STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 3, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Jeremiah 32: 1 – 15; 2 Corinthians 1: 3 – 11; Mark 8: 31
A newly hired manager goes to her desk where she finds a note from the departing manager which reads, “I’ve left three numbered envelopes in the desk drawer for you to open if you encounter a crisis you can’t solve.” Three months later, there’s a dip in sales. She remembers the envelopes and opens the first one. The message says, “Reorganize!” She does this and the company rebounds. Six months later, her department’s in trouble for producing a faulty product. The manager opens the second envelope which reads, “Blame your predecessor!” She does, and she’s off the hook. Two months later, her employees threaten to strike because of poor working conditions. She opens the third envelope. It reads, “Prepare three envelopes”.
Everyone faces hardship and adversity. Sometimes, it’s on-going as with a child who’s born with a physical or intellectual challenge. Sometimes, it’s sporadic: an economic downturn takes you from a life of luxury to the stress of debt. Sometimes, we bring it on: we drink and drive, do something illegal, have an affair. Sometimes, adversity happens because of the biases and prejudices of others. Sometimes, we have little control: anxiety or depression occur, cancer strikes, an accident happens, a loved one dies, we’re a victim of a crime, a co-worker makes a complaint, war breaks out, a tornado hits our home. Or someone around us is unstable or unreliable. Sometimes, we’re unable to meet someone else’s expectations and they don’t have the grace to love us for who we are. We often wonder why God allows hardships to afflict us. We wish and pray that our circumstances would change. We wonder where God is when we’re going through tough times. What if you could wave a wand or make a wish and have all your hardships disappear? What if you could turn back time on every failure, disappointment, loss or wound that you’ve suffered? I’m sure the first reaction of most of us would be to flip that switch and escape the pain that life has handed us.
On the other hand, difficulties make us who we are. The Holy Spirit uses our traumas to shape our character. Some of our greatest growth arises from our deepest troubles. And it’s usually in our experiences of suffering that we draw closest to Christ. So, I ask again, what if you could simply say a word and roll back the clock?
A story is told of a Polynesian king who had a close friend. The friend responded to every situation by remarking, “This is good!” One day, while on a hunting expedition, the friend loaded the king’s rifle. However, he made a mistake and when the king fired it, his thumb was blown off. Rather than showing sympathy or remorse, the friend said, “This is good!”. The king did not agree and sent his friend to prison. A year later, while on another hunt, cannibals captured the king. They stacked some wood, set up a stake, tied the king to it and were about to light a fire when they noticed the missing a thumb. Being superstitious, the cannibals never ate anyone that was less than whole, so, they freed the king. The king was now grateful for his missing thumb and went to get his friend out of jail. “You were right” he said, “it was good that my thumb was blown off!” And he told his friend about his narrow escape, adding, “I’m sorry for sending you to jail. It was bad of me.” “No,” his friend replied, “this is good!” “Good!” said the king, “how could being in jail be good?” His friend responded, “If I had not been in jail, I would have been with you.” Some people look at adversity and see a hidden gift. What do we see? How do we meet adversity?
When storms assail us, some people fall into despair. They believe God has abandoned them. The future will always be painful and bleak. Life becomes pointless. Empty. Lonely. God becomes the source of all things hurtful – the enemy. The soul can’t survive in deep despair for long. Despair is toxic and life robbing.
As an alternative to despair, people may become resigned. In resignation, we curb our desires and convince ourselves that the life we desire isn’t important to us. It’s no big deal. The job was awful anyway. There’s other fish in the sea. I don’t mind being ill. I’m just being practical. As with, death, taxes and the Leaf’s not winning the Stanley Cup this year, we learn to accept the inevitable. Or at least, we try. Resignation doesn’t give us much to hang our spiritual hat on.
As Christians, we can choose another outlook. Hope. Hope is the belief that the future holds good prospects; Hope says it’s okay to desire, because desires can be fulfilled. Hope grows out of trust. The God who has held us from the beginning, is holding us in our tribulations and will carry us into the future. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. Hope involves waiting. Hope includes uncertainty. Hope is scary. Hope takes faith.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in dismal times, yet his faith kept him hopeful. Jerusalem was under siege by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. God was displeased with his people for building and worshipping idols. Jeremiah was given a word from God for the Jewish king, Zedekiah. God’s message was bleak; essentially, I’m going to let the Babylonians conquer Judah and Zedekiah will be hauled off to Babylon, where he’ll remain until I have a change of heart. Not liking the message, Zedekiah put Jeremiah in prison. While he was there, Jeremiah’s cousin showed up to give him first dibs on a plot of land owned by the family. Why would Jeremiah buy land!? He has no use for land in a war-torn country. Yet he buys it. He makes a legal transaction. Why? I doubt he’s planning to buy low and sell high. God has made it clear he won’t be claiming the land anytime soon. He told Jeremiah to put the document in a clay jar “where it will last a long time (Jeremiah 32:14). In the midst of all this adversity, Jeremiah has hope! God has assured him, “Life is going to return to normal. Homes and fields and vineyards are again going to be bought in this country” (vs. 15).
One of the most misquoted scriptures is “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” No where does the Bible say that. The quote is “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Temptation not adversity. Scripture is filled with people who faced adversity – Joseph, Esther, Jeremiah, Paul, even Jesus. No one escapes it. Paul suffered through much persecution. In his own words, he’d been “flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather” (2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 10). In adversity, when the things and people we love are threatened or taken away, we want to lie down and die. When we don’t, when we show up and continue in faith, we discover or re-discover God. In Christ, we not only endure suffering, we grow.
When facing life’s challenges, change occurs. We discover we’re resilient. We’re stronger than we realized. Challenges can deepen relationships. At 57 my friend had breast cancer. It returned when she was 62. Going through that experience helped her to appreciate the people around her. She learned to ask for support. As she considered whatever years she has left, she realized her grandchildren are her priority. She’s stopped wasting time and energy on things that don’t matter.
Life is a treadmill of activity. We always seem to be running after something. Affliction pushes us off the treadmill and slows us down. We wake up; we see clearly. And if we have the courage to re-evaluate life and embrace change, we come out of the crisis with a deeper faith in God.
With faith, comes hope. We change. Just as we’ve been redeemed from the pit, we take that experience and use it for God’s kingdom. We redeem our lives, we develop new routines; our values are re-ordered; habits which hurt others are shed and replaced with better ways of being; we build new relationships; we redeem our experience by using our wisdom to guide another through the abyss or simply to walk beside them. We learn to trust the One who has been with us and brought us through our wilderness. Rivers of living water begin to flow from deep within us.
Many of us would prefer not to grow, if it meant we could roll back time. Despite all his suffering, Paul believed that, “…all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8: 28). That doesn’t mean God brings difficulties into our lives, but it tells us that whatever happens to us, God is there in the midst of our troubles, using them so that his will can unfold. Part of God’s will for us is that we live abundant lives and mature in Christ. Out of our suffering God refines us into people he can use for his purposes. When adversity strikes, our lives move from a certain orientation where all is well with the world, to disorientation. The tragedies and injustices of life have the power to destroy us; they are also the road to resurrection. Hope sets us out on the journey home. Without hope, we allow our circumstances to swallow us. With hope we are able to find our way through and become re-oriented. We rise from it’s ashes and find abundant life. Rivers of living water begin to flow from deep within us. God isn’t at work producing the positive experiences you want; God works through all our experiences to produce the “you” he wants. And that is why God allows us to suffer. Through our suffering we discover that home isn’t what we’ve always known or been, and it isn’t having a trouble-free life. Home is a new orientation. Home is resting in the grace of Christ and flowing in his Spirit.