Sermon for Outdoor Service – “Loving God When Life is Hard” – August 24, 2014
No matter where we were to find ourselves at any one moment on this planet, we would discover that we have a great many things in common with every other human there.
We all need to eat, sleep, be clothed - there’s a bunch of really basic things all of us need.
But we also have experiences, or types of experiences in common. We laugh, we cry, we have high points and we have low points. We suffer. We are wounded, We recover. We are stronger for it.
We have Christian brothers and sisters across this globe. We share a common humanity and a common dignity with people of all other faiths and people of no faith.
Whether or not we acknowledge it, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and because of that we all have inherent dignity, value and we have a Creator God who loves us with an everlasting love.
These are among the things that we have in common with every other person on this planet. And there’s a lot of us. 7.162 billion according to the United States Census Bureau
But you don’t have to read much past the front page on the newspaper of the home page of an online news source to hear about tragedies. To hear about suffering.
In the past couple of weeks Robin Williams committed suicide. ISIS, or the Islamic State, a radical fundamentalist group with a strange bloodlust has hunted Christians and others who were of different faiths, first giving them the option to convert by force, to pay a heretic tax, or to be killed.
That same group executed an American journalist a few days ago. You’d think we were in the middle ages. One man beheads another man. Unbelievable.
There is such suffering and hardship on a global scale. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said recently “the world is a mess.” She’s not wrong.
So it’s all very disconcerting. It feels like there’s a lot more unknown than known both about what’s happening now in the world and what’s coming in the future.
And in our own lives, life is hard. Barbara and I just got back from having some time away on vacation. 3 weeks in to our holidays we get a call saying that George Hardy, our brother-in-law, Barbara’s sister’s husband, passed away.
He had just come through surgery, things were looking great, all his vital signs were good. And 4 days later, still in the hospital, he just died. We don’t really know why.
Leaving the hospital a few hours after George died, Barb’s sister Erika, now a widow, is being driven home by her other sister, Sylvia, with 2 other family members in the car. Another car, a truck actually, runs a red light and smashes into them, totalling their car.
But for a micro-second when Sylvia saw the other car zooming through the intersection out of the corner of her eye and turned her car slightly, avoiding being T’d by the offending car...but for that millisecond, that day would have been grief compounded upon grief.
They’re ok. Tender but ok. Bruised speen. Mild concussion. Shock. Squeaky joints. But they’re ok.
In our own lives, life is hard. Life can sometimes pull no punches. Struggle and difficulty can weigh us down like nothing else.
What do we do? Where do we go? When one of the funniest men who has ever lived chooses to end it all. When terrorists threaten and kill. When life has all the joy sucked out of it [make vacuum noise], what are we, really, to do?
I suppose throwing up our hands is an option. Becoming cynical and fearful is an option. Hunkering down and hiding away from life through drugs or booze or sex or whatever - those are options.
But is there a better way? I think...I’m of the opinion, the conviction, that there is...a MUCH better way.
Our Scripture today directs us to another path, to another set of responses. The wisdom of the Word of God opens doors and, if we’re willing, lights our path to a very different place than despair.
It begins by pointing out that the end goal, the final purpose of all this - the good, the bad and the ugly of life - is the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Freedom and glory. Freedom and glory. When you think of it, the opposite of freedom and glory is...what? Captivity and shame, I think. That’s the bad news.
The good news, or part of the good news, is that our Creator’s purpose for us, for our lives, for our world, is a good one.
Far from wishing captivity and shame upon us, God has created us for liberty - responsible liberty of course - not the freedom to be selfish, and He’s created us for glory.
The ultimate expression of that, I think, is experienced in His presence. Those who follow Jesus can have a deep sense of God’s presence now on earth. One day, we will be face to face with God.
As _______ read to us, it says that even the fruit of God’s imagination and will - all of Creation, though broken and decaying because of us, (even creation was impacted by the human choice to sin and to try to be like God)...creation is waiting for something.
Even Creation has hope, in a sense, that it will be liberated from bondage and decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. That’s awesome. Kinda freaky and strange, but awesome. There’s a big, global healing in view.
This big, dusty, rusty, busted planet that currently, the Scripture says, groans as if it was in childbirth is waiting for something.
It’s something just within the reach of our imagination. It’s something we sometimes hope against hope for.
It’s something that followers of Jesus, too, struggle to grasp the enormity of. Creation, all of it, including you and me will be reconciled to God.
Colossians 1:19-20 says: 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Jesus will reconcile all things to God, things on earth and things in heaven.
God’s space, heaven will eventually mesh with our space. And somehow, somehow, the healing of this planet is tied into the healing of...you, and me. The freedom of this planet is tied to our freedom. The glory of this planet is tied to our glory.
And the way the Apostle Paul puts it, that coming Wonder, that big reconciliation of all things that is coming, puts our present problems, our present sufferings into perspective.
That perspective is that our present sufferings don’t hold a candle in their depth and weight and sorrow, to the coming hope, the glory that will be revealed in us.
I’m not sure about you, but that is astounding to me. We’ve all experienced losses. I’ve lost my brother, my father and mother in the past 7 years. Recently my family lost Uncle George, as I’ve mentioned.
We suffer in mourning. We suffer in the loss of people we care for. People we love. It might the worst kind of suffering there is.
But Paul says that our present sufferings are nowhere near as bad as the good that is coming is GOOD. Though weeping may last for the night, joy comes in the morning.
Looking at verse 23, if we’re honest, we know that we have not yet experienced the fullness of our blessing as children of God. Bono of U2 was criticized for singing: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. The most agitated critic of Bono that I’ve known really laid into him for this lyric.
A few years later, he left the faith. What we’re waiting for, what we’re groaning for, is the fullness of our experience as the ones who have been adopted into the family of God, which Paul says is the resurrection or redemption of our bodies. It’s another way of saying heaven or God’s space.
But even as we wait, and as we’re honest and faithful in our waiting, we have hope. It’s not hope in something that we already fully and tangibly experience. Paul says: “Who hopes for what they already have?”
So where is God in the waiting? Where is God when things are off the rails? When things are really bad, when we don’t even sense His presence and the evidence of His activity seems sparse, the issue, according to Paul, isn’t God’s absence.
God is never absent from the life of a believer. Never. The issue is actually our impatience. You know the old song: “God give me patience. I want it now!”
Instead of, for lack of patience, fainting at our hardships, presuming God’s absence - instead of that, we simply wait, and trust, and believe, and make sure we KEEP OUR EYES open - and all this we do with patience. Why?
Imagine for a moment that you are in a helicopter, high up with a great view of the terrain. You look down and you see someone travelling a path with lots of hills and valleys.
You also see points of rest that the traveller can’t see from where he is. You see the smooth parts of the journey. You see the rough patches the traveller has ahead of him. You see the foggy patches ahead of the traveller where he’ll have to move slowly and carefully.
You see where the traveller started out, where they are now and where they’re going. And you see the final destination, the place where the traveller only hopes to ever arrive.
All these things you can see at the same time because you’re high enough up in the helicopter. But the traveller, he can’t see more than a little ways ahead, and he doesn’t know what’s lying around any corner coming up.
Obviously we’re the traveller, going somewhere, but without clear knowledge of the path ahead. Where stuck moving this way [point from left to right].
We’re stuck in time, where stuck in space (wherever we happen to be at the moment). We’re severely limited, really.
God is above time. God is above the place we find ourselves in. And He calls us to trust that He knows the way, that He’s given us the path we’re on, AND, as it says in verse 26, God’s given us His Spirit Who helps us in our limitations, Who helps us in our weaknesses.
We don’t know WHAT’S ahead. We don’t know WHAT to pray for.
One thing I don’t mind nowadays that use to really bug me is getting lost. Travelling somewhere, where I don’t know the directions. Can you guess why? I’ve got a GPS on my phone. At any given point it tells me where I am and, if I’m lost, how to get unlost.
God has not left us alone. He’s given us His Holy Spirit on the inside, not to solve all our problems. Not to make everything easy. But, actually, to interceed for us. That means to mediate between us and God and between us and the hard things in life. YOU ARE NEVER ALONE.
I officiated at the funeral of George, who as I mentioned died earlier in the summer. A few weeks later I was talking with a relative who had been at the funeral and who is an atheist, who doesn’t believe in God.
I was saying that I really struggle with death, with loss, with the absence through death of people I care about. He was surprised to hear that, because he knows that I beleive in God, and that I have deep faith that George is now with God, and that I’m deeply happy as a result.
I said it’s a bit of a tension for Christians to lose people we love who are Christians. It’s a tension because we feel the loss deeply, often agonizingly right now, but that we also know that the person himself is happier than they could ever imagine.
His response was something like: “Hang on. Think about me. I was at the funeral and I’m convinced that George is just gone. Dead. Nothing left. Just the end’. Sadly, that’s true in the mind of a person who does not believe.
But we know something, or have chosen to accept something, that those who will not believe don’t. We Are Not Alone. This life is not the end. Amen?
Turn to your neighbour and say: “You are not alone. The Lord your God is with You”. [Pause]
So, what reasons do we have so far for loving God when life is tough, when life is really hard? First, we have God’s unwavering promise that total freedom and glory awaits the children of God in heaven.
Hope that God is with us and that He gives us His Spirit to guide and direct our paths and to interceed for us. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:22 that God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come”.
He also says in Ephesians 1:13-14 that “...You also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.
“When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory”. Amen.
And finally today, our Scripture passage gives the best reason of all for loving God when life is hard: It says this: “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. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters”.
Other translations say “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”. NRSV
The point is that God works through the hardships of life, He works through our suffering, through our pain, through our sadness and depression, through our fears and trembling. He’s not the cause of any of those things. His intention is only ever blessing and healing, to give us hope and purpose and a future.
I’ve spoken with many of you and have discovered that you experience the same remarkable thing that
I do. Suffering makes us stronger. Enduring the unendurable with faith and hope and trust in God’s goodness and love, well that just gives us more power for living, more confidence and less fear.
Why? Because we’ve been through what we never imagined being able to get through and we’ve survived, and we’ve discovered that God has given us grace and strength to see it through.
The ultimate thing that God wants in us is something that, amazingly, God does IN THE MIDST OF our hardships. God wants us to be like Jesus. Conformed to His image. Like Jesus. In freedom. In the capacity to love God and love people. In our gentleness. In faithfulness. In joy. In purity of heart and purity of character.
And He wants us to do this, to become like Jesus, as brothers and sisters. As co-travellers. As people who journey together in love, in concern for one another, supporting one another, encouraging one another.
May we always remember the glory ahead of us as God’s space, heaven, becomes our home, when we are done here on this earth. May we always remember and never take for granted the hope that God has given us through Jesus Christ, through the cross. May we live like we believe that God works for our good in all things. And may we choose to and willingly seek to be like Jesus, our risen King. Amen.