Life happens. The people of God endure the same sorts of things in this life as do the people who hate God, reject God, and deny His existence. We saw that recently with the accident involving Pastor Kurz' older sons. At this writing we still have no clear idea of how things will go for Matthew, although Andrew appears to be recovering. The point is that we have no necessary and absolute insulation against the troubles of life simply because we are Christians - or Lutherans.
Many people would like to imagine that if God loved us, He would shield us from the rough edges of life. If God cannot smooth the road before us, what good is worshiping Him? That's the question that they ask. They might as well ask why God asks us to believe when He could demonstrate the reality of His presence and power at any moment. What is the point of faith and believing? Why doesn't God just go around showing Himself off, and claiming our attention and our worship?
It seems to us that things would be simpler, and more pleasant, if God would just take the guess-work out of faith, and bless His true people abundantly as well. The problem with that line of reasoning is that He has done that in the past, and it did not produce the results we imagine that it might. Adam and Eve knew God personally and endured no hardship in the garden before sin, but they turned their backs on God anyhow. God traveled through the wilderness with Israel on the Exodus, but they did not learn to love Him or fear Him or glorify Him. Even with His presence visible by day or night, the children of Israel were willing to mock Him, deny Him, doubt His will toward them, and worship false Gods in His presence.
The knowledge of the presence of God and even the experience of His presence in one's life is not adequate to keep people faithful. Sampson could not resist Delilah. David could not control His lust for Bathsheba. King Ahaz could stand and mock Isaiah and refuse to even ask God for a sign when the prophet commanded him. Judas witnessed the glory of God in the miracles of Jesus but sold Him out for thirty pieces of silver, and the Jewish authorities who witnessed Jesus fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah, and who knew that He had risen from the dead, set about a program of disinformation to stop the Gospel from its very start, and to destroy the Apostles before they even got going.
We love to imagine that if things were just a little different we would be better, more effective, more faithful, or somehow things would just be better. The only difference that it would probably make is that we would enjoy our circumstances more, at times. It is merely the old lusts of the flesh that surface in the dream that life should be better for us now that we are Christians. All that such a situation would occasion, in all likelihood, is the whole world repeating the cry of Satan against Job - that we love God because He has been so uniformly good to us. That, and they would hate us and envy us even more for the advantage which we would obviously possess over them.
The question of Christian suffering has occupied the greatest minds of the Christian Church, and I don't imagine I will settle it here in just four pages. Still, God tells us that we are going to suffer, and that He is aware of it and of us, and that He has purpose - good purpose. Our sorrows and our pains test us, and our dealing with them and one another in the midst of them bears witness to Him and His presence in us. We are strengthened by what we endure, and our patience with sorrows, and our courage in the face of hardship, and cheer and steadfastness in the midst of the troubles of life speak to those who observe us and them. We may also be accomplishing things that we do not understand or realize, as we patiently endure. There are eyes watching us of which we are unaware, and our battle is not merely with flesh and blood.
God is with us. That is one of the most powerful and most difficult truths of the Bible. What tremendous comfort to know that God, who can do anything, is with us, aware and intimately involved in our lives. Our sorrow and our pain is not without purpose or effect. We may not understand the purpose, nor comprehend the effect, but God tells us that He is there, and He has our welfare in His hands and in His heart. Just as a child must trust mother or father at times when that child's ability to reason cannot see either the parent's ability to protect or the reason for the parent's call to come or to jump or to stand still and quiet in the face of apparent danger, so we cannot sense or reason out the plan of God, or His providence and His ability to bless and keep us. We must simply trust.
That is what faith does. There is no human computation that answers the question of the "premature" death of a loved one, or of sickness and disability, or of the pain of persecution and the abuse of the world heaped on the humble Christian. God told us it would happen - at least that some of it would happen - but that doesn't make it easier to endure, or less of a challenge to our hearts. Faith finds comfort in the promises of God and in the Word which says that He will never leave you nor forsake you. Faith hears the voice of the Good Shepherd and follows Him even through the valley of the shadow of death simply because it is the voice of the Good Shepherd.
"What's in it for me?" is a question that was answered right from the start. 'Forgiveness of sins, life and salvation' are what's in it for you. We have our victory already, and our reward is laid up with God before we even begin. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." That is the response of Paul, who saw things none of us have ever seen, and endured things none of us has ever been asked to endure. When we arrive at the throne of Grace, we will, according to Paul, discover that 'it' is so good that we would be willing to go back and endure even more trouble and pain and count it well-worth it.
As bad as Bad can be, the good is apparently far better in the coming glory that is to be revealed to us. We call it a "reward", but it is a gift of grace (undeserved goodness). Perhaps a better word for it is the one that Paul uses in Romans 6:22 And in 1 Peter 1:9, among other places, "outcome". The outcome for those that believe and remain in the faith is resurrection to life of both body and soul which will fulfill the dreams and ambitions and imaginings of the human soul. It is sure and certain, and wonderful - but absolutely invisible to us and un-sense-able to our flesh.
Adam and Eve could not wait. They had no particular challenges of existence to trouble them that we know of, but they could not imagine, and could not wait. They had to reach for the thing that seemed good to them, and take what seemed reasonable - they wanted to be just like God, the One they knew and loved, sort of. Suddenly, they knew Him from a different position and saw Him from a different perspective, and they hated Him and feared Him and called Him unjust and unfair. Ever since then, God has called to man that His will toward us is good and peace, and love, and invited us to trust Him and live under His protection and allow our conduct and thinking to be shaped and guided by Him.
The world around us knows nothing of God, except the lies told by their spiritual ruler, the father of lies. He calls the good gifts of God burdens. He tells them that the One who feeds them and clothes them and gives them so abundantly is a cruel task-master and unjust and harsh. He calls the slavery to sin and lust and evil which he has imposed on sinful man "freedom". He drives his servants to enormous evils and blames God for the sorrows and pains that he causes. So, when they look at the Church, they see evil and superstition and foolish men and women. They count pain as the only true reality and death as a much-to-be-desired goal, rather than the enemy it is. Sin is glorified as power, or self-expression, and a positive creative force, at the very least a necessary alternative to good in order to make good truly good by contrast.
Naturally, under such a twisted perspective — a perspective quite natural to every single one of us — there is no good thing to be found in patient endurance, no possibility of loving purpose or positive accomplishment in pain or sorrow. Such reasoning sees things like Eve did - there is a path of apparent advantage and conceivable profit and self-interest, and that is the path to be desired. Her choice seems reasonable and feels right. It is the simple truth, however, that her path is wrong, and to walk it is easy, but unfaithful - - - and it is the way of death.
God has shown us His path in Jesus Christ. He has actually shown us the entire path. Jesus was, inconceivably, true God and yet true man. He did the impossible by simply being who He is. Then He did what none of us could, or ever really desired to do - He kept the whole will and Law of God. We would begin to intently babble some gibberish about our rights and personal freedom long before we would bear the burden of holiness and obedience the way Jesus did.
Then, having done the impossible by living, and working the impossible by being holy and utterly faithful, Jesus endured the hostility of men, and injustice, and betrayal, and abandonment by His friends. He walked the incomprehensible path of hostility and violence on the way to the cross because we, not He, deserved such treatment. He bore human wrath against His holiness, and divine wrath against our sins. He faced the judgment of God over against our sin and paid the penalty, serving our sentence in both time and eternity on the cross, where He who is God was forsaken by God and died utterly alone in our place, so that we might be forgiven and live with Him in glory, joy, and peace forever.
Then, on the day we call "Easter", Jesus rose from His tomb. He was alive, body and soul re-united and beyond death and the power of sin to hurt Him. Because of His death, and witnessed by His resurrection, we who believe - who know the Gospel and trust God to do all that He has promised to do for the sake of Jesus Christ - we shall also rise to life of body and soul beyond death and the power of sin to hurt us.
You see, Jesus walked the path we must walk. He faced suffering, sorrow, prejudice, anger over His holiness, rejection of what He knew to be true by so many around Him. He endured the death of loved ones, physical needs and pains that were simply not explainable in the light of what human reason could determine in the course of His daily life. We can understand and explain some of the things He did and suffered, but we have the advantage of distance in time, and a book that explains it all for us. He did not have all of that. He had some promises from God in the Scriptures of His day, and faith. He walked the entire path we must walk, and showed us how it will turn out - and promised us that our path will be just like His - with pains and troubles, and with resurrection and joy and life.
What's in it for me is the end of the path - although I don't know that we have seen "the end." We have simply seen the outcome of this part of the path. We have the promises of God. We have His constant assurance that He loves us, that His will toward us is good, that He has a plan for us and our lives, and that even the very hairs on [our] head are all numbered, so precious are we to Him. We have thousands of years of history of God calling out to us, 'trust in Me' - Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.
The only part of the path that can fail us is us. What God ordains is always good, or so says the hymn. It isn't always fun or pleasant to endure. The hymn-writer never made that claim. It is just good. I cannot always explain what the good in it is, but I am confident that God can, and will - when we meet with Him on that day. In the meanwhile I am guided by God's Word and promises, and strengthened by His gifts, and comforted by the fellowship of His holy people who hold me up when the troubles of life try to knock me down. There is a good reason and I will just trust my Father and follow where He leads me - even when it hurts.
Beloved, "It is well!"
The path that Jesus trod,
Tho' rough and strait and dark it be,
Leads home to heav'n and God.
Walk with me for a ways, won't you?
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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