Revelation 22: 1-5
I never get tired of those stories and pictures of those who have been deployed in service to our country returning to family and friends. I remember one in particular. The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln finally reached port in San Diego after 10 long months at sea. For the families on the dock, the excitement of that moment was expressed in cheers and tears, and hugs that held on forever. On the front page of the Washington Post I saw a picture of one particular reunion caught my attention.
A Naval officer in dress whites bent as low as he was able in order to look directly into the eyes of his not quite two-year old daughter. They were not touching, though his hands were held out. There were no words, just cries of joy. They were just staring at each other. In the father’s eyes you could see only love for his child from whom he had been absent all too long. In her face I was a mixture of curiosity and joy and maybe a little fear because he had been away for half of her lifetime. Her father was still a bit of a mystery. This homecoming blended a myriad of emotions, but mostly it came down to awe. They looked at each other in wonder.
I believe the day that you or I ultimately stand before our Lord in heaven may be something like that. Jesus will bend down as low as he is able, hands reaching out, looking with eyes filled with love, and for a moment, for our part, there will, I imagine, be curiosity and joy and maybe a little fear. Mostly, there will be a wonder, a feeling of awe in response to the presence of God. That, I think, is a little bit of what heaven will be like – but there is more, and that is what we’ll look at today. Let us first pray:
Lord, we’ve learned that home is where the heart is, but we confess our hearts are divided between what we see and what we hope for. In our confusion, doubts call into question our faith. Speak to us now through your Word and Spirit that we might find comfort and courage to face the living of these days. Amen.
When was the last time you thought about heaven? I’ll bet it was when you stood at the graveside of someone you loved, or when you heard a dire prognosis from a physician. Moments like that force the question, “What now? What’s next?” We hope there will be something more, and we hope it will be better, but sometimes we’re not so sure. Is this wishful thinking, or a fantasy, or a placebo to help us cope with our loss?
Bertrand Russell, the 1950 Nobel Prize winner of literature, thought it was. He wrote, “There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment – then nothing.” John Lennon agreed when he sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try; No hell below us, above us only sky; Imagine all the people just living for today.” If there is no heaven, that is all you have – just living for today. The book of Ecclesiastes indicates that if we hold to this view, “there is nothing better than that you should eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die” Is that enough for you? Is all you find in this life enough? Your answer will probably impact the decisions you make, the way you live your life, and the manner in which you face the end of your life.
Jesus, who probably knows more about this than anyone, believed that heaven is a particular place and not just a state of mind. In fact, he said that he would go to prepare that place for us, a particular place unique for each individual. “In my Father’s house are many mansions, dwelling places.” He doesn’t offer a lot of description of what these places will look like. There is no discussion of heavenly geography or celestial architecture. The images with which we are most familiar – pearly gates and streets of gold – come from the Revelation given to John and they are clearly used as symbols there. But Jesus speaks more relationally. He speaks of wedding feasts and homecomings. Again and again Jesus said, “The Kingdom of heaven is like something we can see, but it is only, like a mustard seed, leaven in bread, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price.”
All of these snapshot parables are intended to give us a glimpse of something that is ultimately beyond our experience and knowledge. We will always be looking at this “through a glass darkly.” It will always be just beyond the horizon, so it will always be difficult to envision. There are two reasons our vision will always be unclear: sin and time. Sin questions purity and holiness and love that are promised in heaven and sarcastically asks whether any of these are really possible. If they are possible, if somehow sinful nature does transform upon entrance into heaven so that we can live that way; sin still see these virtues as being tedious. Heaven for some sounds boring. If it’s just harps and hymns and halos, then it sounds too much like church. The hour for worship on Sunday morning for many already seems like an eternity.
The second reason heaven is so difficult to grasp is time. Our view of time is completely linear. It is measured in years and months and days and minutes. It has a beginning and an end so it’s understood to be part of a zero-sum world where resources are limited and there is only so much time, and there are never enough resources and never enough time. So, the wisest course of action would seem to cram as much of this world into this life as we can, because you only go around once, so it’s beast to reach for the gusto.
This is the world in which we live. This is all we see, but the Bible says there is more, something not yet seen. I remember speaking with a grandfather about a visit he made with his ten year-old granddaughter to a place called the Butterfly Emporium. There, he said, they learned more about caterpillars and butterflies than you’d ever want to know. One of the things he told me that I did not know is that caterpillars just don’t grow wings when they are in the cocoon. He said that they kind of dissolve into a pupae stage and from that a new body is formed with beautiful wings. The technical term is metamorphosis. After learning this he said his granddaughter wondered, “Grandpa, do you suppose those caterpillars have any idea in the world that they will one day sprout wings and fly wherever they want to go, or do they think their whole world will always be this Mulberry tree they munch on is all there is?”
So, what does the Bible say is beyond our Mulberry tree? What does it say about heaven?
First, and most important, heaven is where God is. Though we believe God is everywhere, each week we offer a prayer given to us by Jesus that locates he center of God’s being in a place he call heaven. How does the prayer begin? “Our Father who art in heaven…” Here God is experienced as far more than a kind of vague presence or feeling. God is seen, or at least a reflection of the glory of God is seen.
Whenever someone like Isaiah or the Apostle John is granted a brief visionary glimpse of heaven, the first response is awe. They are overwhelmed. They are like that little girl on the dock who saw her father for the first time, as a giant in dress whites whom she as been told is her father. There is awe and love and maybe a little fear. Words fail to describe, but they do the best they can to convey that sense of wonder.
That is no small thing. Those who are world weary, who believe they’ve seen everything there is to see, done everything worth doing, gone everywhere worth going often long for a sense of wonder that only children seem to have. That is perhaps why Jesus said, “Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a place in every heart that only God can fill and God will that heart most completely when attention is undivided and finds a focus only possible in his presence. Heaven is where God is and that glory is beyond our experience as flight is to a caterpillar.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, believes that deep within every person there is a homing device. There is a home detector and it will not ring its bells for anything on this earth. The Apostle Paul speaks of believers who have died as being “at home with the Lord.” It is a homecoming, and many see it as a glad reunion with those who have passed on before, a reunion between parents and children and friends who had been separated by the barrier of the grave.
One of the difficulties some have with this idea though is that some of us aren’t too crazy about some of the people we’ve known in this world and certainly don’t want to be reunited with them, spend an eternity with them, or even run into them after they have died. Heaven, we believe, can’t be heaven if that old so-and-so is there.
One little girl saw that problem and wrote God a letter and asked, “Dear God, don’t you find it hard to love everybody in the world? There are only four in my family. I can never do it.”
The Book of Hebrews tells us that heaven is filled with “the righteous made perfect.” That means sin will have no place. It could not or heaven would not be heaven. How can that be? Sin is so much more a part of who we are. Does God in that metamorphosis just erase our desire for dominance and control and acquisition? Does he reformat the hard drive to erase those viruses that corrupted the operating system? Does God change that old so-and-so we found so annoying? Does God change us?
The Apostle John believed “When Jesus appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” His love and righteousness will be contagious. When we see him clearly we will want to become like he is, and there we will have the ability to do so.
Why there and not here? How will we better reflect Jesus there than we can here? Perhaps it is because our zero-sum world with its limited resources and limited time prompts us to do all manner of evil so that we can get ours. It is the competition that leads us to misuse others. On this the Bible is clear, both time and resources in heaven are not finite – but infinite, so it will no longer become necessary to grasp and grope to get yours. It will be your home after all and no one steals from himself.
Finally, heaven offers a fresh start, a new beginning. The Apostle Paul promises a new body, which is great news for some of us. The Bible also promises a new vocation. In our scripture lesson for today, we read that those in heaven will reign with God. What this means exactly is not clear, but it is an active verb. People in heaven will do something that is meaningful and important. It is not an eternal vacation where you struggle to find something to occupy yourself. We will have a role to play and a responsibility.
All of this is good to know, but all of it is on the other side of the grave, so what difference does it make now? I think it makes a difference in three ways:
First, it helps us to set our priorities. Jesus warned us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is there will be your heart also.” So don’t sweat the small stuff and keep the main thing the main thing. Keeping this in mind helps us see beyond the Mulberry tree in which we live to a wider world, and reminds us that our actions and attitudes have consequences that may be eternal. They are the treasures we store up in heaven.
Second, knowing there is a heaven provides courage and comfort when times are hard. This is a reminder that they won’t last forever. Something better is promised by God. The Bible says, “Don’t lose heart, because we look not to things that are seen but to things that are unseen.”
In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, the writer goes through a list of saints who by faith had endured great obstacles that challenged their faith. He acknowledged though, “that all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but saw them only from a distance.”
That means before they died they caught a glimpse of heaven on earth, and it was that glimpse that gave them comfort and courage. That’s what we pray for isn’t it, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Sometimes heaven leaks out into this world, but we don’t always recognize it.
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner finally receives the revelation at the conclusion of the film. He had been driven by an unseen voice to build a baseball field in the middle of Iowa so that long deceased baseball players would have a place to play, but he story is not really about baseball. It is about reconciliation and reunion of father and son.
In one of the concluding scenes, one of the players who just appear out of the cornfield asks, “Is this heaven?” Kevin Costner replied, “No, it’s Iowa.” The player looks around at the sparkling sky and at the corn shocks rustling in the breeze and this perfect baseball diamond and he’s puzzled. “I could have sworn this was heaven.” Costner picks up on this query, looks over at his wife and daughter laughing on the porch and in that moment when he counts his blessings, he catches a glimpse of heaven that was right in front of him all the time. So he says, “Maybe it is.” Maybe heaven is a bit like that.
One day each one of us will be called home, and we will come before our Lord in heaven and it may be something like this. Jesus will bend down as low as he is able, hands reaching out, eyes filled with love, and for a moment, for our part, there will, I imagine, be curiosity and joy and maybe a little fear, and then a glad reunion – homecoming.
Let us pray:
Lord, because you are our shepherd we know that we shall not want, that you will make us lie down in green pastures and beside still waters – that you will restore our souls. When we walk through the dark valley, we pray for the courage and comfort that come from the assurance that you are with us, so we need not fear evil. We thank you that you prepare a table for us, and refresh us with the oil of your Holy Spirit. We pray that goodness and mercy will follow us all of our lives, and that one day we shall dwell in your house forever. Amen.
 Washington Post May 7, 2003, pp A-1.
 Ecclesiastes 2:24, 3:13, 8:15
 John 14:1
 Matthew 13
 1 Corinthians 13:12
 Grady Smith
 Matthew 6: 9-10
 Isaiah 6, Revelation 1
 Matthew 18:3
 Preaching: March/April 1996, pp 56
 Children’s Letters to God
 Hebrews 12:23
 1 John 3:2
 1 Corinthians 15:35ff
 Revelation 22:5
 Matthew 6: 19-21
 2 Corinthians 2:16
 Hebrews 11:13
 Matthew 6:10
1 Peter 2:21-25
Ten years ago I took a walk through Bryce Canyon. For those not familiar, this National Park is located in the bottom end of Utah and displays unique geological features that reminded me of the moon. Grand sandstone towers called “hoodoos” shoot up from the ground like rockets trying to ascend to the heavens.
Not many go down into the canyon because it is rather steep. Most are content to take their pictures from the rim, but not me. I went down and explored the trails that weaved in and around the “hoodoos”.
When the shadows lengthened I decided it was time to make my way out of the canyon, only to discover that one trail looked pretty much like another. Like a rat in a maze I had gotten myself turned around. It had been hours since I’d seen another living soul. I began to worry a bit as I walked into one dead end after another. So, I did what I always do when I get lost. I picked up my pace. But, moving faster doesn’t really help you get to where you want to be. Direction is much more important than speed.
Finally, I stumbled upon hoof prints from mules that carried tourists on guided trail rides. I was confident the mules knew where they knew where they were going, so I followed their tracks and they led me up and out of the canyon.
In our scripture today, Peter calls us to follow the footsteps of Jesus because he knew that when we get turned around or run into a dead end we can find our way when we follow the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Before we do that, let us pray:
Shepherd Lord, you have said, “those who wait for you shall renew their strength and mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, walk and not faint.” We wait for you now, O Lord, as you speak to us through your Word and by your Spirit. We wait for you now to lead us as we follow the footsteps of Jesus. Amen.
So what does it mean to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? How do you know? What do you have to say or do or believe or feel to really be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Is there some kind of litmus test?
In seminary days I would have answered these questions up here (in my head.) I would have said the litmus test for the Christian faith is measured by what you believe. There are certain doctrines and precepts you must acknowledge. Go beyond this creed and you step outside of the bounds of Christian faith. You can recognize who is and who is not a disciple of Christ by what they say they believe.
Then I noticed in myself and in others attitudes and actions that contradicted these beliefs. Even though people say the right things, they often do not do the right things. Personally, I believe God loves me and calls me to love others, but my words and deeds are at times be anything but loving. So, I wonder, “Do I really believe it?” If so, “why don’t I act like it?”
I began to question this idea that simply affirming with mind and mouth a series of theological principles made one a disciple of Christ. Jesus said as much, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” He knew as well as anyone talk is sometimes cheap.
So, I moved from head to heart. The Christian faith must be something I feel or it’s not real. The problem with that understanding is that our feelings bounce all over the place. Some days we just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Some days someone says something that hurts our feelings. Sometimes the weather is bad and the traffic is worse and your back hurts because you’re not 21 anymore.
When I looked into the scripture I found great men and women of faith who at times did not feel that great about God. Jeremiah, who did more for God in one day than I’ll do in a lifetime, called out:
“O Lord, thou hast deceived me and I was deceived. I have become a laughingstock all the day and everyone mocks me. Cursed be the day that I was born.”
He felt bad and he felt bad because of God. He believed his faithfulness to God’s call had led him to sacrifice and trials. His faith was not bringing him joy. It was the source of his sorrow. Yet, immediately after this litany of woe, Jeremiah cried out:
“Sing to the Lord, Praise the Lord!”
His faith survived and thrived even when he felt down and out. Faith must be something more that what you feel.
Next I turned to my hands. How is faith measured? Perhaps it is measured by what you do. Maybe, as Jesus said himself, it’s all about feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and giving water to those who thirst. The way I use and share my time, talent, and treasure may be a measure of faith. Maybe faith is doing, and if you’re not doing, then you’re not faithful.
But, what if you can’t do, for reasons of health or age? What if your resources are few? What about those times when God may want you to stop what you are doing so that you may just listen? Sometimes God says, “Be still.” Faith, I decided, must be more than doing.
Finally, I looked down at my feet, for it was to the feet that Jesus seemed to be speaking when he encountered Peter for the first time of the shores of the Galilee. He said simply, “Follow me.”
At that point Peter had to decide to follow or not, to move his feet or keep them firmly planted in his old life on the fishing boat. To follow would require the commitment of his whole self, head, heart and hands. Believing, and feeling, and serving then is a package deal. It’s not multiple-choice. It’s not “choose A or B or C.” It’s all of the above.
That is the way it is with the body. The whole thing pretty much follows where the feet take it. You can’t say to your head, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” You can’t say to the heart, “I don’t need you right now so I’m going to leave you on the shelf.” You can’t say to your hands, “There’s nothing for you to do so I’ll put you in the drawer.” Where you go, head, hand and heart follow. So, it must be with faith. All the claims of Christ can be summed up in two words: “Follow me.”
I think Peter remembered that day when he first met Jesus by the lake. I know he remembered the “Via Delarosa”, the road that Jesus followed to the cross, because he wrote,
“For to this you were called because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”
Peter’s audience are those who have been oppressed and mistreated. It is anyone who has been used and abused, put down and shut out. He was writing to those who had faced hard times and difficult days. So, if you’ve ever felt like that you are welcome to read over his shoulder.
Notice, the footsteps Peter invites us to follow do not lead to the pastoral hillside scene overlooking the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached the good news of the Gospel and said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Peter did not say, “make yourself comfortable and listen to a good sermon” and that will be enough.
These footsteps do not take us across that same lake to the place where Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. He did not say, “Sit and sit back, grab a napkin and a fork and just enjoy all that God has to give.”
Peter does not take us to the pool of Siloam where Jesus healed the man born blind or to Bethany where he raised Lazarus from the dead, though these are the places we want to be.
Where do those footsteps lead? They take us to the Mount of Olives where Jesus struggled with his own destiny. They lead us to Pilate’s court where power and politic exert more influence that justice and law. They lead us through the streets of Jerusalem where fickle faith turns shouts of “Hosanna” into cries of “Crucify Him.” They end up at Golgotha, a trash heap where a cross looms against a dark afternoon sky. They lead us from a quiet place to pray and praise and worship to the crowded place to work and serve and sacrifice.
Why? Why is that the place Peter bids us follow?
One of the more popular Pope John Paul II. When he was laid to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica. More people attended or watched on T.V. this funeral than any other ever. Many came from great distances and waited in long lines so they could pay their respects, and I wondered why? What was there about this man that drew them so?
Were so many so moved because he served as Pope for such long time? Did they come because they agreed with all of his Papal proclamations? Was his personal charisma the reason? Some came for these motives, but there was another I think that was another more compelling.
When the Pope’s health began to fail at the turn of this century some wondered if it wouldn’t be better and easier on him if he stepped down. When Parkinson’s disease prevented him from standing erect and holding his head up and even speaking clearly some speculated that someone younger and stronger might better serve the church.
In his Last Will and Testament, which was more testimony than Will, John Paul revealed that he had indeed thought about stepping down. He himself wondered if it might be better to stand down and step aside. After much prayer he concluded that his suffering might be a ministry to those who suffer, so he decided to remain at his post and continue to serve Christ as best he was able. When those with Parkinson’s or other afflictions saw how he bore with this affliction with such grace, they realized they could bear with more than they thought they could. They thought, “If he could carry that great burden, maybe I can carry mine.”
I think that’s why there were so many filling St. Peter’s square and why so many tuned in to watch. They recognized courage and humility in one who followed in the footsteps of Jesus through great difficulty and challenge.
Following the footsteps of Jesus sometimes means we must face some person, some, fear, some temptation, some decision we want to avoid at all costs. Following the footsteps of Jesus may mean we will have to go through difficult days and dark valleys. It may require sacrifice of some personal ambition for the good of someone else. Sometimes following the footsteps of Jesus is hard.
It is exactly in those hard times, when we move through the dark valleys, when we must face some fear or temptation that we must keep “eyes fixed upon Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
There is a beautiful bit of verse in a small book of prophecy called Habakkuk:
“Though the fig tree may not blossom, or fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail, and the yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
and there be no herd in the stalls –
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength;
He will make my feet like deer’s feet,
He will make me walk in the high places.”
That is where Jesus will take us if we follow him – to the high places.
Let us pray:
“Lord, lift us up and let us stand by faith on heavn’s table land;
A higher plane that we have found –
Lord, plant our feet on higher ground. Amen.
 John 14:6
 Isaiah 40:29-31
 Matthew 7:21
 Jeremiah 20:7-8, 14
 Jeremiah 20:13
 Matthew 25:32ff
 Psalm 46:10
 Matthew 4:19
 1 Peter 2:21
 Matthew 5:7
 Hon 6:1-16
 John 9, 11
 Hebrews 12:2
 Habakkuk 3:16-19
 Gabriel, Charles: “Higher Ground”.
Hope in Hurtful Times
1 Peter 1:1-12
It is the first theological question many people ask. Before they wonder about sin or salvation, before they consider the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, before they wrestle with the question of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s freedom, they will ask, “Where is God when it hurts?” and “Why did God let this happen?” The answers they find or don’t find to these questions will often shape or shatter their faith.
This morning we will look for some hope in hurtful times. You may not find all the answers you look for. In fact, I can guarantee that you won’t, but maybe it’s God more than answers we really seek. Let’s search for him now. Let us pray:
Lord, there is hardly anyone who can really answer the question “Why?” When we stand over an open grave, or kneel beside a hospital bed, or collapse after hearing some bad news, we all wonder why? Quick clichés don’t really satisfy. In fact the only thing that helps at all is the comfort that comes from your presence and your people. So, be with us now and with your people we pray. Amen.
The first letter of Peter begins with a greeting to the “exiles of the dispersion”. That phrase itself dates the letter to the time on or around 70 A.D. because that marked the destruction of Jerusalem by a Roman army and the resulting dispersion or scattering to the winds the inhabitants of Israel. It was a time of great trial and trauma. Everyone had lost someone or something. The Temple had been destroyed and their way of life crushed.
Now they were strangers in a strange land trying to make their way the best way that they can. They ended up in far-flung places like Pontus and Galatia, Cappadocia and Bithynia, so the only way for Peter to minister to these congregations is through a letter carried from one church to the next.
Before he addresses their current situation he takes them back to the beginning of their faith – to better days. He wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” For Peter and for believers since, that was the transformational moment. That marked the difference between before and after. Life before Easter Sunday was different from life after. The worries and fears that once prompted him to deny Jesus three times paled against the glory of the resurrection. The hardships he would later endure for his faith seemed small against the backdrop of the cross. When the going got tough, Peter would just close his eyes and remember the empty tomb.
Those who embrace the risen Lord, Peter believed, will rise up themselves and “receive an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” “In this”, he said, “you rejoice”, because that is the natural response of faith.
But, faith is not called faith for nothing, because Peter warned, “for a little while you may have to suffer various trials.” That’s the part most of us don’t understand. Why? Why do we have to suffer these trials? Why doesn’t God just make it all better, or better yet, why doesn’t God just do a little preventative maintenance and irradiate those cancer cells before they begin, or flood the engine of a man too drunk to drive, or bend the tornado around the trailer park? What is the point? Why do we have to suffer these various trials?
The Bible offers five different reasons – some more satisfying than others. First, sin carries consequence. Much that people endure they endure because someone else has hurt them and the wounds inflicted are not accidental. This we understand because we’ve all wanted to lash out at someone at one time or another. When we do we are responsible for our actions.
The second reason scripture cites is Satan. This explained Job’s dilemma and why everything went wrong in his life. The Devil did it, so you know whom to blame. A neat little equation was written so that the Devil could be seen behind every disaster. The Salem Witch Trial followed that formula. Long ago a comedian named Flip Wilson did a whole bit around the phrase, “The devil made me do it.”
A third explanation rejected the notion that Satan had much power to do anything at all because all power and glory belong to God and God alone. Job’s friends held this view so they wrote a different rule. Catastrophe follows judgment. It is how you know that you have displeased God. So, Job’s friends seeing his plight concluded that he must have sinned big time. But, Job ran the numbers and concluded that there was no way his sins added up to these hardships. He demanded justice. God responded, “There’s no way you can understand.”
Jesus came to the same conclusion when he said, “it rains on the just and the unjust – it flat out rains on everyone.” That’s life – messy as it is, confusing as it is, confounding as it is, frustrating and maddening as it is. So, no one can walk through a neo-natal intensive care unit and come out with any reason that makes sense. No one can stand over the grave of a child or a parent and offer any answer that satisfies, because it’s not really reasons or answers we want. What we want is for the disease to go away, the drunk driver to have never started his car, and the tornado to have moved around the trailer park. What we want is the loved one back in our arms, the job that was lost, and the marriage that had failed. What we want are the days that came before to come again.
The last reason for trials that scripture offers, and the one that Peter cites in this passage is that suffering acts as a “refiner’s fire”. He used the example of metallurgy in the process of purification. The fire in the furnace burns off the impurities, the slag, so that the steel becomes strong or the gold pure. This is about the effect – not cause. We’re passed the reasons and now look to the result.
For me, this has always been the great mystery of faith. My pastoral scrapbook is filled with pictures of people who have endured more than I could ever imagine; who have experienced pain far beyond the pinpricks I’ve suffered, who have lost more than I could count, yet responded not with despair but with determination. They would not be defeated because they held onto “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” They count on “the inheritance, which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” They have ministered to me far more than I did to them. They found hope in hurtful times.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, is a well-known Christian professor of philosophy at Yale Divinity School. He has written numerous scholarly books, which would be difficult for most of us to understand, but he contributed one work that anyone who has ever faced a loss can comprehend. Lament of a Son records his thoughts and feelings about the death of his twenty-five year old son in a mountain climbing accident. As he tries to sort this out and come up with answers, he begins to understand, “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also character is made. The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.”
But, there have also been those whose faith seemed burned away by the fires of their pain, whose souls are not made, but lost. Where once there appeared a house built on a strong foundation – now only cinders remain. Their pain becomes the lens through which they look at all of life. It colors everything they see.
Maybe that’s the difference. Maybe it’s the way we look at it. Maybe our response is determined by the lenses we wear, whether we look at the world through the lens created by what we suffer or through the faith that is forged by God.
Long ago the Property Manager of the church I served at the time limped into the office leaning on a cane. He had knee surgery and needed a cane. So, I asked him if it hurt. He said, “Yes” and Doctor told him it was “supposed to hurt.”
I asked Henry what he thought of that answer, “It’s supposed to hurt?” He said it was all right with him. And I said, “Really, you didn’t just want him to make the pain go away!” Henry said, “Well, yeah, but I trust him. He knows what he’s doing and he has my best welfare at heart. He wants me to walk again.”
Those who are able to respond in faith when a wall falls on them are those who trust the Lord, who believe God knows what he’s doing, and has their best welfare at heart and wants them to walk by faith again. But, no one does that all the time, and sometimes we stumble or need a cane. We need support from somewhere.
That’s why the community of faith is so important. Remember this letter from Peter is not written to an individual or even to a single congregation. It is written to a number of churches that are joined together not only by a common faith in Jesus Christ, but also by a common experience. They are all exiles of the dispersion. They are strangers in a strange land. They had all lost someone or something.
They would never return home or get back what they lost, but they offered each other support and encouragement and comfort because they had walked through the valley of the shadow together.
The cross of Jesus Christ bears testimony to the reality that God has also walked with us through the valley of the shadow. God does not just watch us from a distance, but through the birth of the babe in Bethlehem came to us up close and personal. If you mourn the passing of someone who was taken all too soon, know that God mourns with you. If your body is wracked with pain, know that Christ experienced the breathless burning of lungs that could not catch a breath. If you have felt alone and that no one cares or even knows you’re alive, know the Jesus felt just like that when he cried, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It was because he shared in the community of those who suffer that he shared his body and blood through the bread and the cup. That’s why we sometimes call it “Holy Communion”. As we participate in this sacred moment we share in his suffering as he has shared in ours. It is why we say, “The body of Christ was broken for you.” It is why we say, “The blood of Christ was shed for you.”
It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it can take the edge off when it helps us to “remember the living hope through the resurrection and our inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”
Near the end of his journal of grief, our Yale professor concluded, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up until you’re forced to walk out onto it. And when I read the New Testament, I am convinced that the man Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. In that, I see the sign that he was more than a prophet. He was (and is) the Son of God.” He is the bridge we cross to God and over the chasm of despair.
As each of us face these various trials the only question that really matters is this, “Do I want to face it alone, or do I want to face it with God who has promised to bring us through the valley of the shadows?”
There’s second question, “Do I want to face this alone with someone who understands and is willing to listen? That is one of the the roles of the Stephen Ministry. A Stephen minister is trained to listen and to try to understand as best they are able the challenges and concerns, the aches and the pains, and the feeling of being alone.
Many of you a familiar with the comedian Stephen Colbert. He hosts the Late Show on CBS. GQ magazine’s he explored how he found gratitude in the midst of suffering. He said, “When he was 10 years old, his father and two of his brothers, were killed in a plane crash.” Young Stephen was the only child still at home with his mother in the years immediately following. When asked how he could experience such losses and not become angry or bitter, the GQ interview explored Colbert’s faith:
[Colbert said], “I was raised in a Catholic tradition … That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died. … And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example I am not bitter … She was … broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Colbert said that even in his mother’s days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.
Colbert described a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Colbert’s eyes filled with tears as he said, “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.” He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”
Let us pray:
Lord, lead us across that footbridge, trusting that you always have our welfare at heart and will help us to walk again, in this life and the next. Amen.
 1 Peter 1:3
 1 Peter 1:4
 1 Peter 1:6
 Job 40
 Matthew 5:45
 Wolterstorff, Nicholas: Lament for a Son. Eerdman’s Publishing. Grand Rapids Michigan 1987. pp 97.
 Wolterhoff: pp 76.