On this Sunday, just a day after Christmas, as I thought about what we should focus on, I decided, “Why not look at what comes next in Luke’s gospel?” And it’s a passage that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus’ life before he appears on the scene sometime around the age of 30 (Luke 3:23). We have several stories connected to his birth, which we know really well from focusing on them each Advent. But what about between his birth and his public ministry? Well, what we’re looking at today is the only story about Jesus’ childhood, from when he was twelve years old.

Now, some have sought to fill in the gap with various fanciful stories of what Jesus must have been like found in some apocryphal gospels. But these have no basis in reality. What we have here in Luke 2:40-52 is all there is. So let’s look at this and see what we can learn.

Jesus is growing up

40And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

Growing, physically and in every other way, is a part of being human. And Jesus shares this with us. He didn’t come as a full-blown adult, but as a baby. And so he had to grow into an adult. And so Luke tells us a story about him growing up. It takes place on –

A family trip

41Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.

This presents a picture of devout parents – Joseph and Mary going to worship the Lord at this festival that celebrates the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. They did this regularly, “every year” it says. And here they take Jesus along with them.

So I want to point out to you that Joseph and Mary are an example for us of faithful parents raising their children in the faith, in this case by bringing them to worship the Lord in Jerusalem. We also need to bring our children to church – so that they can learn to worship the Lord.

Verse 42 tells us that Jesus was twelve years old. And, although this was, most likely, before the time of the Jewish practice of Bar Mitzvah when a young man at thirteen would take on the responsibility of keeping the Law of Moses – it was still considered in Judaism and in other cultures to be a time for children to begin making the transition to adulthood. And this includes making choices in relation to their commitment to God. And we will see Jesus doing this here; declaring himself.

And in our Christian tradition as well, this shift from childhood to adolescence is a time for each one to consider where they stand with God and to make choices related to their faith and baptism. And so this is a challenge to our young people here this morning – where are you at in this process? Have you considered taking on the Christian faith for yourself – not based on your parents – but for yourself publicly declaring this through baptism?

Jesus stays behind in the temple

43And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances . . .

Two questions stand out from these verses: How did Joseph and Mary lose Jesus? Well, they were traveling with a group. Verse 44 talks about “relatives and acquaintances,” most likely traveling in a caravan as was common for these kinds of journeys. And it would have been easy for them to think that Jesus was with others in the group. And he was twelve, so he would have been somewhat independent.

And also notice – it’s not like Jesus got lost. He intentionally stayed behind. They had no way of expecting he would do such a thing!

Speaking of this, the other question is – What was Jesus thinking? As we’ll see his staying behind without telling his parents caused them great distress (v. 48). This is not something a child should normally do to their parents. So what was he thinking?? Well, let’s live with the tension of this for a moment and move forward to –

Joseph and Mary’s continued frantic search

45and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.

This is a picture of Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of Jesus.

The city would still be swollen with people from the festival, and the Temple complex was huge, the size of several football fields. Finding a child under these conditions would have been hard – especially one that wasn’t looking for you.

46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.

After three total days of searching they find Jesus. This is a really long time! And they find him engaging with the teachers or rabbi’s in the temple area. Here we see Jesus’ wisdom and maturity on display. His knowledge is well beyond his years, as verse 47 says, “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

His parents were “astonished” or it can be translated “dumbfounded” or “shocked” – surely at what they were seeing, Jesus with the rabbis, but also that Jesus would do this without telling them.

And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”

Mary’s phrase “great distress” can also be translated as “deep mental pain.” This is the first example of what Simeon had said to Mary in Luke 2:35, that because of Jesus, she would experience a sword piercing through her soul.

Having a child lost is a truly terrible feeling. I know because it happened to us. One evening when we visited the Portland Oregon Zoo, which we often did, we turned around and our second daughter, was gone. Nowhere to be seen. And there was a big crowed. So we started desperately looking around. Retracing our steps – trying to think where she might be. I finally found her in front of the big cat enclosures. Tigers were pretty much her favorite animal – and there she was! What a relief!!! She was younger than Jesus here, but she was only lost for about 15 minutes. And boy did I experience, in Mary’s words, “great distress.”

Jesus tells his parents who he is

49And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.

Notice Jesus’ calmness. From a parent’s point of view there would be concern for his safety, but also that he not be in distress without them. But he has no concern or fear. He’s doing what he planned.

In verse 49 we have Jesus’ first recorded words. “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Here Jesus tells us who he is, he is God’s son. And so he needs to be with his Father in his house. Already at twelve he knows who he is.

Notice the contrast of his earthly parents seeking him to take him home, while he is seeking his heavenly Father in his house, the Temple; a contrast of parents and homes.

This brings us back to the question, what was Jesus thinking? I don’t think this is an example of Jesus acting unwisely so that he has more to learn; a part of his growing process. Rather, I think Jesus made an intentional choice to do this to help his parents understand who he is and to give them a preview of what’s to come. He carefully orchestrated this.

Although he’s interacting with the teachers, he’s really teaching his parents something about himself that they need to know, both in their seeing him with the teachers of Israel, but also in what he says to them about being God’s son.

This brings us to –

The trip home

51And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

We ought not take from this that children should intentionally put their parents in great distress. That’s not the lesson! There’s enough of that already! This was something different and unique to Jesus’ situation, as the son of God, and his need to communicate this to his parents.

But to make sure that the wrong lesson isn’t taken from this Luke tells us that he “was submissive to them.” Despite Jesus helping his parents understand who he is, he’s not rebellious, but a good son.

Indeed he stayed with them patiently waiting another 18 years or so before he begins his ministry. And Mary received what he said, even if not really understanding it all. It says, she “treasured up all these things in her heart.”

Our story ends like it begins, with –

Jesus’ growth

52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

And this story is the prime example. It’s an example of his acting in wisdom to show his parents who he is. He knows who he is and communicates this to those closest to him.

In closing let me say that –

This whole story foreshadows what’s to come

  • Jesus will once again go up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the commemoration of the lamb slain for the salvation of God’s people (Luke 19:28).
  • Jesus will once again engage the teachers of Israel in the temple area, this time, however, they are hostile and Jesus has to overcome their attempts to trap him (Luke 20)
  • Jesus will once again not travel back from Jerusalem with the pilgrims, but rather will be arrested, tried and executed – the true Passover lamb that brings salvation to God’s people (Luke 22:47-23:56)
  • Mary will once again feel a sword pierce her soul (Luke 2:35) seeing her son die on a cross.
  • Jesus will once again be found after three days, after he is raised from the dead (Luke 24).
  • And although Mary did not understand in our story, she comes to understand who her son is, as we find her in the upper room among his followers after his resurrection (Acts 1:14)

Today is Palm Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, as the crowds waved palm branches. It also marks for us the beginning of holy week, Jesus’ last week on earth. And so we remember all that happened to him in his suffering, death and then resurrection.

Today we’re looking at something that happened just a few days after Palm Sunday. It’s the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume.

Mark 14:3-9

3And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly – and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.

4There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

6But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Alright, let’s begin with –

The setting

3And while he was at Bethany . . .

Bethany was about two miles East of Jerusalem on the lower eastern slope of the Mt of Olives. This is where Jesus stayed at night, while he ministered in Jerusalem during the day (11:1-2). This particular evening Jesus was –

. . . in the house of Simon the leper

He’s called “the leper,” but he must have been cured for him to host such a gathering. Neither Jesus nor any of the other guests would have wanted to be unclean just before the Passover. This would exclude them from participation in it. Perhaps Simon was cured by Jesus, and this is how they knew each other.

Our verse goes on to say –

as he was reclining at table . . .

Jesus and all the others are eating a meal together laying down on cushions, with their heads near the table, as was the custom of the day. It seems a bit odd to us, but this was how you ate at a banquet or feast at this time.

This brings us to the central event of the story –

A woman anoints Jesus

. . . a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.

Alabaster flasks were the preferred containers for perfume at this time. The flask itself would have been expensive. And it had in it “nard” or spikenard, which is an ointment made from a plant native to India, in the Himalayan regions. Mark tells us that it was “pure,” that is, of high quality. And he also tells us that it was “very costly.” V. 5 says that it was worth more than 300 denarii, which is about a year’s salary for a laborer. If we translate this into today’s minimum wage it would have been worth over $17,000. It was very costly!

This was likely an heirloom, something she had to support her in a time of need. Like a sizable savings account today. By breaking the flask, she holds nothing back. She gives it all for Jesus as a one-time gift. And the potent aroma must have filled the room.

Now, anointing the head of guests for a feast was a cultural custom at this time (Deuteronomy 28:40; Ruth 3:3; Psalm 23:5; 133:2; 141:5; Luke 7:46). But this is something more. She only does it for Jesus and her gift to him was extravagant in the extreme! (This story and the one about the widow in Mark 12, both about women giving extravagantly, bookend Jesus’ discourse on the temple’s destruction.)

If we ask, “Why did she do this?” her motive seems to be simply an act of devotion; an expression of her love for Jesus, for who he is and what he has done for her.

[It doesn’t appear that this is being viewed as an anointing to kingship for the Messiah. Perfume, not oil is used. And the word for anointing is different. This theme is not highlighted in the text – that this woman was the one who anointed the Christ to be king. And the indignant response of the others would seem too harsh if this is what they thought she was doing. Jesus also takes it in a different sense.] [This story is different than the one recorded in Luke 7.]

Next comes –

The reaction

4There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that?”

They were worked up. They were really angry! They were offended by what she was doing before their eyes. What a tremendous misuse of resources!

Why was it a waste?

5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.”

Giving alms was always encouraged, but especially on the eve of Passover. And they recognized the value of her perfume and how many people could have been helped, for instance to give widows and orphans food and shelter for many days.

[John tells us that it was Judas who said this and that he didn’t care for the poor. Judas may have been the most vocal one – he is also highlighted in Mark, being named in the next verses as agreeing to betray Jesus. But there is no need to think that the other disciples also didn’t protest (Matthew says it was Jesus’ disciples as a whole) or that some didn’t have a genuine concern for the poor.]

And they scolded her.

Or it can be translated, they censured her, or gave her a harsh reproof. What do you think you’re doing? Stop that!

Jesus’ response

6But Jesus said, “Leave her alone.”

They rebuked her, but Jesus rebukes them, stop criticizing her.

“Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

“A beautiful thing” is literally “a good work.” [Even if this phrase can refer to giving to the poor, the contrast in the story is not between Jesus the poor person and other poor people, but between Jesus and the poor.]

He recognizes that she has given him an extravagant expression of love. And this ought not be criticized. It is not a waste.

7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”

Here he addresses their concern for the poor. Jesus begins by quoting part of Deuteronomy 15:11 which days, “there will never cease to be poor in the land.” Now, this isn’t a dismissal of the poor or of the need to care for them. In fact, the verse in Deuteronomy goes on to say that since they will always be with you, “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother and sister, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”

And Jesus himself teaches that we are to give to the poor, for instance in Luke 12:33 he says, “sell your possessions and give to the needy.”

His point in our story is based on the fact that he will not be physically present with them for much longer. In other words –

  • There is no limit on the time that you can show love to the poor by helping them, since there will always be some who are struggling financially.
  • But there was a limited amount of time to show love to Jesus in person – “you will not always have me”

This is a unique situation. And she has taken full advantage of it. [Also in Mark 2 Jesus’ physical presence with them changes normal fasting routines – so that they can rejoice that he is with them. Here his physical presence trumps giving to the poor.]

8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.”

Jesus further defends her. Her act of devotion is not a waste. It is interpreted by Jesus in a very practical way, as a preparation for his body to be buried. This was the very kind of perfume that was used for the burial of bodies; and this was usually done by the women of the community.

So she gave even more than she knew. Her expression of love is seen by Jesus as a prophetic act – anticipating his going to the cross and dying, and so she is preparing him for this.

The phrase “she has done what she could” is literally “what she had, she did.” What she had, she gave in terms of expressing her love for Jesus.

[This story is placed between the plot to kill Jesus by the leaders, and Judas who agrees to help them. All of these verses then have to do with Jesus’ imminent death.]

9And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Jesus looks forward to after his death and resurrection, to the mission of his disciples to spread the gospel throughout the world. And since the gospel will tell the story of his death, she is to be a part of that story.

This is an amazing statement! Even though in this story she is unnamed – what she did as an expression of love for Jesus is always to be remembered; in fact the story is to be told “in memory of her.”

What do we learn from this story?

Let me highlight two things for you –

First, it is often the lowly and unexpected one who gets it right when it comes to Jesus and the kingdom of God. And she is lowly in this story. Simply being a woman in this day would qualify her for this, although this would not be Jesus’ point of view. Even though John’s version of this story names her, Mark leaves her unnamed, perhaps to emphasize her lowly status.

But even though she is lowly, she is held up as the example. It was the woman in the room who got it right! And her deed will be remembered throughout the world. And that’s why we’re remembering her even today. The insiders, the guys, the ones with the status – which certainly included the 12 disciples, are not the example. They got it wrong.

And the theme of the women disciples of Jesus getting it right continues on through the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • The 12 disciples fled or denied Jesus. But the women disciples were with Jesus at the cross (Mark 15:40-41)
  • And after Jesus’ death the 12 were nowhere to be seen. But the women disciples tended to his body and then discover that Jesus is raised – and are the first to preach the gospel (Mark 16/Matthew 28).

So, if you have many years as a Christian, or many gifts, or a great calling, or a leadership role, or whatever status you might have – don’t be proud! You can still get it wrong. And those that seem to you least likely to get it right many times will.

Finally, her extravagant love for Jesus is a model for us. She shows us that it is appropriate to express our devotion to Jesus. Even if it’s not geared toward helping other people, it’s an expression of love for God, or here the Son of God. And this is never a waste. It is, rather, “a beautiful thing.”

Now, Jesus isn’t physically present with us so that we can do what she did. This was a unique situation. But we can still show love for Jesus by worshipping him, serving him and giving to the kingdom cause. We can still take advantage of the opportunities we have, just as she took advantage of the unique opportunity she had.

She also shows us that it’s appropriate to be extravagant in our expression of devotion to Jesus. She gave all she had. She broke the jar. She held nothing back. She poured it all out, all 17,000 dollars worth. And this is the appropriate response to Jesus because he gave all he had for us when he came to this earth and died on the cross. He held nothing back in his love for us and we should hold nothing back in expressing our love for him.

And if you say, “Well I don’t have much to give.” Learn from her. In v. 8 it says literally, “what she had, she did.” The extravagance is measured, not by what you don’t have, but by what you do have.

Let’s face it, nothing we give can match what Jesus gave for us. But God gives each of us something to offer. And we can give it generously and joyously to him. As you remember the woman in the story this week, receive the challenge to express your love for Jesus in an extravagant way.

The Literary Structure of Mark 14:3-9: Jesus is anointed at Bethany

A An unnamed woman’s actions: 3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.

B Concern for the poor (why/for): 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.”

C Rebuke: And they scolded her.

C1 Rebuke: 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone.”

B1 Concern for the poor (why/for): “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.

A1 An unnamed woman’s actions: 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

I am quite certain that each one of us have been wronged, wounded and hurt by others. And so you know that when this happens a struggle is unleashed within us to see whether we will be overcome by it, so that we respond in kind or whether we will overcome the desire for payback and choose love. This is what we’re talking about this morning.

According to the world there’s really only one way to respond – we should strike back; we should harm our enemies in return. Now God put a limit on this when Moses taught in the Old Testament ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-2, Deuteronomy 19:19-21 in contrast to Genesis 4:23-24). That is, the payback has to be in proportion to the injury suffered.

But still there is in our world an endless cycle of people harming others and then those harmed returning the same through personal vengeance, the justice system and warfare. An endless cycle.

But Jesus shows us another way; the way of love. For when Jesus’ enemies sought to kill him he endured the harm and suffering of the cross and returned good for evil. And in doing so he shows us how to overcome evil with good. He wasn’t overcome so that he did harm back to his enemies. He overcame through the power of love.

Paul speaks of this in –

Romans 12:19-21

And I want us to look more closely at this passage today. Paul says,

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

First we look at the negative side of this –

Being overcome by evil

This comes from the phrase in v. 21, “do not be overcome by evil.”

This is how it works. Someone harms you. This can happen on a small scale, for instance, someone insults you. Or it can be something truly terrible, for instance, someone kills a loved one of yours.

How will we respond? It’s natural to be angry and to want justice; in fact, we usually want more than “an eye for and eye;” we want to give back much more harm than we got. Evil is very powerful. Once we fall victim to it, it gets into our system and tries to replicate itself through our anger – so that we start doing evil as well; so that we start harming people.

The question is ‘What will we do with our anger?’ Usually we give in to our anger to one degree or another; our desire for justice.

And when we do this we return harm for harm. In various ways, through our words and our deeds, we seek to hurt and destroy our enemy. The result is that you are now harming another person, just as your enemy harmed you. You are doing the same thing. 

You have been overcome. You are now caught up in the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm – just responding to others based on how they have treated you.

But harm for harm never truly satisfies, even, for instance, if someone kills your family member and the criminal is executed. It doesn’t restore what was taken away from us. It doesn’t give us peace. You may even the balances and that might feel good on a certain level, but you will never overcome the evil done to you with more harm.

So we should set this response aside. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” or as it is better translated “harm for harm,” referring as it does to the teaching of “an eye for an eye.” “Do not repay anyone harm for harm.”

How to overcome evil with good 1

Let’s look now at the other side of this –

How to overcome evil with good

Paul tells us to do this in v. 21, “overcome evil with good.” There are three steps in this process. When someone injures us:

1) Endure the harm without giving it back. Paul says in v. 19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”

Now, there’s a lot that we can do, within the limits of loving our enemies. That is to say, this doesn’t mean be passive and just take it.

  • We can stand up for ourselves and for what’s right.
  • We can get to a safe place.
  • We can point out the wrong that’s been done.
  • We can restrain and stop an evildoer from what they’re trying to accomplish.

There are redemptive things we can do in relation to our enemy. But fundamentally the point here is that we should not return evil for evil, harm for harm.

So let’s say someone breaks into my house and wants to hurt my family. If I could, I would stop them. Let’s say disarm them. They have a bat, but I eventually take it away. What I can’t do is then take the bat and beat them in return. And I certainly can’t kill them, because Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not destroy them.

2) Look to God for your justice. v. 19 goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

It’s normal to have anger when someone harms you. This is due to our sense that an injustice has happened. This is how God made us. We are not to deny this or try to suppress it. And indeed God gives us the capacity for anger to stir us up to act to make things right.

Anger is not wrong. It’s what you do with your anger that’s the issue. And in our sinful, fallen state it can easily lead us outside of God’s will for our lives. Paul teaches us that we are to place our angry desire for payback in God’s hands. 

This is the key to overcoming evil and breaking out of the cycle of evil for evil – giving the agenda of justice or payback over to God. He can fight for us and judge our enemies according to his will. This is what God says he will do, “I will repay.” Not, “you will repay,” but “I will repay, says the Lord.”

So when we suffer harm from an enemy, pray something like this, “God I have been wronged. Take note of this and act for me in the way that is pleasing to you. I give it into your hands and trust you with it.”

It is our trust in God that sets us free. We know that God can handle it. It might not happen right away; it might not happen until the final day, but all wrongs will be righted by God. We can trust God to take care of us.

3) Do good to your enemies. Once we’ve placed the agenda of payback into God’s hands this frees us up to love our enemies and do good to them. We can focus on mercy, since we know that God will take care of issues of justice.

Paul says in v. 20, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Rather than harming our enemies we return good for evil.

How to overcome evil with good 2

This is counter-intuitive. It goes against what our flesh desires, for sure. But we can only overcome evil by returning good for harm; by choosing mercy and love. This releases us from being captive to the cycle of anger, hatred and bitterness. The circuit is broken. We’re set free! Our trust in God sets us free.

Now, we hope that such acts of love will lead our enemy to repent, and we should pray for this. But if not, we know that God is more than able to deal with them. Such judgment is described in v. 20 as “burning coals” coming down on their heads.

Let me end by pointing out that Jesus modeled for us these three steps of overcoming evil with good when he died on

The cross

When his enemies conspired against him, 1) He endured the harm without giving it back. As 1 Peter 2:23 says, on the cross, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”

2) He looked to God for vindication. 1 Peter 2:23 also tells us that while he suffered, he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He gave the agenda of payback and justice into God’s hands.

3) He continued to love his enemies doing good to them. As Luke 23:34 tells us, while he was on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, for mercy and forgiveness. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And he died for their sins.

Jesus models for us how to overcome evil with good on the cross. As Peter says Jesus left us an example, “so that (we) should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:21. Brothers and sisters my we each follow in his steps.

According to the Scriptures there are two kinds of trials that we go through in our lives. What we usually think of as a trial has to do with suffering some kind of lack – a lack of food, a lack of health, money, a job, or protection from, say, persecution. And this lack puts us in a difficult situation that tests whether or not we will remain faithful to God.

But to have an abundance of something can also be a trial. Deuteronomy 8 talks about how we can be tested with an abundance of material blessings from God. This too can be a really difficult situation – in that it can be a stumbling block to our faithfulness to God. It might make us forget the Lord. Or act in ways that are wrong toward others.

Today, we are talking about a test in this second category, one that has to do with abundance – in this case of power or strength. This includes physical strength, economic power (or wealth) and  also what I’m calling social power – the influence or sway we have over others. This might come from having a certain position or office in a group that gives you authority and power or it can be more informal – you might be well liked or a part of a group that’s favored by others. This is social power.

I believe that all of us have power in one way or another in our lives. In other words, it’s not that some are strong and some are weak. Each of us are strong and weak in different areas or at different times in our lives. And so all of us face this test at some point in our lives.

The question, in such a test is, “How do you use the power you have?” And more specifically, “How do you treat those weaker than you?” People who are vulnerable to being taken advantage of and dishonored. My point today is that the answer to this question reveals what’s in your heart – whether you’re righteousness or unrighteous.

It reveals the kind of moral character you have

Scripture teaches us in many places and in different ways that those who use their strength for the weak, are righteous. In fact, this is a chief character trait of a godly person. Ezekiel 18:7 says that a righteous person (v. 5) “does not oppress (or mistreat) anyone, but . . . gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment.”

The righteous use their power and strength, not just for themselves, but also for others. As we’ll see in a moment they use it to help, to stand up for, and to honor the weak

On the other hand Scripture teaches us that those who use their strength against the weak, are unrighteous. This is a chief character trait of an ungodly person. In parallel to what we saw before, Ezekiel 18:12 says that an unrighteous person “oppresses (or mistreats) the poor and needy.”

The unrighteous use their power and strength for themselves, for their own self-interests, not others. As we will see they use it to take advantage of, dominate and ridicule the weak.

Let’s look at –

Some examples

1. If you’re a boss or business owner, how do you treat your employees? Are you fair or not? Do you pressure them to work too hard or in unsafe conditions?

James 5:4 speaks to bosses who take advantage of their employees financially.  It says, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

God is watching and listening! Are you a righteous employer?

2. If you’re a husband, how do you treat your wife? Through most of history wives have been socially weaker than their husbands, although not really in our culture today. But wives are almost always physically weaker. So we’re talking about domestic violence here, verbal and, or physical abuse.

Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Just as Jesus had power, but used it not for himself but for us, so husbands use whatever power you have to bless and build up your wife. Are you a righteous husband?

3. If you’re a parent, how do you treat your children? They are both socially and physically weaker than you, at least when they’re young. We are certainly not to mistreat them through verbal or physical abuse. And even if they are older we can hurt and wound them in various ways, given our status as their parents.

Ephesians 6:4, speaking of younger children says, “do not provoke your children to anger,” that is, by mistreating them.

We are to love and care for them and raise and nurture them to be godly people; being above all an example to them of this kind of life. Are you righteous in how you treat your children?

4. If you’re able-bodied, how do you treat the disabled? Whether it be a physical or mental/emotional disability, the disabled are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of and dishonored.

But listen to Deuteronomy 27:18. It says, “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.”

This teaches us not to take advantage of or dishonor such a person. And we see God’s point of view on this come through quite clearly. Are you righteous in how you treat the disabled?

5. If you’re young and strong, how do you treat the elderly? They can be physically and sometimes socially weaker than you.

Not only does Jesus warn against not taking care of the elderly in Mark 7:10-13, talking about one’s parents,  we are to honor those older than us. Leviticus 19:32 says, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man.” Culturally, this is an expression of honor.

Are you righteous in how you treat seniors?

6. If you have what you need (and perhaps a whole lot more than you need), how do you treat the poor?

We have already seen in Ezekiel 18:7 that the righteous person “gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment.” And there are many other passages that speak of lending at no interest, and giving food, clothing and shelter to help the poor get back on their feet again.

We are also to advocate for the poor. Proverbs 31:9 says, “open your mouth . . . defend the rights of the poor and needy.” And we are not to put down the poor. Proverbs 17:5 says, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker.” We insult God if we make fun of the poor.

Are you righteous in how you treat the poor?

7. If you’re socially secure, how do you treat those on the margins of society?

  • For instance, widows and orphans often fell through the social support networks of the ancient world. And so, Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” But not only are we not to mistreat them, we are to stand up for them. Isaiah 1:17 says, “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
  • Another example is immigrants, who are vulnerable being in a different place without support systems. Leviticus 19:34 applies the second greatest commandment to them, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
  • In a similar way, minority groups can be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the majority because they have less power. In Acts 6:1 the Greek speaking widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food in the church in favor of the Hebrew speaking widows. And this had to be dealt with by the apostles.

Are you righteous in how you treat the marginalized?

There are many other examples that could be given. Even if you’re not a boss, how do you use the power you do have at work? For those in school, are you a bully who uses physical strength and intimidation to dishonor and take advantage of others? Or are you “popular” – a part of an in-group – who uses that popularity to put down and exclude others?

Scripturally this issue even extends beyond the human realm to how we treat animals, who are lower and weaker than us in many ways. If you have animals under your care, how do you treat them? Proverbs 12:10 says, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Are you merciful to your animals?

The principle in all this is straightforward how you use power reveals your character. Those who use it to take advantage of, dominate and dishonor the weak are among the unrighteous. Those who use it to help, stand up for and honor the weak are among the righteous.

Examine yourself. How do you use the power God has given you? How do you treat those weaker than you?

I’m calling you to imitate God in all this. This comes out clearly this Christmas season in Mary’s expression of praise to God, after learning that she would give birth to Jesus the Messiah in –

Luke 1:46-55

Let’s read it responsively and please notice as we read how God uses his power (underlined):

L: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

P: for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

L: For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

P: And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

L: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

P: he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate

L: he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

A: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

28Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden  and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

In our Scripture this morning, Jesus is talking about yokes. Now, we know about animal yokes where two animals are connected so they can work together. And, for instance, Paul talks about this kind of yoke when he teaches us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers in 2 Corinthians 6:14.

But, in this passage Jesus is talking about human yokes, ones that go across your shoulders to carry heavy things. They’re meant to enable you to carry more weight and get more work done.

This one’s actually for sale, made by an Amish craftsman, if you’re interested. Wives maybe this can help your husbands with chores around the house? Christmas is just around the corner.

A yoke like this is described in Jeremiah 27:2 where it says, “make yourselves straps and yoke-bars and put them on your neck.”

Now, this kind of yoke is often used metaphorically in a negative way to speak of being in subjection to someone.

  • In our verse from Jeremiah that we just read it refers to Judah being subjected to the Babylonian empire after being defeated and carried off to exile.
  • And in the New Testament it’s used to refer to slavery in 1 Timothy 6:1.

But in Jewish thinking a yoke can also be used in a more positive way to speak of walking in God’s ways; the yoke of obedience and service to God. (Jeremiah 5:5; Sirach 51:26; m. Abot 3:5). In our passage we have both – a bad yoke that’s too heavy and a good yoke that’s light.

I believe this morning that  –

Many of us are weary from our yokes and carrying heavy burdens

Jesus talks of “all who labor and are heavy laden” – v. 28

  • The first word “labor” has to do with hard work and also the weariness that comes from it.
  • The phrase “heavy laden” can also be translated as “burdened.”

So the image is of a person with a yoke on, but the load is really heavy and it takes a lot of work just to move around. Think of the picture we just saw of the man wearing a shoulder yoke and imagine the two buckets as bigger and loaded down with heavy rocks. So much so that the man is bowed over with the weight. That’s what we’re talking about here.

Jesus mentions “rest for your souls” in v. 29. So here we have the opposite, which would be soul weariness. Your inner person is weighed down, tired, exhausted and maybe even ready to give up.

Now, when Jesus talks about heavy burdens, he is certainly talking here about the traditions of the elders which the Pharisees added to what God’s will is for our lives. Jesus talks about this in Matthew 23:4, where he says, “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear and lay them on people’s shoulders.” (Talking about a shoulder yoke here also)

These heavy burdens are rules about how far you can walk on a Sabbath, rules about healing on the Sabbath and on and on (see the stories that come right after our verses.) You name the activity in life and there were rules for it; lots of them. Rules, rules, rules. And this is the important part – rules that went beyond what God’s will was for his people, which the Pharisees said you had to follow to be accepted.

Well, Jesus rejected these traditions of the Elders as we see in Matthew 15:6. Jesus doesn’t load us down with a host of human rules; things that go beyond God’s will for our lives.

Maybe you’re carrying a yoke today of human rules and expectations that are not God’s will for you.

  • Maybe rules that other Christians have thought up about how to worship and serve God that go beyond Scripture. Christians are good at making up extra rules too.
  • Maybe they are other kinds of expectations for your life that others – family or friends impose on you – that have nothing to do with what God has called you to do.

And you’re here this morning and you’re tired of it. You’re tired of being subjected to carrying these heavy burdens around. Jesus is talking to you today in this passage!

There are other yokes and burdens – for instance there’s the yoke of slavery to Sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:16-20). This is where we live our lives apart from God’s will, doing our own thing, going along with the world and our friends.

But sin, once chosen, becomes our master. It comes to control us and it begins to ruin our lives because sin is powerful and brings misery and then death.

And you’re here this morning and you’re sick of all this – you’re tired of the burdens of sin – the shame, the guilt. You’re tired of disappointing and hurting others and God, but you can’t break free. You have a yoke on. Jesus is talking to you right now!

Maybe the yoke you’re carrying today is just the weights and cares of the world.

You’re overwhelmed with life, right? It’s easy to be this way with all that’s going on – Covid 19, politics, financial struggles, relationship struggles, worries about the future. You’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders.

Well, whatever may be weighing you down –

Jesus invites us to come to him and find rest

He says, 1. “Come to me” – v. 28. Jesus is the solution. He’s the one who can fix our burdens and our weariness. And he invites each one of us to come. He says, “Come to me all” who labor and are heavy laden.

What do we do when we come to Jesus? We lay down our heavy burdens and invites us, 2. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” – v. 29.

As I said, in Jewish thought, doing God’s will was seen as a yoke. And here Jesus offers his teaching and example as the new yoke to put on our shoulders. To take on Jesus’ yoke is to live your life according to what he has for you.

  • Not doing more than this by adding on extra human rules – we lay that burden down.
  • Not being slaves to our sins – in repentance we set these aside.
  • Not carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders all the time – we give these into God’s hands to take care of.

We simply take on Jesus’ yoke of walking in God’s ways. We become disciples of Jesus. The word “learn” here is from the same word as the word “disciple.” We become students of Jesus. We study his teaching and example and we do what he says and models for us.

And what we’ll find is that Jesus is a kind master. He said, 3. “For I am gentle and lowly in heart” – v. 29.

The word “gentle” is really meek or lowly. The second word here, “lowly” can also be translated as humble in heart.

Jesus is not a slave driver. Indeed, he himself came and walked this earth as a servant. And he knows that being in charge means serving others, not lording it over them (Matthew 20:25-28). He is kind and humble with us.

And we will also find that Jesus’ yoke is just right for each of us. He said, 4. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – v. 30.

  • “Easy” is probably better translated as “comfortable,” or a yoke that fits just right. Not one that digs in or causes pain. According to the testimony of one early Christian, who was raised near Galilee not long after the time of the apostles, Jesus “was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 88). And so he would know about making a comfortable yoke.
  • “Light” has to do with having little weight. Not being overloaded and weighed down.

Now none of this means that following Jesus can’t be hard. It can be at times. But in comparison to being weighed down under human rules and expectations or slavery to sin or carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders — it is truly a comfortable yoke and a light weight.

And finally, because we come to Jesus, and lay down our false burdens and take up his yoke, Jesus says, 5. “I will give you rest” – v. 28. And, “you will find rest for your souls” – v. 29.

Rest here means the cessation of toilsome labor from carrying really heavy weights that we were not meant to bear. It means peace, wholeness and well- being, which comes from following Jesus and walking in God’s ways. (Jeremiah 6:16).

This rest is connected to the Sabbath rest and how this foreshadows the rest we will have when the kingdom comes in its fullness. (Again, see the stories on the Sabbath that follow our text.)

And we have this rest deep in our hearts and souls; in our inner person.

I invite you this morning to come to Jesus and find rest. As I pray, picture yourself laying down your false yoke and only taking up what he has for you.

“Jesus help us to lay our burdens at your feet and only carry what you have for us; your will for our lives. And bless each one of us with the rest you promise here – relief from weariness, peace, new life, new energy, new strength and new hope.”

I’m sharing with you today on the topic of the importance of good leadership.

I’ve been involved in churches since I was 14 in various roles, including as a pastor for many years and also working with educational programs that train church leaders. And so let me begin by just saying, what I think you know, which is that –

Congregational leadership can be hard

1. It can be hard because leaders are called to follow the example of Jesus in laying down their lives for their people, walking in humble, sacrificial love.

As Jesus said in Mark 10:45, he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And he said this after giving teaching on how leadership is to be done among his people.

So this is the model and this isn’t easy!

2. It can also be hard because the world and God have different ideas about what good leadership is.  

Perhaps in other areas of life leadership can be judged by things like always growing, getting bigger and being well known — but not so in the kingdom of God.

In the kingdom, success is defined as faithfulness to God’s ways, which in some cases can even inhibit growing, getting bigger and being well known. Not always, but sometimes. Faithfulness and “success” aren’t always the same thing. But faithfulness is what’s required by God of good leaders. That’s what true success is.

3. It can be hard because being faithful to God can mean upsetting people who only want to be comfortable and fit in with the world around them.

We would all rather come to church to be affirmed and comforted – maybe even entertained. But God cares more about our growing in Christlikeness – about our being transformed into his image. And this means that leaders have to challenge us and even admonish us at times.

They have to talk about difficult things. Or as Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, they are to “speak the truth in love.”

4. Congregational leadership can be hard because, well, how can I say this, they’re leading people, and sometimes people can be difficult!

We all, including myself, have shortcoming and weaknesses; flaws and foibles. And we say and do things that we shouldn’t; that aren’t loving or kind.

This is the background to Hebrews 13:17 which talks about leaders as those who are “keeping watch over your souls.” And then it goes on to say, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Did you know that was in the Bible? Here’s a question maybe we can ask ourselves from time to time, “Do I make our congregation’s leaders groan?”

5. It can be hard because they bear the weight of the wellbeing of the community on their shoulders. And this can be very heavy and stressful.

They can’t just think about what they want. They have to think and act for the good of all. What keeps the flock together? And as well, what is God’s will for us as a group?

6. It can be hard because we live in the age of the almighty individual. We place more value on the individual over the community. Yet, to be in a community means being flexible and not always getting just what you want.

So people tell leaders, “Lead us!” But they often don’t mean, “We’re ready to sacrifice and give up things to follow your leadership.” Rather they mean, “Do what I think is right.” And then there are many saying this and each one likely has a different view on what they think is right. It can be a no-win situation and a source of deep frustration for leaders.

7. It can be hard because there’s a lack of trust in leaders these days, including church leaders.

We all know of the scandals and moral failures that’ve happened. And the good leaders, who are honorable, self-sacrificing and doing what’s right, end up under this shadow as well.

The role of leadership simply isn’t valued or held up like it used to be.

8. It can be hard because, often church members put the work on their leaders.

The actual job of congregational leaders is to equip you to do ministry. This is what Ephesians 4:12 says, they are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” – not to do it all themselves. They do their share, for sure, but it’s to be a team effort with everyone using their gifts.

9. It can be hard because moving forward as a congregation often means dealing with disagreements.

But churches tend to avoid this at all costs. And when we do finally have to deal with it, we often don’t do it in a healthy way and things get worse. So we’re stuck.

So what should leaders do?

I think we can all agree, and the examples I’ve given you should help us to remember that congregational leadership can be hard.

Yet despite all this –

Good congregational leadership is crucial

It makes a tremendous difference in the health and well-being of a church community. I want us now to look at two very different sets of verses on leaders, that point this out.

And the first is Ezekiel 34:1-6. In this passage the Lord is talking to the shepherds of Israel. This would include, for sure the kings of Israel, but also other rulers, priests and prophets. And the Lord has some very strong things to say about these faithless shepherds.

2Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Three things stand out in these verses:

  • They have not fed the sheep the word of God and so they have not led them in God’s paths.
  • They have taken advantage of their roles as leaders to get what they could out of it. As v. 2 says, they fed themselves, not the sheep.
  • And they didn’t care for the sheep, you know, encouraging the weak, binding up the wounded and seeking the lost. They were not gentle and caring, but rather they were harsh with the people.

So this is an example of terrible leadership. Here they were so bad that it says in v. 5 that “there was no shepherd”; or no true shepherd.

The result? The sheep were scattered

5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

  • The phrase in v. 6 – “wandered on every high hill” is a reference to idolatry at the various high places. Because they weren’t fed God’s word or led in God’s ways they went to other gods and idols.
  • The phrase “scattered over all the face of the earth” refers to how they were sent into exile in Babylon as judgment from God.

So you can see how crucial good leaders are, by taking note that bad leaders can destroy a people!

But then listen to what good leaders can do in our second passage Ephesians 4:11-16

11And he (Christ) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

If bad leaders can destroy a congregation, we learn here that good ones can:

  • build up the community
  • equip it for the work of ministry
  • and lead it to a mature, rooted faith

In this light, what a gift good leaders are to us!!! They are so precious to congregations. And given this let me end by saying –

We should honor and celebrate good leaders

My hope is that you don’t take good congregational leadership for granted. They should indeed be cherished, encouraged and blessed.

And finding new leaders should be seen as a priority. And they should be nurtured and trained. Invest in them and in their ministry.

Scripture teaches us to honor good leaders:

Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17 – Elders who do their work well should be respected – and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. (NLT)

And Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 – We ask you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (Also Philippians 2:29; Hebrews 13:7)

We are to honor them.

And not to be outdone, God himself will honor such leaders on the final day.

  • Peter says this in 1 Peter 5:4, talking to elders, “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
  • And in a parable on leaders, Jesus says this about a good leader in Luke 12:44 – “the master will set him over all his possessions.” That is, in the kingdom of God. Wow!

God honors good leaders and we should too.

And it’s at this point that I want to say, yes, congregational leadership can be hard. But it’s worth it! It’s the Lord that we serve and he will reward you. An unfading crown of glory given by the chief shepherd himself. And a place of honor in the eternal kingdom. It will indeed, be more than worth it!

Sin is insidious. It stealthily works its way into every nook and cranny of our lives, affecting every part of us and how we interact with others bringing pain and brokenness all around. We’re looking at just one aspect of this, this morning –

The sin of prejudice

Prejudice is when we treat people unfairly because of how they are different than we are or are perceived to be different

  • I was raised in the South – mostly Alabama and Georgia – and so I’m certainly aware of prejudice based on something as simple as the color of someone’s skin. And, of course, I mean white people treating black people unfairly. And this still goes on despite the way white people enslaved and brutalized African Americans – a monstrous sin that still today stands as a giant scar on the soul of America.
  • Prejudice can also be based on differences of culture, region or country. Some people treat differently, dislike or even hate those who come from a different group than they do. Jesus notes this human tendency when he says that Gentiles only greet those who are like them in Matthew 5:47.
  • Prejudice can also be based on gender, and almost always this involves men mistreating women.
  • And prejudice can also be based on social class; usually involving wealth or the lack thereof. James talks about this in the second chapter of his letter and how when we favor the rich and dishonor the poor, we sin (James 2:1-13).

Prejudice can be based on any differences between people.

And it’s especially dangerous when those who are different are a minority among a majority population that has social and political power all the way from school yard cliques of popular kids who pick on those who are different, to the kind of oppression, including ethnic cleansing that happens among nations when one group gains power over another.

Next, let me say, and I believe we will see this in our Scripture text today, apart from conscious, willful acts prejudice can be as simple as the majority not being aware of or taking into account the needs and concerns of the minority, so that they’re left out and thus treated unfairly. Right? We’re doing fine, so everyone else must be too. And that’s often not true.

I do not doubt that many of you have experienced prejudice in various ways. Just to take one example, although I was not raised Mennonite, I know that Mennonites have always been a religious minority and our views, especially on loving enemies, have brought prejudice and persecution at various times in history.

I want us to look this morning at –

Acts 6:1-6

– to see what we can learn from how the apostles responded to an example of prejudice in their midst.

The church at this time was still all Jewish. But nevertheless there were differences among them. And where there are differences, prejudice often lurks in the human heart.

And sure enough there was prejudice in their midst

1Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

The Hebrews were the dominant group in Jerusalem – they were Aramaic speaking and culturally Palestinian. The Hellenists may or may not have been born abroad, but Greek would have been their first language and they would have had more affinity for aspects of Greco-Roman culture.

We learn earlier in the book of Acts that all these different groups had come together and were caring for each other’s needs, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). This was a beautiful example of love and unity among people from all different Jewish backgrounds.

But here we see that something has gone terribly wrong. The Hellenist widows were not getting their fair share of support, and this is how they fed themselves and met their basic needs. This is how things worked back in that day. The Hebrews, who were in charge, including the Apostles, have treated them unfairly.

Now, we don’t know the details of what happened. Was there willful, overt prejudice on the part of some? Or was it that, as the majority, they simply weren’t careful to watch out for the needs of the Hellenists? Given the response of the community, that we’ll see in a minute, it looks more like the latter.

In this story we learn that the apostles did three things:

1. The apostles listened to those who had a “complaint.” This is evident in v. 1, that we just looked at. They heard the “complaint” of “neglect” of the Hellenists about their widows, the substance of which was that an injustice has happened.

Now the apostles were overseeing the setup that was being unjust to widows. So even though they may not have been personally involved or have had any willful prejudice themselves – they are a part of the problem.

Again, you can be involved in mistreating others even when your heart’s in the right place or if you’re not personally prejudiced in your attitudes. The apostles were in charge (Acts 4:34-35) and so were implicated.

And so it would have been really easy for the apostles to get defensive. ‘Well, I’m not prejudiced’ or ‘I wasn’t the one overseeing giving out resources for the widows!’ and so forth and so on. But they didn’t do this, they genuinely listened to the complaint and the pain of the widows. And the pain wasn’t just that they got less than others, it’s that they were treated as less than the other widows; they were disrespected.

2. The apostles saw the prejudice as a very serious problem. 

 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples . . .

In other words, they stopped everything and brought everyone together to deal with it. They saw prejudice for what it is, which is sin. And so they purposed to take action to correct things, which is the next point.

3. The apostles made changes that empowered those who were mistreated.

Picking up the last part of v. 2 –

. . . and (the apostles) said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers and sisters pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

 Two kinds of “service” are contrasted in these verses. In v. 4 it says literally the “service of the word” and in v. 2 “table service,” which has to do with meeting practical needs.

The apostles’ call was to the ministry of the word – preaching and teaching. And, given what happened, they feel that they can’t both do this and oversee taking care of the widows in the community, especially as the group was getting bigger and bigger.

So they ask the community to pick qualified people to perform what they call, “table service.” Table service might mean literally tables where food was distributed or it might refer to handling and distributing the money needed for this.

In any case, they made structural changes to put in place the first deacons. The system wasn’t working well so it had to change.

5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And so here the community does what the apostles ask them to do – and what they do is quite amazing. Every person chosen has a Greek name! Now, some Palestinian Jews had Greek names, but that all of these deacons have them shows that most, if not all of them are from the Hellenistic group. They are now in charge of the care of all the widows. And these were commissioned by the apostles to do just this.

So their response to the injustice was to empower those who had been mistreated, in part to make sure that it didn’t happen again.

Well –

The church still struggles with prejudice

If there was prejudice in the church overseen by the very apostles of Jesus, you can be sure that we have these problems among us as well. And I’m not just thinking of our congregation but of congregations throughout the world.

  • God calls us to be his new people made “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) united in love under allegiance to our Lord, Jesus.
  • God calls us to be “a city set on a hill,” as Jesus talks about (Matthew 5:14), that shines the light of a better way, in this case, of a community that welcomes all and values all equally under Jesus’ lordship.

But, sisters and brothers, as you know, we do not always live up to this calling! We often look just like the world around us with all of its divisions and hatreds. And this should not be so! It cuts at the very core of who we’re called to be as followers of Jesus; a people marked by love and reconciliation.

I’m not saying that Acts 6:1-6 teaches us everything we need to know about dealing with prejudice, but I am saying that it teaches us three very important responses that we should put into practice in our church communities.

1. We need to listen to those who have been mistreated. Like the apostles we need to listen and hear the person’s or the group’s perspective and pain. Just as we would want to happen, if we were mistreated. And we need to do so even if the person or group is angry with us. We have to listen and not be defensive.

2. We need to take prejudice seriously. It is sin in our midst and like any sin it must be dealt with.

3. We need to make changes that empower those who are mistreated to make sure it doesn’t continue.

And as I close, let me also say that we should also respond to any prejudice we see in the world in the same way. No one should have any doubt about where we stand!

In love we listen to those who are mistreated, we call out prejudice as sin and we support the encouragement and empowerment of those who are mistreated. This is who we are as God’s people.

Sisters and brothers, this world has enough hatred and bitterness. So let’s be God’s beacon of light of a better way; the way of love and respect for all.

Our passage this morning is Ephesians 5:15-20. And the title is “What are you full of?”

Let me say first of all that there are lots of things we could look at in chapter 5. Before our verses there’s great teaching on:

  • Imitating God in our love and grace toward one another
  • Sexual purity and integrity
  • Righteous speech
  • And walking in God’s light in the midst of a dark world

And the verses after ours deal with the relationships of wives and husbands under the heading of the words of v. 12, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

But I want us to dig into vs. 15-20 and see what God has to say to us in these verses. 

15Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”

I want us to start in the middle of our passage, in v. 18, and then we will go to the verses before it, and then the verses after it. Let’s begin with v. 18’s admonition –

“Do not get drunk with wine”

 With these words Paul forbids the abuse of alcohol. Now he says “wine,” but, of course, the point is drunkenness – which would include any kind of substance or drug abuse; anything that gets us high or intoxicated.

We get a hint at why Paul teaches this in the next phrase of the verse, “for that is debauchery.” This isn’t a word that we use much anymore, so let’s see what else we can come up with.

The Greek word (ασωτια) has as its root idea – ‘wastefulness.’ And a good definition of it is senseless or reckless behavior. It’s associated with drunkenness, as in our verse, and also with sexual immorality (1 Peter 4). It can also be translated as ‘wild living.’

And that makes sense, because once you’re drunk or high and lose control, who knows what you’ll do, or for that matter what will be done to you?

I would put it like this, drugs and alcohol are sin magnifiers. They amplify whatever sinful desires you have and take away whatever restraint you might normally have – so that you act recklessly. From a Christian point of view the bottom line is that it’s impossible to love God and love your neighbor while you’re drunk. In other words it’s impossible to be a Christian. And it’s even hard to love and take care of yourself.

A portrait of drunkenness as senseless and reckless is found in Proverbs 23:29-35:

29Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? 30It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. 31Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is, how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down. 32For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper. 33You will see hallucinations, and you will say crazy things. 34You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a swaying mast. 35And you will say, ‘They hit me, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even know it when they beat me up. When will I wake up so I can look for another drink?’” (NLT)

This passage speaks to how drunkenness causes harm to the person who is drunk. It also notes the element of addiction at the end. After all the harm, the question is, “When will I wake up so I can look for another drink?” But more broadly it presents a picture of a life that’s truly getting wasted.

Next we move to vs. 15-17. And I want to suggest that we are to read them in light of verse 18 and what Paul says about not getting drunk. And specifically that the language of “wise” and “foolish” in these verses is connected to the critique of drunkenness as foolish in Scripture. So –

There’s a contrast in vs 15-17 between wise-sober living and foolish-drunken living

The foolishness of drunkenness is talked about, for instance in Proverbs 20:1. This verse says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (or “will not become wise.”)

And so when Paul says in v. 15, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,” this language of “wise” and “unwise” is a reference back to passages like Proverbs 20:1.

And when in v. 16 he says, “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” Paul is saying,  life is short. Don’t waste the precious gift of life with drugs and alcohol.

And in v. 17 when he says, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is,” he’s saying, drunkenness keeps us from acting with wisdom or from growing in wisdom.

Paul’s making a contrast in vs. 15-17 between living foolishly by giving ourselves to drunkenness and living wisely by being sober so that we can walk according to God’s will.

Next, I want to show you that –

There’s a contrast in vs 19-20 between drunken speech and righteous speech

That is, just as vs. 15-17 before v. 18 are connected to its admonition against drunkenness, so vs.19-20 are also connected.

This becomes apparent when we realize that Paul is actually quoting a scripture in v. 18. And it comes from Proverbs 23:31, from the passage we’ve already read, the portrait of drunkenness as reckless.

Now, you probably didn’t notice this and that’s because Paul’s quoting the Greek version of the Old Testament which says something a little different than the Hebrew version, which is behind our Bibles. The Greek version of Proverbs 23:31 says in part, “Do not get drunk from wine”

And in Proverbs 23:33 it talks about drunken speech when it says “you will say crazy things” when you’re drunk. The Greek Old Testament says “your mouth will speak perversely.”

 In contrast to this Proverbs 23:31 says, “rather converse with righteous people, and converse in public places.” (NETS). So the Proverbs 23 passage is contrasting drunken speech and righteous speech.

And by quoting from this passage, Paul is connecting back to all this context. And he’s saying, yes, don’t get drunk and say crazy things like Proverbs talks about. Rather say righteous things to fellow believers and to God.

This is why he moves in v. 18 from talking about drunkenness to suddenly talking about “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks . . .” (v. 19-20).

Paul is developing what Proverbs 23:31 says about righteous speech. And he’s saying, when you’re drunk you talk one way. When you’re filled with the Spirit you talk a different way – there’s joyful singing and thanksgiving to God.

Now drunken speech is brought on by the alcohol, but righteous speech comes from the Holy Spirit. And this leads us to one last point:

The final and foundational contrast in these verses is between being filled with alcohol and being filled with the Spirit

The NIRV version of the Bible catches the sense of this verse well, “18Don’t fill yourself up with wine. Getting drunk will lead to wild living. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Paul’s saying, you can be filled with “spirits” or with the Spirit; with alcohol or with the presence of God.

It’s interesting that the Spirit is spoken of in Scripture in ways that are comparable to drinking.

  • The Spirit is poured out, according to Joel 2:28.
  • We can drink the Spirit, as 1 Corinthians 12:13 says.
  • And as our verse indicates we can be filled with the Spirit, just like we can be filled with alcohol. And remember when the disciples were filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, some thought they were drunk! (Act 2)

Now notice, from this passage as a whole, that what you’re filled with is what overflows into the rest of your life.

  • When we’re filled with alcohol we’re influenced by it to say wrong things and act foolishly. We behave recklessly and end up wasting our lives.
  • But when we’re filled with the Spirit of God we’re empowered by the Spirit to speak right things and to live wisely according to God’s will.

So let me end by asking –

What are you full of?

We can be full of lots of different things, not just alcohol. We can be full of the stuff farmers spread on their fields in the Springtime. We can be full of ourselves. We can be full of bitterness or anger or lust or envy – you name it.

But God calls us to be full of the Spirit so that the gifts, power and fruit of the Spirit overflow our lives transforming us and those around us into an ever greater Christ-likeness.

God calls us; God invites us to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

For the video version

A number of weeks ago I saw an article entitled, “The coronavirus pandemic is making earth vibrate less.” (CNN April 2013, by Harmeet Kaur). It talked about how since people were staying home and not using cars, trains and buses, that seismologists were noticing that the earth’s upper crust was actually moving less. I thought that it was very interesting that human activity can have this kind of effect on the earth, that we make it shake! But I also thought that in a way the earth is moving and shaking much more than I have ever seen it shake before. This is the kind of –


– that Psalm 46:1-3 speaks of when it says – “1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

This kind of shaking has to do with events that happen that leave us stunned or even traumatized. When life changes in ways that we never imagined. When things happen that we thought never would.

And that’s exactly what has happened because of the coronavirus pandemic. Under the stay at home order almost everything has come to a screeching halt.

  • Large cities seem deserted. Even around here, as I drove to work in mid-March through April (I work in an isolated office) there was hardly any traffic on the streets. It’s like something from a post-apocalyptic movie.
  • Businesses are closed.
  • Schools have closed during the school year.
  • Sporting events are shut down.
  • Churches have stopped meeting.

And life has changed. We have to social distance. We have to wear masks. When I drove down to Georgia in April to care for my father, I actually had to check to see if there were curfews or mandatory quarantines that would stop me from getting there.

Life has changed. Many have lost jobs. And for those who have jobs things are very different with many working from home. Many are lonely now, not being able to be with friends and family. Some are experiencing mental health issues that are heightened by the stresses of this situation. Something as simple as getting groceries is a far different experience than it was just a few months ago, as is also getting food from a restaurant.

The world economy has been devastated. And, of course, underlying all of this many have become sick or have lost their lives.

Such unprecedented change. And it came on us so quickly. It can leave us feeling dazed. It seems like the very earth under our feet has crumbled and our stability and equilibrium is gone. And the deep waters are raging all around us, as Psalm 46 pictures.

The question I’m asking is –

What is God’s purpose in all this?

Let’s turn to Hebrews 12:26-29. This is a passage that talks about God shaking things and so let’s see what we can learn about God’s purpose in shaking things.

 26At that time his (the Lord’s) voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”

The writer begins with a reference to the giving of the Law in Exodus 19:18. This verse says, “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” So, when God gave the ten commandments, God shook the earth.

Next he refers to Haggai 2:6 with the phrase that begins, “yet once more . ..” This passage is taken to refer to the final judgment. And in this case God will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens.

Hebrews 12:27 is the writer’s exposition of Haggai 2:6 –

27This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken – that is, things that have been made – in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.

So, on the final day God will shake all of creation; all that God has made; heaven and earth.

And this shaking will be a kind of sorting process whereby anything that can be shaken – the old creation – will be removed. It will be no more. And only those things that cannot be shaken will remain – a reference to the new creation.

Scripture talks about this coming event in several places. For instance in Isaiah 65:17 the Lord says, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” And Isaiah 66:22 seems to be in the writer’s mind, because it says, “the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me.” The same key word and idea.

28Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29for our God is a consuming fire.

So yes, anything in this old creation, the world that we currently live in, can be shaken. But God and God’s kingdom (or new creation) cannot be shaken. God and his new creation will remain forever.

I wanted us to look at these verses because we learn here what God is up to when he allows us to be shaken. God uses shaking to show us what is ultimate and eternal – and what is not. To rephrase the last part of Hebrews 12:27, God uses shaking “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may” – it says “remain.” But since we’re not yet at the final judgment we can insert “be seen” or “revealed to us.”

When things are shaken we are enabled to see the difference between what is temporary and what is eternal. We are enabled to see the difference between what has to do with this earthly life and what has to do with God’s kingdom.

Now in the examples in Hebrews God is the one doing the shaking – in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai and on the final day. With regard to the pandemic I cannot say that God is directly causing it. But I can say that God has allowed it, because its happening. God has allowed us to be shaken as individuals and as a people. And, as we know, whatever God allows God will use for God’s own purposes and even for our good, as Romans 8:28 teaches us.

So since this is so, let me end with what I see as –

The message for us

– in all of this. Because of the pandemic we are reminded in a big way that 1. Anything in this world can be shaken. Things do not always stay the same; there are no guarantees.

Whether it’s:

  • our daily routines of life
  • our jobs and career path
  • our health
  • our earthly relationships
  • our life goals and plans for the future

All the things that we take for granted and so often give us a sense of comfort and stability – all these can change so quickly and even disappear. So this shaking shows us that they are not ultimate or eternal. This is the sorting or revealing process I’ve been talking about. The pandemic makes this clear to us.

2. We shouldn’t be overly focused on or attached to these earthly things. All of the things I’ve mentioned – jobs, plans, earthly relationships, comfortable routines, health – they are all good things, even blessings of God.

But like with all created things we can turn them into idols that we put in place of God. We become overly devoted to them; excessively absorbed with them. We orient our lives around them. We live our lives for these things and not for God. We can get so caught up in these things that 20 years pass by without a thought. It’s like where did my life go?

What I’m saying is that we can love them more than God, or instead of God. And the shaking that’s going on can reveal this to us. It can be a wake up call. It can give us an opportunity to make some hard choices to rightly order our lives once again – or maybe for the first time.

So let’s not just rush ahead to try to get through the pain and suffering of this shaking. There is pain and suffering. But in the midst of the shaking:

  • Let God challenge you.
  • Let God sort through some things in your heart and life.
  • Let God reveal some things to you about where your true loves are. 

And then finally, 3. We should supremely be focused on and love what cannot be shaken. As Christians we know God. And in the words of Hebrews 12:28, “we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” We have this now! The world doesn’t have this. But we do. And this should be the foundation and center of our lives.

And that we have what is unshakeable in our lives should lead us to praise God. As Hebrews 12:28 also says, “thus (since this is so) let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”

   Many are suffering right now because of the coronavirus pandemic. It may be due to the disruption of our normal life patterns and relationships, or economic distress and even the potential of financial ruin. We may be grieving for lost loved ones, or we ourselves may be sick and fearful of whether we will live or not. As I write the global death toll is approaching 100,000. 

   These experiences of suffering are, of course, not new. Such suffering goes on all around us. The global scope and near simultaneous experience of this situation, however, is unique.

   Whenever we endure suffering we need others to love and care for us; a network of good and strong relationships around us. We also need categories to think about our experiences; to help us process and sort through what’s going on. How are we to think about all this? And what’s a Christian way of understanding our suffering? The following are some reflections on this topic. And we start with –

Some basics

   Yes, the world is broken. It doesn’t function the way God originally intended and so there are things like sickness, plague and death. It’s broken because of human sin. Passages like Genesis 3 and Romans 5:12 highlight the connection between sin, suffering and death. And sin doesn’t just affect us as individuals. It impacts everything including social structures and, in our case, the creation itself.

   In Romans 8:20-22 Paul says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Not just people suffer, even the creation is groaning under the effects of sin and is eagerly waiting for God’s salvation.

   As Christians we have hope. And that’s because suffering is not a necessary part of God’s creation. When God’s kingdom comes to earth all things will be made new (Matthew 19:28). There will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1; 2 Peter 3:13). This is when “God will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” (Revelation 21:4. Also Isaiah 25:6-8). We look forward to this in hope.

   But until that time, we live in the tension of the “already” and “not yet.” Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God has begun with his coming (Matthew 12:28; Luke 17:20-21). But it’s not all the way here yet. That won’t happen until he returns.

   So we exist in an in-between time. We live in the “already” of the kingdom where God has begun to make things right. This was evidenced in Jesus’ ministry of healing, nature miracles and exorcisms. And is still evidenced today when God answers prayer to heal and help those who suffer.

   But we also live in the “not yet” of the kingdom. As Paul says to Christians in 1 Corinthians 10:13, we still go through the same testing and trials that are “common to everyone” (NRSV). That’s because Jesus hasn’t returned. The resurrection and complete redemption of our bodies has not yet happened. And Satan is still alive and active. So we still experience the realities of sin, suffering and death. Although these realities have been decisively defeated through Jesus, we will not experience the fullness of this victory until the final day.

   In the meantime, we have –

Questions upon questions

   We turn to these now. 1. Should I assume I’m suffering because of my personal choices? You know, “Is God judging me for something I’ve done?” The answer is, “No, you should not assume this.” This is not to say that there can’t be a connection. God can specifically cause suffering in relation to our choices to sin. For instance in Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. (See also 1 Corinthians 11:29-32).

   But the idea that every time I suffer it’s because God is punishing me for something I’ve done is just not the way the world works in its brokenness. Scripture makes this clear. The wicked prosper (Psalm 73:3-5) and the righteous suffer. Job suffered, but not because of sin (Job 1:8). And Jesus suffered, but was sinless. This shows us that there is no one-to-one connection between a person’s sin and consequences in this world. So short of God making a connection clear to us, we should not assume that our suffering means God is specifically judging us.

2. Is it God’s will for the world to suffer through this pandemic? As I said, God does sometimes directly intervene to judge sin in this world. So is that what’s going on? Well, since it’s happening, we can say for sure that God has allowed it. God is the sovereign creator and overseer of all things. But that God allows something doesn’t mean that God specifically caused it. Not everything that happens in the world is an expression of God’s preferred will (Acts 7:51; Ezekiel 18:31-32; Isaiah 63:10; Luke 7:30).

   So like with question #1, short of God telling us this is God’s own work, perhaps through trusted messengers, we should not assume that God is causing this pandemic. We’re simply experiencing, yet again, the current brokenness of the creation.

3. Why did God make the world in such a way that we could mess things up so badly? If human sin causes such pain and suffering, why did God take such a risk? Simply put, God wants us to freely choose to love and serve him. God doesn’t want robots as servants. God wants people, made in God’s image, who will be his partners in his plans for the creation. And this can’t happen without allowing the possibility of our choosing to hate and rebel against him, which we have done. The possibility of love, even in human relationships, involves the risk of suffering.

4. Is all the suffering worth it? According to Scripture, it will be. That’s because our suffering is temporary, but our blessings will be much greater and eternal. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “. . . no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Paul, a man who knew about suffering, said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18. Also 2 Corinthians 4:17)

   This doesn’t take away the pain of our current suffering, but it does give us comfort and encouragement.

5. Can God bring good out of our suffering? Scripture talks about this quite a lot (James 1:3-4, Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:10-11). For instance, Joseph was sold into slavery and was also put in jail. But God used his suffering for good. As Joseph said to his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). Also, Paul’s life was in danger due to persecution, but God used this experience to teach him to “rely not on himself but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

   Although it was not God’s will that we choose sin and thus suffer, God can nevertheless accomplish his plan by using our suffering for his own ends. As Paul says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God can redeem and transform our pain and suffering to bring good into our lives and into the lives of others.

   This also doesn’t take away the pain of our suffering, but it encourages us to endure and to keep moving forward.

6. Can we show how God brings good out of every example of suffering (question #5) and that it will be worth it (question #4)? No, we cannot. We say this all by faith. We are simply not in a position to know how God orchestrates everything and why God allows things like pandemics.

   This, in part, is what the book of Job teaches us about suffering. It never tells us why Job suffered. It simply teaches us that God is in control and that what he does is beyond human understanding. As the Lord says to Job in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” We will not understand why and how God does all that God does, at least in this life. And so we have to trust God in all this. We have to trust that the God we know to be just and merciful is doing what is right and good.

7. Where is God when we suffer? God is with us in our suffering. It doesn’t always feel like this is so. It can seem like God is absent. As the psalmist says in Psalm 10:1, “Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

   Yet we are taught that God is with us. As the Lord says in Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God is with us to watch over us, to encourage us, to comfort us and to strengthen us.

   And not only this, God has come to be with us through his Son. He sent him to this earth, whose name is Immanuel or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God did not stand far off and aloof from us. Jesus suffered with us and for us in his life and in his death on the cross. God knows first-hand what we’re going through.

   God has not left us alone. He is with us as we experience the pain of suffering. And he suffers with us, until that day when all things will be made new.

   A final thought –

We can have joy even while we suffer

   Even though we will continue to suffer in various ways, Christians can experience victory in the midst of it. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

   A part of this victory is the experience of joy even while we suffer. We can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4. Also Romans 5:3-5). We can also have joy because, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” We can “rejoice and be glad, for (our) reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). There is a new world coming and we have a part in it.

   We can have joy because, even though we cannot always understand our suffering or explain it, by faith we know that God is working in our lives and we know that God’s promises are true.

William Higgins

April 9, 2020