"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." 1 Peter 3:15

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gratitude through suffering

A couple old friends bumped into one another one afternoon walking down the sidewalk.  The one friend was distraught.  There was sadness in his eyes, and he looked as if he were on the verge of tears. 

“What’s wrong friend? 

“My uncle just passed away four days ago…”

“Oh No!  I am terribly sorry to hear that.  You must have been very close.”

               “Well, no.  I hardly knew him.  But he was very wealthy…and three days ago I went to my mailbox, and discovered he left me a check for $40,000!”

               “Wow!  That is great news!  That’s a lot of money…”

               “You don’t understand…two days ago, I went to my mailbox…and discovered a check for $100,000.

               “That’s a phenomenal blessing!”

               “Yeah well, yesterday I went to my mailbox and I found a check for a quarter of a million dollars.”
               “A quarter of a million!  You are the richest man in this city!  You are right I don’t understand.  What in the world could you be so sad about?”

               “Today I went to my mailbox…and found nothing.”

               It is easy for me to scoff at the "poor" rich man.  However, taking a moment to examine my own heart as we celebrate this Thanksgiving week, I’m reminded that I spend much of my life thinking the same way the newly wealthy man in this story did—overwhelmed with blessing, but completely ungrateful.  As blessings continue to come my way, I live with a sense of entitlement.  It is good for us to be reminded to express gratitude for the good gifts God gives us.  But what about the things God takes away? 
               If we were to make a few adjustments to the story—subtract all the money and leave two friends meeting on the sidewalk, one distraught over the death of his beloved uncle—what do we do with a story like that on Thanksgiving day?  For some this holiday season—the happiest time of the year—is full of deep pain and sorrow.  So, how do we find gratitude—joy—in the midst of pain?

               In Phil 4:4-7, Paul writes, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

               These words are powerful, full of joy, thanksgiving and peace.  Paul wrote these words from prison.   How is it that Paul could be so positive?  This does not come from Paul’s strength, but the strength of the one who lives within him—he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit!  Because of this, Paul is able to look beyond his shackles and cell walls to see the bigger picture.  He remembers where his hope is found.  Rejoice in what? Not circumstance!  His circumstances are far from comfortable.  No, he is rejoicing in the Lord and remembering that “…the Lord is coming soon.” 

               Philippians is an amazing book—an amazing peek into the heart of a man who has found his hope in the bigger picture of God’s work.  That is why he is able to say things like “To live is Christ, and to die is gain”—if I live, I get to serve Christ and his church, if I die, I get to be with Christ in Heaven—It’s a win-win situation!   He talks about the privilege of suffering for Christ, and he always funnels it back to this hope we have—3:20 “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.  And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.”  This is why Paul can honestly say that he has learned to be content in all circumstances—whether he has much or little “For he can do all things through Christ who gives him strength”

               Pains, sorrows, discomforts, misfortune—all these things plague us, and can become unbearable, unless we take a note from the book of Job and see that God’s picture is bigger than ours.  

This life is not about us—it’s all about God.

               During the Thanksgiving season it is appropriate to turn to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2.  In a moment I’ll tell you why.  When I hear the word “Pentecost” my mind immediately jumps to the remarkable story— 50 days after the resurrection of Christ, 10 days after his ascension, 120 believers are praying together when they hear the sound of a mighty windstorm, tongues of fire rest on their heads, a magnificent filling of the Holy Spirit empowers them, and they begin speaking in different languages.  What a moment!   But before Pentecost became what we know it to be, to all those present that day, it was something else.  Pentecost was a festival…to celebrate the harvest, and thank God for his great provision!  Sounds a bit like Thanksgiving!

               The amazing thing about this particular Pentecost was that God was bringing in a new type of harvest through the power of his Holy Spirit—a harvest of souls onto himself.  By the work of his Spirit through the teaching of Peter and 120 believers speaking in the tongues of all the men, women and children present—the church grew from around 120 to 3,000 believers in one day!

               God brought a new meaning to Pentecost that day.  Yes, it is good to celebrate and thank God for his provision.  But when the crops fail, and the harvest is weak, and all seems at loss, we can look at the bigger picture.  The same spirit that came down and empowered the people during Pentecost—bringing thousands to salvation in Christ, is the same spirit that indwells believers now!  The same Spirit continues to bring in a harvest of souls.  God’s bigger picture is always at work.

               Habakkuk the prophet tried to grasp God’s great picture.  The people of God had turned their backs on their creator and willfully lived in sin.  The wicked outnumbered the righteous and Habakkuk asked why God stood idly by. 

               Doesn't it feel like that sometimes as we suffer?  “ Aren't you going to do anything about this God?  God responds.  Don’t worry about it.  I got this situation under control.  I’m raising up the Babylonians, yeah, you know, those Babylonians—that cruel, ruthless lot of people—they are going to come along and conquer the world.  They will be Israel’s punishment.

               Habakkuk’s response:  “Wait…huh?  But God, they are even more evil than we are.  Are you going to let them get away with this forever?”

               God responds, “No.  they rely on their own strength and worship the idols they have made with their own hands.  No, one day they too will face the consequences of their actions and face my judgment.

               In all of this, God reveals to Habakkuk that he has a bigger picture—that he is in control.  One of my favorite verses is found in Habakkuk.  Chapter 2:14 “For the time will come when all the earth will be filled, as the waters fill the sea, with an awareness of the glory of the Lord.”  God is in control.  One day everyone will know his glory.

               And then Habakkuk trusted God’s goodness.  He remembered God’s deliverance in the past and he had faith that this same severe hand of punishment that would fall on his people would be the hand of grace that draws them back to himself, and he prayed this phenomenal prayer:

Habakkuk 3:17
 “17 Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!

Things were not good, and they were about to get worse.  But God is a God who saves.  “I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!”

Though we may suffer, God invites us into hope.  “Rejoice in the Lord Always!”  We have much to be thankful for.

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