Peace in the Storm

Matthew 2:13-23 & Hebrews 2:10-18
It’s an age-old question: Why does God allow suffering? Everyone goes through difficult things in life. How do we have peace in the storms?

Life has aspects that are miraculous, those that are unspeakably awful, and everything in between. God made us a beautiful world and gave us the choice to love and follow God or to decide to go our own way, indulging our selfish sin nature, choices we make every day. But even faithful, loving, kind God-followers go through pain and suffering because we live in fragile bodies and because the people who choose not to follow God decide to do evil things. Look at Jesus. Look at the early martyrs.

One reason God doesn’t protect us from all hardships is that going through them is good training for going through more of them. Look at how the military trains Navy Seals, the most elite group in the military, as described by Admiral William H. McRaven. Over the course of six months of training, they experience constant stress, fatigue, failure, challenges and hardships. Trainers require the recruits to make their beds perfectly every morning, so they’ll learn to accomplish the little things, do them right, and be ready for the next task. They do calisthenics, go for long runs and through obstacle courses, making them physically stronger.  Their clothing is inspected every couple of weeks with such high standards for cleanliness, starched hats, polished belt buckles, and ironed shirts that none of them can pass. The instructors make sure of it, pushing them to quit. After they fail the inspection, they are required to jump in the surf and roll around in the sand, then wear this outfit all day, called a sugar cookie. This teaches them that life isn’t fair, and that sometimes their best isn’t going to be good enough. They have to get over it and keep going. They also train by paddling a boat together in crews of seven to the rhythm of the coxswain’s count, learning the teamwork required to pull together and keep the boat going in the right direction. They are severely tested, pushed to their limits and beyond.

After several months, it’s common for less than a third of the original class to be left. Nothing matters but the will to succeed, not their background, not their color, not their gender. They have to believe they can make it and maintain their hope. They must have the right stuff to become heroes.

Although the Navy Seals aren’t a Christian organization, they have some good ideas. In a relatively safe environment, they put their recruits through tough times to prepare them for more difficult and life-threatening ones in foreign lands with no one but each other to help them. They either succeed or they quit. Either way, they’ve learned something. They can look back and know that they survived something extremely difficult.

God does something similar with us. In this life, you’re going to have struggles. Even being wealthy doesn’t protect people from harm or illness. Life is a mixture of blessings and trials, good and evil. Through it all, God is with us. Through it all, God is our peace in the storm.
Today’s story in Matthew is a prime example of an evil person making life terrible for others out of self-interest. Herod was furious when he realized that the magi had tricked him. He was also still afraid, because they were looking for the king of the Jews, and they made it clear that Herod didn’t qualify.

Herod didn’t want any rivals, especially someone as easy to murder as a child. So he sent soldiers to kill all the children two years old or younger who lived in and around Bethlehem. The population of Bethlehem in the first century was about 5,000 people. We don’t know how many of them were under the age of three, but even one child killed to prevent it from growing up to be a threat was an act of unspeakable evil.

According to, 30% of all children died in their first year of life back then. If a child beat those odds, a family would feel especially blessed to have a healthy 2-year-old running around. Then the soldiers showed up. Honestly, I didn’t want to preach about this passage, because to imagine someone snatching my child away and killing him or her in front of me breaks my heart.

There are parts of the story we can be thankful for. Joseph continued to listen to and obey the angel messengers despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of their commands. Jesus lived to grow up and be the Messiah, because Joseph and Mary were faithful. It  reminds me of the times during his ministry that Jesus disappeared from the crowds who wanted to arrest or stone him, keeping him alive until his appointed time had come. Even as a baby, Jesus faced rejection and God saved him. And no matter how bad things were, they could have been worse. Herod could have decided to kill everyone in Bethlehem and burn it to the ground.

But there’s also a lot to mourn. We can weep for the children who died because the other parents weren’t warned. And although Matthew tried to justify God allowing this as a way to fulfill a prophesy, I don’t think God is that cruel. I think God simply told Joseph to flee. Herod was an evil person who made evil choices. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, many Christians were martyred for their faith, and that continues to this day in many parts of the world. Innocents are still being killed by evil people.

To a lesser extent, it was a hardship for Joseph, Mary and Jesus to be uprooted and moved first to Egypt and then to Nazareth. These were places where they had no friends or support. In our reading, the couple seems to take this in stride because they heard from angels, and the narrative doesn’t speak about their doubts. But Mary and Joseph were not blindly obedient people; they tended to ponder things. They are an example for us of how to obey God in spite of concerns and doubts, in spite of the threats and evil in the world. It’s okay to ask yourself whether you have what it takes, whether you believe you can do it, even with God’s help, before jumping into God’s plan. God understands and will give you peace about it. Peace despite the challenges. Peace in the storm.

Jesus didn’t promise us a life of ease, luxury, or freedom from suffering. Even Jesus knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked his Father to take away the terrible suffering he was about to go through. He came back to the idea that God’s will would be done, and that God would be with him.

In Luke 14:27-28, Jesus said, “ Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” To carry a cross is to be prepared to go through your own suffering for the Gospel and the God we serve. No one escapes the effects of selfish, evil people. That shouldn’t keep us from following God’s plan and making a difference for Christ. Jesus is our example. He was obedient even to the cross. He became our perfect hero.

In John 16:32-33, Jesus said, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!”

In our Hebrews passage, Paul talks about how Jesus was made perfect through sufferings. Jesus calls us brothers and sisters because He sanctified us, destroyed the power of death, and freed us from being held in slavery by our fear of death.

Slavery to the fear of death. Interesting. If I didn’t have faith that I’d be with Jesus after I die, I’d be terrified to die. Scared to death, you might say. Thank God that Jesus took that fear away. He is our liberator.

This section of scripture emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, and how “he himself was tested by what he suffered,” making him able to help those who are being tested. His suffering prepared him to do the work of saving us from evil, sin and death, and made him capable of understanding what we’re going through. He understands our misery. It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. When someone says they understand your plight when they haven’t been through the same thing, that’s sympathy. When someone says they understand when they HAVE been through the same thing, that’s empathy. That’s true understanding. Jesus still carries the scars from other people’s abuse. He was tempted as we are, but didn’t sin. He is our big brother, our mentor, our example, and our friend.

Peace in the storm starts by believing that Jesus is with you, has been through something like what you’re going through, and is here to help you. Even if you don’t survive, you’ll be together. Peace in the storm continues through prayer and praise, acknowledging God’s sovereignty and power, confessing our own weakness and sins, being thankful for Jesus, his past sacrifices and his ongoing presence, and asking for what we and our brothers and sisters need. The acronym that makes this prayer model easy to remember is ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Not every prayer needs to have those four elements, but they work well to cover the ideas that remind us of who we’re talking to and why we can believe that God is good.

Peace in the storm also comes from remembering that one thing we can be thankful for is each other. Going through struggles makes it possible for us to empathize with each other. God sends people to listen to us, to walk with us, to paddle the boat with us, when we need help. Rev. Ken Smith told the story of a child who was afraid of the dark and went to his sleeping parents for comfort. They suggested that he pray and ask Jesus for help. He said, “But I need someone with skin on!” We are most like Christ when we can be God with skin on for each other. Peace in the storm. We can receive it and we can give it, because Christ first gave it to us.

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