3rd Sunday in Lent (A)
March 19, 2017
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle, which was read a few minutes ago.
As Christians we can be certain of any number of things that we read in the Bible. We know God created the world in just six days. We know Jesus was the Son of God who walked on water and fed the five thousand. We know Jesus died and rose again from the dead. We know that He will one day return to judge the living and the dead. We know that we are going to heaven. We take these things on faith. Sometimes though we come across things in Scripture that are harder to take on faith. Today’s text is a perfect example of that where Saint Paul says that we are to rejoice in our sufferings. Rejoice in our sufferings? Why are we to rejoice in our sufferings? This can be a little hard to swallow because it just doesn’t make sense. But it’s true! As Christians, we rejoice in our sufferings.
When the Apostle Paul wrote about suffering, he wasn’t speaking as if he was in some ivory tower, he knew suffering. He writes in II Corinthians, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea…in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” Not exactly the life we would imagine for a man of God, is it? Where was the comfy home he deserved? Where was the divine protection he needed? It wasn’t there, was it? Paul was the perfect picture of a man suffering for his faith, yet he never complained. Instead he did the opposite, “Through [Jesus] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings”.
How in the world can he tell us to rejoice? This the exact opposite of what we want to do when confronted by problems, trials, and suffering. Surely Paul doesn’t mean that Christians, whose churches and houses have been burned down by Muslims, should rejoice? He can’t mean that we should rejoice when diagnosed with cancer, does he? Suffering can mean many things to different people, but no matter what makes life hard for us is suffering; depression, disillusionment with life, divorce, loneliness, split families, back pain, hip pain, loss of vision, the loss of our driver’s license. All of the above can be classified as suffering and none of them really give us cause to rejoice do they? Not at all! All of these are rotten things to go through, and not one of them makes us happy.
We especially don’t want to rejoice if we think that God is somehow behind what’s happening to us. In the book of Job, Job’s friends ask what he’s done wrong. Next week, we’ll meet a blind man, and the first question asked is, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In both cases the people think the men obviously sinned against God in some way, or else all these bad things wouldn’t be happening. The truth is though, that this is a very common question, it’s a very common feeling.
Have you felt this way? “Why Me? If God loves me, why does all this stuff happen to me?” If you haven’t, I’m proud of you. But if you have, you’re not alone. In our Old Testament reading, the people of Israel are whining, and Moses writes their complaint is that God has forgotten them. He writes, “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” Is the Lord among us or not? That’s the question. But through Moses the Israelites did discover that the Lord was among them, and through God’s Word we discover that He’s among us as well.
God is with us, that’s one of the certainties we have as Christians. The uncertainty we have though is why should we rejoice in the face of such difficulties? Why would God tell us to do something that seems… well… silly, or impossible? Actually, Paul tells us why we should rejoice; we rejoice because suffering produces in us the things that God desires that we have as Christians.
I should mention here that rejoicing doesn’t mean that we must smile when we’re suffering. It doesn’t mean that we can’t ask God to take our suffering away. Rather, a better way to look at it would be that we boast in our suffering. God is using our suffering to produce good things in us. As Paul writes, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The first thing Paul says that’s produced in us is endurance, or you could call it perseverance. Endurance is the idea that when we’re afflicted with trials and temptations, when we suffer, our faith doesn’t lose its strength, rather it grows stronger. The truth is that generally speaking, faith languishes when it’s not tested. All we have to do is think about the week following 9/11 when stunned Americans flocked to their local congregations. But once things got back to normal, once the crisis had passed, God got pushed to the back.
But when things are going badly for you, when you’re suffering, you can turn to God, knowing with all certainty, that He’s not angry with you, but He’s showing His love towards you. Now, I know this is hard to believe. But when you have nowhere else to turn, where do you turn? You turn to Christ! God allows you to suffer because when you suffer you are drawn closer to Him. You’re drawn to His Word and to His Sacraments where you find the promise of His love and forgiveness, where you find the promises that He’ll always be with you. As God said in Jeremiah 29, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.” Endurance is knowing that God has heard your prayers. Endurance is clinging to the faith of your baptism, knowing that God will not forsake you but He will bring you through fires of your life.
These fires are beneficial to you for as you are brought through them, your faith is tested. Peter writes, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul writes that endurance produces character, and character is the Christ-like attitude that stands with Jesus and says, “Thy will be done”. As we endure the things that cause us to suffer, as we’re drawn back to God’s Word, our faith will grow, and we will find the strength we need to exhibit our Christ-like attitude to all those whom we encounter during our sufferings.
What Paul says next is that from character flows hope, “and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” One thing I try to get people to understand is that hope is not some sort of wish, hope is a certainty of Christianity. Hope is the knowledge that things will get better; maybe not in this lifetime, but when the new Heavens and the new Earth are created, we’ll live in a way we can’t even imagine right now. We have that hope because the Holy Spirit has been given to us, and He assures us that our faith in Christ is sufficient. We all struggle under our sufferings, some of them seem intent on destroying our faith, but you have the Holy Spirit, the one who brings you to faith and keeps you in the one true faith.
It’s the Holy Spirit who sees us through our trials and sufferings. It is the Spirit that reminds us that God doesn’t forsake us and that God is among us. He is among us because His love is so great and so intense that as Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s a certainty of faith that Christ died for us and now nothing that we suffer – not cancer, not depression, not loneliness, not sorrow, nothing can steal the peace that we now have with God. As Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God forgives your sins and you have peace with Him. This peace means that God walks with you every step of the way; through treatment, through surgery, through high school, middle school, and elementary school, through old age, through mid-life crises, through whatever. The peace we have with God is ultimately what gives us peace no matter what the situation. For no matter what may happen in this life, no matter our sufferings, nothing can compare to what waits for us in God’s Kingdom – an eternity without any suffering at all, and eternity with only joy.
So I say to rejoice! Rejoice no matter what you’re going through right now for with Christ, nothing is impossible. He has called you to faith and then He strengthens your faith through suffering that you may grow in your perseverance, in your character, and in your hope. Your hope is not in vain and your prayers are not in vain for our God is with you. How can He not be with us? He who gave up His own Son even though we are sinners, never gave us up and that’s for certain. So rejoice! Rejoice that God is calling you to His side where you will find the endurance, character, hope, and comfort that is for all those on whom He has poured out His Holy Spirit. Suffering is never fun, but with God it is also never final. That is the certainty of Christianity, and that is why we rejoice!
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen