Speaking to Suffering

The dramatic events surrounding the birth of Jesus begin to unfold long before the expected cast of characters starts arriving in Bethlehem, and for our discipleship during these Sundays of Advent, Luke’s Gospel has been sharing those miraculous scenes.

Luke’s curtain rises with the archangel Gabriel visiting Elizabeth and Zechariah, an elderly, childless couple who’d long ago given up any hope of becoming parents. Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a son. Zechariah is stunned with disbelief, and Gabriel renders Zechariah mute – unable to speak. But Zechariah and Elizabeth are nevertheless overjoyed by Gabriel’s stunning news. God has answered “yes” to their fervent prayers!

A short time later, Gabriel visits one of Elizabeth’s relatives – a teenage girl named Mary, and Gabriel tells Mary that she, too, will bear a son. But becoming pregnant surely is not among Mary’s prayers. Her pregnancy puts her engagement and pending marriage at risk and her very life in peril. Nonetheless, Mary puts her trust in God and opens the whole of her body and soul to the will of God.

Mary then travels to spend a few months with Elizabeth, who by the Holy Spirit recognizes that Mary is carrying God’s promised Messiah. Mary now knows that, too, and she lifts up a lilting prayer of thanksgiving: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

In this morning’s Scripture lesson, the time has come for Elizabeth to give birth to her son. After some confusion, the baby is named John. He will grow to become the man we know as John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for the start of Jesus’s earthly ministry. But, for now, just revel in the moment of new life and new birth as you listen for the living, breathing Word of the Lord in the final verses of Luke chapter 1.

Without a doubt, it is a scene filled with great joy. And if you listen carefully, the story also speaks to our suffering.

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.

Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”

Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.

Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

“Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:57-80)

When I served as a chaplain at the University of Iowa hospitals, I was on call one night and got paged to see a patient in the psychiatric unit.

When I arrived in the patient’s room, the young man got right to the point and asked me a question that still haunts me today: “What do you do when you’ve spent most of your life wanting to be dead?”

Um, ya!

I really didn’t have a satisfying answer to his brutally honest question, but I did manage to stammer out a response – something to the effect of, “Clearly, you’ve experienced a lot of pain and heartache in your life. You have emotional wounds that still fester and more than your share of spiritual scars. But you must possess some amazing abilities to endure, because you’re still here. And you’re still fighting, because you reached out to me. Please know that you have my deepest respect. And please know that you’re not alone. Suffering remains part and parcel of our broken and fearful world, and high tides of despair and floodwaters of heartache are inundating countless landscapes where individuals and families live, move, and have their being.”

As with that young man, so also with us: The sources of our pain are varied – grief, shame, and embarrassment; feeling worthless, insignificant, excluded, mocked, and bullied; physical and mental health challenges of seemingly endless color and shade.

And whatever the cause, pain almost always brings with it feelings of vulnerability, isolation, and helplessness – a very real sense of being cut off from those we love and the community around us. When the going gets tough, it’s downright shocking how tempting it is to self-isolate and rob yourself of the very human contact you most need.

Author Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps of World War II, says that we often cannot control what happens to us in life.

The only thing we can control, he says, is how we respond to those unfortunate events and dark turns of fate when they come crashing down upon us like the ne’re-do-well uncle who shows up uninvited to a holiday party. If we respond to terrible circumstances with tenacity, courage, unselfishness, and dignity, then we can find deeper meaning in our suffering. You can, as it turns out, win small, daily victories over horrific, gut-wrenching circumstances.

Those Nazi camps held many who wanted to die more than live. Mr. Frankl writes that he’d often try to help those who’d given up hope recognize that “life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” He liked to paraphrase philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

That’s surely true in Scripture. The Bible is filled with characters who, at times, are overwhelmed with life and wish they could be rid of it: Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Job. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleas with God to spare him the upcoming agony of the Cross. Suffering has such profound and unpredictable effects on these and other characters as it does on all of us. Their misery is so central to the biblical story, because desolation is part of the human experience – part of the bricks and mortar from which we construct our lives.

Without question, suffering makes some people self-centered, loveless, humorless, and angry. But for others, suffering doesn’t so much break them as it does break them open. Suffering transforms them into more caring and compassionate souls – people who are more empathetic, through knowledge and experience, to the suffering of others.

The old saying that we suffer our way to wisdom is spot-on. We often learn more from the hard times than the happy ones – more about ourselves, more about our God, more about how God is always working together unto good – even when evil seems to be running roughshod over everyone and everything.

So, we are right to treat those who have suffered or are suffering with respect and credibility. “Without your wound, where would your power be?” author Thornton Wilder once asked. “It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men,” he wrote. “The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living.” And here, for me anyway, is the microphone-drop: Mr. Wilder writes, “In love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

Yet, in searching for places to channel their sometimes-nervous energy, even well-intentioned wounded soldiers misread their marching orders.

A pastoral colleague once told me about a woman with a brain injury who would sometimes fall to the floor. Whenever she’d take a tumble, the good Samaritans around her immediately would rush to get her back on her feet, oftentimes well before she was ready to get up. “I think people rush to help me up, because they are uncomfortable with seeing an adult lying on the floor,” she said. “But what I really need is for someone to get down on the ground with me.”

Getting down on the ground can be anxiety-producing and, when someone is in deep despair, even dangerous to the strongest caregiver. But sometimes, many tmes, you just need to get on the floor. And by your very presence with one who suffers, the fetid swamp of despair and despondence begins draining away to reveal holy ground. And the voice of Zechariah holds tenderly the Good News that is yours, mine and ours:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”

May it be so, in Jesus’s name, for all those feeling blue, this Christmas, and in the harsh seasons yet to come. Let us get down on the floor and deliver the Good News:  

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message in worship for the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2021. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by David Brooks, R. Allen Culpepper, Viktor Frankl, L.T. Johnson, and Thornton Wilder inform the message.

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