We will rely solely upon ourselves until there is no other option but to trust in God. I wonder if that is the purpose of suffering.
I have showed you the first of many videos about Ed Dobson because I realized as I prepared this sermon that I have no clue what it is to suffer. I have lived a privileged life. There are others out there that have done nothing but suffer in life. The last ten years of Ed’s life is a prime example and the suffering he continues to do with ALS. Suffering is part of life and we will all have moments in our lives. Yet how do we approach it? How do we understand it? How do we proclaim it?
We are one week away from Holy Week. Next week is Palm Sunday and we will wave palms and celebrate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Then a week from Thursday, we will gather here and celebrate the night in which Jesus at with his disciples and gave them the sacrament of the Eucharist. We will feast at the Lord’s supper as we prepare to then remember his death on the cross on Good Friday. It is a hard week and I invite you to join in all services. Without it you will miss out on the true nature and spiritual depth of that week.
Now, in this last week of preparation, we hear Jesus say a familiar phrase, “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This verse may or may not be familiar to you but it is to me because it is how I open up each committal service I do. As a family gathers around the grave of a loved one I read this part of John’s gospel. It reminds us of our purpose here on earth and our purpose in life. It reminds us that suffering is not to be shunned nor should it be glorified but it DOES have purpose.
There is an interesting part in this scripture. We hear the voice of God in the Gospel of John. In John’s gospel there is no baptism story. There is no heavens tearing open and no Holy Spirit descending and resting on Jesus. There is no voice who says, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.” Yet here Jesus in a moment of reflection about the suffering he is about to partake in says, “Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? Father, save me from this time? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. Father, glorify your name!” Then his father answers in a booming voice like thunder and says, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.”
God is going to be glorified because of his son’s suffering? Because like a wheat grain falling to the earth he must die? It is hard to wrap our heads around such an idea but the good news is we get to understand why.
In the last couple of verses Jesus tells us the voice from heaven was not to benefit him, which seems to be the case in the baptism stories of the other gospels. The voice was to benefit us because, “Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now the world’s ruler will be thrown out.” One of the commentaries I read this week said that the word used in our English translation for World doesn’t necessarily mean earth. Rather it may be translated better to mean “the System.” Judgment is coming up on the System that holds the world in its place. The System that keeps the world focused and rotating on itself. The ruler of this System is sin and it is about to be put in its place by the suffering of God’s only Son.
Let me give you a couple of illustrations to explain. A video that went viral this past month is the Kony 2012 video. The people behind this want to shed a light on the suffering of the children of Uganda. One way to end the suffering, according to this video, is to capture the war lord Joseph Kony who is kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers. The video has had over 85 million views on YouTube. But what it is doing is shedding light on a problem in this world that the world may have never heard of before now.
Another way of thinking about it is to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful marches. In his acts of non-violence and standing up to the racist systems of the south, he shed a light on an issue that the world may have not known anything about or thought was important. Those who lived in the north may have heard that racism was bad in the south but really not thought much about it. Then there were videos on the news of fire hoses and dogs being turned on peaceful marchers and then people started to stand up and rethink some things. Those people who decided that suffering ridicule, water hoses, and guard dogs was worth it because the purpose was greater than them. It pointed out a larger problem that society was blinded to. There have been others like Gandhi’s hunger strike shined a light on Britain’s rule in India. The sit in at the Woolworth’s dinner in Greensboro brought national attention to our racist ways.
Yet none of them compare to the suffering that our savior will go through next week. What System did his suffering point to? What happens at Christ’s crucifixion is that a mirror is held up to the System of this world and we see how ugly it truly is. How can an innocent man die in such a way? The only way to truly understand this suffering is to understand it through the eyes of salvation. Christ’s death on the cross points to God’s salvific act and in it his love for us. We cannot understand our own suffering without an understanding of Christ’s found in our salvation.
When we suffer, like Ed does, who does it point to? Do we point to ourselves and ask for pity and for grief. Or do we look at our suffering as a way to point out what God can do through us and how his love is still being extended to us in our daily lives?
In a copy of Our Daily Bread there is a story about a person who visited an orange grove where an irrigation pump had broken down. The season was unusually dry and some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water. The man giving the tour then took Bailey to his own orchard where irrigation was used sparingly. "These trees could go without rain for another 2 weeks," he said. "You see, when they were young, I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. Now mine are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are being scorched by the sun, these are finding moisture at a greater depth."
Ed Dobson is turning his suffering into a Yogi Bearer moment. He says “it ain’t over until its over.” He has switched his priorities, changed his perspective because of the light that our Lord’s crucifixion has on his situation. When he looked at his suffering through the eyes of our salvation, he decided to never give up. We will rely solely upon ourselves until there is no other option but to trust in God. I wonder if that is the purpose of suffering.
And all God’s Children said…Amen.