Seeing the Miracle of God with Us
by Nate Pyle
A few years back I preached a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. After one especially depressing sermon (truth be told, they all were) where we talked about death and the shortness of life (every sermon through this series), a young couple told me that after church they went to the pet store to play with puppies in order to feel happiness again. Honestly, it’s one of my proudest moments as a preacher. Joking aside, their reaction to being honest about the nature of life raises an important question: Are we willing to spend time considering the brokenness and despair we feel? How willing are we to thoroughly examine our pain? And does our suffering have the potential to reveal God to us?
Most people are not inclined to look intently at their pain, doubts, and fears. Instead, we choose to avoid grief. We ignore tough questions. We seek to move on from pain and difficulty—as quickly as possible—to something more positive. Or at least something less intense. Dinner with friends. Working for that promotion. Some new device that will distract us for hours. Petting puppies. Anything to avoid staring at the flames lapping up at the edges of our soul is a welcome distraction
But for all our efforts to avoid the difficult seasons of life, eventually, they find us. Like it or not, we will have to face them. When we do stand face-to-face with pain, perhaps we will begin to see the wisdom in the ludicrous words of the writer of Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting.”
As a pastor, I’ve sat with a lot of people who are in the midst of suffering: husbands who have lost wives of forty years; young mothers fighting a losing battle with cancer; husbands who have lost jobs; successful men who’ve been forced to admit dependency on alcohol; couples anxious as their marriage fractures under stress. No one would consciously say this, but beneath their questions and frustrations and wrestling is an assumption that they should be exempt from the dark experiences of life. There’s a functional belief, albeit unconscious, that if they are a good person, if they go to church, follow the rules, give a little money here or there, and volunteer with the children’s ministry, that they will be absolved from having to experience difficulty. Their good behavior will be what will keep their kids safe. Their acts of piety will be what will protect their family from a tragic car accident. Worshipping Jesus is treated as the best preventative medicine for cancer outside of a fistful of antioxidant rich blueberries.
Faith in Jesus isn’t an escape from suffering. Faith helps us enter into the fullness of our circumstances and find God with us. If we pay attention.
In the region surrounding Mt. Sinai, there is a bush called dictamnus albus. It’s a woody bush, growing two to four feet tall. Shooting out of the top of the bush are stems with 5-petaled flowers that are either white or pink. Along with the fragrance of the flowers, the green leaves can be rubbed between your fingers or crushed to emit a lemony aroma.
What makes the dictamnus albus unique is the oil emitted from the plant’s flowers and seed pods. In hot weather, that oil evaporates in a flammable vapor. Take a match to the plant, and a bluish-orange flame will burst out above the bush as the oil vapor ignites. But because it is the gas of the oil that burns, the plant is unharmed. This trait has earned the plant the common name the “Gas Plant.”
The book of Exodus introduces us to Moses. Born at a time when Pharaoh was so haunted by the growing number of Israelites in Egypt that he ordered every boy born must be thrown in the Nile River. Moses’ mother saved his life by secretly giving birth to him, and then floating him down the river in a papyrus basket. Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the basket, and adopted him as her own. Later, as a young man, Moses witnessed the oppression of the Israelites firsthand when he saw a slave driver beat an Israelite. Enraged, Moses killed the slave driver. To avoid punishment, Moses escaped to the wilderness. There he settled down, married a daughter of a shepherd and priest named Jethro, and tended sheep.
One day Moses took the flock to the base of Mount Horeb (also known as Sinai). Off in the distance he noticed a bush that was burning. The Bible says the bush was consumed with flames, but was not being consumed. For Western Christians whose imaginations have been shaped by science, miracles are defined as events occurring outside of our understanding of the natural world. Cancer that inexplicably disappears. A blind man receiving his sight. A woman who has been infertile for years suddenly becoming pregnant without medical intervention. The lone house left untouched by a tornado. A bush that burns but is not consumed.
But what if the burning bush wasn’t the miracle?
Some believe dictamnus albus was the burning bush Moses came across in the desert. If true, then seeing a burning bush wouldn’t have been that uncommon. It may have not been something that Moses came across every day, but considering the number of years Moses spent in the desert as a shepherd, it’s likely this was not the first desert bush covered in flames he saw. The miracle, then, wasn’t that bush was burning. The miracle was that Moses paid attention to this bush.
Suffering makes it difficult to see the burning bushes around us. We overlook the countless small ways that God is revealing himself to us because they appear ordinary: meals from church members, the laughter of a child, the miracle of breath, the friend who sits with us, the warmth of sunshine. As much as we want God revealed in helping us escape suffering, more often God is revealed in the suffering and pain.
But if we pay attention, we will find a miracle that is more than we can handle.
The miracle isn’t that God saves us from suffering, but that God meets us in suffering. The miracle is that we can take off our shoes, find ourselves on holy ground—even in adversity—for we are in the presence of the one who has suffered like us. And then, miracle of miracles, we notice that the heat of suffering that we fear will consume us, does not. Instead, we find God with us.
Nate Pyle serves as Christ’s Community Church in Fishers, Indiana. He is author of More Than You Can Handle and Man Enough. You can find out more about Nate at www.natepyle.com.
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