Scripture: John 20:10-18
John G. Burnett lived in the mid and late eighteen hundreds. As a boy growing up in the hills and forests of the Cherokee Indians, he came to know them well. The Cherokees were his friends.
By the year 1838, Burnett had joined the U.S. Army. Because of his ability to fluently speak the language of the Cherokee, he was sent as an interpreter into the Smokey Mountain Country to assist in the forced removal of the Cherokee Indians from their life-long homes and to help relocate them west to land in Oklahoma. Fifty years later, John Burnett recorded these words about his experience:
“I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning, I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and headed for the West.
“The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire. I have known as many as 22 of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure.
“Among this number was the beautiful Christian wife of Chief John Ross. This noble hearted woman died a martyr to childhood, giving her only blanket for the protection of a sick child.
“She rode thinly clad through a blinding sleet and snow storm, developed pneumonia and died in the still hours of a bleak winter night.
Theda Perdue, the author of “The Cherokee,” writes that the long, painful journey to the West ended March 26, 1839, with four thousand silent graves reaching from the foothills of the Smokey Mountains to what is known as the Indian Territory in the West. And the covetousness on the part of the white race was the cause of all that the Cherokees had to suffer. (“The Cherokee,” by Theda Perdue, Ed. by Frank Potter III, Chelsea House: New, York, 1989, p. 58)
From the bondage of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians, to the Slave Trade from Africa and the Carribean to America, to the Trail of Tears, to the concentration camps of the Nazi’s, the history of humankind is a history of suffering, mostly at the hands of human beings to each other.
The ugly hand of evil seems to rise on every page. Removed by time and the comforts of twentieth-century American society, it’s difficult for some to imagine sufferings as great. It’s much easier to close the book and pretend that such events never happened. But we only have to listen to those who have fought in wars or remember 9-11, or open our eyes to the great suffering that still takes place in the world all around us.
To become callused to the sufferings within history is a dangerous thing because suffering is not just a thing of the past. Suffering is a reality of the present.
It is true that the examples of history that I mentioned are examples of times of extreme suffering. It’s safe to say that few of us, if any, have ever suffered on such a level. It is also safe to say that no one here is exempt from suffering. Suffering still occurs on many levels. To live is to suffer.
I have known and still know people that have endured great suffering, Job-like suffering, the kind of suffering that causes you to question God. Perhaps you have too.
If we were to all open up our lives so that everyone could see those things that we keep out of sight, those things which cause us to weep when no one is around, those things which make us feel lonely and isolated, those things which we try to ignore but never entirely can, the things that keep us awake at night, we would be surprised at the burdens we each carry.
We would say to one another, “I am sorry. I never knew.”
If we could swap history books of our lives with each other, we would find accounts of suffering in most of our chapters.
Therefore, the question in life is not, “Will suffering occur?” The question in life is, “How does one respond to suffering?”
How is it that some people can rise above their suffering? How do some find hope in their suffering? How are some people able to rise above it and even laugh in the midst of it while others sink beneath the weight of it all?
Of course, many people turn to religion.
Perhaps you are familiar with the famous statement made by Carl Marx about religion. He said that “religion is the opiate of the people.” According to Marx, religion is something to mask the pain. Just as many people turn to drugs to escape their suffering, Marx claimed that religion is no different. Is he right?
The Bible teaches that we should not turn to religion, but instead that we should turn to Jesus. Some people think they are the same thing, but if Jesus is living within us, changing the way we believe, what we do, and what we become, then it’s not the same thing.
Our Jewish friends believe in God, but have a difficult time turning to Jesus because suffering is a huge stumbling block.
They have not forgotten their history. They remember the Holocaust so when we introduce them to our Savior, they will ask, “What did the death of Jesus have to do with our suffering?”
They ask, “If Jesus were indeed the Messiah, then why did he not take away all suffering from the people? Would a God of love have allowed the Holocaust to happen?”
The issue of suffering is a huge stumbling block for the Jews. They cannot believe in a Messiah that did not take away the suffering of the world. So they are still looking for the Messiah to come.
Christians are not exempt from these kinds of thoughts. In times of great suffering, many Christians, like Job, have sat on the ash heap and questioned God’s judgment? When tragedy strikes our home, have we not wondered, “Where is God?”
The disciples wondered the same thing after Jesus was crucified.
On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid after his death. The darkness of the predawn hour reflected her mood and her spirit.
Her suffering was directly related to the suffering of her Lord who had died a criminal’s death on a cross.
When she discovered that the stone was rolled away from the entrance of the cave and the body of Jesus was missing, this just added to her grief.
Her immediate thought was that somebody had stolen the body of Jesus from the tomb and moved it elsewhere. In despair, she ran and told the disciples.
Afraid of suffering the same treatment as Jesus, the disciples had stayed out of sight. Even though they stayed clear of the Romans, it did little to deter their suffering.
The disciples were suffering from a loss of hope. Jesus and the kingdom of God had their purpose for the last three years. Their trail of tears began with the arrest and death of Jesus.
Their trail of tears was littered with shattered hopes and shattered dreams. Out of despair one of twelve, Judas, had already committed suicide.
The others, all but Thomas, were huddled together when word came from Mary Magdalene, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2 NIV)
The disciples must have thought, “What next? How much more can go wrong? Where is God?”
They ran to the tomb and found it empty just as Mary Magdalene had reported. Not yet understanding, they returned to their homes. Mary, overcome with grief, stayed at the tomb crying. As she stooped to look into the empty tomb, she saw two angels in white seated where Jesus’s body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
“Woman, why are you crying?” one asked.
After explaining that someone had taken her Lord away, she turned around, and her Lord was standing there before her. Through her tears and grief, she did not recognize him. Then he asked, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
I cannot imagine Jesus asking her these two questions without a smile on his face. Mary still did not realize that it was Jesus who stood before her. Then he called her name, “Mary.”
Shivers must have gone down her spine as she recognized the voice. She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”, which means teacher. This cry was different. This cry was a cry of joy. In an instant, her tears of sorrow were turned into tears of joy.
One day, God will take all of our suffering away, but our sin continues to make this world a place of imperfection. While suffering will continue to be a part of a broken world, God teaches us through the restored life of Jesus that at no time during our suffering is the Spirit of Jesus not available to us.
Through Jesus, we have the assurance that God understands our suffering and enables us to move through it and ultimately beyond it.
While suffering is not yet eliminated, the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope that one day, our suffering will be transformed and totally defeated, just as Jesus defeated death.
Walking through a blinding snowstorm, the Christian wife of Chief John Ross gave her only blanket to a little child who would have frozen to death without it. Because of her unselfishness and life-giving act, the child lived, but the Indian woman died.
That is the kind of love of sacrificial that Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Through his sacrificial love, we are able to live with hope, not just with hope, but with purpose.
When Jesus’ love permeates our lives that much, that is the only way that suffering has a chance to be eliminated in this world. It doesn’t mean that it will be eliminated in our lives or in the lives of others. It does mean that God will use you to help reduce suffering in the lives of others. This commitment must come through the committed lives and sacrifices of those who give freely and compassionately to others in the name of Jesus.
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, you can be empowered to reduce suffering in this world through your unselfish acts of love and care.
As Jesus stood before Mary, he understood her suffering. He had endured suffering on her behalf even unto death. As Jesus stood before her, Mary’s hope was once again restored, and her suffering took a different perspective.
As Christians, we do not pretend to live in a world that is free from suffering. We do not claim that we are exempt from suffering, nor does the Bible promise it.
However, because of the empty tomb, Christians should have a perspective on life that puts suffering in a different context. It’s the perspective of Mary Magdalene as she rushed back to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!”
Can’t you see her? She’s out of breath. She has a smile on her face as wide as the Grand Canyon. She’s practically glowing. Her excitement is in such contrast to the depressed disciples that it’s like night and day. At that moment, do you think that her mind was on any of her hardships or troubles in life?
No, of course not. The presence of Jesus trumped them all.
God does not want us to ignore or to be in denial about our hardships, struggles, or sufferings. However, the empty tomb puts all of them into a different perspective.
On the day God raised Jesus from the grave, God laughed in the face of evil. God laughed in the face of death. Satan had laughed for three days, thinking evil would forever be victorious. But on Easter morning, God had the last laugh.
Through belief in Jesus Christ, we too can participate in the laughter and joy of God. Through a life of faith, we are given the ability to tolerate discrepancies, contradictions, ambiguities, and sufferings, because we know that they are not the final story (Harvey Potthoff, “Humor and Religious Faith, p. 76). Our faith is not an opiate. It’s not merely a crutch which helps us hobble through the pain. Our faith is a way of life that’s grounded in the life of the resurrected Lord.
The Apostle Paul wrote a large part of what we now call the New Testament. Paul was a very devoted Christian. He was very intense and serious about his faith.
Amid the real world of the Roman Empire under Nero, Paul hardly had comfortable circumstances under which to work. Through being imprisoned, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked; being in danger from countrymen, Gentiles, and false brethren; being hungry, thirsty, cold and naked; and facing the pressures of his concern for all the churches, Paul still understood suffering. (I Cor. 12).
Paul endured these suffering because of his faith, which prompted him to say that only a fool would continue to follow Christ who had to suffer in all these ways. Paul said that’s exactly who he was, a fool for Christ.
Are you a fool for Christ or do you just think that those who follow Christ are fools?
Through all your sufferings, do you have any of the joy of Mary Magdalene as she heard her Lord call her name?
Have you come to a point where you understand that the joy and the power of Jesus’ resurrection upon your life far exceed any suffering this world can cast your way?
Yes, there may be times that suffering is so great that our faith is tested.
However, the Spirit of God never leaves us even in our darkest hour.
God calls each of us to rejoice in the Lord always. This is through faith in Christ Jesus. It is a perspective on life that enables us to celebrate life not only when everything is coming up roses but also when everything is coming up dandelions, or perhaps when nothing is coming up all at all (Conrad Hyers, “And God Created Laughter,” Atlant: John Knox Press, 1987, p. 37-38).
When Jesus died on that cross, Satan was smug in his victory-cocky, self-assured and smiling at himself. Then God raised Jesus from the dead, and life and freedom were the last words (Morris Niedenthal, “A Comic Perspective to the Gospel, The Dethronement of the Powers,” p. 288).
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who are suffering and those who will. Suffering is a given.
The question then remains.
How do you respond to your sufferings?
God invites you to look into the empty tomb and have faith. If God can defeat death, then surely God can help you walk through the suffering of this world and overcome it.
Not only is Jesus present with us throughout our sufferings, it is Jesus, and only Jesus, who gives us the ability to use our sufferings to empathize with others and help bring healing to a suffering world.
Finally, because Jesus defeated death, we can live with the assurance that the day will come when all sufferings will cease. Jesus has ascended to heaven to prepare that place for us.
Do you dare believe it?
During our invitation this morning, just as God called Mary’s name outside that empty tomb, God is calling your name. If you have never responded to God’s call, I invite you to receive Jesus into your life so that you too can know the joy of Mary Magdalene when she said, “I have seen the Lord.”
For when we reach out and receive Jesus into our lives, it is then that suffering is put into perspective.
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