Sunday, July 17, 2011

Present Suffering ~ Future Glory

In Nomine Iesu
Romans 8:18-27
July 17, 2011
Pentecost 5 – Proper 11A

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” If ever there was a Scriptural saying that we ought to plaster on our walls, on our dashboards, desks and doorways—this is it. We should wear these words on signs that hang from our necks, on T-shirts and screen-savers. These words of God ought to be painted on the doorway of every hospital, every funeral home, and on the gates of every cemetery. Find a place in your heart for these words today, and keep them on stand-by: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

You don’t need me to tell you that there’s no shortage of suffering in our lives today. As a pastor I’m privileged to share in the sufferings of my parishioners—and it is a privilege. I’ve sat with a woman in the emergency room whose pain was so great that she threw up every ten minutes or so. I’ve been called to the hospital to be with a mother whose six-month-old baby simply stopped breathing one day without warning. And I’ve been to the cemetery more times than I care to remember. But in every one of those instances, these words of God have managed to bubble up and come to mind and bring me a measure of peace: “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

Of course, the sufferings I’ve seen and known aren’t even the tiniest tip of the iceberg. For in addition to every instance of suffering that is seen or heard, there is also suffering that is unseen and unheard—private, personal pain that so many people carry around. Victims of physical and sexual abuse, people who struggle with depression and other debilitating mental illnesses, those who are chained down by dark addictions, the singles who long to be married, and the married who know nothing but conflict—they also (they especially!) need to know and take to heart this promise from God Himself: “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

These words mean even more when you realize that the man who first put these words of God on parchment was St. Paul. We actually know quite a bit about Paul—about his life and times. You don’t have to read too far into Paul’s letters to realize that this man knew a thing or two about suffering. Listen to his own personal litany of sufferings: He was imprisoned, flogged, beaten, exposed to death, five times he received forty lashes less one, three times he was beaten with rods, once nearly stoned to death, shipwrecked three times, spent a night and day floating on the open sea, in constant danger from rivers, bandits and false brothers. He knew sleeplessness, hunger, cold, nakedness, and an undisclosed thorn in his flesh. If even one thing on that list had happened to me, I probably would have switched careers long ago. Paul knew suffering—knew that suffering was real—knew that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

In today’s reading from Romans 8 our God takes our present sufferings and puts them in the proper perspective. He shows us the big picture—that the entire creation is in bondage to decay. The whole creation is groaning. Your personal suffering and your private groaning is really just a part of a giant, cosmic downward spiral. This world is a fallen world. This world isn’t evolving and progressing into something better and better; this world is devolving and decaying and dying.

Of course, it has to be said that a lot of our present suffering is the direct result of our present sinning. Let’s be honest here. We’re not simply innocent bystanders. We’re not merely victims of other people’s sin. Our own sin is part of the death and decay of this world. Our idolatries and our adulteries—our selfishness and our laziness—our sin has not only caused a good share of our own suffering; it’s caused untold and unknown suffering in the lives of others. We have to own up to that. We have to confess that. We need to repent of all the suffering we ourselves have caused.

So how should we deal with our present suffering? Should we pretend it isn’t happening? Should we just set our sights on that future glory and dream about what heaven will be like with no suffering, no tears, and no pain? Well, it’s fine to draw encouragement from the future glory God has promised. But don’t overlook the fact that your present sufferings have great value. Your present sufferings are a participation in the sufferings of Jesus. You and He have suffering in common. This is why St. Paul also wrote that we should rejoice in our sufferings. Your present suffering is not just the random ravages of life in a fallen world. Your suffering is the fertile soil in which the Holy Spirit does His best work—giving growth in the faith, teaching us to live each day in total dependence upon the mercies of God in Jesus Christ.

You see, we can’t talk about our sufferings apart from the sufferings of Jesus. His suffering—like yours—was not pointless or without purpose. His suffering, His death, His resurrection—it was all for you. Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that you would be inspired to try harder, or even to set a good example. No, Jesus went through death and resurrection so that you (and the whole creation) might follow Him through death to resurrection life. Jesus lived a sinless life as your substitute. Jesus died a perfect death as your substitute. Jesus rose again and ascended in glory so that that same glory will one day be revealed in you.

The Holy Spirit led Paul to describe our present suffering with a great comparison—a terrific simile. St. Paul didn’t describe our suffering as being like the pains of death. He didn’t describe our sufferings as pointless punishment. No, he described our present sufferings as being like the pains of childbirth—like labor pains. All the groanings of this present world—all the misery that you see and experience—these are but the labor pains of the new creation that Jesus will one day usher in. Labor pains lead to birth and new life and joy. So too for our present sufferings. They are pointing us ahead to the life of the world to come—a life that is yours by faith in Jesus, and by the forgiveness He alone gives.

It’s also true that you’re not alone in your present sufferings. You do not suffer in solitude or silence. Did you catch the wonderful promise that the Spirit helps us in our weakness? When we are at our worst—when our present sufferings are just about to swallow us up—when we can’t even string together two sentences of prayer—right then and there the Holy Spirit becomes your personal prayer partner. Right then and there the Holy Spirit intercedes for you—speaks up for you—in a way that goes beyond human language. The Holy Spirit, in fact, always packages our prayers—packages our prayers for direct delivery to the Father through the Son. And those prayers are always heard and answered for Jesus’ sake. It’s nice to know that the Spirit takes our imperfect prayers directly to the throne of grace, saying, “What he really means—what she really means—is this.”

Our present sufferings . . . are real. They are painful and sometimes heart-breaking. But I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The day of resurrection—the life of the world to come—is not as far off as you might think. Suffering is limited. Suffering has an expiration date. But the glory of God which will be revealed in you—that glory will last forever and ever. Amen.

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