Lay Reader = Isaiah 40:27-31
27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
We are still in our series looking at the words to remember – the Bible verses that are worth memorizing or otherwise writing on your heart. When life goes sideways on you, these are the verses that can bring you hope and comfort and peace.
Last week we talked about how we can notice the Holy Spirit’s presence wherever love is produced, and that kind of love looks like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and the rest of that list in Galatians 5. This week we are wondering where God is when we’re hurting.
But I want to start off by addressing what I believe are two big misunderstandings. Romans 8:28 says that “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” That’s the King James Version. That makes it sound like God only lets good things happen to you, or things that you think are bad are actually good for you.
But here’s a little different word order from the New International Version that I believe captures the meaning much better: “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Instead of making everything that happens to you good, this points out that God is working for your good at all times. This is a key distinction in my mind.
For example, as a result of our son’s epilepsy and developmental delays, I have developed greater compassion for other people. That’s a good thing. But God didn’t send epilepsy to Charlie so that I would have greater compassion. Epilepsy isn’t good. It’s still bad. But in the midst of that bad thing, God has also worked to bring good things as well. That’s a big difference.
Or if we dial it back a little bit, if you tell a lie, and somehow other people wind up better off because of it, is God suddenly in favor of lying? No! Thou shalt not bear false witness! It’s one of the Ten Commandments!
Or has anyone watched the Chernobyl series? Or maybe you’re just generally familiar with the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. After the meltdown, an exclusion zone was created where people couldn’t live. Villages were forcibly evacuated, and no one can move back. And interestingly, life has found a way even with high levels of radioactivity. In fact, the wildlife in the Chernobyl area is doing better than other parts of the country. So, given that nature has bounced back to be even more robust than it was before, does that make a nuclear meltdown good? No! It’s still bad! Ask the families of the workers who lost their lives trying to contain the meltdown if they think it was good. But just because something is bad, that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. God can bring about good things in other ways, but the nuclear meltdown was still bad. Are you with me?
OK, so bad things are still bad even if God brings about good in another way.
Second misunderstanding: “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I’ve done this before, so I’m testing your memory. Do you remember: is that in the Old Testament or the New Testament? Neither! It’s not in the Bible!
I mean, let’s imagine that this is true. That would mean there’s like a quota of bad things for the day. And God has to divvy those bad things up based on the internal strength of the people in the world. Cancer? Oh, Johnny can handle that, but Martha’s too brittle inside. Let’s skip her for that one. But she could handle hives! Let’s go with hives for Martha. If that were the case, we should all strive to be as spiritually weak as possible so God would deem us incapable of handling bad things in life!
My family used to have index cards with all the household chores on them. And we had draft day, where we would each select a chore in turns. So empty the trash always went early in the draft – it’s easy and quick. Scrub the toilets? A little further down in average draft position. Wash all the windows in the house? Last pick. That was the Mr. Irrelevant of the Sandahl Family Chore Draft. There isn’t a “bad life stuff” draft up in heaven divvying things up based on the strength of people’s respective shoulders.
So we have two misconceptions out of the way. Bad things are still bad, but God often brings about good in another way. And the amount of pain in your life is not in proportion to the strength of your shoulders. Got it?
So now let’s talk about what the Bible actually says about when we are hurting. This is a part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. This church did not have a lot of resources, but they were exceptionally generous. And in this section, Paul is trying to thank them for their support in the midst of a trying time while also acknowledging that they really couldn’t afford the gift they sent to him.
10I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
Well Veterans Day is coming up soon, so I’m curious. Raise your hand if you’ve served in the military? Thank you for your service! Thank you. All right, of those who served in the military, how many of you thought your packs were too light and you wished you had twice as much weight? Any takers? Depending on your role, US soldiers carry between 60 and 100 pounds of gear already. Weight of equipment is a major problem.
And the military has a few different ways it’s trying to tackle it. They’re trying to make some things lighter. But then that usually starts people thinking of new features to add and it winds up heavier. So that’s not helpful.
Another option is autonomous robotic mules. Just load up your robo mule with your extra ammo and let the metal beast carry your burden! But you better hope it’s not too steep of an incline. And you better hope you don’t come under fire and lose access to your equipment. And you better hope the robot doesn’t run out of energy before you do. The robo mule may not actually be helpful given its limitations.
So a third option is an exoskeleton. Basically give each soldier extra strength with a robotic skeleton that they wear. Who wouldn’t want to be able to lift twice as much, right? But there are some problems here, too. The early exoskeletons have to be plugged in. So, you can be a super soldier within a thirty foot radius. But the bigger problem is the lag time. They have difficulties moving fluidly. In fact, sometimes researchers have found that it takes more energy to walk around in the robotic exoskeleton. You can lift a ton of weight, but moving around will tire you out faster. That may not be super helpful given that soldiers move around quite a bit.
And this interests me when we’re talking about our faith when we’re hurting, because these attempts to solve the problem sometimes wind up making things worse. And I think we can ask this of our faith as well. When we’re hurting, when things aren’t going well, when we’re struggling or suffering or drained or depressed, is our faith propping us up, or are we dragging our faith behind us like an anchor? Is your faith helpful or harmful when you’re hurting?
That’s where I think Paul’s words in our text today are interesting. Whereas the robotic mule and the exoskeleton are useful in some scenarios and harmful in others, Paul says that his faith in Jesus is helpful in all scenarios. When he had very little in his life, his faith was helpful. When he had plenty in his life, his faith was helpful. When he was well-fed, his faith was helpful. When he was hungry, his faith was helpful. When he could give to others, his faith was helpful. When he needed assistance from others, his faith was helpful.
And he ends it with “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Now, this is another verse that causes some misconceptions. Given the context we just heard – that his faith has been useful in good times and bad times – Paul is definitely NOT trying to say that his faith turns him into some superhero who can smash down walls and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Paul is NOT saying that his faith makes everything turn out just dandy.
He IS saying that his faith gives him the strength to stand no matter how much weight life piles on. He IS saying that his faith gives him the willpower to keep moving forward no matter how strong the headwinds are. He IS saying that he can bear any burden in life because it is truly Jesus who is bearing the burden in his soul.
And he IS saying that his faith gave him guidance when he had enough resources to have lots of options. He IS saying that his faith gave him opportunities to help others when he had the ability to help. He IS saying that his faith gave him perspective when life was going well. His faith was useful in the pain. AND his faith was useful in the prosperity.
How about you? In your life, has your faith been a help or a drag when you experienced pain? Has your faith been a help or a drag when you experienced prosperity? Has your faith been a life jacket or a dead weight?
Paul said his faith was the most important thing in his life in every circumstance. And he wasn’t just spewing untested phrases, he had lived those circumstances.
He went from respected leader of the Jewish people to a pariah for the Messiah. He was beaten and stripped and arrested at times. Other times he was supporting himself with his skill as a tent maker. In some church circles he was seen as a beloved apostle. In other church circles he was seen as a Gentile-loving heretic. And so he knows what he’s talking about when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” His faith was the greatest help in his life.
There’s a powerful moment in the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king gets mad because three faithful Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, wouldn’t worship his statue. So he has them tired up and thrown into a blazing furnace. But they don’t die. In fact, the king asks his advisers in confusion, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”
There’s a lot to like about that story. Actually the three Jewish men acknowledge to the Babylonian king that God is able to save them, and he may or may not, but no matter the outcome they’ll worship God alone. That’s faithfulness at its best.
But when God does decide to keep them alive, he does it in an interesting way. He could have saved them from the fire, but he didn’t. Instead, someone who sounds a lot like Jesus is standing with them in the fire as they are not consumed. The king had them bound, but in their faithfulness they were unshackled. The king had them marked for death, but in their faithfulness they were not overcome. The fire still came! But it did not consume them because Jesus was with them in the fire.
There’s a song on Christian radio right now that uses the imagery of this moment from the book of Daniel. The chorus says, “There is another in the fire, standing next to me. There is another in the waters, holding back the seas. And should I ever need reminding what power set me free: there is a grave that holds no body, and now that power lives in me.”
If your life is trying to tie you up, if you are hurting, if you are feeling the heat right now, remember what Paul said about those times: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Remember what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego discovered: there is another in the fire, standing next to you. Remember what we heard in Isaiah in our first text today, “he gives power to the faith, and strengthens to powerless…they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Sometimes God helps you avoid the flames. But when the flames do come, Jesus stands with you in the fire so that it does not consume your soul.
But I also find it interesting that Paul says he is strengthened by the support of the Philippian church. He says their consideration caused him to “rejoice greatly.”
Jesus is often the only one who can truly stand with someone in the fire, but other people are often the ones who can help another rejoice once again. Paul didn’t really need the gift of the Philippians church, and he felt a little strange accepting it because he knew it hurt for them to give him the gift. But their compassion for him, their consideration of his plight, their willingness to demonstrate their love for him – that led him to rejoice greatly.
So if you’re not in the fire right now, if you’re not barely surviving thanks to the grace of Jesus right now, is there someone who could use your compassion and consideration? Is there someone who might “rejoice greatly” at your thoughtfulness toward them?
Sisters and brothers, for people who believe in Jesus, we can count on two big promises. Thanks to Jesus, when we no longer draw earthly breath we know that death doesn’t get the last word.
But as long as we draw breath, we can also count on Jesus being with us. There is another in the fire, standing next to me. There is another in the waters, holding back the seas. If I ever need reminding what power set me free: there is a grave that holds no body, and that power lives in me.
There is another in the fire. And he might be inviting you to help someone else out of their fire, too. Amen.