suffering

At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.


We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.


The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.

Your Tribulation

Revelation 7:9-17

For the first couple of weeks of our series, we’ve focused on scenes of glory and worship. This week’s text shows us some now-familiar heavenly imagery, but in the process we are reminded of what we experience in our time and place.

I suppose the key word for the day is “tribulation,” what is called “the great ordeal” in the NRSV. People hear that word in very different ways. A lot of American preachers talk about it as a time to come, a time of disaster to fall upon the earth after Christ’s followers have been removed in what is sometimes called the “rapture.”

Problem 1: That view is very hard to reconcile with Revelation and other biblical end-time imagery. The first audience for Revelation would have found the removal of the church from this ongoing suffering a strange notion, indeed. They were being persecuted, saw themselves in the midst of a great ordeal, and in this letter from John were receiving words of comfort that they would be rewarded for their resilient faith one day.

This whole idea of a raptured church was unheard of among Christians until the 19th century, when an Anglo-Irish theologian named John Nelson Darby proposed the idea. We still hear about his theory in the United States today because of preachers and writers who latched onto the idea. There also is the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, which heavily promotes the notion in its footnotes.

The more standard, historical understanding of the “end times” is simple. We are in them. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit fell upon the church. Christ could return any moment, bringing this time to an end.

Certainly, suffering is depicted in powerful ways in some of the passages preceding what we explore today. Perhaps the most famous image is the four horsemen of the apocalypse, each rider on a mount with a color symbolizing what happens when earthly institutions deviate from God’s will. The white horse is power run amok; the red horse is war; the black horse is death. The pale horse symbolizes the lingering horrors that go along with death—famine, disease and decay. All of these political, military and economic abuses have been a constant somewhere in the world, and will be until Christ returns.

Problem 2: The view is very ethnocentric, popular in a privileged culture where suffering, particularly suffering for one’s faith, is quite limited. We have to remember that simultaneous to our relatively benign Christian experience, there are other Christians suffering terribly for what they believe. I wish they could somehow be raptured out of their persecution. One monitoring group, Voice of the Martyrs, has estimated there are more martyrs being made for Christ now than at any point in history. Pope Francis recently made a similar statement.

But enough about what our text doesn’t say. Again, that’s the problem with preaching Revelation. I have to spend too much time on what it doesn’t say.

Here’s what it does say:

Suffering may be widespread, but so is the impact of salvation. After having tried in an earlier passage to give us a count for millions of worshiping angels (however symbolic the number), John simply tells us that those who come through their trials and tribulations and hold onto their faith will be uncountable. It doesn’t matter your station in the world; it doesn’t matter your color, or your language. Salvation is available.

Our text makes clear it is glorious to receive that white robe and stand in the presence of God.  I’ve related the story before about the boy in confirmation class who told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to heaven. The language about constant, eternal worship frightened him, making him think it would be “like being stuck in church forever.”

But it’s clear from our scene in this text that the experience is something we never will want to leave. Heavenly worship is rich and complete, fulfilling every relationship we could ever want to have in this life. We are sustained in every way we could ever imagine. In this worship there is family, fun and deep, deep intimacy.

I wish I could somehow give you that experience every Sunday. We do the best we can, with the words and the music and the prayers. The best I can do is repeat what I’ve said before: Whatever good and wonderful things you can imagine about God’s promises, you are right, and yet you have not even come close to what we will experience when fully aware of God’s presence.

Here’s the best thing we can do with our text today. Let’s do what the early, persecuted church did. Let’s cling to the images. Let’s carry the hope into every situation we may face.

While we are, on average, a privileged people, I know many of you face your own suffering, your own personal tribulations. We all ultimately face dark days, and they frighten us. But we have this story and all the other loving promises of God, made possible through Christ.

We believe, and we persevere.


The featured image is “Four Horsemen,” Peter Von Cornelius, 1845.

The Nineteenth Chapter

The Book of Job

I developed this sermon in the first person—that is, in Job’s voice—while in seminary. For various reasons, I did not preach it in the first person Oct. 4, but the ideas in what is written below were the core of the sermon.

I recently found an interesting book called “The Holy Bible.” Imagine how surprised I was to find my story in this book—it’s about a third of the way from the beginning, with the simple title, “Job.”

I have to say, I’m relieved at how the written version begins. “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It’s good to see that this book affirms my righteousness. A lot of people questioned my character.

For a long time, my life was just about perfect. I had a beautiful wife, seven sons and three daughters, and frankly, I was rich beyond belief. I had sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys grazing for as far as the eye could see, and I had servants taking care of them. To my utter bewilderment, it all fell apart on me in a single day.

First, thieves made off with my livestock, slaughtering most of my servants in the process. Then, out of nowhere, a great windstorm knocked down my oldest son’s house, crushing to death all my children as they feasted.

Not too much later, I began to get sick. I developed these nasty, oozing sores from the the soles of my feet to the top of my head. And folks, that means they were on everything in between, too. I felt like God’s garbage, so I went and sat down on the ash pile. There, at least, I could use a piece of pottery to scrape the festering mess off of myself.

That’s when my friends showed up. They did really well at first—they just sat quietly with me for a whole week. I was in misery, but at least I had company. But as soon as I remarked that I wished I had never been born, Eliphaz felt the need to speak up. Then the others joined in.

Their arguments were quite elaborate, even poetic, but they all boiled down to this: “Job, you must’ve done something to offend God.” I told them I couldn’t imagine what it might be, but they just went on and on.

I should mention one surprise I learned from this book. One of God’s angels, the one known as Satan, “The Accuser,” was the actual cause of my troubles. He thought my righteousness resulted from my easy life, and that he could make me curse God.

To be honest, knowing that God let an accusing angel do so much evil to me leaves me even more confused.

I suppose I’ll just have to rely on what God told my friends and me: The Creator cannot be fully understood. At least God gave me a new family and restored my wealth in the end.

Still, I would like to better understand God. In the midst of my sickness, I did have a vision. I poured out some powerfully strange words, so powerful that I longed for someone to engrave the words in stone. Maybe a fever accompanied the sores—I don’t know.

Those words are recorded in the 19th chapter of my story: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

It’s a strange hope to have. Who is this Redeemer? And how could I ever hope to stand in the flesh before God after my body has been destroyed? It all sounds a little crazy.

Perhaps as I read the rest of this “Holy Bible,” I’ll find some answers.

A Very High Price

 

El Greco, "Christum am Kreuz," c. 1578, oil on copper, via Wikimedia Commons

El Greco, “Christum am Kreuz,” c. 1578, oil on copper, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Peter 1:17-23

What is salvation worth?

Strictly in terms of what it costs us, salvation is worth very little. In fact, we usually talk about salvation as a free gift from God. And like a lot of life’s freebies, even people who accept the general idea of the gift can begin to devalue it.

They may even treat the free gift as something to be taken seriously only when necessary, maybe in old age, near death. To do so, they of course must first deny the possibility that life could deviate from the course they have imagined. But once they’ve firmly deluded themselves on this point, salvation becomes like a gallon of milk to be picked up on the way home from work, except salvation seems cheaper.

Such a human perspective is very wrong, however. Salvation should never be treated as if it is worth what it costs us. The value of salvation is rooted in what the gift cost God. Writing this down, I almost feel silly stating something that seems so obvious. And yet, even people who call themselves Christians sometimes act as if they don’t get it.

The Apostle Peter addressed the cost of salvation in a general letter he wrote to be circulated among churches, a letter we now call 1 Peter. We cannot even begin to quantify the value of salvation in terms of earthly wealth, he tells us. A perfect, sinless being, a man who also was fully God, died so we would not face the punishment we are due for defying our creator.

Why? Simply because the one who made us loves us so much.

In this Easter season, let’s revisit the cross. Most of us have heard stories of Jesus’ humiliation, beating and gruesome death. There was another kind of pain, however, a deeper suffering.

Think on your worst sins. Think of the pain they caused, the damage they did to those around you. Christ absorbed the effect of those sins, removing the power those sins had over you. Now we begin to understand the real pain of the cross—Christ bearing our sins and every sin ever committed. What astounds me is that the tremendous weight of our sins did not rip Christ from the cross and crush him.

I also suspect it was more than just the sin in humanity that caused Jesus to suffer. When evil first escaped into the world, creation was fractured mightily, like a porcelain vase tapped with a hammer. In his suffering and dying, Christ repaired all the cracks, pulling them together with his pierced, outstretched limbs in ways we cannot comprehend.

One drop of his holy blood is worth more than all the gold in the universe, and much more than one drop was shed in the remaking of creation. We already have seen an initial sign of this remaking in the resurrection, and because we are freed from sin, we will see the remaking in full.

When we accept this truth, we begin to live in new ways—not because of any rules we’re following, but because we know we can never provide an adequate response to what God has done. We begin to live as if we’re actually astonished by God’s love.

How do we not respond with everything we have: our time, our money, our very lives? In Wesleyan denominations, we speak often of sanctification, of growing in our love so we respond to God and those around us as Jesus would. Every step on this path to holiness is made by better absorbing the truth of what Jesus did, of what he continues to do this day in the world through the Holy Spirit.

I ask you again: What is salvation worth? Let your answer guide your life.

Job’s Story, Our Story

The Book of Job

I developed this sermon in the first person—that is, in Job’s voice—while in seminary. For various reasons, I did not preach it in the first person today, but the ideas in what is written below were the core of the sermon. I also should note that we baptized Alexandra Paige Price this Sunday in response to her profession of faith. Job had a vision; so did Alex, of what her baptism should be like. She was baptized by pouring, an option we have in the United Methodist Church, albeit one seldom selected. Like Job, Alex has faith in her Redeemer, known to us now as Jesus Christ. He will return one day to make the restoration of the world complete.

I recently found an interesting book called “The Holy Bible.” Imagine how surprised I was to find my story in this book—it’s about a third of the way from the beginning, with the simple title, “Job.”

I have to say, I’m relieved at how the written version begins. “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It’s good to see that this book affirms my righteousness. A lot of people questioned my character.

For a long time, my life was just about perfect. I had a beautiful wife, seven sons and three daughters, and frankly, I was rich beyond belief. I had sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys grazing for as far as the eye could see, and I had servants taking care of them. To my utter bewilderment, it all fell apart on me in a single day.

First, thieves made off with my livestock, slaughtering most of my servants in the process. Then, out of nowhere, a great windstorm knocked down my oldest son’s house, crushing to death all my children as they feasted.

Not too much later, I began to get sick. I developed these nasty, oozing sores from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. And folks, that means they were on everything in between, too. I felt like God’s garbage, so I went and sat down on the ash pile. There, at least, I could use a piece of pottery to scrape the festering mess off of myself.

That’s when my friends showed up. They did really well at first—they just sat quietly with me for a whole week. I was in misery, but at least I had company. But as soon as I remarked that I wished I had never been born, Eliphaz felt the need to speak up. Then the others joined in.

Their arguments were quite elaborate, even poetic, but they all boiled down to this: “Job, you must’ve done something to offend God.” I told them I couldn’t imagine what it might be, but they just went on and on.

I should mention one surprise I learned from this book. One of God’s angels, the one known as Satan, “The Accuser,” was the actual cause of my troubles. He thought my righteousness resulted from my easy life, and that he could make me curse God.

To be honest, knowing that God let an accusing angel do so much evil to me leaves me even more confused.

I suppose I’ll just have to rely on what God told my friends and me: The Creator cannot be fully understood. At least God gave me a new family and restored my wealth in the end.

Still, I would like to better understand God. In the midst of my sickness, I did have a vision. I poured out some powerfully strange words, so powerful that I longed for someone to engrave the words in stone. Maybe a fever accompanied the sores—I don’t know.

Those words are recorded in the 19th chapter of my story: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

It’s a strange hope to have. Who is this Redeemer? And how could I ever hope to stand in the flesh before God after my body has been destroyed? It all sounds a little crazy.

Perhaps as I read the rest of this “Holy Bible,” I’ll find some answers.