Epiph 4 Feb 3 2019
The Let’s see: On Wednesday, it was so cold that every school and college was shut down. By Friday, it was 52. And people say, well, that’s Iowa!
No. No, it’s not. The last time I remember it being that cold was back in 1985, and we were living around Iowa City. Extremes are, by definition, not “normal.”
And so we look for someone to blame. Mother Nature? Climate change? Fossil fuels? The Sun? God? Satan? Canada? The Russians?
Well, now I’m joking. But when people die in weather extremes, it’s serious. At least our scripture lessons today seem to get it. In verse 7 of our epistle lesson, Paul mentions his “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what it was, other than it seems to have been some kind of physical suffering. Whatever it was, he calls it “a messenger of Satan to torment me.”
In the gospel lesson, we pick up from Mark where we left off last week in Luke. Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches in the synagogue, his home church. Were they happy to see him? No, Mark says. Check verse 3: “And they took offense at him.” They ridiculed him: Who does he think he is? He’s just that carpenter’s son! It was so bad, verse 5 says, that “he could do no deed of power there.”
The, he sends his disciples out on the road, but in verse 11, he says, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
In other words, not everybody was going to be happy hearing the good news.
So there it is: Paul talks about physical suffering. Jesus talks about ridicule, failure and rejection. That’s reality. It can be miserable outside, deadly. Then whoopee! Back to work tomorrow! Physical, mental, and spiritual suffering: That’s life.
Some try to deny it. They say that if you have enough faith, you won’t get sick, and if you do, you won’t need a doctor. And if you do get sick? You don’t have enough faith. You’re not a very good Christian.
Others deny mental and spiritual suffering. You’re supposed to be happy and rich all the time, and if you’re not, it’s your own fault. You didn’t pray the right way. You’re not a very good Christian.
By that measure, Saint Paul, and Jesus Christ himself weren’t very good Christians. I’d rather just admit the truth: Christians suffer. Even the best Christians suffer. The symbol of our faith is a cross, not a La-z-Boy rocker.
So how should we face the reality of suffering? Our lessons give us three ideas.
(1) First, don’t swim alone. When you face suffering, don’t insist on fighting through it by yourself. I say it that way, because I think many of us do try to go it alone. It’s not just a male-macho thing. Women are just as bad. We hate to admit to any sort of inadequacy, any sort of weakness. I can do it all!
Let me make it personal: Every year at Annual Conference, we hear doom and gloom reports about our Conference health insurance. The majority of our ministers in Iowa are old. Many are not in great shape. And many more suffer horribly from stress. The two most popular prescriptions used by ministers in the Iowa Conference are anti-depressants and high blood pressure medications.
We’re suffering. The proof is right there in front of us. But does anyone ever admit it? Most ministers will never admit–even to another minister. No sir, everything is perfect in God’s house. I’m happy and healthy, my church is growing by leaps and bounds, and the money’s pouring in. I work 80 hours a week, and nobody ever complains about anything. What’s wrong with you?
And I know it’s not just my crowd. It’s all over our social media. We live in a facebook world; Twitter, Instagram, and the rest. We try to look our best, brag about our wonderful kids or grand kids, and so on. Problems? Nah, my life is beautiful, wonderful, and flawless 24-7-365. Isn’t yours?
Pain? Suffering? Burdens? Worries? Doubts? We don’t share those. We carry those burdens alone and in private. But look at verse 7 of the gospel: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two.” Jesus sent his disciples in pairs. They weren’t going to swim alone. Yes, they would meet with ridicule and failure. Yes, they would face rejection. But at least they wouldn’t face it alone.
Today, the church is meant to be your buddy system. This is supposed to be the place where we can turn to one another for some sympathy, help, and encouragement. That’s not always the case, but try it. You might be surprised. There’s always some grouch or snob, but most of us actually like to be helpful and supportive. Most of us like opportunities to feel useful, to feel needed. Give us a chance. Never swim alone.
(2) Second, travel light. In verse 8, it says that Jesus ordered the disciples “to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” They were going to travel light.
That’s good advice. We should travel light. Many of us go through life carrying excess baggage. Jesus was insulted in Nazareth. We remember and carry with us every insult, every slight, every offense. Jesus failed in Nazareth. We carry the memory of every failure, every rejection, every sour note, every thing that’s gone wrong.
The Christian gospel is the gospel of forgiveness: Christ died for our sins. We don’t have to kill ourselves—Christ already died for us. But very often, we won’t leave the past behind. Jesus Christ wants you to focus on today and tomorrow, but instead, we spend all our time worrying, moping, and fuming about yesterday. Move on!
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus told us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness happens not just between you and God, but between you and your neighbor, and even between you and the mirror. Let’s just admit it: Yes, your neighbor has sinned against you. They did you wrong. They made you suffer. But move on. Yes, you sinned against yourself. You failed. You messed up. But move on. Forgive them, forgive yourself, as God has forgiven you, and move on. Travel light. Stop toting around all that excess baggage.
(3) Third, remember that nobody wins every battle. Tonight’s the Super Bowl. But both teams lost games along the way. New England was 11 and 5; the Rams 13-3. Both teams lost games in December.
But It’s even more so in baseball. The Red Sox had a great season. I looked it up: They won a hundred and eight games. But they still lost 54 games. On average, they were losing twice a week, all season long.
It’s even tougher for individual players. If you have a career batting average of .300, you’ll probably wind up in the Hall of Fame, with the best of the best. But .300 still means that you failed 70 percent of the time, 7 out of 10. Nobody wins every battle.
In the same way, in verse 11, Jesus warns the disciples that they’ll go into some towns where nobody’s going to welcome them or listen to them. It didn’t mean that their mission was a failure. In fact, according to tradition, every one of them but John would meet a grisly demise, killed for their faith. They would lose some battles.
But the war would still be won. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been carried around the world. In two thousand years, billions have heard it and believed. The same is true in your own life. Yes, you will lose some battles, but you’re still winning the war.
Satan is being defeated. You will cave in to some temptations. You will make some really dumb mistakes. You will go through some enormous difficulties. You will suffer hurts at the hands of others. But you are also winning the war. Every single day, Jesus Christ is bringing you one step closer to final victory, closer to his kingdom.
Paul says in verse 8 that he prayed three times about his thorn in the flesh, but God’s answer was no: it was not going to be taken from him. In the battle between Paul and the thorn, Paul would lose. But as Paul explains in verse 9, his thorn actually helped him better understand the true meaning of faith and God’s grace. The Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
So, Paul says in verse 10, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Trust God instead of trusting yourself. That’s when the power of God can really be turned loose in your life.
No, we won’t win every battle. We can’t fix every problem. What we can do is to let God take us to the next place in our lives, just as the disciples would move on to the next town.
That’s how we make it through suffering. Never swim alone: Accept the help and support of other Christians. Travel light: Embrace forgiveness and get rid of all your extra baggage that’s weighing you down. And remember that you won’t win every battle. All that counts is that you’re winning the war—that Jesus Christ is pushing and pulling you into his future, where you will find your glory and bask in his light.