A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"Finding God When Life is Hard "

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          January 8, 2006

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: Lamentations 3:1-20

I am one who has seen affliction
   under the rod of God's wrath;
he has driven and brought me
   into darkness without any light;
against me alone he turns his hand,
   again and again, all day long.
He has made my flesh and my skin waste away,
   and broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
   with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me sit in darkness
   like the dead of long ago.
He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
   he has put heavy chains on me;
though I call and cry for help,
   he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with hewn stones,
   he has made my paths crooked.
He is a bear lying in wait for me,
   a lion in hiding;
he led me off my way and tore me to pieces;
   he has made me desolate;
he bent his bow and set me
   as a mark for his arrow.
He shot into my vitals
   the arrows of his quiver;
I have become the laughingstock of all my people,
   the object of their taunt-songs all day long.
He has filled me with bitterness,
   he has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
   and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
   I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, "Gone is my glory,
   and all that I had hoped for from the LORD."
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
   is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
   and is bowed down within me.

A Hard Passage

See, I told you this wouldn't be an easy passage to hear. It's a hard text, no question about it.

I expect some of you may be wondering why I've chosen to start a new year of preaching with such a downer. Couldn't I have chosen something more upbeat, more hopeful? Perhaps you're even wishing I'd go back and preach the sermon on welcoming leaders. I wouldn't blame you if you did.

But I really do believe that this is the passage from which I'm to preach today. And, what's more, hold onto your hats, this is the beginning of a new sermon series. Now before you start heading for the doors and looking for a more cheerful church, please allow me to explain. I expect that by the end of this sermon, my choice of Lamentations 3 for today will make sense to you. And you may even be enthusiastic about this new sermon series.

Life is Hard in Lamentations

Lamentations 3:1-20 is a hard passage in a hard book. The context is the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., as the Babylonians conquered the beleaguered Jewish army, stole the sacred artifacts from the temple, burned the whole thing to the ground, and took the finest citizens into exile in Babylon. Jerusalem, the blessed city of God, had been destroyed. Thus Lamentations begins with:

How lonely sits the city
   that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
   she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
   has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
   with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
   she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
   they have become her enemies. (Lam 1:1-2)

Tradition holds that the author of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah. A good case can be made for this (see 2 Chronicles 35:25), but the book itself is anonymous. Yet the writer describes, not only the tragic suffering of Jerusalem, but also his own experience in the midst of this catastrophe. That's what we get in Lamentations 3. Here's some of what the author has experienced, either literally or metaphorically:

• starvation (3:4)

• bondage (3:7)

• physical pain (3:11)

• jeering from his fellow Jews (3:14)

• anxiety (3:17)

• hopelessness (3:18)

• discouragement (3:20

Now all of this would be bad enough, but to make matters worse, the suffering of Jerusalem has come as a result of Jerusalem's persistent disobedience to God (Lam 1:8). So to make matters even worse than this, the terrible things coming upon the Jewish people are, in fact, God's judgment (1:17). Yet the author of Lamentations doesn't accuse God of wrongdoing. On the contrary, he says in 1:18, speaking as a representative of the whole people: "The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word."

Yet this means that what the writer's personal suffering is not merely a result of living in a fallen world, or feeling the pain of having made bad choices. Rather, what he experiences is coming from God. This magnifies the pain beyond measure. Not only is life intolerably hard, but, in this particular case, God is responsible for the hardness.

One Thing I Like About the Bible

Before I explain why I think this passage is so important for us today, I want to share a more general observation. If nothing else, Lamentations 3 makes it clear that life can be hard. Life is not just a bowl of cherries; sometimes it's a bowl of pits. Sometimes in the rose garden we don't get the flowers, just the thorns. According to Lamentations 3, life is hard.

One of things I like about the Bible is its realism about life. So often spiritual writings are obnoxiously positive. They look on the bright side. They employ happy-speak and wishful thinking. This might work for you if you're in a great place in your own life. But that great place won't last. The time will come when the naïve, unrealistic platitudes of happy-face religion just won't cut it.

But the Bible, now there's a different story. From the beginning, Scripture is clear about the real struggles and sufferings of this life. Consider the fact that one of the first stories in the Bible is about a brother killing a brother out of jealousy (Genesis 4). As we continue to read through Scripture, we find more division within families and murder, not to mention rape, parents grieving over their dead children, starvation, adultery, disease, hunger, famine, the slaughter of innocent children, discouragement, and despair. It's all in the Bible, and much more besides.

And I say I like this? Yes, indeed I do. Because this is what life is like. To be sure, there are glorious times, times of blessing and joy, times of rich celebration. Life isn't only hard. It's also good, sometimes very good. But I like the fact that when I read my Bible, it makes sense of real life today. It doesn't force me to pretend as if everything is hunky-dory. In fact, I'll show in this series that pretending and denial are contrary to God's will for us. The Bible tells it like it is, warts and all. It describes real life, a life that is often hard. And it reveals how God makes a difference, not in some pie-in-the-sky world, but in this world filled with pain and difficulty.

Life is Hard in Our World

And this is our world, don't you agree? Again, I'm not denying the blessings of this life, not at all. But how can we not be struck by the tragedies and the sufferings of our world, if not in our own lives?

2005 was a tough year for the world. Although the Indian Ocean tsunmai happened right at the end of 2004, we began 2005 faced with unprecedented devastation and death throughout southern Asia. In 2005 we became aware, as never before, of the scourge of AIDS in Africa, which has orphaned millions of children. We've also become more aware of the poverty and hunger throughout the world, learning that over six million children die every year because they are poor. In 2005 our hearts were wrenched time and again by the violence the wracks our world, in the Middle East, and elsewhere. Then, in the fall, we watched helplessly as Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast, and as a massive earthquake killed thousands in Pakistan.

2005 was also a hard year for many of us in this church. We faced division and divorce in families. Many of us were challenged by serious illness, either our own, or that of our loved ones. Others encountered financial hardship. We had more deaths of members of this congregation in 2005 than ever before in our history as a church.

All of this came to a head in December. Last month I listened to more difficulties from members of this church family than in any previous month of my almost-fifteen years as your pastor. Parents shared the pain of seeing their children make terrible choices for their lives. One person found himself in grave trouble with the law. Others struggled with cancer and other debilitating illnesses. Still others mourned the loss of loved ones. In December we actually had two of our members - Ida McCalla and Bud Harvey - die on the same day, shortly before Christmas. I found myself on December 23rd performing two memorial services, one for Ida, and one for a mother of an IPC member. (Barb did Bud's service the next week.)

So here we were, right when we were supposed to be celebrating Christmas, and many of us were finding that life is hard. Very hard. Many others of us, though not struggling directly, were weeping with those who weep as we shared in the pains of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Life is hard, not only in Scripture, but also in our world, and in our church, and in our personal lives.

Here in South Orange County we are greatly blessed, and we live with greater comfort and security than almost anyone else on earth. We look put together on the outside. We often feel as if we've got to pretend that that's the way we really are, even though on the inside we might be falling apart. Driving down the neatly manicured streets of Irvine, it might seem like just another day in paradise. But inside our homes, and inside our families, and inside our hearts, life is hard.

What to Preach?

As I began to prepare my next preaching series, I asked the Lord: "So what do you want me to preach?" As always, I had many ideas spinning around in my mind. I've probably got three years of sermons in my brain. But I tried to quiet down enough to hear from the Lord. As I prayed, I thought about you folks, and I asked, "Lord, how can I be a good pastor to these people? How can I care for them and meet them where they are? How can my preaching help them to know You better, to experience Your love, and to live in Your grace?"

Then it struck me as a thought fully formed. A naturalistic type would say it was my creativity at work. I happen to believe it was the Holy Spirit. In and instant I knew that I needed to preach a sermon series on: Finding God When Life is Hard. This was what the Lord wanted me to preach from now through Lent.

I know that, for some of you, this hits the bull's eye of your soul, because you're struggling with hard things right now, and you're desperately wanting to know where God is and how He can help. But I also know that some of you are enjoying a season of blessing right now, thanks be to God! You may be wondering how a series on Finding God When Life is Hard will be relevant to your life. So let me explain.

First, the bad news. No matter how wonderful your life is today, you will face hard times ahead. It's inevitable. So if this series doesn't speak to where you are now, it will prepare you to find the Lord when difficult times come in the future. Take notes, because you'll need them sometime, I'm sorry to say.

Second, the good news. Even if you're experiencing the best time in your life right now, you have the great privilege and joy of sharing in the struggles of your sisters and brothers in Christ. We are to be a body in which we "bear one another's burdens" (Gal 6:2), and in which we "weep with those who weep" (Rom 12:15). This means that no matter how great your life is today, you have the opportunity to share with those for whom life is hard. Why do I call this the good news? Because there is just about nothing more meaningful in life than being a source of God's comfort for people who are hurting. And, because your being a member of a burden-bearing church family means, that when your time of trial comes, you will not be alone.

So, even if today is a fantastic day for you, this sermon series is for you too. It will prepare you for the future and it will help you to be a genuine, graceful member of Christ's family at IPC.

Is It Possible to Find God When Life is Hard?

But, you might be thinking, does the theme of this sermon series make sense? Is it even possible to find God when life is hard? Yes, I believe it is. In fact, I know it is. And I'm not alone in this conviction. In his classic treatment of suffering, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote:

God whispers to us in our pleasures,
speaks in our conscience,
but shouts in our pain:
it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Lewis argues, not only that it is possible to find God when life is hard, but also that it is in some sense easier than when life is good.

Yes, I'll admit that this can feel impossible, especially if you're in a tough place in your life right now and God seems a million miles away. But for thousands of years people have indeed found God in the midst of life's suffering, or, it might be better to say, God has found them.

Consider, once again, the case of Lamentations. Earlier I read the first twenty verses of chapter 3. That was a gut-wrenching read, if ever there was one. The writer is suffering profoundly, not only in his own pain, but because his people have been devastated. Now, put on your seat belts, because I'm going to re-read a portion of Lamentations 3, but this time I'm going to read a little bit further. Are you ready?

[The Lord]  has made my teeth grind on gravel,
   and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
   I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, "Gone is my glory,
   and all that I had hoped for from the LORD."
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
   is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
   and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness. (3:10-23)

Can you believe it? There, right smack dab in the middle of extreme suffering, we find one of most faithful, positive, and beloved passages in all of Scripture: "The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." Somehow, in the middle of his suffering, when life was just about as hard as it gets, and when he was putting his pain into bitter words, the author of Lamentations finds God.

A Finding God When Life is Hard

My friends, if this could happen with him, then it can happen with you. God will reach out to you in the midst of a hard life because He is a God who seeks and finds. We have, if you'll pardon the play on words, a finding God. Yes, I know the primary sense of my series theme, Finding God When Life is Hard, speaks of our effort to find God. And there's no question that when we struggle, we look for God, a God who sometimes seems to be frustratingly absent. Yet my series title is ironic, because not only are we in the business of finding God when life is hard, but also, in the midst of life's pain we meet a finding God, a God who seeks out and finds the one who is lost, even you and me.

So, my friends, this sermon series isn't only about your effort. I want to do more than help you look for God in the right places, though I will try to do this. More importantly, I want you to meet once again - or perhaps for the first time - the God revealed in Jesus Christ:

• the God who hears the cries of His people when they hurt;

• the God who is with us in our suffering;

• the God who knows our sorrows;

• the God who has entered into this hard life in Jesus;

• the God who bears our suffering and redeems us from it;

• the God who ensures that we are never alone;

• the God of all comfort;

• the God who gives us strength;

• the God who sustains us when life is hard;

• the God who gives us hope, a hope that will not disappoint.

Yes, sisters and brothers, life is hard. We know this from experience. We know this from Scripture. Yet in this hard life God makes Himself known to us. He draws near to us. He seeks us and finds us because He is a finding God.

If you're in the midst of a difficult time today, or if you're filled with rejoicing, no matter what your worldly condition, may God give you the grace to know the truth, and thus to have hope. This is the truth:

In Jesus Christ, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord. Great is thy faithfulness!


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