Joshua 1:7-9; John 16:29-33

Back in 1991, when divorce was stealing my emotional and financial life, panic attacks were compromising my mental life, and sciatica and an intestinal parasite made my physical life a burden, the little bit of life I had left was spent in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. As I tried to find things that would help me put my life back together, I stumbled on M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled.

The book is a classic, and the very first page smacked me between the eyes. He writes, "Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

"Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them...and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.

"Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?"

Scott Peck's realization here, he acknowledges, is not new. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is "Life is suffering." Peck doesn't mention it, but the same truth is also found in the Bible, in the passage from John that I just read. "In the world you shall have tribulation." Whether that is so because of the way it was designed or whether it is the fault of human sin is immaterial. While we live in this world we shall have tribulation. Life will be difficult. Expect it. Stop thinking that you're being punished in the hard times, don't add to your troubles by thinking God is out to get you. Just realize that life in this world is difficult, and those hardships will catch up with all of us sooner or later. "In the world you shall have tribulation." It's a timeless truth about the nature of the life we live.

Peck goes on to encourage us to face that truth with discipline. Buddhism calls its adherents to give up desires and attachments, figuring that if we can quit wanting things we can quit suffering when we don't get them. But Jesus presents the truth in another way. "Be of good cheer" it is written in the King James, "Take courage" in the NRSV... "For I have overcome the world."

What Jesus is saying here is that...yes...the world is full of trouble and pain and suffering, and it will affect you and leave its mark, whether you are faithful to God or not. That's the nature of life. BUT take heart...have courage...put a smile back on your face because this world is not the only reality. Neither is it the greatest reality. Jesus says, "I have overcome this world. If you follow me, I will play the alchemist and turn your suffering to gold. I am here to take the stuff of life and make it the stuff of salvation."

When we think of someone being cheerful and even thankful in the midst of suffering, we often conclude that ignorance is bliss and the person just doesn't understand what is going on. When we find people who are, to our eyes, poor and yet they are happy, we tend to think that "Well, they just haven't seen anything else. They don't know they're poor. This is all they know." Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe sometimes those who suffer with courage and good cheer know more than we ever dreamed. Maybe they know that this painful world will not have the last word, and that the power to overcome and to turn great pain into great good has been given to them by the grace of God.

This was the worldview expressed most powerfully in the Negro spiritual. One of the praise songs we've sung often is "Over My Head." "Over my head, I hear music in the air...there must be a God somewhere." Those words express the reality of the slave. The world around them was nothing but bitter suffering...but over their heads...just at the edge of sight and sound there was music somewhere. Just one step beyond the grim reality that crowded out any joy was a world where there was singing. There sure isn't any sign of a God here, but there must be a God somewhere...if you stop long enough and listen, you can almost hear the music...over my head...just out of range...but I'm sure...there MUST be a God SOMEWHERE.

Yes, says Jesus. "In the world you shall have tribulation. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world." In that one little verse is the definition, I think, of what it means to have faith. Last week we talked about faith being the substance here of what we hope for there...the evidence here of that which is still over our heads...that which we cannot yet see. Our courage and cheer in the face of adversity is part of the evidence of our faith. It acknowledges that, yes, this is bad. But it also proclaims that this bad thing is not ultimate. It will not have the final say. Jesus took the worst and beat it into salvation. Through that same divine power, so can we.

Ironically, this is what insurance commercials often try to portray, substituting the insurance company for Jesus. A tearful woman appears at the door of her flooded home. She is suffering; it is hard to lose all she has. But there is a gleam of hope in her eyes and her voice when the insurance company arrives and assures her that she can rebuild. There is sadness what is lost, but she need not despair for her future. A new life awaits.

If you made John 16:33 into a commercial, that is what it would look like. Or the hospital commercial which brings assurance that there is someone to guide you through a difficult illness...or the financial commercial which promises a new life after bankruptcy or financial hardship. We put our trust in those things so easily...we count on the institutions of this world to give us hope for our future. Our actions betray where we have placed our faith.

I don't mean to say that we shouldn't use the services that have been provided for us here. I do mean to say that those services and institutions themselves can all collapse in a single Enron moment. They are part of this world and many cause as much suffering as they alleviate. We should make use of them wisely, but they are not our hope. "I lift up my eyes to the hills," says the Psalmist. "From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth." We first look to the things we can see, but over our heads there is something just beyond our sight that is the reality beneath it all.

There are some traditions that preach that you can tell the faithful by how well their lives are going. God pours out wealth and abundance and blessing on those who live right. I think Jesus' words here give a deeper truth. You can tell the faithful by how they respond in suffering. Those with less faith become jaded cynics. God doesn't care. This is how God intends for life to be. Life is awful, then you die. That's it. I certainly have had times when those thoughts have crept in.

But the one with faith pulls back and says to those invading thoughts, "No! This is how it is now, but this is not how it will be forever. The Kingdom of God is different from this. This is an aberration; this brings tears to God's eyes; this is not how God created the world to be."

The invader cackles back, "Ah, but this is how YOUR world is. You will never know anything better. Give up. Suffer. Die."

Again the faithful cry, "No! I have put my hand in the hand of God, and God will not let go. God can take my suffering and use it to help someone else. God can bring salvation from a cross and make water into wine. God will turn the death of my body into a victory for my soul and I will dance at my funeral in joy. No...whatever comes, nothing can separate me from the love of God. Get behind me, Satan. Jesus has won the day."

"In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world." We sing it with a fast beat, but when Martin McLee sang it at Annual Conference two years ago, as the dancers from his church lumbered down the aisle shackled by the chains of slavery, it was slow and wistful--tuned to a frequency that can barely be heard through the static of suffering. "Over my head, I hear music in the air. Over my head, I hear music in the air. Over my head, I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere."


(c) 2003, Anne Robertson

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