After Sunday's sermon one lady said to me 'That was very hard to listen to and for you to preach.' She was right! Two passages (Rom 5:1-5 and Jas. 1: 1-5) speak of joy in suffering. An extraordinary claim - especially for those suffering 'trials of every kind' right now. It deserved its 18 certificate.
I began by retelling how my College Principal, visibly upset by the death of a close friend, told us ministerial students (mostly in our twenties) how we were too young to preach on suffering. Too young in faith and life-experience. How true was that!
The sermon had two prime challenges, 1) Christian joy restructures everyday living. Unlike computer rebooting, Christian joy requires life-long commitment to begin each day reasserting how much God knows me, loves me, saves me (Luke 15:1-10) and how God gives me help every day to walk with him (Gal 5:13-26 ). I had some fun with some T-shirt stories and suggested how these assertions should be on the front of the T shirt we put on every morning. But on the back would be these words: this leads to PERSEVERANCE, MATURITY, CHARACTER AND HOPE. The world admires these qualities. I told the story of Sarah Thomas who had recently swum the English Channel four times in 54 hours, Battling tides which turned an 80 mile journey into 130 miles! But linking these four words with Christian joy doesn't make sense to the world.
2) Christian joy develops through dark times. Looking carefully at the texts we see how through the process of suffering and the testing of faith joy can emerge. I quoted Leon Bloy: There are places in our hearts which do not yet exist and it is necessary for suffering to penetrate there in order that they make come into being. This part of the sermon became more difficult because I knew several people in the congregation are really suffering. I shared how after 13 years of healthy ministry I was hit by a neurological disease and told I would never work publicly again and, yet ,in very dark places I learned that God was not loving me less, nor walking with me less so that I might even there show fruit. I criticized that saying: Christians are like teabags. You have to put them in hot water to see how strong they are. Actually, in hot water they show how strong God is in their weakness!
I asked permission of one of our members, Peter, who is dying of cancer whether I might tell what happened when I had coffee with him eight days earlier. A lady who had not seen Peter for a long time came up to thank him for service he had given in the village. She said how sorry she was about his illness and how well he was holding up. Peter looked up at her with a big smile. 'It's a gift', he said. 'God has given me victory'. His face was radiant. That's the hope in suffering. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57).