A Baptismal Meditation preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 11, August 19, 2001, dedicated to Anna Ingrid Rambo on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(II of IV in the series "The Power of Prayer")
Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 5:17-26
Last Sunday I opened this four-part sermon series with a sermon on the healing power of prayer. Next Sunday I will focus on the Prayer of Jabez and the Blessed Power of Prayer. On September 2, I will conclude with a sermon on the Lord's Prayer. Today, we look at the power of redemptive prayer. This prayer is sometimes called the suffering prayer or lament. The Psalms often lift-up the prayer of redemption as the Psalmist cries out to God for help, for support, for mercy. The redemptive power of prayer comes out of our cries unto God. Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Early Sunday morning, February 18, the Holy Lands' pilgrims from First Congregational Church made our way through Jerusalem to the Church of All Nations for worship. The Church of All Nations is built on the Mount of Olives in place called the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wept tears of blood pleading with God to spare his life the night before his crucifixion. From the Garden one can look across the Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount and see the East Gate through which Jesus entered the Holy City on Palm Sunday. The distance between the Garden and the Gate is no more than one mile as the crow flies.
On that cold Sunday morning, our group rushed to All Nations Church only to find there was no 10am service. But, instead of choosing disappointment, we chose to stay and pray. This shrine, run by Franciscans, is ornate, yet quite simple. As you enter your eyes are drawn to a huge flat rock the size of our entire altar area, believed to be the rock on which Jesus prayed his final night. From that rock, he could have easily seen the torches carried by soldiers as they wound through the valley to arrest him. Behind the garden are the mountains into which Jesus simply and quietly could have turned and fled that night. But he stayed. He was arrested. He was tried in a mockery of a trial. He was crucified. He suffered unto death, even death on the cross. And within a few miles from that rock, he was raised from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. It all started on that rock, in a suffering prayer - a prayer of redemptive suffering.
On that cold February morning as I led many from our group in a simple prayer service, I knelt on the rock and prayed. I found myself overwhelmed by emotion and incredibly humbled in the presence of this place where my Lord and Savior offered his prayer of pleading unto his Father for his life - and ultimately for the life of the world! As I was leaving, I told the Franciscan monk who was caring for the church that in America, I stepped into one of the great pulpits of our land and each Sunday offered what we call "the Word of God," and yet here I was, overwhelmed unto silence by this rock - literally - the rock of salvation. He smiled and said, "For years I have seen all who enter here humbled by this rock of prayer. All who come in faith weep, and their tears are tears of salvation and tears for the cleansing of the world." Then he touched my hand and said, "Go in the peace of Christ."
Tears of Salvation. Tears for the cleansing of the world. To be redeemed by God is to be humbled. In the suffering of God's Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, God shows us the power of redemptive prayer - no less than God's plan to save the world from sin. In the words of Dag Hammarskjold, "He bore failure without self-pity and success without self-admiration." In Jesus, we have the embodiment of God's identification with suffering and pain. In Jesus, we have the embodiment of God's humility.
I have witnessed suffering in my lifetime. Although, I have not seen the suffering that many of you have and I have not borne the tremendous pain in suffering and loss that many of you have experienced, I have seen and experienced my share of suffering. In the face of such suffering, like you, I have found myself wondering, crying out, even whispering - "Why, Lord?" And I know my "why's" rise higher and longer for those whose suffering is borne in innocence. I, like you, have seen losses tear relationships apart and cause families to walk separate ways. I, like our Savior, have pleaded with God to let the cup of suffering and death pass.
For me to suggest that your suffering or someone else's suffering is redemptive may seem like some cruel and strange religious masochism. That's not what I mean. Redemptive suffering has purpose and meaning. It is not the unredemptive suffering which is utterly cruel, completely meaningless and negative in all ways. Against this we must fight with all the power that is within us and within our laws and social structures! For such suffering is opposed to life and ultimately is not of the kingdom of God.
The Apostle Paul spoke about the redemptive suffering this way, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." (Romans 8:18). Pope Paul VI wrote, "The Christian can have at the same time two different, opposite experiences - sorrow and joy - which become complementary." In redemptive suffering we stand with people in sorrow and joy. We cannot stand at arms' length. We must stand and pray in the middle of the mess. This is hard. Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we often fall asleep while others pray and suffer. We fail to abide with them, because we can't bear their suffering and sadness. But you and I cannot do that. We need to pray with not about them. How many of you - knowing another is suffering - have left them the ones who need you in their time of need? I am ashamed to say that I have. But, to do so, is to leave them alone on the cross. It is only when we stand under the cross with them, that we experience the joy of suffering.
I have a friend whose pain has been hard for me to watch. The pain of my friend is palpable at times. His eyes. His body. His being - racked by suffering. I must confess to you, it is hard for me to stay by him. It is easier to walk away. And in his suffering, he does not have the energy to call me back when I walk away. But recently, I stayed when my impulse was to leave. It was in the simple act of staying that I experienced the grace of his pain and realized that, he more than anyone in the world, would (if he could) walk away, too. But, he can't. His sadness holds him. His depression circles him like a cloud and will not let him go - although he fights it and desires nothing more.
Although, in his gentleness and pain, he will not say it, I have come to know that when I have walked away, it has added to his pain. The other day I fought off my desire to leave. There are always good reasons in my head. But, I stayed. And I learned a lesson that eluded even me - that to stay and to stand with him under the cross of his suffering, is redemptive - perhaps more for me than for him. In my staying and in my standing, God is healing the unhealed sadness and suffering in me and I hope, perhaps in him as well. I can't help but wonder, is this God's strange and miraculous way of redeeming me?
After the liberation of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp - a camp where an estimated 92,000 men, women, and children were murdered - a piece of wrapping paper was found near the body of a dead child. On the paper was written this prayer: "O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But, do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us, remember the fruits we bought, thanks to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness." (Quoted in Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, Richard Foster, p.224).
I don't know about you, but my greatest teachers in life have been those who have taught me through their suffering. My greatest learning about my own life has been in my pain, not in my glory.
Writing from the center of his own suffering, Jacob J.Halevi has written this prayer to God:
In times of darkness when my heart is grieved, when despair besieges my mind and my days are a weariness of living - Then my life like a flower that struggles to grow where no ray of sun ever penetrates; Then is my spirit pent up within me and my soul shut in like a night of darkness. When such darkness overtakes me, O God, fortify my mind with trust in life.
In Hebrews 11 and 12, we hear some amazing, gory and even strange stories of people of our Judeo-Christian faith who suffered and died in their faith. By faith, these sisters and brothers of ours redeem us in their sufferings. The author calls the martyrs "they . . . of whom the world was not worthy" (Hebrews 11:37).
I have often found that, like the world, I am not worthy of those who suffer thus - like my friend, like the child in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, like Jacob J. Halevi, like Jesus, our Christ. Nevertheless (and our God always works in the "Nevertheless!"), you and I are called to witness, learn from and stand with those who suffer - through prayer and presence.
After a long litany of faith and the stories of redemptive suffering, Hebrews 12:1ff concludes:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:1-3).
In the midst of your suffering or the suffering of others, my prayer for you is that from the bitter root of your pain, a flower may grow. My prayer for you is that when faced with the pain of others, you may stand with them. It may be the most difficult work you ever do in your life. But, I tell you this - it will also be the most beautiful work you ever do in the eyes of your beloved and in the eyes of God. Amen.
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