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Summary: Everybody wants to be a winner and be on the winning team. John the baptizer was afraid that he was mistaken about Jesus because he saw him headed toward a cross. We are still a lot like John. Following Jesus is often not about winning.

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It’s hard to be sure when you are in pain

It’s easy to be confident when things are going well – when you are young, strong – LeBron James for instance, went on TV and had a whole show just to say that he was going to the Miami Heat. Look at me, look how confident I am. This is going to be great.

Sometimes college students can feel that way – so confident – straight A’s. Professors putting little smiley faces and “Great Job” notes on your papers. This is going to be easy.

But LeBron and his boys have been losing as many games as they have been winning so far, and some of our best college graduates are still working at target or McDonalds these days and it’s hard to pay off $60,000 in debts on a McDonald’s salary.

It’s worse when you are in physical pain. I’m starting to learn that these days. Some of my friends have been in constant pain for years. How do they not become bitter? How do they live in faith?

History records many great people who have spent time in jail. Jail has its own kinds of pain – sometimes physical from other prisoners or the guards, and sometimes emotional as you realize that you cannot do your work, and the things you have built are crumbling without your attention, and sometimes relational as you can’t reach or be reached by your loved ones.

Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus all knew the overwhelming nature of this kind of pain. Even Jesus on the cross, with its humiliation, agony, and futility had his time of overwhelming doubt and pain – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Now me, I live in a nice warm house. I sleep on a comfortable bed. I have people who like me, some even love me. I don’t have guards who terrorize me. I don’t have a large government system that opposes me. I don’t have bars that keep me from seeing the sun. It’s easy for people like me to have faith.

But I can see why John the Baptist would have to ask the question. Three years or so earlier, John had been a big shot preacher, now he was in prison. He had crowds, he had disciples. People had asked his opinions about matters of faith – now he had jailers who could do anything to him they wanted and he had to ask them if he could go to the bathroom. Three years earlier he had warned soldiers and rabbi’s about the day of the Lord’s judgment. Now he wondered about Herod’s judgment of him. Three years before – he had been so sure that Jesus was the Messiah – God had told him that the one on whom the Spirit fell like a dove from heaven – that one would be the Messiah – and John had baptized his cousin Jesus and seen the dove come and stay on him. John had heard the voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved son.” John knew back then. But here in this dark, damp, dirty jail cell it was hard to know. He had to ask.

For many years I have been haunted by Endo Shusaku’s story called “Silence”. It is so far from my nice warm house with its comfortable couch, big screened TV and labor saving remote control that I sometimes forget about Endo for months at a time. But then he’ll come back to me in a dream and I am as haunted as I ever was.


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