Sunday, June 22, 2008

Drowning in Pain

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Matthew 10:5, 21-33

When I saw the headline in the Associated Press article, I thought maybe I was reading an article on the End Times. “Out-of-control weather, gas prices, economy chip away at American self-confidence.” The Bible is well known for giving lists of how bad things will get before the end comes. The thing is, those lists were written about 2000 years ago. Natural disasters and tough economic times have been around for that long also. Things can get pretty bad, but Christians are already warned about that from the Bible.

Nevertheless, it’s always hard, isn’t it? Something I heard recently has been haunting me ever since. A commentator on society said that if pain were water in the world, we would drown. I think that’s absolutely true. It’s discouraging how much pain is in the world.

When you see your spouse wasting their life away through the bottle, your heart breaks. When you yourself turn to the bottle because you’re looking for solace from your abusive spouse you wonder if there truly is a way to escape the pain. When you visit your loved one in the hospital or nursing home and you walk by cries of pain, you wonder why that kind of suffering is necessary. It’s almost impossible to bear when it is your own loved one who is in so much agony and you feel helpless to provide comfort and relief.

When you finally find someone to love intimately and they break your heart by cheating on you you don’t see how you can ever trust anyone again. When your child wants to have nothing more to do with you you wish that you could endure intense physical pain if it meant taking away the unrelenting emotional pain of wanting your child back.

You may not have experienced these particular things, but you won’t need long to think about the struggles you have gone through that cause you no shortage of pain. At times it may feel like we’re drowning in a sea of pain, at others we can’t help but be discouraged at the human capacity to inflict evil and pain on other humans. Wicked dictators leaving their citizens to live in unsanitary conditions. Leaving them to scrounge for food. To live with all sorts of illnesses with no chance of medicine or medical care. And some of them simply torture their citizens, even to death.

Where is God in all of this pain? Why does He allow us to suffer so much? He is good and created a perfect world, why does it seem to be drowning in despair?

One thing about God, He doesn’t hide behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz. Jesus is forthright in dealing with the question. If we think it’s bad, He knows even more so how bad it can get. He knows what will come upon the disciples as He sends them out to bring the Gospel: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake.” At this point the disciples might have had second thoughts about what Jesus was sending them out to do. But as we struggle with the pain in our lives and look for what to say to those we love who are struggling, doesn’t it make a difference to know that our God is not so far away that He doesn’t know what we’re going through? That He in fact knows how bad it can get? That it’s not just powerful dictators that inflict evil on others but it can even come from our own family members.

When we’re suffering we want it to end. But Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Enduring the hatred of others often prompts us to question God or where He is. The answer, though, is in Jesus’ own words: “you will be hated by all for My name’s sake.” Where is God when others hate you because of Him? The answer is right with you, you know He’s with you by the fact that others hate you for being a Christian.

You think it’s going to be easy to speak the truth in love when when you do speak the truth people will think you’re being unloving? When we teach our kids that homosexuality is wrong and that marriage is only between a man and a woman, do you think people are going to stand in line wanting to hear the message of Christianity? That’s not the kind of God they want to hear about. We will be maligned and accused of being hateful and prejudiced. You think it will be easy for us to stay the course? To endure to the end, as Jesus says? No, Jesus is telling us that it will not be easy. Otherwise, why would it be necessary to endure?

Pain surrounds us. Pain wells up inside us. Pain weighs down on us. God is bigger and more powerful than all of it, but we feel so very inadequate to endure all of it. Where is He in all of it? We can say as a confession of faith that we know He’s with us, but when it doesn’t seem like it it’s hard to believe it, isn’t it? We want the all-powerful God to give us some stability. We want a straight path. What Jesus spells out for us, however, is the transitory nature of this life. His instruction to His disciples when they would face opposition was this: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Now, granted, Jesus is not saying to you and me that if society or our neighbors bring the hammer down on us that we should up and move. He has given each of us a vocation and that usually involves being where you’re at, being a light of the Gospel in your community. But that Jesus sent His disciples on this mission trip and told them to keep going if they ran into opposition, does tell us something about our calling from God. We cannot expect a comfy little life while being a light of the Gospel. We are indeed strangers and pilgrims on this earth. And if while we are struggling through the pain of it all we go again and again to the question of where God is in all of this, we should again and again go back to His words: “for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

This seems something of an odd statement. It seems like He’s saying that the Second Coming, the Last Day, Judgment Day, will be coming even before they finish their little mission trip. When He said this Jesus had not yet even suffered and died on the cross and risen from the grave, let alone come again in glory on the Last Day, which still has yet to happen. So what does He mean by saying that they won’t get through all the towns before the Son of Man comes? One aspect is expressed in the Collect of the Day, which we prayed a little bit ago: His “abiding presence always goes with us.” The disciples were sent out by Jesus but were never all alone. He goes before us and with us. But the other aspect is just as important, and that is that Matthew never says that they did finish going through all the towns of Israel. They in fact did not complete their mission, as evidenced by Jesus’ own words before His ascension to go into “all nations,” Baptizing and teaching. He exhorted them, “keep going, I am with you.” What it tells us is that we can’t sit around waiting for something to happen. There are people out there who need to hear the Gospel, we’re the ones to tell them!

We sometimes forget, don’t we, that we’re the servants of Christ. He is our Master. We are not above Him. We won’t understand everything that happens. But we know that He is our Master for our good. When the world is crying out for answers in the midst of pain and suffering, we have something to offer them.

Look around you in life, what do you see? You see a world and lots of people and things in it. This is a physical world, but a temporary one. Your life on this earth is temporary also. We get discouraged at times with the pain we endure in this life. But Jesus’ words put perspective on our temporary suffering. There’s more to life than this life. He says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” As bad as things are, they do not compare to what Satan can do to your soul. Your Lord saves you from that.

These are His words of comfort: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” How you know this is that He gave His life for yours. Pain that we cannot imagine He endured so that we may enter eternal life where there ultimately will be no more pain. Your very value in His sight is confirmed in Him Himself becoming a man. Taking on our flesh, suffering in our place, enduring the eternal torment God’s judgment. Our God is not a God who is far off, but one whose love extends even into our pain-filled world and our often painful lives.

It’s hard at times to hold fast to the confession of faith we make to our God. But make no mistake, the one denies their Lord Jesus Christ before men, He also will deny before His Father in heaven. Do not fear if you have done this, however, because such fear comes from those who know that their only hope is in their Lord Jesus Christ. It is that very one who has also this promise: “So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.”

Whatever you are experiencing is no worse than any who have gone before you. We heard Jeremiah’s cry of pain to God in the Old Testament reading. He came from a family of priests and his family rejected him. In the Old Testament reading we see how God’s call to follow Him is not easy but painful. Jeremiah spoke the Word of God faithfully to people—many false prophets surrounding him were telling people what they wanted to hear. If we do the same, people will be glad to hear us, but at what cost? Possibly of the loss of their souls for eternity. Sticking with the Word of God will guarantee people hating us or accusing us of being unloving. That is the price we will pay. Being a Christian will not remove pain from your life.

But in the midst of pain there is always hope. Nowhere was there more hope than in the suffering of Christ on the cross. If you’re drowning in pain, take heart. You are Baptized. You are the very child of God. For you Christ died. He drowned your Old Adam in your Baptism. You are forever His. He is with you through the pain here and throughout eternity in heaven. Amen.


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