I got up early this morning. It was around four o’clock. I went to my study and had my time of prayer and meditation. One of the things I turned to on my computer was the CNN website to see what is happening in the world. This morning they reported the radiation levels continued to rise. Around the reactor right now it is 10 million times higher than normal. High radiation levels have now hit China. We do not yet know what will come out of this disaster. One of the most troubling images for me all week was the pictures of parents burying their young children. Have you seen this on TV? They continue to find bodies, and there are so many bodies that funerals continue. They cannot handle all of it. One that particularly struck me was a video of parents burying their five-year-old daughter. Something that no parent should ever have to experience. A lot of times for us, but especially for non-church people, the whole issue of God and faith is really around this issue of human suffering and pain. Why does God allow something like this to happen? You even hear natural disasters called “acts of God”.
After Easter we will study Matthew 24, because this is where Jesus talks about the signs of the end of this age. He doesn’t call it “the signs of the end of creation,” but the signs of the end of this age before the beginning of the next age. In that Jesus says that wars, famines, earthquakes, and persecutions must happen. But he doesn’t attribute these disasters to God. As a matter of fact, He refers in the 24th chapter of Matthew to the abomination that causes desolation that has entered the holy place of God. What is this abomination of desolation that has entered into God’s perfect created order? The biblical narrative tells us that global desolation is really not caused by God, but it is really the aftershocks or consequence of sin, of humanity’s declaration of independence from God. Through the generations and millenniums of people telling God, “We can do it without you,” there are the exponential effects of that, which has created a tear in the natural order of creations.
So sin, our independence from God, not only creates a moral tension and a relational tension (wars, insanity, genocide) it also creates tension in the natural order. What creates earthquakes? Tension in the earth’s plates. God is not going to destroy creation, folks. I mean, how can something God created be bad? It is not bad, it is broken. God is not only redeeming people God is restoring creation.
Look at Romans 8. Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
God is not just saving people, redeeming and restoring people, but he is restoring creation. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in the pangs of childbirth right up to the present time. We really have to understand as we look at this whole issue of suffering. Jesus said that God is not the cause of suffering. We really have to understand the consequences and choices that we make and how exponential those choices are. Number one, a lot of pain and suffering is self-inflicted. Right? I have been in ministry since 1972, and probably half of the illnesses that I have experienced in that many years are cancer-related. Many times, when I talk to people with a different kind of cancer, especially lung cancer, emphysema, throat, or mouth cancer, I will ask them if they smoked. And often, they will tell me that they have smoked for 30+ years. That is called self-inflicted.
Many of us have addictions. I want to say this to both men and women: Pornography isolates us. I just want to call it what it is, it is demonic. It isolates us in our relationships. Not only do sin’s decisions we make have personal consequence, it affects those around us. When I was in social work and worked at the psychiatric unit at the University of Cincinnati, many addictive behaviors become generational pathogens. Our actions are the exponential effect.
When we stand before the Father on the Day of Judgment, we are going to find out the exponential cause of our actions of all the chemicals we have put into our foods, the poisons we have used in plastics. For years mills ran raw sewage right into water sources. The lack of stewardship of creation. Even right now, we have the whole nuclear situation. Someone said, “Well, why can’t they just turn that off?” Nuclear fusion is not a machine. Do you remember Siegfried and Roy? Those people trained tigers. They lived with them in their house. Nuclear fusion is kind of like bringing a wild animal into your house. You can have a baby tiger cub that acts like a kitten for about 4-5 months. But I want to tell you what, when it is about 4-5 years old you have a wild animal. Do you remember the attack of tiger on its trainer? Siegfried and Roy are no longer in business. That one tiger took that guy’s face off! Good or bad, there are exponential consequences to our decisions.
This whole question that we are asking this Lenten season is the question that Jesus is asking right here in Mark 8: Who do you say that I am? That is most the important life question that we will ever ask. Who is Jesus, and what does Jesus have to reveal about God that is really unique from any other religion? Here is what we see in Jesus that is unique. Jesus reveals that God is not the cause of pain and suffering. But neither is God going to remove pain and suffering. Darn it! If you want that, go to Scientology or some other religion. Buddhism is also about the escape of pain and suffering. Here is what Jesus reveals, and His disciples can’t get it. He began to teach them (in the 31st verse) that the Son of Man must suffer many things. Not even just a few things. So Jesus reveals that God is not the cause of pain and suffering, but neither is God going to remove pain and suffering from our life.
What is so unique about Jesus and different from any other image that you will have of God, is that all other religions teach God in kind of a Greek ideal of a disembodied, emotionally detached God from physical pain and suffering. Here we have in Jesus that the word God becomes flesh and enters into our pain and suffering with us. God is not the cause of our suffering, and He is not going to remove our pain and suffering. But God enters our pain and suffering with us.
Look at this verse from Philippians 2:8: And being found in the appearance as a human being, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. When we think about the cross we picture it sometimes as being unique to Jesus, but it wasn’t. In Jesus’ time as many as 30,000 were crucified on a cross. The Romans used it as a means to control the population. Any person who they identified as a threat to the Roman system was crucified and branded as a rebel. It was extreme humiliation. You could see as many as 150 people crucified at one time. They were on the main roads coming in to major cities, or major intersections, to keep the Jewish population in control. It was an extremely tortuous form of death. The nails did not kill you. It was death by suffocation. It took them up to three days for some folks to die. What you would do if you were on a cross, if you had strength, you would pull yourself up to keep your diaphragm open. As soon as you sunk, your diaphragm would close and it would be like drowning. I mean, I have trouble dealing with sinus infections! Give me the Afrin, please! If any of you have ever had that feeling of not being able to breathe, you know what I am talking about. For the people on the cross this would sometimes last up to three days. We know it didn’t take that long with Jesus because they whooped his behind pretty good. The kind of whips they used would have 25 leather strips intertwined with bone and metal. The shredded his skin pretty well. We see the pain and humiliation of the tortuous death.
With all the questions we have about human suffering, Jesus Himself really shows how God engages. In his short 33 years of life, He experienced every dimension of human pain and suffering. He spent the first year of his life as a refugee in Africa to escape the genocide that Herod had placed on all Jewish males aged two and under who were seen as a threat to the Roman throne. If I was God….already it is a demotion if you are going to decide to become flesh and come to earth. You have the expanse of the universe and you are going to limit yourself to this small planet. But I would make sure that I pretty well secured myself in a lifestyle of luxury. How about you? I would be born one of those British princes or someone like that. But you know, God and Jesus experienced the life of a common laborer, the minority in a group of oppressed people.
I have a personal prayer request right now. Can you pray for my family? Carolyn asked me not to go into this too much, but she is really dealing with some heavy emotional stuff in the transition of an aging mother. Her mom is 91 and it is creating a very emotional time. Her mom called her three times yesterday. Carolyn is in Cincinnati a lot with her mother, going to doctor’s appointments. Her mom is losing her eyesight, and Carolyn is now transitioning her. She has this big move on her mind, from independent living in a condo at a senior complex, now to a small apartment inside a main building with added services, such as people coming in and giving her medicine. No longer will she have to cook. Carolyn is losing sleep about this. Will you pray about this for us?
What is so amazing about Jesus is that He enters into that kind of pain. He understands that as the oldest son. He had lost His stepfather, Joseph. The oldest son’s responsibility was to provide for the mother. There was no social security system, folks. Now, I just described that torturous death. A lot of people have this heavenly picture of Jesus, and we think that Jesus was thinking our name on the cross. He wasn’t thinking your name on the cross. He was thinking about his mom. Even in the midst of that torturous pain, the feelings of suffocation, he saw his mother standing near the cross. What was on his mind, was who was going to take care of his mom. He saw his disciple John standing there, and he said, “Son, this is your mom. And Mother, this is your son.” We read that from that time on, Mary lived in the household of John.
I can believe in a God who looks like Jesus. He was rejected. Have any of you folks in the room experienced rejection? It says that He suffered many things and was rejected. I shared my life experience with you. In the second grade the teacher moved my desk into a corner for a month. What does that do the self esteem of second grader? In the fifth grade I wasn’t allowed to be in the band because I didn’t have any music ability. That band leader went to my church! I still have yet to see a fifth grader with music ability. Have any of you ever gone to a fifth grade band concert? I never went to the prom, or any of those kinds of things. I can relate to a God that looks like Jesus. Not like George Clooney. Jesus knew depression. We read that when he was praying that he sweated drops like blood, which doctors today tell us is the signs of a stroke. Jesus even knew the suffering of crisis of faith. Do you remember what He said on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I can believe in a God that looks like Jesus. How about you?
What is so amazing, and it is so hard for us to get this, Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah; we have gone through this suffering. We have been under Roman oppression. Look down all of the streets and what they do to people that stand up for truth. And now you are saying, as the Son of God, you are going to submit to the same kind of treatment? Don’t talk that way, Master, because we try to insulate ourselves from pain and suffering.” Here is what Jesus said, “Suffering can have a redemptive purpose. Suffering produces gain.” Hello….we have all heard that. No pain, no gain. Peter does not get it because he is looking at it from self-preservation, rather than from God’s perspective. Suffering is the price of advancement.
Even in Jesus’ resurrected new body He bore the scars of His suffering. You don’t get to resurrection apart from the scars of pain. The scars of suffering. Now, his disciples are still blinded to this as they’re walking down the road to Emmaus and they are still trying to insulate themselves. They are talking to Jesus like he is a stranger. They said, “Haven’t you heard what has gone on? This man, we thought he was the Messiah, and we were following him. But he succumbed to the same pain and suffering as a mortal man and they took him and killed him.” Here is what Jesus said, “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
Do you see that? You can never get to the glory of the resurrection Sunday until you are willing to pay the price of the pain of crucifixion Friday. Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter His glory? You see, suffering creates strength of Christ-like character. That is exactly what Jesus is saying here. What can you give in exchange for your soul? What good is it if you gained the whole world yet lose your soul? He is talking about Christ-like character. Suffering enhances our ability to depend upon and live in the power of the spirit. When everything is going well, what do you do? You don’t depend on God! Suffering is the price of advancement. Folks, let me tell you, I suffered through 10 years of post-secondary education.
Are you beginning to get this?
No pain, no gain.
Suffering creates strength and accomplishments!
I love what Paul said in Philippians 3:10: I want to know Christ. Yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participate in His sufferings.
You will NEVER know the power of resurrection unless you are willing to participate in suffering. Unless we suffer like a woman in birth pains, we will not succeed in bringing to birth the fruit of God’s purpose, the fruit of Christ-like character.
I am old school. We used to do this when we had babies – we used to do a natural childbirth. Nowadays, on the way to the hospital they call ahead to see if the epidural is ready. How many old school people here went the natural childbirth way? Most of these people are my age. We went through those Lamaze classes across from Kettering Hospital at the Seventh Day Adventist Church. You would go in there, and you would have your “birth bag” and have all kinds of suckers and other stuff. They would teach you how to breathe…..pant, pant, blow. The father of the baby was the “coach”. How many of you remember this? How many of you women when you got into the room and were in labor started smacking the living daylights out of your husband? Unless we suffer like a woman in travail of birth pains, we will not succeed in bringing to birth the fruit of God’s righteousness and purpose in our lives.
The whole point of this is that if we don’t get a right understanding, when Jesus said, “Who do you say I am?” As long as we have this heavenly minded disembodied Superman picture of Jesus, then our discipleship will be disembodied. What Jesus is calling us to here is painful discipleship. Are you still with me? Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. The cross means God is not going to remove pain and suffering. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is for you to gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul? What can you give in exchange for your soul?
What is kind of a paradox is that I worked on this sermon on suffering, sitting poolside at the Biltmore Hotel in Miami, Florida on Wednesday. So here is a picture of the pool where I was sitting working on this sermon. Now, I didn’t pay to stay there. I was speaking at a conference, so they take care of that. We are sitting here, and it is amazing because you can see that the pool is kind of like a fortress that keeps the world out. It is why Jesus kind of ripped on the wealthy, which I and many of you in the room are in same category. If you don’t believe me, go to Darfur with us next August. What we do is that we use our wealth to insulate us from pain. We come anesthetized to the world’s pain around us. The people in Japan right now are numbers. One child dying every four seconds of a hunger related cause in the world becomes a number.
I was sitting at this pool, and they have the pool attendants coming by giving us fresh glasses of ice water with lemons, little orange sherbets, coming by every half hour with a cold cloth to wipe yourself off. Then they bring you a menu. Michael and I were there with these menus and we ordered some kind of wrap with vegetables from nine countries around the world that was just flown in that morning. While you are sitting on this lounge in your bathing suit they bring you this meal on real china with silverware, salt, pepper, and cloth napkins. I hear people speaking that come from all over the world. There was a French couple sitting right next to me. What people do is that they pursue this as life. Michael and I have been a lot of places in the world together and dangerous places in the world. I looked at Michael as we sitting there being served, and I said, “Michael, this is the life, isn’t it? Only as it makes sense in relation to the days we spend in Darfur.” I don’t mind a little of that wealth every now and then, especially when I don’t have to pay for it. I look at that as a gift from God. But only as I keep it in the context that that is not what I am pursuing. I want to know the power of the resurrection by participating in Christ’s suffering, so that I can be part of God’s redemptive solution in the world.
I can believe in a God that looks like Jesus.
How about you?
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us safe this far on our way, thou who has by thy might lead us unto the light, keep us forever on the path, we pray. We pray to you, God, because you are consistent, you are faithful and you have been true to your word. You didn’t promise to remove the pain, but you did promise that you would be with us until the end of the age. All around the altar and in this worship space your children are crying to you, God, from a place of pain and suffering as we seek to do the best that we can in this journey. Many are praying for loved ones, God. As our loved ones suffer, so do we. We stand in the gap for them. Many are praying for healing. Healing the body, and healing in the spirit, and healing in the mind. Some are praying, God, just to make ends meet and to stay above water. God, whatever the prayer, we know that you know the need and so we present the needs to you. God, as much as we would want you to relieve the suffering and pain, we know that we only see in part, but you have the entire creation and the liberation of creation in mind. We confess and cry, “God, not our will, but thy will be done.” We say thank you in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.
Transcribed from Mike Slaughter's March 27, 2011 message. Copyright 2011 Ginghamsburg Church. All rights reserved.