Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Very Encouraging Sermon

And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:21-23).

That was our text this Sunday as we make our way through the book of Acts. I was very excited to preach this message of Paul's because it is a stark contrast to what we see on television and hear in most evangelical circles. The Bible says that Paul encouraged the people by telling them that they must suffer, and apparently they took encouragment from such a sermon. Isn't that wild? How long could a person stay on TBN preaching that kind of message?

It is a gospel fact that we are ordained to suffer as Christians. There is no avoiding it, and we should not avoid some suffering even if we could. Paul compared suffering for Christ to rejoicing in God Himself. Here's the quote in case you don't believe me, "We have acces by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice int the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations" (Romans 5:2b-3).

Was Paul some sort of masochist? He actually gloried in his suffering? If he was, I guess we will have to add James to that category as well. He wrote, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various trials" (James 1:2). Here's part of Peter's take on it, "Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy" (1 Peter 4:13). It looks like Paul is not the only one who experienced and gloried in suffering, but also that of the entire line of inspired writers.

Can you imagine this sermon being preached?:

"Oh that I may know Him!" (Hoots and amens)
"Oh, that I may know the power of His resurrection!" (More hoots and amens)
"Oh, that I may know the fellowship of His sufferings!" (Couple mistimed amens and more than a few confused looks)
"Oh, that I might be conformed to His death!" (What does he mean, conformed to His death?)
"And finally, that I may attain the resurrection of the dead!" (Amens all around, though perhaps less enthusiastic)

Of course, that's taken from Paul's letter to the Philippians in 3:10-11. How is it that suffering is encouraging, and why should we remind one another and encourage one another with this? And why is this idea so alien to the American evangelical church?

Honestly, this may not be so encouraging at first, but it pays large dividends for the suffering servant of Jesus Christ. Beloved, we are in the all-powerful grip of God's grace. He loves us with an everlasting love that never fails nor frowns. So when we find ourselves suffering, whether it be bodily illness, hostility because of the gospel, or whether it be the death of a loved one, we can know that it certainly isn't because God is angry with us. He loves us in the trial and He is close in the dark place of despair. And He uses the fire and flame of trial to mold us into the glorious image of His Son. The worst terror of Satan and the greatest heartbreaks of the world are gentle tools in the hands of a loving Father to make us shine. What do we lose that isn't rubbish in comparision to having Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and Friend?

So this sermon of Paul's is encouraging for those whose hearts have been broken and are being mended by God. It is encouraging for the pastor who sheds tears over the state of the congregation. It is a balm for all those who suffer, and we need to remember that God walks with us in the dark valley of the shadow, and that no pain is wasted on the saint of God.

That is why prosperity preaching is an abomination and a dismal failure. It is an empty promise that cannot deliver the package. It promises success and wealth and delivers despair and pain. How many of God's sheep have struggled in trials because they believed that the pain came because they were personal failures and faithless Christians? How many of God's children have faced death without comfort because they believed that they died because their faith was weak? Instead of facing death with the boldness of a lion, they were reduced to whimpering like dogs because they thought the Lord had abandoned them because they were pitiful and faithless? Even death, despite its raging and bluster, is God's tool to free the saint from the body of sinful flesh and escort them into the joy of the Master.

So hold on, dear brother or sister, we do not suffer in vain. Our groanings are heard by the Lord, and He will not lay on us more than we may bear. Look to the promise with which Paul concludes this thought, "We also glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Rom. 5:3-5). Hope for what? What does the Holy Spirit do in trials and groanings? "You received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together" (Rom. 8:15-17). He tells us that we are His, and the we will be glorified and sit with Him on His throne. Our suffering leads to our glorification. Now that is an encouraging message!


Lisa writes... said...

Amen and amen...

Anonymous said...

Very true, very powerful message, just what I needed to be reminded of. Thank you.