Suffering for the Gospel

The following is the text (not the transcript) of the message preached by Pastor Jimmy A. Long at Grace Fellowship in Greensboro, Georgia, on Sunday, December 1, 2013.

I’ve never been to Hawaii. It has been described as a paradise, and the pictures certainly make it look like one.

Near the middle of the Hawaiian Islands between Oahu and Maui is an island called Molokai. It looks like an ideal place to vacation. On the north side of Molokai there is a peninsula called Kalaupapa which has the highest seaside cliffs in the world making for a breathtaking view of the coastline. If you turn your back to the water, you will find towering cloud-covered mountains. Again, it would be in ideal place for a vacation… or for a leper colony. In fact, that is what it was and, in a sense, ever will be.

Leprosy was first diagnosed in Hawaii in 1848. The spread of leprosy along with a lack of knowledge about the disease and a petrifying fear of it led King Kamehameha V to declare that all those afflicted with leprosy (or Hansens’s Disease as it is now known) should be sent to Kalaupapa to live out their lives. It was secluded and difficult to escape from. In a sense, the lepers’ new home was also their prison.

French author Vital Jourdain wrote of this place: “Molokai quickly got the reputation of being a graveyard, a place of anarchy, a Sodom calling down a rain of fire and brimstone. There was no doctor, no nurse, no priest, no justice of the peace, no resident police, no work, no comfort—and no hope.” (Jourdain, Vital. The Heart of Father Damien, p. 87. Translated from the French by Francis Larkin and Charles Davenport. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955.)

FatherJosephDamienAs I began to prepare for this message I stumbled across the story of Father Joseph Damien, a Catholic priest who was serving with others in Honolulu. When the need arose for a priest to go to Kalaupapa, he volunteered. Though his stay there was only to be for 3 months, he ended up staying there for the rest of his life. He was priest who was also called to serve as doctor, carpenter, and undertaker. The story of Father Damien is riveting. He sacrificed everything and put his health and life at risk for the sake of the Gospel. In fact, he himself contracted Hansen’s disease which led to his death in 1889.

Father Damien’s body was taken to his homeland of Belgium to be buried, yet there is a grave for him in Kalaupapa. In that grave is buried his right hand which he used to minister to the abandoned, hopeless souls on that peninsula.

You and I might debate about Roman Catholic doctrine, but the example of Father Joseph Damien has weighed heavily on my heart and mind. Here is a man who for the love of His Savior willingly suffered in order to share God’s love and message with the abandoned people of Molokai. If God called me to do something similar, would I be willing to pay such a price? Would I be willing to endure such suffering and hardship for the sake of the Gospel?

2 Timothy 1:8-12 —

So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me His prisoner. Instead, share in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God. He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.

This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald, apostle, and teacher, and that is why I suffer these things. But I am not ashamed, because I know the One I have believed in and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.

How do you encourage a young pastor? Paul called Timothy to suffer for the gospel! We’ve talked a lot about the gospel but we haven’t yet considered suffering for the gospel. I’ll admit that it’s not my most requested topic. In truth, I’d really rather avoid it all together.

Here are some simple truths as I see it …

In this world there is suffering.

In our suffering God is present with us and ministering to us.

God can and sometimes does intervene to alleviate or remove our suffering, but His primary purpose is not to make our lives pain free and comfortable.

Suffering can and is used by God to help grow us spiritually.

Most of us will suffer to some extent, but few of us will suffer for sake of the gospel.

It is suffering for the gospel that I want us to focus on for a few minutes. Is this our calling?

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. What is a man benefited if he gains the whole world, yet loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-26)

If we are honest, Jesus’ call will make our knees shake. He says, “Deny what you want in order to choose what I want for you! Die to yourself, your passions, your plans, your dreams to truly live! Follow me instead of the crowd or your own heart’s desires. Give up the whole world and be satisfied with Me alone!”

We try to call people to follow Jesus by promising “God loves you and has a plan for your life.” It’s true enough. It’s catchy enough to put on a bumper sticker. It hits people at the point of their felt needs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian, was executed in a Nazi prison camp because he refused to “get with the program” of Adolf Hitler. His words would not be so appealing on a bumper sticker. He said of following Jesus: “When Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship)

Early in the morning on January 23, 1999, a group of about sixty Hindu fundamentalists shattered the windows of Graham Staines’s jeep. Graham, longtime director of a leprosy mission in India, and his sons, Philip and Timothy, were participating in a Bible conference in the village Monoharpur. After breaking the windows, the fanatics poured gasoline over the vehicle and set it on fire. Graham and his sons died, though not instantly, as many heard screams coming from the blaze. Days later, Graham’s wife, Gladys, made a public statement forgiving the murderers of her husband and sons. She also expressed hope that the guilty individuals would be touched by the love of Christ. India was stunned by her spirit of forgiveness, as well as her commitment to stay on and direct the mission. Gladys had this advice for future missionaries: “Make very sure of your call from God and, once you’re sure of it, be very prepared for whatever, even if it costs your life.”

Jesus’ call does not always mean that we will die as martyrs for the faith, but it does mean that we must die to ourselves and our wills. I sing “wherever He leads I’ll go,” but do I mean it? What limitations have I placed on God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ Lordship? Do I ever say to Him, “This far and no farther”? If so, is that truly the discipleship to which He calls me. Jesus, I will follow you anywhere until it brings pain, heartache or suffering? Honestly, I would much rather God remove the thorn than give me the grace to endure it. And yet by never putting myself in a place of suffering for the sake of the gospel have I stunted my own spiritual growth? By choosing to find my comfort in the comforts the world offers, have I forfeited the comfort that God is willing to provide – a greater, more satisfying comfort by far?

“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

Why might you and I have to suffer for the sake of the gospel? Because the gospel has at its center the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel declares there is a God who is holy and that we are separated from that God by our sin; and the ONLY way that our sin can be forgiven and our relationship with God restored is through faith in the completed work of His Son Jesus.

The Christian faith is tolerant in that it believes each person much choose for him or her self whether or not to believe in Jesus, but it does not accept that all religions are equally valid. We cannot accept that for it would invalidate the very heart of our faith.

To have all and not have Jesus is to have nothing, but to have Jesus and nothing else is to have everything I need. That is what Father Damien discovered. It is what Mother Teresa discovered. It is what Jim Elliott discovered. It’s what Lottie Moon discovered. It’s what the Apostle Paul discovered. Have we discovered that yet?

The question you and I must wrestle with today is this: Is Jesus enough? Is the gospel worth it? I leave you with these twin stories from Jesus –

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)

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