May 28, 2017
Sermon: “What a Way to Live”, Rev. Steve Anderson
Life is difficult. I suppose that I didn’t need to tell anyone that. Unless you are Ken or Barbie and ride around Malibu in a pink sports car, you know that life is often bumpier than the roads in Urbana. While some of our days are filled with mountaintop experiences, much of our lives contain hour upon hour of mental, emotional, financial, and physical struggle. We set up budgets for our family or business, but there’s always some unexpected emergency expense. I don’t know how many times people have asked me why everything in their life has to be a struggle. Why do they have to work twice as hard as other people or study twice as hard for the same grade? For some of us, it seems that life is just one disappointment after another. “Why me?” we ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” Well, probably nothing. My experience in life suggests that we have problems in our lives when we make foolish, selfish decisions and choices. We struggle when we try to change the ways that nature works or we reject God’s perfect plan for our lives and choose our own selfish agendas, and we suffer because of the stupid, nasty deeds of evil, mean spirited people.
Some days it seems like everything that we touch breaks or takes five times longer to complete than it should. How many of you have been discouraged about something this past week? Maybe it was car trouble, your job, your kids, or your credit card. Many people live with chronic pain and illness. People are lonely after losing their spouse. Many feel helpless as they watch family members mess up their lives over and over again. Many are hopeless and see no way out of their problems. We have been misunderstood or rejected by those that we love and just don’t know which way to turn. How many of us have been stopped dead in our tracks by broken dreams, unfulfilled promises, failing health, or financial crisis?
Many of us groan in bereavement, sorrow, or disappointment. Have you ever doubted God’s love and forgiveness? What kept you going? Where did you find the strength to move on? Did you come to realize that your circumstances were probably not permanent? I don’t have any solution that will allow you to completely avoid suffering. I do think, however, that there are ways to minimize our struggles in life and I want to offer a way of dealing with the tough times that should help us endure them better.
One of the toughest things about suffering is not believing that anything exists beyond it. I have been told that one of the greatest pains that a woman can have is giving birth. You know the good news?
Most of the time, the pain and agony are usually followed by the birth of a healthy, beautiful baby… I want to suggest that there is a great deal of difference between pain and suffering. Pain has to do with what I feel when I hit my thumb with a hammer. Pain tells us when we are touching something that is hot and that we should remove our hand before we do permanent damage. Suffering, on the other hand, is the heartache that goes on and on after the initial pain is gone. Suffering is loss that seems to have no benefit.
One of the most important things that I consider when people go through tough times is how they respond. Some people are made stronger by it. Others become bitter, insensitive, calloused, and defeated. What happens to us when we have struggles is the result of what is in us. Life does not always work out like we think that it should. I believe that we can see struggles as opportunities for learning and starting over in fresh, new ways, or we can see struggles as stumbling blocks from which we will never receive.
I have struggles just like anyone else. I struggle with things that happen in our church, our community, and my family. But I have hope that all of God’s promises to me and to us as a congregation will come true, so I keep on struggling with my frustrations and problems. Another question that I have people ask me over the years is why Christians have to suffer.
As followers of Jesus, we have to realize that we are not exempt from suffering, some of which can be profoundly difficult. I think that a lot of people have a misconception that God goes around picking and choosing who will get rain and who will not, who will get cancer, and how and when people will suffer. We many have the promises of eternal life with God, but we still have to deal with the consequences of poor decisions. We still get hurt if we hit our thumb with a hammer. Suffering has nothing to do with our degree of faith, or how spiritual we are, or even how we live out our faith. Years ago, I ran across a poem written by Annie Flint:
What God Hath Promised
God hath not promised skies always blue, flower-strewn pathways all our lives through; God hath not promised sun without rain, Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
God hath not promised we shall not know. Toil and temptation, trouble and woe; He hath not told us we shall not bear many a burden, many a care.
God hath not promised smooth roads and wide, swift, easy travel, needing no guide; Never a mountain rocky and steep, ever a river turbid and deep.
But God hath promised strength for the day, rest for the labor, light for the way, grace for the trials, help from above, unfailing sympathy, undying love.
The difference between followers of Jesus dealing with suffering and others is that we know that beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves us even when we hurt beyond words can ever begin to express, and even greater is that we have a deep and profound hope for the future. If you have ever witnessed the birth of a child or have seen it take place on TV, you know that there is a great deal of huffing and puffing, lots of pushing and straining, and a great deal of sweating and groaning. Some women who go through childbirth have a coach with them who inspires them, holds their hand, reminds them to focus and helps them remember that the baby will be worth all that we are enduring. It helps to have a coach who does not give up on us, but helps us through the process and reminds us that the end result will be worth all that we are enduring. I’m happy to be your coach and walk through the dark nights with you, but I want to remind you that God’s spirit can be that supportive strength that reminds us that the joy that is in store for us is so much greater than the pain that we are feeling.
It reminds us that our suffering is not permanent and that things will get better. And so we wait for things to get better, but our waiting is not a passive, uninvolved sort of waiting. We wait with eager anticipation, head upright and neck outstretched and straining, yearning for the future, which we know will be better. Everywhere I go, I see people who seem so empty and who are trying to get by on their own instead of seeking God’s power in their lives. I want to suggest that another reason for their emptiness is that they do not have any hope for the future. Real, deep, true hope is born in despair. We crave some situation that we are not currently experiencing and so we find hope with our memory of the times and ways that God has helped us and held us together in the past.
We cling to the knowledge that God will help us through anything and that the future will be better than the past and the present. Hope is not just wishing for something, but the anticipation of a promise. Without this hope, we can not make it. God never promised that life would be a huge rose garden or that we would not struggle and suffer. God never promised some sort of magic force field that would make the pain of life bounce off us. What we have been promised is that nothing would ever separate us from God’s love for us. It’s not that we deserve this kind of love. It’s not that we have done anything to earn it. We know that it is true because of all the times that we have experienced God’s love and powerful presence in our lives.
We make all sorts of promises to people in our lives. I tell people that I love them, but I can’t shield them from the hurts of life. I can’t keep them from having tough days. I can’t keep people from disappointing them or breaking their hearts, but I can always be there with and for them.
Paul certainly did not make light of the pain that the early Christians were experiencing. He had been through a great deal of suffering and knew how it felt. He had been beaten and shipwrecked, robbed, imprisoned and persecuted because of his faith. He had been betrayed by people that he trusted. On top of all this, he had serious chronic, physical problems. In light of the real suffering that Paul had experienced, he insisted that the wonderful joy of spending our earthly lives working with God and then eternity with God was a zillion times more wonderful than the bad things they were presently experiencing.
I think that what Paul was talking about was perspective. We may hurt today, but when we think about the joy that will come, our pain shrinks. One of the problems that we have in our day is impatience. We wonder why our computer can’t be a few nanoseconds faster. We wonder why the microwave is taking so long. We want our suffering to be over now. How could we know and appreciate joy without suffering? How could we learn to trust if we didn’t have to?
How would we know how much we need God if we didn’t have to depend on God to endure our struggles? Many reject the hope that God can give us out of fear. They are beaten down and paralyzed with fear that what is hurting them will never stop. I have learned, and you probably have too that we can not overcome our fear and pain by our own strength, but the good news is that God’s spirit can surround us with a peace that allows us to know that we can endure anything and that what God has in store for us, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, maybe in 100 years will be greater than anything we can ever imagine.
It’s all about perspective. It’s about waiting for the completion of God’s promises. In the 70’s there was a popular song called New World Coming that speaks to this promise. “There’s a new world coming and it’s just around the bend. There’s a new world coming. This one is coming to an end. There’s a new world coming. You can hear it if you try. And it’s growing stronger with each day that passes by; rising clear and sweet and free. There’s a new day dawning that belongs to you and me, yes, a new world coming. The one that we’ve had visions of, coming in peace, coming in joy, coming in love”. God is creating a new world. As we wait for all of God’s promises to be fulfilled we are invited to live as God’s people in the peace, love, joy, and hope that only God gives us. What a wonderful life that we live surrounded and comforted by God’s power and presence.