- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 7, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Hebrews 2: 9
We see Jesus, made “not quite as high as angels,”
and then, through the experience of death,
crowned so much higher than any angel,
with a glory “bright with Eden’s dawn light.”
Lighting of the Christ Candle (The light of the world is Jesus)
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
God of Life,
At this solemn time of year, we praise you first and foremost, for your Son, Jesus Christ who laid down his life to set us free and who calls us to take up our cross as well.
We are aware of the costliness of human history.
In the face of hostility between nations and neighbours,
Jesus came, carrying no sword and calling us to serve as peacemakers.
In this time of worship, renew in us the hope
that you will turn swords into ploughshares,
and lead the world you love away from the study of war
to the promise of peace with justice for all your peoples.
We thank you that with you, even this is possible.
We confess that the world around us is in a mess.
Countries turn disputes over territory into threats of terror.
Old enemies stir up conflict within their tribes and nations.
Threats of violence keep us all on edge.
We confess we have not learned from past conflicts
what leads to peace with justice among nations and neighbours.
As we look at ourselves, we know that we too are prone to pride, stubbornness, self-promotion, anger, self-righteous, and a lust for power.
May peace begin within each heart.
Help us to be part of the solution, creating your kingdom and not part of the problem, festering and promoting hatred.
Forgive us and lead us in a better way.
As we worship today, make us aware of the community that worships with us.
May our worship bring you glory and may our words and actions always be pleasing to you.
We pray through Christ who is our peace. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon 1 Peter 1: 7
Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure;
genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine.
When Jesus wraps this all up,
it’s our faith,
not our gold,
that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.
Hymn: Make Me a Channel of your Peace
Exchanging the Peace of Christ
Prayer for Illumination
Lord Jesus, you suffered and died for our sin. Help us to hear your Word so we will be able to face all of life’s hardships. Amen.
Acts 21: 7 – 14
Philippians 1: 29
Mark 15: 22 – 24
Hymn: A Mighty Fortress
Message Being the Church – Suffering
The other day I saw a birthday card that said, “Forget about the past…you can’t change it, forget about the future… you can’t predict it, forget about the present… I didn’t get you one.” Speaking about the future, a friend’s wife said they needed to sit down and talk about the future. He said, ‘Yeah it’s gonna be awesome! I’ll drive a flying car! Visit colonies on Mars! I’ll never have to do anything ‘cause we’ll own self-fixing robots! And, hey, we can live in a city in the clouds. Beam me up Scottie! It’s gonna be amazing!!’ That wasn’t what she’d hoped to hear. Now his future includes alimony.
From the time we’re born, we wonder about the future. When do I eat again? What will I be when I grow up? Will I go on in school? See the world? Get a good job? Get married? Have kids? Buy a house? Will my family flourish? What will I do in retirement? Will I get ill? What will I go through between now and death? Sometimes we are desperate to know what lies ahead. A friend of mine had a daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia. Her treatments were aggressive. Naturally, her mother was worried sick. She sought out the help of a psychic who assured her the daughter would be fine and she was. Of course, the psychic had a 50-50 chance of being correct. Not all psychics are that lucky. I watched a psychic on TV who was asked by an audience member if she could tell her how her husband died. The psychic said, “I see water”. The woman said, “I don’t think so, my husband died in the 9/11 attacks.” I gave credit to the psychic who stuck by her guns and said, “Never-the-less, I see water.” Life holds many unknowns. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could walk through the door and predict it all?
Or maybe not.
How would you respond if you were visiting a friend and a colleague dropped by, removed your belt and tied up his own hands and feet? Weird enough right? Most of us would have been grabbing for the belt long before he hog tied himself. But then the man says to you, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: The [authorities in Toronto] are going to tie up, just like this, the person who owns this belt and hand them over to [people who torture and kill Christians]” (Acts 27: 11). Sometimes it’s better not to know. When this happened to Paul, his friends panicked and begged him not to go to the city. Paul insisted he was going. They grew exasperated by his stubborn persistence. We understand the logic of his friends. Why not avoid the place and not give the people the chance to arrest or betray him? Perhaps Paul knew there was no point in trying to change fate – when “the Holy Spirit says” something, it will come to pass no matter how one tries to manipulate the situation. Seeing how determined he was, his frustrated friends put their trust in God and let him go.
Throughout his ministry Jesus spoke about suffering. He predicted his own torturous death on a cross. It was a death that would cause intense bodily suffering, and as it did intense spiritual suffering. He would be separated from his Father and lost to both this world and the next. When that time grew closer, Jesus suffered emotionally because he knew what lay ahead he was fearful of the pain. And of course, his suffering unfolded just as he knew it would.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus also foretold the suffering of his followers,
- “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Matthew 29: 14).
- “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:11).
- “Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15: 20).
It doesn’t take a fortune teller with a crystal ball to foresee the future of the followers of Jesus. He has already told us we can expect to suffer for our faith. Yet, somehow, we have misconstrued the Christian life. We believe in Jesus because if he suffered in our place, we won’t need to suffer. I remember reading the book In Cold Blood when I was sixteen. It’s the story of two sociopaths who go to rob a Christian family and end up murdering them all. It shattered my world view. Doesn’t God protect his people from evil? We follow Jesus to be happy and peaceful. We believe that God will keep us safe, meet our needs, heal our bodies, fix our loneliness, give meaning to our lives. And, by his grace, God often does those things. He only asks that we turn to him, trust him, and have faith. Yet we’re told we will also suffer.
And this isn’t our common human suffering. Suffering is a part of life. To some degree we all have problems. Life is full of stress. There’s plenty to fear. We get our hearts broken. We may get our bodies broken. We may lose a home or go through a war. Life is hard. But Jesus is speaking of a special kind of suffering. A suffering reserved for those who follow him. He is telling us to expect to suffer not only the shared suffering of humanity, but a suffering that comes because we love and follow him. Being a Christian will bring suffering and persecution.
In his letter to the Philippians 1:29, Paul makes one of the most surprising statements in scripture, “There is far more in this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting.” (MSG) or as the NRSV puts it, “This is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” When I mentioned this to another minister, he said, “You must have read that wrong. Didn’t he say that even in the midst of suffering you can trust Christ”? Nope, I read it right – suffering is a gift of God, a privilege, right up there with faith. It just doesn’t fit what we think. If Paul had said, There’s more to this life than trusting Christ, there is also joy, salvation, abundant life, eternal life, a long white robe and a golden crown”, we’d have said, Sweet, I’m in. If he’d said, There’s far more to this life than trusting Christ, there’s also worshipping him, serving him, praying and studying him, we’d all say Well, of course there is – it’s not a one way street. But Paul skips those lists and tells us, in essence, that life – that being a Christian – includes suffering for Christ. Suffering for him is at least as important as trusting him. It’s quite natural for us to say, “Jesus loves you and wants you to trust him; if you do, he will save you”. We would find it very odd to say, “Jesus loves you and wants you to suffer for him; if you do, he will save you”. Not much of a sales pitch. We would readily say, Faith is a gift from God. We aren’t so quick to say, Suffering is a gift from God. After all, who would choose to trust and follow someone who wants not our best, but our best suffering? Who rejoices over getting suffering for a present? Faith, yes. Trust, yes. Life, yes. Suffering? Thanks for thinking of me but I think I’ll pass. And yet suffering is a gift that Jesus gives to every Christian.
I have to admit that when it comes to predictions of suffering, I’m a little more like Paul’s friends than Paul. If there’s some way to avoid that or even put it off, I’m there. To start with there’s enough suffering in life without it being a central piece of my faith journey or my relationship with Jesus. And here I thought I was signing up to a life free of trouble, free of hurt, free of suffering. What happened to “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 11). But, according to Jesus, suffering is as much a part of our life in him as dinner at a church supper (remember those?).
How do we fit such contradictory things together? The only way we can, is to see the gift of suffering in a different way. When Paul’s friends tried to dissuade him from walking into a trap, Paul responded, “Why all this hysteria? Why do you insist on making a scene and making it even harder for me? You’re looking at this backward. The issue in Jerusalem is not what they do to me, whether arrest or murder, but what the Master Jesus does through my obedience. Can’t you see that?” (vs. 13). For Paul, life wasn’t about ease or suffering, it was about Christ’s Kingdom coming and serving his King in any way that would lift the King up and allow him to further his mission. Submitting to suffering wasn’t a ticket to heaven, a masochistic urge or a hero’s game, it was a way to make space for the Holy Spirit to work. The suffering would be real, it would be painful, it would be bad, it would leave scars. Paul didn’t welcome or hope for that. He had to shift his focus from the process to the outcome. From what people might do to what the Holy Spirit will do. His life was about honouring Jesus by being faithful, even to death.
We are fortunate to live in a time and place where suffering for Jesus is a small part of our calling. At other times and in other places in our world, God has poured out his gift of suffering with much more generosity. None-the-less, we will suffer, not only the normal, hurtful, unwanted things that life throws at every human being, but the persecution that is reserved for those who say, “Jesus is Lord.” That is our future, and we don’t need a psychic or a prophet with a belt to assure us – we’ve gotten that prediction, that fact, right from the Master. Paul moved towards his suffering. He stuck with his mission as revealed by the Spirit and he trusted that Christ would use his suffering to fulfill his purposes. The Book of Acts tells us a great deal about Paul and the things he suffered for the sake of spreading the gospel. It doesn’t tell us what happened to Paul or how he died. It just ends with him in Rome. Tradition claims that Paul was beheaded there as part of the persecution of Christians at that time. It was his final gift of suffering. We don’t know what the future holds or what we will suffer for our faith. I think that’s just as well. I only hope that when I suffer for Christ, whether by being mocked or being murdered, I will like Paul, walk towards it instead of running away. What will you do?
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Lord Jesus, we remember your suffering and the great gift of forgiveness and life that you gave to us through it. We bring you our gifts. May they be symbols of our willingness to suffer for your kingdom. Amen.
Hymn: Will Your Anchor Hold
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
God of all the ages past, Hope of years to come:
We gather in this season of remembrance,
grateful that you remember each one of us and hold us in the palm of your hand,
now and for all the time to come.
Today, we remember all those who have served to uphold justice and freedom
in the wars of the last century,
in conflicts of our own generation,
and in peacekeeping and relief efforts around the world.
Especially we pray for those who have died serving others
and for those who carry scars on body and soul, having returned from conflict.
We remember their courage
and we pray for their families who still ache for lives surrendered at a great cost.
Remember them now and for all the time to come.
O God, we remember before you the victims of conflict,
hiding in forgotten corners of the world, longing for safety and peace.
We pray for people in Afghanistan who fear for their lives and their future.
We remember victims of violence in our own country,
still fearful and uncertain about what the future holds for them.
Give us the courage to participate in their healing and to show them the love and safety we have found in Christ.
Remember them now and for all the time to come.
O God, we remember those around us who struggle to remember day by day;
those who must cope with the fear of forgetting those who matter most to them,
and those who face the fear of being forgotten.
Help us remember to reach out in comfort and support
so that no one is forgotten.
Remember them now and for all the time to come.
O God, we remember those around us who carry on
under the burden of sad and terrible memories;
those weighed down by grief, disappointment, anger, pain and loss.
Inspire us to offer a listening ear and an understanding heart whenever we can.
Remember them now and for all the time to come.
God of all the ages past, hope of years to come,
help us to remember you day by day.
Keep us prepared to shine the light of your gospel into the dark corners of the world
so that hope is renewed,
for the sake of Jesus, who taught us to pray together, saying:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn: Lift High the Cross
Invitation to Mission
As we leave this sanctuary
life will confront us with many hardships
We go from here, strong in our Lord Jesus Christ,
ready to endure whatever challenges we face.