Trusting in Trials
Many years ago I went to college and lived in the dormitory, and decorated my walls with posters. There wasn’t anything risqué hanging up, although I did have a nice picture of an F-15 Eagle. I was a serious Christian; my roommate was too. So, we decorated the walls with Bible verses. Folks who visited our room must have thought: “These guys are militant weirdos—fighter planes and Bible verses?”
But those Bible verses were on the wall for a purpose. Each one of them was a verse that had touched us. Each one aimed us in the right direction. If I were to summarize the collective message of all of those verses, I’d say: “All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
There’s a story about a mother who wanted to encourage her young son’s study of the piano and so she bought tickets for a performance of the famous Polish pianist, Ignacy Paderewski—I don’t expect you to know who he was, but he was great and he also became the Prime Minister of Poland. Anyway, on the night of the concert the mother and son found their seats near the front of the concert hall. The little boy was mesmerized by the majestic Steinway waiting on stage.
When his mother spotted a friend to chat with he slipped away. When 8 o’clock arrived, the spotlights came on, the audience quieted, and only then did the mother notice her son up at the piano, innocently plunking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
She gasped. Yet before she could retrieve him, Paderewski was on stage walking quickly to the piano. “Don’t quit—keep playing,” he whispered to the boy. Leaning over, Paderweski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right arm reached around the other side, encircling the child, to add a running obligato. Together the old master and the young novice mesmerized the crowd (Leadership Magazine, Spring 1983).
This life isn’t easy; it’s filled with distractions, and failures, and criticisms, and condemnations; it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian and non-Christian, stress and stain, illness and pain, betrayal and abandonment are the same. And then there’s death. The apostle Paul once said: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). In other words, the journey is hard, our tune isn’t sophisticated or pretty, yet God gives us reason to trust him. There is a reason to trust that he gives “a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair” (Isa 61:3), a reason to not quit and to trust him for all we’ve not seen.
The Resurrection Is Ignored
A decade ago I went through a particularly difficult time. I was living in Scotland and the grey misty skies weren’t cheering me up. So, I went to talk to my pastor. And he told me something I’ll never forget. He said: “Remember the resurrection of Jesus.”
Now, I’ll be honest, that didn’t help either. I didn’t want pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die platitudes, “Sure, pastor, there’s always heaven, the resurrection.” I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted cash-in-the-stash. I wanted the grey in my life to turn to color. The resurrection? Yeah, right.
But … My pastor was right. I was very wrong and very lost.
Now, if we’re going to really get something out of our main passages today, we’ve got to hear something that’s not pleasant.
There’s a lack of focus on the resurrection in the Christian church. We might give it a moment on Easter Sunday, but we don’t relate all things to it, we don’t grasp it’s everyday significance. What you get in the majority of Christian churches is how you can use the principles and psychological insights gleaned from the Bible to make God to cooperate with how you want your life to go.
Maybe you want a better marriage, or better relations, or your kids to turn our right, or a fulfilling job, or this or that. So, we’re like, “What does the Bible have to say, does it gives some tips, which if followed will obligate God to answer my prayers, make things go my way, and make me feel the way I want to feel?”
The problem with such thinking is this: Such thinking causes a hope in Jesus to be birthed within us that actually has nothing to do with the hope that Jesus has promised. The Lord isn’t a genie in a lamp, which gets rubbed by somehow managing to act right.
500 years ago Martin Luther pointed out that not only does such thinking misunderstand God, it also misunderstands humans. He said that each of us are fundamentally self-centered. In other words, we’re more concerned about ourselves, than God’s glory or the interest of others.
Even when we occasionally serve others it’s impossible for us to do so without thinking about what we’ll get out of it or how we’ll be seen. That’s why the Bible says, “each of our good deeds is merely a filthy rag” (Isa 64:6).
So, even if the genie lamp could be rubbed—and it can’t—we couldn’t rub it. The honest truth is the self-centered is our state of being, we’re addicted to ourselves. And self-centeredness is the essence of sin.
I know I’m not tickling your ears right now. I know I’m painting a grey picture and you’re waiting for some color. It will come, wait for it.
But just consider… any addiction you can name from cocaine to coffee, from shopping to shooting pool, from the Internet to indulging in too much food … anything … at their root is the desire to feel a certain way. What we don’t want to do is to wait on the Lord, trusting him to work on our soul, because he usually doesn’t follow our timeline or agenda for how we want to feel. And so … we want to arrange for our good feelings now! We’re addicted to ourselves.
If we can accepted that. If we can hug that prickly cactus, then we’ll be able to see the color, the hope that God holds out to us.
The Resurrection Is Central
Come with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, because I want to show you something there.
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14–19).
This is the key theological statement about the centrality of Jesus’ resurrection. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Meaning, if Christ has been raised then, there is forgiveness of sins. Any sin that you could possibly own, even the sin of being addicted to yourself can be forgiven, because Jesus’ resurrection proves that he atoned for sin, defeated sin and it’s penalty death, and has made it possible for us to enter into the Father’s loving and intimate embrace. The resurrection secures that, yes! That’s important.
But the resurrection also does something else. The last verses of the passage we just read said: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
If we’re only looking for hope to do with this life in the hear and now, if we’re only wanting cash-in-the stash now, why are we to be pitied?
Because there is something going on in my life and in my soul—it’s not a wrong desire to want to feel good and be happy and have joy—and we want Jesus to cooperate with it. If we’re thinking that it’s okay to limit our hope in Jesus to just what we get in this life, then we’ve eliminated, to a significant degree, hope in Jesus for the next life.
There are things promised in the resurrection that we gloss right over. Jesus’ resurrection means there is the resurrection of the dead, there is resurrection for us too. And that means that we can wait for the satisfaction of our deepest desire, because we’re not going to have that satisfaction now. There is going to be an angst, a groaning, a void in our souls until the Lord returns because we want what’s legitimate to want, what’s human to want: a deep sense of joy and peace where there is no struggle.
So, there is this inconsolable longing, if you’re still you can identify it within your interior world. And if we assume Jesus’ job is to satisfy that desire now, then we’ll be disappointed with God when it doesn’t happen. And if God isn’t cooperating, we’ll take matters into our own hands—and that’s the problem— for then we smash into our addictions, into ourselves, and into idolatry.
But Christians follow someone who raised from the dead so we’d have hope, we’d have staying power; wouldn’t quit, and even be freed from the overwhelming need to feel the way we want to feel right now.
The Resurrection Secures Hope
For the rest of the message this morning I want to linger on that hope. And my aim is to settle you into the hope that the historic resurrection of Jesus gives. My prayer is that you’ll find yourself “Trusting in Trials.”
In the Bible, there is a set of psalms called the Songs of Ascent. They’re the songs that the Jews used to sing as they made pilgrimage to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. We’ve been studying them for a few month. And the next psalm in our series is just perfect for Easter.
Let’s look at Psalm 129.
“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”—
let Israel now say—
“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
The plowers plowed upon my back;
they made long their furrows.”
The Lord is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked.
May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned backward!
Let them be like the grass on the housetops,
which withers before it grows up,
with which the reaper does not fill his hand
nor the binder of sheaves his arms,
nor do those who pass by say,
“The blessing of the Lord be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord!”
This psalm doesn’t sound like the people leaping around with shouts of joy, does it? No. It’s a psalm that is has the singer singing hope into their situation. “We’re not enjoying the feeling of joy and peace and stability and happiness that we long for, but neither are we going to try to bring them about on our own. We’re going to remember the Gd who delivered us in the past, and we’re going to let Him speak and reassure us for the future.” That’s really the tenor of this psalm: “We’re going to wait. We’re going to hope.”
How many of you haven’t seen the solution to your problem come? How many of you haven’t been delivered from your difficulties? How many of you haven’t been rescued from your trials? How many of you can echo the world of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? / How long will you hide your face from me? / How long must I take counsel in my soul / and have sorrow in my heart all the day? / How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” How many of you are on the edge of becoming cynical, or taking matters into your own hand to get the feelings you want right now?
I get it. I really do. I’ve been there.
That’s why I want you to really hear Psalm 129 this morning.
Back in the book of Exodus this is a verse in which God calls the nation of Israel: “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exo 4:22). So when we read the opening verse of the psalm: “‘Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth’—let Israel now say” (Psa 129:1) we’re meant to understand this as a song of God’s people.
God had called Abraham to walk with him, and before Abraham’s descendants are anything more than a large family, not even a proper nation, they’re living in Egypt, being oppressed by the Egyptians. We have all of the farming imagery in the psalm: “The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows” (Psa 129:3). It get you thinking of painful persecution, the backs of slaves that were whipped, their flesh cut.
Yet that’s not all, the oppression has been going on from their infancy, and … it’s still going on! BUT—and here’s the key point—we weren’t destroyed. Why, not? Because the “Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked” (Psa 129:4). God is righteous, he stood in right-relationship with us, he upheld his covenant with us.
The Lord sent the plagues; he rescued his people. And the those ten plagues culminates in the last one: death of the first born. Egypt’s first born died, so that God’s first born, Israel, would live.
He “cut the cords of the wicked”. That’s a phrase that typically when found in the Old Testament concludes with the word “death.” Like when Jonah was in the belly of the fish: “‘The cords of death entangled me.’ They were pulling me under.”
As Israel was freed from Egypt they wandered around the desert and other nations tried for finished them off. When they entered the Promised Land they people there tries to finish them off. And when they had their own king, other nations came in and conquered them. They needed to God to fight for them again and again—they were always hated.
Earlier this week a couple of us watched The Passion of the Christ. “Passion” means suffering. So, thinking about this… in many ways we can look back upon the history of ancient Israel as one one passion narrative. And the ancient people of God sang this psalm because they were still experiencing the hardship and tribulation of the long journey; home to Zion; home to God’s house; home to the place of righteousness and justice, and joy, and peace, and happiness; home to the place where all of the feelings that they want to enjoy right now in the present will eventually be fulfilled.
Out of that long-suffering, they turn to God in hope, they don’t move to make their feelings arrive on their own timetable, according to their own agenda. They wait, and they pray.
Let them be like the grass on the housetops,
which withers before it grows up,
with which the reaper does not fill his hand
nor the binder of sheaves his arms.
That’s a very interesting imagery. May they be like the “grass that grows in our of our gutters.” Maybe you’ve had some seed blow up there. I once saw a house with a little tree growing out of its gutter.
But this prayer isn’t: “Lord, blow them out of the water.” It’s bring their wickedness to shame, bring them to nothing—shallow roots, they’ll come to nothing. And then, because it’s all come to nothing, then maybe they’ll see you, really see you. And maybe they’ll come to there senses: “Oh my goodness, we’ve had out ladder leaning up against the wrong wall and it’s collapsed. We should be opposing God and his people, we should be joining them.”
So, as the psalm looks back and recalls: “Lord, you’ve been faithful to your people, you’ve preserved them in the past, so preserve us in the present” it’s been remembering that great exodus from Egypt: plowmen on my back, oppression from my youth, cords of death entangling me, as it’s been doing all of that it’s been pointing to the very one in whom all of God’s people life: the Lord Jesus.
Jesus was oppressed from his youth; his parents fled to Egypt when the King of Israel signed a decree to slaughter all of the first born children under two years of age. Jesus was scourged by a Roman cat of nine tails; his back was plowed, his flesh shredded by those who hated him.
Where Israel was God’s son who failed and played false, Jesus was God’s true and faithful son. Yet he was rejected and despised. The people didn’t want blessing from him, they wanted to judge him. The people didn’t want to yield to his rule, they wanted to rule him. The people didn’t want to accept that it was in him, in atonement that he would make for them, that their life truly existed.
And yet… It was Jesus who experienced the cords of the wicked being cut? “How did he experience that, preacher? Didn’t Jesus die?” Oh yes, he died, but death could not hold him, the cords were cut in his resurrection from death.
Scholars call this a Messianic psalm, for who could sing this psalm better than that one who cried out from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). It’s a psalm that tells Israel’s story, it speaks to our longings and sufferings, and finds prophetic fulfillment in the cutting of Jesus’ cords.
The Resurrection Enables Trust
What hope do we have when sin has entangled us and is drowning us? What hope do we have when our souls are suffocating from criticism, rejection, and condemnations; when we discover we’ve been defining our worth by status and social media; when we’re so hungry for validation, love, and attention that our every breadth seems to be a quest for it; when we’re aware only of how we’ve been abused and the accusations of a broken world have plowed our backs—what hope do we have?
The resurrection of Jesus!
The blessing the psalmist longed for is in Jesus. The hand of the wicked reaper is empty, it has nothing, it’s gathered in vain. But in Jesus there is a treasure that is more valuable than anything you might have to let go of in order to take hold of.
You can trust God in your trials, why? Because of the resurrection of Jesus. Even when waiting feels as though death has entangled you, you can lean into God—your soul reaching upward as you let go of the need to make something happen.
Your deepest longings of feeling joy and peace and rest and happiness will come, but they’re not for now, not in their fullness.
Now we wait, our trust enabled by the hope that Jesus’ resurrection has secured.