Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Things going wrong doesn't mean God is gone

During my first few years as a Christian things seemed to fall into place a lot. Life seemed to go smoothly. I had a lot of coincidences (or God-incidences) in my life. There were a series of coincidences when I was preparing for seminary that seemed to assure me that that was the place I was supposed to be. Seemingly miraculously, Crystal found an incredible job that was a 4 minute walk from our front door. We had no furniture and a bunch of furniture was left in the apartment we were moving into. Over and over things seems to slide into place. My now mother-in-law would often comment that I had horseshoes hidden somewhere on my person.
The last couple years have been a bit strange. Things aren’t smooth lately.  We’ve had two vehicles stolen, our pets have died, family members have gotten seriously sick with a heart attack and cancer, one of my sons was in the hospital, some family members have sadly passed away, we have had issues selling our house, and the list goes on. At times it’s felt a bit like getting pecked at by a swarm of sparrows. They aren’t ravens or eagles. They are small birds, but annoying. I think we all know what it’s like when things seem to be not going your way. It feels like hit after hit. Nothing seems to go smoothly. Everything seems to be a battle.
Many are dealing with problems that are way more serious. Some of you are dealing with swarms of ravens. Some people are dealing with serious illnesses and are facing serious medical procedures, and are dealing with home and work problems that are life shattering. Even that seems little compared to the horrifying reports about the persecutions in Iraq under ISIS.   
The temptation when things go badly- whether it is a small series of annoyances, or something more serious- is to think that we have somehow fallen out of favor with God. We ask, are we out of God’s will? Has God forgotten about us? We might even wonder if God is punishing us. The assumption is that if we are following God’s will then everything should be going smoothly and in our favor. But, when we look at the New Testament we don’t see a lot of justification for this way of thinking.
Jesus himself was crucified. Tradition tells us that all the original Apostles died for their commitment to Jesus, and the one who wasn’t martyred was exiled on an island. St. Paul describes what it was like for him to live out the gospel in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11 & 12). He was imprisoned, flogged, lashed, stoned, and beaten nearly to death. He says, 
“Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. … In Damascus, the governor … set a guard on the city … in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands”. 
Paul then is caught up in a vision of paradise, but isn’t allowed to talk about it and says, “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’" 
So how’s that for being in God’s will? Paul doesn’t see suffering as evidence that God has abandoned him. In fact, he says, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Christ invited his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. He wasn’t necessarily talking about the everyday pains of life, but the pain of living and speaking the Gospel. The norm for faithfully living the Gospel will be suffering- a cross. The Gospel of Mark chapter 13 is about Jesus warning his followers about their suffering. He talks about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which happened in the year 70AD. Jesus says in the future 
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:7-13).
 Jesus does not promise to save us from difficulty. He actually promises the opposite. He says that following him will lead to suffering.
This probably seems like a strange thing to be talking about as we prepare for Christmas. Advent is about preparing and waiting for the messiah. We remember the Jewish people waiting and longing for a messiah. They endured exile in Babylon. They suffered under the Seleucid Empire, then the Roman Empire.  God gave prophets visions that told their people to hold on. The forces fighting against good are strong. There seems to be no justice. Things seem to get worse and worse. But hang on, you might not feel like you can hang on any longer, but hang on, God is still in control. Things are not out of control. God will have the last word. God will step in and set things right. The messiah was born, but that wasn’t the end of suffering, that was God joining us in our suffering.
Advent is about remembering our spiritual ancestors suffering and waiting for a messiah, and Advent is about us suffering and awaiting the return of our messiah.
There will be suffering. And that is not a sign that God is not with us, or that we have done something wrong and are being punished. When this happens we will be tempted to give up. Those oppressive powers want to lull us to sleep and become hopeless. The prophets, and Jesus himself, remind us that there will be suffering, but there will be an end to it.
Jesus says, “‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25). In the ancient world the sun and moon and stars were seen as divine powers that controlled empires and human lives. We still see a remnant in this if you ever check your horoscope. It is the idea that what the stars are doing in the sky determine your future, they control the empires that crush you, but when Jesus comes the sun, moon, and stars will lose their power. It is a symbolic statement that when the greatest power in the universe shows up even the greatest powers in the sky are no match for him. They are darkened and they fall.
Then we will see “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven”.
Jesus comes is God’s power and God’s glory and he is in command of God’s angels. We don’t know when this day will come. My Opa tells me that during World War 2 people were talking about it being the end of the world and that Jesus would be returning any minute. Jesus didn’t say he was going to come with a series of calamities. He just said that calamities will come. That is just the way the world goes. Expect it. Expect suffering.   
But Jesus wants us to be ready. He wants us to be actively waiting. He wants us alert and active like servants who are given tasks while their master is away.
We don’t know when he is coming back. The first sign that a person is wrong about predicting the 2nd coming of Jesus is that they predict it at all. Jesus says it is a mystery. It will come like a thief in the night. Or like a master suddenly arriving home after a long trip. Destruction and suffering will happen, but the end is still to come. Jesus’ instructions to us in the meantime are “keep alert”, “keep watch”, “keep awake”.       
This is not a passive waiting. This is attentive and active. It is like a fisherman eagerly waiting for the fish to strike the lure. Or, like servants keeping the house in order and ready for the return of their master.
I was reminded this week that Christ also comes in the midst of our suffering. He will bring good out of the suffering even.  He will eventually come to end all suffering at his Second Coming, but until that time he will come more subtly. A very wise man this week pointed out that I may have been seduced by an idol of prosperity. I was seduced by the idea that being in God’s will meant that everything went smoothly- it flowed gracefully. But that is a false idol. In the midst of my swarm of sparrows God is using that annoyance I feel to destroy that idol- that is his mercy. God does not cause suffering, but God will use it. The persecution of the early Christians put on exhibit the courage of the followers of Christ. This led the Church Father Tertullian to say, “The blood of Martyrs is the seed of the church”. God does not cause suffering, but in his mercy he will bring good out of it.   Out of the cross God will bring resurrection.  God will bring good out of suffering, but at Advent we also recognize that there will be an ultimate end to the suffering because Christ will come again, and there is no power that can stand against him. And so in the midst of suffering we cry to God to come and transform our suffering, or to bring the ultimate end of all suffering. Come Lord Jesus.    



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