Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jubilate, April 21st, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
The Grace of Suffering John 16, 1st Peter 2, Isaiah 40
Last Sunday morning I stepped out into the snow, not happy, muscles all up and down my legs complaining that I shouldn’t try to play basketball like a kid, for 2-1/2 hours, especially not on Saturday with a winter storm warning for the next day. Six inches of wet snow from our latest, Lord willing our last major April storm bent the handle of my old shovel, straining at the duct tape that holds the cracked part together. Steadily falling snowflakes mocked my attempts to clear the sidewalk, but I needed to make a path, so I could dig out our vehicles, so we could get to church. I very much felt I was suffering, mostly mentally, a bit physically, all in all feeling quite all by myself. The storm wasn’t that bad, the snow wasn’t that deep, and spring will come, I think. But still, I was unhappy, feeling very much put upon.
Just then, a pure and gleeful cry cut through the air. Across the street a four year old neighbor was experiencing the same snow, but much differently. He laughed in delight as he ran through the snow, his voice instantly reviving my mood, triggering a lifetime of memories of playing in the snow, those memories pushing out all my grump and gloominess. I was no longer alone, suffering in the slushy wet cold. Now I was a participant in a young boy’s joy, as he loved the surprising snow and cold to the utmost.
Thank you, little boy. Thank you for brightening my morning, and even more, thank you for reminding me that when we know with Whom we share this life, grace abounds, driving out despair and darkness. For my shared moment with that 4 year old in the snowstorm reminded me of how God talks about suffering, like what Peter says in his first letter: But if, when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. All over the New Testament we read examples of Christians rejoicing in their suffering, because their suffering gives evidence of their unity with Christ Jesus. The Apostles return home rejoicing after being flogged for preaching Christ, rejoicing for having been counted worthy to suffer for the Name. Paul speaks of rejoicing in sufferings, for the sake of the Church, filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. And Jesus of course says rejoice and be glad when you suffer for His sake, and for the sake of His Gospel, for the reward of those who suffer for righteousness sake is great, in heaven.
Now, my snow shovel ‘suffering’ last Sunday morning is not to be equated with the suffering Peter, Paul and Jesus describe, true persecution by the world for one’s faith and life in Christ. Peter and Paul, and many Christians still today, suffer real persecution for their faith, false arrests, imprisonment, loss of livelihood and property, torture, even death. Neither my suffering last Sunday, nor any of the suffering I have ever endured in this life, whether caused by circumstance, my own mistakes, or even suffering for being a Christian, none of my suffering has been worthy to compare to what many Christians go through. But the gift that little boy gave me, the way his laugh allowed me to participate in his joy, lifting my gloom away, this is comparable to the way Christ makes Christian suffering a gracious joy.
How can this be? How can suffering be good, a gracious joy? Because to endure suffering mindful of God, that is, to suffer as a believer in Jesus, this is to cast a reflection of Him. To suffer as a Christian is a confirmation of our participation in Christ’s life. For it is Christ’s suffering and death which has made our glory. Jesus talks about this same thing in our Gospel today, as He foretells the disciples coming sorrow. In a little while, prophesies Jesus, you will be sorrowful, weeping and lamenting, and world will rejoice.
In a little while, that is, the disciples will see Jesus dying on a cross, and they will be filled with the deepest sorrow, while the world laughs and mocks and wags its head. At the foot of the cross, and during the darkness of the Saturday, the Sabbath day following Good Friday, the disciples would suffer. But their suffering would be turned to joy, on Sunday, and forever and ever, as our Crucified Lord rises from the dead, the joyous light of the Resurrection driving out the darkness of Satan’s momentary victory. The Resurrection is the joyful cry of laughter that cuts through all our suffering.
Are you suffering? Are you sick, suffering in your body, afraid for both the quality and the length of your life? Do not despair. Wait for the Lord. Jesus may not take away your disease right away, maybe He won’t take it awaya at all. But He has taken away your death, and given you His new life, so your eternal health is guaranteed, in Christ.
Are you suffering because you are lonely, missing your friends and family, struggling to find the human fellowship you need, feeling all alone in the world, even when you are in a crowd? Wait for the Lord, for He knows loneliness, even more deeply than you. Jesus knows the loneliness of being abandoned by all His closest friends, even the loneliness of being abandoned as The Sinner, abandoned on the Cross by His own eternal Father. And yet Jesus endured, for you, so He could give you His eternal joy. Jesus went all the way to absolute loneliness, dying utterly forsaken, so that He can have you for a friend and companion, forever. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. And when you have Jesus, you have so much more, His Father as your Father, His Spirit as your Comforter, His family as your family, a motley looking crew to be sure, the people God calls the Church, a motley crew which is in God’s gracious eyes, a beautiful family, forgiven and made new.
Are you suffering because you are scorned, perhaps looked down upon by family members, friends, or co-workers, scorned because you cling to the Word and Faith of Christ? Do the taunts of the world cut you, as Christians continue to be the butt of every joke, and scapegoats for all the world’s evil? Wait for the Lord, the One who was scorned and tortured by the Romans, scorned and spit upon by the Jews, scorned as the a failure, a fraud, a criminal. Wait for Jesus, for He has conquered the scorns heaped on Him, by His blood converting them to honor and glory. And the glorified Jesus looks at you with pride and love, for you are His chosen and beloved one, the prize He most looks forward to bringing home and showing to His Father.
Are you suffering from fear? Did the bombing at the Boston marathon make you afraid, make you wonder when evil and hatred will claim someone you love, make you feel like locking yourself in your own home, even thought the manhunt took place three thousand miles away? Or maybe the terror in Boston reminded you of the fear that is still just below the service here, the fear that we all suffered, when Sherry was taken from us, fifteen months ago? Wait for the Lord. Do not fear. Even in the midst of your fears, look to the Cross and do not fear, for the Lord will lift you up. The disciples suffered too, they were afraid, very afraid. But their fear was lifted away, when Jesus came to them, behind locked doors, coming to share His joy with them, the joy of peace with God, the joy that flows from free and full forgiveness, the joy of knowing that no earthly evil can snatch God’s children out of His hand.
Are you suffering from guilt? Has some sin of yours become Satan’s dagger, some sin that you are afraid to name, some desire or anger that you cannot escape, twisted in your back by the enemy, seemingly so bad that you doubt God’s forgiveness? Wait for the Lord, because Jesus has suffered your guilt. Wait for the Lord, but do not wait for forgiveness. Do not wait around, wondering if God’s love extends even so far as to cover you. The blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin. Confess your sin, and claim the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He is for you. You are forgiven.
We all suffer, sometimes directly for our Christian confession, sometimes as we see and feel the suffering of others, sometimes simply because we live in a broken and dying world. But we endure, we wait for the Lord, for we know that He too, suffered. Jesus suffered sorrow at the death of Lazarus and the unwillingness of Israel to be saved. Jesus suffered fear and dread, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but Thy will be done.”
We wait for the Lord, by seeking Him out. We seek Him out in the places He has promised to be present, truly present with grace and mercy for sinners. Jesus has promised to meet you and me, to lift us up on eagles’ wings, whenever two or more gather in His Name. Jesus has bound Himself to you through the washing of Water and the Word, where He put His Name on you, lifting you out of the flood of your sin, raising you to new life, in Him. Jesus has promised to meet you in His Word, speaking words of comfort and mercy and encouragement, today. Jesus meets you, keeping His New Covenant promise forever and ever, in the breaking of the bread. Wait for the Lord by coming to meet Him in His promises. God is faithful, He will do it, for you.
My gloomy spirits were lifted when I was allowed to participate in the joy of a little boy, playing in the snow. Likewise, our spirits, our very souls, are lifted up, because by faith we participate, we share, we commune in the very sufferings and death, and the resurrection, and the glorious new life, of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. When we suffer as Christians, Christ is with us. And in the midst of suffering, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we find this to be all joy, because Jesus is our Joy, today by faith, and, one day soon, face to face. Remember that, through His Cross, your sufferings, indeed, your whole life, is precious to God. Christ is with you and will help you endure, giving you His Spirit to carry you through until that Day when He removes all your suffering, making your joy complete, forever and ever, Amen.