I’ve just returned from a truly magical time on the West Coast. On Sunday 12/15, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking at my friend Marc’s church, Bridge City Church in Milwaukie, Oregon. This is the text from that sermon.
All my voice could say.
Trusting that my
would fill in the detail.
Hand over mouth.
Hand over heart.
Your hand over me
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Because John is in prison, he can’t see what Jesus is doing. So he asks his friends to send a message, “Is it really you, Jesus? Are you the Messiah? Are you the Hope we’ve been waiting on?”
I love what Jonathan Martin says about this portion of Scripture:
So he discreetly sent a few of his followers to ask Jesus if he really was the One, or if we should wait for another. Cause Jesus it’s been a minute since I felt the electricity while I was still in the shelter of my mother. And Jesus that day by the river is cloudy now, like the water was when I held you under. And Jesus I’m glad that your ministry is taking off, but I am scared & alone in a shitty cell now, without the false confidence of youth, & honestly none of this has really worked out for me here, now. I know you’re busy now & have stuff to do, but if you can spare a minute, could you kindly let me know if it’s time to give up chasing the shadow of you, & hope that something better might come along? Cause Jesus the end isn’t looking good, & now I don’t know how to trust the beginning.
So Jesus sends word back, “Go tell John what he could not see or hear where he was—that God is still happening, that grace is still happening, that the message John preached that could no longer warm him in the night, was still spreading like wildfire among the restless souls.”
Mary Magdalene has a question much like John’s, as she is simultaneously waiting, expecting, and maybe even doing a little doubting in the Garden, after Jesus was resurrected.
I love this question, because I’ve asked it, too.
I was 29 years old. Had been married for 5 years. My little boy would turn a year old the very next day. I was a pastor and worship leader. And I was dying inside. Because of childhood sexual abuse, trauma was introduced into my life around the age of three. I was a senior in high school before the trauma came oozing out for the first time, but trauma always seems to come oozing out.
Because of the brand of Christianity I was raised in, we didn’t talk about problems. We pretended they weren’t there, because wounds meant you had a lack of faith. And a lack of faith would send you straight to hell.
So I learned to perform. I slapped that “good little Christian” mask on week after week, but I was filled with anxiety, overcome with depression, and tormented by PTSD.
Even after the meltdown my senior year, there was nothing done. No help. No counseling. No meds. Just a prayer for Jesus to fix it.
It would be another twelve years before I found help in the most unexpected place…a psych ward.
I was 29 years old. Married. Had a son. Serving as a pastor. And I nearly died by suicide.
Lying in that ICU hospital room, numb from the waist down from all the meds I’d ingested, I was so angry. Angry to be alive. Angry that God got the last laugh. Angry because…underneath it all…I was humiliated. I hated myself worse than I ever thought possible – and I’d been pretty good at hating myself for years.
And on the very worst day of my life, hopeless, and believing the lie that I was all alone, I felt this warm hand on my chest and I heard that Inaudible Voice whisper, “I’m not finished with you yet.”
Don’t you see me here, God!? Don’t you know what I’ve done?!
Is it really you, Jesus? Hot, angry, humiliated tears poured down my face.
I think Hagar must have felt something like this, too.
Hagar – the Egyptian slave of Abraham and Sarah. She’s forced into pregnancy because her master, Sarah, cannot get pregnant. She’s sexually abused by Abraham, and then when she gets pregnant, she is physically assaulted by Sarah. The abuse is so bad that the pregnant Egyptian slave flees for her life into the wilderness.
I got curious and wanted to know what kind of beating would have been so bad that this young woman runs into the desert. Luckily, Southern University in North Carolina has an extensive online library of first-person slave archives from survivors of the North American slave trade.
One account tells how the slave owner dug a hole in the ground, placed the slave girl’s pregnant belly in the hole, and gave her twenty five lashes.
Could it have been that bad for Hagar?
Another tells of a runaway slave who was caught and brought back to the plantation. Her ears were nailed to a tree, where she was beaten.
And yet another narrative tells of a slave woman who was hung from the ceiling by her THUMBS and beaten half to death.
And here’s Hagar. Pregnant. Bleeding. Dying of thirst. Walking through the desert all alone. She’s been abandoned by the only family she had, and they were certainly no family at all.
And in the desert of her desperation, the Messenger of God shows up with a message of hope for Hagar.
Can’t you hear her, asking the same questions I was asking in ICU? Can’t you hear her, questioning God, just like John from prison? “Is it really YOU, God?”
And it was. And it is. And it always will be.
I love that the first person in the Bible to name God is a pregnant, wounded, slave who has just been raped by one of the Bible’s heroes. She names God, “El Roi” which means, “You are the God who sees me.”
“I’m not finished with you yet,” is essentially what God says to Hagar – and me.
“Come and see” is what Jesus says to John.
“You wouldn’t believe it, even if I showed you,” is what God says in Nehemiah. EVEN IF I TOLD YOU – you wouldn’t believe.
Why? Because it just seems too good.
Beauty for ashes. Joy instead of mourning. The strength of love in place of your fear. Hope in the dark.
It doesn’t mean you won’t have to face some more terrible times. Recovery isn’t easy. The path to wholeness is riddled with potholes and sharp turns.
But the very same God the psalmist talks about in Psalm 139 is the God who is present with us today. “Even if I make my bed in hell,” the Psalm says, “You (God) are there.”
You, God, are there, in the midst of my own personal living hell.
So I’ll wrap this up by saying: life is hard. Jesus promised us that much. “In this world you will have trouble.”
But I’ve lived through enough to know that healing is possible. I absolutely believe that every time we are willing to tell the truth and ask for help, Jesus continues to overcome the world. To overcome our world.
When you cling to your faith while also looking for practical ways to heal, I believe you honor the God who became human and dwelt among us. When you embrace your own fragility, I believe you echo the same fragile God who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Emmanuel, God with us, will empower you to live through whatever you’re facing now and in the days to come.
I know, because I’ve been there.
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Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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