Tag Archive: Suffering

In The Midst

In the midst of despair,
you are there.
In the midst of suffering,
you are there.
In the midst of pain,
you are there.
In the midst of confusion,
you are there.
In the midst of grief,
you are there.
In the midst of frustration,
you are there.
In the midst of anger,
you are there.
In the midst of sinfulness,
you are there.
In the midst of doubt,
you are there.
In the midst of brokenness,
you are there.
In the midst of sorrow,
you are there.
In the midst of sickness,
you are there.
In the midst of hate,
you are there
In the midst of disbelief,
you are there.
In the midst of injustice,
you are there.
In the midst of weeping,
you are there.
In the midst of night,
you are there.
In the midst of death,
you are there.

In the midst of hope,
you are there.
In the midst of celebration,
you are there.
In the midst of pleasure,
you are there.
In the midst of clarity,
you are there.
In the midst of happiness,
you are there.
In the midst of satisfaction,
you are there.
In the midst of peace,
you are there.
In the midst of righteousness,
you are there.
In the midst of trust,
you are there.
In the midst of wholeness,
you are there.
In the midst of joy,
you are there.
In the midst of health,
you are there.
In the midst of love,
you are there.
In the midst of faith,
you are there.
In the midst of justice,
you are there.
In the midst of laughter,
you are there.
In the midst of day,
you are there.
In the midst of life,
you are there.

Wherever we are, you are there with us.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Sharing in Paul’s Joy

This is the sermon I preached at Trinity Lutheran Church in Greencastle, PA today.

Philippians 3:4b-14:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

As I began preparing for this sermon, I started by reading over the texts for the day. And as I read, I found myself being drawn to the reading from Philippians. So far, so good. But, oddly enough, as I read it again and again, songs kept popping into my head. And not hymns or contemporary Christian music, but a song from Disney’s Hercules movie and a song from the musical Hairspray. Weird. And as I tried to figure why this was happening, I began to think – what would it be like if Paul had put this passage to music?

(to the tune of “Without Love” from Hairspray)
Once I was a Pharisee
Who never broke the rules
Never looked inside myself
But on the outside, I looked good!

Then we met and you made me
The man I am today
Jesus, I will follow you
On your holy way

Without you
I consider all things a loss
Without you
How could I ever bear my cross?

Jesus, I’ll be yours forever
I never wanna be
Without you…
Jesus, you have set me free
No, I ain’t lyin’
You have set me free
Oh, oh, oh!

Perhaps it would have sounded something like that – well, if Paul was influenced by 1960s rock-n-roll and showtunes.

In any case, I think the joyful and upbeat tune conveys Paul’s message to the church in Philippi very well. This passage is a fairly well-known one, but I think that sometimes it’s hard to hear the joy, hope and appreciation in Paul’s voice when he says he considers all things rubbish for the sake of Christ.

Before we get there though, let’s take a look at how Paul arrived at this statement about rubbish. Paul starts by listing his inherited traits, including his Jewish ancestry and the traditions he participated in from his early life – like circumcision on the eighth day. Next, he moves on to describe what he himself had accomplished, saying, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Now, up until this point, it seems that Paul is almost boasting about his accomplishments. He was a Pharisee, one skilled in interpreting and explaining the Law of Moses. And not only could he interpret and explain it, but he followed it carefully as a way of life – an incredibly admirable endeavor. In addition, to show how devout he was, Paul even mentions his persecution of the church. One can almost see him sort of shaking his head as he admits this to his fellow Christians.

And then comes the twist. Paul says, “yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” In fact, Paul’s wording here is very strong – think of the strongest word for rubbish or filth you can find and that’s what Paul is getting at. Yes, Paul has a potty mouth here!

What would this statement sound like in our context? Imagine being born into a good family and then having a wonderful opportunity to go to an Ivy League school where you excel in everything you are doing. You graduate and achieve all you ever wanted – an amazing job, a sweet sports car and all the honor and prestige you could ever desire. Then, you have a life-changing encounter with the living God and tell your friends, “I count all that I had as nothing because of Christ. Actually, everything I’ve ever known and the opportunities I’ve had, have been nothing compared to experiencing Christ. I’ve even lost my six-figure job, my corner office and my amazing house and I consider them all garbage now because I have Jesus in my life.” Anyone who heard you say that would probably think you were in some sort of incredible denial, unwilling to admit that you had failed or fallen from where you were. It’d be a huge shock to hear those words coming out of someone’s mouth today and it was most likely a huge shock for Paul’s readers to hear him describe where he had been and how his life had changed.

Paul does not stop here, however. He says he wants nothing more than to be found in Christ – to be found following Jesus, no matter what the cost. It is at this moment that Paul declares that all his works and blameless adherence to the law don’t mean anything without faith. As he explains, it is through this faith in Christ that he, that is Paul, and we too, have righteousness that comes from God. God does not look at us and see our works, judging whether or not we have been “good enough” or judging whether or not we have measured up. Nor does God look at us and see our sins piling up around us.

This is where the love for God and the joy and hope I was speaking about earlier enter into the picture. Paul’s love for God stems out of his overflowing gratitude for what Christ has done for us on the cross. Because of the cross, when God looks at us, God sees the righteousness of Christ. Instead of the multitude of sins, God sees Christ’s perfection and the loving obedience that brought him to the cross on Calvary. God sees us covered over in mercy and grace. It is through Jesus that we have been made righteous – that we are able to stand before God. That, my friends, is grace. It is that precious gift, freely bestowed by a loving God. It is not something that we attain through clinging tightly to the law or by living perfectly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t make it – we would all be judged under the law and found wanting. As Casey Novak, Assistant District Attorney on the hit television show Law and Order: SVU pointed out, “No one is above the law.” As someone slightly more credible than Ms. Novak, namely Martin Luther, put it “…we let God alone work in us and in all our powers do we do nothing of our own.”

It is with this in mind, that Paul continues his letter passionately, saying that he wants to know Christ, to experience him and the power of the resurrection. It would be easy to see why one would want to experience the resurrection with its redemptive glory and invitation to new life, but Paul also states that part of the experience of knowing Christ is sharing in his sufferings. Here, Paul is saying that he wants to die to sin and experience new and abundant life with Christ. This is what we are to do every day in living out our baptism. Daily, we die to the old person and we are raised again, loved and forgiven to go out and serve.

Lest we become frustrated when we feel like we continue falling short and sinning far too much, Paul assures us that we are to keep on moving forward. We can do so because Christ has made us his own. This phrase “Christ Jesus has made me his own” is interesting because it can be translated as “I have been won by Christ Jesus.” Jesus has won us in the fight against sin, the powers of the world and the Devil – the very things we renounce in baptism. Jesus is with us, strengthening and encouraging us to continue following him. No matter how many times we stumble or fall, Christ has already won us and nothing can remove his victory. The key is to keep trying, no matter how difficult it seems. To keep moving forward, even when it may seem like you’ve done something unforgivable or when you feel there is no hope.

Paul reassures the Philippians and us that he is by no means perfect yet, but that he is also journeying “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s an awful wordy sentence, but I think we can break it down and make it a bit easier to understand.

A few weeks ago, many of us, myself included, were glued to the television watching the Winter Olympics. We cheered for the United States and for those who had overcome so much to make it all the way to the medal podium. We teared up over those touching stories the announcers presented between all the action. We were absorbed in what happened in Vancouver. With all of this in mind, however, I couldn’t help but think about the athletes’ lives after the Olympics finished. They have spent their whole lives straining toward the Olympic prize, trying to beat incredible odds to attain that one glorious, shining moment on the winners’ podium. But what happens when they have achieved that?

In his letter, Paul writes, “not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s goal isn’t an Olympic medal, but rather life in God through Christ. In fact, the Greek phrasing Paul uses can be translated as “the prize of the upward invitation of God in Christ Jesus.” God is inviting us to a whole new life and a new way of thinking. Our goal is not one that we can achieve, like putting a check mark on a to-do list, but the goal is rather the invitation to a whole new way of life. It’s only the beginning of the adventure that lies ahead of us.

Life with Christ is just that – an adventure. It’s dying to our old selves and discovering our new identities as people living in and walking with Jesus. It’s picking up our crosses and following our Lord. It’s failing and falling, and getting back up, knowing that Christ is with us and will not let us go. It’s looking at life through the eyes of Jesus and realizing that, thankfully, we don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God! It’s struggles and joys, fears and hopes, death and resurrection. It is an adventure, but it is one we are by no means traveling through alone. God is with us and will remain with us. Moreover, our brothers and sisters in faith are our companions on the trip.

It is this journey we experience on a smaller scale during the Lenten season. We began on Ash Wednesday, confessing our sins and with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. As we journey, maybe we have given up something or taken up a new spiritual discipline in order to try to focus more on our relationship with God. Next week will be Palm Sunday and then, Holy Week. Good Friday will bring the crucifixion and with it, the reminder of the heavy price Christ paid for us on the cross. But the Easter Vigil and Sunday will once again remind us of the Resurrection and the hope and joy Jesus’ rising brings to us.

I believe it is with this joy that Paul writes. He has come to realize through his encounter with Christ that it is not about him and how well he can uphold the law or obey the rules, but rather about the beautiful and unmerited gift of grace and forgiveness that God gives us. Take a moment. Think about that. That’s freedom. It’s freedom from the frustration and despair that comes from falling short of what we should be. It’s freedom from the exhaustion we feel when we are trying to live up to other peoples’ standards or trying to be all things for all the people around us. It’s freedom in which God says “I have done this for you – rest in this grace and know that I love you.” Paul’s joy is one of liberation and his hope is one of hearing the invitation of God and setting out to join God on the adventure.

Yes, God is with us through it all, sustaining us through the Holy Spirit, and encouraging us by reassuring us that Christ has already made us righteous before God. How amazing to have a God who loves us so much! Thinking of this, let us share in Paul’s joy and hope. And, knowing this love and the freedom and righteousness we have through Christ, how can we keep from singing? Amen.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Whoa! That’s some text, isn’t it? I picture the disciples walking through Jerusalem as the city is hustling and bustling in preparation for Passover. I imagine it almost as if they’re on vacation, taking in the sights and atmosphere of the great city. Then they spy the Temple, and, even though they had just been in it, it still takes their breath away. The Temple was known as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire and for good reason, too. It was constructed with walls of imposing masonry which enclosed a huge area. Topping these walls was an expansive platform, supported by massive piers, some as large as forty feet long, by twelve feet high, and eighteen feet wide.

The Royal Porch of the Temple had a row of Corinthian pillars each standing thirty-seven and a half feet high and made out of one solid block of marble a piece. From a distance, the Temple was said to look like snow since it was stark white in some places and gilt in glittering gold in others. It must have been a truly amazing sight to see.

So, with all this in mind, we hear of one of the disciples in naïve excitement pointing out this architectural wonder to Jesus, admiring the magnificent structure. However, Jesus’ response is not the one they were expecting. He’s not taken in by the imposing and impressive sight. Instead, Jesus tells them the great, towering Temple will be utterly destroyed. At this point, I can just see the disciples turning to stare at Jesus with mouths hanging wide open, complete shock enveloping their faces. How on earth could such a thing ever happen?

After the disciples have heard Jesus’ powerful words, they ask him to explain when all these things will happen and what the sign will be that all of this is taking place. Doesn’t that sound familiar? How often do we, like those first disciples, ask for signs or wish know that we’re making the right decision, or what will happen if we do certain things? I know this is especially true when I make major decisions in my life or when I’m standing at a crossroad and I imagine it’s the same for you as well. We want to know how things will turn out and what exactly is around the bend.

And what of the apocalyptic warnings in today’s reading? In the first centuries, early Christians believed that they were living in the last days. Examining the history, it’s not difficult to see why they believed this. The first few centuries of the Common Era were a period filled with strife, struggle and hardship. As Jesus had declared and Mark’s contemporaries experienced, there were wars between the Jews and Romans, and in 70 CE, the Romans burned the incredible Temple and then dismantled a great portion of it, stone by stone.

Playing off of peoples’ beliefs that Christ would be coming back very soon, there were many “pseudo-messiahs” and false teachers eager to step in to take Jesus’ place. In addition, the early church was plagued by internal conflicts over doctrine and right teaching, as well as by the external conflicts of persecution and even martyrdom. Life was not easy.

Things certainly looked bleak and that must have been exactly what the disciples were thinking, because Jesus tells them, “do not be alarmed.” Actually, this phrase in the original Greek can also mean “do not be frightened,” or “do not be troubled” or, even, “do not be disturbed.” In fact, the form of the verb used in the Greek implies “do not continue being frightened.” I hear in Jesus’ words incredible reassurance and hope. Moving from these words, however the next phrase is troubling again; Jesus says “but the end is still to come.” So, there is going to be an end, but the wars, false prophets, and the destruction of the Temple are not it. Jesus continues to explain that the earthquakes and famines aren’t the end either. No, Jesus states, all of these things – natural disasters, famines, wars, false teachers – are only the beginnings of the birth pangs.

I hear the last words in this passage and I recall The Wizard of Oz, my favorite movie as a child. The Scarecrow, while walking with his companions in the woods, utters one line that pops into my head when I hear Christ’s words to the disciples. The Scarecrow says, “of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.” In other words, things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

Just as birth pangs are a part of birth and necessary before a beautiful child enters the world, Jesus explains that trials and hardships will mark the disciples’ way before things become better. Patience, endurance, persistence and faith must mark their lives; they should not be troubled or distressed, or be thrown into panic when all the world seems a frightful mess.

So is this passage just about Jesus telling his disciples to hang in there when things are difficult in the beginning centuries of the church? I don’t think so. I think it is appropriate that we hear this text as the days grow shorter and colder, when the landscape is beginning to look bleak and barren. Simultaneously, however, this is also the time leading up to Advent when we will await the coming light of Christ shining in the darkness to illumine our way. Therefore, I hear Christ’s words as encouragement for our lives today. In the midst of a recession, dealing with high unemployment rates, with wars and violence around the world, and other struggles, Jesus’ words are incredibly timeless. Like the first disciples, we are to be persistent and full of faith, not fearing anything the world might throw at us, but trusting that God is in control, no matter how out of control the world seems to spin. God is far bigger than all that might threaten us. It is in these times of trial that our faith is tried and sometimes shaken, but it is also through these difficult times that we have some of the most amazing opportunities for spiritual growth.

In these times, when our faith is shaken and we can’t seem to see the next step, we stand at the foot of the cross and call on God. For me, some of the most difficult, frustrating and painful things I have encountered in my life have driven me to God’s arms and strengthened my faith in ways times of comfort could not have. In the most strenuous times, it’s as if all pretense is stripped away and I am able to be most honest with God, which draws me nearer to Him.

Although all the splendid things we have – cars, houses, money, electronics – will fade away or crumble like the Temple, in Christ, the living, indestructible temple, we have something solid to which to cling. In the crucified and resurrected Christ, we can look forward expectantly to the coming kingdom and reign of God, even in the midst of all our trials and pains.

This promise is made especially clear to us in baptism in which we die with and are raised again to new life in Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we who are fallen, sinful and broken, much like the Temple, have been redeemed and made whole. In baptism, we receive God’s amazing promise that the Holy Spirit will sustain us and we are marked with the cross of Christ, sealing us as God’s children forever. Through baptism into the body of Christ, we become the new Temple, the place in which God dwells. In this new baptismal identity, we are encouraged and strengthened to take up our cross and follow Christ.

It is with the promises of God made to us in baptism, recalled daily, and nourished through Holy Communion that we face the trials of this world. As we encounter these difficulties head on, we look forward with anticipation to the day when the kingdom of God will break onto the scene, ushering in a new age of mercy, peace and justice. Whereas today we may only catch fleeting glimpses of this kingdom in the kindness of friends and strangers, in joyful communion with those around us, or in incredible stories of generosity and love, the day is coming when these glimpses will be the norm.

So when we find ourselves in difficult situations or when we are faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable, we can recall the promises God has made to us in baptism and the comforting words of Jesus to the disciples: “do not be troubled.” Yes, there will be troubles, pain and suffering – there always have been. However, it is important to remember that before pain and death were, God was. One day, the kingdom of God will be realized, bringing with it magnificent joy and a splendor far greater than any man-made Temple could offer. Looking forward to that day, then, may we remember the word of life and the word of hope that God gives to us each and every day. Amen.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Hymn: “Lead On, O King Eternal”:

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