Any fat, dumb and happy preacher (like yours truly) should shy away from preaching on suffering. But that was the essence of the text in front of us. And the Old Testament text basic said don’t chicken out. So, this is my attempt to proclaim the Word in regards to the role of suffering in the world and in the life of the Christian. I believe this to be right and true. I also believe it to be full of hope.
The text is a juxtaposition of a couple miracles of Jesus. One a seemingly minor healing, and the other a resurrection. But this juxtaposition soon sucks in not just the miraculous but everything we like to think about. It is status, popularity, wealth and health, faith and doubt, fear and courage. In other words it is a juxtaposition that cleaves to the marrow of life. It is also a message that cleaves a tough spot in my faith. I accept, but I don’t really understand God’s use of actual miracles. I have an intellectual understanding, but my heart still doesn’t like it. This sermon is my attempt to express both that intellectual understanding, but also to reach for something that might begin an emotional peace. I don’t know if anybody else has such a similar problem. I also don’t know if I succeeded. But here it is. A meditation on signs and wonders.
The first natural reaction to suffering is simple avoidance. Run away from it and anyone associated with it. But life is too tough for such a simple strategy to work forever. And too many people suffer for the spoils of society to go to cowards. The second reaction is more nuanced, more full of wisdom, but I’m not sure it is greatly different. We turn our reactions to suffering into a merit game. The merit going to the one who handles and by their handling avoids feeling the suffering. This is partly what is going on in virtue signalling and victim culture. This also goes on in religion and philosophies as diagnosis of problems turns to recommended paths. The sermon highlights two examples.
This is not the way of the cross. Christ did not seek to avoid sufferings, but he embraced it. He did not come to tell us a path, but to give us the way to walk. Not around Calvary, but with it. This sermon attempts to speak without being trite or overly simplistic about that way of the cross.
That title is the question of purpose; it is the specter of despair. It is also something that Jesus, in his time on this earth, experienced with us. And in his experience showed us how we should attempt to answer. As with all things Jesus it is so simple anyone could do it, yet not simplistic or limiting in any way. The sermon develops the role of that question in Jesus’ life, the thread of continuity found in the will of the Father through changes in purpose. It then develops that teaching for our lives.
The question of suffering is one of the constant ones of modernity. The curmudgeon in me wants to draw a graph showing interest is the problem of suffering going straight up over time and actual suffering has gone down over the same time, but a smart person once told me that “yes, suffering may be comparatively less, but it is still mine.”
The disciples ask a question that is full of assumptions about how God and the moral calculus works. Jesus’ answer bears directly on suffering, and gets to the heart of the gospel. The moral calculus doesn’t balance. At least not how we think. This sermon attempts to examine that fact in the light of Jesus who says “I am the light of the World”.
I’m not going to add more other than say give it a listen.
Worship note: I left out the hymns primarily because the sermon and Gospel lesson are longer than normal and I try to keep the total recording time around 25 mins or less.
The day on the Church calendar was the Baptism of Christ and the text recognizes that. I think in the sermon there is recognition of baptism. If not, all the hymns of the day picked up on it as their connecting theme. But as I was preparing the sermon verse 18 (“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people”) combined with a comment by Origin (2nd Century Teacher quoted in the sermon) made me look at John the Baptist himself. What was the gospel, the good news, that John preached?
As he would say, “Christ must increase, I must decrease”, so as a preacher the core of that Good News was simply the bridegroom has come – Jesus. That is the core of any preaching. But John’s good news, just from this brief snippet (Luke 3:1-22), is expansive. And Luke’s version of John has a striking and touching emphasis. After pointing out the bridegroom – the kinsman redeemer of Israel, John preaches against a false in everyway redeemer, Herod. Jesus & Israel are the bridegroom and sanctified bride. Herod and Herodias are the mocking of that redemption. John calls him out, and pays with his freedom and life. John’s preaching of good news, includes the role of suffering.
I didn’t make the connection in the sermon because the sermon itself is more breadth than depth. Pulling together all the threads of levirate marriage that this text relies on would have been explaining too much for a sermon. Better suited for a study. But marriage as the symbol of what God does for his people, and the mocking of marriage made by the state, and John’s suffering caused by that confrontation, seems applicable.
Recording Note: I have left in our opening hymn Lutheran Service Book 405 To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord. The congregation sounded great, and that hymn really captures the core message of the festival – “This man is Christ our substitute!” Also, they sang it post the OT reading, but I’ve moved it after the sermon here. These recordings can’t really capture the full service. We don’t really have the recording equipment for that, so the focus is really on the spoken parts (i.e. texts and sermon). But, I included our Choir singing a wonderful Epiphany piece. I included such things as markers to the full live experience. Worship really is about being there.