I Am With You – June 7, 2020
June 7, 2020
The thought for this message actually comes from Matthew 28. Jesus is on the mountaintop with his disciples after the Resurrection. He’s about to ascend to heaven. He’s saying his final farewell. And he gives them these words. “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations…” and then his final words, “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” That’s the basis for my thinking this week. No matter what we are going through, God is always with us!
Now, having said that, if you’ve heard me speak enough, you’ve heard me say this before. Being God’s people does not mean that life will be without challenges. It means just what Jesus said. No matter what, God is with us! And because we are his people, we can know his peace and we can know his joy, no matter what the circumstance of our lives.
I know I say that a lot. I do because I think it’s so important! And also, because there are too many people who think otherwise. They think, “We have no problems if we’re God’s people.” It doesn’t say that anywhere. It says God is with us. There’s a quote from the Old Testament taped to my desk, (right here) that says, “The Lord, your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) God is with us, especially through difficult circumstances.
Believe it or not, there have also been many people over the years who have believed that, somehow, God is the source of the difficult circumstances in our lives. They say that that the bad things that happen to us in this life are given from God to teach us something or to make us stronger, or to help us grow. Maybe even to punish us. And that goes back to the Old Testament, too. The “comforters” of Job said, “Man, you must have done something wrong, for all this bad stuff to be happening to you!” That’s what they believed!
People will quote Romans 8:28. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love the Lord, and who are called according to his purpose.” And they read that as though it says that God causes everything – including bad things! And that really bothers me! You see, what it says is that God uses all things for good! It does not say God causes all things. Listen to that first part again. “We know that in everything God works for good…” I hope you see the difference. There’s a difference between God knowing all that is going to happen to us – which I believe, and God causing all that is going to happen to us – which I do not believe!
Now, this is not to say that God does not sometimes give us hardships in order to teach us or strengthen us or make us grow. The problem comes when we say that’s the way it always is, that all hardships are given by God for those purposes. Let me say this again clearly. Sometimes God gives us hardships to make us stronger in some way. But not all hardships are given us by God for some purpose.
I hope you’re hearing this clearly. It grieves my heart when people make statements that imply that all bad things that happen to us are given by God! To me, that’s such a sad image of God! And I don’t believe it’s true. And I don’t believe it’s true because I don’t believe it’s what the Bible tells us.
Another thing I hear when someone is going through tough times is this. “God won’t give you any more than you can handle.” And that’s not what the scripture says, either! That comes from I Corinthians 10:13. And what it does say there is this. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength.” That’s not about the giving . It’s about allowing. “He will not let you…” (It’s not even about hardships, it’s about temptation.) God doesn’t give us the bad things. He allows them. That’s a huge difference! And it gives us a different image of God! Actually, if I have a beef with God, it isn’t about hardships, it’s about allowing. It’s not “God why did you do this?” It’s “God, why did you allow this.”
There was a popular book that came out in 1981, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And it was a best seller. Because so many people are interested in that. If the book had been titled “Why Do Bad Things happen to Bad People” it would have been a flop! People aren’t interested in that. They think bad people get what they deserve. But why would God punish a good person? The problem is the assumption that bad things are always punishments – from God! (There’s that “always” again!)
This is an age-old problem. As I said, it goes back to the Old Testament! Even Jesus had to deal with this. If you remember, they brought to him a man who was born blind. And, if you remember the story, they didn’t bring the man because they wanted Jesus to heal him. They brought him to ask this question. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” In other words, “Who’s being punished here?” Jesus said emphatically “No one!” The man was not born blind as a punishment for anybody! But Jesus would use the man’s hardship to show the power of God! Do you see the difference? (In all things, God works for good!)
I feel I had to say all that again, today because I hear those things so much! And maybe this is challenging what you believe. If it is, I hope you’ll think about it! Because it’s not the image of God we get from the Bible. God is not a God who makes bad things happen – especially not as a general and universal rule. In fact, faith should never be about making simple rules and formulas about how God acts in the world. But people try to do that. And too often, they say that bad things equal punishment.
Now, I know we went a long way before leading to the text we’re using for today. But I wanted you to see this story in the context of what I’ve been saying here. The text we’re using is from John. Jesus is in the Upper Room with his disciples, and he’s giving them his “farewell discourse.” He’s trying to prepare them for the difficult time ahead, a time when he would be gone, and a time when things would be difficult! As I said, his words that night made for entire pages of red type in my Red Letter Bible. He told them a lot of things. And one of the things he said, near the end, was, “In the world you will have tribulation…” That’s what I’ve been talking about here. “Life isn’t going to be easy because you are my disciples. In fact, it’s going to be hard!”
That sentence has been going through my mind, especially this week! “In the world you will have tribulation…” We’ve been living in a time of “tribulation,” haven’t we! I highlighted that word “tribulation” and clicked on the Thesaurus button on my computer. And it suggested “ordeal,” “suffering,” and “pain.” And I would add to that. I would say “chaos,” or maybe “anarchy” I dug a little further, and I also found the words “bedlam,” “turmoil,” and “lawlessness.” By about that time, I closed down my thesaurus!
But I’ve thought about it a lot this week. So much has been said about the turmoil – the tribulation – we’ve been seeing. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would take a long time to “unravel” my thoughts. And I’m sure there are many thoughts going through your minds, as well. It is horrible what happened to George Floyd! Aren’t these the people we trust to protect us? I believe the vast majority we can trust! And I’m grateful for their service! They put their lives on the line every day!
My heart goes out to those who are protesting. I’m glad we live in a country where not only is that allowed, but it’s part of the framework of our country! I’m hoping that maybe some eyes will be open, and people will stop looking the other way, thinking there are no more race problems in this nation. I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King, and his work. He was right about peaceful protests. I think he did way more in his efforts to bring about change than those who cause destruction.
I think of all these things, and all of it in the context of one of the worst pandemics the world has ever seen! I hope we will all continue to pray for this world. I pray that we can work toward a greater unity in this country, and that we can have a greater understanding of one another. I pray that we can see past the violence and get to the heart of this protest. All lives do matter! Those who choose to protest peacefully about this have the right to do so, and need to do so!
I pray that we can have peace in these difficult times. I pray not only for peace between people, but also peace of mind. If you think about it, “tribulation” is tiring, isn’t it? It’s draining on us! I believe that’s the way we’re “wired.” We empathize with people. We feel what they feel. And we can be physically and emotionally exhausted by what we see, can’t we?
I had a good example of this on Saturday! I found myself exhausted after watching the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with the Spacex Dragon spacecraft. I felt a good exhaustion, after watching an exciting thing happening! I’m a space nut, as you might know. And it was exhilarating to me!
But then, watching the other news reports that day, I found myself exhausted in a bad way! To see the pictures of the death of George Floyd, to see the horrible destruction and anarchy in the streets of our cities, is so saddening. To think of innocent shop owners, struggling with their businesses being closed because of the pandemic, and now having to deal with destruction and looting, is hard to fathom! It’s emotionally and physically exhausting! I think, as a society we’re worn down by it!
Well, I don’t have answers folks, and I’ve been struggling with what to say. I was thinking yesterday, maybe we can revisit Charles Sheldon’s words, from his book “In His Steps.” In it, Sheldon suggested we live our lives by the words, “What would Jesus do?” Maybe you’ve heard that. “Before you do anything in this life,” he said, “think of those words.” “What would Jesus do?” And his book was about what happened in a town where everyone pledged to do just that. Maybe if we can think of what Jesus would do, it will help us to know better what to do and what to think. But it won’t be easy, that I can tell you.
And I think we need to remember Jesus’ words in the Upper Room. “In the world you will have tribulation.” We can’t get around that. We haven’t been able to get around it ever since he said those words! The whole history of the human race bears that out. And being his disciples wouldn’t get them off the hook. In fact, Jesus told his disciples that “because you are my disciples, you will be persecuted!” And we know from history that was true. But here is where I wanted to lead you in all of this. I want you to remember, to be assured, that the words we started with this morning, still ring true. Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always!”
And I want to remind you of the end of Jesus’ thoughts that night in the Upper Room. He knew what was ahead for his disciples. He told them flat out, “In the world you will have tribulation.” But then these words, words that I think will help all of us if we keep them in mind. “But be of good cheer,” he said, “for I have overcome the world!”
Eternal God, it truly is hard to know what to think in these trying days. Help us to stop and listen for your still, small voice within us. Help us to know your peace, no matter what the circumstances. Help us to know that you are with us always, and that you have overcome the world. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.