When people look around at the world they see bad people making lots of money and enjoying themselves. They see good people with nothing, or even suffering a great deal. And when people see these things, they have a hard time believing that there is a good God who is also all-powerful.
Recently I saw a clip of Bill Maher talking with a Christian. The Christian explained, "God is an infinite God who is working in ways we don't always understand". Maher replied, "Yeah, I think that's a copout".
The real question that Maher was getting at is this: If God IS all-powerful and good, why is there suffering in the world?
This is a good question. A logical question. And this it's a question that the Bible answers.
In the first few chapters of Genesis, God explains that the world was perfect when He created it, and then the first two human beings made the choice to rebel against their Creator. Through their sin they brought suffering into our world.
Suffering is one of the threads that is woven throughout our Bible readings for today. But as we read we're going to find another thread as well - the thread of God's promise.
Right after Adam and Eve sinned God promised them that He would fix what they had broken. Through one of Eve's descendants God would crush the power of Satan and bring forgiveness to sinful mankind. Through that same Savior, God will one day remove suffering from our experience.
Suffering and promise. Those are the two threads woven through our readings for today.
Old Testament: Genesis 28:10-17 (NKJV)
10 Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. 12 Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. 14 Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.”
16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
Here we find Jacob traveling from Beersheba to Haran. This wasn't going to be a short trip. Haran was over four hundred miles to the north. Even in a car this wouldn't have been a short trip, and Jacob was on foot.
He had been traveling all day, and now it was time to rest. There wasn't a place to lodge nearby, so Jacob would have to spend the night in the open. Settling down to sleep, Jacob pulled a flat stone over to his bedroll, presumably to serve as a pillow.
I think we can assume that Jacob wasn't very comfortable. But this wasn't the worst of his problems. He was traveling to Haran because his brother Esau was planning to murder him.
You see, Esau was upset because Jacob had taken both his birthright and a special blessing that their father had intended pronounce over him. The birthright was given to the firstborn son. Besides being a great honor, it also gave the firstborn a double inheritance. Jacob had taken this. And recently, he had tricked his father into speaking a special blessing over him instead of Esau.
So, in addition to a long journey on foot and an uncomfortable night out in the wild, Jacob was also alienated from his family, and had a brother who was planning to murder him.
But, God indeed works in mysterious ways. This night would be a turning point in Jacobs life. Right smack in the middle of the mess Jacob had gotten himself into, God appears to provide both a vision of comfort and a promise of hope. And not just hope for Jacob, but for the whole world.
Let's look at the comforting vision first. Here in the middle of nowhere, Jacob sees in his dream, a ladder reaching up to the stars. And at the top of this ladder God is looking down on him.
Jacob might have felt alone out here in the Palestinian wasteland, but he wasn't alone. God was there, and could see all that Jacob was going through.
As he stared, Jacob saw shapes going up and down this massive ladder. Figures ascending up to God, and descending down to the earth. God's messengers. His servants. Angels. And what were these angels up to?
Well, there's lots of crazy ideas floating around concerning angels, so we better get our information from the Bible. In Psalm 103 it says...
" 20 Bless the LORD, O you his angels,Talking about angels, the book of Hebrews says...
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
21 Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!" (Psalm 103:20-21 ESV).
"Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14 NASB).I think we can be sure that the angels marching up and down this ladder were meant to illustrate visually the fact that God is continually at work in His creation. Continually sending out his representatives to help sinners like us.
But this astounding vision is just the stage lighting for the great promise God is about to make to Jacob. From the top of the ladder Jacob hears a voice...
"“I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. 14 Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” " (Genesis 28:13-15 NKJV).God had told Jacob's grandfather Abraham that all the world would be blessed through one of his descendants. Here he repeats that promise to Jacob.
When we are alone and suffering , God is still there. When we feel chased and in danger, God's angels are still carrying out their orders. When we feel hopeless and tired, God's promise of forgiveness and life through the Savior still remains,
"...in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 28:14 NKJV).▬
Psalm of the Day: Psalm 73 (ESV)
A PSALM OF ASAPH.
1 Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
10 Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works.
As in so many Psalms, here the Psalm writer expresses his inner thoughts and emotions openly. Without holding back he admits that when he saw wicked people prospering, he felt jealous. Why was he being so careful to live his life in God's way if all it got him was days suffering and mornings of rebuke?
Others felt the same way. The Psalmist writes...
" Therefore his people turn back to them,In other words, when God's people saw the wicked not getting punished, they thought in their hearts, "Why not live like them? God's not gonna do anything about it!"
and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
"Why DOESN'T God do something!", the Psalmist thought. But the question was to much for him... until he went to the Temple of the LORD. Then he realized that no one can escape the justice of the eternal and almighty God. But justice is not always carried out in THIS LIFE.
Then the Psalmist realized how foolish he had been. Like a stupid animal he had been bitter toward the One who created him, toward the One who sustained his life every day.
But still the LORD had not given up on the Psalmist. Like a father holding the hand of a tired, crying, struggling child - God stayed with him. Guided him to the answer of his heart-troubling question. And God would continue to lovingly guide him all the way to heavenly glory.
The Psalmist writes,
"My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."▬
Gospel History: Mark 8:31-38 (NASB)
31 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
32 And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.
33 But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
34 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
35 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
36 “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?
37 “For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
38 “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Nobody enjoys suffering. Peter was no different than you and me. He didn't want to suffer. And he especially didn't like the idea that his teacher was going to suffer and die.
Peter and the rest of the Jewish people were sick and tired of the brutal rule of the Roman empire. They longed to be free from foreign oppression. For a long time their teachers had identified the promised Messiah as the person who would finally shatter Roman rule and restore the nation of Israel to glory.
But the Savior that God had promised to Adam and Eve wasn't going to be a limited king like this. He wasn't just going to restore autonomy to the Jewish nation. He was coming to free all sinners from the wrath of God that their sins had earned.
One of the things that Jesus' followers couldn't seem to accept was this - that this life, this world is just the preparation zone, not the site of the celebration party.
On this occasion, Jesus clearly laid out the events that were going to happen soon. He, the promised Savior, would suffer and die, but then He would be raised from the dead.
Peter just couldn't accept this. He wanted peace and glory NOW, not later. But that wasn't how God had planned it out. First came the cross, then the glory. That would be true for Jesus, and for all who follow Him. He would blaze the path to heaven by His sacrificial death on the cross. And then all who believe that He is the Savior were to follow him on this bumpy and narrow way to heaven.
Jesus refused to let Peter's selfish rejection of the Father's plan infect the minds of his other followers. He had to get it through their heads that suffering comes first, then peace at the Father's side.
Jesus gathered them close and said...
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it."
Those words were shocking. Take up your CROSS and follow Me?! When the Romans made you carry a cross, that meant you were going to your death. Carrying a cross means that your days of peace and ease were coming to an end. Carrying a cross meant your hopes for THIS life were over.
Jesus isn't saying that Christians won't experience fun in this life. He isn't saying that it's all downhill from the point of conversion on. He's emphasizing that if Christianity means advancement and prosperity here, you've got the wrong Christianity. This world, this life, is just the staging area for the next. Heaven is where the victory is celebrated in full. That's the promise God made to Adam and Eve, and that's the promise we have received in Christ.
Like Paul wrote in Colossians...
" If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:1-4 ESV).▬
NT Letter: Romans 5:1-11 (ESV)
1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
During the season of Lent we take time to consider our own sins. The sins that separated us from God. And we also take time to meditate on all that Jesus did to take those sins away.
This Lent I'm trying to emphasize that the cross, with all it's gore and suffering, is not meant to bring us down. It's meant to bring us up.
Jesus didn't go to the cross to heap guilt on our shoulders. He went to the cross to take our burden of guilt and sin away forever. The cross is the Christian's source of forgiveness for sin, and the source of power for living life God's way. A life of constantly bringing our somst to God in repentant, confident prayer.
The cross isn't meant to depress you, but to free you. In fact, the cross of Christ is so powerful it enable Christians to rejoice no matter what THIS life throws at us. Paul says that the cross even enables us to rejoice in our sufferings!
Now that seems backward, I know. But look at it like this. I'm a football fan. My favorite team is the Detroit Lions. (Whenever I preach about suffering I feel compelled to mention the fact that I'm a Lion's fan).
I like to watch the Lions play, but I usually don't get to watch them live. I have to record the game and watch it later. Not everyone knows that I'm trying NOT to find out who won the game before I watch it. So, occasionally I inadvertently find out that the Lions won.
When I know that they won the game, the way I see the game changes. When the other team gets a big lead, I KNOW that there's going to be some big plays and some scoring to come. They're down by three touchdowns!? Wow! This is gonna be awesome!
In Christ, we know the victory already belongs to us. We can see the setbacks and pains of following Christ in a different light because we know this. We can sit back and say, "Wow! I wonder how God is going to turn this terrible situation into something beautiful? I don't know how it's going to happen, but I know it will because he promises that...
"... for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28 ESV).▬
The last half of our Romans reading does a particularly good job of showing that Christ's death is not a downer, but the most precious and powerful thing in a Christian's life. Let me read it again.
"6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Romans 5:6-11 ESV).▬
I can be sure Christ died for my sins because it says here that Christ died for the ungodly. I'm ungodly! I'm a sinner! So He died for ME!
Through simple trust in His sacrifice, we've been justified. That means we've been declared righteous even though our lives are anything but sinless! Because we're justified through faith in Christ, we've God peace with our Creator. He is no longer angry with us. The sin that divided us from our perfect God has been removed, and now we have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son!
That means we don't have to fear death anymore! When we died, God will usher us into ETERNAL peace and joy because of Christ.
The thread of suffering is woven into our lives. But it will not be there forever. The thread of God's promise will one day force it out, and the golden threads of glory will take its place.
Our Savior died so we can live. That's the power of the cross.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.