Thursday, March 8, 2007

Living the Forgiven Life: Engage in the Struggle

(A Lenten devotion based on Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42)

Sometimes we say that we came to Christ or that someone else ought to come to Christ as if it is a simple thing. And in a way it is simple. We must never add anything to the simple child-like faith that is required if one is going to become a follower of Christ. Still, to get to that point of faith, to that place where one can throw oneself at the feet of Christ in utter child-like dependence, can be a struggle. I think of Herod Agrippa who said to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” It can be a long way from “almost” to “all right.” A good example of what I am talking about is found in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, a story that had a happy ending.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman, all kinds of realities stood between him and her. In the first place, there were ethnic barriers. She was Samaritan while he was Jewish. In the second place, there were social barriers. She was a woman while he was a man. In the third place, there were religious barriers, for while the Samaritans and the Jews worshipped the same God they did so different ways, including having competing temples and differing collections of Scripture. And so when they encountered each other a situation of confrontation was set up. Something to admire in this woman is the fact that she hung in there with Jesus and was willing to engage him in the struggle. She entered into a dialogue with Jesus.

I put before you the observation that so long as one is willing to dialogue with Jesus the hope exists that a breakthrough will occur. We Christians need not be threatened by those who ask questions and who challenge what we say or believe. The ones to be truly concerned about are those who have so little interest that they just don’t care one way or another.

So the woman at the well struggled with Jesus. She struggled against the backdrop of her religious background, her ethnic background, and her social background. Where the breakthrough began to occur, though, was when the struggle moved to the issue of her personal life. Here was a woman who had to go out to the well every day to get water. It was a part of the hum-drum struggle of her daily life. Now, this strange man offers her water and promises that if she’ll drink it she’ll never be thirsty again and that it will give her eternal life. I guess she was thinking literally and physically when she responded, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Then, though, Jesus turned the conversation in a direction that pointed toward her area of real thirst, an area of thirst much more real and much more vital than physical thirst. “Go, call your husband and come back,” he said. “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” To which she (understandably) responded, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” He had cut to the heart of the matter. What drove her to go from man to man like that? What caused her to grope and grasp and reach out for love, constantly failing but always trying again? At the point of her deepest need Christ offered his greatest help. In her recognition that he was the Messiah came her hope. Jesus calls you to admit your place of deepest need, your place of deepest hurt. And then he will come to you at just that point.

Some people think, it seems to me, that struggling should end once you find forgiveness in Christ and once you commit your life to being his disciple. That’s a fallacy that people understandably accept, since our initial acceptance of Christ puts many ultimate issues to rest. When sin, death, and hell have been taken care of, what’s left? Well, there’s actually a lot left. We who are Christians, who have been forgiven, still need to engage in the struggle that comes with trying to live as God’s people. Indeed, coming to faith in Christ does not bring the struggle to an end. It continues. The question is not whether or not we will struggle. The question is what we will do with the struggle. The meaning of the struggle is found in what we do with it.

Will we murmur and complain? That’s what the Hebrews did. Now, we need to state right up front that the life of discipleship is a journey. It’s a process. We have to walk the walk and we have to walk it one step at a time. Sometimes the walk becomes difficult. God saved the Hebrews. He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He led them across the sea. And almost immediately they began to complain. They complained at a place called Marah because the water was bitter and God gave them clean water (15:22-25a). They complained at the wilderness of Sin because they were hungry and God gave them manna and quail to eat (16:1ff). In today’s text they came to a place called Rephidim and there they complained because there was no water. This time God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water came from the rock. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, which mean “Test” and “Quarrel,” respectively, because of the attitude of the people. The issue at the heart of their complaining was “Is the LORD among us or not?” (v. 7).

Let’s be fair about this. First, these were real issues that the people were raising. Food and water are indispensable human needs. They were not voicing complaints over trivial matters. Without food and water, they would die. Sometime we complain over trivial issues and we just need to stop being silly. But some issues really are life and death issues. Second, the Bible does not prohibit complaint and lament. Indeed, the book of Psalms contains more laments than any other type of psalm. It is appropriate when we are suffering and struggling to pour our hearts out to the Lord. It is appropriate that we be honest and open with him about what we are experiencing and about that with which we are struggling. Indeed, it is dishonest not to do so. He’s big enough to handle it.

Yet the Hebrews should have learned something by the time they got to Rephidim. I can understand their fears about food. I can understand their initial fear about water. But God had already intervened on their behalf twice. He had already proven through the primary salvation event of the Exodus and through the manna, the quail, and the turning of the bitter water into sweet, that he was among his people. The Hebrews ought to have learned something through what they had already experienced. We should learn and grow through what we experience. That’s what our experiences are for. Our experiences, even the most difficult ones we have, can and should serve to teach us the truth that God is with us.

This brings us to the other possibility. Will we grow in endurance and hope? We who are Christians have already experienced our primary salvation event; we have been saved through the cross of Christ. Paul reminds us, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1-2a). This has happened; it is the way it is. And having experienced God’s grace through faith and having come to have peace with God in the present, we look forward to God’s great future when we will share in the glory of God (v. 2b). Christ died for us while we were sinners (vv. 6-8) and we can be sure that he will finish the work he has started in us (vv. 9-11). But in the present times can get hard. We can suffer. We can have trials. Many if not most of you are sitting here this morning carrying heavy burdens of suffering and trial. Others of our fellowship are not here today precisely because of the heavy burdens they are bearing.

Paul gives us the glorious word that even our suffering contributes to our walk with God and to our development as Christians. The coming of suffering is a fact. The question is what we will do with it. Paul tells us that we can boast in our present suffering just as much as we boast in our future glory because they are tied together. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 3b-5). It’s worth the struggle. It’s worth the struggle because every time we experience pain we learn that God is with us. And each experience should teach and remind us and make us even surer that he is with us. God made the ultimate statement that he is with us in our suffering by suffering alongside us and for us in Calvary’s cross.

Yes, struggle, but remember that the struggle can make us surer of what God will finish in us. Engage in the struggle because it is in the struggle that we become sure of the love and the hope that are in us.

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