Preparing for Suffering

June 17, 2016

Five days ago Omar Mir Siddique Mateen walked into the Pulse Bar in Orlando and killed 49 people. Not one went to that bar last weekend thinking, “I’m going to die tonight”

Imagine that your brother, your sister, your friend, your classmate, or your next-door neighbor were among those killed. How would you respond?

We rightly shrink in horror from that heinous crime.

But in the four days since the Orlando terrorist attack, about 170 other people have been murdered in the US; about 6400 have died of cancer, about 6700 of heart disease; about 100 were killed by drunk drivers.

Then on Tuesday, also in Orlando, two-year-old Lane Davis was dragged underwater by an alligator and drowned. Lane’s father, wading into the water, didn’t have an inkling that there was any danger to the boy.

Imagine that Lane was your brother, your nephew, your grandson, or your son. How would you respond?

In the days since that tragedy, approximately another 200 little boys and girls under five years of age have died in the US.

In this rich and predominantly peaceful country, we can live under the illusion that death is something strange, something unusual – something we can avoid, we can put off indefinitely if we drive carefully, eat well, and exercise diligently.

But death is all around us. Tragedies happen. All the time.

Furthermore, in the years ahead, unless Jesus returns in the next few decades, every one of us will die. Some will know they are dying. Some won’t. Some will die swiftly and painlessly. Others will die horribly. But we will all face death. It is certain.

So shouldn’t we prepare for it? Shouldn’t we learn how to approach the tragedies that will undoubtedly come in this life – so that we will be prepared both to help others in the midst of such crises, and to endure them biblically ourselves?

This Sunday we begin a short sermon series on the book of Job. We have been making our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans for more than a year, and still have much to cover in that great epistle. We’ve come to one of the best-known verses in all of Scripture:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28 NAS

What a promise! What comfort! And how great is the God who can make such a promise!

And yet, a dear friend who had recently suffered horrible tragedy once told me, “If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I’m going to kill him!”

What led others to misuse this great verse, so that it was not a comfort but a barb?

I believe the problem was a lack of understanding of the lessons of the book of Job – lessons that the Apostle Paul knew well, indeed, that he assumes the readers of Romans know.

In Job, we see a good man – kind, generous, loving, dutiful, pious, and upright – lose his goods, lose his children, and lose his health, all in a few days. Then his friends come and make matters worse. Buffeted by all this tragedy, Job deeply questions the goodness and justice of God.

In this book we learn about some of the causes of pain and suffering in this life; we learn of the hatred of our enemy, Satan; we learn of the majesty and sovereignty of God, even over Satan; we learn some of God’s purposes, as well as the nature of genuine faith.

So through this book, we can gain a solid and necessary foundation for understanding Romans 8:28 and following.

Through this book we can become genuine comforters, instead of the “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) who tormented Job and my friend.

And through this book, we can prepare for the tragedies that undoubtedly await us in the years ahead.

So join us. And may God’s Word build us up and equip us, so that in the day of trouble we might look to Him in the full confidence of faith.

Three Sunday Conversations

June 9, 2016

To understand these conversations, a little background is necessary: At Desiring God Church, about 80% of our preaching consists of working our way through books of the Bible. A typical sermon is about 45 minutes long. I have been preaching through Romans for more than a year, and focused on Romans 8:26-27 this last Sunday. During the sermon I mentioned that, prior to studying Romans 8:28 – “God works all things together for good for those who love Him, for those who are called according to His purpose” – we will leave Romans for a few weeks to look at what Scripture teaches about suffering in the book of Job.

Also: Our service begins at 9:30 and ends at 11; our host church begins their service at 11:30. When we first moved to our present facility, I thought the early starting time would be a negative. But we discovered an advantage: Many people are happy to stick around and talk when they don’t have to rush out for lunch. We often have a third of the congregation still at the church 45 minutes after the service ends.

Here are three vignettes from the ten or so conversations I had between 11 and noon on Sunday:

Shortly after the close of the service, I see a couple I have never met before talking with another elder. After introductions, they say, “We have never heard preaching like this. I now feel like I understand what this passage means, and how I can live it out. Thank you so much! Do you preach like this all the time at Desiring God Church?”

A few minutes later, Janey approaches me. A native of Congo, Janey received her citizenship in a ceremony at the US District Court two days previously. She had asked me after that ceremony if she could speak to the congregation following Sunday’s church service, thanking God and those individuals who helped her to get to this point. She now reminds me; I clap hands to get folks’ attention. Janey notices a few people talking outside the Fellowship Hall door, and asks if I can go alert them. When all is arranged, she very graciously thanks those who helped her study, those who drove her to classes, those who loved her and prayed for her – and praises God for taking her from a dangerous situation into this country. As she finishes, everyone claps, and Bruno – also a refugee from Congo – breaks out into a Swahili song, praising God for His goodness.

As the crowd begins to thin out, I sit down next to eight-year-old Rachel. Her family was part of this congregation before her birth, so I had the privilege of holding her when she was a newborn. As part of our service, we always ask for a volunteer to recite the week’s memory verses; this morning, Rachel and her brother had done so. I thank her for that, and we discuss Bible memory for a while. Then Rachel surprises me: “Pastor Coty, I was sad about something you said in the sermon.” “What, sweet girl?” “You said we were leaving Romans. I love Romans! I’m learning so much from it. So I’m sad that you’ll be preaching on something else” It takes me a bit to know what to say. Finally: “I’m so glad you are taking Paul’s message to heart, Rachel. I promise you, we will get back to it – I’ll only preach about five sermons on Job. And you know what? I think Job will help you understand Romans even better!” Then she is satisfied.

Driving home, tears well up in my eyes, praising God, and thanking Him for so much that I don’t deserve: For visitors responding to expository preaching; for those from a number of countries and peoples who grace our church; for a new citizen and spontaneous song; and for a little girl I once held as an infant who loves both the book of Romans and the in-depth preaching that opens up its truths.

Reflections on a New US Citizen

June 4, 2016

Today Ed Conrad and I accompanied Janey to her being sworn in as a US citizen. Forty-eight others joined her, from thirty different countries of origin, including Congo (Janey’s former country), Vietnam, Iraq, Bhutan, Ghana, Colombia, Ecuador, and Hondurus. Most took new name’s; Janey’s legal name is now Mary Jane Rebecca. All forty-nine new citizens joined together in affirming that they:

absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which [they] have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that [they] will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; . . . that [they] will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; . . . and that [they] take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

The mood was celebratory. Each new citizen rejoiced in swearing allegiance to the United States of America.

There are great parallels between what happened today in the US District Court of Western North Carolina and what happens in the life of every Christian. We all have been subject to a foreign power. And there is war between this power and the Kingdom of God. Indeed, we have marched in the army of this foreign power, taking up arms against God’s Kingdom. Yet now, pardoned by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we must “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to that foreign power, Satan’s Kingdom of Darkness. We must bear arms against that Satanic Kingdom, putting on the full armor of God and taking up the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. We must battle also against the “domestic” enemy within each of us, the rebelliousness that would lead us to revolt against our rightful King and renew our allegiance to Sin. Furthermore, we can’t become citizen’s of the Kingdom of God half-heartedly, or to aim for selfish gain. We must freely offer ourselves “without any mental reservation” to our Lord and Master, for Him to do with us as He sees fit.

Those are wonderful parallels. But there is an important difference between that swearing-in ceremony and our allegiance to the Kingdom of God: Janey was born as a citizen of Congo. There was nothing wrong with that citizenship. She was right to be loyal to her country as long as she was a citizen.

Not so with us. From the creation of mankind, we humans were by right under God’s rule and authority. At Satan’s prompting, we rebelled against our rightful King.

Thus, rather than Janey renouncing her allegiance to Congo, the following would be a closer parallel: A native US citizen leaves this country, joins ISIS, and participates in terrorist acts. He even burns his US passport, and posts a video of that act on the internet. The US government revokes his citizenship. Then, coming to his senses, this terrorist freely gives himself up, accepts just judgment and punishment, and eventually takes the above oath in becoming once again an American citizen.

That’s a closer parallel. But in our case, the rebellion is even more heinous. For our Ruler is perfectly loving, perfectly good, and perfectly just.

And yet, in our case, the just punishment is not administered to us. Jesus became man, and took our punishment on Himself. When we admit our rebellion, absolutely and entirely renouncing all allegiance to Satan’s Kingdom, trusting in Jesus as crucified and risen, we are citizens in the Kingdom for which we were created – the Kingdom of Light – the Kingdom of love, joy and peace.

Praise God that He has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) so that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). May we live out that right allegiance faithfully.