16th Sunday after Trinity

5212053Ephesians 3:13–21

13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.  14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,  15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,  16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (ESV)

Our text is today’s Epistle, focusing on these words: So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 

God’s Word is like a hammer; it tears down and it builds up. This morning, may God’s Word smash and tear down some misconceptions we may have about suffering. And then, may God’s Word build a biblical foundation for the place of suffering in our lives.

One misconception about suffering that needs tearing down is the belief—held by many Christians— that sanctification means less suffering; in other words, the more mature you are in Christ, the less you will suffer and the more things will go well for you. After all, our Saviour Jesus did say: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).  But the yoke of Jesus is an easy yoke, not because it lacks suffering, but because it does not lack Jesus; it does not lack forgiveness. Our life in Christ is not a life of ease but of struggle and self-denial. When Jesus is calling His disciples, He does not say “take up your Lazy-Boy and follow Me”; rather, He says: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 9:23, 14:27).

Another misconception says that God will never give you more than you can handle. But if God allowed you to suffer only what you could handle, then what need would you have of God? The truth is that every Christian experiences the terror of being overwhelmed by life’s afflictions and of being absolutely helpless and at the mercy of God. Many of you, in your youth, experienced the terror of living in a land torn apart by war. And to varying degrees, we all have experienced the terrors of personal problems, family conflicts and poor health. But the greatest terrors are always spiritual. Luther gives an example of a young Christian man having such severe sexual temptations that he experiences great spiritual terrors. He questions whether he is a child of God, whether he is forgiven. He questions why God does not remove these temptations. In fact, he cannot tell if this affliction is from God or the devil.  For it seems to him that there is a great contradiction between God’s promises and his experiences. This young man is experiencing much more spiritual anguish that he can handle. But through it all, God is at work!

And the same is true for you. You sometimes have more troubles that you can handle. And then in your heart, you feel great spiritual terrors. You fall into sin so easily and so often. And you have no sense or perception of God coming to your aid. You end up questioning whether you are saved and whether God truly loves you. There seems to be such a great contradiction between God’s promises and your experiences. You think: “If God always keeps His promises, then why am I going through this suffering, this great temptation?”. Because God seems so far away, you wonder whether your suffering comes from God or the devil. Is it a case of God testing your faith or the devil trying to destroy your faith?

In any particular trial, you may never know which it is—God testing you or the devil trying to destroy you. But rest assured, God is always at work in your life, in your suffering. God is at work even when He allows the devil to trip you up. The devil is a vicious attack dog, but the good news is that he is on a leash and God is holding the leash. Even when God allows the devil to create great spiritual terror in the life of a Christian, God is always in control. As Luther was fond of saying: the devil is God’s devil, so that even when the devil is doing his best to destroy us, God is still holding the leash. Yes, God is in control.

The greatest, most mature saints often have the greatest spiritual anguish and terror, the greatest wrestling with things that are more than they could handle. And it is not just terror over present afflictions but also anguish over past sins.

Throughout his life, St. Paul had to grapple with the fact that he had once persecuted the Church. In fact, in his missionary travels, it is quite likely that he ministered to friends and relatives of Christians whom he had imprisoned and even killed. Paul, then, would have been regularly reminded of his past sins, and this probably caused him great anguish. One of our Ft. Wayne seminary professors, Dr. David Scaer, has even suggested that this was Paul’s thorn in the flesh, which Paul describes as a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7). The devil was constantly reminding Paul of his past sins and this gave Paul a bad case of spiritual terrors. But great good came out of this, for it kept Paul from becoming conceited and it moved Paul to cry out to the Lord. He writes: Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (vv. 8-10). Do you see how Paul’s spiritual terrors resulted in a great blessing? For through his thorn in the flesh, Paul learned to not despair over his weaknesses but to trust even more in Christ and His grace.

And the same was true for Martin Luther. As the devil harassed Luther with doubts and with reminders of past sins, Luther would shout out loud: “Be gone, Satan!  I am baptized!”

And what about you? What do you do when when your afflictions are more than you can handle and when your failures and sins—past and present—trouble your conscience and disturb your peace? Our afflictions and sins can indeed cause us great spiritual terror. But this terror serves a godly purpose in the life of a Christian. In fact, if you never experience anguish and terror over present afflictions and past sins, then you have a real problem; for the complete lack of spiritual terror is evidence of a heart that is complacent and half-hearted—even hypocritical—concerning the call to walk with Christ in true repentance.

If, by God’s grace, you take seriously the call to walk in the Spirit and to not gratify the desires of the flesh, then you will most certainly experience some spiritual anguish and terror. The degree of anguish and terror varies from Christian to Christian and from time to time. But know this: as, by God’s grace, you remain faithful to Christ, the devil will not leave you alone. The devil will harass you with all kinds of afflictions, from depression to financial worries to family problems to poor health. And the devil loves to remind you of your past sins. The devil is a predator attacking the sheep of the Good Shepherd, with the result that the sheep are often under great distress.

But when you suffer the distress and the terror of the devil’s attack, you can rejoice, even in the midst of your suffering. For Christ is your Good Shepherd, who defends you and protects you and gives you His grace to bear up under the burden of the devil’s attacks and your own weaknesses. When the devil is bearing down on you, your Good Shepherd Jesus gives you the strength to trust in His grace—which is more than sufficient for you, and to rely on His power—which is made perfect in your weakness. In Christ, you learn to be content with all kinds of suffering and to even boast of your weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon [you], for when you are weak in yourself, you are strong in Christ. And so when the devil harasses you with doubts and with reminders of your past sins, do not lose heart; rather, shout out loud: “Be gone, Satan!  I am baptized into Christ!”

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus: I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. Now, our typical attitude toward suffering is to become discouraged and to view our suffering as a setback, an obstacle for us to get through as soon as possible. But what a different attitude Paul has. Paul sees his imprisonment and persecution, not as a setback but as God’s plan to have the Gospel proclaimed throughout all the world. Paul is in no hurry to get through his suffering, for he is content, trusting that his Saviour Jesus is working all things for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. And this is your calling in Christ: to not lose heart when you suffer and to not see your suffering as a setback, but to trust that the power of Christ is resting upon you and that your sufferings are bringing glory to God.

Many a Christian has borne witness to doctors and nurses by patiently bearing their suffering without complaint, trusting in God’s tender care. When Christians refuse to lose heart—when you refuse to lose heart—then God is glorified even in the midst of His children’s great suffering. Perhaps you think no one is watching you to see how you handle your suffering, but at the very least God and the holy angels are. And so your suffering is an opportunity to bear witness to the Gospel, to the Good News that God is in control and that He has done something to overcome the world’s evil. The Father has sent His only-begotten Son in the flesh to suffer in the flesh for sinners. Christ’s suffering for you gives meaning to your suffering, even to your death.

If you read the New Testament closely, you realize that the early Christians expected to die a martyr’s death. As St. Paul writes to young Pastor Timothy: Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). And in that time, persecution took the form of Christians losing their jobs, having their homes confiscated, being tortured and thrown to the lions. The early Christians did not expect to die a natural death. But we have come to expect to lead comfortable lives and to die of something normal, like cancer.  Today’s headlines, though, remind us that Christians are still dying martyrs’ deaths, such as the Christians in the Middle East who have been shot, beheaded, and even crucified for the sake of Christ. Here in the West, we Christians have been complacent for far too long. It is time for us to start expecting that we will suffer and perhaps even be put to death for confessing Christ. But in all of our suffering—even in our run-of-the-mill suffering—our calling in Christ is to not lose heart, but to bear witness to the Good News that God is in control and that Christ—in His death and resurrection—has overcome the world’s evil.

It all comes down to Christ. That is why, in his epistle to the Christians at Philippi, St. Paul can write from a prison cell: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (4:4).  It is not that we rejoice in our sufferings, but we rejoice in the Lord. We rejoice that our Lord Jesus Christ became the world’s greatest Sinner when He took all the world’s sins upon Himself on the cross. We rejoice that Jesus became a lightning rod drawing unto Himself all the world’s evil. And He did all this in your place, to rescue you from your sins and from your condemnation and to bring you safely to where sin and evil can no longer touch you.

Right now, in this fallen world, sin and evil can still touch you. But your Saviour Jesus has given you signs that you may know that He has already overcome all evil. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives the sign of the raising of a widow’s dead son. This raising is a sign of the greater raising on the Last Day, the resurrection of your body and of mine to life everlasting. And of course, our resurrection is possible only because Jesus Himself has risen from the dead and is seated in victory at the Father’s right hand as the Eternal Champion over sin and every evil, even death and hell. And what’s more, Jesus has given us the great sign of Holy Baptism. In Baptism, God has made us His own dear children and Christ dwells in our hearts through faith. And with Christ dwelling in us, we do not lose heart in the face of suffering. Rather, we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. Oh, in this fallen world, sin and evil still touch our lives. But the love of Christ is wider and longer and higher and deeper that any suffering we may experience. Now, due to the weakness of our flesh, we sometimes grow discouraged because of suffering. But thanks be to God, Christ our Saviour dwells in our hearts through faith. And He is ever bringing us back to our baptism, back to knowing His love, which surpasses all understanding, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.

We tend to focus on how full of troubles our lives are, but we need to better comprehend how, in Christ, we are filled with all the fullness of God. Fullness is the opposite of being in need. We are the ones in great need. God, of course, has total “fullness.” He created everything; He owns everything; He controls everything. And yet, He allows us, His dear children, to come boldly to Him to receive from Him far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. And that is what He gives us this morning. We receive the fullness of God’s pardon of all our sins; we receive the fullness of our Lord’s very Body and Blood, given and shed for us; we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit afresh, who gives us the strength to amend our sinful lives; we receive the full  assurance that we are God’s children, in spite of our sufferings and sins, and that our Good Shepherd Jesus will bring us safely home. What a God we have, who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power [of Christ] at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.