Tough week, eh? This has been one of those weeks, in preaching terms, that I hate. I thought I had a sermon by last Tuesday. But as the week went on, it was clear that I did not. What I had for a sermon was not where we were as a congregation. Oh, it was an ok sermon. It would have worked in a pinch or before Tuesday. But it would by no means have comforted or afflicted given the events this week. Thankfully, God is merciful, even when His pastors are watching their sons play with robots far away from commentaries and from home.
As most of you know, Robbie’s Lego robot team qualified for the state championships. What many of you may not know was that it was Homecoming at school. This was one of those weeks where Karen and I had to divide and conquer. For reasons known only to them, which probably involve bad memories, bad hairdo’s at their father’s hands, and maybe a curling iron burn or three, the girls no longer allow me near their hair. That meant Karen needed to do their hair before the big dance. That means dad was heading to Ames with about 1000 other screaming and excited 5-8th graders for a day on the ISU campus by himself, and Karen was going to be stylist, mannacurist, therapist, and driver by herself (the drama at schools can be far worse than a soap opera). Needing a sermon was not a convenience. I had left my computer at home as I did not want to be lugging it around all day nor leaving it in the car with all the cold. I was literally stuck as I had to figure out what to preach.
At least I was not alone. One of the other dads in the group is also a minister. Susan asked me early on Saturday if I was ready for church for today. I told her I was done with everything but the sermon. She laughed and said that Tim was in the same boat. After some gallows humor (sinking in the same boat and all that), she said she would tell Tim. Maybe he wouldn’t worry as much if he knew others were in the same boat. When Tim and I ended up near each other during one of the table phases, we ruefully laughed that we were sharing the same problem. Life at his church had been too hectic for solid sermon preparation. My problem, I shared, was that I had gotten one, but then I needed to cast it aside as it was not what my people needed to hear. Tim asked why and I explained. We shared that commiserating understanding. And then he asked about my old sermon, the one you are not getting. I told him about it briefly. He saw where I was going and joked that he was going to use it. I laughed that I was glad someone would as he walked away.
I had intended to grab Robbie, just as Tim was grabbing his son, when the conversation began. Uh, excuse me. I am sorry to bother you. But are you two guys pastors? I admitted that we were. Did I hear you both right because it sounded like neither of you have a sermon for tomorrow? Well, I had one, but events conspired against me to force me to consider a new sermon. Why not go with the one that you have? You really want to know? Please. It would not afflicted those comfortable in my congregation, nor would it comfort those afflicted. What do you mean comfort and afflict? A sermon ought to give some measure of peace or comfort to those that are struggling in life, but it ought to give a bit of a wedgie to those who think that because everything is good in life, they are done growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Aren’t all Christians supposed to be happy about everything? No. Who in the world told you that? I thought that you believed that God controlled everything so you were supposed to be happy with whatever He sends you. I believe God redeems all things, but He does not send me evil. I think He weeps with us when loved ones die. I think He understands our fears and worries. We sure are not called to be happy about those things, but we are reminded to be hopeful. We are called to remember that He can take what is meant for evil and redeem it, even something as horrific as death. Everything? Everything.
Then I asked him to share what was on his mind. He apologized. You are here to root someone on and I’m pestering you with questions. You’d think you were a doctor or something. Only of souls, I joked, and then he began to share. I won’t bore you with all the details. His mother was, for reasons unknown to him, clearly being punished by God yet still willing to worship Him. God had given her rheumatoid arthritis which made her hands gnarled and painful. She used to sew and nit when she was younger, but now it was far too painful. It hurt him to watch her eat, to flip pages while reading, even to put lotion on in the winter. And yet she still thinks God loves her. God had also given her a bad heart. When things in her body get out of whack, she swells up to the point that she looks like she is going to pop if someone sticks here with a pin. And she still thinks God loves her. She has the other normal aches and pains of a woman in her 80’s. Plus, she is kind of alone. All her real friends have died. Dad has been dead some number of years. Still she thinks that God loves her.
What a testimony! What? You have just told me about a faithful woman who suffers in pain, who has outlived most whom she knew in her youth, and still she knows herself to be a beloved daughter of our Father in heaven. That is the peace which passes all understanding. It is beautiful to hear. Beautiful? Are you nuts?! It’s my mom and she is suffering terribly. And you’re no better. Your people have lost loved ones, people have been sick and in the ICU, there have been tragedies, and you are looking to comfort some and afflict others. What kind of nonsense is that? Gospel nonsense. Gospel nonsense? What do you mean?
I asked him if he went to church. He didn’t. I asked if he knew the Bible well. He claimed he did. I explained that the Gospel was a two-edged sword. For those who accepted Him as Lord and Savior, it was an amazing comfort. For those who rejected Him, it should cause many sleepless nights and ultimately, terror. Terror? How do you figure? I asked he knew the story of Samuel and Eli that we read this week. He didn’t. I explained how Samuel had been consecrated to God by his parents, how he was in training to be a priest, how Eli had been a bad father and bad priest, and then Samuel’s call. Once Samuel and Eli figured out what was going on, Samuel was given a word from the Lord. It was a word that would make the ears of all who heard it tingle. You see, God didn’t speak much or grant visions in those days. It wasn’t quite like the time between Micah and John the Baptist, but it was close.
Anyway, God tells Samuel He will be working powerfully. One of the first things He is going to is to punish Eli’s house. The old priest? Why? Because Eli’s sons have blasphemed God by taking the meat apportioned to God and using it for themselves. Whoa? That seems harsh. Really? What is the job of priests? To teach people about God? What are Eli’s sons teaching the people of Israel? Ah, I see your point. They should not have done that. But still, to kill the sons of a priest? When Samuel gets this word from God, God says that He has told Eli this will be the outcome. Why didn’t Eli do anything about it? Because he is, apparently a bad father and a bad priest. Why do you say that? What would you have done if you were Eli? I would have told my sons to stop. What if they did not cease? I would remove them as priests. He was their boss, right? It would be no different than my kids dealing poorly with my own customers at work. What if they still insisted on taking the meat and ignoring your discipline? That’s a toughie. I guess I would have to get the cops involved to save my business. But pretend you are dealing with God who has just told you that He is going to kill your sons. You know, the Bible claims God is merciful. Maybe I would ask to punish me. After all, I’m the dad. If they are not acting right, it’s kinda my fault, right? I’d have to agree with you. In fact, that is sort of how God works with and for us. But understand, we are in the minority. What do you mean? Eli just says to let God do as seems good to Him. Most commentators proclaim that Eli has great faith by allowing God to make that judgment. What kind of a sick story is that? It is a Gospel story. Well, there’s nothing worth me knowing about it. I would disagree. How do you figure? You don’t know the story, but Samuel is faithful when questioned by Eli. Eventually, Samuel will be confirmed a prophet of God, meaning that God will not be silent for some time. Samuel will anoint both Saul and David as King. He will speak God’s wisdom and judgments to Israel. He hears what God is saying, responds to God’s word, and shares it as instructed. For him, that word of judgment is the beginning of his elevation. Eli rejected that same word. And looks what happens to him. Hmmmm.
I still don’t see how this applies to my mom and her situation. It doesn’t. Then why did you tell me the damn story? Because I think you stand at a crossroads in life. You have a chance to be like Eli or to be like Samuel. How do you figure? I’m no prophet. I don’t even go to church. Well, it is true you are not a prophet right now, but who is to say what the future will bring. All of it, though, depends upon whether you are listening to His voice calling you through your mother. You are crazy. Am I? Look around. What? Look around. What do you see? A lot of people. How many? I dunno, three levels worth of parents and grandparents plus the kids down there. What do you think the odds were you would run into two ministers in this crowd? I don’t know, I never thought about it, really. Would you say it’s loud or quiet in here? Are you deaf, too? There’s a thousand screaming kids in here and it echoes. That being said, let’s qualify my first question. What are the odds you would find yourself next to two ministers and hear them talking about tomorrow’s sermon? I see what you mean? Do you? Because we were talking about something that interested you, the health of your mom and her faith. No you weren’t. You were talking about your deaths and ICU’s and about pornography. You sure? It’s a big crowd. I heard it clear as day. Did you?
Those of you who know me probably can have the conversation in your heads. Too many of you and I have had this conversation over the past five or six weeks. We have been remarkably unhealthy. Five of us have been in the ICU. Each of those in the ICU have had to make a decision whether to continue the fight or to surrender to death. That the opportunity was before so many of you has been terrifying to many of your families, if not to you. Plus, we’ve had to deal with normal diseases. We’ve had to deal with the unique families and the pressures that come with them during the holidays. Now, as we begin to enter into the heart of winter, we are stricken with a couple deaths. True, one was not active in our church, but much of his extended family is. And in the case of the other, he and his wife have been active for more than a decade. Their hurt is our hurt. We try to be there in their grief. We try to support them. Some of us make meals, some of us lend a shoulder, some of are simply waiting to be asked.
Many of us, though, no doubt share the same questions as my new anonymous friend from the Lego championships. With all this happening, how can we ever think we are loved by God? What kind of a sick joke are we being told? Yet into the midst of this hurt, into the midst of this pain, into the midst of this whirlwind of questions, God speaks. God speaks and we are comforted. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God . . . you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.
Think on that statement for just a second. When you were baptized into the faith, the Holy Spirit entered into you and began that work of sanctification within you. Better still, now, as our bodies begin to age and break down, the Holy Spirit stays and claims our bodies still as His temple. He does not abandon us for “younger, more vibrant” abodes. He’s not looking for a better neighborhood. He stays. And He continues to keep His promise to redeem all things for His glory. You see, brothers and sisters, unless He comes again before our deaths, you and I will travel a road similar to Rick’s or to Tim’s. All of us will likely either be taken after a long battle or rather quickly, and our loved ones will have only the way we lived our lives to answer their questions about God and His love for us. How we bear the suffering and pain of this world will teach them the greatest lessons in life. If we face life certain of His redeeming power, what an amazing gift for our loved ones! Each one of us knows that this is not our home and that this is not our body that He has promised. Parts can fall off like an old Looney Toons cartoon character, but we can know with certainty that His love for us never changes. His journey to the cross and His death on a cross for our sake serve as incontrovertible proof of that love with which He held each one of us.
Not only does He love us, though; He has been given the power and authority to do His Father’s will and redeem all things. you and I, as much as we love many of the people in our lives, cannot accomplish God's will for them in this life. Yet, not even the chains of death could hold Him! Just as His willingness to hang on the cross and die testifies to us about His love for each one of us, His resurrection reminds us that He can, indeed, use whatever evil intended for His honor and glory.
If you are like my new friend and, hopefully, my brother from this weekend, you may be wondering how can this broken body of mine be redeemed for His glory. As clear as day, hers was, right? This is a lady who suffers every moment of every day. Her husband and friends are dead. She can no longer do her hobbies. The pain ruins life as we know it. Yet, faithfully she has endeavored to do those things He has given her to do and always with a word of praise. Why does she suffer so? One thing is for sure, He is using her suffering to reach her son. But isn’t that often the way He works? How often in Scripture does God use suffering to accomplish great things for His name. Sometimes, that plays out before a larger audience, as when Pope John Paul was suffering from Parkinson’s and dying gracefully as the family of the lady in FL was fighting to get her permission to die. One seemed to see death as just the next part of a journey with God, another opportunity to trust in His covenanted mercies. Another seemed more concerned with exerting control.
Similarly, this mother’s suffering has been a powerful testimony to her son. Though none of us might blame her were she to curse God and His seeming focus away from her, she knows that He loves her. She knows because He died for her. She believes Him because He was raised from the dead. Thus, she faces the pain and hurts of life with a calmness, a peace, which has caused her unchurched son to take noticed. Then, at a loud conference, he chances upon two clergy complaining about the need for a sermon. In the middle of that cacophony he hears their discussion clearly and is provoked to ask. And for nearly 30 minutes, he sits and hears this week’s lessons and finds himself placed in the salvation story of God with a decision to make. Better still, this anonymous saint has given us a blessing (especially your priest). Will He follow Christ and trust Him to accomplish all things in him, or will He reject Christ and forge his own way?
Brothers and sisters, that is how our Lord works. He takes our sufferings and turns them into opportunities to reach others for His glory. My ministry this past month or so has not only been to sick and ailing parishioners. No, indeed. I have been asked to anoint strangers, to give the Eucharist to those who do not know us, and to share our faith by people who have watched you suffer, people who have watched you suffer and still cling fast to your hope in Christ. They want what they see in you. Whether you realized it or not, you have preached sermons to others, to doctors, to nurses, to other patients, to family members. Brothers and sisters, you were bought at a terrible cost to Christ, his flesh and blood. No matter how broken down, no matter how ratty looking, no matter how unhappy you are with it, He knows it is His temple. He chooses to remain in it, just as He chose to remain on that cross. And He has promised that whatever we suffer, He will redeem, even the very failure of these clay vessels. So what are you waiting for? Glorify God in your body.