Many years ago, there was a popular movie entitled " Four Weddings and a Funeral". Well this weekend I came close with my having to attend two funerals of two good friends on one day, and then trying to attend the birthday party of a neighbour later that night. Needless to say after the emotionally draining experience during the day, we never made it to the night time festivities. The Bishop who delivered the homily at the second funeral, summed up the situation well when on directing his remarks to the widow, and in the context of some families requesting people to wear ' cheerful colours', said " This is not an issue of having a bad day, but one of suffering a permanent loss, so it's ok to grieve". So grieve we did but at the same time we committed him, our departed friend, to the mercy and compassion of God.
But the grieving does not stop there, as with the kidnappings on the rise in my country - a pregnant teenager was abducted for a brief period this week in a rural area - the continued bloodletting by murderous individuals, the many and various reports of corruption in the ranks of the security forces and the simply outrageous behaviour of our children - holding up other schoolchildren in school - one cannot help but grieve for our country.
And even in the church there is cause for grieving as the numbers in some churches are declining, in others the preaching of sound doctrine is sadly wanting, whilst in others many persons have no serious commitment to Christ, and hence the upshot is that too often the witness of God's church to the nation is compromised and ineffective. And so we mourn and pray for mercy for so many different facets of our nation's life
In the midst of this grieving and determined to celebrate a Holy Lent which began on Ash Wednesday by continuing my reflections on ' The Cross of Christ' and its impact on Christians and the society in which we live, the Spirit of God placed in my heart a wonderful song for my meditation this week.
I am thine O Lord, I have heard thy voice,
And it told thy love to me
But I long to rise in the arms of faith
And be closer drawn to thee
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To the Cross where Thou hast died
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord
To thy precious bleeding side
Consecrate me now to thy service Lord
By the power of love divine
Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope
And my will be lost in thine
There are depths of love that I cannot know
Till I cross the narrow sea
There are heights of joy that I may not reach
Till I rest in peace with Thee
On the morning of the funerals after being led to read the first chapter of Joshua during my early morning devotions, I was moved to send out this text message to the grieving members of one family:
" Be strong and of a good courage;
Be not afraid, neither be thou dismay;
For the Lord thy God is with you withersoever
Thou goest." Joshua 1:8
Then just this evening, in continuing engage in the discipline of reading a good book during lent, the penultimate chapter in "The Cross of Christ" addresses the issue of ;
SUFFERING AND GLORY
And John Stott writes :
......There have always been some who insist that suffering is meaningless, and that no purpose whatever can be detected in it .......... But Christians cannot follow them down that blind alley. For Jesus spoke of suffering as being both ' for God's glory, that God Son may be glorified through it, and 'so that the work of God might be displayed'........What then is the relationship between Christ's suffering and ours? How does the cross speak to us in our pain? I want to suggest from Scripture six possible answers to this questions, which seem to rise gradually from the simplest to the sublime.
1. Patient Endurance -First the cross of Christ is a stimulus to patient endurance. Even though suffering has to recognized as evil - explored in a previous chapter - and therefore resisted, there nevertheless comes a time when it has t be realistically accepted............
2. Mature Holiness - ...Extraordinary as it sounds we can add ' it was for him, and it was for us'. We may consider the implications of two rather neglected verses in the letter to the Hebrews.
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God .....should make the Author of their salvation perfect through suffering. ( 2:10)
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. ( 5: 8-9; cf 7:28)
...........If suffering was the means by which the sinless Christ became mature, so much the more do we need it in our sinfulness......
...Biblical teaching and personal experience thus combine to teach that suffering is the path to holiness or maturity. There is always an indefinable something about people who have suffered. They have a fragrance which others lack. They exhibit the meekness and gentleness of Christ. One of the most remarkable statements Peter makes in his first letter is that ' he who has suffered in his body is done with sin' ( 4:1). Physical affliction, he seems to be saying, actually has the effect of making us stop sinning. This being so, I sometimes wonder if the real test of our hunger for holiness is our willingness to experience any degree of suffering if only thereby God will make us holy.
3. Suffering Service - Thirdly, the cross of Christ is the symbol of suffering service.......We see this clearly in Jesus who is the suffering servant par excellence, but we need to remember that the servant's mission to bring light to the nations is also to be fulfilled by the church ( Acts 13:47). For the church, therefore, as for the Saviour, suffering and service go together.
More than this , it is not just that suffering belongs to service, but that suffering is indispensable to fruitful or effective service This is the inescapable implication of the words of Jesus:
' The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless an ear of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.....But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself '. He said this to show what kind of death he was going to die.( Jn 12:23-26, 32-33)
.......The place of suffering in service and of passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelism or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be a death to popularity ( by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride ( by the use of modest means in reliance of the Holy Spirit) , or to racial and national prejudice ( by adopting a simple lifestyle). But the servant must suffer if he is going to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply.
4. The Hope of Glory..........Jesus clearly looked beyond his death to the resurrection, beyond his suffering to his glory, and indeed was sustained in his trials by the ' joy set before him' , ( Heb. 12.2). It is equally clear that he expected his followers to share this perspective. The inevitability of suffering is a regular theme in his teaching and that of the apostles. If the world had hated him and persecuted him, it would hate and persecute his disciples also. Suffering was in fact 'a gift' of God to all his people and part of their calling. They should not therefore be surprised by it, as if something strange were happening to them. it was only to be expected. Nothing could be more forthright than Paul's assertion that ' everyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted
5 Faith and the Book of Job .....All suffering, physical and emotional sorely tries our faith. How can it be reasonable when calamity overwhelms us, to continue to trust in God? The best answer to this question is provided by the book of Job.........
If it was reasonable for Job to trust the God whose wisdom and power have been revealed in creation, how much more reasonable it is for us to trust the God whose love and justice have been revealed in the cross. the reasonableness of trust lies in he known trustworthiness of its object. And no-one is more trustworthy than the God of the cross. The cross assures us that there is no possibility of a miscarriage of justice or of the defeat of love either now or on the last day. 'He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' (Romans 8:32).
We have to learn to climb the hill called Calvary, and from that vantage point survey all all life's tragedies. The cross does not solve the problem of suffering, but it supplies the essential perspective from which to look at it.
6. The pain of God.....It is the most important of the series. It is that the cross of Christ is the proof of God's solidarity love, that is of his personal, loving solitude with his pain. For the real sting of suffering is not misfortune itself, nor even the pain of it or the injustice of it, but the apparent God-forsakenness of it. Pain is endurable, but the seemingly indifference of God is not.....' If God is truly in charge, somehow connected to all the world's suffering, why is he so capricious, unfair? Is he the cosmic sadist who delights in watching us squirm? Job had said something similar: ' God mocks the despair of the innocent'.
It is this terrible caricature of God which the cross smashes to smithereens.....The God who allows us to suffer, once suffered himself in Christ, and continues to suffer with us and for us today..........Edward Shillito, shattered by the carnage of the First World War, found comfort in the fact that Jesus was able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem, ' Jesus of the Scars'.
If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal these hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wound are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou dist stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thee alone.
As I wrote this last poem and pondered as I wrote, tears almost came to my eyes.
I pray that all who read may understand a bit more about God's suffering in and through the Cross of Christ and the extent of His love for all mankind. Amen