Thursday, August 28, 2014

Keeping faith through the trials, suffering, and persecution


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The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.  Lamentations 3:22

At the church in Spreewald, Germany there is a life size painting of Paul Gerhardt, the great 17th century hymn-writer. The inscription beneath it says: "A theologian tested in Satan's sieve.” The work was commissioned because in his lifetime Gerhardt was a shining example of how God sees His people through intense suffering. He was a child when the Thirty Years War broke out and he endured the severe deprivations that war always brings. But things did not improve once the hostilities were over because Gerhardt was a faithful Lutheran pastor at a time when the Reformation Faith was no longer wanted, even as it is little desired in the world today. He endured persecution from congregations, fellow pastors and from civil and religious authorities alike. Besides this he was plagued with personal illness, the death of four of his children, and then of his wife. He was, as the inscription says, “A theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve,” but Paul Gerhardt was not the first Christian to suffer.

We all know about Job. The record of his travails are so important to Christian faith that the Holy Spirit had them written down, and placed in the canon of Holy Scripture, where they have resided for centuries, immediately preceding the Book of Psalms. Job too suffered “the loss of all things,” and in so doing became a prophecy of the promised Christ who “became poor that we might become rich.” Like our Lord, Job was on top of the world. As far as heaven can be experienced on earth, Job experienced it. He was blessed beyond all measure with every good gift, with peace of mind, and with great faith as well. He was a good, just and faithful man who was un-affected by his wealth, but Scripture informs us that God allowed Satan to test him; to remove all his blessings and to subject him to every loss a man can experience. Over night his property, servants and flocks were gone. Next were his seven sons and three daughters. They all died together when a tornado hit the house they were in, and it collapsed on their heads. Then came the loss of his health. The Bible tells us the devil afflicted him with painful sores over his entire body and that the dogs would come and lick his wounds. Then came the worst thing of all: the inner wrestling, the crisis of faith, and the long, long wait for God to deliver him; but Job was not the only believer to suffer.

In today’s Old Testament lesson we heard a portion of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. If you haven’t read Lamentations in a while, please do. It puts a lot of things in perspective. It teaches us in throbbing detail the misery that sin brings, and if it stopped there it would be too much to bear, but it does not. Instead it goes on in chapter three to show us that no matter how buried under we may feel by our
 sins, God is Faithful, His compassion boundless, and each morning His mercies are more than adequate to meet the challenges of the evil day.

Jeremiah was not the only person to suffer, nor was His agony redemptive in nature as people often think. Instead his travails were prophetic. Predictive of the far greater sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ whose agony and death, and whose momentary rejection by the Father on the cross, answer for our sins and resolve our wildest grief.

If Jesus suffered for us, why then do God’s children still suffer? Because the justice of God is seamless and relentless and condemns all that is not holy; but the mercies of God, which Jeremiah praises so highly, do something much different and far greater! They redeem us from sin and turn even our many troubles into blessings because of our connection with Christ. The term mercies that Jeremiah uses is one of the most wonderful words of Scripture. The Hebrew term derives from the word for “womb” and the verb bespeaks the tender mercies that a mother has for the child she carries within. There is no more helpless object on earth, none that calls forth greater love, tenderness and allegiance than new life in the womb; and this is the kind of mercy that God has for us in Christ.

What of suffering? We can never escape it as long as we live in this world. If you have suffered the loss of innocence, or of love, or of health, or of future prospects on account of your sins and your folly, then you can well lament with Jeremiah. If you have not, or if you think that life must be beautiful without end, one day you will learn differently, and then the book of Lamentations will become your closest ally, but as our Lord’s sufferings had a blessed end for Him and for us, ours will too. The most blessed is the day we die. No, we don’t know when. Yes, it frightens us and we will not do anything to hurry it along, but one day, in spite of the best medical efforts, or maybe because of them, we will cease to breathe. Others will take charge of us and carry us where we fear to go, they will lay our bodies in the grave, and in two or three generations no one will remember that we ever lived. No one, that is, except Christ whose tender mercies are new every morning, and who in the sacrament of holy baptism has written our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Like Christ Himself we too will rise again, and ascend into heaven, but until that time, by the Lord’s steadfast love, our sufferings will impart many good things to us: greater faith, greater love for the unseen promises of God, greater desire for the comfort of His Word, patience in tribulation, constancy in prayer, greater compassion for the suffering of others, and in being the hand of God to them we will find the greatest possible fulfillment for ourselves. May God give us all these things by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord, Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

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