Sunday, September 2, 2012

September 2 - Snippet from Sunday - Joy in Hard Times

I have no final answer to all these questions about suffering this morning. I don’t think Scripture gives us those kind of answers. It’s a not a textbook with answers to all the problems in the back. Reading the Bible is more like eavesdropping on a conversation between wise, Spirit-filled people. Different passages, different people offer their perspective in the discussion, and the Holy Spirit guides the conversation to the truth.

This morning we’re beginning to listen to one person in that conversation: James. The letter that James wrote is often overlooked in our Bibles. Since at least the time of Martin Luther, many believers have thought that James is too practical and not theological enough to be worth reading. But practicality is what we need when we’re unsure how to believe in or live with our God in the gritty details of suffering. We need to see how following Jesus makes a difference for us here and now where we live day-to-day. So over the coming weeks, we’ll be returning to listen to and learn from this letter.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)


I listen to the news on CBC Radio 2. The beginning of this week most of the hourly updates were devoted to the Hurricane Isaac’s landfall in Louisiana. I remember listening to the radio in the States seven years ago as Hurricane Katrina devastated that same strip of Gulf coast. I remember listening to the broadcasts of the aftermath, the chaos that broke out in the city, the mismanaged response of government disaster services, the way race and class prejudices resulted in the poorest of the poor suffering the most. I remember being dumbstruck at the suffering.

It’s hard to understand how the suffering we see around us, the suffering we live through, fits with the stories we tell about our God. We read in our Bibles about Jesus healing all those who were sick. Preachers tell us that God has a wonderful plan for our lives. We sing songs that say God has the whole world in his hands.

Sometimes these are great things to hear, to sing. They reassure us that God loves us. They bring us comfort. Retelling the stories of what God has done can give us hope.

But then there are other times. At other times, these stories sound a bit hollow. The answers we gave as children in Sunday School feel a bit trite on our grown-up tongues. If God loves us, why are there earthquakes that leave thousands homeless? If God loves us, why do tsunamis pull mothers, fathers, and children out to sea? If God loves us, why are we sick, why are our bodies dying? Why do our minds fail us? Why do our loved ones leave us or shut us out? Surely if God loved us, our hearts whisper, he would do something about all this suffering.

When someone whose soul has been scraped raw on the rocks of deep grief or persistent pain shares their heart’s disbelief that God has not yet made things right, I want to give a good answer. I want to be able to answer gently and with the truth. I don’t want to be like Job’s friends, who spout religious-sounding slogans in the face of Job’s agony. We want to reply with compassion, to lay a gentle hand on their shoulder, to sit with them as they weep and whisper God’s love. But so often we can’t; we don’t know what to say. Perhaps there is no easy answer for these hard times.

This is not a question unique to our times. Global economic recessions, tsunamis, hurricanes, terrorism and retaliatory wars, droughts, floods, and failed crops, cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, child trafficking , Auschwitz, and the atom bomb have not raised a question for us in our day that did not already trouble people for long centuries past.

Even before Jesus called his first followers, God’s people had wrestled with this question of suffering and God’s love. We can read the various conclusions they arrived at. I’ve already mentioned the story of Job. We could also read out psalm after psalm in which the psalmist cries out, “How long, O LORD? How long must we suffer?” In a different way, the books of Samuel and Kings try to answer this question: why did God abandon God’s people to the hands of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies? And perhaps the most perceptive person to wrestle with this question in the Hebrew portion of our Bibles was the prophet Habakkuk in the three short chapters that bear his name.

Christians in churches and theology departments have pieced together their own set of answers about why God lets us live through hard times. Usually our answers are partly right, partly wrong, clinging to a few passages strongly while just as fiercely ignoring some others.

Some believers explain that we suffer to deepen our faith. It knocks off our rough edges and develops character in us. This is true sometimes. Suffering can be the crucible that makes us more like Jesus. Hebrews 5.8 says something along these lines, that even Jesus’ faith was refined through the things he suffered. But not all suffering makes us more like Jesus. I know of a gentle Roman Catholic priest who spent a lifetime guiding many people into Jesus’ peace and life. But then, early in his retirement, he developed Alzheimer’s. In the midst of this suffering, he is ghost of the kind soul he once was. This suffering has not refined him, it has only broken him. (See

I’ve heard another group of believers say that suffering is punishment from God for sin. When Jesus’s disciples suggested that this was the case for a blind man, Jesus flatly contradicted this idea, saying, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Jn 9.3). On the other hand, much of the Old Testament’s answer to the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile was that God was punishing the Israelites for their idolatry and alliances with godless nations. And Paul says plainly that sinful selfishness and division in the church at Corinth is the reason some in the congregation had become sick and even died.

Other believers echo Habakkuk’s conclusion that our suffering somehow, in a mysterious way, accomplishes God’s grand purposes. God is sovereign, they say, and, as Paul says in Ro 8, God’s working all things--even suffering--together for the greater good God has planned for us.

Finally, some people--even some believers--say that we suffer because God is not able to do anything about it. I remember, in the days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, hearing a religious leader say that God wanted to stop the planes from hitting the World Trade Center but that God couldn’t. Other in Christian history have said that God is bound by the rules God has made for the world, the laws of nature and history. Some have said that God is bound by humans’ free choices. My first reaction is to contradict this claim: our God is able to do whatever he wants. But then I remember Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem before his death and the city’s impending destruction by the Roman army: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under wings, but you were unwilling!” (Mt 23.37).

I have no final answer to all these questions about suffering this morning. I don’t think Scripture gives us those kind of answers. It’s a not a textbook with answers to all the problems in the back. Reading the Bible is more like eavesdropping on a conversation between wise, Spirit-filled people. Different passages, different people offer their perspective in the discussion, and the Holy Spirit guides the conversation to the truth.

This morning we’re beginning to listen to one person in that conversation: James. The letter that James wrote is often overlooked in our Bibles. Since at least the time of Martin Luther, many believers have thought that James is too practical and not theological enough to be worth reading. But practicality is what we need when we’re unsure how to believe in or live with our God in the gritty details of suffering. We need to see how following Jesus makes a difference for us here and now where we live day-to-day. So over the coming weeks, we’ll be returning to listen to and learn from this letter.

Verse 1 gives us important information for how we hear this letter. It tells us whom this practical letter is from, and whom its addressed to. The letter begins, From James, a servant of God of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Diaspora. It’s helpful for us to know who wrote this letter. There a few people named James in the New Testament. The author of this letter is James the leader of the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem who was also the half-brother of Jesus. History calls him James the Just, and we can read about him in Acts 15.

More helpful for us, this morning, is the identity of the people to whom this letter was written. James calls them the twelve tribes in the Diaspora. These people were in many way very like us. They were sons and daughters, parents and grandparents. They worried about raising their families. They had to work hard to make a living, and often times the money didn’t seem to stretch quite far enough to pay all the bills. Some of them struggled with sickness. They lived with the everyday concerns and frustrations, trials and tragedies you and I do.

But when James calls these folks “the twelve tribes in the Diaspora,” he indicates to us that they experienced a kind of hardship different from anything we experience. The title “twelve tribes” lets us know that these were Jewish women and men who had accepted the crucified Jesus as Messiah and Lord. “In the Diaspora” tells us that these believers were members of Jewish communities scattered far from the Jewish homeland throughout the Roman empire.

A bit like our Mennonite ancestors living in their communities in Russia, the Jewish communities in the Diaspora dealt with the prejudice of the cities where they lived. Jewish people were viewed suspiciously. They had different habits--Sabbath observance and circumcision--and they refused to join in the town’s celebrations of their local gods. Other immigrants were happy to join in, but the Jews were different. Sometimes prejudice against these Jews would explode into violent persecution and forced evictions. The Roman government might step in to defend the Jewish community, but other times the government was the one starting the violence.

But the Jewish Christians also faced prejudice from their fellow Jews in their diaspora communities. In the same way we might look at pseudo-Christian cult members going door-to-door trying to win converts in our neighborhood, the Jews regarded the Jewish Christians as both seriously misguided and even a bit dangerous. They wouldn’t invite the Jewish Christians over for dinner; they would tell their children not to play with the Jewish Christian kids. In their community’s marketplace, the Jewish Christians were never let in on a good deal, and the Christian merchants often had trouble getting their Jewish neighbors to buy what they had for sale. We get a glimpse of this picture when we read about the Jewish women and men who believed Paul’s gospel message in the stories in the book of Acts. In city after city, the Jews who converted were treated harshly by those who didn’t.

All of this spelled a unique kind of hardship and trial for the Jewish Christians to whom James wrote his letter. The Gentile citizens of the cities where they lived regarded them with suspicion and even treated them with violence occasionally. Their Jewish neighbors--formerly their friends and relatives--whispered rumors about them and isolated them because of their conversion. In short, these believer were familiar with hardship. They were on a first-name basis with suffering.

I wonder what they thought when they heard the first words of this letter from the leader of the Jerusalem church. James writes to them, Regard it as pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds. That’s what my Bible has. Yours might say “Count it all joy.” Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message renders this verse, “Consider it a sheer gift.”

When I hear this verse, my mind brings up memories of one of my sisters as a high schooler. She tended to be a bit sarcastic then, like quite a few teenagers I’ve known. Whenever something frustrating would happen, she’d roll her eyes and say, “Oh, joy . . .” Now I hope as mature adults we don’t frequently resort to sarcasm to deal with hard times. Still, I suspect that exasperation or defeated pessimism is closer to our response to suffering than the joy that James commands in v 2.

And this seems to make quite a bit of sense to me. After all, suffering is painful--physically, emotionally, spiritually. Hard times are just that: hard. There is nothing to celebrate about cancer or other diseases. We certainly don’t throw parties for the lives lost in the hurricanes and tsunamis and wars of the last decade. I do not think that James is urging believers to be masochists. Counting our trials as reason to be joyful does not mean taking pleasure in them. He’s not saying pain and heartache are really all fun and games.

When we hear a biblical instruction like this that doesn’t seem to make immediate sense to us, it’s good to check in with what the rest of the Bible has to say. Let the parts of Scripture that make more sense guide as we try to believe and obey those parts that are a bit more difficult to understand.

In fact, as I prepare most sermons I do this. I consult the lectionary. The lectionary is a schedule of Bible passages for preaching and study arranged by church leaders over the centuries. Ministers in many denominations use this schedule to pick out what they’ll preach on for any given Sunday. This is especially true during seasons like Advent, Lent, and Easter. Some follow it strictly, and others, like me, follow its schedule part of the time and preach topically or through biblical books the rest of the time.

The other feature of the lectionary--the feature I appreciate most--is that it brings together passages from different parts of Scripture. Each day has a passage from the Old Testament, one or more Psalms, a passage from a New Testament epistle, and a story from the Gospels. It encourages me to listen to what the whole of the Bible has to say on any given topic. I’m often surprised by how the Spirit will use one passage to illuminate the meaning of another.

For instance, according to the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, Jas 1.1-8 is paired with Lev 25, Pss 93 and 96, and Lk 12.13-21. These passages that the lectionary points out are other voices in the conversation that the Holy Spirit inspired. As I read them, I found that that the two Psalms shed a bit more light on how we can regard the hard times and trials we experience as “nothing but joy.”

Psalm 93, vv 3 through 5, use the poetic image of the ocean being churned up in a chaotic storm to talk about the trials the psalmist lived through. He sings,
   The seas have lifted up, LORD  the seas have lifted up their voice;
   the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunders of the great waters,
   mightier than the breakers of the sea--
 the LORD on high is mighty.
   Your statutes, LORD stand firm.
The hard times in our lives rage like a mighty storm, but our God is mightier still, and our God’s decrees and promises will outlast every storm.

Then, at the very end of Ps 96, in v 13, we hear this:
Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes,
   he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
   and the peoples in his faithfulness.
All creation, the entire world and all the people in it, those who are suffering included, can rejoice. Why? Because our God is coming to judge, or we could say, to deal out justice. Our God is coming to make things right. Our God is mightier than the storms, mightier than our pain. That is a reason I can rejoice in my trials. God’s just and righteous judgment is a theme that we’ll see again and again as we read through James in the coming weeks. Reading these Psalms help us understand why God’s justice gives us reason to hope, reason even to be joyful, when times are hard.

James continues his letter in vv 3 and 4. Rejoice in your trials, he says, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But let endurance complete its work, in order that you may be mature and fully up to measure, lacking of nothing. Like the psalmist, believers can know right now, right in the middle of hard times, that God is going to make things right. In fact, we know this even more than the psalmist. Jesus’ resurrection is proof for us, already, right here, right now, that God will make good on God’s promise to “judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in faithfulness.” The good news is that God made things right for Jesus, and God will certainly do so for us.

Maybe you’ve sat with a dying friend. You might read a few psalms. Maybe you remind them of a good memory you have with them. Mostly you sit there quietly. Every once in a while, you mention the hope of heaven and resurrection. No matter how much pain they are in now, you remind them that in heaven there will be no pain. No matter how broken their body feels now, you remind them that God will give them a new resurrection body on the last day. Our God makes right their last suffering, their final pain. Just as surely God will make right all our other hardships, from the loneliness of family tensions to outrage of tsunamis and civil wars.

When we take this faith with us into the fire of hard times, James says, what comes out is endurance. When suffering comes, we’re tempted to try to get out of it. As Pastor Bernie said last week, in life’s low points, we look for a special deal that gets us out of them. The better part of the rest of James’ letter tells the Jewish believers not to buy into one or another escape strategy. The poor Jewish Christians were tempted to gain favor with their rich non-Christian Jewish neighbors by flattering them while avoiding eye contact with other poor Christian sisters and brothers. They hoped this might earn them a hand up out of their own poverty. They were tempted to lash out verbally in the midst of their hardship, if even only to make themselves feel better for a moment. Some were tempted to put all their hope in investment schemes or dreams of better houses and things. Anything to distract themselves from their present misery.

We’re often tempted in the same way. Rather than the gift of endurance--which will make us whole, mature, ready to be evaluated by God at the judgment--we want to be given a shortcut, a special bargain, a way out. And we have our own strategies to get what we want. When our kids or our spouse won’t talk to us, we give all our attention to our work or hobbies. When others treat us unfairly, we try get even by slandering their character. When our bodies age, we try to buy back youth with a new car or better make-up. When the doctor says we’re terminally ill, we put all our hope in a new treatment. Sometimes we turn to alcohol or television, anything to distract us.

But none of these things give us true joy now. None of these things will give us true joy on the last day when our God comes to set the world right. None of these strategies of distraction give any kind of meaning to suffering. Rather than giving us joy or understanding, they just keep our minds off our circumstances.

If we want joy in hard times, James says we have to see them through. Let endurance complete its work, are his words. If we give up, cut out early, we short-circuit the process. Our joy is the reward of resurrection, of hearing God’s “Well done, my good and faithful servant” on the last day. While suffering can and often does break us, it’s also the place where our faith is perfected. We’re tempted to waver or doubt as some translations describe the wind-tossed man in v 6, to give up the faith and buy our way out hardship, whatever the cost. But James tells us to expect no reward for giving up so easily.

There is no secret technique to make our suffering all better. There is no secret answer that explains it away. Jesus did not come to deliver a cosmic band-aid. Instead, Jesus came to gives us resurrection, but only after he had endured in faith all the way through to the other side of crucifixion and death. Jesus came to seal the promise that God will come as a just judge and set things right.

In the meantime, while we try to find our way through a world still too full of suffering, what we have is a command. A command to be faithful in our actions and in our hope. In the coming weeks, we’ll listen much more closely to how James tell the believers to do this in the rest of his letter, what this means for how we treat others, how we use our tongues, how we handle money, what we do when we’re sick. Today, I leave you with this: When you are suffering--and I know that many of us are in the thick of it even this morning--hold fast in the joyful, grace-given hope that God will one day set everything right.

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