For week after week, I wrestled with the text. It was difficult work. I could feel the weightiness of it. I could sense the Scripture speaking to sufferers in the congregation by the Holy Spirit.
But the sermon was for me.
Preaching on suffering is daunting pastoral work. It should never be taken lightly or handled casually from the pulpit. I am fully aware, as a pastor, that the people I am preaching to are suffering. Some more than others. The suffering is unique in each case but universal in another, far deeper sense. Ultimately, I am a broken man preaching to broken people living in a broken world where suffering is an ever-present if unwanted companion. Recently, I have been preaching from the Book of Colossians. The words in the text are the words of a sufferer. An imprisoned Apostle with a checkered past named Paul. Written from a prison cell, facing a harrowing present and an uncertain future. The verses directly addressed the suffering Paul was experiencing. And so, I preached them.
Colossians 1:24 Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church.
I preached with a heavy heart to the men and women in that sanctuary who were enduring suffering. I preached with the hope that God would use these difficult, but transformational words to help someone know, on a very deep level, that their suffering is not meaningless but is instead a divinely appointed tool for bringing hope to other sufferers in the Body of Christ.
I preached this sermon to the church.
But the sermon was for me.
Less than 2 weeks after preaching on the Christ-exalting purposefulness of suffering, I stood in shock and silence, staring in disbelief at a sonogram of my deceased unborn child. The heart-beat audio turned up in the dimly lit room was eerily quiet. My wife, daughter and I had gone to celebrate the gender of our baby being revealed. What was revealed in that moment was the rock our faith was built on, as everything else caved in around us.
For weeks in the pulpit, I thought I was preparing others to suffer well.
But those sermons, they were for me.
Colossians 1:24 is not a trite verse. It is not a Christianized collection of platitudes. It is real hope in the face of real suffering. It was a verse for me.
Jesus reminded me, that the sermon is always for me. Why? Because I am a sheep of Christ before I am a shepherd of His church. It is easy for pastors to begin to believe that the highest good we can hope to achieve is to teach others the Word. That our labor week in and week out is fundamentally about preparing others for life in a fallen world. When, in reality, all along, God is preparing us. The sermon was for me because the sermon was for the church and I am a part of the church.
There have been dark moments in this season of grief for me. Being in the shadow of death has a way of making the winds of suffering blow colder and harder. Light is felt in the shadow, but its different isn’t it? Light feels farther away. I have tried to be “present” more. To not rush the grieving process or try and distract myself with my drugs of choice: work and ministry. But even happy moments are tinged with sadness. Nothing feels light or easy right now. Suffering is heavy and feels burdensome.
Suffering is many things, but I know, suffering is not meaningless because I believe Colossians 1:24 is true.
On the night of this tragedy, my wife looked at me and said, “I feel like this is our chance to suffer well.” Suffering well is the point of Colossians 1:24. Suffering in such a way that others can see a suffering Christ (Filling up His afflictions). And seeing a suffering Christ is what a suffering person needs.
The suffering Christ of the sermon? He’s for us.