Suffering Witnesses

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on April 10th, 2016.

“We are to be Christ’s suffering witnesses, because Christ is our suffering Savior.”

1 Peter 3:8-22

8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For

“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Suffering of the Son of God

The sermon I preached at Hope Fellowship Church (Cambridge, MA) on March 6th, 2016.

“Amidst our suffering, we can entrust ourselves to the strengthening, sovereign, and sin-bearing God.”

Luke 22:39-53

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

Double Spout

(This poem is a tribute to my patient wife in blues form, which has roots in the African-American oral tradition and typically expresses, per Ralph Ellison, “the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.”)

Your water can’s got a double spout
Drippin’ sad tears to make me sprout
Your water can’s got a double spout
Cryin’ sorry drops to make me sprout
‘Cause you bin waitin’ it’s overdue

To break my harsh and arid pout
And moisten dry and hardened flout
To break my harsh and arid pout
And soften mean and stubborn flout
Baby keep goin’ and don’t you rue

When you’s over and under, done bottomed out
Your can’s got nothin’ but airs of doubt
When you’s over and under, done bottomed out
Your can’s bin emptied and full of doubt
Mix your drops with heaven’s dew

-ssw (11/20/2015)

The Love That Covers

The sermon I preached at Jon and Tasha’s wedding at High Rock Church (Arlington, MA) on August 3rd, 2013.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Through the thick and thin, be quick to repent, and quick to forgive. Be covered by the love of Jesus, and cover one another with His love in your marriage.” LISTEN

1 Peter 4:8-11

1 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

A Tribute to Geoffrey Quinn

This past week, I lost a dear friend of mine. I found out on Monday that Geoff Quinn passed away last Friday on June 21st, 2013. He had been battling cancer since 2011.

We graduated from the same college. We were seminary students together. We worked at the same high school. We were baptized together. We had traveled to Thailand, Myanmar, and South Africa together for various missions activities. I loved Geoff.

Geoff was a humble man of God who exemplified Christian joy. In his valiant fight against cancer, he showed me what it’s like to trust in the sovereignty and love of God through fiery trials. He taught me what it means to live in light of eternity. Like Job, he cried, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).

Though he would never finish the last two classes of his Master of Divinity… Though he would never fulfill his dream of serving God in pastoral ministry… Though he would never get married to form a family as he so desired… He firmly held onto his faith that “[his] Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).

It turns out that God was preparing me for this dreaded news. The very day I found out, I had been reading from Psalm 115, which says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15), and from Revelation 21, which promises that, in the end, “[God] will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more.” Oh how I long for that day to come soon!

As a tribute to Geoff, I have composed a song about loss, suffering, hope, and future glory based on Romans 8:18-25. Oh Lord, let me never forget Geoff’s witness and encouragement to me!

“Glory After All”

Verse:
From South of the vineyard, leaks
Three drops (oh~)
Pressed from our dear and precious grapes
That never felt the touch of a
Swa-ddling cloth

Chorus:
Hope that is seen is no hope at all
Grace that is earned is no grace at all
Love that is bought is no love at all
So I say, it’s for Your glory after all

Verse 2:
From East of the garden, wilts
Three years (a~)
Budding shoot under the Pyrrhic heat
Blighted by the curse of
Can-cer

Verse 3:
From West of the city, bleeds
Three days (He~)
Crushed in the winepress of God’s wrath
Groaning in the pangs of
Chi-ld birth

—–

Where do I turn? This question resonates with me because it’s a question that I wrestle with daily. Right now, this is the question of my life. The most important lesson that I’m learning is that I gain peace in my trials when I see the nail-pierced hands that control them. I’m able to embrace God’s control over my life to the extent that I see His passionate love for me, to the extent that I see His extravagant love for me, to the extent that I see His costly love for me, I’m able to embrace His control over my trials.

I don’t know how much time I have, but I do know that if I must die, Jesus’ nail-pierced hands have me covered. One day, all the marks of my suffering will be gone…

My hope is in the resurrection–a resurrection that’s been purchased and ensured by Jesus’ own suffering, death and resurrection. This is my hope. One day, I’ll see Jesus face to face and I’ll be able to touch the hands, I’ll be able to touch the wounds that healed me. I’ll be able to touch the wounds that saved me.

… Each of us, sooner or later, we’re going to hit the wall. Where are you going to turn? Whether it’s with raised hands, or a raised fist, I implore you to turn to God, only take the time to behold the One you’re addressing. Take the time to look at the One you’re speaking to. Those wounds were taken for your healing. The Father’s arms are open wide and you’re welcome to come in…”

-Geoffrey Stuart Quinn
November 27, 2011
Park Street Church

Part 4 of 5: Coping with Unanswered Prayer

Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted. -C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 58

The burning question
When I was in youth group, there was a guest preacher who taught me that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, because God always answers prayer with either a “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” This makes rational sense, but it makes no emotional sense because it merely circumvents the gravity of unanswered prayer. The real question is why he says “no”  to some of our prayers.

Unanswered prayer should never drive us to despair, because to do so would be a betrayal of our faith in the sovereignty of God. Conversely, we should always wrestle with unanswered prayer, because resigning ourselves to come what may would be a betrayal of our faith in the love of God. We need to ask the hard question, “Why?” After all, didn’t Jesus say:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7-11)?

Five reasons for unanswered prayer can be summarized with the mnemonic A.B.C.D.E. 

Alienation from God
First, as I discussed previously on my post Keys to More Effective Prayer, sin alienates us from God “so that he does not hear” (Is. 59:2). As John writes, “God does not listen to sinners” (Jn. 9:31). Sins of all stripes hinder our prayers, which is why we must pray humbly and repentantly (Lk. 18:9-14). This is why healing is sometimes predicated on the confession of sins (Jas. 5:16).

Note the emphasis on “sometimes,” because it would be cruel to tell those to whom we minister that their prayers are not being answered because they lack faith or because they have unconfessed sins. We simply cannot be sure of this. Jesus says of a blind man in John 9:2-3 that, contrary to societal assumptions, the man was born blind neither due to his sins nor his parents’ sins, but “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” If anything, we should blame ourselves for lack of faith.

Second, sin alienates us from God so that we become obtuse to his promptings. So we “ask wrongly, to spend it on [our] passions” (Jas. 4:3). With our impaired vision, we ask for things that would be detrimental to others or to ourselves. We seek to manipulate God for our purposes, rather than submitting to his purposes. Indeed, we “do not know what [we] are asking” (Mt. 20:22).

In these cases, we should actually thank God for our unanswered prayers. “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?” (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 28)

But what if we are, as far as we know, praying for things that would honor God, in a manner that honors God, for reasons that honor God? Why doesn’t God answer, then?

Blindness to God’s answers
Sometimes, God answers our prayers in an unexpected way and we are simply oblivious to it. God perceives the deeper intent of our prayers and answers the spirit of our requests rather than the form of our requests.

For example, we may pray for the gift of healing so that we can help those who are ailing, but God may instead give us the gift of compassion so that we can weep with them. We may pray for health and strength to do much work for God, but God may instead give us sickness and weakness so that we may do more meaningful work for him.

The hymn, “I Asked the Lord,” by John Newton describes this beautifully:

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face

Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest

Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low

Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
“Tis in this way” The Lord replied
“I answer prayer for grace and faith

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.

At other times, we simply need to recognize the means that God uses to answer our prayers. There’s a funny story where a Christian man who is drowning refuses the help offered by a rescue boat and a helicopter because of his conviction that God himself will come to his rescue. He drowns and goes to heaven, where he asks God why he did not answer his prayer. God says, “What more do you want from me? I sent you a boat and a helicopter.”

This humorous story illustrates how we may miss God’s answers to our prayers. When we pray for healing, are we neglecting the natural means of health, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, sleep, and medicine? When we pray for humility, are we utilizing the spiritual disciplines of silence and service that cultivate the virtue? When we pray for children, are we overlooking the possibility of adoption as a means through which God may provide children?

Compassion to comfort others
God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4). The pain of unanswered prayer softens and enlarges our hearts to empathize with others who suffer similarly. We become Wounded Healers. We learn to close our mouths of platitudes and open our eyes of compassion.

Have you ever met Christians who beam with superficial triumphalism? Everything they say sounds right, but rings hollow. That is because they have not yet been “grieved by various trials.” The “genuineness of [their] faith” has not yet been “tested by fire” (1 Pt. 1:6-8). Often, God intends for us to be preserved through trials not from them, and these trials enable us to comfort those who are suffering.

Divestment of earthly dependence
In 2 Cor. 1:8-9, Apostle Paul writes of an intense affliction that drove him to “despair of life itself,” and comments that this “was to make [him] rely not on [himself] but on God who raises the dead.” Often, unanswered prayers force us to divest ourselves of earthly dependencies and set our hope solely on God.

God’s silence strips us of our dependence on external results and “signs” of success. We no longer labor for the praise and approval of men. Just as Jesus “did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:24-25).

We no longer hang on the subjective confirmations of divine favor, and turn instead to the objective reality of what Christ has accomplished on the cross on our behalf. Unanswered prayers teach us to treasure the Giver more than the gifts.

Once again, John Newton captured this well in a letter he wrote to Rev. William Rose on December 21st, 1776:

Be not discouraged; the Lord only afflicts for our good. It is necessary that our sharpest trials should sometime spring from our dearest comforts, else we should be in danger of forgetting ourselves, and setting up our rest here. In such a world, and with such hearts as we have, we shall often need something to prevent our cleaving to the dust, to quicken us to prayer, and to make us feel that our dependence for one hour’s peace is upon the Lord alone.

Effacement of the self
Finally, in our suffering, we “[carry] in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). Paul rejoiced in his sufferings on behalf of the Colossians because he believed that “in [his] flesh [he was] filling up what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

This is not to suggest that we can add something to Christ’s once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice. It simply means that we can partake in the “fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). Unanswered prayer effaces the self and reminds us that we are nothing apart from God. “[We] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us]” (Gal. 2:20). We are radically humbled and surrendered to God’s will.

Christ at Gethsemane
Ultimately, we can cope with unanswered prayer only because Christ himself bore the burden of unanswered prayer at Gethsemane. He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Lk. 22:42) He prayed in such agony that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:44).

Yet the Father was not willing to remove the cup, and the Son, thankfully, yielded to the Father: “not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). By laying down his life for us, Jesus expressed God’s love for us in the most certain and irrevocable terms, so that we can stand firm even when unanswered prayers threaten our confidence in God’s goodness.

Have you struggled with unanswered prayers in the past? How did God help you overcome them? You can read about how I’ve been wrestling with unanswered prayers in my posts Pressed Grapes and Grieving Infertility.

This is Part 4 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 3 of 5: Keys to More Effective Prayer.

Rejoice in the Lord, Always

The sermon I preached at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on June 29th, 2011.

“Rejoice in the Lord who is with you when you feel all alone. Rejoice in the Lord who is for you when you feel that the whole world is pitted against you. Rejoice in the Lord always because He is in control when you are not. Rejoice. In the Lord. Always.” LISTEN

Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.