Isaiah 45:18-25, II Corinthians 6:1-13
September 28, 2014
I am glad to think again today about the life of the Apostles. We did so a few weeks ago, if you recall. Because I for one am always amazed when I think about what life was like for them! They went through times of great hardship in the early days of the Church. They endured much pain and suffering. Most of them died martyrs’ deaths. And yet, they changed the world!
This little passage from II Corinthians gives us just a little snapshot in the big picture of their lives in those days. Listen again, as Paul describes it. “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way, through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger…” These men knew they were part of something so important, that they had to endure all of the difficulties that came at them for the sake of it. And, of course, they were able to do so because they knew that the presence and strength of God was with them.
Now, the other thing that amazes me about this, is that they endured all of that – with grace! Despite the persecution, they were, at the same time, upbuilding the new followers, encouraging young churches, and gently guiding them with love and kindness. Sometimes they had to do all that while they themselves were in prison, or worse. Some of Paul’s greatest writings came from behind bars! Some even came in Rome, while he was awaiting his own execution!
“Through it all,” he writes, “we put no obstacle in anyone’s way…” In other words, “We don’t act in a way that could be a ‘stumbling block’ to anyone.” That’s amazing right there! I don’t know about you, but sometimes afflictions and hardships and calamities can cause great frustration for me! They can sometimes become the “obstacles” Paul was talking about. I know, if I’m not careful, my own times of difficulty can easily become the times I am least godly in my behavior. Maybe it sounds strange hearing that on your side of the pulpit. But the person on this side is human, and I struggle with those things the same as you!
One of my favorite movies is the delightful “fairy tale” called “The Princess Bride.” Have you seen it? It was adapted from the novel by William Goldman. Well, at one point in the story, the swashbuckling hero, Wesley, says to the princess, “Life is pain, your highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Now, that’s a rather cynical, though humorous statement. But it does describe a certain reality of life. Certainly in life there is pain! We can’t deny that. It might be a bit cynical to describe all of life as “pain.” But we can’t avoid the fact that we will have difficulties. It is the rare person who never has any problems. (And some seem to have more than their share, don’t they!)
The apostles had to learn that in the first century. And they had to learn how to live the faith despite what they were going through. And that is perhaps their greatest legacy to the future church. They had to learn to keep the faith through difficult times. And perhaps they did so by keeping in mind some of the last words Jesus ever said to them – before he went to experience his own “ultimate suffering.” Hey said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” Can we “be of good cheer, when we have our own ‘tribulation?’” That’s the question for today. Can we still, in those times of trouble, have our hearts wide open, as Paul said?
Paul talked about being “patience in suffering.” He saw that as important. (Read Romans 12:12) Later, he would tell the Philippians, “I have learned, in all circumstances, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11-13) And notice, he says, “I have learned…” Not “I have the gift of…” and not even “I have learned about myself that I am able to be…” – as though it were simply part of his nature. No, it was “I have learned to be.” I have practiced and developed the ability to be” content in all circumstances.
That’s what our faith truly teaches us! Not that “nothing bad will ever happen to us if we believe in God and choose to follow Jesus,” but that we can have “patience in suffering,” and that we can “learn to be content in all circumstances.” Our hearts can still be open! Yet, as I said a few weeks ago, you might think otherwise about the faith, if you heard some people’s take on it. Some try to say, “Life is always good, if you believe.” Actually, in a sense, that is true! Life is good if you believe. But it doesn’t mean life will be without difficulties
I’ll never forget the preacher who once said, “You know, I’m starting to get tired of the ‘sharing’ that goes on in churches. People stand up in meetings and say, ‘It’s been a good year for us in Lord. The kids are doing well in school, our business has prospered, the family is healthy, etc…’ as if all that were the principal aim of our faith.” “Just once” he said “I’d like to hear someone stand up in one of those kinds of meetings and say ‘It’s been a good year for us in the Lord. We had a bad car accident, our business has taken a downturn, one of the kids has been in trouble in school, and our house has been recently foreclosed, but through it all God has been so close!” Then he said, “I often wonder how the Apostle Paul would be received in those meetings. Can you see him standing up and saying, ‘We commend ourselves in every way, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, hunger. But God has been right there – right there with us!”
Now, you might be thinking to yourself that all of this is kind of a “downer.” But it really isn’t. In fact, I think it’s more of a downer when we think faith is about “not suffering.” It’s much more “spiritually traumatic” if we have the difficulties and then have to “figure out why” we’re going through them. It’s much more freeing to know that, no matter what, God is with us!
Yet still there are times we find ourselves caught up in the understanding of life that Job had to deal with. Remember him? His “comforters” believed that, if things are going well, God must be happy with us, and if they’re going bad, God must be angry with us for some reason. Or worse, that our faith is weak, and we’re not able to muster up the strength of faith we need to pull ourselves out of it. They said, “Hey Job, you’d better figure out what you did wrong – and repent!” Even Jesus had to deal with that same thing. “Who sinned,” they asked him, “this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In other words, something bad happened, so somebody must be in trouble. What a horrible view of God! It’s like he’s the “Chess master,” manipulating and even sacrificing us ‘pawns’ in attempt to “test us” or to direct our lives through “imposed suffering.
Now I know some would be quick to point out that Job was the subject of an experiment. He was intentionally inflicted with these things to “test,” or to show the strength of, his faith. And really, I don’t have a problem with that, either. Though I would point out that it was not God inflicting those things on Job. And I’m not saying that there are not times that God tests us, or give us things to strengthen us. The problem begins when we try to say that that’s how God acts all the time! “Any time anything’s wrong, there has to be a reason.” Do you see what I mean? We run into trouble when we try to pin God down to one way of behaving all the time, or when we try to see the pain in our lives as the result of a narrow way of understanding of how God works.
C. S. Lewis had a lot to say about this. He wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” That’s a great quote. But still, I would resist the thought that God causes pain to “rouse us.” I don’t think that’s what Lewis meant. The simple question is not why God causes pain, but why he allows it.
Recently, I’ve been following the difficulties of an old colleague of mine from the Midwest. In recent years, he developed cancer of the larynx. And he has chronicled his difficult journey through extensive surgeries, unimaginable pain, and now long days of waiting for his powerful radiation treatments even to begin. I find myself looking forward to his writings, because in them, he has also given his theological perspective. And through that, he has actually ‘ministered’ to others in his time of difficulty – including me! At one point he wrote, “Please don’t give me the old lines like ‘God is strengthening you,’ or ‘there’s a reason this is happening,’ as if the ‘reason’ was that God gave me this affliction to ‘strengthen me.’” “Instead,” he asked, “help me with your loving presence, and you’re your reminders of God’s loving presence through all of this!” There’s the “heart part.” That’s where Paul is leading the people. His focus in this passage is this. “In all things, let your hearts be open to one another.” No matter what you’re going through! As my friend wrote, “Kind words are important, but never underestimate the power of your loving presence.”
Then my friend wrote this, which I love. “It occurred to me that sometimes, even for the most faithful of us, we wait until we are at the ‘end of our rope,’ – or at least close to it and we can’t do anything else – before we really turn to God. It is very difficult for most of us to shake that inaccurate puritan ethic that “God helps those who help themselves.” (Which, I would add, is not in the Bible at all!) “So,” he said, “we try to do everything in our power to fix things and make things right, which sometimes works, but often does not. We want to make God proud of us, by “doing it ourselves.” This is where we quickly find the ‘end of our rope.’ I think the good news of [the gospel] of Jesus Christ is that God is at the end of our rope, and not only at the end of our rope, but he’s there throughout the “rope”, and maybe he is the “rope”.
Now that’s a view of God I can live with. So, let your hearts be open, to him, and no matter what the circumstances. And let them be open to each other.
Eternal God, you are with us throughout our lives, no matter the circumstances. Help us to be there for one another. Help indeed for our hearts to be open to receive your loving care, and to let that care flow through us to others. We give you thanks and praise, through Jesus’ name, Amen.