Suffering, what's the plan Lord? (Isaiah 25. 6-9, John 11.32-44)


Working at St Peter Mancroft can often be a challenge, in a good way. Our Parish is tiny, there are fewer than four hundred people living in it, so our parishoners are the transient people that pass through the bustling centre of Norwich.

It’s almost like an island, standing still while the ocean of people and things move around it, but there it sits, open, inviting. One of the things with being an island though, is that boats will come, often these boats are filled with well to do tourists, camera snapping people, having a look round.

There are spiritual pilgrims, who come in to pray, to sit and to think.
Then there are other people with very complex needs, some who are extremely troubled or mentally ill, others who are going through a really tough time in their lives, and they cling to our Island for refuge from a storm.

Here are two stories, that happened this week.

Story One.

Monday Evening, after the church was shut, choir rehearsals going on, twilight. A lady appears in the church yard, we’ll call her Jane.
Jane is drunk. In floods of tears, saying that she will only talk to a priest, so out muggins here goes. She is in deep distress. 

“Hello” I said, “How can I help you?”

It was cold. She wanted to come into the church, initially I said no, but I realised just how cold it was, and I was worried that she would catch a cold, and that I would too.
I thought she was just a bit drunk, it turned out that there were much more complex needs going on.

I got her a glass of water, and for the next thirty minutes, I sat and listened, trying to understand what the problem was. She wouldn’t tell me, “You’re a man of God, I’m a lost sheep. I need God. I need your help.” She kept saying. “You’re not a good priest if you don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Despite trying to explain that I’m not clairvoyant, she still wouldn’t let me in.
One minute she said she was suicidal, the next she wasn’t. One minute she was homeless, the next she was living with her mum.
Her wild eyed erratic face bored into me, and I realised, there was nothing I could do for her.

I was helpless. Eventually even though we tried all we could to help her, she left, and I felt utterly useless.

Story Two.

Church, afternoon, sunny and busy. A lady is in the church crying. She is in deep distress.

I offered her a glass of water, she said yes please. I went to get it, and came back. My name is Graham, what’s your name. We’ll call her Alice.
We had a twenty minute conversation, she had cancer last year, she’d gone of the rails, so she said. She had destroyed her relationship with her partner that she loved, and he was leaving her.

Wow.

The tears flooded down her face, as she cried. “I’m going to be alone forever.” She cried. I listened to her, offered what consolation I could, repeated some of the things that had been said to me when I broke up with my partner.

I listened.

Her tears fell, and I realised, there was nothing I could do for her.
I was helpless, I couldn’t take the pain away.
What can we do in the face of such suffering? The only thing I could do for both of these women, was pray for them, hope for them, listen to them. Have a bit of compassion.

When people are suffering and in pain, be it physical or mental, it’s tough, it feels wrong and unnatural. It’s easy to lose hope sometimes.
But our bible readings today talk all about what a greater hope we have. That Jesus stared into the face of such hopelessness.

In our readings we see the character of God, we see what God does in the face of suffering, and we can see the hope that we have as Christians.

I was helpless in the face of their suffering, but that doesn’t mean we are hopeless.
In the face of suffering, reconciliation. In the face of despair hope and victory.
Our reading from Isaiah today is one of my favourite readings from the Bible. It’s all about God’s victory. It’s a vision of what life with God will be like, and the kind of character God has.

The imagery in it is brilliant, and it uses everyday examples to describe something about God, and His relationship with us. For a start there’s the vivid description of the heavenly banquet, you can almost taste it. Though I doubt many of us would automatically think of foods rich in marrow. Well matured wines however, well I have been known to enjoy a glass of chateuneuf du pape every now and then.
God will feed us, and God nourishes us in the face of our pain. This banquet is a celebration of God’s victory. It’s aspirational. In it’s context, most people would’ve been subsistence farmers, growing barely enough food to feed themselves and their families, and pay their bills.

So God will give us an abundance.

The sheet and shroud are interesting too, what it’s talking about are mourning garments that people would’ve worn. There’s no need for them in God’s kingdom, because there is no death, only a new joy. There will be no mourning in the joy to come.
So God has victory over death.

“God will wipe away tears from all faces.” It’s funny that this part of Isaiah doesn’t say only the faithful, or a particular type of person, or people who profess a particular belief. It says everyone. Everybody has the potential to be reconciled to God. 
God sees our suffering, He sees our pain, and will wipe away our tears, he takes away our disgrace and forgives us, picks us up and gives us hope. We wait eagerly for him to come.

In the face of suffering, God’s reconciliation is there.


In the words of the primary school hymn, ‘Brother, Sister, let me serve you,’ “ I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I'll laugh with you; I will share your joy and sorrow, till we've seen this journey through.” 

It seems almost cliché, It’s just so with God, we believe in a God that is so close to us, that God became one of us in Jesus Christ. God climbs on a boat, and meets us at the island where we are.

The phrase ‘greatly disturbed and deeply moved’ in our gospel reading actually is closer in the original Greek to meaning, angry. Jesus isn’t angry at the people, or their lack of faith, but is angry at the injustice of death, angry at the power of death.
Jesus shows us the very nature of God, angry at the power of death, and weeping because his friend has died. In the face of the despair that surrounds him he is angry about it, and then is moved to tears by it.
What an amazing God.

Just like in our Old Testament reading, God reaches out to make it better, God reaches to our faces, through the face of Lazarus, and wipes away our tears. God triumphs over death, over it’s power. Where God is concerned it has no sovereignty. It is vanquished.  


God’s love and compassion is so great, for Lazarus and for each one of us, that God reaches into the tomb of our current lives and says ‘no’ this isn’t what I have planned for you forever.

In the face of the despair around Lazarus, Jesus reaches and in the face of it, love and victory emerges.

We are in communion with that moment, as we are in communion with all the saints that have gone before us.

We might feel hopeless and helpless, unable to do anything in the face of all the pain and suffering that pervades our world. But the hope is that Jesus knows it, Jesus reaches into it, and has done since before time began, and God will reconcile it all and make it better in the end.

That doesn’t make the pain go away, but it helps to know that God has it, God knows it. I don’t know what will happen to Alice and Jane, but I do know that God holds them, and doesn’t let go.

For now all we can do is listen and pray, hope and watch, and be inspired by the saints that have gone before us, and live in God’s greater presence now, as we will too.
In the face of suffering, reconciliation. In the face of despair, love and victory.
God is with us in our pain, but it won’t be like this forever. We must hope and pray that with all the saints God will fulfil His promises to us.

 Preached at 10:30 04/11/2018 
St Margaret's Church, Lyng. 

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