Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Text: 1 Peter 2.19
God will bless you for this, if you endure the pain of undeserved suffering because you are conscious of his will.

Thank God for pain

Dr Paul Brand, (died in 2003) was noted for solving a lot of the mystery surrounding leprosy when little was known about it. He gave hope to the millions of those who suffered this terrible disease. One night he had a frightening experience. He thought he had contracted leprosy. Dr Brand had travelled from the US to London by ship followed by a long train ride from the English coast. He was getting ready for bed, had taken off his shoes, and as he pulled off a sock, discovered there was no feeling in his heel. Most people wouldn’t worry too much about this kind of thing – just a momentary numbness. But Dr Brand was world famous for his work with leprosy and had convinced himself and his staff that there was no danger of infection from leprosy after it reached a certain stage. The numbness in his heel terrified him.

In her biography of Dr Brand, Ten Fingers for God, Dorothy Clarke Wilson says, "He rose mechanically, found a pin, sat down again and pricked the small area below his ankle. He felt no pain. He thrust the pin deeper, until a speck of blood showed. Still he felt nothing".

All that night he tried to imagine his life as a leper, an outcast, his medical staff’s confidence in their immunity shattered. Then there was the forced separation from his family. As morning approached he did the same test he had done the night before. He bared the skin below his ankle, jabbed in the needle - and yelled."

Never had the sensation of pain felt so good! He realised that during the long train journey, sitting immobile, he numbed a nerve. From then on, whenever, Dr Brand cut his finger, twisted his ankle, even when he suffered from "agonising nausea as his whole body reacted violently to mushroom poisoning, he responded with fervent gratitude, "Thank God for pain!"

"Thank God for pain?" In the middle of some excruciating pain, do you thank God for the pain? Probably not. And if you are in any kind of pain at this moment, either physically, emotionally or spiritually, you probably don’t feel like praising God saying, "Thank God for pain!"
Pain is something we try to avoid.
It's uncomfortable; it's unpleasant.
It makes us jump and twist and clench our teeth.
It makes us moan and groan and cry and scream.
We complain about pain.
Pain causes us to withdraw from people as we try to hide or suppress the external signs of pain.
We want pain to go away so we go to doctors, dentists, physios, chiropractors, and chemists or take painkillers of some kind.

Pain has a long history. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that, the sin of Adam and Eve brought the penalty of pain to each one of us, the pain of childbirth, the pain arises almost on a daily basis as we go about our work and leisure, and the pain involved in broken relationships. Our language indicates the connection between pain and punishment. The English word pain comes from a Latin word (poena) which means penalty or punishment.

We can see good sense in thanking God for pain in the sense that it alerts us to something that is happening to our bodies and that we need to pay attention to this warning signal. When pain leads to the discovery of some serious illness that can be cured before it gets serious, then we are grateful for pain.

In the Bible reading this morning St Peter gives us another reason to be thankful for pain. He tells us that pain can deepen our consciousness of God. He writes, "God will bless you, if you endure the pain of undeserved suffering because you are conscious of his will".

Notice how Peter talks about "undeserved suffering". Peter is here first of all addressing slaves who were often unjustly punished. In those times slaves were treated as mere property and the owner was allowed to treat them anyway he liked. Peter gives what we might consider to be strange advice, namely, to accept this suffering patiently. Peter isn’t condoning the unjust punishment of slaves but he is being realistic. He knows that it was inevitable that a slave would suffer because his/her owner was in a bad mood or asked to do impossible tasks. Their suffering will bring them blessing.

This text still applies to us even though there aren't any slaves here in this church today. But we still suffer, we still experience pain. And Peter's encouragement is very relevant for sufferers. He wants us to realise that God allows suffering, not because he is unable to do anything about, but because he uses our pain to bring us blessing. A simple translation of our text could be: "Praise the Lord when you suffer pain unjustly, not because there is no other option, but because it brings blessing!"

Peter points to the example that Jesus gave when he was here on earth. He suffered pain most unfairly. They insulted him. They beat him and nailed him to a cross. He suffered but he did not retaliate either against God or against those who were mistreating him. Peter says, "He had faith in God, who judges fairly". He was able to go through all of his pain because he was confident that the heavenly Father would use his pain and suffering for the good of all people. Jesus was glad that he was suffering and would die. "Not my will, but your will," he prays as pain and suffering loomed over his life.

Paul suffered pain, a "thorn in the flesh". We don't know what kind of suffering Paul was going through, but it was serious enough to prevent Paul from doing what he wanted to do, even to do what God wanted him to do. He prayed that his illness might be taken away but Paul soon discovered that he was not going to get the answer that he wanted. He was going to have to live with his suffering. He was going to have to work with it.

For Paul, pain taught him an important lesson. He was a man with a strong will and a brilliant intellect. He was a fine student of the Scriptures and zealous in his attitude that people far wide would come to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. But he was as human as you and I.
Paul had been chosen to take the name of Jesus to places where it had never been heard before.
He had stood before kings and governors, angry crowds of unbelieving people and had proclaimed the message of the Gospel.
He had even received special visions and revelations.
When called to do such important work for the Lord, it is a difficult thing to remain humble.
When treated as a special person all the time by Christians all over the known world, it is easy to become conceited and proud.
His "thorn in the flesh" he says is "to keep me from becoming conceited..." or "puffed up with pride".

And so we see Paul talking about his suffering in positive terms. He can see that God is using his suffering for his own benefit. Paul's thorn drew him closer to God and his will for Paul’s life.

Paul came through it all, confident that God's grace is all he needed. When he is the weakest, all he needs is God's power. He says, "I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ's power over me (2 Cor 12.9b).
Paul even went so far as to say, "We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure" (Rom 5.3). He realised that suffering produces strength of character and hope that we are not able to develop when there is nothing but sunshine and happiness in our lives.

So we can join with Peter and Paul and say -
Thank God for pain!
Thank God for the suffering that has made us turn to our heavenly Father who is "our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble" Psalm 46:1).
Thank God for the pain that has reminded us of our relationship with our God and that our life is in his hands.
Thank God for the pain that reminds us that our life has been bought with a price - and he does not want to lose us because we have an over estimation of ourselves and our abilities to help and save ourselves.
Thank God for pain that leads us to a deeper hope that we have God on our side to support and strengthen us when the pain is the most intense.
Thank God for the joy of eternal life in heaven that makes these troubles seem like nothing (2 Cor 4.17).

If suddenly suffering or pain came your way, how would you take it? No doubt at first it would be a shock. It's normal to question why you would have to suffer this way. But the beautiful part of pain is that when we have nothing left to lean on, not even the health that is so precious to us, or our family, or our influence, there is only One who can bear us up and keep us going to the end. And that is Jesus Christ.

Peter knew that. He concludes by reminding his readers of Jesus, the Shepherd and Keeper of their souls. He reminds us of Christ our Good Shepherd who watches over us and is deeply concerned for each of us in a personal and intimate way. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep". (John 10:14).

He knows what is happening to us. Even though we are in pain, and we are at our weakest, we are assured that we are in the arms of the everlasting Shepherd who lovingly cares for his sheep and strengthens and supports us in our weakest and most painful moments. Paul knew of this when he said, "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Paul is happy to undergo anything, even hardship and pain, because it is just at those moments of pain and hardship that he is the strongest in his relationship with God. It is at times of pain that he experiences the grace and power of God the most as he is carried over the humps and bumps of life.

You hear this every so often from those who have been visiting the sick. "I went to visit so and so and cheer her up a bit, but I was the one who came away uplifted by her faith and trust and joy in the Lord." Such people are experiencing the love of God, as they have never before, as they suffer.
They trust him.
They have confidence that he will take care of them.
God has brought them closer to him through their suffering.

Thank God for pain! That doesn't sound so ridiculous after all. When pain does come God invites us to bask in his love. When we are at our weakest, when we are hurting the most, the power and love of God is the strongest and most effective in our lives. Have confidence in his love and his goodness and thank God for pain that makes the words of Psalm 23 our words. "Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. You give me new strength. You are my shepherd; I have everything I need".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
13th April 2008

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