Monday, July 18, 2011
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen...
When I grew up, any complaint was bound to incite the dreaded response about how bad my parents had it growing up. The increasing litany of suffering began with we were so poor we did not have shoes, then no socks, and then not even have feet for the seventeen mile one way walk to the one room unheated prairie school. Misery loves to glory in how bad we have it. It becomes almost a competition for how bad it was "when we were kids..." It is no wonder than our kids have learned to complain – they learned it from us. They learned from us to forget every joy and blessing and remember every pain, sorrow, or slight. But it is not without consequences. Eventually, such selective memory can tear down our joy in Christ.
Now it is no doubt that this life involves suffering. The first two hymns we sang spoke honestly of our sufferings. We carry around the scars of our defeats, our battles, our disappointments, and our bitterness. Sometimes we even compete for who has had it worst. But we need to be careful here. The Christian acknowledges these sufferings but does not focus on them, admits such wounds but does not fixate upon them. We put our sufferings into perspective, as St. Paul reminded us in the Epistle for today. It is not a balance scale but a perspective – our sufferings are always in comparison to the love, redemption and glory we have in Christ.
When we compare what we went through in the past or are going through now, oo what God has prepared for us in Christ, our sufferings pale in comparison. Sure, we feel the pain but we know what pain Christ bore that you and I might be marked for heavenly glory, peace, and bliss. In comparison to all that He won for us by His suffering and death, our present sufferings are not worth mentioning. It is like complaining about and fighting for the last cracker on the appetizer tray while ingnoring the richest banquet table that is being set for us. Why fight for the distinction of the greatest sufferer when God has prepared for us the greatest joy?
We live in a world groaning under the weight of sin and its effects. Ever aspect of God's wonderful creation has been brought down by sin and its death. We are not alone in wearing the marks of our suffering or complaining under the weight of their wounds. All around us we see the marks of a decaying world and its people groaning for relief – just like you and me.
But this suffering and this pain are not preludes to something worse nor are they marks of future pain and future disappointment. No, they are the birth pains of a world and lives being born in the hope and glory of Christ's redemption. The world around us and each one of us are like a woman in labor, suffering the pain of a moment to give birth to the child of joy. This is the nature of our lives here on earth. We must never lose sight of the future God has prepare for us!
We do not hope in what we see. We are not consoled by the prospect of a little better world, or a little bit more justice, or a little less disappointment. We do not hope in a better version of what we see all around us. Our hope is not simply to be happier or to have an easier life. Our hope is much grander. It cannot even be imagined now – God's future is beyond our imagination.
We hope not in what we see but the radical new creation in which sin, death, disappointment, sorrow and fear have absolutely no place whatsoever. This is a future we cannot imagine but the Spirit knows this future and He informs our hearts of God's tomorrow and away from our past. When we are so overwhelmed by the suffering of the moment that we cannot even muster the words to pray, this same Spirit of God transforms our weary sighs and our achy groans into the prayers of the faithful. We pray God for this wondrous tomorrow to come quickly and rescue us lost sinners from our disappointment and fear, from our sin and death, and to restore us to joy.
You might think that suffering would teach us to pray but if our prayers are simply focused on our pain, all we pray is the lament of our wounds. Our Synod Pres. Matthew Harrison has reminded us that we know not how to pray because we know not the promises of God. These promises are what invites and encourages our prayers. We do not pray from our suffering but because of His promises. It is this confident joy that enables us to pray and to know now in the midst of our sufferings His peace and contentment.
Christians often complain in their misery as if there were a prize for the one who had it worst. Instead we are to offer the Lord our pain, in the hope and expectation of the future that He has prepared for us. But this is not usually how we operate. And it is to our poverty that we forget this hope. We have all met people who see the gray cloud around every silver lining, who can tear down and stamp our every hope and steal away our ever joy. These magnets of misery know just how to tear us down. We know how to complain. The Spirit does not need to teach us this. What the Spirit needs to teach us is how to shine like the Son, how to shift our focus from sin's wrong and death's shadow to Christ's forgiveness and life. The Spirit works to transform the very sighs of our complaints into the confident prayer that hopes and even expects God's to give us what He has promised. It is this that empowers our prayers – familiarity with God's promises and confidence that He will give us what He has promised.
In the Gospel lesson we heard of those who wanted to separate the tares (or weeds) from the wheat. This was spoken in reference to the Kingdom of God but it is surely true of our lives as well. We want to pull up all the weeds and tares of our lives and leave only the good fruit. But just as Jesus spoke of patience and trust in God's timing, so are we bidden to trust in God and to be patient, having fully confidence that what is promised is already ours – now by faith and soon face to face.
We come here every week carrying the weight of all our complaints, all our disappointments, all our sins, and all our death... Sometimes we are so weighed down by them that we cannot even form words to pray. So the Spirit points us to the sufferings of Christ, to the accomplishment of Christ on our behalf, and to the promises of Christ in His mercy and grace. It is here we find an answer to our misery. We are forgiven. We are born again from death to life eternal. We are not orphans but know His fatherly presence over us. We know how our story ends in the everlasting salvation that is already ours.
We cannot afford to wait until things go well to be happy. We cannot wait for people to stop disappointing us to know joy. We cannot wait for sin to stop before hoping for a future. We cannot wait for death to know the resurrection and the life everlasting. The answer to all of these lies in Christ. Our sufferings do not measure up to His suffering on our behalf. More than this, our sufferings cannot even compare to the glory God is waiting to reveal to us. Our faith is simple patience and trust in the God who will not now or ever disappoint us. And this is what builds in us contentment, joy, and peace.... now and forevermore. Amen