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On Suffering and the role of the Holy Spirit

Text: John 14:15-17

Today we will finish our series of sermons on suffering. What we have learned is that God the Father not only hears and understands our suffering but The God of Abraham and Sarah actually comes through in the clutch for real people in actual places. God acts in the lives of particular people during human history. God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, God sent his Son to heal the sick and to comfort the brokenhearted and to unleash a movement in history that one day will ensure that death and evil and suffering will end definitively. We learned that our suffering has meaning; that we are united with Christ; share in his suffering, and will share in his victory over suffering and death.
Today we wrap up the series by looking at the role of the third Person of the Trinity, The Holy Spirit in our suffering. When Jesus tells the disciples he is leaving and that he will send the Holy Spirit, the word he uses for the Spirit is comforter. The word comforter is from the Greek word par-ak’-lay-tos. It is used four times in scripture, all in the writings of John.
The word paracletos/comforter literally means “called to one’s side”. It is as if Jesus is saying one who is coming who will be called to your side. The Holy Spirit does come and when the Holy Spirit is at our side we know Jesus is with us even though we cannot see him or touch him. We experience the Holy Spirit who stands beside us in our darkest moments, as we face sickness and even death. This is important to us. Essential really. It was even more important to the disciples who were about to lose their closest friend and their Savior and Lord, Jesus. They were grieving and Jesus’ promise of a Comforter was a promise of assurance that they would not have to face this world alone.
A Wycliffe Translator spent his life working on translating the Bible into the language of a tribe in the mountains of Mexico. He was struggling to get the right word for ‘comfort’. One day his translation helper asked for a week off. He explained that his uncle had died and he wanted some days off to visit his aunt ‘to help her heart around the corner’. So today, if you read that translation of the Bible you will see that the Comforter is the one who helps our hearts around the corner. The missionary had been given exactly the expression he needed.
So the Holy Spirit is our comforter, but the Spirit is also our companion. This is what Jesus meant in verse 17 when he spoke of the Holy Spirit as one who “dwells with or lives with you”. The Spirit of God is our companion. One whom we trust in and depend upon. He is one who walks with us. Remember, it was God’s intention from the beginning to walk with us. This is what He did with Adam, he walked with Adam at certain times during the day. He spoke with Adam just as I am speaking to you. Yet Adam was perfect. This perfect relationship of having God at our side was broken after the fall. The relationship changed and Adam and Eve were afraid. They needed to be redeemed.
So God sent us Immanuel “God with us”. Jesus meets our deepest desire to be able to walk with God. Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s purpose. But Jesus only lived for 33 years in one small country. The amazing thing about God’s plan is that God not only sent his Son to die in our place, but he sent his Spirit to continue Jesus’ ministry after his resurrection.
The Holy Spirit comes so that our Triune God can walk with and be a companion and bring comfort to every single human being. No matter what we face in life, no matter how severely we suffer, God’s Spirit is there for us. It is a privilege to know that God walks with me.
The word comforter also means helper, one who works on our behalf. Isaiah 64 tells us this: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
Not only is he there beside us but he is helping us, working on our behalf for good. Romans 8:28 teaches the same truth: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Romans 8 tells us the Spirit will help us pray (8:26). We’ve all gone to God and said, “God, I’m just not sure how to pray or what to say.” This is especially true when we are suffering or grieving. What Paul is saying is that The Holy Spirit has a special ministry to help us in those times, and actually intercedes for us, saying the prayers for us, through us, giving us the words or the thoughts that rise to God as prayer.
The third characteristic is that the Spirit is present with us. Sometimes when you are suffering or grieving, presence is the most important thing you need. You don’t need a lot of talking, you need people to be present.
Once during Queen Victoria’s reign, she heard that the wife of a common laborer had lost her baby. Having experienced deep sorrow herself, she felt moved to express her sympathy. So she called on the bereaved woman one day and spent some time with her. After she left, the neighbors asked what the queen had said. “Nothing,” replied the grieving mother. “She simply put her hands on mine, and we silently wept together.”
Now it is good to have a companion to sit with us in the silence of our suffering and the Holy Spirit can perform that role 24/7. But the Holy Spirit is more than a companion the Holy Spirit is actively at work to heal us, to guide us and to deliver us from the storms of life.
Robert Louis Stevenson tells of a storm that caught a vessel off a rocky coast and threatened to drive it and its passengers to destruction. In the midst of the terror, one daring man, contrary to orders, went to the deck, made a dangerous passage to the pilot house and saw the steersman, lashed fast at his post of holding the wheel unwaveringly, and inch by inch, turning the ship out, once more, to sea. The pilot saw the watcher and smiled. Then, the daring passenger went below and gave out a note of cheer: “I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled. All is well.”
In his opening chapter in 2 Corinthians we see in one man’s life how this works. Paul suffered greatly in his life.
Paul was… Stoned and left for dead, Beaten with rods three times, Whipped with 39 lashes five times, Attacked by an angry mob, Many death threats Paul’s response was, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” 2 Timothy 3:12
And the hardships he endured? Shipwrecked three times Criticized by other Christians, under arrest for two years without a trial, Bitten by a viper. And to these things, Paul said, “Endure hardships with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” 2 Timothy 2:3
Paul endured great hardships to serve the Lord (2 Cor. 11:23-29), yet something tormented Paul and was an incredible burden for him. Paul referred to this burden as “a thorn in the flesh”
Why is Paul able to endure such a great amount of suffering? Because he knew the God of all comfort. Paul knew that Sufferings in our world are to be expected. Sufferings and difficulties are experienced in every part of life. Sufferings are often part of ministry to others.
The synagogue prayer of Paul’s day described God as “The Father of Mercies,” but in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul enlarges it to include “and God of all comfort” — the first of the ten references to comfort contained in this short paragraph. Paul is drawing on Isaiah 40-66 which repeatedly speaks of the comfort or consolation of the Messianic age. Isaiah 40 begins, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” and the final chapter, Isaiah 66, says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13).
Of course, Paul knew that when the Messiah came devout Jews like Simeon and Anna, were “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) — salvation and comfort. It was and is through Christ that the comfort of God the Father comes and it is in the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit that we continue to receive God’s comfort today.
Ten times the word comfort is uses and it means literally “to strengthen much,” to encourage — to stand by another and encourage one another. Paul wanted his hearers to understand that the merciful Father is the author of all possible comfort and consolation through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. There is no enduring comfort apart from our Triune God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of a handful of German theologians to stand up to the Nazification of the German church. He was prominent in writing the famous Barmen Declaration, which rejected the infamous Aryan clauses imposed by Nazi ideology. Bonhoeffer’s courage thrust him into the leadership of the Confessing Church along with other stalwarts like Martin Niemöller. Bonhoeffer went so far as to found an underground seminary in Finkenwald, Bavaria, which was closed by Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler. This led to Bonhoeffer’s joining the resistance movement and his being imprisoned by the Gestapo in April 1943. Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison became a best seller after the war.
Among the letters is a beautiful poem written to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer entitled “New Year 1945.”
Stanza 3 is famous:
Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain,
At thy command, we will not falter,
Thankfully receiving all that is given
By thy loving hand.
Three months later, just as the war was ending, Bonhoeffer was hung in Flossenbürg prison along with other personal prisoners of Hitler. Fast-forward eighteen years later, across the Atlantic in America, when another bride-to-be was grieving the death of her fiancé and found much comfort in Bonhoeffer’s poem. Her fiancé, who died from injuries in a sledding accident, was the son of author Joseph Bayly and his wife Mary Lou. When she mailed Bonhoeffer’s poem to them, Joe and Mary Lou also found comfort in “New Year 1945.”
Twelve years after this (thirty years after Bonhoeffer’s death), Joe Bayly received a letter from a pastor-friend in Massachusetts. The pastor told Joe that he had visited a terminally ill woman in a Boston hospital for some period of time and had given her Joe’s book of poems, Heaven, as comfort for her soul. The pastor said that the dying woman had stayed awake late the previous night to read it and told him of the comfort and help she had received from it. A few hours later she died. The woman, the pastor revealed, was Maria von Wedemeyer-Weller, Bonhoeffer’s fiancée three decades earlier!
God’s comfort circulates among his children — and sometimes it comes full circle, as it did from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Maria von Wedemeyer in her grief to Joseph Bayly, Jr.’s grieving fiancée to Joe and Mary Lou Bayly in their grief and then back to Bonhoeffer’s one-time fiancée as comfort in her dying hours.

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