Matthew 2:13-18, II Corinthians 12: 7a -10, Romans 8:28, 38-39
Into every life, difficulty comes. It is almost a law of life. Scott Peck the Psychiatrist writes in his book Further Along The Road Less Traveled that life appears to be engineered to guarantee the testing of us all. The writer of the book of Job, a different kind of psychologist, says “we are born to trouble like the sparks fly upwards.” That is why when we find ourselves struggling with life’s circumstances, we are sharing a very common experience.
The difficulty takes many forms. We can lose a loved one, or lose our health. We can lose our jobs or lose our dignity. We can lose our wealth and we can lose in the relationships of our lives. We can lose a spouse through divorce. We can lose a child’s trust and affection. We can lose a friend through misunderstandings. We can lose our sense of direction and lose any sense of significance. And when we lose someone or something important to us, we are traumatized, just as severely as if we had undergone a serious accident and our bodies were on life support systems. Emotional loss can devastate us.
But if the message about the universality of our suffering is true, there is another discovery that those who are considered among the wise of this world have made. Bad news is often the bearer of good news, though disguised. Bad news can be the messenger service for something of infinite value.
During the Christmas season we are going to explore the advent of the greatest life that was ever lived. We are going to re-investigate that most startling personality of human history. His life is the most vivid demonstration that bad news happens to us all, but that the bad news can be the very means of the best news of all.
The Birth of the Messiah
As we enter the season of Advent, have you noticed the incredible details of the Christmas story? His conception took place within a young lady – not yet married. The fiancé of the young lady started planning to break off their engagement because he knew the child was not his. When it is time for the baby to be born, the young couple was far from home, at a time when the government of the day was planning to increase the already excessive taxation. They are on the road, when the labour pains begin. The hotels are full and so the birth takes place in the shed at the back of the building, and the newborn is placed in an animal’s feeding trough because there is no cradle. A tough way to enter the world. But hang on. That was the easy part. Soon that couple and the baby are running for their life from soldiers who are not averse to mayhem and murder. The couple find themselves racing towards Egypt, feeling the threat of pursuing soldiers and further persecution. They become refugees, in a strange land for the first years of the baby’s life. And when they finally think it safe to return, they sneak back in to Palestine, but hole up in a little village a long way from Herod’s palace. A tough way to start out life!
Born to trouble as the sparks fly upward! But wait. The bad news is not the whole story! We know that the birth of that child was the beginning of a new day for the world. Because, though the trouble is real and causes Mary & Joseph’s hearts to fail from fear, in all of the hurt, God is not absent. They have not been abandoned. And though the times are hard, a couple and their child emerge on the other side of that disastrous beginning, because God was with them. But they do not simply emerge, the same as they entered it. The event is used by God to season the moral character of a couple who will help raise the world’s Saviour.
The Poverty of his life
But the trouble and pain in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is not limited to a child hood moment. He lived for thirty years under enemy occupation. Foreign soldiers made their home in his nation, and in his home town so that no one else could feel at home there. When he was five years of age he saw hundreds of Galileans crucified simultaneously along the roads leading into Nazareth. He lived his entire life sharing in a life limited by cruel and capricious conquerors, who over taxed and under protected.
While he was still young, we suspect he lost his father and was raised in the home of a single parent who was widowed far too soon. I have often wondered when he was at the tomb of Lazarus his friend and stood there and wept, whether part of those tears came from remembering the death of a dad some years earlier? He, like some of us, had tasted death in his family and it had brought its own legacy of deep hurt.
When he reached thirty years of age, he enters into his vocation as a traveling teacher. But he is without home, without income, dependent upon the charity of strangers. He looks to be no more that a wandering beggar who hangs out with the wrong kind of people. And that looks like a hard lot in life, from beginning to end. Bad news!
But wait, it is not all bad news! Poverty sharing is powerful. Some of the people who have most affected our world for good have embraced “Dame Poverty” as did St. Francis of Assisi and others like Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Mahatma Gandhi. These all helped to shape the essential nature of the world by being powerless.
In recent years a great story came to light in Toronto. Henri Noewen was one of the world’s best voices. He could write his ticket to teach at any institution of high education in the world. He was a writer of some of the very best literature on the Spiritual life. But he decided to live in the Daybreak Community which cares for retarded adults. He became their pastor. He could be speaking to the brightest and best of the leaders of Christendom, but he served those who are the most needy in our culture. And because he gave his life to such as these, he earned the right to speak to the world. A life of poverty can become a grinding evil and can dehumanize. But if God is in it, choosing or living at peace with our own poverty can be a way of changing the world.
The death of the Messiah
When that life of Jesus lived in poverty came to its close, the terrible pain of life came to ultimate fulfillment. His life was taken from him in moments that included the betrayal of a friend, the desertion of his companions, the anger of synagogue and state being turned against him, leading to the execution on a cross. The ultimate indignity. Life that starts and ends in crisis. Bad News is there if ever there was any bad news!
But you and I know that the very event of his death was the best news for everyone else. The suffering was not the last word. Nor was it simply the next to last word. It was not simply that after pain comes peace, so hang in there! Somehow the very suffering of the Son of God brought about a great good in the world. The writer of the book of Hebrews is so bold as to say that he learned obedience through what he suffered and thereby became the author of salvation. The trouble he experienced did something within Him, and not just for us.
But what does his story have to do with mine. I know that out of his hurt, good flows to me, but how does my being hurt change anything?
The Hurts in our Lives
The truth is that all bad news events are bearers of good news. It is not that every cloud inherently has its own silver lining. That is not true. Some events are so devastating that they are solid tragedy all the way through. Bad news is not good news, except to very twisted minds. We are not masochists who say, “Wow that hurts; do it again.”
But the reality is that God himself comes to us in the bad news days of our lives. In the middle of our taxing time, in the middle of a world occupied with violence, Jesus comes, and St. Matthew reminds us that His name is Immanuel which means “God is with us.” And his presence makes all the difference.
St. Paul became the major theologian of the church during that first century. In the passage we read this morning he shares with us some of the painful process of becoming the kind of person God could use to make a difference in his world. A thorn in the flesh came to him. He calls it a messenger of Satan that tormented him. It was not in and of itself a good thing. It was bad! Paul prayed that it would be removed. But God said “No. My grace is sufficient for you.” And that thorn was used by God to develop character in a man who would help shape the entire future of both church and world.
Years later Paul writes to the Church in Rome out of that experience. He offers them words that will help them interpret their tough times. In earlier versions of the Bible, Romans 8:28 read “All things work together for good to those who love God.” But newer versions corrected that reading: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and who have chosen to fulfill His purposes.”
You see, bad events don’t automatically have silver linings. But God Himself is in the middle of those tough times so that they are made to work good. Bad news comes, but because of His being in the middle of such moments, God makes them into means of grace. God Himself is the active ingredient that turns trouble into triumph. He is the dynamic that can change a disaster into one of the most redemptive days in a person’s life.
But be careful here. God is not the author of bad news. Bad times come to all of us at some time or another because of the nature of the world, and the reality about people. Some of us seem to have periods when we seem to get more than our share of pain. God, normally does not send trouble our way, He is, however, the transformer of such events, so that a bad event need not be wasted in our lives.
God does not cancel bad news either. We must live life in a real world, where there can be no exemption from the realities of living in a dangerous world. God finds a way, however, not to exempt us from the struggle, but to use the struggle, so that a greater good can grow, that may not have been possible if the hurt had not come.
Difficulties are inevitable in all of our lives. Some of those events devastate us when they first come. Events happen in the lives of institutions, such as churches like ours, as well as individuals, and those events can cause great harm. We are prone to call out in despair and think that life will never be the same again. We think we have come to the end of all that was significant.
Do you know the story of Christopher Columbus and the coins of Spain? Before 1492 the coins of the country had a design which included the pillars of Hercules, the Rock of Gibraltar on its face. On the coin there were printed three Latin words. “Ne Plus Ultra!” There is No More Beyond! “ Gibraltar was the end of the world, or so they thought. There was nothing beyond but a wide waste of water. Then Columbus discovered a new continent. He returned to tell the story. The coins now had to be changed. But they didn’t need much of a change. The word “No” was removed. The coins now read “More Beyond” and Spain sailed into a new future to carve out an empire greater than the world had ever seen before.
There are times when something happens that damages our lives and we feel tempted to say “No more beyond.” But in God we live, and God lives in every event.
Faith looks at life and says bad news! No avoiding reality here. But faith also says “I wonder how God will use this event, and recycle this garbage?” Faith says, “This looks like all bad news, but it can’t be that because God has not deserted me in this moment, but is busy helping me to get some good out of this that will be better than the loss I have sustained.
But there is an alternative to faith in God. For there are always two choices. Unbelief says “this is the end”, and bitterness of spirit and despair can take over. We can withdraw into a compact world bounded on all four sides by our troubles. In the loss of things or persons, we can also lose ourselves and lose the ultimate meaning of life.
We get a choice. We can trust God to be at work in the hurt so that good evolves for ourselves and for others. Or we can refuse to trust God, and lose his redemptive presence along with the other loss we have sustained.
When I was a high school student Mr. Agnew the Art teacher at Pauline Johnson Collegiate often tried to arouse artistic ability in some of us who did not appear to be so gifted. He would scribble a few squiggles on the chalk board and then ask one of the students to take the chalk, and keeping the scribble in place, make something beautiful out of it. Our task was to take chaos and incorporate it into something that had meaning. God also says, “here is the mess that life has served up, let us see what you and I can do together to make it into a work of art.”