Sermon: Suffering and the Sufficiency of Christ
Sermon by Matt Kennedy
text: Colossians 1:11-14
Sunday November 28th, 2010
At the end of our service every Sunday, when I remember, I’m supposed to say: “May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ”.
When I say that, I’m not bestowing on you my special “wish”for your future. It’s a prayer. Even though the words seem directed toward you rather than God, it is in fact a type of prayer called “a blessing”. In the Jewish mind—and in the biblical record—blessings, given by father’s to sons or from leaders to people, are particularly powerful forms of prayer through which God affects the future of the one blessed. This is why Jacob worked so hard to cheat his brother Esau out of his father Isaac’s blessing. The blessings Jacob gave to his own sons, the forefathers of the 12 tribes of Israel, were foundational to their future. Listen, for example, to Jacob’s blessing for Judah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him;and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”(Genesis 49:10). Who was from the tribe of Judah? David and then, ultimately, the Son of David to whom tribute now comes from all nations and to whom, one day, all will give obedience. God spoke through Jacob’s prayer/blessing/prophecy and used it powerfully in his work of redemption.
The practice of blessing our children, blessing our families, blessing the people God has called us to serve, has fallen out of favor in our day because it is sometimes seen as too hierarchical—usually its a person in authority doing the blessing—and we’re so egalitarian, but any study of blessing prayers in scripture will show that God uses them powerfully.
Paul, not a 21st century American, but a 1st century Jew who does not have our hangups. In verses 11and 12 he blesses the Colossians: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,  giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Notice the passive language. The Colossians themselves are not to do or be anything. Paul doesn’t say: “May you be strong” They are to be strengthened. The language emphasizes the powerlessness of the Colossians. They need to “be strengthened” by God because they cannot strengthen themselves.
This points right back to what we discovered last week about growing in Christ. You work, you act, you pray, you read and study, you do what God has called you to do AND empowering that, behind that, underneath and through that effort God works in you. He gives you the strength, the power to cooperate in your own growth. Without him, you couldn’t do it.
To answer, briefly, some questions I received after last Sunday’s sermon, the end, the purpose, of this cooperative work of sanctification is not to change your behavior—that is a result of sanctification but it is not the purpose. Any religion, any secular recovery program can give you the tools and disciplines necessary to change your behavior. But Christianity is not just about making you into a more respectable citizen. Christianity is about a heart change—an inside out transformation to the point that you are fully reformed and conformed to Jesus. Let’s think about that difference.
How many have been in a play ? An actor plays a part, memorizes lines—sometimes sinks deeply into the part of the character he/she plays—but an actor doesn’t actually become that person. However deeply an actor sinks into a role, he or she goes on afterwards to play another role in another film or play. The person, the actor, remains the same regardless of the number of different roles he or she plays.
Religion, in the same way, gives you the tools to put on a mask, a costume, and behave in a different way on the surface but it does not do anything about your heart.
The religious person says the big problem is bad behavior—we just need to do good and stop being bad in order to be acceptable God. Or, likewise, the irreligious person who nevertheless wants to be happier or more functional or more respectable—also sees the problem as a behavioral one. If I can just stop doing this and start doing that then I’ll be okay. I’ll find happiness, self respect, fulfillment.
But Jesus does the opposite. He does is not after you to change your behavior in order to make you a “good person” in order, then, finally, to make you acceptable to God and enable you to get into heaven on that basis.
Jesus, rather, makes you acceptable to God before you do anything. Look down at v. 12. “...giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” (Colossians 1:12)
Paul prays this prayer for knowledge, wisdom, strength, good works, endurance and patience for people God has already “qualified” to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He isn’t after changed behavior so that he can bring you into heaven. That question has already been decided. If you are in Christ, that was decided for you by him on the cross when and where he bore the full eternal consequences for your sins.
Your behavior changes as a result of the relationship he already established, the reconciliation he already accomplished in his death on the cross and your changing behavior now is a by-product of the what he’s really after—to get down inside and restore you and I to the fullness of the fellowship we had with him before the world began. That means first that he takes away both the consequences of our division from him and its source. He deals with the consequences first by suffering in your place and then he moves to source—a sinful heart. The change must go far far deeper than something as superficial as bad behavior. Jesus wants to do heart surgery, brain surgery, changing you inside out—to draw you to love him, draw you into communion, fellowship, a loving relationship with him “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”(Ezekiel 36:26)
Religion says do these things and God will love you; Christianity says—love God and do as you please…because when he gets to the heart, your love for God will work itself out in a desire to please him.
Behavior changes, but when it does it’s like fruit on a tree rather than like a mask on an actor. God gets in there, starts to work, and as he does that you start to love him and want to please him.
So the passive language pushes us back to the source of that change, the source of strength, the source of good works, the source of all the fruit that we bear—which is God’s power, his might. Paul prays that the strength they have will not be that of an actor—but strength consistent with or has it’s source in God’s “glorious might”—strength that comes as a result of being changed by God.
Paul wants the Colossians to be strengthened for something. What is it? “for all endurance and patience with joy,”
Endurance, patience, and joy, are not words I use together. In my experience endurance and patience don’t go with joy but with pain. When I had my two teeth pulled last year I endured it patiently but without joy. Let’s try to get to the bottom of why Paul might put these words together.
We saw last week that Paul never mentions material benefits or blessings in this prayer. He does not pray for health or wealth or prosperity. He prays for greater treasures: knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, understanding, good works. Endurance and patience fit that pattern. They are spiritual treasures. We associate endurance with running maybe or exercise, but it applies to any kept commitment through hardship and patience, biblically, is just about synonymous with it. Both words point to the quality of a long faithfulness to God in the midst of painful or difficult circumstances.
This is why Hebrews 5:8-9 tell us that Jesus’ learned obedience to the Father through suffering. It wasn’t that he wasn’t obedient before he suffered, but when he suffered he learned, through his patience and endurance, a type of faithfulness that, in his humanity, he hadn’t experienced before.
Endurance and patience grow, only, when, in small or large ways: health, wealth, prosperity is taken from us.
Sometimes the things we want most, if given to us, actually keep us from gaining the things that God most wants for us. We want success. God wants endurance. We want healing. God wants our faith which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:17) to be honed to perfection.
Paul experienced this dynamic in his own life. Let’s turn to 2 Cor 12
“...to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
Paul suffered some kind of physical torment—a thorn in the flesh (note: some commenters see the thorn as a spiritual malady but I think the language and the context here, paired with other hints of physical disability or illness elsewhere in his letters, disallows that interpretation). Whatever it may have been, it was painful enough to evoke cries for healing and mercy. He asked God, take this thing away. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, the man God used to change the world—was suffering. And so, as we all should, he cries out to God asking to be healed.
And God says no. Why? What reason would there be for God, who has the power to remove all pain from this man, his servant, who was doing so much for the kingdom, to allow his servant to suffer so?
We don’t have to speculate. The reason is there in the text: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul wanted relief from Pain. God wants Paul, moment by moment day by day to trust in him—to seek his strength. In God’s wisdom, he determined that in this case, physical relief for Paul would have led to spiritual atrophy.
And so by leaving this particular thorn unhealed, God gave Paul something a much better gift.
So let’s think about this. You hear some preachers say that God doesn’t want you to be sick and so the only reason you are sick is that you don’t have enough faith. It’s true that sickness and disease are part and parcel of the fallen world and would not be here were it not for sin—and so sometimes God will heal outright. But he doesn’t always do that.
When he doesn’t, it’s not your fault—at least it’s not because you aren’t “believing” hard enough as if God is up there waiting for you to gin up some feeling before he acts.
Sometimes God lets you to go through hardship. Sometimes God lets you go through situations that lead to great emotional trauma and suffering. He let’s you remain in a place of physical suffering. He could remove the thorn, but he doesn’t always do it.
“My grace is sufficient for you.”
From the outside it feels hard and cruel that God did not remove Paul’s thorn, but the reason Paul is writing is that he learned through endurance and patience that those words are true. Turn to Philippians 4…written sometime after he wrote to the Corinthians.
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Paul experienced, he felt, he came to know through endurance and patience that God’s grace was and is sufficient.
Through pain and suffering the reality of God’s love, presence and power is unveiled.You learn that the joy, the happiness, the good that you think will come to you through health, success, prosperity, is not really found in those things but found in Christ. His grace is sufficient.
We don’t think it is. When I consider Christians who’ve gone through incredible amounts of pain and suffering—and from the outside I think, “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t endure that.: And I’ll even get angry at God vicariously for allowing it to happen—but what often shocks me is that when you are actually in that place yourself, while there is pain and anger and all of that, not that it’s missing, but he is there. Grace rises up to meet the circumstance in a way you would never have anticipated before the fact.
That’s why when I go to visit believing people on their death beds, I’ll see pain, trauma, sadness—all of that—but I will also see peace. I’ll see hurt but I’ll also see Christ.
The bible gives us a reason for this. This is not just anecdotal its normative. Losing, hurting and yes even dying—for believers, as we walk through those things, God’s love for us, his care, his power, his presence is made more evident and palpable—we see him face to face.
God loves us so much that he wants the very best for us and so sometimes he answers prayers for healing, success, with “yes” because he sees that these things will serve to draw us to him, but other times “no” because he sees, as we often do not, that the best for us is Him and sometimes those other things get in the way.
This is why Paul links endurance and patience with Joy. Joy is the deep sense of security, contentment, peace, that comes from having found rest in someone who will never pass, die, leave or change—Someone who is forever with us.
As we endure trials and sufferings, God break us from our love of dying, passing, changing, stuff and draws us closer to himself. And as that process continues, as we endure it with patience according to his might and power, joy results.