2023-06-25 Pentecost 4
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
There was once a wise and experienced Lutheran pastor who had the esteemed reputation of being the “cream of the crop” when it came to preaching. Everywhere he went and preached, people wanted him to stay! He was Biblical, engaging, relevant, dynamic, and never failed to drive his points home to the hearts and minds of his hearers. One Sunday, he was visiting a fellow pastor and was asked last minute to preach the sermon. Of course he didn’t really have a sermon prepared, but the people had heard of his reputation and amazing skills at preaching. The congregation started clapping and managed to persuade the seasoned Pastor to agree to preach the sermon. He got up out of his pew and made his way to the pulpit. As he stepped up, he asked the congregation for a topic. “You’ve asked me to preach, now what would you like me to preach about!?” The congregation president spoke up: “Pastor, your reputation as an excellent Bible preacher is known far and wide. You always have amazing sermons, no matter how difficult the topic or the text is!” “Thank you very much for your kind words,” replied the Pastor, “but I still need a topic! It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, just shout it out.” A young seminarian was home from school that particular Sunday and he thought he would really put this experienced Pastor to the test. “Pastor,” he shouted from his seat, “I have a topic for you. Preach to us a Biblical sermon on diarrhea!” The congregation snickered and went silent, wondering how this preacher of preachers would respond to the request! After a brief silence the pastor replied: “And Moses took the two tablets and came down from the mountain! Amen!”
The Holy Scriptures are full of strange, wonderful and challenging words. After all, they are Divine, they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us in his second letter to Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2Tim3:16-17). Every once and a while though, we come across a Bible text that is very difficult to understand. They are texts that require a great deal of study so that we can figure out what God’s Word is actually saying to us. The temptation is great for preachers and teachers of the Bible to grab hold of God’s Word like a steer wrestler and twist, turn and wrangle it to say what we want it to say! As we heard the Gospel lesson today from St. Matthew, we know that there is much difficulty surrounding these words of Jesus.
Our Scripture lessons covers a lot of things today, but one of the stand out topics is suffering. It means to be subjected to or experience something bad or unpleasant. Undoubtedly, we have all suffered in one way or another in our lives, whether it be abuse, physical injury to our bodies, school yard or online bullying, horrid diseases like cancer, tragic death of loved ones, and countless other situations that make us ask “why, God?!” Also, you may have experienced suffering for being a Christian. The Bible gives us a unique glimpse into understanding suffering and why it is permitted by an all powerful God of love. It has a lot to do with these words of Jesus “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.”
Jesus warns us in this discipleship text that Christians follow a Lord and Savior who was reviled, rejected, tortured and innocently murdered on a cross! As people who follow our Lord’s call to repentance and faith, we can expect that we will suffer too as God’s Spirit conforms us to the likeness of Christ Jesus in both body and soul. This may be shocking for us to hear – and our sinful nature expects that God would make our lives rosy and peachy and take away all of our problems and make us rich, healthy and above all, ridiculously good looking! That’s called the theology of glory. This is the kind of thing many TV preachers proclaim. “Just send me $20 and the Lord will bless you and take away all that ails you!” But instead, when we read the scriptures, we find the theology of the cross. We find that we will all suffer in this life in various ways in our bodies and in our souls for following Christ. It is a sinful and sick old world! But St. Paul spells it out in black and white: “16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17). Provided we share in the sufferings of our Messiah. This is a passage that should be highlighted and double underlined and asterisked in everybody’s bible. Or better yet, painted up on the wall to look at every day. It is a reminder that our comfort and hope comes not from within ourselves, but from knowing and trusting that as we follow Christ our suffering servant, we are becoming more and more like Him as we endure. And that through this endurance lies the path to glory.
I remember when I was a kid I found a baby sparrow that had fallen from it’s nest. It was big enough to hop around, but not yet large enough to fly. I remember mashing up maple bugs and feeding them to the little bird with hopes that it would one day be strong enough to fly away. Jesus uses a sparrow story to teach us about the love and compassion of God in the midst of our suffering. In Jesus’ day, tiny sparrows were sold in the market place. They were cheap: two for a penny, and some have even said they were delicious! They were fragile little things – seemingly insignificant things. Yet Jesus tells us that our Father in Heaven knows all about them, they don’t even fall to the ground without His knowing. If God cares that much about them, imagine how much He cares about us!? We are the crown jewels of His creation! We are the reason Christ would put on flesh and suffer and die for us, that we might gain eternal life and salvation.
God our Holy Trinity knows us better than we know ourselves. It is a spooky thought, but it is true! To those of us who have faced suffering and persecution in body and soul, Jesus says “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (MT 10:32). This is what truly matters for Christians. We have the blessed promise of eternal life because of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ. Other people can hurt and harm our bodies, accidents and disease can cripple us and even kill us! Yet our final destination, our true home is Heaven. We do not need to worry about what others say about us, or the rejection we may face because of Christ. We know and believe that God is with us, just as He has promised giving us His strength, peace and life.
As Christians we are called to live our Baptisms daily. It is not to be secretive and secluded from those around us. Jesus tells us today to uncover what has been covered up and make known those things that have been kept secret! What has been said “in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (MT 10:27). What has been said is the Gospel! That Christ has suffered and died for sinful people, that all may turn to Him in repentance and live! The consequences of sin is death, but the consequences of God’s grace in Christ for us and for the life of the world may involve suffering. And as the people of God suffer, we have compassion. We minister to the sick, comfort the dying, console the grieving and care as God cares for us.
Suffering can either make us stronger or it can make us bitter. It can draw us closer to God in faith, or it can turn us away. We must always remember that even in the face of pain and suffering, God is not rejecting us. He is truly present with us, leading us through the dark valleys of the shadow death to the glories of His radiant light. We often appeal to God’s Divinity and mighty power in difficult times. “Take this suffering away! Deliver me! Do the miraculous!” And sometimes He does! But do we appeal to our Lord’s humanity? “Be with me Lord, help as I endure this time of suffering.” This is food for thought. As we suffer, or as we walk beside those who are suffering, we walk the way of Christ. We follow Him to suffering and death. We, the disciples, become like the Master. We give up our own strength, power and pride – we rely solely on the strength and power of Christ. We look to the cross as something that reflects our own experience in life. We look to the glory and hope of eternal life that doesn’t come through the wave of a magic wand or a scratch-and-win ticket. It comes in and through the cross, through suffering, shame and death.
Do not be afraid, O people of God, for Christ has suffered for us and our victory has been won! “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” Fear not. Christ “was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:5). Amen.