A few years ago, some family friends of mine had a daughter who was in the hospital and required a special procedure that was going to be very painful. The doctors told our friends that they could not prevent their daughter from experiencing that pain, but they could give her something so that she would not remember the pain afterwards. Then they asked our friends for permission to go ahead with the procedure on their daughter.
Imagine that you are in that situation. What would you do if you were called to make a decision about whether or not to put your child through something that would cause them to suffer now, but would make things better for them in the future? What would be the most loving thing a parent could do? Parents make these kinds of decisions all the time. Because they love their children, parents take their children in for stitches when they get cut, they put disinfectant on scraped knees and they force their kids to practice their music and do their homework before they go out and play. And when children know that their parents love them, and they love their parents in return, they are better able to endure the suffering their parents allow them to experience because they know that it will turn out for their good.
Somehow, we forget about these things when we get older. We live in a world where suffering is considered to have no redeeming value at all. This is because our society now considers self-comfort and self-fulfillment to be the greatest good. Any kind of suffering takes away from our comfort and inhibits our self-fulfillment (so we think), so it must be avoided at all costs, even if that cost is ending human life in our timing instead of God’s.
I suggest to you that such a view is like looking at all of life through a keyhole. We are only seeing a tiny part of the full picture, and when we make decisions based on that tiny view, it often leads to results that we later regret. So invite you to take a step back and look with me at the full picture of what God has for us in life so that we can fully engage with, and enjoy, the life that God wants to give to us.
But the thing that we need to consider before we can even see that full picture of what God has for us, is our own personal view of God. The child who believes their parent is cruel will not see the love that was behind the suffering they experienced when those stitches were put in. So the question that I am asking you to consider today is: Do you believe that God is a God of love?
This is the last sermon in The Promise of Advent series. Three Sundays ago we looked at God’s Word and saw how we have hope because of Jesus’ promise to always be with us and to bring us home at the end of time. Two Sundays ago, we heard how trusting in God’s love and giving all our expectations over to him gives us peace. Last Sunday, we reflected on how we have joy now because of Jesus’ promise to restore and renew all things, including us, in the future. Today, as we think about God and love, the Bible passage that will be guiding our reflections is Romans 8:18-39. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
The Reality of Suffering
Today’s passage is from a letter that Paul wrote to the Christian Church in Rome from Corinth in about 57 AD. At this point in his life, Paul had not yet been to Rome and he did not start the Church there, but Rome was the capital city of the Roman Empire and Paul hoped to travel there one day and make it his base of operations for further missionary work. Paul’s idea, and it is one that church planters still use today, was that if churches could be started in cities, which are the main centers where people came and interact, then the message of the Gospel could spread from those cities throughout the world. And that is what happened through the strategy Paul used.
Scholars think that the church in Rome might have been started by Jews who went to Jerusalem for Pentecost, heard the Gospel when Peter preached, and experienced God pouring out his Holy Spirit on all who believed in Jesus. With the Gospel message in their heads and the Holy Spirit in their heart, those Jewish Christians returned to Rome and started a new church there. Because Rome is a predominantly Gentile, or non-Jewish, city, the Christian Church in Rome developed into an amazing mixture of Jews and Gentiles. And the Church in Rome was no stranger to suffering. If you were not one of the wealthy, ruling class, life was hard in this large, overcrowded, loud and unsanitary city. Most people lived in small, multi-story wooden apartments which were susceptible to fire, like the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, which destroyed two-thirds of the city. People were dependent on imported food for survival, and plagues and famines were frequent.
In addition to the challenges common to all who lived in Rome, the Church there was hit hard by an edict from Emperor Claudius in 49 AD which expelled all Jews from the city. This meant that all the Jewish Christians had to leave Rome and the church there was deprived of their leadership, their biblical knowledge and their experience of walking with God as a people through centuries past. Later, as those Jewish Christians drifted back into Rome over time, the Church had to face the challenge of how to reintegrate them back into what had become an exclusively Gentile Church. Paul wrote to address all these issues and to prepare the Church for the time when he would be able to come and be with them.
Paul’s words about suffering resonate with us today for, just as followers of Jesus suffered in the ancient past, we also suffer today. Just like our ancient brethren, we share in the sufferings of our fellow human beings. Though we live in a very rich corner of the world where we enjoy living conditions that are far, far better than what most of the world experiences, we are still susceptible to things like the coronavirus, cancer, dementia, accidents, other illnesses and death.
On top of normal human suffering, Christians also suffer specifically because we follow Jesus. Christian martyrdom is not an insignificant relic from the ancient past. More believers died for their faith in the twentieth century, than in all the other centuries of church history combined. So let’s turn our attention to what God is saying to us through Paul so that we can receive and trust in the comfort that God is giving us.
The Comfort God Gives Us Through Jesus
What we find In the passage we have before us today is that God is giving us four types of comfort. The first is the comfort of future glory. Paul writes, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18). Paul is referring to the fact that the new creation life that we have right now from Jesus is hidden from view. It is an invisible change that has happened in the depths of our soul. The moment we trust in Jesus as our Savior, he brings to life within us a new person who loves God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind and loves their neighbor as themselves. This new person is who we really are now because of Jesus, but this new person is invisible to everyone but us and God, and this new person still has to fight with our old person who keeps hanging around and causing problems for us as we live in an old, broken body in an old, broken world. So it is a difficult challenge that we face.
But Paul tells us that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. When Jesus comes back to this world in a visible way for a second time, he is going to remove the old creation cloaking device and reveal the new creation in all its glory. Sin, brokenness and death will be banished. All things will be made new. We will all have new resurrection bodies that will never grow old, get sick or die. And the wonderful beauty that Jesus gave us on the inside when he made us new creation people will be revealed on the outside for all to see.
Comparing is a practice that usually gets us into trouble because we compare our situation in life to what others have and then we become soul sick with envy. Or we compare our situation to what others don’t have and we get puffed up with pride or self-satisfaction. The main problem with comparing is that we compare what we have in this life now with what others have now. Paul is telling us to stop doing that and instead compare what we will have in the future with what we have now. When we do that, we will find that our present problems, both in depth and duration, are microscopic in comparison to the glorious life we will have with Jesus in the forever future.
The second comfort we have is the presence of the Holy Spirit. All of us were given the Holy Spirit when we were baptized and he not only guides, directs, and empowers us and gives us gifts for service. He also groans with us during our times of sorrow and pain. In verse 26, we read, In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26) In those times when we are hurting so much that we don’t even know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit prays the right prayers for us. I have experienced this myself. When my son, Logan, nearly drowned nine years ago, my wife Susan and I could not even bring ourselves to ask God to give Logan a full and complete recovery. That was not one of the possible future outcomes given to us by the medical team that was caring for Logan. And realistically, from a human perspective, they were right. But I am very, very thankful that the Holy Spirit directed other Christians to pray for Logan’s full and complete recovery because that is what happened, even though Susan and I didn’t ask for it, because we couldn’t find the words to pray that prayer.
The third comfort from God that we have is knowing that God is making all things work out for our good. He tells us, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) This is something that we can only say and believe by faith. Our eyes, our heart and our head may tell us that everything is going wrong and headed toward an irredeemable loss. But our soul can tell us otherwise if we look with faith to the God who showed us his great love for us by sending Jesus to save us, and God’s love for us prompts us to love God in return. Only with love guided by faith can we see that God is able to bring something good out of the worst things that happen to us.
The cross is the proof of this truth. What is the worst thing that could happen to someone? That an innocent human being would be falsely accused, unjustly convicted, horribly flogged, and forced to suffer an excruciating death for crimes that he did not commit. From a human perspective, there is nothing worse than that. But from that very horrible experience, which really did happen to Jesus, God the Father brought forth the greatest good that has ever happened in cosmic history, the redemption and renewal of all things.
The Comfort of Knowing that Nothing Will Separate us from God’s Love: The fourth comfort Paul shares with us might be easier for us to grab hold of because it addresses our greatest fear with the assurance of God’s greatest comfort. In verses 38 and 39, we read, For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39) Nothing will separate us from Jesus and his love, not even death.
I don’t know if anyone else does this, but as I get older when someone I know, or a celebrity who has touched my life in some way, dies, I do the math between my age now and they age they were when they died and I get sense that my time in this world is getting shorter.
For example, Anne Rice died recently at the age of 80. I was inspired by her story of coming back to faith in Jesus after years of atheism, and her book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt captured my imagination. Her age minus my age results in eighteen years. That’s a math calculation that makes me pause.
Some of you might be thinking, “You pansy! Wait til you get to my age and all those dying celebrities are younger than you are. What are you going to do then?” And if any of you are thinking that, I say to you, “You are right!” For the truth is that it doesn’t matter how young or old we are, Jesus has defeated death for all of us and our eternal life with him has already begun. The life we have in Jesus and the unconditional love that he has for us will never, never, never, ever be taken away from us.
What does this mean for us?
It means that we do not need to fear those fears we often fear when suffering comes our way, things like “this is going to hurt,” or “I am going to lose something I value and I will never get it back,” or “I am not going to make it through this suffering.” Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can evaluate those fears and see if they are even true anymore.
First, let’s look at the fear that “suffering is going to hurt.” That’s true, suffering does hurt. But we are not suffering alone. Jesus has already suffered for us and he is suffering with us. There is no suffering that we could ever go through that Jesus has not already experienced. He knows from lived experience what we are going through. He is with us and he will give us the strength we need to endure suffering when we need it.
Second, let’s evaluate the fear that “I am going to lose something I value and I will never get it back.” That is not true. Everything that is good, beautiful and true will be returned to us at the end of time by Jesus and it will be greater, grander and more beautiful than it ever was before. Now, the question that people sometimes ask at this point is, “What if my loved ones aren’t with me in paradise?” One of my seminary professors, Dr. Kettner, responded to a question like this by saying, “Those who are not in heaven will not hold hostage those who are.” In other words, if your loved ones are not in heaven, God will somehow remove from us any sense of sorrow or grief that we may have over their absence. What will be the most important thing about heaven is that the One who loves us most will be with us, and that is Jesus. For it is being in the presence of Jesus that makes heaven the great and glorious place that it is.
Third, let’s look at the fear that “I am not going to make it through this suffering.” That is not true. We know that is not true because Jesus rose from the dead. He has already gone through death and defeated it for us. When the time comes for us to leave this mortal coil, Jesus will take us by the hand and lead us into the place which he has prepared for us, to wait for the day when he will come back to this earth in a visible way to make us and all things right. The pathway through suffering has already been forged for us by Jesus, and he will walk that pathway with us, giving us the strength and courage we need to take one step after another until he brings us through that suffering to the other side.
The Joy of Carrying Jesus to the World
Consider Mary and the joy she expressed over being chosen to carry Jesus into the world as recorded for us in Luke, chapter 1. Here is a poor, insignificant, unwed, teenage mother who would have to endure years of rumors alleging she was unfaithful, plus suffer the grief and hardship of widowhood, division in her family, multiple worries over her eldest son and what he was doing, and this would all culminate in watching him being nailed to a cross to suffer and die. Most of those things were in the future for Mary, however, even with only a partial awareness of the problems she will face for being the mother of the Messiah, Mary is still overjoyed at the great privilege God has given to her. She sings, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49)
In the story that God has given to you in his grand narrative of making all things new, you are Mary. Just as God loved and treasured Mary, so also he has loved and treasured you so much that he not only gave his Son, Jesus, to save you and give you the comfort you need to move forward with confident faith in this world, even when you suffer.
And also like Mary, God has also chosen you to carry Jesus to your family, your friends, your co-workers, your classmates, and your neighbors. How will your soul respond to the unconditional, infinite, choosing love that God has for you? My prayer is that your soul and mine will be so captured by God’s infinite, unconditional love for us that we will naturally respond with a desire to glorify the Lord.
Enduring those times when we are called upon to suffer is not something that we can do on our own. Therefore, the challenge that I have for you today is: Keep your eyes on Jesus and his love, and live with confident faith, even when you suffer. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on December 19, 2021. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)