Last year I ran my first ever marathon. I know I don’t look like much now, but back then I felt like a running machine.
In the weeks before the Big 42, I began to wonder if I was ready. Even though I’d done lots of training, I wondered if I was fooling myself in thinking I could make it. So, I went online and looked up, ‘How can I know I’m ready to run a marathon?’
Most of the articles I read showed me that I’d done the training I needed to. But all of the articles told me that it would be hard. Different writers spoke about hitting a ‘Wall’ at about 32km, where I’d feel like I was dying, and then about 4 or 5 km from the end, I’d be energized again.
Actually, I picked up an injury in the weeks before the race, and so I hit the ‘Wall’ at about 20km, and had to punch through that wall every step until I got to the end.
The marathon was hard – but I’d expected it to be, and so I wasn’t surprised by it. When you set out to run 42km in under 6 hours, unless you’re an elite athlete built for endurance, you’re bound to face your share of suffering along the way.
Tonight, we’re going to look at the suffering that comes along the way of the Christian race, and what we need to do to overcome and reach the goal and the reward that God has for us.
So turn with me to Matthew 20:17-28
17Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” 20Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. 21“What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
1. SEE SUFFERING IN THE CALL
The first thing I want you to accept tonight is that God’s call comes with a promise of suffering. One of the most effective workers for God’s kingdom was a man named Paul. He was first a persecutor for the Church, before Jesus called him into His service. And God sent a prophet to speak to Paul about the calling God had for him. And this is the way God told the prophet, Ananias to tell Paul about it: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel – Wow! What a calling! – I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
We sometimes expect that as God’s children, there should be a certain level of supernatural protection from suffering. And when we suffer, we wonder if God really is who the Bible says He is.
But no one suffered as much as Jesus did – and if He, God Himself, should suffer, how much more we, His servants?
Jesus suffered as He obeyed the call of His Father. Look at it in this text. Firstly, there was:
You don’t see it so well, but in Mark’s gospel we see that Jesus was leading the way on this walk towards Jerusalem, a little bit apart from His disciples. This is significant because He spent very little time away from them. In fact, He called them to be His disciples so that they would be with Him. And here He walks alone.
God’s calling can sometimes be a lonely one. Some of you might be feeling that – that the walk is lonely. You see your friends dating and you’re still waiting. You see your old friends organising events and not inviting you. Some of you even see your family having gatherings and excluding you because you’re different.
Don’t be disheartened, it was lonely for Jesus too.
Jesus pulls His disciples aside and tells them what lies ahead for Him, and the first thing He mentions is a betrayal.
It’s the hardest thing to be betrayed by one you love. David says in Psalm 55, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God.”
If you feel like you’ve been betrayed, and wonder where God was – remember that even Jesus was betrayed by His closest friend. Betrayal, again, is a part of Christian suffering. If Jesus faced it, so will we.
The second thing that Jesus tells His disciples that He is going to face is great physical pain.
That isn’t something that we often have to endure as a direct consequence of our faith in Jesus. But God’s calling can sometimes be one that includes physical persecution. Sometimes it’s just normal human physical aches and pains, sicknesses and diseases that we ask God to remove from us, and sometimes He chooses to let them stay with us for a while.
As children of God, sometimes we get sick or wounded on the walk God has for us. Don’t be disheartened – Jesus got hurt too.
You can see the burden Jesus was carrying as He walked towards Jerusalem. He walked alone, up ahead, heavy-hearted and sad. Even though He wants to commune alone with His heavenly Father, find strength in Him, He steps outside of His pain to talk with His disciples – to tell them what He was going to go through so that they wouldn’t be surprised or confused when it happens.
Look at their response: “Okay. Umm….so, Jesus, can we have the best two seats in the house?”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus says.
There will be times when people don’t understand your calling – and that’s okay! Jesus was misunderstood too! When you say no to sex before marriage, people won’t understand that. When you say no to getting into debt, people won’t understand that. When Sarah and I were looking for a car after her one was stolen, we had to fight with the salesmen to buy a cheaper car. They couldn’t understand why two young people wouldn’t buy the absolute fanciest car they could afford – but we refused to get into long-term debt.
When you say no to alcohol, people won’t understand that. When you say no to cheating on your taxes, people won’t understand that.
But take heart! Jesus was misunderstood as well!
We need to begin to see that there is suffering in the call of God. Suffering is a normal part of life in general, and more particularly, a normal part of the Christian walk. In fact, if suffering is normal for those who are friends of this world, and friends with the god of this world, how much more will suffering be normal for those who are aliens in this world, and citizens of another?
Jesus told His disciples: All men will hate you because of me… (Mark 13:13)
When Paul went on his missionary journeys, he encouraged the believers by saying: We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22)
But suffering is not the negative thing we always think it is.
Paul says that it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him (Philippians 1:29)
When the disciples in the early Church suffered, they went rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41)
How can we view suffering as a positive thing? Memorise this passage from Romans (8:17-18): “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
In fact, we must
2. SEE GLORY BEYOND THE SUFFERING
As Jesus was taking this long, lonely walk towards Jerusalem – knowing what awaited Him – we could sympathise with Him if He were preoccupied with the painful side of it. When I have a dentist appointment, best know that I won’t be much of a friendly camper in the days running up to it. I struggle to sleep, I struggle to work. I’m an emotional zombie.
But Jesus had more than the suffering in mind on that road. He had His mind of the glory that would follow it.
As Jesus pulls His twelve disciples aside and tells them about what’s coming, He doesn’t neglect to highlight that. He tells them, ‘I will be betrayed, I will be condemned, I will be handed over, then mocked, flogged, and crucified. BUT…on the third day, I’ll be alive again!’
There’s a lot you can endure for the joys that follow it. You endure studies for the report card, you endure pregnancy for the baby, you endure gym for the bod. Jesus had much to endure, but also much to look past it to.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, He had a dinner with His disciples and spoke to them more clearly than He ever had about what was coming. And He prays for them, we read in John 17.
Yes, He’ll pray alone later for the removal of the cup, but here He is preoccupied – not with the suffering, but with the glory: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”
Yes, Jesus was going to go through a great time of suffering, but He wasn’t looking at that.
What do you focus on when you are going through a season of suffering?
Are you focussed on the challenges? Are you preoccupied with the pains? Do you lose sleep from your anxious thoughts? Or do you, like Jesus, keep your eyes past that on the crown God has for you. Jesus says in Revelation 2:10 “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
That’s what enabled Paul to endure. He says, “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the righthand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Look beyond the suffering to the glory that lies on the other side. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
1 Peter 4:12-13 “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
The victory is coming. The crown is in God’s hand, waiting for your arrival into His kingdom. In Christ, the war is already won, don’t mind a little suffering as you make your way further into God’s presence.
But now, what must we do about it?
As we wait for the glory, God has told us the manner of life He wants us to live. And it’s not one of self-seeking, but one of self-sacrifice for the good of others.
3. SEE VICTORY IN SERVICE
In our passage tonight, James and John approach Jesus with a request: The greatest glory. They aren’t happy with just minor glory, they want the greatest honours.
Before we criticise them too harshly, there’s something of deep faith in what the brothers are saying.
Jesus had been facing growing animosity recently, and more powerful people were taking aim at Him. Jesus had just a few handfuls of poor, untrained and unarmed followers – and these were scared for their lives! There’s no reasonable expectation that Jesus is going to have any sort of kingdom any time soon – and Jesus had just told them He’s heading to His brutal death.
Seems incredibly unreasonable for them to ask Jesus for favours now!
But they do.
And the others don’t like it. They want the greatest glories too!
And Jesus has a lesson for them: Greatest glories come through the greatest service. “25You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Whoever wants to become great must be a servant. Whoever wants to become greatest must be servant of all. That’s who Jesus was. He didn’t come to be served – He came to serve.
Who are you serving? Who do you serve as an honour to Christ? Do you serve your spouse? Do you serve your children? Do you serve your boss without expecting payment or benefits? Do you serve the petrol attendants?
There are a few of you with incredible servant hearts – and I see it, but I can’t reward it. And many of you serve without being seen by others. But God sees it. We can’t reward your labours of love, your humble placing self below others. But when we serve others, God sees it, and God delights in it, and God rewards it; because it’s a reflection of the character of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a SERVANT…Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name.”
God delights in people who reflect the heart and character of His Son, and this is how Jesus lived: as a self-sacrificing servant.
We are a self-seeking people. But God calls us to be self-sacrificing for the good of others.
So, Church, even as Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem, aware of the struggles and suffering that was awaiting Him, let’s not be surprised when we suffer in this world. We can suffer, and in fact we can rejoice in the suffering, because it is in part evidence that we’ve been called! If we were friends with the world, it wouldn’t hate us and we wouldn’t find friction here. But we do, so let’s rejoice in the evidence of our calling that’s found in our suffering.
But suffering isn’t our only lot – keep your eye on the promises of God which He will keep! Psalm 119:50 “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” And what has God promised us? Isaiah 43:1-3 But now, this is what the LORD says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour...
What beautiful promises God gives us to keep us strong in the pain!
And friends, look to serve one another, and so copy the character of Christ.
Have you been called into God’s service? Don’t be afraid of a little suffering my friends – though it seems great in the moment, God is working through it for your good. Seek to be in the exact centre of His will for your life, though it may be painful for a moment – it is working for you an eternal reward!
Maybe, instead, you are aware of a loneliness and separation from God in your struggles.
You don’t have to be alone. You can be friends with God, by receiving the offer of Jesus. His greatest service was to lay down His life for you, He died so that you would live, but not for yourself: for Him. Will you give your life over to Jesus in surrender so that He can save you?