Once in a while, an illustration comes along that can carry an entire sermon. Ron Mehl's story of a nearly tragic hiking accident is one such story. It's important to paint a picture rich with details, and reach just the right point before hitting the "pause" button. Your listeners will wait attentively through the entire message to hear the end of the story, which will lead nicely toward a time of commitment. Adding depth to the story is the fact that pastor Ron Mehl died in 2003 after a tough battle with leukemia.
Illustration: When six young men graduated from Aloha High School in Beaverton, Oregon, they decided to celebrate their accomplishments, and their friendships by taking a challenging hike. They set their sights on Mount Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades, all 10,495 feet of it.
It was July, a perfect day for a climb. They had made it nearly to the top. The grassy slope had gradually turned into ice and packed snow, and they had only 400 feet left. The view from the top promised to be spectacular.
Chris was near the top of the line of climbers. He stepped hard on a rock, accidentally dislodging the boulder. The rock started to roll right at his friend Jonah. Jonah jumped out of the way, but lost his balance in the process. He started to slip, slide, and tumble down the mountain. The rock chased after him, caught up to him, and glanced off his head. Jonah was immediately knocked unconscious, and his freefall down the mountain was unhindered. He disappeared over a ledge.
Chris started after his friend, knowing already that he had an impossibly long way to go. Jonah had fallen some 900 feet down the mountain, and landed in a crevice. His arm was broken like a matchstick. His face blooded, his skull showing the outward effects of an inward concussion. But amazingly, Jonah was still alive.
Two of the teen-agers went for help. Two stayed to help Chris and Jonah out of the crevice, and back to the camp. The climb out was slow, and dangerous. At times they moved only a few inches. The ice picks had to take a firm grip, or the boys would fall again. Jonah was awake, and trying to make it on his own. But he slipped again, and started to fall.
Right behind him, Billy grabbed his friend around the waist, thinking he could stop their fall. But they were both sliding down the ice, and rapidly approaching another ledge. Billy did all he could do to slow the fall, but the weight of the two of them was simply too much. The decision? He could let go of Jonah and probably stop, or he could disappear over the ledge with Jonah, and probably die.
Billy held onto his friend.
Both teen-agers disappeared over the ledge. They landed in a mountain stream, a stream that was rushing toward a waterfall. Billy and Jonah hit a boulder, and the jolt separated them. Billy regained his bearings, stood up in the stream, and saw Jonah go under the water. The current was taking the injured teen-ager right for the waterfall. Then a hand came up out of the water. It was Jonah. He slammed into a rock, which stopped his progress, and Billy caught up with his friend, pulled him out of the water, and took stock of the situation. Jonah's arm was grotesquely broken, the bone sticking out of the skin. Both his face and head were covered in bruises and blood. By now, he couldn't walk at all. The afternoon gave way to night, and the temperature was dropping below freezing.
They were separated from their four friends, their clothes were soaked with freezing water, an one of them was badly injured. They had reached, as Ron Mehl called it, a "dead end." (Source: Meeting God at a Dead End, Ron Mehl, 1996, illustration starts on page 12.)
Had they not been so cold and desperate for help, perhaps they could have thought about the similarities they had with young men like Moses, Daniel, and Joseph. Perhaps they could have enjoyed some strange sense of fellowship with Jesus, who suffered a brutal beating.
And, perhaps, they might even have felt a strange bond of kinship with you.
Suffering can do that to us. It transforms us from the routine into the eternal. It's in the dead end of suffering that we have a chance to learn a lot about ourselves, and about God. Strangely enough, it's in the dead end of suffering that we learn the most about the grace of God.
I. Suffering is universal (8:18-38)
Every one of us has suffered, is suffering, or will suffer. I probably don't have to tell you this. You might even fit all three categories. The suffering spreads to everyone, including some of the greatest Christians of our time.
Illustration: Consider an aging Billy Graham. His battle with Parkinson's disease has become more pronounced and noticeable. In a recent interview he spoke of his suffering: "I think God sent it to me at this age to show me I am totally dependent on him."
Consider Amy Carmichael, who was a missionary to South India. Had she never experienced suffering, her name would probably not be well known today. She spent 56 years on the mission field and never returned home to England. An accident damaged her leg and left her bedridden for the last 20 years of her life. But it was during these 20 years of suffering, in bed, that she wrote most of her 40 books. God used her experience of suffering to bring encouragement to millions of people. She was thinking of Romans 8:28, she said, when she wrote these words: "A wise master never wastes his servant's time." No matter what set of circumstances we receive, God will not waste an experience if we will remain obedient to Him.
For a collection of words that has brought so much peace and joy to so many, suffering is no stranger to the words of Romans 8, strangely enough.
vs. 18: I consider that our present sufferings ...
vs. 20: Creation was subjected to frustration ...
vs. 21: Creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay ...
vs. 22: the whole creation has been groaning ... as in the pains of childbirth (some of you will relate to that kind of groaning more than the rest of us) ... right up to the present time.
vs. 23: We ... grown inwardly ...
Vs. 26: In our weakness ...
Vs. 26: Groans that words cannot express ...
Vs. 35: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword (warfare)
Vs. 36: We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered/"We're sitting ducks; they pick us of one by one." (Message)
Vs. 38: Death, life, angels, demons, present (past), future (fears), powers, height, depth, all the other things.
II. Suffering can draw you closer to God (8:38-39, 17)
According to the Bible, no matter how great the suffering, none of it will ever separate us from the love of God (vs. 38-39). In fact, not only will suffering not separate us from the love of God, it can, if we let it, actually draw us closer to the love of God.
Paul writes, "If we share I his sufferings, we may also share in His glory." (8:17)
Even if Paul was writing of a future glory, we at least get a glimpse, once in a while, of how people who wanted to know more of God did so … only by suffering.
Moses had to deal with loneliness, exile, and with a loss of purpose for his life. But there, suffering very quietly on top of a mountain, Moses met God through a burning bush experience. After the Exodus, just minutes after the Exodus, it would seem, Moses was trapped between a sea that would drown him, a lynch mob that would kill him, or an army that wanted to execute him. But it was there - and only there - where Moses and the people saw the fully-disclosed power of God. Later on, Moses met God in even deeper ways as he faced criticism, hardship, or an angry mob. From the clues, the settings, the experiences the Bible gives us, it looks to me that the times Moses really had encounters with God, it was always in times of suffering.
Elijah is another case in point. Not long after his greatest moment of public ministry, he met God in the still, quiet whisper, on the mountain. But do you remember the setting? Elijah arrived at the mountain because he had been running for his life. Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah. At the moment of his meeting God, Elijah was also more depressed than he'd ever been in his life. When Elijah met God, it was in the midst of suffering.
There was Joseph, who waited through 13 years of hardship before he had the first clue that all things were going to work for the glory of God. Daniel suffered through intense, life-threatening public pressure before he could see that the power of the Lion of Judah was greater than the power of the lions of Babylon. Mary, and Joseph had to suffer from family and community rejection before they could see the miracle of God laid in a manger. The examples travel, literally, from Genesis to Revelation. Suffering can draw us closer to God.
Through the suffering, we can become like Jesus when we face death. So how did Jesus die? Confident in the power of the Father. Confident in the promises of the Father. Confident in his mission of ministry, of serving others for the Glory of God.
But the point is this: Suffering can draw you closer to God. It has the potential to do this great work, but it's not a given. Your attitude in the midst of suffering, your ability to look for God when you're at your personal point of crisis, your personal dead end, that will determine whether or not you learn through the suffering that God has provided.
Illustration: Ron Mehl elected to be drawn closer to God through his own suffering.
For 23 years, Mehl battled leukemia. In the midst of the suffering, he studied the Bible, searched for sermons, and ministered to people who were suffering all around him. His church in Oregon grew large and strong. He wrote books that ministered to untold thousands. He accepted opportunities to speak around the world, and kept up an overcrowded schedule at his church. Through it all, he began to understand, more and more, that his suffering would eventually give way to unspeakable joy.
The Apostle Paul, who suffered tremendously during his years of ministry, said it this way: Our present sufferings aren't worthy for comparing with the glory that awaits us. (8:14)
In other words, there's always hope at the bottom of the mountain for those willing to search for it.
Illustration concludes: Billy and Jonah had survived a brush with death that left them battered, broken, cold, wet, lonely, and discouraged. Darkness descended upon the mountain, and they couldn't even tell which way to go, if they could find a way to struggle toward help.
That's when Billy saw the light. "What's that?" he shouted. It was in Jonah's pocket. A strange, soft glow was emerging from his coat. Jonah reached down, looking through blurred eyes, and pulled open his pocket. It was his flashlight.
Somehow a cheap flashlight he had packed had survived a 900-foot plunge down a mountain, a subsequent tumble into a stream, collisions with two boulders ... and instead of being destroyed, it was simply turned on.
They boys took it as a sign. "This is from God," Billy thought. "God is saying, 'Your going to make it, and I'll show you the way.'"
At 2 a.m. that morning, the boys stumbled into camp. It took several days in the hospital for Jonah to recover, but he never stopped talking ... of all things ... about the power of God. About the goodness of God. About the provision of God.
Don't you wish he never had to face another time of suffering in his life?
But somewhere along the way, a young woman may awaken a love in his heart he never knew he possessed ... and break his heart in a way he never dreamed it could be broken. At some point he may find himself in the midst of a financial emergency, with nowhere to turn. Someday he may be standing my his mailbox, holding the long-awaited reply from a medical school - the letter that denies him the experience.
Some morning years down the road he may wake up and feel an overwhelming revulsion for his job, his life, his family ... and have an overpowering desire to run.
Some night he may be leaning over the stainless-steel railing of a hospital crib, willing, begging, for his baby to live.
Some gray afternoon he may find himself staring at the wall of a sterile examining room, trying to wrap reality around a doctor's grim prognosis.
Some dark hour before dawn he may be staring into a cup of coffee, waiting for word about a teen-ager who hasn't come home.
Yes, he'll have more tumbles to the bottom of the mountain, more times of suffering, and so will you. But maybe Jonah will remember the light that led him home, the light that seemingly was turned on by God Himself, and maybe Jonah will remember that Jesus said He was the light of the world. Maybe he'll make the choice to let the suffering draw him closer to God again. Maybe he'll learn more about life, and eternity, and about God through the experiences that are unpleasant.