A Christmas message.
This is a message about expecting God through troubling times.
This is a message given to Essex Baptist Church on Sept 13th, 2020. It has a personal application of the point at the end.
A message in the Doing Life Wisely series
What a privilege it is to bring the Word of God to you this morning.
A few weeks back I went over to my neighbor’s house to check on them, because I knew from my previous conversation with them that he had recently been ill. When I asked how I could pray, they shared that he was facing an uncertain diagnosis – he was suffering severe abdominal pain, and all the Xrays had revealed was that the doctors saw a need for a more detailed MRI. That’s not usually a sign of really good things to come, and it was distressing to them. So I spent some time in prayer with them.
As I walked across the lawn back to my place, I thought about the difficulty they were facing. I thought about suffering. I thought of all the many people in my circles who are in pain right now. The many people that Dan leads us in prayer for each Sunday morning, and so many other dear friends, family and acquaintances. Some dealing with life-threatening disease. Some with handicap and limitation. Some with other physical issues. Many suffering in non-physical ways. Some suffering through the loss of loved ones, estranged children, struggling marriages, stress at work. Others suffers mentally and emotionally on account of trauma or abandonment or abuse or addiction or loneliness. Some are suffering financially through under-employment and unemployment. And some – some suffer all of the above. I think of the Syrian newcomers who have lost virtually every meaningful thing in their lives over the last few years in their effort to get to safety in Canada, and now listen with dread to the news coming from the Turkish border. For them, every thought of what their relatives are now enduring causes them to re-experience their own trauma, all over again. (long pause)
Suffering is a subject that we just can’t seem to get away from. It dogs us. It keeps coming up, every year, every month, really every week, and in all manner of ways. If not for us personally, then for someone we know and love and care about. Suffering is always in view, and all the more as you get older.
Why, just last Sunday Pastor Gary concluded a wonderful look at the book Philippians, and we were reminded that the book of Philippians was written by a man who was suffering much while he wrote it! Paul was imprisoned and awaiting trial for a capital offense. He was isolated. Cold. Immobile and facing potential execution while he wrote Phillipians. And ironically, Pastor Gary was suffering terrible back pain while he preached it. Suffering is always in view, and there are seasons in life when you just can’t seem to back away from it.
That pun about the back (BTW) was all the humor I could muster for this message. There is nothing funny about suffering. That lesson was brought home again last Sunday afternoon as my wife and I found ourselves unexpectedly eating Thanksgiving alone. We knew Deb’s kids and our siblings and parents wouldn’t be there, but we had prepared a big turkey anyway, thinking that my son Kyle would. But as it happened, that afternoon he was too physically ill to join us. (pause) I thought about the pain he was experiencing. Watching someone you care about deal with complications of diabetes is hard. (pause)
And then in my morning devotions, I’m slowly going through the book of Matthew. After three and a half years, I am in chapter 27, which is a narrative about the suffering and execution of Jesus Christ. Friends, I would’ve liked – I would have liked very much – that the first time I am asked to speak to you, the Lord would have given me message that is celebration and joy. But in His timing and for His glory, there is something else He wants us to consider this day. Something much more applicable than any of us would care to admit. Something I don’t really want to talk about but find myself compelled to.
Today we are going to look at how God sees suffering – specifically, human suffering. For God has a particular view of it. He has a way of looking at it that is wildly different than the way we look at it. His philosophy of suffering is unlike ours. It is a totally different view. God sees purpose in suffering. And if you bear with me this morning, you will see that our suffering (whatever kind of suffering it is) also has purpose. A purpose (my friends) that we will not be sorry for on the day we see His face. Let us pray. (PRAY)
In Matthew 27, the Gospel writes records, “Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
Now – that is a very dramatic scene. Let me give you the background. Just hours before this all happened, Jesus was rejoicing in the fellowship of His disciples as they shared a Passover meal in the upper room. But then He suffered the crushing betrayal of His friend Judas – a man He had shared three years of ministry with, a man He trusted to hold their common purse. Judas betrayed Him. And as Jesus thought through what was to come of that, He was sorrowful. He led His band up to the garden of Gethsemane. There He suffered in prayer. Three times He fervently prayed for reprieve. Three times the Father was silent. In the middle of the night, the chief priests and armed guards arrived. Jesus was arrested. Brought to the house of the chief priests, He faced the frustration of a kangaroo court – a court that was set up just to pass sentence, not provide any kind of meaningful search for justice. He suffered that three times actually – only the first was under Jewish leadership. But they couldn’t legally execute Him, so they sent Him – in the very early hours of the morning – to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
For his part, Pilate did not see fit to appease the Jewish religious leadership that had so rudely woken him demanding that he exercise his privilege for their benefit. Instead, he questions Jesus and when he finds that Jesus is a Galilean, passes Him off to Herod, who had authority over Galilee and just happened to be in Jerusalem at the time.
See – Pilate (and Herod, but we’ll get to that later) had a particular philosophy of suffering. A way of looking at suffering that many people share today that is not God’s way of looking at it. Pilate believed that suffering was just something to avoid. Something to avoid in even the smallest of doses. For Pilate (and Herod both) knew that dealing with Jesus – however they did that – would cost them. Not physically of course. Not financially or emotionally. But if they dealt with Jesus they’d suffer politically. For if Pilate dealt with Jesus, then the Jewish priests would have ‘won’. They would’ve succeeded in inconveniencing him and forcing him to do something they wanted for their own reasons. If that happened, Pilates’ authority would be slightly less awesome, and Pilate was not about to suffer that. So he sends Jesus to Herod. But Herod realized that if he dealt with Jesus, then the people he was personally responsible for – the people of Galilee, who he full well knew liked Jesus – they might rebel, and then he would be seen as unable to control them. Herod was not about to suffer that, or the indignation of having to do Pilate’s dirty work. So Herod sends Jesus back. Ping-pong.
So now it’s morning proper, and it’s the second time Pilate is told he has to sentence Jesus to death. Of course, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent, but he also knows the Jewish religious authorities will incite an uprising if they don’t get what they came for. That would go very poorly for him, because Rome is always watching, and Rome would rather have the income of a suppressed population than the blood of their subjects. He also knows that the crowds adore Jesus (for it wasn’t even a week ago that they sang Hosannah as He entered the city), and he also knows they’ll come to his palace because today’s the day – today’s the day they look to him to release a prisoner as is his annual custom. So Pilate waits till a crowd gathers. He thinking ahead. He figures if he escalates the matter by making it a black and white choice between a domestic terrorist named Barrabas and the innocent man Jesus, he can expect the crowd to ask for Jesus’ release. That would mean he won’t have to put down another uprising. Best of all, he will do what Herod was unable to do, proving to his Roman masters that he is the right man for the office he holds in the first place.
And that’s where our text this morning began. Friends, in all of that background, do not miss this – Herod and Pilate did all they did with Jesus so that they might avoid suffering themselves. The fact that others suffer much so that they might not have to suffer at all in even a small way – well that was inconsequential in their eyes.
They should’ve known that when you have to manipulate others and twist circumstance to avoid suffering, you are not sharing God’s view of it. Avoiding suffering to the detriment of others is not “the answer”. It is not the answer to suffering that others suffer so we might not need to. (pause). Mind you, we might want it to be. It would be convenient if it was. We wish it was the answer. But it is not.
And although Pilate’s manipulation of the circumstances is masterful, the Lord is control – not him. As if to demonstrate that fact, the Lord ironically escalates Pilates’ responsibility. The text says, “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”Reading between the lines, you can almost see the hairs on Pilate’s neck stand up. But in the end, Pilate washes his hands and proclaims his own innocence – and then commits the crime: He passes sentence against the Son of God: “Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”(pause)
If you’ve seen the movie, The Passion of the Christ, you have some idea of the degree of physical suffering that scourging entailed. The full horror of what was inflicted by it cannot be realized in the few words and sentences that the Gospel assigns to that event. And to be fair, neither is it truly realized when we hear someone talk about it.
We tend to tune out when we come across such things. The reality is that we don’t like coming face to face with suffering in any capacity, and you and I already know suffering well. So I’m not going to go on and on about design of the whip or it’s lacerating impact or the humilation of it all. Instead, it will suffice to remember how we feel when we suffer.
How we want to escape it. How we want it to be over. How we want it to end. To be minimized. We want to somehow get ahead of it – at least to the point where it is somehow tolerable.
But suffering it isn’t so easily dismissed. Pain – whether physical pain as was inflicted on Christ in this flogging – or mental/emotional pain as when you are dealing with addiction or divorce or abandonment or grief – or even financial suffering as when you are working through a long season of poverty – these things don’t just go away. They don’t leave you after a day of sniffles like a cold. They hang on. They pursue you everywhere you are, all the while relentlessly crying out for resolution. Every waking second as you suffer becomes a search for some measure of relief. Every cell in our bodies tells us to just make it stop. But it does not. And sometimes it even gets worse.
Matthew continues, “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him.And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.”The NIV says they hit Him, again and again.
Everything the soliders did in that room after Jesus was scourged was uncalled for. None of it was part of the sentence passed, and none of it was necessary. From satan’s viewpoint, this is the flourish on the icing on the cake – the cherry on the top of the sweetest dessert. This is satan reveling. Physical, mental, verbal and emotional abuse, causing as much harm as possible, and then a little bit more. The twisting of the knife, as it were.
You know what is astonishing about all that? Jesus did not shirk from it. He did not evade it. He did not dodge it. And He knew it was coming. Even before they had reached Jerusalem, Jesus had said to His disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” Jesus knew it was part of the reason He was there. So He stood under it.
Certainly, this wasn’t His first experience of suffering. He knew the poverty of being incarnated in human form to start with. He had set aside His glory and His honor at the right hand of the Father in the highest heaven, and come to be born a human baby. To live in the dust and difficulty of an oppressed nation, before electricity, before democracy and before modern medicine. So He knew that. He suffered through the grind of daily life. He suffered hunger and thirst. He suffered lack. Oppression and threats. And He submitted to all that – and then this. (pause)
He submitted to it. He didn’t fight it. He didn’t rant to everyone around Him about it. He gave Himself up to experience it. Right up to and including arrest without just cause. Imprisonment without just cause. Verbal and physical punishment without just cause, up to and including torture unto death.
And they did that. They crucified Him.
And when they nailed Him to that cross, they gave Him a drink. Matthew says, “they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.”
Now giving Him wine sounds compassionate, but those crucifying Jesus were not about to give Him something they could use. One must remember that this is the same lot who had so visciously abused Him prior to draggin Him out to Golgotha to start with. So they do not offer Jesus a palatable drink they could consume. They offer Him spoiled wine instead, mixing it gall and myrrh and unwittingly fulfilling the ancient prophesy of Psalm 69, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”  The mixture would’ve speeded up death by both weaking the body and clouding the mind. It also would’ve caused great gastrointestical discomfort. That’s why the soldiers gave it to Him. So they could sit and watch and gamble on whether or not He would futher loose dignity before He died. Otherwise you would sit and not watch someone on a cross, because it might take two days or more for them to die of their injuries.
But they sat and watched, because the soldier’s philosophy of suffering was that suffering for the entertainment of others. That suffering is for the entertainment of others. That’s why they beat Him and mocked Him after He was scourged, and that is why they gave Him wine mixed with gall. Friends, that is evil. That is messed up. That is wrong on a whole host of levels. (pause) But I am compelled to mention it because that is a view of suffering that is endemic to our present way of life. That is why Hollywood puts out movie after movie and show after show. People pay to watch that. Netflix and HBO and Cineplex and the like earn good money showing what film critics gleefully call, “blood and gore”. There is scarcely a show produced that doesn’t have some of it, and in our generation there are whole movies dedicated to showing people suffer the most gruesome and painful deaths possible – a whole category of film on it’s own.
Wisely, Jesus refuses the drink after tasting it. Nailed to the cross, He has no use for wine to dull His senses or poison to hasten His death. Jesus is committed to living the whole of human experience, and that experience includes pain. One commentator noted bluntly, “Jesus refuses to decrease his suffering or to lose consciousness of his surroundings.” He is totally focused on bringing glory to the Father through His great suffering.
That is something to think about. The way Jesus treated His experience on the cross speaks profoundly to us today. Our Lord did not look for suffering or teach us to glorify pain, but neither did He avoid either when it was inflicted upon Him. He accepted it and He endured it as part of His mission. For Jesus, suffering had a purpose.
Mind you, the people watching Jesus die also believed that suffering had a purpose. “Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. Matthew makes the point that three groups of people mocked Jesus as He died. The three groups represent Israel in every capacity – both local and visiting Jews, the top of Israel’s authoritative heirarchy and those who are outside of the law. They mocked Jesus while He suffered on the cross because they had yet another philosophy of suffering – because they were religious.
They had read the Scripture. They knew that God punished evil. They also knew that suffering wasn’t part of God’s original plan for earth or humankind. Suffering came into the world because of sin. Suffering was bad, and because God punished that which was bad, they concluded that suffering only comes as punishment for something bad. Therefore it is would not be wrong to mock those who suffer, because they have obviously been called out by God as having done something to deserve it. The Roman charges written over the heads of the crucified even spelt that out.
Even Jesus’ disciples thought likewise. Once, when they had come upon a blind man, “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”” But Jesus would have us corrected of such faulty thinking. At the time He replied, ““Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.””Suffering has a purpose.
Sometimes – as when Jesus Himself hung on the cross – suffering is not on account of one’s personal sin at all. Sometimes it is on account of our broken world. All reasonable people can see that. Sometimes suffering visits those who we know do not ‘deserve’ it. No one can look at a three year old child with bone cancer and seriously believe the child deserves that in any capacity. Thinking that suffering is always punishment for sin is an immature philosophy of suffering. Certainly it isn’t the view of suffering that Jesus had.
He was sinless, yet He suffered. He endured it without words when He was inflicted. And most tellingly, in spite of all of that mocking, He stayed on the cross. He stayed there in agony for hours – at least six hours according to the Gospel accounts. He didn’t have to, but He did. He did that because He knew the Father would not allow suffering to go unaddressed forever. He knew that God must do something with suffering, and when that happened, suffering would produce glory to His Name. It would produce a particular kind of fruit. It is part of the reversal of all that happened in the fall of mankind.
Jesus certainly saw His suffering as that. The book of Hebrews says, (and let me read this from the NIV) “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Friends, Jesus did not like suffering. He endured it. He dispised the shame it brought. We shouldn’t like it either, and it is not wrong to dispise the grief that suffering causes. But Jesus suffered so that our suffering might end. If He would’ve come down from the cross and not died to rise again, our suffering would never end. We would suffer and then die and even if we were forgiven, it would all be pointless – because we would still suffer. To be sure, suffering – when you are in the midst of it – seems pointless. It all seems “meaningless”, as Solomon once said. But when the Son of God suffered and died, God transformed both. Death is no longer a one-way gate to obscurity, and suffering is no longer infliction without redemption.
You have to know this. Jesus died on the cross to redeem humanity, amen? Amen. Jesus experienced all of life so that He could redeem all of life. And friends, redemption is more than merely buying it back. Sometimes we in the church use that language. We say redemption Christ offers is the ‘buying back’ of our souls. That is the overall effect – that our lives have been bought with a price and now we belong to Him – but redemption is not a mere transaction. Redemption is transformative. It is transformitive. It is a metamorphic experience like a catepillar, or a seed that is buried and dies to itself to become a fruitful plant. The seed does not decide to become a plant any more than it decides to suffer burial. But after burial, God turns it into a plant. God redeems its suffering for His glory.
And if He does that for a seed (a seed!) – what of us made in His image? We have to know that God redeems our experience of suffering too. After all, He has already determined (my friend), to redeem YOU. That means all of you. All that consists of YOU, including all of your experience. Did He not already take your sins and give you His righteousness? And if He did that for you, do you really think He is then to leave you with all of your pain, disappointment and grief forever? Of course not. And surely He who took your sin and gave you righteousness instead can do likewise with your pain. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
In fact, the Scripture is very clear that our physical bodies will be redeemed and made incorruptible. The Scripture is very clear that our mind and all your thoughts will be redeemed and made holy. Our bodies are not yet redeemed. They are perishing. They are breaking down – we suffer physically. And our minds are stillbattlegrounds. We face a constant barrage of hurtful thoughts, guilt, shame, depression and all manner of suffering. Only our inner spirit has been redeemed, as a foreshadow of what is to come. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” Amen? Amen! We will worship God in holiness. Not just spiritual holiness. But mental holiness and physical holiness. Is it then hard to realize that our experiences will also be redeemed and made into something glorious? Of course not. What does the Scripture say? “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.”We must expect that. Our experience will also be redeemed. That is God’s work in the context of YOU. It is His particular work in and with you. That is what He is going to do. “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Glory to God!
The day comes when all our suffering will be nothing more than a distant memory of a time long ago, and on that day all our suffering accomplished will be fully realized to our great joy, just as the joy that was set before Jesus will be fully realized on that day. (pause) Now that time is not just yet. Till then we … suffer. But we can know that we suffer with purpose. Even better, we can apply that purpose. And I will leave you with this application:
When we are not in physical or psychological pain ourselves, we can help others in theirs. We can sit with those in hospital, we can visit those who are lonely, we can write notes of encouragement to those who wrestle with their circumstance. We can – just by the ministry of presence – participate in a small way in what Jesus did for us through His suffering. For as we minister to them, we take some of their pain – a tiny bit – upon ourselves. Maybe it is just a very small part, but it is nevertheless a comfort to them.
And that comfort that is somehow – I do not know how, but somehow – is a witness of the sacredness of their suffering. (long pause) It is a reminder that God has not forgotten them. That God weeps with them. That He feels their pain. And somehow – I do not know how, but somehow – our presence with them is a reminder of the holy purpose that Jesus imparted to suffering by His participation in it. A reminder that their suffering – because of Christ’s suffering – will come to an end. That God will yet redeem it – and that the day is coming when we will all see – with our own eyes and with joy and gladness in our bones – just what He made from it.
So until then, “let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Amen. Let us close in prayer.
Lord, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for suffering for us. Thank You Lord for transforming what death is through Your death, and for transforming what suffering means through Your suffering. Thank You Lord, that we can now confidently say as Paul said, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. Yes Lord, Amen.