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Tag: Sermon

Should We Pray for Specific Outcomes or for God’s Will?

Whose Will Will I Trust?

The following sermon was delivered at Woodside Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Yardley, PA on Sunday, May 16, 2010. It was part of a sermon series on common questions about prayer, entitled Prayer: The Original Wireless Connection.

Good Morning, (Good Morning)

The question I want to discuss with you today is, on one level, very simple and on another level quite a bit more complex. The question is this: When we pray, should we pray for specific outcomes or just for God’s will? I am going to tilt my hand a little bit, and give you the easy answer now. Should we pray for specific things or for God’s will? Yes! We should. We should most certainly pray for specific things and for God’s will to be done. This is the simplistic answer, and while I think that it is absolutely true, it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the question, which is a very important one and one that should be asked.

In fact, if we really stop to think about it, the question really is a profound one. It has to do with the content of or prayer – what should we pray for? Is it better to pray for some things than it is to pray for others? If it is, how do we know what we ought to pray for? If what we pray for isn’t important, why do we pray at all? It causes us to stop and think about exactly what it is that we are doing when we pray. Why do we pray? What do we hope will happen as a result of our prayers?

Unless I miss my guess, the person who is truly asking the question “Should I pray for specific outcomes or just for God’s will?” is not doing so as a theoretical question. As a theoretical question, it can be kept at a distance, played with like a puzzle. Here’ an example: “It’s the closing seconds of the Superbowl and the game is tied—the Eagles are on offence, the Giants on defense. The Eagles are marching down the field and with 5 second left on the clock, they call out their kicker, David Akers. And in the seconds before he kicks the ball, you know that there are millions of people on one side praying that he makes it, and millions on the other praying that he misses it.

Whose prayers will win?

Or maybe the real question: is God a Giants fan or an Eagles fan?

As a side note, this is one of the dangers of going to seminary, where you think about theological puzzles like this and you lose sight of the practical. Because the person who is really asking the question whether to pray for specific outcomes or for God’s will, probably isn’t thinking about football. They are more likely thinking about their sick parent, spouse or child. They want to know if it is OK—against all odds—to pray for them to be healed. Maybe the person who asks this question is sick or hurting. Should they pray for God to do something about it, or should they accept it as God’s will and move on? What they really want to know is whether or not their prayers matter to God.

Jesus was the greatest prayer who ever lived. If prayer is the original wireless connection, he had full-bars at all times—he had a clear connection to the Father.  If we want to know how to pray, we can do no better than to look at what he taught about prayer and how he lived it. In the scripture passage read this morning, we see Jesus wrestling with the exact same question that we are talking about. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples for the Passover, and it is the final week of his life. Within a day, Jesus is going to be handed over by one of his very own disciples, to the leaders of his very own people, to be crucified at the hands of the Roman Army—and he knows it. Not only does he see the writing on the wall, but he has explicitly told his disciples that he must suffer and die so that the scriptures could be fulfilled.

With all of this in mind, let’s turn again to the text and see what we can learn about how Jesus prays. “Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples,

‘Sit here, while I go over there, and pray” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death, remain here and watch with me.’ And going a little further he fell on his face and prayed” (Matthew 26:36-39a).

The first thing we learn from Jesus is that his prayer flowed from his experience. All authentic prayer should begin there. We cannot begin anywhere else. Jesus says that he is “sorrowful to the point of death,” meaning that he is so sad and troubled that he may not be able to survive it. In another account of this story, Luke tells us that “he prayed in agony, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). And as a result Jesus “fell on his face and prayed” to God the prayer that was in his heart. He brought to God all his anguish and pain and fear and he prayed to God. Prayer must begin from our experience and our need because that is how it is with all relationships, and prayer is first and foremost about a relationship.CS Lewis saw this. He said the following:

“It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us. Even an intimate human friend is ill-used if we talk to him about one thing while our mind is really on another, and even a human friend will soon become aware when we are doing so.” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer)

Anyone who is married knows that this is true. You cannot have a true, intimate relationship if you do not entrust to that other person what is on your heart. If you were always worried about saying the “right thing” to your spouse or your friend the relationship would become stilted and fabricated. Besides that, my wife can tell when something is on my mind. She knows me and she knows when I am holding something back. Sometimes we are afraid to pray about something that is on our heart because we feel shame about it, or we do not want to feel silly praying about it. But God know us, he already knows what is in our hearts and there is no point in pretending that he doesn’t. It is better to bring it before God in prayer.  Jesus’ prayer flowed out of his experience because he had an intimate relationship with the Father—a relationship cultivated by earnest prayer.

And what did he pray for in that Garden that night? “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Not only does Jesus pray for something very specific, but he also prays for something very bold. As I mentioned before, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in Jerusalem. Earlier in this chapter Jesus tells his disciples “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1). Then, when the woman poured ointment on him he praised her because she was “preparing [him] for burial” (Matthew 26:12) and in the upper room that very night he foretold his betrayal at the hands of Judas (26:24-5) and Peter’s denial (26:34). Which makes it all the more puzzling why Jesus would pray for something like this.

I am not really sure if Jesus was holding onto some hope that our redemption could be won in another way, or whether he prayed this prayer for the sake of all of us who follow him. Either way, the one thing that we can learn from this prayer is that it is ok to pray for specific outcomes—even big, bold prayers that seem impossible. “We must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” Thomas Merton, another one of my favorite writers wrote,

“The man whose prayer is so pure that he never asks God for anything does not know who God is, and does not know who he is himself: for he does not know his own need of God.” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island)

If we really know God and his power, we will cast our anxieties and cares on him in prayer because we know that that is where they belong. Is something weighing on you? Is there a relationship in your life that is strained, maybe to the breaking point? Pray about that. Is there a job opportunity out there that seems perfect for you, where you can use your gifts and passions and do something you care about? Pray about that. And one more example, which may or may not be autobiographical. Is there someone in your life, who although they maybe don’t even know it yet, you just know that you and she are made for each other, destined to get married and have little kiddos and a white picket fence, and go on a grand adventure of life… now, if only she knew your name and would give you the time of day – its even ok to pray about that.

Now, of course, there is a difference between praying for a good parking spot at Wegmans and praying for our friends and family members to know Christ—but it does not lie in the specificity of the prayer. As the prayer life deepens, the content of our prayer requests may change and mature. But that doesn’t mean that we cease praying for specific things, as demonstrated by Christ’s profound prayer in the Garden that night.

Jesus’ prayer, however, did not end simply with his request of God. His prayer in full was “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus brings to God what is truly in his heart, but he recognizes that if what he wants differs from what God wants, then God’s will takes precedence over his. How can Jesus pray such a prayer when the stakes are so high? What would it take for someone to pray this way?

When I was a little kid, I got my very first bike and I was so excited. It was red, it had a bell, and training wheels. I would ride that thing all over the place. Then one day my dad asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride my bike. “Ride my bike? I ride my bike all the time.” But when we went out to the garage I soon discovered what he meant, because he had taken the training wheels off. Does anyone else remember learning to ride a bike? What do you do? Your dad or mom grabs the back of the seat, and runs along with you, and they tell you to pedal as hard as you can, and then they just let go—and you are just supposed to trust that, for the first time in your life, your bike will stay upright without the training wheels to guide you. As a kid, I wanted to keep my training wheels on, it was easier, and I knew that it worked. But I trusted my dad, and so I did what he told me, and never looked back.

Jesus trusted his Father. That is the only way he could truly pray a prayer like that in the Garden that night. He honestly brought to God what he had, but once he had placed it in God’s hands he trusted that God would take care of him. It couldn’t have been easy to honestly say those words “Nevertheless not as I will, but as you will”—nor is it easy for us to honestly say them when we pray about the most difficult things in our life. The real issue that lies behind the question, “Should I pray for specific outcomes of just for God’s will” is the issue of trust. Whose will do you trust. If you trust in your own will you may pray for specific outcomes all day long, but God is not Santa Claus. He does not exist to give you what you want. But if you trust in God’s will you can honestly bring him your anxieties and requests and trust that he will hear them—and here is the thing about praying this way. Jesus prays three times in the garden, but his second and third prayer are slightly different than his first. Where before it was “if it is possible, let this cup pass,” it becomes “My father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42). The shift in emphasis is subtle, but important. As Jesus prays in the Garden his will starts to become aligned with God’s will. Jesus entered the Garden with profound anxiety, and he leaves with profound power. Through prayer Jesus is prepared to face his trial, as also we are prepared to face ours.

There is one more reason why Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane is so instructive for us. Our lord offered up a prayer in Gethsemane that night, and he did not get what he asked for.  There are many promises in the Bible about the effectiveness of prayer. We are told that whatever we ask for in Christ’s name, with faith, he will do it (John 14:13, Matthew 21:21-22). “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). And that the “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). These are wonderful promises, and they are true. But if we read them without also keeping in mind Jesus prayer in Gethsemane, we may become discouraged. We may begin to believe the lie that if only we could muster up a little bit more faith our prayers would be more effective. Listen friends, if any person or book leads you to believe that if your prayers don’t “come true” then the fault lies in you, don’t listen to them. Jesus was the most righteous person who ever lived—righteousness itself—and he still asked for something that he didn’t get. Does that mean that his prayer was not “powerful and effective”? Of course not. In the book of Hebrews we are told that “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). The wonderful truth is that God hears our prayers, that he listens to them—they do not simply vanish into thin air. The Bible says that all the prayers of the saints are like “golden bowls of incense” before God (Revelation 5:8). Honest prayer before God is never “ineffective” because God hears it and what ultimately matters is that we recognize that God is not only in control, but that God is trustworthy, and that God wants to be in relationship with us.

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Resurrection and the Spirit of Life…

The following sermon was delivered at the Easter Sunrise Service (04/04/2010) at Woodside Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Yardley, PA.

Text: Romans 8:1-11

1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

9You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) Amen and Good Morning.

It is such an honor to be able to be with you all this Easter Sunday morning and to have the opportunity to proclaim the Word to you. As a young seminarian I admit that it can be a little bit daunting to stand in front of a group of people with the responsibility of “proclaiming God’s Word” – as if my paltry little words could measure up to so great a message. And yet, I’ve read the Book of Numbers and I am smart enough to know that if God was able to speak through Balaam’s donkey long ago then he may even be able to use me in some way to make his name known today. Besides, as my father-in-law reminded me last week when I was telling him about this sermon “If you can’t preach good news out of Romans 8…in a sermon about resurrection…on Easter morning…you may want to rethink this seminary thing and open up a Starbucks.”

Indeed, there may be no chapter in the entire Bible more majestic and hopeful than Romans 8. Paul begins, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What more do we need to know? Amen…hallelujah…see you next Easter! This is the central message of Romans, and in a way, the entire New Testament: no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. None. No matter who you are and what you’ve done there is forgiveness and freedom in Jesus Christ—not condemnation.

And yet, in a world in which “condemnation” is a four-letter-word, perhaps this news does not strike us, as it should. Maybe we think – “of course, if God is good, surely he wouldn’t be the type of God that would judge and condemn people.” According to Paul, however, this news is utterly shocking, world-changing, break out the champagne and celebrate, sort of news—and there is more to it than the absence of condemnation… it is really all about New Life, that is to say, Paul is talking about Resurrection.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” One of the very first lessons that I learned about reading the Bible is that when you start to study a section of scripture and you see the word “therefore”—you had better check and see what the “therefore” is “there for.” Commentators virtually all agree that Paul here is drawing a conclusion from the entire previous seven chapters of Romans, and in this case it is relevant to know what those chapters say. You may be glad to know that I am not going to read those chapters to you this morning: that might turn this sunrise service into a sunset service. Instead allow me to sum them up in a couple of sentences.

Humanity is in rough shape. Despite having been created to be in a relationship with God, we—and I will use the word “we” here because I think that it applies to each and every person in some degree or another—we have a constant tendency to turn away from God and worship created things, be they idols, money, power, careers, popularity, or even religion.

Because of this, every single person, from the religious elite to the “desperate housewife,” from the beggar on the street to the C.E.O. in the penthouse needs God to save them from their own tendency to turn away from him—in a sense, to save them from themselves. And that is exactly what God has done: Romans 5 says “God shows his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Because of this, we are enabled to live in “the newness of life.” And yet, even for the apostle Paul, life is characterized by an inner tension. The things we want to do, we struggle to do, and we are constantly doing what we know we shouldn’t be doing. Saint Augustine would later refer to this condition as an “intestine war”—a conflict deep inside between a divided will, wanting at one moment to love and serve God, at the next moment to turn to lesser things. And sometimes at the end of all our efforts, all we can do is lean upon God’s grace and say with Paul: “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Therefore!” – “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  That is our starting point and our end point. But it is not the be all and end all…—for Paul goes on to tell us about the Spirit of Life that has “set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” and it is to this Spirit of life that I now turn. What is this spirit of life? Or, better yet, who is this Spirit of life? Verse 11 tells us that the Spirit of life is the “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.” And here we have, for the first time in Romans 8, mention of the Resurrection—the most important event in human history and the reason why we are gathered together to celebrate this day.

As Christians, no matter what anybody else says, our faith does depend upon this one historical fact: the tomb is empty. The tomb is empty because Jesus confronted death head on, and death could not hold him. As we sung this morning, “Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus my savior, he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord.” And this all happened through the power of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life” through whom Jesus was able to live the perfect life and die the perfect death, and through whom the Father raised Jesus from the dead to everlasting life.

And it is this same Spirit, according to Paul, that lives in us and will give life to our mortal bodies. There are times in life when we cannot ignore the fact that we are mortal. Sarah and I recently traveled to Sun City West, Arizona. For those of you who are not familiar with Sun City West, all that you need to know is that it has a population of twenty five thousand all of whom are over 65 years old. The entire city is designed to accommodate the elderly. The roads are wide, the restaurants stop serving dinner at 7pm, and you are never more than a mile or two from a hospital. Sarah’s grandfather is 85 years old, and most of his friends down there have already passed away. When you are in Sun City West, mortality is never very far from your mind. But Sun City West is no grim place. The Church we attended was lively and joyful. The congregants may have been suffering through bodily decline and yet they knew that their hope was in the resurrected Christ, and that if the Spirit of God raised Christ from the dead, then that same Spirit would give life to their mortal bodies. The Spirit of Life had given them Resurrection Hope.

And not only that, but the Spirit of Life can give life to us today. Those parts of us that are dead, or feel dead, those desires that beat us down, those sins that are literally killing us—the Spirit of life is more powerful. “Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus my savior, he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord.” And if the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in us—we can experience Resurrection even today. The Spirit of Life can resurrect dying marriages. We can experience resurrected relationships, and resurrected spiritual lives. If the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in us, we can experience new life as a foretaste of the that final Resurrection, where “there will be no death, nor mourning nor crying anymore.” This is the hope that we lean into, that we proclaim, that we tell the world about. And we can trust in this hope because the Bible calls Jesus the down-payment – because the tomb is empty, we know that the Spirit of Life is more powerful than death and because of that, not only can we expect a final resurrection, but we practice resurrection today.

Amen.

Where is God In My Suffering?

A Hopeless Dawn, Frank Bramley 1888

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.

Good Morning,

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.

35Jesus wept.

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.

Amen