The following sermon was delivered on Sunday, November 29, 2009 at Woodside Presbyterian Church in Yardley, Pennsylvania. It was the third sermon in a series dealing with questions raised in William P. Young’s novel, The Shack.
As you can see in your bulletin, my name is Travis Pickell and I am one of the seminary interns here at Woodside this year. My wife and I have been delighted to be a part of this community since April of last year. It’s been a pleasure to get to know many of you, and we look forward to meeting those of you whom we have not yet met.
This morning’s topic is one that I approach with fear and trembling. When Doug asked me if I wanted to preach I said “Of course” knowing that I was probably going to have to do it whether I said “Yes” or “No.” I thought, How bad can it be? Then I found out I was going to have to preach during a series on The Shack. And I began to think The Shack?? I’ve read The Shack – it is full of theological land mines! – maybe this is going to be a little bit harder than I thought. But, I’m new, so I didn’t want to look phased. I calmly collected myself and mustered what composure I could. I thought Maybe Doug will toss me a soft-ball because it’s my first time ever preaching. I was not ready for what came next. “Would you rather preach on ‘The Trinity,’ [pause] ‘Forgiving Your Enemies,’ [pause] or ‘Suffering?’” At that very moment, I could most identify with “suffering” although “forgiving your enemies” [look at Doug] was a close second, so I chose “suffering.”
In all seriousness, I know that suffering is a sensitive topic. In a group this size there is most certainly a number of people who are experiencing the pain of the loss of a loved one, the anxiety of an uncertain future, the pain of a physical ailment, an estranged relationship, loneliness, or spiritual dryness. In truth, there is not a single person in this room who has not been touched by suffering. Suffering is a part of life. For some, suffering is a larger part of life than for others. For many young people like myself, the harshest and most painful suffering, in all likelihood, lies ahead. For others, life has already shown them difficulties at which the average person could only shudder. I have heard it said that death is the great equalizer, but couldn’t the same thing be said of suffering? Try as we may, there is no escaping it in this broken world. But that is also why we have to talk about it openly. The worst thing in the world is to suffer alone. But in reality, we are not alone in our suffering. It is with this in mind that I want to talk about the difficult topic “Where is God in my suffering?” And I myself have more questions than answers, so consider this the beginning of a conversation more so than I sermon. But before I begin let me pray…
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing to you. Amen
Cinderella suffers at the hands of an evil step-mother and step-sisters who abuse and ridicule her at every opportunity. Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers, want nothing more than to be with each other, yet they are drawn into family conflict and ultimately lose the one they love. It is because every person has felt their own sufferings that we are drawn to certain stories. For the past few weeks we have been talking about The Shack. In this book, the main character—Mack Phillips—has encountered tremendous suffering. While on a camping trip, his youngest daughter was kidnapped and murdered, her body lost, and all that Mack is left with is what he calls “The Great Sadness.” The Great Sadness drapes over everything that Mack does. He is wracked with guilt over his allowing his daughter to be lost and he is consumed with anger and rage. He has lost faith in God—perhaps not in God’s existence but certainly in God’s Goodness. What kind of God would abandon him at the time of his greatest need? What kind of God would abandon his daughter and allow her to suffer so much?
When horrendous evils occur, these are the questions that we ask—and understandably so. The suffering soul cries out for answers. Where is God? Why did God allow this to happen? If God is all-powerful, couldn’t he have kept this from happening? If he is Good, why didn’t he?
In the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel we are given an account of a suffering family. Martha, Mary and Lazarus were siblings who lived in a village called Bethany, basically a suburb of Jerusalem. They were friends of Jesus, and we have other stories in which Jesus visits them. John tells us that Lazarus has fallen ill and that his family has called for Jesus to come. We will pick up the story at verse 17…
17On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
28And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why?” Why did this have to happen? Without directly saying it, we can hear the question behind her question. Why did you let this happen? Mary and Martha’s suffering souls cry out in their pain for answers. They know Jesus. They know he is good. They also know that he is powerful. They have seen him perform miracles; they have seen him heal. But they also know that their brother is dead. They cannot reconcile the evil that death is with the goodness of Christ and his absence at the moment of Lazarus’ death. They know that Jesus is God, they confess it, and yet they struggle to understand why they must suffer. How does Jesus respond?
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
“Jesus wept.” Perhaps no two words in the Bible are more full of meaning than these. Jesus wept. Jesus, “the Christ, the Son of God” was overcome with sadness and he wept. Jesus, “the Resurrection and the life” came face to face with death, and he wept. Of all the “Why” questions we ask when we suffer, I think none is more important than this one: why did Jesus weep?
Perhaps Jesus wept because he felt guilty for not having saved his friend’s life? When he first gets word that Lazarus is ill, John says that he waited two days before he left. There were Jews in Jerusalem who wanted Jesus dead. The entire area was dangerous and perhaps Jesus hesitated too long. Maybe Martha and Mary’s question haunted him “Lord, if you had been here…” And yet, it was the disciples who were the ones who were afraid of the Jews in Jerusalem, not Jesus. When Jesus tells the disciples that they must go to Bethany because Lazarus has died, Thomas exclaims “Let us go so that we may die with him!” meaning “We might as well be walking to our own death.” Besides, John says that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Presumably, waiting two days would have made no difference. It is hard to imagine Jesus weeping for guilt if there was no way he could have arrived in time anyway.
Perhaps Jesus wept because he was sad that he would never see his friend alive again. When death separates us from the ones we love we grieve the hole that is left in their place. Especially when one dies tragically young, their absence is terribly conspicuous, always before us, at times almost as tangible as their presence had been. Sometimes it is just too much to bear, maybe even for Jesus. And yet, Jesus has already said, multiple times, that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, which he in fact does. Why would Jesus weep at the loss of his friend, when he knew that minutes later he would be able to embrace him, to speak with him, to laugh about how he looks like a mummy, bound as he was in linen strips.
But Jesus did weep. Jesus wept out of compassion because Jesus felt what we all feel when we encounter the death of a loved one; Jesus suffered. It did not matter that Jesus knew that he was not to blame for the death or that Jesus knew that death would ultimately not be able to hold on to his friend, Lazarus. He wept because even in the knowledge that Goodness defeats Evil, that Life defeats Death, that God will ultimately redeem suffering; evil, death and suffering remain where they shouldn’t. They don’t belong here and we all yearn for the day described in Revelation 21 when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore…”
That day will come, and that is Good News. But the Good News of the Bible is two-fold. Not only will God redeem suffering in the end, God draws close to those who suffer now. God has not allowed us to suffer alone. One day there will be no more “mourning nor crying nor pain,” but while there is “mourning, crying and pain” in the world, God is not content to allow us to experience it alone. Jesus wept. And Jesus continues to weep when we suffer. The great myth of classical theology is that God cannot suffer. But, we must remember that when we see Jesus we see God. And Jesus’ compassion brought him to the suffering of his passion. The cross is the ultimate reminder that we will never suffer alone. God is with us and God will never leave or forsake us.
This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. Advent is a time in the Church year when we begin to prepare our hearts for Christmas. During Advent we focus on the darkness of the world that awaits the day when Christ, the Light of the World, will come. More than any other season, Advent is a time of honest reflection upon the brokenness of the world in which we live. We pause. We listen. We look. We lean into our own suffering and brokenness, and in doing so we acknowledge our need for Jesus. Advent, however, is no time of pessimism or morose sadness. Advent is a joyous and hopeful season. As Christians, we confess the hurt and sadness that is present in the world, but we also confess a God who entered into it and who suffers with us. That is what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? God-with-us. Immanuel. God in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Because God has entered into the hurt of the world, we know that we do not face our hurt alone. Because God entered into the brokenness of the world, we know that God will one day make everything whole again. Not only that, because God is in control of history, we know that God is working to redeem suffering even now.
We cannot answer every “Why” question. There are some things that are simply un-explainable. To explain them would be to cheapen them. In the midst of suffering, sometimes the best that we can do is to profess. To profess that God is good. To profess that God is with us, even if God feels far away. To profess that God understands what we are going through because God suffers with us. Finally, to profess our hope that God will redeem it all. In the words of Revelation:
“ And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
And they are, they are trustworthy and true, because God is trustworthy and true.