ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 9, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Isaiah 40: 21 – 31; 1 John 4: 1 – 6; Matthew 11: 25 – 30
Two men washed up on an uninhabited island. Immediately, one man started screaming, “We’re going to die! There’s no food! No water! We’re going to die!” The second man was calmly propped up against a palm tree. The first shouted “What’s wrong with you? We’re going to die!!” The second man replied, “I make $100,000 a week.” The first man said, “So what?!? There’s nothing to buy here. We’re going to DIE!!!” The second man answered, “Relax. I tithe. My pastor will find me!”
No matter who we are, at some point we will find ourselves dealing with difficult circumstances. Like the two men above, we all react differently. We may not realize it but our reactions and feelings are something we choose. A third person may say, “Woo-ho! An adventure.” A fourth, “What a gift! Peace and quiet.” In the face of difficulties, some people pray. Some, like the tithing man, count on the ways of the world. Often, troubles overwhelm us - we feel powerless, grow hopeless, get depressed, and see ourselves as victims. We feel trapped. Our situation becomes an excuse for being stuck, “If you only knew my circumstances…” Our sorrows become a touchstone and an obsession as we revisit them, either out loud or internally. Every time we review our woes, it’s like hitting the refresh button. We re-live our troubles. We breathe new life into our current dilemma. We take what needs to die and resurrect it. Whenever we speak of “my circumstances” alarm bells should go off. A man I knew was diagnosed with cancer. He came to see me, vowing he’d beat it. As he spoke he repeatedly used the phrase “my cancer”. I stopped him and said, “If you’re going to beat cancer, it’s probably best not to develop a personal relationship with it.” Whatever our issue, we need to resist “befriending” it as if it’s a companion who will always be with us. We should never possess what we want to release; bind what we intend to loose; welcome that which we should shut out. We can’t say “yes” and “no” at the same time – not even, and perhaps especially not, to our misfortunes. God desires us, not to give control to our troubles, but to leave them behind. If that can’t happen, God wants us to be free of their power.
When we fuel our problems, they seem more powerful. As Christians, we pray but our prayer often consists of telling God about our big, powerful, insurmountable troubles. Instead of trying to drag God into the mire with us, we need to raise ourselves to him, by reminding ourselves God is bigger than any problem we face. One day my high school principal announced that no religious groups would be welcome in the school. Shortly after friends, who had a Christian band, wanted to do a concert there. I said they’d never be allowed in. One of the women responded, “Oh Sabrina, God is much bigger than Mr. Lee.” We prayed and sure enough, God was bigger than Mr. Lee. Charles Spurgeon said, “If we cannot believe God when circumstances seem to be against us, we do not believe him at all.”
How we handle life’s woes is a matter of faith. Faith is the container that catches God’s mercy. Watchman Nee writes, “The life of faith is lived by believing God under any circumstances. It is to say with Job, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.’ That is faith.” In painfilled times, we need to hold out our container by opening our hearts and minds to the will of God, to the power of God, to the benevolence of God and to the potential for abundant life that is ours because of Christ. We need to be open to miracles – God is greater than the impossible. We need to be expectant – circumstances can change. Sometimes when troubles hit we don’t hold out the container because deep down we don’t believe God can or will fill it. Satan loves our lack of hope. During hard times, Satan sees an opportunity to deceive, delude, defeat and destroy us. That doesn’t need to happen. John says, without a doubt, “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4) When we focus on our problems, we’re deciding to stay in the mess. When we keep our hearts and minds focused on Christ, his victory is ours and Satan has no way to get a foothold on our souls. Jesus is greater than whatever hardships we face. Troubles will come and go, but Christ is always with us. If we hold up our cup, God will fill it. People of faith know God has heard their prayer and so, in some form, deliverance is on the way. Satan may seek to deceive, delude, defeat and destroy us; but Christ, who is greater, seeks to shore up our faith, clarify reality, give us his victory and sustain us.
Sometimes that means we wait. Waiting is a still but confident action. When we wait with faith, we can be calm and peaceful even amid strife. Like Jesus, we can sleep in the boat while the storm rages around us. Jesus invites us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28 – 30) Waiting is the act of giving our burdens to Jesus and leaving them with him. When we take Christ’s yoke, we swap our story for his. The stories we live and tell ourselves are often tales of defeat, Christ’s story is one of triumph over everything, including death. Isaiah assures us, “The Lord is the everlasting God…He does not faint or grow weary…He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless… those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Active waiting gives us a sense of relief and rest. It lifts us up; it lightens us. We no longer need to be weighed down by our burdens or fearful of their consequences. We can make other choices. We can soar above them. When we wait, God may answer our prayers immediately or he may delay. He may change our situation or give us the strength to change it. He may simply fill us with peace so we can endure. Eventually our prayers will be answered because, in the end, even if we die – we come to live victoriously in a state of wholeness and eternal peace. God may delay, but he’ll never deny. At the same time, waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort. Waiting for God means, first, being active in response to his will – we continue to do the things God calls us to in God’s way; second, we’re ready to change or take a different direction – we continue to listen and respond to God’s will as its revealed to us; third, it’s staying out of God’s way – we don’t try to fix things ourselves or rush ahead of God. The Quaker, George Fox, said, “Carry some quiet around inside you. Be still and cool in your mind and spirit, then you will feel the power of God to turn your mind to the Lord who gives life; from that spring you will receive the strength and power to allay all storms and tempests.”
When bad things happen we’re inclined to blame or question God. We often ask “why?”. Rick Warren writes, “What happens outwardly in your life is not as important as what happens inside you. Your circumstances are temporary but your character will last forever.” As we entrust our troubles to Christ we move from asking “why?” to asking other questions. “How, God, can you use this to make me more like Christ?” “Where is this path taking me?” “What can I do, Lord, to glorify you as I go through this journey?” “For whom might my experience be a blessing?” As Paul says, “sufferings produce endurance and endurance produces character…” (Romans 5:3). As we grow in character, our attitude changes. According to the organization “The Voice of the Martyrs” persecuted Christians rarely request prayers for the persecution to end, they ask for prayers for strength to endure their suffering. They ask to be like Christ; they pray for character.
Harold Herring suggests, “When you feel like you’re going through hell…praise God.” I don’t believe we’re to praise God for hellish circumstances – that’s masochistic. But we can still praise God. We can praise God for grace that makes us more than conquerors; for his Word, which gives us strength and direction; for “His power, protection, provision and promotion” that sustains us through our bleakest times. We can praise God that he’s building our character and sharing our burdens. Praising God in everything is not only God’s due but it changes our attitude from defeat to hope.
Finally, during our trials we need to learn not only to pray but also to play. Anyone who has done archery knows that when you’re finished practice you loosen the string from the bow. When the string is in place, the bow is bent. If the bow was always bent, it would get rigid and eventually breaks. When it’s allowed to relax, it keeps its spring and resilience. Christ offers us his rest because he wants our burden to be easy and our yoke to be light. He wants us to have abundant life – to play. He offers us a yoke that is easy and light. In this life, we’ll never escape tribulations. Letting go of our burdens and taking on Christ’s yoke, gives us light in the darkest valley and lightness of spirit in our darkest times. Learn from Jesus and you will find rest for your soul.