We are currently going through a preaching series on seven verbs for Lent in Projekt:Gemeinde. I drew the short straw of preaching on suffering. This is fraught with difficulty: it is a subject which is very personal and real to many people, and one which touches our deepest hopes, dreams, fears and pains. Unfortunately, it is also a subject which is too easy to either preach glibly about, thus minimising the real experience of suffering, or to be too academic and dry, and thus miss the pastoral mark in terms of ministering the gospel. Finally, I’ve had a tedious couple of weeks and was also feeling exhausted and in need of the gospel myself.
Therefore, I decided to structure the sermon a little differently. We broke it up into five small meditations, divided by the repeated reading of Psalm 13:1-4 (“how long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me…”).
A lot of people found the sermon helpful, so I decided to give a scribbled spark-notes version here translated into English, in case it helps other people. This is obviously a highly condensed summary of a spoken event, so comes will all the limitations thereof!
We’ve just read Psalm 13 and heard, as we so often do, the response “this is the Word of God”. Sometimes, though, this response feels like it should come with a question mark. How can this be God’s Word to us? “How long, O Lord, will you forget me…how long must I have sorrow in my heart?” Surely there must be some mistake – this can’t be the Word of God to us, can it?
I find it encouraging that the Bible is so honest in presenting us stories, poems, songs and prayers of people that suffer and bring them to God in prayer. It doesn’t give us an embellished, sugar-sweet version of reality. Instead, it is honest about the truth: sooner or later, most of us suffer in life.
For some of us, it can be a longterm situation. Yet another negative pregnancy test. The continued effects of others actions. Political or economic instability because of our nationality or where we are living. A divorce. Ongoing and undesired conflict with a work colleague. An unseen illness which cripples us. Or maybe a degenerative disease like Alzheimers, which simultaneously and cruelly robs our yesterdays as well as our tomorrows.
For others, suffering comes quickly and unexpectedly. A phone call, a conversation or an event can change everything. Our world is turned upside down from one minute to the next. “I’m sorry, there’s been an accident”. “There’s something you need to know”.
And if none of that is the case, then we will all grow old and die nonetheless.
The Bible is honest and realistic: suffering defines our reality in many ways. I think it’s encouraging that the Bible is so honest. We bring our experiences and lives to the Bible and find the songs and prayers of others who have been in our place. We can find prayers to help us prayer when words are too difficult. We can say with the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever?”
A second truth is that suffering doesn’t have intrinsic meaning or purpose. I think the book of Job is interesting: we read here about a man who suffers incredibly, who loses everything. And then his friends come to him, and try and find reasons to explain his suffering. They try to build out a theology for it.
That’s so often a temptation for us as Christians.
Maybe we assume, with one of Job’s friends, that suffering must be because of a secret, hidden sin in our life somewhere. It is the retribution of God against sin in our life. If only we confess and make amends, then we will stop suffering.
Or maybe we assume that God is making us suffer in order to give us something better. Or to reveal an aspect of himself that we would be able to see if we weren’t suffering. We take verses like Romans 8:28 too glibly and apply them ‘helpfully’ to our friends’ lives. “All things work together for good! See! You can rejoice in your suffering! Amen!”.
I think when we do that, we misunderstand God. The Bible doesn’t assign suffering and evil an intrinsic being or meaning. Instead, they are parasitic forces, feeding on God’s good creation and turning it towards corruption. They have no meaning, no greater good, no positive influence. Suffering and evil are forces of chaos.
I think as Christians, we’re allowed to be honest about these things. Suffering hurts. Pain hurts. Evil hurts.
Mairi and I watched Adam’s Apples on Friday evening. Here we see the story of Ivan, a reformed pastor who doesn’t allow suffering to intrude into his understanding of the world. He shuts out all attempts to get him to face the truth, represses all uncomfortable reminders of suffering.
I think the gospel demands more of us. It is part of the Christian witness to take the hurt of suffering seriously, and name it – because we know how good and beautiful the world should be, and we mourn that it isn’t so.
We know that God’s desire is for justice in the world, and so we lament and mourn when we don’t experience it. We mourn that millions of refugees are effectively stateless and unsupported in Europe because of the failure of the European project to effectively secure human rights. We mourn when we see human trafficking and the trade in human beings. We mourn that men can buy and sell women’s bodies for sex. We mourn that a white police officer in the States can shoot an unarmed black man and face no repercussions.
We know God’s desire and plan for the world, and so we mourn when we experience the world as painful, unjust and evil. This protest against suffering and injustice is also a response to the gospel.
God promises to comfort us in the midst of our sufferings. I think it’s fascinating how Jesus’ preaching begins: ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’.
In the German speaking church world, the Bible verse for the year is Isaiah 66:13 and the wonderful promise of God – “as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you”.
Psalm 23: “you prepare a table for me, in the midst of our enemies. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”.
And the Incarnation shows us God coming to us in the midst of our our worries, fears and insecurities. God breaking into human reality.
Psalm 23 is interesting. God’s presence often doesn’t mean that the valley will become less dark. The enemies are still there. But God is with us, and his rod and his staff comfort us. I think Pope Benedict’s reflections on this passage are helpful:
The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. (Spe Salvi, 6)
This is also our responsibility as a church. We are called to embody God’s comfort and welcome in the world. The church, when it is doing its job well, isn’t full of people have their lives together and nice shiny Christian faces. It’s full of all those who don’t make the mark. The scared, the exhausted, the tired, the broken, the uncertain and those who are suffering. We are a hospital for those who miss the mark again and again – and we point to Jesus as the one who comes to us and comforts us.
The Psalmist asks: ‘How long will you forget me, God. Forever?’. The gospel says ‘blessed are those who mourn – for they will be comforted’.
At the Cross and in the resurrection, we see God’s “No!” to pain and suffering. At the cross, evil and death are unmasked and shown to be the parasitic realities that they are. In the resurrection, they are defeated once and for all. At Calvary, we see that evil and suffering belongs to that which is judged and defeated by Jesus.
When I was a child, I used to read lots of books. Piles of them. Fantasy, adventure, crime – you name it, I read it. Sometimes the plot was too scary and dark for me, and I got scared. When this happened, I used to close the book, breath deeply, and then open it again at the end and read the last 15 pages, to reassure myself it had a happy end. (after the sermon, Mairi said I must have been a wimp as a child. Perhaps). Knowing that everything turned out OK in the end, I could go back and continue reading the scary bits.
In the cross and the resurrection, we see the last 15 pages and the happy end. We also see the moment of great dramatic climax. We see Aslan leaping onto the white witch and killing her. We see Frodo throwing the ring into the fire. We see the promise that Jesus has triumphed, that sin and death are defeated, that one day all things will be made new.
There’s the fantastic Bible verse in the Psalms: “sorrow may last for a night, but joy will come in the morning.” It’s another one of those verses which it’s too easy to apply glibly and unthinkingly to our friends.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the night might be long and cold. I suffer occasionally from sleep problems: especially in Spring with allergies, but also rarely when stressed or (ironically) overtired. When this happens, I wake up at 1am and am unable to sleep again. Nights can be long. Looking again and again at the clock, counting down the hours until dawn, waiting until other people wake up and I can hear another human voice.
The sorrow may last for a long night. The illness might not get healed in this life. The effects of others actions may last for a long time. The stolen yesterdays may not come back.
But the cross and resurrection remind us that joy will come in the morning. We have read the last 15 pages. Suffering and death are judged and defeated. The first crocuses of spring are here. Morning is coming. Joy will come in the morning, because the grave is empty and Christ is triumphantly risen.
We finished off with a repetition of the verse with which we started our sermon series (on the topic of hope). 1 Peter: praise be to Jesus, who has given us new birth into a living hope. I think it is exciting how Peter describes this hope: imperishable, undefiled, unfading.
We have hope. We are people who have heard the proclamation of Easter, who have read the last 15 pages of the book, who have heard the announcement that sin and death are defeated.
We have hope.
In the kick-off weekend for our interns, we looked at 1 Peter’s understanding of eschatology: the now and the not yet of hope. God’s final wrapping up history, God’s final judgement and the ushering in of the Kingdom of peace belong to the future. But they are also breaking into the here and now, Jesus is building his Kingdom in the middle of our present. It’s not yet the last scene of the theatre play, but see hints of how it will be in our existence as the church of Jesus Christ.
As a church, we hope for and work for the day when Jesus Christ will make all things new. When he will wipe every tear from every eye. When sin and death and chemotherapy and trauma counselling will be no more. We hope for and work for those last 15 pages and the greatest happy end of all.
Easter is the great promise. We have seen God’s future and we are a people of hope. David Bentley Hart said that “Easter should make rebels of us all”. We have seen the end. The King has conquered. The grave is empty.
This also characterises our existence as the church. The place where broken hearts slowly find healing. Where tears gradually get wiped away. Where we join in the rebellion of peace, working for the day when all things are made new.
Sometimes that rebellion is hard. Sometimes our suffering is such that we can just whisper “your Kingdom come”. Our dear friend Dina Horne preached in December on the subject of hope and reminded us sometimes we are so exhausted and broken, that it is hard to have hope. In those cases, she said, you can borrow a bit of my hope. It seems to me that is also the role of the church: to say lend a bit of our hope and together to look forward to the final day and the throne of peace.
In this world, you will have troubles, Jesus promise. But take courage: he has overcome the world.