Sexagesima Sunday Sermon
January 31, 2016
“When Pain is Good for You”
2 Corinthians 12:9
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
The parable of the sower and the seed describes four different kinds of soil: three bad kinds and one good kind. The good ground was not where people walk, it was not rocky, and it was not infested with thorny weeds. It was well plowed and ready to be seeded. The seed is the word of God. The good soil is the believing Christian heart that receives the seed in faith and keeps it. How does God prepare the Christian heart to receive his holy word? What goes into the plowing of the soil? At times, much pain and suffering. Sometimes pain is good for us.
Nothing in us can make the word of God work. There is much in us that can keep the word of God from doing its work. We don’t by nature believe what God tells us. In fact, by nature we reject the holiest mysteries of God as foolishness. This is what St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 2:14.
How God changes an unbeliever into a believer is a mystery to us. We know that the power of God is the power of his word alone. St. Peter calls the gospel that is preached to us an imperishable seed by which we are born again. St. Paul calls the gospel the means by which we are brought to faith. But how is it that some hear the same gospel as others and believe it and hold on to it and treasure it as the greatest possession in heaven and on earth while others despise it and ignore it? Only God knows. I sure don’t. Neither do you.
Some folks think they do. They think they can understand how it is that the word of God works in a believer’s heart. They devise strategies on how to present the word of God in such a way that people will believe it. The problem with their strategies is that they entail refashioning the gospel and adapting it to the preconceived notions of the group to whom they are offering it. People would rather have money, good health, popularity, and success than to pick up their cross and follow Jesus.
But what people want and what people need are very different things! People need God’s mercy and his mercy is revealed in Christ and his holy gospel. But people are more interested in having their spiritual ego stroked than to submit to being taught by God. They want God’s blessing but they don’t want to hear about how God blesses us through pain, suffering, and bearing a cross.
God wants to teach us. Our sinful flesh doesn’t want to be taught. So God uses suffering – our suffering – as an occasion to teach us what we might not want to know when everything is going our way.
The Apostle Paul wrote this Epistle. He was suffering pain. He called it a thorn in the flesh – a messenger of Satan. What it was we don’t even know. It could have been a physical ailment having to do with his eyes. Whatever it was, it caused Paul terrible pain. And his Savior, Jesus, his dear, loving, gracious Savior, wanted Paul to suffer that pain.
That is hard to believe. But it’s true. Sometimes our loving Savior wants us to suffer. And St. Paul is not a unique case. St. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:20-21:
Called to suffer. Imagine that! Called to suffer in imitation of Jesus who suffered. Called to pick up the cross God sends and to bear it with patience. Called to be weak and, at times, a bit pathetic. That’s depressing, isn’t it? No! It’s the most comforting thing in the world.
Consider St. Paul. What a saint God made him! He had visions of heaven. He is the man he describes as being caught up into the third heaven. The first heaven is the air above us. The second heaven is the universe in all its vastness. The third heaven is, as Paul here tells us, Paradise, what we ordinarily call heaven. He was brought into the presence of God in a way no man can even describe. But he doesn’t boast of that. He doesn’t write a book about it. He won’t talk about it. Instead, he boasts about his suffering. Why? Jesus explains why. He says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Don’t look to heaven on earth, dear Christian. It isn’t here for you. Instead, look to God’s grace here on earth. It is sufficient for you. This is Jesus talking.
He may not cure the cancer, though he could. He may not take away the pain from the surgery that just won’t go away, though he could. He may not let you keep the property the bank is anxious to repossess, though he could. He is the almighty God. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he said. All power is all power. He could cure the disease, he could provide the money, he could do whatever it is you want him to do. But he may choose not to and one thing you must believe is this: he loves you. When he denies what you so dearly want, he loves you. When you pray and pray and your dear one dies anyway, he loves you. When you ask him again and again to take away the pain, the problem, the sorrow, whatever the thorn may be, and he doesn’t, he still loves you.
Do you believe this? Or do you want to believe it, but can’t? You know it’s true, but cannot figure out how, so you think maybe you do believe it, but not with all your heart, because you really don’t understand what in the world God is doing or why? What is going on here? God is plowing the ground of your heart so that he can pour out on you the rain of his grace and plant deep into your pain the seed of his holy gospel. When it is planted deep down, where the birds cannot find it, where the thorns can’t choke it, where it can take deep root and grow, there is within you a source of joy, hope, and confidence that no pain of this life can ever take away.
Thank God he brings us suffering. Thank God he makes us face pain. For how else could we really learn how weak we are? Have you ever been falsely accused and have responded with such bitterness that you became guilty of a worse sin than that of which you were accused? Have you ever felt helpless before the dying body of one you love and have doubted that God really cared about you? Have you ever looked at your sins and said, “If only I could do it over again, if only I had another chance, why I’d do it differently,” only to have to admit that you really wouldn’t, because you didn’t? In other words, have you ever felt your own personal sinful weakness so acutely that the pain was just unbearable? Tell me, on what can we depend in such moments? When we are weaker than a little child, but without the simplicity of his faith? When we can only lament our troubles, but can do absolutely nothing to address them, much less solve them? On what can we rely? On God’s grace alone.
God’s grace isn’t floating around in space somewhere where we cannot find it. God’s grace is located in God’s gospel and sacraments. Wherever the gospel is, there is God’s grace, there is the Holy Spirit, and there is the power to bring sinners to faith and to keep them in the faith, and to comfort them, and strengthen them, and sanctify them. Wherever the gospel is preached, wherever the sacraments are administered, there is God’s almighty, saying power. You cannot add to this word and you cannot take away from this word. You cannot make it more effective, and you cannot render it impotent either. It is as God says in today’s Old Testament Lesson,
So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
The reason people question the power of God’s word is that they forget their own need. Suffering teaches us our true need. It teaches us that we are dust and that to dust we will return and there is no power that can deliver us from death but the power of the crucifixion of the Son of God where he faced our death and destroyed it. When we are weak, only then are we strong. Only in our weakness do we look to Jesus on the cross for us and have his image imprinted in our hearts – and not his image in glory – but his image in suffering. It was in his deep and unimaginable sorrow and suffering that he faced what we in our suffering have never faced. He faced abandonment by God. So when we suffer, we know that for Christ’s sake, we will never be forsaken, never abandoned, never left to suffer alone.
Consider Christ’s suffering and bind yours to his. Consider Christ’s cross and tie yours to his. Christ’s suffering and cross were, are, and will always be the bearing of our sins. He bore them to remove them. He suffered in our place to take away the cause of all human suffering. He bore our sins in his own body. He washed them away by his blood. His suffering is good. It is our forgiveness, our life, and our eternal hope. His suffering guarantees that God’s anger against us is removed forever.
When you are weak and suffering pain, don’t forget your true home. Come here to church to find the gospel that gives you Christ’s forgiveness. Come and receive the word that is inherently powerful and always gracious. When God is plowing the soil of your heart and it hurts, he isn’t making you weak. He’s showing you how weak you already are. He’s telling you to seek out his strength, not inside of you, but in your baptism, in his absolution, in the gospel and in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. There the virtue of Christ’s suffering is given to you and you become strong.
Listen to him. Seek his gracious favor in his gracious word. Learn from him that only when you are weak are you strong.
Rolf D. Preus