The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2015
Thanks for What?
Two weeks ago, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday. And I’ll tell you what. I feel older. I went to the eye doctor, and my vision had gotten just a little bit worse. I woke up the other morning, and there was a strange pain in my foot. I bent down to pick up Lydia, and my back didn’t spring back up as quickly as it used to. I know that thirty isn’t that old, but it feels like it.
I was thinking about all of that when I read the psalm appointed for this morning. It starts, “give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy endures forever.” Those are words good for a twenty-nine year old who doesn’t feel any aches or pains, but not for a thirty year old with stiff joints and poor eyesight.
But on a more serious note, I was thinking about giving thanks to the good Lord and about this mercy that endures forever. King David probably wrote this psalm, and I want to ask him, “what world do you live in?” Give thanks to the Lord for he is good? Are you sure? At the time of King David, the people of Israel were in constant warfare with the other nations surrounding them. Plus, King David had to deal with not one, but two civil wars. And before David’s time the Israelites were held as slaves in Egypt. When they escaped from Egypt, the Lord made sure that one entire generation died off in the wilderness before they could enter the promised land. Many of them were bitten by poisonous snakes. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good? And it’s not like the news has gotten any cheerier.
If the Lord is so good, why was there in earthquake in Haiti that killed at least one hundred thousand people? If the Lord is so good, then why do one billion people around the world live on less than one dollar a day? If the Lord is so good, then why is Houston the nation’s hub for human trafficking and modern day slavery? If the Lord is so good, then how can he let deranged gunmen massacre school children? If the Lord is so good, then why did your husband or your wife leave you? If the Lord is so good, then why did you get cancer? Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because I hit the big three – oh. But I doubt I’m the only one who thinks about these things. How can we trust that the Lord is good in light of all evil and suffering in this world? How are supposed to give thanks to God when our children die and when evil men fly planes into buildings?
So are we crazy? Are we absolutely nuts for saying that, one – we believe God exists, and two – that God is not a jerk? How can we, with any sort of integrity say, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy endures forever?”
I actually do not think we are crazy. And I can say this now, with all the wisdom of a thirty year old. Yes – I do believe that God exists. And yes – I do believe that God is a good and loving God. I do believe that the Lord is good and that his mercy endures forever.
Now, I’m not trying to discount any of the evil in this world. Yes, terrorists are bad dudes. Racism in all its forms is a manifestation of evil. Slavery and starvation are terrible, terrible things. They are evil. But the good news about God, is that God knows evil too.
When Jesus died on a cross, he came face to face with evil itself. He got to know evil and suffering and pain. The God we proclaim is not some sort of distant god who floats in some ethereal heaven. The God we proclaim is a God who came to us in the flesh, who lived in the flesh, and who died in the flesh. This is a God who knows suffering because he’s been on the receiving end of evil.
So when evil and suffering happen in the world, God is there because has already been there. When madmen storm theaters and start shooting, God is there with those suffer, because God has already suffered. Jesus also died an awful death. When you get that phone call, that one that you really dread, God is there with you because God has been there before. Jesus was given a death sentence too. When you have been abandoned by your friends and family, God is there with you. Because when Jesus was condemned to die, all his friends left him. When you suffer, you get to know Jesus, because Jesus has already suffered.
That’s why God’s mercy endures forever. Because God takes pity on us, God has mercy on us when we suffer because God knows exactly how miserable it is. And it is miserable. We know that the two million children who are sex slaves around the world must be miserable. And God knows that too. We know that Alzheimer’s is a truly miserable disease. And God knows that too. We know that watching our marriages and our jobs fall apart is miserable. And God knows that too. God’s mercy endures forever, because God suffers with us.
And I want to be very, very clear. Because you are a Christian does not mean that you are signing up for a happy life. That’s not God’s mercy. We follow a God who suffered and died. So we should expect to suffer and die also. I think the most recent martyrs in the Middle East could teach us a thing or two. Christianity, for them, was a deadly choice. They died with “Jesus is Lord” on their lips. For them, following Jesus meant being killed. They knew much more about the cross than we ever will.
You won’t hear that message from everybody. You have heard of something called “the prosperity gospel.” That’s the belief that God will give you more money or a better job if you pray hard enough and go to church. Yeah, try telling that to the martyrs. Try telling Christians around the world who are actually persecuted for their faith, that if only they went to church then God would bless them with money and riches. Following Jesus Christ means we have to get acquainted with pain and suffering. We can’t run from it. God did not come to make our pain go away. God came to be with us in our pain. For the Lord is good, and his mercy endures forever.
During this season of Lent, I encourage you to get acquainted with the pain and suffering already present in the Christian story. I encourage you to come into the church, and walk the fourteen stations of the cross. Those fourteen plaques around the church are reminders of the fourteen events that took place from Jesus’ sentencing to death to laying his body in the tomb. Walk each one of these station and spend some time thinking about them. Remember the suffering and the evil that Jesus faced and connect that to the suffering and the evil that you face. When you stop and think about Jesus falling while he was carrying the cross, remember how your world fell apart on September 11. When you come to the station where the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, remember that time in your life when your pain was so great, that it hurt others. When the soldiers strip Jesus to be crucified, stop and remember all the people in this world who have been oppressed and shamed by the powers that be. When you stop and pray, about Jesus being laid in the tomb, remember all the people who have died needlessly. Children shot while sitting in their classrooms. Cancer patients being eaten away. Stop and think about the earthquakes and tsunamis that swallow people. And remember, that the Lord is good because the Lord was with all of those people, even in the midst of their calamity. The Lord’s mercy endures forever because the Lord knows just about miserable it all is.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his mercy endures forever. His mercy endures for twenty-nine year olds, and yes, even for thirty year olds. Give thanks to the Lord because no matter what, no matter what it is that you go through, the Lord Jesus is with you. The Lord Jesus is always with you.