Summary: Using an empty chair as the central metaphor we explore how Paul’s exhortation to REJOICE comes alive in our own painful lives - all within the framework of the Trinity.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Three In One who pours His Love into our hearts and makes us rejoice.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
About one hundred years before the Reformation, an artist named Andrei Rublev painted a depiction of the Trinity. Today we celebrate the feast of the Trinity, this mystery of faith revealed to men. Rublev’s painting is taken from a scene in Genesis 18. The story is of when three angelic beings visited Abraham and Abraham presented them with a feast at a table.
The painting featured these three angelic figures in a configuration that created an invisible equilateral triangle: one at the head of the table, one at the right and one at the left – sitting in obvious conversation and camaraderie, the way many of us might appear if we’re sitting down at lunch with people that we love and know well.
Throughout the years, pastors and theologians have used this painting to explain or understand something about the Trinity. Strangely enough, the most profound thing that has been said about this painting has nothing to do with the presence of three figures, but rather it has to do with an absence, or a void.
You see, in this triangle of three figures – there seems to be an opening, a missing piece, an invitation to the viewer to take a fourth place amongst these three men, there is an empty chair.
The experience of having an empty chair is one that is quite common to us. Surely we have all experienced empty chairs in one way or another. If you look around today in the sanctuary, you will certainly notice a few empty chairs. Since it is the middle of summer you may notice that many of the chairs once occupied by students are empty. Some other chairs may be empty this week because of vacation plans. Other chairs yet are empty because of the people who used to occupy them have moved away.
For some, the empty chair is even more painful. It may be a reminder of the loved one who no longer sits in a certain place because of an argument. For still others yet, the empty chair may be all that is left behind by a loved one who is now in the hospital or assisted living facility. The empty chairs in your life may perhaps be the end product of a sinful life, the devil’s greatest weapon – death.
That empty chair can be hard for us to look at. It can be hard for us to see the place where a loved one sat and watched tv or drank sweet tea and talked to us. We want to put the chair away. We want to at least look away from it. We don’t want to see it.
I was surprised one day while visiting the home of a friend of mine. I had known her father, but he had died about three months before this – my latest visit. In this my first time back since that tragedy, I noticed that something was “off” in the room. Something didn’t feel right. I looked around and suddenly I realized it – the father’s chair had been moved almost completely out of the dining room and into a corner where it wouldn’t be seen. It was just too hard for them to look at that empty chair.
We have many empty chairs in our own lives. We know the empty chair of sicknesses and deaths that steal people away from us. We know the empty chairs caused by our addiction to sin – empty chairs caused by violent arguments and hurtful words. We even know what it feels like to experience what seems to be an empty chair between us and God when we don’t get a prayer answered the way we want or we don’t have an experience that we think we should have.
These empty chairs are hard to handle because they produce in us a feeling of suffering. They are painful, tragic, and ugly.
Yet the Apostle Paul in our reading for today says something so incomprehensible. He says that we REJOICE in our sufferings. He doesn’t say that if we ignore our sufferings, they’ll go away. He doesn’t say that if we just believed more, we wouldn’t have sufferings. He doesn’t offer us a 12 step program or a band aid but instead says that people who follow Jesus REJOICE in empty chairs and sufferings.
He takes the pain and the suffering that we have been trying to push into the corner or the other room and he takes it into his own hands and says REJOICE!
REJOICE in the passing of this friend, REJOICE in this economic hardship, REJOICE in this persecution, REJOICE in this empty chair which makes you cry every time you look at it. REJOICE because this suffering produces HOPE. It produces endurance, which produces character, which produces HOPE.