Through, Not From Suffering

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Peace & Suffering Fused Together
2.25.24 [Romans 5.1-11] River of Life (2nd Sunday in Lent)
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Play a quick game of word association with me. Thunder & lightning. Peanut butter & jelly. Children & Laughter. Love & Marriage. Some pairs are easy to make. Even if you maybe thought of something slightly different you can see how someone would pair these things up with each other. They fit. How about peace? Peace and joy. Peace and harmony. Peace and quiet. Peace has a lot of partner words.
But in our New Testament reading Paul gives us another. One we would struggle to come up with on our own. As Paul is guided by the Holy Spirit to encourage and direct people living in Rome during its height about peace, he pairs peace with suffering.
It’s a curious thing isn’t it? Because peace and suffering seem to be diametrically opposed to one another. How can you have peace at be suffering at the same time? But in Romans 5, God wants us to discover the curiously ordinary intersection of peace and suffering.
As concepts, peace and suffering just do not belong together. But, experientially, we have seen them coexist. We’ve met people that seem at peace even as they suffering terribly. Maybe you’ve had a conversation with someone who is unexplainably calm even as they are surrounded by menacing storms.
Maybe it’s a member of your church family here. Someone who has seen a lot. Been through a lot. You know the stories behind their scars, their tired eyes, the wrinkles, the grey hair--they suffered loss and tragedy and abuse and injustice. Other people say life kicked them around. But you know they stood up under hardship. Stood firm. They persevered. They earned their stripes.
Perhaps you think of your parents. The struggles they endured in providing for you and your siblings. Not only did they put food on the table and a roof over your head, but they taught you who provided daily bread and was preparing a room for you in heaven. Then you watched mom smile and laugh as dad was laid to rest and you wondered how someone who was suffering so great a loss could seem so at peace with it all.
At first, it might seem curious for Paul to pair peace with suffering, to talk about access to God and grace and hope and also suffering and perseverance and character. But when you take some time to reflect on it, on the whole of what God is saying here it, doesn’t it encapsulate the Christian experience? Doesn’t it describe every good guy and noble woman in the Old Testament? Their lives were paradoxes in practice. They suffered, certainly. But they had peace. Certainty despite everything they endured and experienced.
Today’s Old Testament reading in Job 1 is the perfect example. Few suffered losses and tragedies like Job. Job’s life was intense, but many knew the curious pairing of peace and suffering like him.
There were godly women like Ruth and Esther who suffered in lands that weren’t their own. Each woman found herself at a crossroads. They were placed in situations where they had to make a difficult decisions. Do I do what I know is right even if it potentially comes at great personal loss? For Ruth, that meant leaving her Moabite people and going to Israel with her mother-in-law, living as a foreign widow with only the support of an aging woman who was widowed too. For Esther, that meant going to a king with a short fuse and asking him to overrule his own decree.
Some suffering looks like hard work and rejection. God called Noah to build an ark to specific dimensions. No power tools. No laser levels. But God measured and designed this vessel to contain two of every animal, seven of every bird & clean animal, and Noah, his wife, his sons, and their wives. The eight of them and all those animals. Consider the perseverance required to build a boat like that. And it’s not like anyone outside those eight would be any help at all. Yet as Noah worked hard on a project his neighbors mocked him for, 2 Peter 2 tells us that he was a preacher of righteousness. He continued to patiently call people to repentance even though he knew they would never listen, that God had not prepared any room for them on the ark he was building.
When we look at people like this--whether they’re from our circle of friends and family or from the pages of Scripture--it’s easy to be amazed. It’s natural to wonder things like how did they endure all that? How did they persevere through those troubles? How did they not bend or break or compromise their character? How could they stand firm and remain hopeful? How could they be at peace even as they struggled and suffered? To us these people are heroes.
But if you sit down and talk with these people we see as heroes in hardships and ask them these kinds of questions, we’d be surprised.
Christian friends and family, men like Noah, women like Ruth and Esther would be the first to tell you that they are just like you. Flesh and blood. They were no heroes. At times they felt overwhelmed and ashamed. They were weak and afraid. They cried out for help and cried tears of sadness. They experienced loss and tragedy. They were anxious about the future and imperfect in their actions. They were sinners. Sinners who lived in times and places that were ravaged by sin. Sin is the reason people suffer. Yet they had peace.
How? They didn’t find peace through careful searching. They didn’t manufacture peace through meticulous planning or measured appeasing. They didn’t fabricate peace in their minds through indifference to pain or by ignoring suffering. They didn’t create peace.
Peace found them. Peace called them by name. Peace placed them in these particular time and places, spaces ravaged by suffering. Peace was poured out into their hearts. Peace prepared them for suffering. Peace produced a perseverant spirit. Peace embodied the character necessary for times such as these. Peace created hope.
Paul tells us that we have this same peace. Because peace isn’t an abstract concept. Peace isn’t a hand gesture or the hollow wish of a beauty contestant. Peace is a person. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ--the Prince of peace.
We have peace, we can stand and boast, even as we suffer and wonder whether we’re capable of standing this any longer because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Because God the Creator so loved the world that as God the Father he sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to redeem us from sin. He promised that whoever has faith, a gift the Holy Spirit provides, would not perish but have eternal life.
This was the plan for peace. But first peace and suffering had to intersect. There was a place where peace and suffering crossed paths. Where perseverance stood firm. A place where true character was revealed. On Calvary, the Hope of the Nations was lifted high. Condemned so that we might be justified. Pierced by hateful men so that we might have access to the grace of God. Punished so that we might have peace. Christ Jesus is the reason we, you and I, Esther, Ruth, and Noah, people who suffer have peace.
We marvel at Ruth leaving behind her home to Israel. Jesus left his throne, his glory to come to earth. Esther stood before a king with a short temper with her life on the life. Jesus stood before a governor on a short leash, knowing how his life would end.
Noah worked hard on his ark and friends and neighbors mocked him. Jesus worked hard at the plan of salvation. He was good and kind, patient and gracious. A servant even when it was unsatisfying & seemingly pointless. A teacher when instructing was hard. He was a Good Shepherd even when it was dangerous and detrimental. He spoke up when it was unpopular. He was silent when it was ill-advised. He was a doer of righteousness, even as friends abandoned him & criminals mocked him. He patiently called people to repentance. He knew who would never listen. He knew that God had prepared only room for Jesus on the cross he was carrying.
But all the pain and the suffering, the sorrow and the struggles didn’t thwart him from God’s plan. They were prophesied as integral pieces to the plan of salvation. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we see God’s patient perseverance, we see the character of his love. This is how peace was earned--through pain and suffering, through sacrifice and trouble. Why would it be compromised by these very things?
This is what Paul means when we writes that we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, we also glory in our sufferings because we know God is accomplishing something. Perseverance and character are best learned and developed under trying times. During times such as these our peace with God doesn’t fluctuate. When pleasures ebb and pains flow, God’s wrath isn’t intensifying. When sadness or loneliness wax, and joy & companionship wane, God’s love is not diminished in any way. Suffering & struggles don’t threaten our hope. They deepen our peace & amplify our assurance, because God isn’t punishing us--he’s growing us. He isn’t ignoring or overlooking us, but rather conforming us to his will and looking over every little detail.
So glory in your sufferings. Because to the world it’s a curious thing. When they play the word association game with Christian they say things like hypocrite and goody-too-shoe. But show them your life. You may not feel like much, but to watching eyes you might be a regular Ruth, an every day Esther, or some normal guy that has a lot in common with Noah. Show that peace can coexist with suffering. We’re no heroes, but we have hope. Our hope does not disappoint. Amen.
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