So the doctor says to her, ‘the test results are back. It is confirmed: you have Rheumatoid Arthritis.’
And my wife says, ‘okay. So, what’s the cure?’
And the doctor says, ‘there is no cure. Your joints are going to degenerate. All we can do is slow down the progress of the disease with low doses of chemotherapy.’
Those weeks after the diagnosis were difficult ones. They were physically difficult, as Darlene’s body got accustomed to the side-effects of the medicine. But really those weeks were mentally and emotionally difficult. Nothing focuses your mind quite like the words ‘cancer’ or ‘incurable disease’. Nothing focuses your faith in quite the same way.
And so one night, as we were lying together there in the darkness, Darlene said, ‘Ian, why won’t Jesus help me? I keep asking him to help me, I keep asking him to heal me. He has healed other people. Why won’t he heal me too?
And I said, ‘I don’t know.’
Now, I realize that I’m a pastor and all, and that means I’m supposed to have answers to questions like that. I realize that for many people, that’s a pastor’s job description: Pastor = Guy With The Answers. I realize that many people come to church hoping I’ll give them three quick bullet points and a practical application, and — if we’re really lucky! — I’ll do it in twenty-five minutes or less.
But, friends, I can’t do that. I couldn’t answer my wife that way, so why would I answer you that way? The truth is: I don’t know why God heals some, and doesn’t heal others. I don’t know why some people are born handicapped, while others enjoy good health until they’re ninety. I don’t know why Malaysia enjoys relative peace and harmony, while Syria is utterly destroyed.
For thousands of years, philosophers and deep thinkers have tried to answer these questions. Many have said, ‘well, the answer is easy, really: good people are blessed by God, or the gods, or whatever you believe in. And bad people are cursed.’
And that sounds good, right? That sounds fair. The trouble is, however, it’s obviously not true! We have all known very good people who have suffered terribly! And how does that explain handicapped children? How can they be cursed from birth, even before they have done anything good or bad?
But then some philosophers would say, ‘well, those children are cursed because their parents sinned somehow. Besides, sin can be a very secret thing: maybe those people you thought were good actually had some deep, unrepentant sin. If they would just confess, and try to please God, or the gods, or whatever you believe in — well, then they would be healed!’
Is that how I should have answered Darlene that night? Is that what I should tell you now: that your healing is up to you? That if you are ‘good enough’ — whatever that is — then you will be blessed, and Jesus will help you?
No? You wouldn’t find that pleasant? Well, neither would I. And if I had said that to my wife in the midst of her grief…? I would have crushed her. Just as many of you have been crushed in the past by pat answers and well-meaning advice.
So I’m not going to do that.
Especially since, in this moment, I am speaking as a pastor, a shepherd. When I stand here, at this pulpit, I am called to speak the Word of God to the gathered people of God. I am supposed to tell you how God answers these questions.
And I can tell you right now that God never answers his children that way. He does not point to us in our grief and say, ‘you are suffering because you haven’t been good enough. Work harder! Do better! Make me happy, and I will save you.’
And since God would never say that, neither can I.
But, of course, now we’re all wondering: what would God say? How does he answer us in those moments?
Or, perhaps more pointedly: does he answer us in those moments?
Because surely, if he did, we wouldn’t have to ask these questions! Surely, if God was right there with us in the darkness, we wouldn’t have to say, ‘where are you? Why won’t you help me? Why won’t you heal me?’
And doesn’t it seem like our experience that just when we need him most, God is nowhere to be found? The dark tide rises, it takes hold of us and drags us out into the deep waters, into the shadows at the edge of all things, and what do we find there but a great silence?
But here, into this silence, a voice speaks. And it says:
‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’
As Christians, we believe this is the voice of God. We hear it through the pen of a man who lived two thousand years ago. The man’s name was Luke. According to tradition, Luke was a medical doctor, probably a Gentile (that means not a Jew), and, according to his writings, he was a travelling companion of the famous Apostle Paul.
And Luke was being confronted with these exact questions. He was right there in the early days of Christianity, about thirty years after Christ, and Nero had become Emperor of Rome. And if you know your history, you’ll remember that Nero was like Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. He was the first century version of ISIS — and he hated Christians. He murdered thousands of them: men, women, children, torturing them in horrible ways, much like what has been happening in Syria today.
And the Christians of that age asked God the exact same questions we do: ‘God, where are you? God, why don’t you protect us? God, you know all things; you know what is going to happen before it happens. Have you created us for no greater purpose than to suffer at the hands of evil men, and then die?’
And God did not give them a light answer. He did not give them three points and an application. He did not make a logical theological argument. He did not quote them a bible verse about his goodness.
Instead, he sent his Spirit to fall upon Luke. And how did Luke decide to answer these questions?
With a narrative. A story.
Now, I realize that some of you are thinking, ‘really? A story. A story is how God chooses to meet us in our grief? A story is how God chooses to explain the existence of evil and suffering in this world?’
But really, when you think about it, isn’t a story better than a pat answer, or a bible verse? When you’re in agony, even well-meaning advice can be crushing; but a story…? You can take it or leave it, as you please.
Because stories work on us differently than three bullet points and an application. They work on us differently than a logical explanation — or even a bible verse, no matter how true that verse might be. Stories do explain things, they teach, they persuade — but not by simply telling us something, passing us information. Rather, stories answer questions by drawing us into an experience. And as we live vicariously through the narrative, seeing events through the eyes of other people, our hearts are changed, comforted. Questions are answered, sometimes without us even knowing it.
So Luke, speaking by the Spirit of God, wrote a story, a story about suffering…and triumph. If you join us here at CDPCKL, we will experience this story together. It’s going to take us a year: by God’s grace, we will finish the final chapter on the last day of 2017. And by the time we reach the end, Luke’s book will have worked on us and in us in ways that we will not always be totally aware of; by the time we reach the end, we will be better equipped to experience suffering without losing hope.
Here is a preview of Luke’s story:
Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by an ancient dragon. And this dragon loved power above all things. So he made sure that his citizens — the people of the world — were always sick, always suffering, always fighting one another; he kept them weak so they would never be able to rebel against his tyranny. He would tell them, ‘if you worship me as your king, then I will give you power to crush other people, so you can always get whatever you want.’ So the citizens worshiped the dragon, hoping to earn his favor and gain power and lessen their suffering by making other people suffer instead.
But the dragon would only give people the illusion of power: always, after a while, he would take it away and give it to someone else. And then those people would fall, and the people they used to rule would rise up and take terrible revenge upon them for all their years of torment.
And so the cycle of suffering continued.
But there were these whispers, ancient prophecies that said the kingdom had not always been like this. The prophecies said the dragon had stolen the kingdom from its rightful king, thousands and thousands of years before. The kingdom had not always been a place of horror and cruelty, but of light, and peace, and joy. And the prophecies said that one day the rightful king would return, and take back his kingdom, and drive the dragon out forever.
So in Luke’s story, the day finally arrives. The baby prince is born in secret, in obscurity, far from the dragon’s palaces. He grows up, becoming strong and wise. He trains for battle. And then, when his Father says he is ready, the prince goes out to win back his kingdom.
First the prince goes to a prophet, who officially anoints him king, just like prophets used to do in the days of the ancient kingdom. Then the prince goes into the desert, where the dragon meets him, and the great war begins.
It goes on for years. For the first half of Luke’s book, the prince and the dragon are fighting — and to everyone’s shock, the prince wins every battle easily! It turns out that the dragon’s power is just an illusion also! Everywhere the prince goes, he sets the dragon’s slaves free, he opens up the dragon’s dungeons and lets everyone out, he takes all the sick and sad people and makes them well.
And right around chapter 10, the dragon’s army is defeated! He suddenly turns, and runs. The prince has won his kingdom! So the prince gathers all his friends around him and begins to travel to the capital city. When he gets there, he plans to go straight to the temple, where the priests will crown him King, just like they used to do in the ancient days.
As the prince travels, he talks about all the changes he is going to make in his restored kingdom, how he is going to undo all the dragon’s horrible laws and put new laws in place, laws that will bring back the days of light and peace and joy. But he also warns his friends that his days of war and suffering are not yet over — and that if they want to follow him as their King, they will experience war and suffering too.
But the prince’s friends don’t listen to him. They think he’s joking, because after all, he’s already beaten the dragon, hasn’t he?
Finally, in chapter 19, the prince arrives at his capital city. All the freed citizens are so happy! They come out to greet him with a procession, and singing, because he is their Champion, the prince who conquered the dragon and set them all free!
But the prince knows they are not really free, not yet. He knows the people still think the way the dragon has taught them to think: they think the prince has come to give them power to conquer the world, just like the dragon used to promise them. And Luke writes that the prince’s gut was wrenched within him when he looked at their suffering, and the suffering of the world. Luke tells us that the prince cried out in his grief and said, ‘oh! If only you could see who I really am! If only you would make me your king because I love you, and not because you think I’ll give you power!’
But the people are blind, brainwashed by thousands of years under the dragon’s rule. And so the dragon plays his last trick. He’s lost his army, and his kingdom, and his power — but the priests at the temple still secretly worship him. The dragon taught them to love power, and they don’t want to give it up, even to the rightful King. So when the young prince arrives to be crowned, the priests arrest him instead, and then —
But I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. If you want to find out what happens, make sure you’re back here one year from now.
But I will tell you, friends, that the Young King does win his crown, despite the treachery of the dragon’s followers. He is very much alive, and he is ruling his Kingdom to this very day. The dragon has been driven out — he no longer has any power over the Young King’s citizens.
Still, to this very day, there are many in this world who secretly — or not so secretly — worship the dragon. He has brainwashed them to believe that if they can only seize enough power, they will suffer less. What he has not told them is that the more power they seize for themselves, the more suffering they create for those around them, and for their own children when they fall.
These are the ones responsible for the reign of the Emperor Nero in the First Century, and for the rape of Syria in this one. Every horror in history is the work of the ancient dragon and his worshipers. They are the source of all active evil in this world.
And these are the ones who — by refusing to love their rightful King — delay the full restoration of all things. Because of their stubbornness, because of their resistance, this world continues to be a world of handicapped children, incurable diseases, grief upon grief — all the ecological side-effects of the dragon’s ancient rebellion. The King could destroy the dragon’s followers in a moment! but he is patient with them, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
And this brings us to one of the most difficult truths about the Christian faith: it is because our King is a king of love and mercy that we continue to suffer. In many ways, our continued suffering is the price that we pay so that our King can continue to be patient with those who have no patience for him. And that is hard. It is hard to be the faithful citizens of such a long-suffering King when it feels like it is those we love the most who continue to pay the heaviest price.
But our King knows that. He himself has suffered, just as we do. He knows that pat answers and logical explanations are no comfort when the dark tide rises! — but only a glimpse of the greater story, the deeper magic from before the dawn of time.
Which is why, when those early Christians began to suffer at the hands of the Emperor Nero, when they cried out to God for comfort, our King commissioned this man Luke to write a story for them, a narrative, so that they could know the certainty of the things they had been taught, so that grief and doubt would not destroy them.
And now it has come down to us. We are no different from those first Christians: we suffer, and grieve. We wonder why God doesn’t just bring it all to an end, why he doesn’t just heal us all now, and take us home. And so, like those first Christians, we are going to read this book together, and let our King speak.
And one of the greatest comforts our King gives us is this: he is going to return. Today the gates of the Kingdom are still open to the followers of the dragon, for them to repent, give up the illusion of power, and enter in. But the ancient prophecies say that one day those gates will close. The dark tide will rise for everyone caught outside the walls; it will take hold of them and drag them out into the deep waters, where they will live in silence forever. Our King tells us that at that time we will see him coming in a cloud with power and great glory. ‘When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
Which is why, when I find my wife beside me in the darkness, and she asks me why Jesus won’t help her, why he won’t heal her, I now have the courage to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know why someone else is healed, and you are not. I don’t know why one child dies, while another lives. I don’t know why one nation falls, and another rises. We are not given to know every turning in God’s plan for history — except one: that he will return, and that on that Day my wife will be healed.
And that is enough.
’See,’ he says, ‘I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble…I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.’
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.