Annie Dillard is one of my favorite authors. In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, she writes: “You don’t have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it or demand it.” Darkness is a part of the human experience. It happens to all of us at some time. It is true that you will see and experience things sitting in the dark that you never did in the light, but stars can seem like a small reward when you are surrounded by darkness.
Many people complain to God with the words of the Psalmist, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:23-24). I have sat with many, many people over the years who have experienced great pain and sorrow in life. It can seem like life is really unfair. Some people seem to go through life with few problems and great blessings. It all seems to come together for them. They have it all: good family, good health, and adequate finances. For others, every trouble going down the road seems to stop at their house.
When that happens, people begin to wonder what they have done wrong, as if somehow they are being punished. Or they even begin to think that God hates them. One young mother wrote Phil Yancey about how her joy turned to grief when she delivered a daughter with spina bifida, a birth defect which leaves the spinal cord exposed. She wrote several pages in spidery script telling the story of how the medical bills had drained the family finances. Her marriage had come apart because her husband resented all the time she devoted to their sick child. She began to wonder if there was a loving God after all and sought his advise.
Over the years I have sat with families with deep sorrow. Some were people whose children died. I have grieved with people when a family member committed suicide. A few families even had family members murdered. Many have had troubled children who seemed intent on destroying their lives and striking out in bitterness against the family. One young teen in a church I pastored several years ago had been out of control for years, even though he had good and capable parents. When he was 10, he set their house on fire. But one day, when he was a senior in high school, he took a shotgun out of his parent’s bedroom and drove to his girlfriend’s house. They had a baby together. As he drug her out of the house by her hair, her parents grabbed the baby out of her arms. He drove to a gravel pit and shot his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself. A tragic end to a tragic life.
What would you say to those parents? How would you comfort them? How would you talk to them about where God fits in all this? Jesus confronted people like this all the time — the widow whose only son had just died, the man blind from birth, lepers, people rejected by society. Of course, his response was to bring the boy back to life, heal the blind man, cure the lepers, and forgive and welcome the ostracized. It’s not so easy for us. But Jesus also experienced his own personal troubles with life as well. Jesus lived with many difficulties, annoyances, trials, frustrations, and of course the awareness of his own impending suffering, crucifixion and death. The terrible injustice of this perfect and righteous man having to die for a rebellious and sinful world would have made anyone else bitter.
Let’s look at the life of Christ and consider what he faced. First of all, Jesus faced opposition from people. The Bible reading today said, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3). Jesus had all kinds of difficulties with people who tried their best to make his life miserable. There were the legalistic religious leaders who plagued his every step. They were always looking over his shoulder to see if he did something wrong or said the wrong thing. They were constantly plotting ways to do away with him. They held his feet to the fire over every little religious law they could come up with. They demanded to know why he would associate with sinners. They complained when he ate in the homes of sinners, and gave them attention like they really mattered. They brought a woman caught in adultery (a situation they had probably set up), and said that the law demanded that she be stoned to death — so was he going to obey the Scripture or not? They tested his political loyalty and asked whether it was right to pay taxes or not. They planted sick and disabled people in the synagogues where they knew he would be, to see if he would break one of the Ten Commandments by healing on the Sabbath. They maligned what he believed and who he was. They watched his every word. They dogged his every step. They opposed him at every turn. They hated him. They were constantly looking for a way to do away with him. And all that was from good, religious folk.
Then there were his disciples. They never seemed to really “get it.” He is teaching people and loving them, and the disciples are trying to keep people away — children and others they considered outsiders. Jesus was trying to get them to understand about his coming death and suffering, and they weren’t listening, because they were so busy arguing about who was the greatest. What a grief and disappointment they were at times.
Then there were the crowds who were always ready to be healed or eat some Jesus-made-bread, but disappeared when he asked for faithful and obedient discipleship. They wanted the miracles, but where were all the people Jesus healed when he was on trial? At one point Jesus said, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matthew 17:17). He had to endure the opposition of people.
Human relationships are the most rewarding and the most painful part of life. It is amazing what people can do to each other. More suffering has come from what some human beings have done to other human beings than any other source. One thing that Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ did for us was to get us in touch with the horrendous suffering Jesus endured at the hand of others. And it has happened all through the history of the church. The pages of history are littered with martyrs who endured enormous suffering for the sake of Christ — things done to them by their fellow human beings. The Bible talks of the rejection and suffering of the people of God through the ages when it says, “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:35-37).
Many of our fellow believers around the world are suffering at the hands of others at this very moment. People in our own community are suffering abuse — some of it in their own homes. And if that is happening to you, be sure of this: It does not go unnoticed by God. Christ has suffered before you and is with you now in your suffering. God is for you, not against you. You have not done something wrong for which you are being punished. It is not your fault. God cares for you and is concerned about your hurt, and the day will come when the sun will rise again.
The second point is that: Jesus faced the evil of a fallen world. Because we live in a fallen world, that is, a world that has fallen away from God, all nature has been affected. The Bible puts it this way, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21). Even Mother Teresa wrote of a dark night of the soul which she experienced, because of the fallenness of this world. She once said, “I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul …. What tortures of loneliness. I wonder how long will my heart suffer like this?”
Sin has warped the world. With sin came evil. The world is now a place where good things can happen to bad people, and bad things can happen to good people. Just ask Job. The Bible says of him: “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” A good man, and yet, he lost everything he had. His children were killed in a storm. He became ill with a disease that was extremely painful and made others not want to be around him. These things all came to him through no fault of his own. Even after all this happened to Job, the Lord said of him, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason” (Job 2:3).
It is amazing to me that I have at times heard Christians say, “Well, Job must have sinned in some way or done something wrong, or God wouldn’t have let all those things happen to him.” But these things do happen to committed Christians. Unjust things. Hurtful things. Disastrous things. Christians get cancer and die in accidents. Storms take away the homes of good people. People who love God experience financial ruin. We live in a fallen world which is unpredictable. Anything can happen and sometimes does. But this was the experience of Jesus. Bad things happened to him. His life was not easy.
Jesus endured the hardships of life. He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He experienced thirst, hunger and pain. He endured physical discomfort. He went through storms. He suffered beatings and death.
So how do we handle it when we face the injustice of life? What do we do when we have tried to follow God and we still experience suffering? What happens when we have tried to be faithful to Christ and have still experienced a divorce, the death of a loved one, or a personal, life-threatening illness? We follow the teaching of the scripture today: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2-3). In other words, look to Jesus who also suffered. Look to him and follow his example. As he endured the cross, you must endure yours, and you do it for the joy that is set before you — the eternity of life in him. He scorned the shame, that is, he endured it bravely. He thought little of it. He disregarded the shame. I like to think it could translated, “Jesus sniffed at the disgrace,” or “He laughed at the shame.” He knew what he had come to do. He was pressing toward his goal even though it contained pain and shame in the offing. He was looking forward to the joy ahead of him. The Bible says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Jesus understands, because he has been there. God did not spare him from suffering, rather he immersed him in it. The Bible says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). One of the greatest comforts we have is that we know Christ has gone before us and suffered in this life. He suffered for us, and suffers now with us. We turn to someone who understands. Isaiah the prophet told of him when he wrote: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Hope and help are on the way, for the Scripture says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you” (Isaiah 60:11-2).
I recently read an article that told this story, “The most sacred symbol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is a tree: a sprawling, shade-bearing, 80-year-old American Elm. Tourists drive from miles around to see her. People pose for pictures beneath her. Arborists carefully protect her. She adorns posters and letterheads. Other trees grow larger, fuller — even greener. But not one is equally cherished. The city treasures the tree not because of her appearance, but her endurance. She endured the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh parked his death-laden truck only yards from her. His malice killed 168 people, wounded 850, destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and buried the tree in rubble. No one expected it to survive. No one, in fact, gave any thought to the dusty, branch-stripped tree. But then she began to bud. Sprouts pressed through damaged bark; green leaves pushed away gray soot. Life resurrected from an acre of death. People noticed. The tree modeled the resilience the victims desired. So they gave the elm a name: the Survivor Tree.”
Maybe your life is buried under the rubble of some disaster in your life. Jesus’ life was too. His crucifixion looked like a miserable end to a good life. But he rose from the rubble that had buried him — brimming with life. Because he lives, you too will live. The prophet Isaiah wrote: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2).
Rodney J. Buchanan
March 25, 2012
Amity United Methodist Church