During the Second World War, particularly in that period early in the War, which became known as the Blitz, the Queen Mother (she was actually Queen then) won the affection of large parts of the nation, which lasted right up to her death, 60+ years later, at the age of 101.
She had been given the opportunity to evacuate to Canada, but she refused. She thought her proper place was with the people. She even learned to use a revolver in case the enemy ever tried to kidnap her.
But she is probably most fondly remembered for her regular visits to the East End, which bore the brunt of the German bombing. There was always the danger from unexploded devices lying beneath the rubble, but she considered it her duty to be there with the people, keeping up the nation’s morale.
Her sense of solidarity with them deepened when Buckingham Palace itself was bombed. Because the Royal family chose to stay in London, the palace was naturally a lucrative target. In fact, during the Blitz, Buckingham Palace was bombed 16 times, suffering 9 direct hits. The first raid involved a particularly narrow escape for the King and Queen. But after that she said she could now “look the East End in the face”.
She knew what they were going through.
She knew something of their experience.
That deepened her connection with those who were suffering, as she was right there alongside them.
They were truly in it together.
My overarching theme in the preaching so far this year has been this idea of Knowing Christ. We are invited into a loving, intimate relationship with God, who has revealed himself to us most completely in Jesus Christ.
I began by speaking of knowing Christ in our minds, our imaginations, our heart. I spoke of the importance of memory in developing our relationship with Jesus.
More recently I have been looking at circumstances in which we are invited to come to know Christ. In loneliness, in anxiety…
At the Sunday Plus gathering a couple of weeks ago, I spoke of Knowing Christ in our doubts, particularly our self-doubts.
Today I turn our attention to perhaps one of the most difficult subjects…
Knowing Christ… in suffering.
I say difficult because all too often the experience of suffering drives people away from God. It is one of, if not the top question people ask of those who claim to have faith. If you’re God is all powerful and all loving, how come the world is as it is?
Let’s front up and be honest.
A few weeks ago I spoke of God’s hesed: a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits. I spoke of that hesed running through all things like the wording on a stick of rock.
If anything should cause us to question that view of the world, it’s suffering. It is one of the biggest mysteries we face. I’m not saying believers experience it more acutely, nor that we are alone in fighting it. But it is a bigger challenge to how we see the world than for many other people.
I mean, if there is no God, there will still be pain…
…but you don’t have to explain it. It’s just how the world is. It’s an inevitable part of the evolutionary process.
But if there is a God, and if we are supposed to discern anything about this God by looking at God’s creation, it need not be obvious that God is good and loving. Yes, our world contains such beauty. But there is also so much suffering. If we only considered the worst experiences of life, you might come to the opposite conclusion.
There have been lots of attempts to resolve the tension between believing in a good, all loving creator and the suffering of the world. I’m not going to go into them this morning. There are plenty of places you can find that. Such arguments have their merits. Some are better than others.
But let’s be honest enough to admit that none of them answers it completely. We live with far more unknowing and mystery than we care to admit.
How then do we deal it? How do we resolve the contradiction between a cruel world and a loving God? Well, as Francis Spufford says in his fantastic book Unapologetic…
‘the short answer is that we don’t. We don’t even try to, mostly…. Cataclysmic experiences can pitch us back into it, but mostly they don’t… We take the cruelties of the world as a given… Instead of anguishing about why the world is at it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is.’ (Pages 104-5)
That doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously, or dismiss it by saying ‘yes, it’s difficult now, but one fine day, in the sweet by and by, it’ll be ok.’
Quite the opposite. What kind of group takes an instrument of torture as its main symbol?
Only one which takes suffering very seriously indeed.
But we take it seriously by asking a slightly different set of questions. There’s a reason attempts to resolve the question of suffering never quite work.
When we suffer, we want answers because we think they will help us make sense of suffering. But they resolve far less than we think. No reason can ease sorrow.
There is one circumstance where it proves truly helpful.
When it tells us how we can stop it happening again.
But that gives us a clue to the deeper questions we face in the midst of suffering. More meaningful questions…
How do I go on?
Nothing is ever going to be the same, so how do I put one foot in front of the other and take the next step?
Life consists of taking that next step, then the next, then the one after that. ‘Why’ questions have limited power to help us do that.
That’s why we move forward, not by asking for a creator to explain Himself. Instead, as Spufford says ‘We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair… the only comfort that can do anything… is the comfort of feeling loved. Given the cruel world, it’s the love song that we need, to help us bear what we must; and if we can, to go on loving.’ (Page 105)
We want to know we’re not alone.
In the face of suffering, the Christian hope is not in ‘having an argument that solves the cruel world’ but in the belief that in Christ we have a God who is not out there, remote, distant, detached, unfeeling, but our God is somehow or other present, right here with us, in the midst of whatever we face.
We don’t say ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world.’ Instead we can say ‘all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us.’ (Page 107)
That was the central theme of the passage Phil read for us from II Corinthians. It’s one of those passages that the main point is not that difficult to find. One word crops up again and again in the passage. The church (Good News) Bibles uses the word ‘help’.
All our help comes from God, who helps us in all our troubles, so we are able to help others, with the same help…
On and on it goes. That same word appears 10 times in the space of 5 verses (vv3-7). It sits alongside 3 mentions of trouble and another 4 of suffering. So it’s fairly easy to see what’s on Paul’s mind.
The word ‘help’ is a bit general. A better translation is comfort or consolation.’ But even that can sound a little weak, a bit touchy-feely, like a pat on the back saying ‘there, there.’
The word is much stronger than a translation like comfort might suggest. In fact we encountered it before. Just a few weeks ago. Jesus told his disciples he would not leave them as orphans, or like pupils without a master. He would send another ‘helper’ or ‘comforter.’ I mentioned a Greek word Παράκλητον. Parakletov, or Parakletos. The word translated ‘comfort’ or ‘help’ 10 times in that passage is a series of variations on that word. With the same range of meanings.
It can mean someone you call on to be with you, someone who will sit with you, someone who knows the right thing to say which can change the mood. It’s someone who encourages us, someone who cheers us on, reminds us that despite all the evidence to the contrary we can get through this, it doesn’t have to define us, whatever we’re facing doesn’t have to speak the final word. Someone who can offer a bit of direction, a bit of insight which can help you know what the next step to take might be. Someone who helps you see that there even is a possible next step.
I’m reminded of a particular instance from my time in another ministry. Because of the semi-rural nature of the area in which we were based, we were quite a long way from a number of the services like the council, citizens advice, benefits, support services and the like. But we were also in an area where a lot of people needed to access those services. At the church we had a coffee morning, which had a credit union collection point attached to it. We approached a number of different groups and said you want to come and use the church as a drop in you during that time, you would be welcome. We’d be open anyway, so there’d be no charge. A number accepted the offer.
In one of the first weeks a lady came in who had a number of different issues that needed to be sorted. She was very nervous, she wasn’t sure who to ask for, and I got chatting to her. Even from my layman’s perspective, I was able to identify a number of distinct situations, which would require her to speak to different people.
As I started to explain that to her I could see the tension rising in her. How was she going to get round all those people? She was envisaging all the journey’s she would have to take, all the buses, the cost…
Then I said ‘but all those people are here.. You can speak to them all before you leave here.
Her whole demeanour changed. The situations were exactly the same. Nothing had been resolved. But suddenly there was a glint of hope. There were steps she could take. In that moment I was acting as a parakletos.
That’s the kind of thing Paul is talking about here.
That’s the role the Spirit plays.
The God with whom we are invited to come into relationship through knowing Jesus is not an out there, distant, detached God, but one who is here in the midst of the mess with us. Paul describes him as a God of compassion. Compassion literally means suffers alongside us. This God shares the pain and the anguish. As The Message puts it… He’s the God who comes alongside us when we go through hard times.
Thing is, we might not instantly recognise him doing it. Because most of the time, it’s not in blinding flashes, but in the ordinary, like conversations over a cup of coffee in a small country chapel.
Paul highlights two ways in which God does it. But they both have something in common. They involve someone who has been there before us…
… and come out the other side.
In a sense I could be some to that woman . But it gains a whole new dimension if you’re the one who says ‘yes, I’ve been there too… and I’m still here.’
It might happen indirectly. You witness someone in the midst of pain and suffering drawing all sorts of comfort and it offers you encouragement. There is hope.
But more often, certainly more powerfully, is when someone who has been there before us is the one who draws alongside us. That experience qualifies us to deal sympathetically with others. It’s gives what you bring so much more authority. Sometimes it can be that moment when someone recognises your experience. That moment when they say ‘yes, that’s exactly how it feels’; or ‘yes, I remember that’; or even ‘yes, that’s a perfectly normal reaction.’
They’re the ones who can really encourage us we can get through this.
They’re the ones who can help us believe that there is life after this.
They’re the ones who through insight and experience help us find the next step and the next.
That’s how so often God brings his comfort to us. Through those who have been there before us.
But that’s not where God wants it to end. The Message translation is really helpful at this point. He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.
God doesn’t comfort us purely for its own sake. Ultimately he longs for us to extend that comfort to others.
So often that’s how God works in the Bible. He tells Abraham he will bless him so that Abraham can be a blessing to others. Jesus speaks of forgiving others as we have been forgiven. What we experience from God, he wants us to hand on. And one of those things we experience is his comfort. However it comes to us.
I don’t believe for a moment that God brings suffering into our lives just so we can help others further down the line. Nor does it make what we experience any more ‘ok’ or even any less painful.
But that doesn’t mean God can’t use us to be the one by which he brings comfort to others. God so often does his best, most powerful and perhaps most surprising work through a particular kind of people.
The wounded healers.
Those who have been there, who have been wounded, and through their wounds they help others find healing.
And very often it helps with their own healing.
And that should not surprise us.
For it is how we encounter God in Christ. It’s how we are drawn into relationship with Christ through suffering. Because in Christ himself we have a wounded healer. In fact Christ as the wounded healer is probably the most important way in which those who first followed Jesus understood him.
It certainly resonated with the first Christians. Isaiah 53 wasn’t particularly written about Jesus. However that passage about the suffering servant is the Old Testament passage most frequently quoted in the New Testament to describe Jesus.
And it presents a picture of a God who understands what we go through because he has gone there ahead of us. In Christ are invited into a trusting relationship with One who can ‘look his creation in the face’ because he is in it with us. He has been there, he has lived our lives, he knows the experience, the good, the joyful…
…and the hell of it.
When God came amongst us, he didn’t come with the trappings of royalty. He came from humble beginnings, was easily overlooked, he could be easily dismissed. We could look on him and say God does not look like that.
There’s a series of novels called the Starbridge Novels by Susan Howatch. In the last of the novels, Absolute Truths, a bishop called Charles Ashworth loses everything that’s important to him, and in the midst of despair he finds himself in an odd, drunken conversation with someone whom he has never liked. The guy remarks that it’s an odd conversation to be having with a bishop. It feels like a dream. ‘It’s no dream,’ says Ashworth, ‘good to meet someone else who’s gone through hell lately.’
Isn’t it wonderful? the man responds. It makes all the difference to know there’s someone else screaming alongside you. And that’s the point of the incarnation. I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us.
That God’s surprising, though still mysterious answer, to the problem of evil. In Jesus God confronts the contradiction of the cruel world and the loving God.
In Jesus God comes into the world and screams alongside us.
This is God revealed at his most powerful. You might think that an odd thing to say. I typed ‘God’s power’ into a picture search engine and it was a long way down before I came to any of the cross.
Yes, we believe this is the one through whom all things are created. It makes perfect sense to be wowed by that. But the Bible says ‘that? The work of his fingers. This is the work of his mighty arm.’
Who would have believed that?
As Rodney so rightly reminded us last week, ours is not a God who came into the world to condemn it, but to be its saviour.
And this is how he did it. It may not be the answer we expect or even necessarily want, but he hasn’t come to be either of those. He comes to be the answer we need.
He comes to us as a wounded healer, who knows what is necessary to deal with all our pain, all our sorrow and does not flinch from the path laid before him. His rescue was done vulnerably, caringly, at great cost and risk, in hurt and pain. He experiences the havoc that sin brings to human life. He voluntarily identifies with the worst of us, right to the end, as he hangs on the cross between two thieves in a manner of execution reserved for the lowest and the worst. He faces sorrow and rejection, and screams alongside us. He says ‘yes, I’ve been there.’
Yet in that broken body he carries the capacity to heal and restore. He becomes the channel by which our world begins to be healed, and by which we are brought back into relationship with God.
When in the midst of suffering we ask does God know what we go through, the cross is God’s way of looking us in the face and saying ‘I know how you feel. You are not alone.’
When we suffer, yes, we instinctively want answers. We want to make sense of it, to find meaning, cos we think it’ll bring us healing. But explanation has very limited healing power. Much more powerful at helping us begin to heal is the loving presence of someone. Someone standing in solidarity. Someone to say you are not alone. The power of the one who has been there.
That’s good as far as it goes. But if it ends there suffering still has the final word. Those whose presence will ultimately prove most powerful are those who have been there…
… and come out the other side.
But the story doesn’t end there. Not for Isaiah’s servant and not for Jesus. After suffering says Isaiah, he will again have joy. He will know that he did not suffer in vain.
And so with Jesus. A few days after the cross some women go to the tomb to find it empty, with the grave clothes carefully folded. Some run off, but Mary lingers by the tomb weeping. Then she hears her name.
In that moment she learns… as Francis Spufford brilliantly puts it ‘far more can be mended than you know.’
In the cross we see the love of God. In the cross that God’s love will stop at nothing to reach us. There is no depth to which Jesus is not prepared to descend. There is none too wicked that Jesus will not identify with him. Nowhere are we outside the love of God.
But in the resurrection we see that there is nowhere we can go that he will not be able to reach us. We can trust that there is nothing we can face that God cannot bring us through because in Jesus we have one who has gone there before us.
Whoever we have been, need not define us.
Whatever we’ve done, has been done to us, need not speak the final world.
There is life after suffering.
That’s not to say suffering is not real, or can be ignored. We are invited to be part of God’s plan to bring an end to suffering in all its forms. Be it locally through the work of Foodbank, Firm Foundation, Street Pastors, and the quiet, loving, supportive conversations and kindnesses we experience or get involved with. We are invited to be the ones who bring God’s comfort, encouragement, and offer direction.
Suffering is real, but so are God’s promises.
However the resurrection declares our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with what God has prepared for us. In Christ we have one who has gone before us, has emerged through it all, and promises to do the same for us… if we’ll just let him. He is God’s surprising, mysterious response to the suffering of the world.
And with him, even where there seems to be no grounds for hope, he will not agree that hope is gone beyond recall. Wreckage may be written into the logic of the world, but he will not agree that it is all there is.
He says more can be mended that you fear.
Far more can be mended than you know.