I’m a word and sacrament kind of guy. I believe there are two ordinances or sacraments of the church: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. And in those two divinely instituted dramas, we find ourselves brought face-to-face with our sin and face-to-face with the sacrifice of Christ to atone for our sins. The church meeting gets transformed into an amphitheater in which the entire drama of redemption gets replayed for our souls. As we participate by faith, we receive afresh the nourishment of the Lord’s body and blood and appropriate again the grace of God. The sacraments set before us our desperate need along with God’s divine provision in Christ.
Though not a sacrament of the church, our suffering has the same effect. At least that’s how Jesus sees suffering.
Consider the episode recorded for us in Luke 13:1-5.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Two tragedies are featured in this exchange: a brutal murder perpetrated against the people by its leader and crashing tower that killed eighteen. In one action, Pilate profaned everything holy–life and worship. In one crashing tower, everything assumed to be safe and stable proved fatal to the unsuspecting.
The crowd seems to think there’s a connection between tragic suffering and personal sin. Job’s friends held the same theology. People today often think this way–especially religious people. But our Lord says this is not the case. Sin brought suffering into the world. But not all suffering is a matter of someone being worse sinners than others.
The Lord Jesus helps us see something about ourselves and about our need in the light of tragedy. Tragedy becomes an opportunity to assume–not that the sufferer was a worse sinner–but that we are all alike sinners. We are all alike in danger of perishing in our sin, in a moment, when least expected, tragically. Life is so frail no sinner may presume he or she has time. This is what we need to recognize about ourselves.
But we also need to see a truth about God when tragedy strikes. God means the tragedy to beckon the sinner back home. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God shouts through megaphone in our pain. He shouts, “Come back.” In the words of Jesus, “Repent.” Tragedy and suffering become–like the Lord’s Supper–an interruption to our spiritual sleep and an invitation to come back to God. To seek Him while He may be found. To lay hold of His kindness and love in welcoming with open arms those who had been going their own way. Some invitations come gilded in gold; others come laced with pain.
Any casual viewing of television news programs or online sources would suggest that God is always shouting in tragedy, “Come home.” Consider a sampling:
- The Malaysian airline
- The shootings at Univ. of California—Santa Barbara and Seattle Pacific University.
- The elementary school shooting at Newtown, Ct.
- The mine explosion in Turkey
- The migrant boat that capsized and killed 27 in the Mediterranean.
- The tragedy of the South Korean ferry.
- The 62 African migrants killed in Yemen when a boat sank
- The kidnapped girls in Nigeria
- The wars in Sudan
We receive news of such tragedies everyday. But do we have ears to hear?
If we do, then suffering becomes a “sacrament.” It becomes an invitation to sinners to remember their sin and to turn to the only God who forgives through faith in Jesus Christ. And when the sinner turns to God in tragedy, God demonstrates in yet another way the truth of Romans 8:28.