bless you as we produce thanksgiving to God. Amen.