Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How Suffering Makes Us Like Jesus

Last Sunday I preached about suffering. Not because I have so much experience with it this year, but because it fits in the series on Spiritual Formation that we have been following this fall at our church. I told a friend that I was going to publish the manuscript of that sermon on the blog and then move away from that topic when I write in the future. My friend wisely told me not to limit what God may want to do in this space. It is true that whenever I speak about suffering, everyone is touched in some way. And why not? We are all touched by suffering, and a word from God is a good word in a time of difficulty.

So, the sermon follows. When I am preaching on Sundays, the text is usually on the screen above me, so I do not always refer to it in the manuscript. If you are compelled to read further, it may be helpful to open your Bible to 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 and follow along. I almost always preach from the English Standard Version, which is the translation you will find below. God bless you!

His Image:
Spiritual Formation through Suffering
2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Have you ever heard of the poem, “New Year 1945?”

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain,
At Thy command, we will not falter,
Thankfully receiving all that is given
By Thy loving hand.

These poignant words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancĂ©, Maria von Wedemeyer from a German Concentration Camp. A little over three months later, Bonhoeffer was brutally executed in Flossenburg prison, with his torturers using meat hooks and piano wire to hang him after stripping and torturing him. Bonhoeffer’s execution occurred one month before Nazi Germany surrendered. One month.

Bonhoeffer suffered greatly for his faith, and for his part in an attempt on Hitler’s life. Regardless of whether or not you think his participation in an assassination attempt on Hitler was biblically justified or not, Bonhoeffer placed his fate in the hands of God and accepted whatever may come to him.

Bonhoeffer understood the risks of following Christ. His famous book, The Cost of Discipleship makes clear that serving Jesus is not for the faint of heart. Bonhoeffer’s great desire was to be like Jesus, no matter the cost. Since the book was first published in 1937, when Hitler was already in power, Bonhoeffer had a sense of what may come for disciples of Jesus.

We have been talking for nearly three months about spiritual formation. Today will be my last message on this topic, which, defined, is “the process by which God the Father transforms Christ-followers into the image of Jesus, individually and communally, as the Holy Spirit leads them into devotion to Christ and obedience to God’s Word.” Does it surprise you that God uses suffering in this process of making us more like Jesus? I doubt that it does surprise you because I am certain all Christ-followers would say that they have matured in times of suffering. I would imagine many of you have also thought, though, that a particular time of suffering might overwhelm you.

One of the problems we face when looking to the NT to know how to handle suffering is that it does not deal directly with most of the issues that cause us heartache. Almost all of the teaching about suffering in the NT is in connection with suffering we endure for the cause of Christ. So, does Scripture have anything to say about the suffering more common to our lives? Absolutely! The Old Testament is replete with stories of people who struggled in ways that are very much akin to struggles we deal with in our daily lives. As I have said several times these past few years, the story of Job shows us that there may be much more going on in what may appear to be quite natural circumstances that bring pain to your life – there could be a great unseen spiritual battle occurring as a result of your walk with Jesus. So, it is certainly appropriate to apply the passages about suffering for the cause of Christ to the pain that occurs as a result of living in a fallen world. If we respond in trust, as we are called to respond, God will use suffering to mold us into the image of Jesus.

Our text today is one of the most direct teachings about suffering in all of the NT. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 is quite familiar to many of you. I hope it will be a source of strength to all of you after today. Would you please stand as we read God’s Word together?

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
4 Who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.
7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.
9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God Who raises the dead.
10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.
11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay. Suffering is inevitable. It is our response to suffering determines whether or not it ends up working for good or for evil in our lives. A relationship with Jesus changes everything. There is never cause for a fatalistic outlook for a Christ-follower. That is why, when talking about suffering, the Apostle Paul could begin his comments with a blessing to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.

We were not created for trouble. We certainly were not created for death! We were created for Paradise, or, rather, Paradise was created for us. But, we sinned and death, trouble, taxes, and elections came as a result. How do we deal with such an unnatural turn of events? We need comfort, but others can only comfort us so much because they are dealing with difficulties of their own. We turn, thankfully, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Who is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. And, when we turn in faith, we rest. Much, much easier said than done, but it is a promise we can rely on all the way to heaven.

When I say that suffering is a result of sin, I am not suggesting that suffering you may be experiencing now is related to a particular sin, though sometimes that is the case. Suffering in this world is a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, which was, in effect, very much your sin and my sin. If they had not messed it up, do you think there is any possible way we would have avoided messing it up? At the very least a Dallas Cowboy fan somewhere would have sinned. Anyway you look at it, suffering is a consequence, in general, of sin.

But for the believer, suffering arrives as far more than just desserts for imperfection. It arrives with opportunity. It brings purpose to our lives. It arrives, we may be so bold to say, as a blessing that we can impart to others. When God comforts us, we, in turn, are able to impart comfort to others when their time of suffering comes. Why? Because we share in Christ’s sufferings.

Now, a bit of an explanation. Our suffering does not have any redemptive value in the way that Jesus’ suffering on the cross did. Our suffering does not make us worthy of heaven. Faith in Jesus’ death as a substitute for our sin is the only basis for a relationship with God. So, what is meant in verse 5 when we are said to be sharing abundantly in Christ’s sufferings?

For starters, Paul was speaking apostolically. Suffering was actually used as proof of his apostolic credentials, but we will not go there. The application we draw is that when one follows Jesus, suffering will follow him or her. And the progression is just as true with us as it was with the Apostle – we suffer, Jesus comforts us and we in turn comfort others who are suffering.

Comfort follows suffering, for the Christ-follower. Is there anything we can do to prepare for suffering? Well, yes, but please do not go looking for trouble of any kind. It will find you soon enough. We should, though, realize that a life committed to Christ is not going to be an easy life. In fact, we can prepare for troubles by expecting the worst and putting all of our trust in God, not just turning to Him as a last resort. Let’s look at verses 8-10:

8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.
9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God Who raises the dead.
10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.

One of these days I would like to preach a message from this text and title it Dead Man Walking. The situation was so bad that Paul and his companions had come to the conclusion that their lives were over. But, that doesn’t mean they gave up. They simply put their trust in the one Who can do anything, even raise the dead. Paul said, “He delivered us from that particular situation, I am confident He will deliver us again in His sovereign plan and ultimately, all who follow Jesus will be delivered to eternal life.”

When suffering comes our way, we can easily make one of two mistakes, or both, that could be eradicated if we would follow Paul’s example. The first mistake we make is to try and hang on to this life to the point that we rarely put ourselves in harm’s way. It is impossible to share the gospel like we should and stay completely out of harm’s way. But, even with suffering that is the normal kind of suffering we experience here, our hope tends to be in this world and we do everything we can to ease the pain and improve our circumstances. I am not saying it is wrong to pursue options that will make our lives better. I am saying, though, that any hope we place in this world is misplaced. Better that we count ourselves as dead and then thank the Lord for every blessing He gives to us.

The second mistake we make is to give up when times look really bad. You have been there, haven’t you, even with small issues? You are just tired of trying to do the right thing and having it put in your face, or trying to please Jesus and failing – so, you just want to quit. Paul didn’t do that, even in the face of death. He put His trust in the God Who still performs miracles to this day.

Then, why didn’t He heal my wife? I can’t say. I cried out to Him as did countless others of you that were persistent in asking for God to deliver her. He did deliver her, ultimately, but why didn’t she live? Again, I don’t know, but I know that God is good. And I know that He still performs miracles on many levels, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than for Him to perform a miracle in your life! So if your problem this morning is physical or financial or business related or involves a relationship that is seemingly irreparably damaged – don’t you dare give up! Count yourself as dead, absolutely, but don’t give up! God is able to deliver you! He will do so as He sees fit in His good plan for you.

One more principle that I want us to glean from this text is the role that we play in the success of others, particularly in the lives of those who are struggling. Verse 11: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” This was the Apostle Paul, for goodness sake, and he was imploring the Corinthians to help him in prayer! In some ways we have come full circle in our understanding of the way God forms us spiritually. We started, two and a half moths ago, by talking about the significance of other people’s involvement in our lives to help mold us into the image of Jesus, and we are right back where we started. We need each other, brothers and sisters! We especially need to pray for those who are suffering.

I want to close this morning with an excerpt from Fenelon, a priest who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. This will be the third time we have heard from our French friend in the last 5-6 weeks, and it will be our last exposure for some time. If you haven’t ordered this book on-line yet, there is nothing more I can do for you! This book, The Seeking Heart, is a compilation of letters Fenelon wrote to friends he was mentoring. The great value of this book is that he says things you really need to hear. In a book. From someone who lived 400 years ago. You wouldn’t want your best friend to tell you this stuff, but you really need to hear it. The excerpt is a bit lengthy, but I think you will be glad I shared all of it. Let’s get started:

“Do you wonder why God has to make it so hard on you? Why doesn’t He make you good without making you miserable in the meantime? Of course He could, but He does not choose to do so. He wants you to grow a little at a time and not burst into instant maturity. This is what He has decided and you can only adore His wisdom – even when you don’t understand it.

“I am awed by what suffering can produce. You and I are nothing without the cross. I agonize and cry when the cross is working within me, but when it is over I look back in admiration for what God has accomplished. Of course I am then ashamed that I bore it so poorly. I have learned so much from my foolish reactions. (Have you?)

“You yourself must endure the painful process of change. There is much more at work here than your instant maturity. God wants to build a relationship with you that is based on faith and trust and not on glamorous miracles.

“God uses the disappointments, disillusionments, and failures of your life to take your trust away from yourself and help you put your trust in Him. It is like being burned in a slow fire, but you would rather be burned up in a blaze of glory, wouldn’t you? How would this fast burn detach you from yourself? Thus God prepares events to detach you from yourself and from others.

“God is your Father, do you think He would ever hurt you? He just cuts you off from those things you love in the wrong way. You cry like a baby when God removes something or someone from your life, but you would cry a lot more if you saw the eternal harm your wrong attachments cause you.

“Everything in you that is not already a part of the established kingdom of God needs the cross. When you accept the cross in love, His kingdom begins to come to life within you. You must bear the cross and be satisfied with what pleases God. You have need of the cross. The faithful Giver of every good gift gives the cross to you with His own hand. I pray that you will come to see how blessed it is to be corrected for your own good.

“My God, help us to see Jesus as our model in all suffering. You nailed Him to the cross for us. You made Him a man of sorrows to teach us how useful sorrow is. Give us a heart to turn our backs on ourselves and trust only in You.” End quote.

Well, there it is, isn’t it? Suffering is either going to turn us inward or turn us toward Jesus. Grieving in suffering is normal. It is natural. If we did not grieve, we would not really be suffering. But, there is a point when our hearts and eyes need to turn toward Jesus. This whole series has been about becoming more like Jesus. Suffering gives us a unique opportunity to commune with the Savior. In fact, suffering allows us to commune with Jesus unlike anything else – if we will accept it as from God’s hand. Let’s pray.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Hope . . .

. . . is in Jesus. It is not in the man or woman you voted for yesterday, whether your guy won or lost. Jesus is our hope. As wonderful as our particular political system is, our hope is not in democracy. If you have lost your patience with our particular brand of democracy, though, see if you can book your next vacation in North Korea. Perhaps a week or two in that land will give you a renewed appreciation for what God has given us here.

But, wait. I do not mean to connect America with God any more than is proper. I do believe that God has given us the blessings we have enjoyed for these many years. But, there is this: Jesus is not America's hope. (Oh, I can see the color rising in your cheeks even now!)

Please allow me to explain. Jesus is the hope of the Church, the hope of all who trust His sacrifice on the cross for salvation and who follow Him. And while it would be our great desire for every person in America to trust Jesus as Savior, His description of the narrow road and broad road in Matthew 7 helps us to understand that our desire will never be fulfilled.

Please move to the next paragraph if you feel yourself bogging down in this one - but, I think these words are important. If you have been tempted to muse about this world getting better and better so that we can, in essence, usher Jesus into an awaiting Kingdom, may I encourage you to move beyond that delusion. (more color in more cheeks) It was a popular belief about 100 years ago, but World War I put a serious dent into the idea. World War II ended it - for quite awhile. It is back as a reaction to the fatalism so evident among Dispensationalists who don't mind societal decline because it means that Jesus is coming soon (shame on you if you are not involved in making your community a better place b/c you want to hasten the return of Jesus!), but a belief in the goodness of man (necessary for a Postmillenial View) is no more plausible today than it was in 1944 when millions of Jews were being slaughtered in German concentration camps, to name only one of many atrocities being committed worldwide in that year.

If you checked out for the last few lines, that is OK. Please wake up, though, for the biblical definition of hope. Almost every time you see the word hope in the New Testament, it is referring to eternal life with Jesus that is ours when we embrace a personal relationship with Him. It is a calm and certain assurance of our future. The modern American use of the word hope carries an entirely different meaning. We consider hope more a possibility than a sure thing. So, when people say that Jesus is America's hope, they mean He is the only way out of the mess we are in today. The best thing you can do for America is not to pursue political activism (though I am extremely grateful for Christians who are politically active - not the contradiction it may seem, in my mind, at least), but to spread the gospel message - Jesus is Lord!

There is no biblical way to tie America directly to God in the same sense that Israel was connected to God in the Old Testament. (some cheeks are now crimson) It is true that when individuals or nations follow biblical principles, they will find blessing and success, such as is available in this world, that is. Of course, the problem of evil calls even this general truth into question. I do believe that we are in trouble as a nation because we have reached the place where we unashamedly call evil, good, and good, evil - a clear violation of biblical principles. Even if we turn away from our wickedness (not likely without a major revival), Jesus will still not be the hope of our nation.

He is your hope, though, if you are a Christ-follower! Not only am I concerned about the future of our nation (the immediate economic future as well as the long-term moral decay and our place in the world), but I very much want things to remain as normal as possible - I confess that I appreciate the freedom and affluence we enjoy. I do not long for persecution to come to our land so that we can see who the "true" Christians are. Should destruction and persecution come to our fair country, though, Jesus will be our hope. He is now. Live like it!