Continuing on with our theme for this Advent: Glimpses of Joy, we once again journey into the depths this Christmas season to see the true gift of light, strength, and peace which Christ has provided us. For this contribution Greg (whose name has been changed and story slightly altered to protect his identity) and I came together to share these insights together.
Introduction: Today I would like to share with you a reflection which my good friend, Greg, and I wrote together for this Advent season in light of our theme of “Glimpses of Joy” – finding God even in the pain and confusion of life. This year we have been tackling some difficult topics around the Christmas season including grief, addictions, and mental health. Greg has joined me today in the creation of this piece.
As I reflected on where God was leading me with this sermon, there was one thought I could not shake. That thought has to do with the topic of joy found in suffering. Each one of us here has experienced suffering in varying degrees. There are times in all of our lives when we feel that God is so close that we can reach out and touch Him, and other times when He feels so distant that we do not see His hand at all in our daily lives. For some of us, grief, depression, anxiety, doubt, and hopelessness are the norm. I want you to know that if this is what you are experiencing as you meet here today, it is okay. Church is a place of healing and wholeness. It is a place where we are free to express our deepest thoughts, emotions, and desires without fear of judgment or belittlement.
As I began “preparing the Sunday dinner” a metaphor that June Alliman-Yoder (former professor of preaching at AMBS uses to describe crafting a sermon), I was struck by the topic you asked me to address today. The focus statement I was given to talk about was, “we have been promised a day when tears of sorrow will be transformed to shouts of joy. But we live in a ‘meantime’ still marked by oppression, broken hearts, and loss of freedom. We are invited to hold fast to what is good, even while we wait for God’s intervention.”
This not always an easy thing to do. Waiting and searching for God are often hard amidst the myriad injustices, acts of violence, and sheer cruelty we see in our everyday lives. Following God is hard when He is silent and when we have felt abandoned by Him or those who love us best. As Mennonites, and as Christians, we work hard to bring about the Kingdom of God, but it is so easy to become discouraged when the good deeds we do do not seem to be leaving an imprint in this world.
We are nearing Christmas time. We are nearing the time when the Son of God will come down and deliver hope and peace to all of us. He will be called Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. But currently we are in a time of waiting. A time of transition when all hope may seem to be lost and abandoned. A time when we wonder why God is not coming in and delivering His Son into this world just a few days or even hours sooner. Why He is not intervening in our times of trial.
It can be hard for us to be real about these thoughts and fears particularly during Christmas time when we are told that we need to just be happy and spread holiday cheer. It is hard to be grieving when all around us people are celebrating and feasting. Yet today, for these next twenty minutes, please abandon those notions. Strip yourselves of the ideology that a true Christian must always be happy. Get rid of the nagging thoughts that church is a place for happy people who have their lives together. And just for twenty minutes, please journey with Greg and I into our own life stories. Into the confessions of young Anabaptist Bible school students who one day hope to be a part of the wider Mennonite church in full time ministry.
DEBORAH: I admit, being a Mennonite has not always been easy for me. If anyone thinks the Anabaptist way is easy, they have probably never been an Anabaptist. You know what they say every year around Remembrance Day “Peace takes guts.” Yet so often, we live in a world marked by oppression, violence, and turmoil. How is it possible to remain a pacifist under these conditions?
GREG: “Why has the way of the wicked prospered? Why are all those who deal in treachery at ease? You have planted them, they have also taken root; they grow, they have produced fruit. You are near to their lips, but far from their mind.” (Jeremiah 12:1-2)
DEBORAH: Does being a pacifist really mean that I can never stand up against oppression or does it mean that I have to take my stance in another way?
GREG: “And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:18)
DEBORAH: But you know, as important as pacifism is to me now, it was indeed a struggle for me to become a pacifist. I did not see the value in it and I didn’t fully understand the message of peace until God opened my eyes through the Scriptures and showed me that violence was never acceptable.
GREG: “And He will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.” (Is. 2:4)
DEBORAH: That was the main issue I had with being a Mennonite in the first place. But there is something more. I was not willing to become a Mennonite at first because I had been deeply hurt before by another church which had become so close to my heart. I was wounded by a pastor I considered a mentor. I felt abandoned and rejected. Perhaps this helped when I met a man who I had an instant connection with.
His name was Greg. He said he hated Christmas. Christmas brought back difficult memories. It was too sad for him. A failed marriage and series of depressive episodes later he just couldn’t find the strength to get out to be with his family and friends during the season. He felt like all hope had been abandoned. He suffered from seasonal affective disorder. Often severely. Sometimes only moderately. As a result he had his fair share of yelling at God and crying out to Him as a result.
GREG: “My sorrow is beyond healing. My heart is faint within me.” (Jer. 8:18)
DEBORAH: Greg admits that the fact that he spent so much of his life being angry with God for a disorder which he thought He had “caused” that he backed away from church as much as possible. He couldn’t stand the cheerfulness and singing which he perceived to be fake. The Christmas greetings which he took as shallow. It didn’t help that the general consensus of both church and society was to keep mental health issues “hush hush”. We feel uncomfortable with addressing it much of the time, and so we choose to ignore it. Yet, church is such a place of hope and healing that if we simply would address it within our church walls it would do all of us much good. Church should be among the safest places where we can go to talk about these types of things. If we cannot be real at church where can we be real?
GREG: “My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled. My heart is poured out to the earth.” (Lam. 2:11)
DEBORAH: Gradually Greg began to find a church which welcomed and accepted him for who he was. He became a Christian. Eventually he became a seminarian. Although we are different ages and come from different cultures and backgrounds, Greg and I have something in common: we both have our doubts. Sometimes people assume that because Greg and I are Christians, Mennonites, and Bible school students that we have our lives together. But we really don’t. We have our fair share of doubts – whether because of theology or because of depression, and yet to voice our thoughts of fear and hopelessness would seem almost absurd. People would wonder just what kind of pastors we are producing for our churches and what kind of missionaries we are sending out into the world. Surely pastors don’t have such theological qualms. Or do they?
Jesus did. Jesus Himself at times felt like He couldn’t do this alone. When He was in the Garden He prayed:
GREG: “My Father, if it is at all possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matt. 26:39)
DEBORAH: And when He was on the cross, stripped bare of all human dignity and honour and simply and fully human He even went so far as to say:
GREG: “My God, My God, why have You forsake Me?” (Matt. 27:46)
DEBORAH: And it is for this reason that as hard as it may seem when we are experiencing difficulties and stress. As hard as it can be when we feel that God has completely and utterly forsaken and abandoned us. As hard as it can be to relate to God when we feel He was the reason all these bad things take place, we must trust the writer of Hebrews when he says:
GREG: “For we do not have a high priest (Jesus Christ) who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15)
DEBORAH: He then goes on to tell us:
GREG: “Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16)
DEBORAH: You know, Jesus suffered. He suffered a lot. The Bible says that:
GREG: “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised and we esteemed Him not.” (Is. 53:3)
DEBORAH: We are also told that:
GREG: “Just like lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in His day.” (Lk. 17:24)
DEBORAH: But first. Now pay attention to this one.
GREG: “But first, He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” (Lk. 17:25)
DEBORAH: See, even God did not let His only begotten Son off the hook that easily. Nor did He let the earliest Christians off the hook. The Apostle Paul went through a lot himself. But he still had hope.
GREG: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed. Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:8-9)
DEBORAH: Jesus understood that we were going to lose heart from time to time. But He still said that:
GREG: “At all times you must pray and not lose heart.” (Lk. 18:1)
DEBORAH: Greg shared with me that when he goes through intense difficulties and all hope seems lost, he’s tempted to scream out to God and blame Him for causing him to feel this way. Surely he could do a lot more good for God if he were always in a joyous state and never depressed. Why does God allow us to feel this way? It’s not doing either one of them either good. Yet, Greg has found great strength in clinging to this one truth from Scripture:
GREG: “He takes no pleasure in causing us grief or pain. The Lord knows when our spirits are crushed in prison.” (Lam. 3:33-34)
DEBORAH: In an ancient book of wisdom literature known as Sirach, the author says:
GREG: “But the Lord will allow those who repent to turn to Him. He ALWAYS gives encouragement to those who are losing hope.” (Sirach 17:24)
DEBORAH: But you know, it’s not always about feeling hopeless. True, there are times when we seem to have nothing left to go on. There are times when we live in the shadow of advent, oblivious to the fact that Christmas is around the corner. But, there are also times which are a little less dramatic. There are also times when we simply feel tired of keeping up our good works.
Have you ever felt like Isaiah when He said:
GREG: “I have worked, but how hopeless it is. I have used my strength, but have accomplished nothing” (Is. 49:4)
DEBORAH: I am a Mennonite. I know how important acts of service are. I know the emphasis we place on peacemaking and non-resistance. Yet I also know what it is to be imprisoned in this mindset that I have not done enough. That God is not proud of what I did. That I have failed Him and failed the church. But I cling fast to the words of Paul when he said:
GREG: “I trust that you will know that we are NOT failures.” (2 Cor. 13:6)
DEBORAH: I used to lay in bed at all hours of the night, my heart literally throbbing inside my chest. I had severe doubts as to my salvation. I wasn’t sure if I could get to heaven or not because I didn’t know if I had done enough good deeds that day. The Bible does say:
GREG: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jm. 1:27)
DEBORAH: It also says:
GREG: “Faith, without works, is dead” (Jm. 2:17)
DEBORAH: And in another place:
GREG: “For the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” (Rm. 14:17-19)
DEBORAH: These are all true points. I will be the first to say that as Christians we need to engage ourselves with acts of service. We need to be involved with our community in community outreach and in social justice. We need to be peacemakers for the kingdom of God. These are all values that the Mennonite church taught me and that I uphold and adhere to dearly.
But you know, up until a year ago, there was absolutely no peace in my life because I only believed in these things. I believed in God, yes. But my theology was: “God helps those who help Him in return.” I never doubted that eternal salvation came from God, but I did doubt whether or not I was eligible for it. I was involved in everything, but I was largely involved because I thought I had to earn my Salvation. Friends, that isn’t Biblical! The Bible says:
GREG: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
DEBORAH: Being involved with social justice and advocacy is great, but we are cautioned that:
GREG: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain who build it.” (Ps. 127:1)
DEBORAH: Once I learned that God called me into Salvation, not by any act of my own or by anything of my own doing, I was able to learn to trust and rely on Him more fully. Instead of seeing Him as a boss I had to try to please, I began to see Him as a friend and companion. Jesus indeed is there to walk alongside us. Peter was pretty clear about that.
GREG: “Let us give thanks to our God and Father the Lord Jesus Christ! Because of His great mercy He gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. THIS FILLS US WITH A LIVING HOPE, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings which Christ has for you… BE GLAD ABOUT THIS even though it may be necessary for you to be sad now because of the many trials you face. THEIR PURPOSE IS TO PROVE THAT YOUR FAITH IS GENUINE… KEEP ALERT AND SET YOUR HEARTS COMPLETELY ON THE BLESSINGS THAT CHRIST REVEALED…FOR YOU KNOW YOU ARE FREE FROM THE WORTHLESS NATURE YOU ONCE HAD.” (Excerpts from 1&2 Peter)
DEBORAH: Yet just because we are not saved by works, does not mean that we never have to serve. Service is at the very heart of the Gospel. But let’s be clear. So is grace, mercy, and forgiveness. We cheapen God’s mercy to us if we think we can earn our Salvation, but we add worth to it when we serve for the right reasons and motivations. When we serve God as an extension, a thank-you, if you will, for what He has given us, we are making Him proud. We can then join together in Isaiah’s mission statement:
GREG: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring Good News to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners. To proclaim the favourable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance for our God; to comfort all who mourn.” (Is. 61:1-2)
DEBORAH: Indeed, this is what we as Christians are called to do. Not because we need to, but because we joyfully call ourselves to this type of lifestyle. And just in case you were wondering what Menno Simons would have to say:
GREG: “True faith begets love, and love begets obedience to the commandments of God. Therefore Christ says, he that believes on Him is not condemned. And at another place, verily, verily I say unto you, he that hears My Word, and believes on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death to life. John 5:24. For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant, but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love. It dies unto flesh and blood, destroys all forbidden lusts and desires, seeks, serves, and fears God. It clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, comforts the sorrowful, and shelters the destitute. It aids and consoles the sad, returns good for evil, serves those that harm it, prays for those that persecute it, teaches, admonishes, and reproves the Word of the Lord. It seeks that which is lost. It binds up that which is wounded, heals that which is diseased, saves that which is sound. It has become all things to all people. The persecution, suffering, and anguish which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord is to it a glorious joy and consolation. All those who have such a faith, a faith that yearns to walk in the commandments of the Lord and to do His will, these press on to all righteousness, love, and obedience. These prove that the Word and will of our beloved Lord is true wisdom, truth, and love, and is unchangeable and final until Christ comes again.”
~ Why I Do Not Cease Teaching And Writing (Menno Simons; Anabaptist Leader ca. 1496-1561)
DEBORAH: Friends, we’ve covered it all. The fact that it’s hard to be peacemakers, particularly when we are faced with the violence and injustices of the world. The fact that even when life seems bleak and hopeless, God’s ray of sunshine breaks forth from the night into a glorious dawn. The fact that we live in an advent season marked by uncertainty and waiting, until the glorious appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The fact that we can become weary of doing good, but that we must remember:
GREG: “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10)
DEBORAH: At first glance, this may seem like a lot to take in. I don’t doubt that your minds are whirling with all sorts of thoughts on what was just said. Yet, before we close, I wish just to draw your attention once more back to the key idea of today:
GREG: “We have been promised a day when tears of sorrow will be transformed to shouts of joy. But we live in a ‘meantime’ still marked by oppression, broken hearts, and loss of freedom. We are invited to hold fast to what is good, even while we wait for God’s intervention.”
DEBORAH: May these thoughts encompass us in all of our activities today. In our service, in our love, and in our commitment to one another. Let us reach out our hands and our hearts to those we meet as we become energized and truly excited about the faith and the Salvation which God has promised to us. We are not advent people, we are Christmas people! Amen.