SCRIPTURE – Luke 9:23-27
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Plastic Jesus sermon series
#4 – Grace: Hiring A Cross-Bearing Service
Sept. 4, 2011
You may the name Johnny Eareckson Tada. Johnny is a well-known Christian writer and speaker who has inspired millions through her books, radio programs, and her Christian outreach organization Johnny and Friends. She is also a quadriplegic. A diving accident when she was young left her paralyzed from the neck down and confined to a wheelchair. Despite this tragedy, Johnny has been able to use her disability as a conduit for reaching out and spreading the gospel to people in similar circumstances around the world. She is an inspiration to millions for what she has overcome.
I read a story about an interview conducted with Johnny several years back. The reporter admitted to being nervous, interviewing a person of such importance and such limitation. As the reporter fumbled and stumbled with how to interact with her (at one point he handed her a magazine to look at without realizing she couldn’t hold it), he said was amazed at her graciousness and willingness to accept help. When they discussed the sensitive topic of suffering, the reporter said one comment she made continued to haunt him. In an almost off-handed way, in talking about her circumstance, Johnny said, “I think life is supposed to be hard.”
But that perspective doesn’t sit well in a spiritual suburbia defined by comfort, convenience and security. Today we continue our “Plastic Jesus” sermon series as we look at ways we can continue to grow deeper spiritually in a culture that is at best apathetic and at worst hostile to such growth. How can we move beyond worshipping the plastic bobblehead Jesus, that only nods “yes,” to the real one, who sometimes calls us into challenging and difficult circumstances where life is hard?
The whole concept of suffering in the context of faith is really a sticky wicket. We don’t like to talk about it much because we really don’t have any good answers. We just can’t make sense of it. Why do bad things happen to good people? Shouldn’t giving yourself to Christ make life better, not worse? But suffering is a key part of the Bible, especially in the New Testament, where the words “suffer” or “suffering” occur 86 times. The people who were reading and hearing those stories and letters when they were first being shared knew what suffering was all about. They were experiencing it on a daily basis. It was just part of life. And it was much, much different than our modern definition of suffering.
Today, living in America, we are disconnected from the biblical understanding of suffering. Webster’s defines “suffer” as “to undergo or feel pain or distress.” But that definition has been fudged a bit when we read that a football team suffered its first loss, or when someone says, “I had to suffer through that movie after drinking three cups of coffee.” Nowadays, hard times are when Nicholasville Road is down to one lane because of construction. For us “suffering” describes anything that even slightly threatens the comfortable state of existence we’ve worked hard to create for ourselves.
In fact, you could argue that we’ve so insulated ourselves from potential sources of suffering that we’ve come to believe suffering is not a part of life, but an unnecessary interruption of our normal life. We do everything in our power to reduce or eliminate suffering, to dull the pain of life’s jagged edges. We buy chairs that massage and flavored coffees and cars with heated seats until “suffering” no longer has anything to do with “undergoing or feeling pain and distress.” “Suffering” becomes sitting in a cold car seat or drinking coffee that tastes like…coffee. We’ve diluted the meaning of “suffering.” It no longer means “to undergo or feel pain or distress.” It now means “to do without an expected luxury or to have our sense of entitlement disrupted.”
And that is why I believe Johnny’s quote hits us in the gut. We’ve constructed our lives in such a way that we’ve come to expect that life was meant to be easy, and when it’s not, we believe something is wrong (and it’s usually God’s fault). Instead, what Johnny is saying and what is confirmed in the New Testament is life is meant to be hard, and any period of our lives that isn’t defined by struggle or adversity is the exception, not the rule.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying to live the illusion. We often go to great lengths to avoid potential causes of suffering. Think about all the services we have at our disposal to remove from our lives the more mundane or difficult aspects. We can pay people to mow our lawns, watch our kids, look after our parents, pick up our dry cleaning, deliver our groceries, drive us to the airport, help our kids with their homework, and do our Christmas shopping.
And yet, we can’t hire someone to bear our crosses for us. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a service we could hire that would have cancer for us, or straighten out our children for us, or worry about paying the mortgage for us? Life would be so much easier if someone else would handle the hard parts for us so we could just enjoy it. But I wonder if life isn’t supposed to be hard. Paul says in Romans that suffering has a productive quality. He says suffering produces character and character produces hope. Hope is the desire that things will be better than what they are. Because life is hard, we always have a reason for hope.
A more modern writer named Len Sweet says it this way: “We’ve become so used to being fed on demand with quick fixes that we’ve forgotten that it’s the hard knocks in life, those character-building moments, that help us make it through life with inner peace and joy intact.”
That’s something that we would do well to remember, because as we age, life is not going to get any easier. Here’s proof: There are more replacement parts in this congregation than in a ’68 Mustang. Knees, hips, you name it. As we get older and lose more and more control over our lives, we embark on what Richard Rohr calls the journey of descent. That journey is difficult for those of us who are control connoisseurs, because so much of our life is no longer ours to dictate. We lose our ability to keep suffering at bay.
I believe that’s why we do everything in our power while we can to shrug that cross off our shoulders instead of bearing its weight in our lives. And when it is thrust upon us, we struggle with what we perceive to be God’s unfairness. Just when we think we are in control of life, it picks us up like a tornado and drops us in some random place of despair, like an attorney’s office or a hospital room or a wheelchair. And we think, “God, what have I done to deserve this?”
What we’ve done is we’ve dared to live. Simply being alive is a risky proposition, and every day we expose ourselves to the forces of life that threaten our livelihood, well-being, and very existence. No amount of money or comfort or stability changes the fact that, as so many of us know too well, life can change, and we have no control over it. We can’t hire someone else to bear our cross. We can spend our lives running from it, exhaust our energy worrying about it, but at some point, we will have to carry it. We don’t control that.
What we do control is our attitude about those inevitable changes. It would have been easy for Johnny to trade in her hope for despair or self-pity, and I’m sure she had her moments. But she chose to see God at work in the midst of her suffering, and out of that came character, hope, and a life lived with purpose and determination.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was outspoken against the Nazi regime of his country, so much so that he was imprisoned and later killed for it. His writings are some of the most profound I’ve ever read, because he wrote them with a cross on his back in the shape of a swastika. When he wrote about suffering, he wasn’t writing it from his academic office; he was writing it from prison. And here’s what he said: “God is nearer to suffering than to happiness.”
Now think about that. We work hard to create a life of happiness and to avoid suffering, and yet Bonhoeffer, who knows something about both, says we’re moving in the wrong direction. We’re looking for God in the comforts of spiritual suburbia, when we’re more likely to find him in the hospice ward or the county jail.
Does that mean if we want find Jesus we should go get arrested? Please don’t! But to me it says three things. First, even the most perfect life endures suffering. Something is going to get every one of us at some point. Second, when that does happen, it’s not God’s fault; that’s simply a consequence of choosing to live. And third, God is there with us during our dark times, even if it feels like He is absent. God is nearer to suffering than to happiness.
We’ve all suffered, and I don’t mean a cold car seat, I mean real suffering, and deep down we know that what we experienced wasn’t the punishment of a capricious God; it was life being life. The danger we face is not the suffering itself, but letting those moments rob us of the joy of life and define our outlook or our faith. Because regardless of the circumstances, there is still joy to be found in life, even if it’s found from a wheelchair, or in a smaller house, or with a less-than-perfect child. We can fight and complain and wonder what we did to deserve our lot in life, or we can take up our cross, accepting it with humility and grace, knowing that there is a deeper joy to be found, and that joy is from God.
You know what? Maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe we live and suffer and die and that’s it. Life can certainly be cruel enough to make us wonder. But as Christians, we choose to believe something else is true, something that transforms us through our suffering. And that is the source of our hope, a light which no darkness, no matter how dark, can extinguish. Life is hard. But God is good.