From St. Peter’s first epistle we read this morning: “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” Good grief! Here we are in smack dab the middle of the Easter season and the prayer book editors have given us an epistle about suffering. Suffering unjustly!
You might be asking, “What does Easter have to do with suffering?” You might be thinking, “Shouldn’t we be reading that lesson on Good Friday, not Easter?” I asked myself the same questions until I read the last sentence of the passage. “You have returned to the Shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
It’s Easter. But, there still are a lot of folks out there who are suffering today. Easter didn’t stop suffering, did it? And if you’re not one of them suffering during this Easter season, you know someone who is. Easter may not have stopped suffering. But Easter is God’s answer to suffering. So I want to focus in this morning on the good news of Easter for those who suffer.
Now there are very different types of suffering. There’s the suffering that we might have brought upon ourselves. It’s the drug addict who squandered his health and his wealth to feed his addiction. Now he suffers the effects of that addiction.
It’s the person who can’t forgive. He’s been wronged by someone in the past. He’s the brunt of someone else’s thoughtlessness. But he can’t forgive.. His pride won’t let him. So he nurses that grudge and that resentment eats away at him every day.
These kinds of suffering are self inflicted. We understand the source of it. And knowing the reason for the suffering might not alleviate it, but it gets God off the hook.
But what about unjust suffering? Suffering that you did not deserve, suffering that you had no hand in causing. That’s what Peter addresses in this morning’s epistle reading. He writes to congregations who endure suffering for doing what was right.
Unjust suffering is suffering may brought on by circumstances over which you have no control. You lose your home in a wildfire. You lose your job, your savings because of a virus from China. You get a diagnosis that changes your life.
I had a friend who never smoked, never drank alcohol, never did drugs.\ She was very careful to eat a healthy diet. And she exercised everyday. She got regular check-ups with the doctor.
But then one day, her mammogram revealed the cancer. Where did that come from and why her?She had done everything right.
Unjust suffering may also be brought on by others. St. Peter’s early churches understood that suffering. They suffered persecution for doing what was right. Just this past week I read about a Christian pastor in communist China who has disappeared. He had refused to join the communist state-approved church. And now he’s gone missing. God only knows what kind of suffering he now endures or even if he’s still alive.
When someone finds themselves the victim of unjust suffering, the first question they ask is “Why me?” What did I do to deserve this? What did I do to deserve cancer? What did I do to deserve a baby born with severe disabilities? What did I do to deserve an abusive parent? What did I do to be laid off?
It’s an age-old question. What did I do to deserve this suffering?
Last night I was out on my walk in the early evening. I’m gaining a new appreciation of the neighborhood now that I’m seeing it a walking pace instead of driving through it. I’m seeing the patches of blue lupin in the green meadow. I’m hearing the birds calling to each other. I’m noticing the improvements the neighbors are making to their landscaping/. It’s the prettiest time of year for us here in Oakhurst.
And as I walked I found myself thanking God for blessing me with such a beautiful place to call home. At the same time, I thought about that pastor in China who suffers right now. Or Christians in Sudan who are persecuted by Muslim extremists. People who are trapped in various forms of involuntary servitude for no fault of their own. And I realized the difference between these suffering folks and me is that I was born in a free America. Now I had no control over where I would be born. That decision was made by others. But my life is lot better than a lot of other people in this world because I was born in America.
Now as I was walking last night and thinking about these things, here’s something I did not ask God. I did not ask God, “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve being born in 20th century America?” I take the blessing of being born here as a given.
I don’t question it.
When we receive blessings, we don’t ask, “Why me?” Yet, when we suffer we ask, “what did I do to deserve this?” And the response is “You did nothing to deserve this!” Just as I did nothing to be blessed with being born here. Then why am I experiencing this suffering?
You remember the story of Job. Here was a man who lived a blameless life. The bible says that he feared God and shunned evil. God himself, boasted about Job and what an exemplary life Job led.
And you remember how Satan told God, “Sure, he leads a good life. That’s because you protect him, you prospered his efforts. Who wouldn’t live a good life if everything went so well for them. But take all those things away and you would see that things would be different. Job would curse you.” But God was so confident of Job, that he called Satan’s bluff. All right, I’ll put Job in your hands and we’ll see.”
So Job began to see the blessings in his life removed and the suffering begin. First all his livestock and his servants were destroyed. But Job would not curse God. Then his sons and daughters were destroyed by a mighty wind. Still Job would not curse God. Then he lost his health and suffered on his bed. Job cursed the day he was born. But he would not curse God.
But Job questioned “why?” His friends were all quick to offer their reasons. We like to do that, don’t we? You just need more faith! We like to protect God and offer reasons for unjust suffering.
But the truth of the matter was that Job did absolutely nothing to deserve his suffering. And there was no way he or anyone else on earth could not the reason behind the suffering. That reason was known only in the heavenlies.
The lesson we take from Job when we endure unjust suffering is not to ask “Why”? We know the answer. It because we live in a fallen world. There was no cancer in the Garden of Eden. There were no natural disasters in the Garden of Eden. But that all changed and now we live in a fallen world. The bible says that all creation groans.
When we endure unjust suffering, the question we need ask is not “Why,” but “Who?” Who can we turn to in our suffering? Who will show us the way through this suffering? Easter is the answer to that question.
Easter begins with a loving God who sent his only son to rescue us. Jesus knew no suffering in heaven. But on Good Friday, he suffered. Not just the pain of crucifixion, lots of men suffered that. He suffered more than that.
For all eternity, a sinless, holy Jesus enjoyed a perfect union with his holy father. But on Good Friday, Jesus took on the sin of the world. And that sin separated him for His father.
Jesus knows what it means to feel alone and abandoned. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He wasn’t just reciting a psalm. He was pouring out his heart. When we suffer, we don’t suffer alone. Jesus suffers with us.
Look at the time when he answered Martha’s call to come and heal Lazarus. When he got there, Lazarus was already dead and entombed. All around were the mourners weeping and wailing. When Jesus stood before the tomb, the bible says he wept. It’s the only time we hear of Jesus weeping. He wasn’t weeping for Lazarus. He knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead. He was weeping for all those around him who were suffering in their grief.
One of the most loving ways to minister to those who suffer is not to offer reasons or speculations for the suffering. But to weep with them.
I remember my first my heartbreak. The pain of rejection. It’s excruciating, isn’t it? I poured out my heart to a good friend, I was a mess. She just enveloped me in her arms and I cried on her shoulder. And as she held me, she started praying for me. But as she prayed, I heard her start to weep. And you know, I felt strangely comforted by hearing that weeping. I wasn’t going through this alone. She knew what I was feeling. She hurt with me.
Jesus wept as he entered into the suffering with those who suffered. Jesus knew our pain. And when you’re suffering, Jesus is right there with you in that suffering.
Now here’s where Easter comes in. Peter says that when Jesus suffered unjustly, he didn’t ask why. Instead, he entrusted himself to God. In the Greek, it would read, “he handed himself over.” to God. Peter says that Jesus serves as an example for us to follow. I’m hurting, God. I’m suffering. I don’t understand why, but I don’t need to. I’m just handing myself over to you, I’m entrusting myself to you.”
Jesus suffered on Good Friday. He entrusted himself to God. And on Easter, God vindicated his Son. On Easter, the suffering was turned to triumph. Easter tells us that suffering will not have the last word.
One of the most worldwide recognizable symbols today is the cross. It maybe almost as recognizable as McDonald’s Golden Arches. ☺ But back in the days of the early church, the cross wasn’t the symbol of Jesus. Back then, the cross was a symbol of torture and death. Instead, the symbol they used for Jesus was a shepherd carrying an oversized sheep on his shoulders. That symbol said it all.
You see, that sheep was the one that was missing at the end of the day. And when the shepherd counted his sheep and noticed the absence, he didn’t go in the house for dinner and wait until the next day. He left right away to find that lost sheep. He knew that the lost sheep was stuck out there and suffering alone. He also knew that a hungry wolf would find that sheep if he didn’t hurry and find him first. So as tired and hungry as he is after a long day, the Good Shepherd sets off to find the sheep. When finds the sheep, that sheep will be so traumatized that she won’t be able to walk. The Good Shepherd will have to carry her all the way back home on his shoulders. He does it gladly.
Now, think about that poor sheep all alone out there. Imagine her suffering. She feels abandoned. She fears a predator who will surely come and have a meal on her. But she didn’t need to fear. She didn’t need to wonder how she was going to survive. Because she is in the care of a good shepherd. She just needed to entrust herself to that good shepherd. She just needed to believe that he would be faithful to deliver her.
The Good Shepherd will come. He will be there to pick her up. As big and heavy as that sheep is, the Good Shepherd will bear the weight and carry her on his own shoulders. For a suffering church in those early days, the Easter message was encapsulated in that picture of the Good Shepherd carrying that oversized sheep on his shoulders. And the Good Shepherd is smiling. Even as he bears the weight.
Right now we live in a fallen world. And in this fallen world, we will continue to experiencing suffering. Some of that suffering will be our own fault. But some of it we will suffer unjustly, as Jesus did when suffered on Good Friday.
But after the Good-Friday-suffering came Easter-triumph. Death itself could not defeat Jesus. So nothing – not even death – can keep the Good Shepherd away from rescuing us.
When you find ourselves suffering, unjustly suffering, You don’t have to ask why, you only have to ask who. Who will meet you in your suffering? Who will give you hope? Who will rescue you?
Entrust yourself to the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd WHO knows his sheep.
The Good Shepherd WHO knows our suffering.
The Good Shepherd WHO is on the way.
He will be the one who will lift you from the pit. And he will be the one who will carry you home on his own shoulders. There’s an empty tomb in Jerusalem that guarantees it.