Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The pain of suffering and the lie of circumstances . . .

     Why am I suffering? -- It is a question which often lays behind a number of our pastoral conversations together.  Sometimes, the question is meant to be big picture.  People in our congregation and in orbit of our community have been taught, wrongly of course, that when one “decides” for Jesus, all of one’s problems go away.  Sometimes that question makes a lot of sense, and there is an element of fear in its asking, when some ask me that particular question.  But sometimes that question is far more specific.  Over the years, I think we have done a fair job of reminding ourselves that our Father in heaven loves us, that He wants what’s best for us, and that He will in the end redeem us from all of our suffering.  Sometimes we note how the suffering in our lives is consequential to our actions.  At other times, we note how our suffering is the result of the actions of others.  So, there is a natural propensity, I think, when we find ourselves suffering to find out whether the suffering is our own fault or the fault of others.  Naturally, if we are conscientious disciples and trying to live the life to which He calls us, there is a desire to amend our behavior.  If the sin is beyond our control, then we realize we are called simply to suffer unjustly, shadowing our Lord, trusting that He will redeem the suffering.  But in the midst of the suffering, whatever it’s cause, there is always that wonder at whether He knows or if He cares.  I think today’s readings remind us of the love our Father has for us, no matter how insignificant we think we are.

     Looking at the readings, you might be a bit surprised.  The widow’s mite and the widow at Zarephath are usually stewardship readings.  No doubt today a number of sermons are being given around the Church speaking about the need to live like the widows.  We should trust God with all that we have.  But notice the story.  While these widows serve as wonderful examples of those who trust God and live by faith, there are other examples of people who should serve as a warning to us and to others.  Jesus begins His teaching in the Gospel today decrying the attitude and behavior of the Teachers of the Law.  They serve as a counterpoint to the teacher last week who asked Jesus which command was the greatest.  Jesus goes from praising him - you are not far from the kingdom of God - to condemning the greater number of teachers for their disregard for those beneath them.  Widows, as we have talked about many times, had very poor prospects in the ANE.  If families would not take widows in, the widows were usually forced to choose between begging and prostitution as a means of support.  True, some would get lucky and be able to set up a business of sorts to support themselves, but a lack of protection usually meant they would end up victims far too frequently.  This lack of prospects is one of the reasons that God always reminds us that He loves the widow and orphan.

     Of course, Jesus’ judgment is also a kind of fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah.  Near the beginning of his book, Isaiah prophesied that all those who robbed widows would, in turn, be utterly destroyed by God.  Here’s Jesus, the God incarnate Man divine proclaiming that these teachers of the law are devourers of widows’ houses.  It should be a frightening declaration to those who hear Jesus’ instruction and judgment.  They, of all people, should know the danger of ignoring Isaiah 10; yet they choose to serve recognition rather than Yahweh.

     What I wanted to focus a bit on today, however, was the psychology behind the question that many of us have as we are in the midst of our suffering and how God addresses that psychology in our readings today.  Few of us, when we are suffering, are excited or overjoyed at the prospect.  We might read Paul’s instruction that we should count righteous suffering as a blessing, but it is awfully hard to do while we are suffering.  Few of us sit around saying “Boy, I am so glad my job is on pins and needles at work.  I relish the thought of unemployment so that I can see the provision of God in my life.”  Fewer of us think we are blessed when we suffer from terrible diseases or horrible injuries because we know God will be at work in the healing process.  I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the point.  Our mindset during suffering for most of us is a big “why me?”

     One of the reasons, of course, is that people in the Church try to please God.  We may hear and talk about grace and grace alone, but who here doesn’t secretly hope that we do some good works to help balance our equation a little better?  Who here is not seduced by the potential for “transactional salvation?”  There is often a subtle temptation that we can earn God’s grace by doing the right thing.  So when circumstances seem to be against us, we naturally wonder “what did I do wrong?”  This week alone I have had a half dozen conversations with people who think there suffering is a direct result of some evil in their past and that God is still getting evil.  It sounds noble at first, “you know, Father, when I was in my 20’s I . . . . and God is still making me pay for that.”  If that many people are saying it to me, I always wonder how many are thinking it.  Hear me now.  He has paid the price for your sin in full!  Whatever your deep, dark, secret sin may be, He died for it 2000 years ago!  Unless there is a fairly direct connection between your sin and the consequence, direct enough that you and those whom you trust in your life in spiritual matters can point out to you that your Father in heaven is teaching you a lesson, you probably are not suffering because of that sin.  And guess what, even if the cause and effect are able to be seen by the blind, your suffering as a result of your sin in way serves to redeem you.  Your salvation was earned on the cross by Christ Himself.  And He went to that cross 2000 years ago knowing that you would commit all your sins, and by force of will He chose to hang there until He died so that your sins would be buried with Him.  That’s it.  Our suffering never redeems us.  Our suffering might testify to others our faith in God.  Our suffering might instruct us.  Our redemption from suffering should glorify Him.  But our suffering in no way redeems us.

     Confronted with that truth, though, there is a temptation to belittle ourselves.  I think it is beyond a Midwestern attitude, people sometimes begin to wonder whether they are really noticed by God since they cannot work to earn His grace.  Our readings this week speak against that temptation to believe in our own insignificance.  Look at Elijah in 1 Kings.  Elijah has just pronounced a drought on Israel because of the sins of Ahab and Jezebel.  The king and queen are so evil that God refuses to send the rains for three years!  Do they listen to the prophet as they should have been instructed?  No.  They continue on their path.  In fact, they will conspire to kill God’s prophet in an effort to silence him and to silence the voice of God in their kingdom.  And yet, while God is dealing with an insubordination of incredible proportion, and while He is busy arranging the weather patterns so as to remove rain from Israel’s future, God knows the plight of the widow at Zarephath and works to save her.  A widow outside the covenant gets a visit from God’s prophet.  She has a choice in front of her.  Do as Elijah asks or do what common sense says?  She chooses well, and she and her son are saved despite their prospects in a three year drought.  In fact, her son is saved despite a close encounter with death itself.  Such is God’s care for the individual in His kingdom.

     Check out our reading from Mark this morning.  The widow’s mite comes right after that judgement of the teachers of the law.  Jesus condemns them for beating down the oppressed.  And yet, while He is condemning them for their attitude, He simultaneously lifts her up as an example of faithful obedience.  No one else sees what she is doing.  No one else hears the tink of her two coins that are worth a penny.  Yet God Himself sees and God knows her heart.  He does not forget her even as He is condemning those who try to help crush her and others like her.  He even goes so far as to single her out, and we who follow Him have heard her story for two thousand years.

     The truth of the matter, brothers and sisters, is that Christ has dealt with all our sins, the root cause of all our suffering, already.  Just as the author of Hebrews points out, that work is already finished.  The suffering that we experience as those who believe in Him and claim Him as Lord in no way indicates a diminished significance of our own value in His eyes.  Each of you, each and every one of you, as well as each priest or pastor who stands in front of you as a servant of Him, was of such a value to Him that He went willingly to that cross.  Nothing, no suffering, no scheming, no plotting on the part of His enemy can alter that.  Brothers and sisters, He loved you enough to die for you that He could redeem you.  Yes, He is the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is therein, but He is also the God who loves the widow and the orphan and the miserable sinner who repents.  Your condition, your suffering, no matter how bad it ever gets, does not testify to you anything about His love for you.  It may well testify to His power to redeem you, and it may serve to cause you to turn aside from a particularly bad path, but it in no way shape or form testifies to His love of you.  His willingness to set aside His glory for a time and walk the path that led to that cross is His testimony of His love for you.

     In a bit of irony this day, it is perhaps fitting that we concentrate on His love for and and care for widows.  In the end, God condemns those leaders, those teachers of the law, who burden the widows and ignore them because, in the end, they feel that the widows can in no way offer them anything significant.  In the end, that is our standing before Him.  There is nothing, no single thing that we can offer God except our love of Him, our thankfulness and praise to Him, and our desire to live as one reborn by His Spirit.  And no matter highborn or low, no matter how significant the world sees us or how often it passes us by as worthless, He knows us!  He knows us.  He loved us.  He died for us because we could never earn any grace with Him.  And in the end, when He returns to redeem us, whether it is from our circumstances or even our deaths, we can trust that because He died for us, He will cause us to live for Him.  Such is the hope and promise of the Gospel.  Such is His love and promise to you, no matter your circumstances, no matter your suffering.


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