June 21, 2020

 “God’s Purposes in Our Pain”

Psalm 66: 8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22


Today’s first topical sermon from the congregation is in relation to suffering. Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from the Coronavirus in our own nation - millions of people worldwide, especially the impoverished are suffering greatly due to this virus. Doctors and nurses have become physically and emotionally exhausted, especially in places like China, Italy, Spain, and in the United States in epicenters like New York City.  People all over the world are experiencing mental anguish from remaining socially isolated, as their fears and anxieties arise. There is SO much devastation and suffering right now in our world. Why does God allow people to suffer, some much greater than others?


I have seen different forms of devastation and suffering on many mission trips throughout my life. I traveled to Nicaragua in 1998, after Hurricane Mitch devastated the entire country and saw thousands of people living in shacks with no running water.  A church I served in Sacramento traveled to Moore, Oklahoma in 2000 after an F5 tornado killed 36, wounded hundreds, and destroyed entire communities. I traveled to Mississippi in 2005 after hurricane Katrina hit, and saw the wreckage left of entire coastal communities swept off the shoreline. We see the same kind of devastation and suffering every year, here in the States, in places like Haiti, Japan, the Philippines, and so on and may wonder- How do we place suffering, devastation & difficulty in the context of faith? Clearly, we live in a world that is full of suffering, and, all of us suffer in one way or another at some point in our lives, some for prolonged periods of time. How can we understand suffering in light of our faith and still hope in a loving God? Theologian Paul Ricoeur said, “How can we affirm at the same time, without contradiction, the following three propositions: God is all-powerful; God is absolutely good; Evil and suffering exist?” This is a question not easily resolved.


There are 2 passages on suffering for today, which will help us with the idea of a loving God and the problem of suffering - psalm 66 and 1 Peter. Each of them have something to teach us about suffering.

We begin with 1 Peter 3:13-22 - This letter was written during a time of great suffering. Gentiles, or “Greeks” were converting to Christianity, a foreign religion in the eyes of Roman society. As a result, there were negative responses from families to their conversion. Romans expected foreign religions to cause immorality, insubordination to the government, and a collapse of the family... These converts to the Christian faith no longer went to attend religious festivals in the Hellenistic world. As a result, Christians were persecuted and suffered for their conversions.

1 Peter 3:13‑15a opens with a rhetorical question and a theological response: "Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ is Lord." The theme continues throughout the letter, with the author emphasizing that the readers should even "rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings" (4:13‑14a).


The importance of making a defense of one’s faith is then highlighted in the rest of verses 15 and 16. This was something that must’ve been done often in the social climate of the time. The defense, Peter emphasizes, should be conducted "with gentleness and reverence." The Christians were supposed to practice such good behavior that those who revile the Christians would be shamed (3:16b; cf. 2:15).


We can and may experience suffering as a result of our Christian faith, although not very often in the United States. This is certainly true in other countries in places in the Middle East, Africa, and in Asia as Christians are persecuted, put in prison, and killed for their faith. Save Us.org, a web site that covers the issue of persecution for Christians estimates that some 7%, or 327 million of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians are currently facing persecution in some way. Suffering for faith is real for many of our sisters and brothers of faith, particularly for women of faith.


Back to the suffering of Christians in the first century - so there is no opportunity for misunderstanding, Peter emphasizes that "it is better to suffer for doing right if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong" (3:17). Peter finalizes this section by reminding these early Gentile converts that they who suffer follow a suffering servant has ultimately saved them with the life that is to come. Yet it is verse 17 which should cause us to pause a bit, for it suggests to us that God will allow us to suffer, if it is within God’s will. Theologians have struggled with the idea that God allows such suffering for many centuries.


This brings us to the second half of Psalm 66 - which is a Psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness and goodness to Israel, AND to an individual. It begins with 9 verses of praise and thanksgiving. We pick up in the 8th verse of praising God, who has not let the people’s foot slip, and who has kept them among the living. But beginning in verse 10, a new, somewhat uncomfortable theme picks up- one of suffering. In verse 10, we read that God has tested Israel, God’s people, and has refined them like silver. Furthermore, God has brought followers into traps, laid affliction upon them, allowed them to be ridden over by chariots, and had them travel through fire and deep water.


Yet in time, the people of God, who were allowed to suffer such things were brought to a spacious place - the land of Canaan. In retrospect, the psalmist, who has experienced such suffering and pain, as allowed by God looks back on such suffering as part of God’s faithfulness. That is a very profound theological thought.


He praises God in the temple with abundant offerings, to praise and fear God- that is to live in faithfulness to God. He looks back on his life and remembers God was faithful to the psalmist when he cried out.  Because of the psalmist’s faithfulness, and turning from iniquity, God has listened, given heed to his words. Finally, when all is said and done, God’s love remains steadfast. For the People of God, who suffered in wandering through the desert for 40 years, who lived in exile when Babylonians overthrew and took them to Babylon for 3 generations - Their suffering was not in contradiction to the reign of God, nor of God’s work. It was all part of the life of faith as Children of God. Is that something we can embrace within our own faith today- that sometimes God brings suffering upon us, or do we expect a pain-free life? I’m not sure where this idea of a pain-free, fair life comes from. It certainly is not reflected in scripture, for the Bible is full of God’s faithful people experiencing suffering.


The passage from 1 Peter seems to say that, at times, you and I are given the path of suffering, for it is God’s own will that we should experience it. The psalm speaks more about this.


At times, God tests and refines us through suffering, difficulty, and trial, the idea of refining silver as mentioned in the psalm. The process of refining silver, in which it is melted from a solid into a liquid in order to remove the impurities, a process of burning in which the fire helps in the extraction of metal from ore by enhancing chemical reactions, can teach us much about this kind of suffering, and God’s intent and purpose in the midst of that suffering.


There is a story about a woman who was part of a Bible study, who ran across this passage and wanted to know more about the process of refining silver. That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest in silver beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that, in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities.


The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot ‑ then she thought again about the verse, “For you, O God, have tested us, and refined us as silver is tried.” She watched as the silversmith sat there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that he had to do this holding the silver and that he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. For if the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.


The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?"  He smiled at her and answered, "Oh, that's the easy part – when I see my image reflected in it."  If at other times in your life in the midst of suffering and anguish, and you have felt the heat of the fire, remember that God’s eyes were upon you in this difficult time, that God watched over you until you yourself were changed - purified, and God’s own image was more fully reflected in you. God allows suffering so that we ourselves might be changed, might see this world in a different way, might walk with others as they suffer, and shine God’s image in our actions and words. We may not understand this in the midst of such suffering, but in time, we will in time gain perspective. Romans 5:3 tells us, “We know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” 


 I have personally experienced profound suffering, in the death of our first child, in the premature death of both of Paula’s parents, and in the more recent losses of both my father and mother. In the midst of those deep dark nights of the soul, I admit I have found myself in profound sorrow and questioned why I saw loved ones suffer so. I do not understand to this day why I and those whom I loved have experienced such profound pain and suffering. A wise Christian once wrote, “Life is not a puzzle to be solved; it is a mystery to be lived.” Part of faith involves embracing mystery and unanswered questions-by no means easy. But I know this- because of my suffering, I am not who I once was. In being refined like silver- which is indeed a painful experience, I see and experience this world and others around me differently. I understand death and loss and pain and suffering in ways I could not have understood them had I not gone through such difficult times. Perhaps as a result God’s image does reflect a bit in my own life. With that understanding, I can embrace the notion that God is faithful, even in times of great suffering. Theologian E.H. Chapin said, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”


Sisters and brothers, God is absolutely good. Evil and suffering do exist. God will allow suffering- we will suffer, as will loved ones, as will people in our congregation and community, as will people throughout this world in which we live; and through it all we will be changed, more and more reflecting the image of God to others. Our very nature, our characters will be melted and transformed. But there is more - Paul tells us in Romans 8:18, “I consider sufferings of this present time are worth nothing compared to the glory that will one day be revealed.”  So, we have this hope in the life that is to come, a hope that can keep us going in time of trial, great suffering and difficulty, a hope that can help us as we reach out in love to others who suffer - For the sufferings of this present time are nothing compared to the glory that will one day be revealed to us with God in eternity. Alleluia! Amen.

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