CALL TO WORSHIP
Today is not typical. We are a hurting family today. I want to say that, because I want to affirm that this congregation is not a congregation that dismisses suffering. We do not ask anyone to leave their cares and worries outside the worship as if that is even possible. We are a congregation that wants to hold out hope in the midst of suffering and light in the midst of darkness.
And if you are visiting with us, do not think you have chosen the wrong day to visit. Not at all. In fact, we welcome you to share in our hope and if you have experienced pain, worry, or sin then you are in a safe place. We welcome you to bring this, like all of us, before God in worship.
Praise and suffering do not typically go together in our experience. They just do not seem to reconcile. I want to state very plainly that this is not true. Throughout the stories of the Bible, God's people praise Him from the depths of despair. They cry out to Him in the context of worship. Even on the cross Jesus utters the words of Psalm 22 "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" And no one ever says that this isn't appropriate.
My minister taught me that hope and praise can exist even in the midst of much suffering. And today I am sad because I will not be able to visit with my minister anymore. Since I have been in Fort Smith one of my ministers has been George Thompson, and he passed away this weekend. I have enjoyed conversations with George, shared interests with him, my mother attended the church where he preached (though I didn't know this until recently), I have prayed for George and prayed with him. And in the last few days when he suffered much he was still praising God. I know he had days of frustration and he even told me that he agonized and wept at times. But my minister George Thompson taught me that I could worship, give thanks, or just call on God even when I am suffering.
So, it is okay today to lift our voices and it is also okay to let the tears fall.
I have just finished teaching Philosophy at University of Arkansas Fort Smith. During the course of the semester we talked about God. With the help of Anselm of Canterbury we discussed the ontological argument for the existence of God That than which nothing greater exists does exist in our mind; but real existence is a perfection; therefore God must exist. With the help of Thomas Aquinas we discussed five ways that show that the existence of God is necessary to explain our world God is the first cause, the prime mover, the necessary being, the greatest good, and the designer of purpose.
But then we discussed the problem of evil. In the calculus of philosophy the problem goes something like this: If there is a God then why is there evil in the world? The logical responses would state that either God is willing to overcome all evil, pain, and suffering but is somehow unable. Or that God is able to overcome all evil, pain, and suffering but is for some reason unwilling. And theres a third option which is to say that there is no problem if there is no God.
Thats philosophy. And though we find some help in proving God exists from Anselm and Aquinas, there are not many in the Western tradition of philosophy to help with the problem of evil.
I looked back over the sermons I preached this year and I realize that it hasnt been the easiest of all the years I remember. The first sermon I preached in 2005 remarked on the Tsunami that devastated Asia. That seemed like a world away but now after Katrina, Rita, and Wilma we feel very close to the devastation. Our world, our nation, is hurting. Then there are the ways that each of you and every family here have in some way been touched by pain, loss, or worry. Even if you are simply grieving with a friend, you feel the hurt also.
At times like this philosophy fails us. God is not a logical argument. His presence and purpose is more than an ontological or cosmological argument. And though I appreciate philosophy I also know its limits.
I also know that if our religion and faith is nothing more than rules, explanations, and answers then that too will fail us at times like this. For when we are worried about the future or grieving about the past; when we are concerned for our loved ones or mired in our own pain there are no rules or answers that seem to apply. Answers without emotion and intellect without intimacy are no better than labels slapped onto specimen bottles (Peterson). In times this, we know that God is not a doctrine that we have all figured out. No, he is mysterious and supreme.
The road of pain, suffering, and spiritual frustration may seem uncharted or off-limits for Christians. Thats understandable in a culture in which the best-sellers in Christian bookstores offer help on how to be successful, how to gain blessings, how to be happy. Those road maps dont describe the territory of life when it seems like we are in a pit, or wandering alone, or stuck in the wilderness. A map is no good when you cannot even find yourself on it. (And if you have ever tried to read some of these Christian or non-Christian self-help books and havent had much luck dont instantly assume that the problem is you as I said, a map isnt much good if you cannot find yourself on it.)
In the bargain box of a bookstore of faith are some stories where we might find ourselves. There are Psalms that speak of an intimate relationship with God but like any relationship there are also quarrels. And so the Psalms say Come let us sing for joy to the Lord! But they also say My God, My God why did you forsake me? The Psalms proclaim boldly that God is our salvation but they also ask where were you Lord?
Psalms are not an attempt to fix the hurt. They are the perfect honesty of Gods people who are experiencing grief, fear, doubt. They are a proclamation that those who hurt are not alone. We have seen how each psalmist pours out his heart in anguish and despair. He doesnt express it simply for one verse or two verses or three verses, he goes on and on and on with his grief. The Psalms are perfectly honest before God.
In Psalm 77, the perfect honesty of the hurting soul gets right to the core of matter Has God turned against me? Read Psalm 77:1-10 God is supposed to be watching over us with his strong right hand of power. He is the Most High the ultimate power. But it seems like all that has changed. Thats not right. It seems disrespectful, we ought to know our place but the question is Is God in his place?
Strangely, false humility cannot do what perfect honesty does: the honest admission the anger and disappointment with God opens a door to a new hope. It is as if there is a breakthrough in the relationship.
It begins with memory of what the Lord has done. (Read Psalm 77:11-20.)
As we think of our past, our personal history and our Christian history. We see the Lords faithfulness. I know that there must have been services like this in the early church. Maybe even more than what we are used to! For the first 200 or 300 years of the churchs life there must have been times when a congregation gathered weekly and they noticed that some of their brothers and sisters were not there. As the little flock gathered they spoke of what they had heard They were taken by the authorities He was forced to worship the emperor. Her master disowned her and she was killed publicly. It was too much for him. He just doesnt want to commune with us. She lied. She turned her back on Christ.
I am sure that when our brothers and sisters gathered they remembered the past. They were encouraged by the faith of those who went before them and the faithfulness of God who sent his son. They took courage from the gospel and were convinced that Christ shared in their sufferings and they share in his.
Yet they also had hope. They were not only faithful to the past but also to the future. Read Revelation 22 (Note when Jesus speaks end the service here!)
Where we find Job, read Job 1 not the person we would expect to suffer.
Why Job questions/His friends and their worthless counsel
What God says Job 40
How Job responds Job 42
How dare I try to give you all the answers to lifes questions in 30 minutes or less. I have learned that Gods ways are too wonderful for us to reduce to nicely packaged words. We try so hard to fit God into our lives; maybe it is time we tried to fit ourselves into Gods life.
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