Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can you hear me now? An Easter meditation on suffering and God's will

If you have watched television at any point in the past five years, at some point you have been besieged by the ever-present flood of ads for various cell phone companies. Probably the most effective of these ads is the series by Verizon, which feature a sort of geeky looking fellow in glasses and a zippered jacket, the Verizon Guy. Verizon Guy travels all over the country, looking for places the average cell phone might not have service. So he walks through swamps and into elevators, football fields, and fashion shows. Everywhere he goes, Verizon Guy asks a question that has so penetrated the brains of everybody in our culture that it has become part of late-night comics’ routines, YouTube videos, and everyday conversation. The question is, “Can you hear me now?”

While that series of ads was an effective way for Verizon to sell phones based on the idea that their cellular network was more reliable and had a wider coverage area than any other, it’s also a profound question when it is asked in the spiritual dimension. Sooner or later, most people go through circumstances in their lives in which they stare up at a heaven from which all trace of the presence of God seems to have vanished and ask Him “Can you hear me now?” Maybe that describes you right now. Maybe you have watched your mother suffer through Alzheimer’s slow march into the darkness. Or maybe your spouse or your child went to see a doctor who told you that they wouldn’t live to see another Christmas. Or perhaps you are simply going through your everyday life with everyday pains like family members you have prayed for that will not turn to Christ, a marriage that seems broken beyond fixing, or a spiritual life from which all of the joy and vitality has leeched away. And you prayed and in your pain you cried out to God, “Can you hear me now?” and hoped for a definitive “Yes.”

If you know the story of Jesus, you know that his life didn’t end well. He was stripped, mocked, beaten, and crowned with thorns. He was then crucified, nailed to tree to suffocate to death and finally pierced through the heart with a Roman spear. All of this happened after being declared innocent of any wrongdoing. In the midst of it, Jesus cried out to his Father, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabancthani!” which is Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As our sins were laid on him, Jesus cried out, having lost the close fellowship with the Father that had been his for all eternity and that, more than the wounds and the cross, broke his heart and tore his soul. And so he screamed forsaken, so that none of us would ever have to eternally cry out in that same way.

And significantly, God did not immediately intervene. I think the reasons that He did not do so are manifold. But I think one reason is to teach us something about God’s presence with us in suffering. Let me just ask those of you who know your Bible a few questions. Who was it that permitted Jesus to die? God. Who loved him? God did. He said “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” How did God feel about what He allowed to happen in Jesus’ life? All we know is that Jesus’ prayed “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” When Jesus was crucified, what do you think God thought about that? It’s my belief that only Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for his torturers prevented God from bringing justice right then and there. God hurt over what He had sovereignly planned and purposed.

Let me ask you a couple more questions. Could He have kept Jesus from dying? Yes. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden, Peter tried to defend him with his sword. Peter didn’t do a very good job, but regardless, Jesus said “Peter, put it away. If I want to, I can call 12 legions of angels to defend me.” A legion is 6,000 troops, and one angel is described in the Old Testament as wiping out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night. So Jesus is saying, “Peter, I’ve got 72,000 angels I can call on right now. I can take care of myself.” Yet he never called them, because he was looking to fulfill God’s greater purpose in our salvation. One more important question: Was God able to do something about the suffering He allowed? You bet He was. What happened to Jesus? Less than 72 hours later He walked out of the grave with a resurrected, glorified body. So let me ask you, when Jesus cried out, wondering if God could still hear him, what was God’s answer?

In Romans 15, Paul reminds us that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4). Let me read that for you again: “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” With Jesus as our example, let’s ask the same questions about us when we suffer: First, who is that permitted us to suffer? God. Who loves us? God does. In fact, His love has been so sufficiently and eternally demonstrated that it is the holiday that we are celebrating tonight. Could God have prevented the evil he allowed into your life? Yes, absolutely. The Creator of all things could have easily stopped any evil that comes into your life from touching you, even an evil of the sort that caused you to question whether He is there to hear your prayers. But he sovereignly allows that particular trial because He has a sovereign purpose in your life, just as He did in Jesus’ life.

Last two questions: How does God feel about what He sovereignly allows and purposes in your life? He hurts for you, weeping along with you just as Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. Are you ready for this last one? Is God able to do something about the suffering he has allowed? You bet he is.

For every person who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ has God as Father and becomes a fellow heir with Jesus of the glory that is to come. Just as Jesus suffered, died, and was raised into glory in a glorified body, so the Scriptures promise us that after we have suffered in this life for a little while, we too will die and be raised into glory in a glorified body. Because the message of Easter is that death is not the final word. Or to say it as the book of Hebrews does: Jesus “offered up loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard” (5:7). In other words, when Jesus screamed out to his Father “Father! Can you hear me now?!” God’s answer thundered back “YES!” And that “Yes” is the same answer that He gives and will give to you when you cry out, because if you are God’s child, He hears you in the midst of suffering. In fact, He will do something one day that will be so great and so grand that Paul says what we go through now doesn’t even begin to compare with it. One day the Sun will rise on a new Day, just as it is rising now and we will stand face to face with the Maker of Heaven and earth in a place where the “dwelling of God is with men,” where “righteousness dwells,” where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes,” there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” and where “men study war no more.” We will be delivered from death into a glory that cannot be described. Just like Jesus.


Greg said...

Joe, That was a great reminder! God does not always work when we want Him to. (I keep expecting thouhg!) His timing, His way.
It's not always what I want but it is, in retrospect, always the right path.
There are times (way too many!0 that I feel like Abraham and Sarah, I need to "Help" God. At these times, I'm sure He feels so fortunate to have me around to give Him advice! But usually, actually 100% of the time, my "help" makes things bad or worse than they were. You'd think I'd learn.
Anyway, I have learned that He can hear me and moves in a fashion that brings Him the glory and it should be. Can an old dog learn new tricks? I hope so!
Thanks, Joe!

The Bullhorn said...


As always, my friend, I appreciate your thoughts. To have faith, it seems, is to doubt at times. Yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken...

Greg said...