Sermon 05-19-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 6”

May 23, 2013
As a child, John Lennon played on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army orphanage near his Liverpool home.

As a child, John Lennon played on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army orphanage near his Liverpool home.

Both John Lennon and the apostle Paul agree that life in the “real world” is filled with pain and suffering. John longs to escape to “Strawberry Fields,” the heavenly place of his childhood memories. Paul, however, knows better: by grace God is always working to transform suffering into something deeply beneficial for his children. Among other things, it can strengthen our trust in God, make us more dependent on him, and awaken our conscience to sin. The good news is that there’s no evil or suffering that’s beyond God’s ability to redeem. 

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Romans 8:28

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

My birth mother, Linda, whom some of you have met, lives near Mt. Airey, North Carolina, hometown of the late-great Andy Griffith. There’s a shop there that I love, which sells second-hand merchandise. It has a sign out front that reads: “Remember all that stuff you had when you were a kid that your parents got rid of? It’s all in here!” And I’m like, “I got to go in there!” The store had old comic books, and magazines, and paperbacks, and baseball cards, and records, and tapes—along with old lunchboxes, toys, games, and memorabilia. You get the idea, right? The store exists for people like me!

It just so happens that about a dozen years ago, I had a fight with Mom. I was feeling nostalgic, so I decided to rummage through the basement and attic and closets of the house I grew up in and retrieve some of these priceless artifacts from my childhood—comic books, Matchbox cars, baseball cards, Superhero records, and my library of Hardy Boys books. To my shock and horror, I discovered that most of these things were gone—vanished, missing! My mom explained that she and Dad had sold them in garage sales over the years. And I was really angry. And I said, “Mom, I can’t believe you sold my childhood? How could you do it?” And she’s like, “I didn’t know I was ‘selling your childhood’!” 

A few months later, I was having lunch with Mom at her house. She excused herself from the table and said she’d be right back. And she came back into the kitchen with a stack of Hardy Boys books—just like the ones I had when I was a kid. She said, “Here… I couldn’t replace all of them, but this is a start.” This was, like, the sweetest, most thoughtful gift she had ever given me.

I don’t know why I wanted these old things from my past—except that having them back feels like a warm blanket on a chilly day. There’s a part of me that wants to get in a time machine and go back to, say, 1978, and feel what I felt back then. Life seemed so much simpler and easier—even though I’m sure being a grown-up in 1978 wasn’t any easier than being a grown-up today!

John Lennon would know exactly how I feel. Strawberry Field—without the “s”—was the name of a Salvation Army orphanage that was five minutes’ walking distance from Lennon’s house in Liverpool when he was a kid. He and a neighbor boy would jump the fence around the property and run and play and climb trees. He went with his Aunt Mimi to summer festivals that they had on the grounds. In the song he looks back longingly to this time when life was so much less complicated—back when there was “nothing to get hung about,” as he puts it. That’s a strange expression, but he means “there’s nothing to get hung up about.” “Nothing to get upset about.” In fact, the original lyric was, “There’s nothing to get mad about.”

Lennon had written a song the previous year called “She Said, She Said,” in which he expressed the same sentiment in a different way: “When I was a boy,” he sang, “Everything was right.” Wouldn’t we all love to go back to a time when “everything was right”—when there was nothing to upset us, nothing to get hung about? Who needs this world of adult responsibilities: mortgages and car payments and commitments and job stress and financial problems? If that’s what real life is made of, then the singer of this song has had enough of “real life,” thank you very much. He longs to return to a time when nothing was real. After all, he says, “living is easy with eyes closed.”

Being an adult means living with eyes wide open. And it’s hard. And it’s painful. And it’s ambiguous. Now that John’s an adult, he sings, “It’s getting hard to be someone.” But back then… in the past… when he was young… it was so much easier.

So I’m sympathetic with John. And I think that Paul—the apostle Paul, I mean—would be sympathetic, as well. There are a few interesting parallels between the song and today’s scripture. First, for John, Strawberry Fields represents Paradise—a place he visited when he was younger. The apostle Paul is also looking back to a time in his past when he was in Paradise—literally Paradise. Second, both men are unable to fully describe the experience: Four times in the song John says, “I think…” “I think this is what it was like. I think this is what happened. I’m not sure.” There’s a tone of hesitation about what John experienced. Similarly, the apostle Paul is unwilling or unable to repeat what he’s heard while there, but twice he says he doesn’t know whether it was an out-of-body experience or not—only God knows.

And like John, the apostle Paul certainly longed to go back there and is confident that he will, as he describes in Philippians 1. Heaven, after all, is truly the only place where there is “nothing to get hung about.” Back in the “real world,” outside of Paradise, well… the apostle Paul knows better John that there is plenty to get hung about.

In fact, in the previous chapter Paul gives a long list of ways in which he had suffered. To make matters worse, in verse 7 Paul says that when he came back from Paradise, “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me.” No one knows what this thorn was. It was probably something—maybe a physical ailment, a deformity, a speech impediment—that the Corinthians knew about. Paul didn’t know at the time that he was writing the Bible, so he didn’t feel the need to explain himself for our benefit, unfortunately.

Whatever it was, this thorn in the flesh was bad. Really bad! It tormented him. And get this: it was from the devil himself. But not only that: it was also from God. How do we know this? Because when Paul says that the “thorn was given” to him, that’s what scholars call the “divine passive”: God is the one who is doing the giving. How can something be from Satan and also from God? Well, here’s one way: You may remember back in Genesis when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; they intended to get rid of him forever. That was evil. But God used brothers’ evil scheme as the means by which Joseph became a powerful Egyptian ruler who saved the population from famine and starvation. When Joseph later reunites with his brothers, he tells them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” You intended to harm me; but God intended it for good.

That God can transform evil into something good should not surprise us. Why? Because we remember what God did to evil on an unprecedented scale on the cross—he transformed it into the greatest good imaginable—which is, salvation for everyone who would accept God’s free gift through faith. Don’t tell me that God can’t transform the bad stuff that happens to you!

So God took this evil that Satan intended for Paul and transformed it into something good for him. For example, the thorn kept Paul from becoming conceited; it kept his pride in check; it helped to keep him humble. It taught him to depend on the Lord, the only true source of power, instead of depending on himself. Look at all the good that God accomplished giving Paul this thorn in his flesh. But please notice something else: good does not equal painless. In fact, God is so good to Paul that he’s going to let Paul suffer with this thorn for the rest of his life.

Does that sound cruel? Only if we misunderstand God’s love. See, we often mistake love for tolerance. If God loves us, he’ll let us do what we want. He’ll overlook our sin. He’ll say, “I love you just the way you are. Please don’t ever change!” But that’s not love; it’s indifference. Years ago, we took our dog Presley to obedience training. The trainer’s name was Mark. His dogs had won awards in obedience competitions all over the country. We told him that despite our best efforts, Presley routinely ignored the command to “come.” We would say “come” and the dog would run the other way. Lots of people in the class were having problem with this command. What could we do about that?

So Mark talked about it in class. He said, “If it’s really bad, I would use a shock collar on the dog if he won’t respond to the ‘come’ command. That way, if you say ‘come,’ and he ignores you, you can push a button and it’s like sending a lightning bolt from on high. Very quickly, the dog will learn to come when you call.” And we were all like, “Mark, isn’t that cruel?” He said, “Maybe. But you know what’s even more cruel? When you let your dog run out onto a busy highway and get hit by a car. That’s the cruelest thing of all.” We got his point. Pain can be a good thing sometimes.

Days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in one fell swoop, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote an op-ed in a London paper saying that when we see death and destruction on this scale, it causes us to question our faith in God, or in God’s goodness. Williams meant well, of course, and we clergy always say these sorts of things after tragedy strikes, don’t we?

But a columnist in a rival newspaper ridiculed the archbishop: “What is he talking about? Did he not notice that churches were packed this past Sunday?” His point is well-taken. After all, Americans hardly abandoned God after 9/11. On the contrary: churches enjoyed a strong uptick in attendance for weeks or months afterward. Far from turning us away from God, suffering often brings us closer to God. God knows this better than anyone: God pours his blessings on us, and we ignore him. God takes them away, and suddenly we’re back on our knees.

Isn’t that true in your own experience? You’ve heard of “fair-weather fans”—as long as your team is winning, you’re a fan of the team? I am the opposite of a fair-weather Christian—because more often than not the weather is fair in my life, if you know what I mean. Success, prosperity, happiness… These things tend to make me less dependent on the Lord, more dependent on myself. But God is merciful to me: he sends trouble my way. He sends suffering my way. He sends tears my way. And I repent.

C.S. Lewis said that if God were proud, he wouldn’t have us back on these terms: “It’s a poor thing,” Lewis writes, “to strike our colours”—or surrender our ship—to God “when the ship is going down under us”; “to come to him as a last resort”; to “offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping.” But God wants us to come back, and he’ll use these circumstances to bring us back if he has to. It’s like the prodigal son. What motivates him to return to his father? A guilty conscience? Not at first. The first thing he feels isn’t guilt but the hunger pangs of an empty stomach. I don’t think that that parable applies only to the moment when we accept Christ as Savior and Lord; I think it applies throughout our Christian lives, as God uses suffering and pain to draw us closer to him, to get our attention, and to awaken our consciences to the sin we need to repent of.

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that God always causes our suffering—but I am saying that when we suffer, we can be confident that God will use it for our good, if we’ll trust him.

So we can face all suffering without fear.

[Viktor Frankl illustration. We always have the freedom to choose how to respond in the midst of suffering. We can choose whether it will be an opportunity for spiritual growth]

Like John, we may long to go back to Strawberry Fields—to a place where nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about—to a place that’s comfortable and easy and safe and pain-free. It’s easy to get to that place. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road” that leads there. But a small gate and a narrow road leads to the place to which Jesus is beckoning us. It’s the way of suffering; it’s the way of self-denial; it’s the way of taking up one’s cross. And it’s the way to eternal life.

Which way will you choose?

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