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Only The Wounded Can Serve

Hebrews 4:14-16

Thornton Wilder has a play entitled The Angel That Troubled the Waters. In the play, the scene is set at the Pool of Siloam, where the gospel’s stories tell us at a certain point during the course of each day, an angel of the Lord ruffles the surface of the water, and anyone lowered into the pool at that moment experiences complete healing. There are, in the play, crowds of people gathered about that pool, all of them seeking the miracle of healing and wholeness.

And then suddenly we discover that in the midst of the crowd, there is a physician; a doctor who has, himself, an incurable disease and is there at the pool hoping for healing. After difficult struggle, his moment to step into the pool comes, and at that point in the play, suddenly the angel of the Lord turns and speaks to the physician saying, “Draw back, physician. Healing is not for you. Without your wounds, where would your power be? It is your very remorse that enables your low voice to tremble its way into other people’s hearts. Not even the angels themselves can persuade the blundering wretched children of the Earth, as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. Dear physician,” the angel says, “remember always that in love’s service, only the wounded can serve.”

The physician turns away, crushed and bewildered, having no understanding of what has been said to him, and at that very moment, a distraught father reaches out and clutches him saying, “Your turn in the pool may be next, my brother. But please wait and come to my house for just an hour. My son is lost in dark thoughts, and you alone are able to lift his mood.” And in that moment, the physician realizes the profound truth that yes, in love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.
I think that is a truth worth our pondering today. And I want to attempt to apply it to our Christian experience. For you see, I have come to believe that those who are wounded soldiers in Christ’s service have about them a special splendor. Not too many weeks ago now, the entire music world was saddened by the death of Herbert von Karajan. He was regarded by many as being the greatest orchestral conductor of our time. He made magic with music which few in our day and age have even been able to approach. Trish and I had the privilege of hearing and seeing him conduct the great Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a stunningly beautiful Christmas concert in the Berlin Music Hall, and we both recognized that we were in the presence of a master artist. And I cannot help but remember a response von Karajan gave to a reporter’s question at a press conference. The reporter asked, “What is it that truly makes a great conductor?” 

And Herbert von Karajan answered, “Greatness in anything is always preceded by suffering.” 

I have never forgotten that, and I have come to believe that von Karajan was right. For you see, there is about those who encounter deep and extended suffering in life, a special and many times very visible splendor. There is a sense in which seeing from that perspective suffering is not so much as slight as it is a salute. It is almost as if God is saying these suffering ones, “I will make you great so that you can bear the burden which is yours.”

Understand me please, I am not suggesting for a moment that suffering and hardship and difficulty are given to us by God. They are not. God gives only good gifts. Suffering and hardship and difficulty in life arise out of the fabric of human sin. They are the fruit of human behavior, not the will of God. And yet the Scriptures do teach us that when suffering and difficulty and hardship come upon us in life, that God in that moment endows us with a special grace for greatness in the midst of the suffering. And therefore, the implication is quite strong, that when you encounter those who know deep suffering in their own lives, you have encountered those of whom God has said, “There is, in you, a special capacity for greatness.”

That principle has been true throughout the course of the Christian story. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an invalid, and yet, out of her struggle, there flowed the poetry of love. Robert Louis Stevenson suffered long and hard with the pain of tuberculosis, but the pain simply carved into his spirit the spirit of adventure. Beethoven, despite his deafness, heard heavenly music which he then translated for us to hear. The great Apostle Paul exercised his ministry as a wounded servant of Jesus Christ bearing what he called his thorn in the flesh, but please note that he never once wasted his energy nursing and mourning his hurts. He never retreated into bitterness or self-pity. Instead, he made the best of the thorn, and he let the thorn make the best of him. Because of his wounds, he was a better, stronger, more splendid Christian.

It has been my experience in dealing with people who encounter suffering in their lives that most people, when suffering comes, find that one of two things happens. Either they get bitter or they get better. And it has been my observation across more than 20 years of ministry that those who are the children of God, those who have given themselves over to Jesus Christ, almost invariably become better. I have seen it so many times right here. I see people who come through the heartbreak of bereavement with smiles on their faces though they are weeping. I see people with vexing problems at home who manage to minister to those needs but who also manage to minister to the needs of others beyond the home as well. I see those who are poor who give of themselves in terms of percentages and many times in terms of actual dollars far more than those who have 10 times their resources.

I see those who are hated because of the color of their skin or because of some other equally ignorant prejudice and yet who keep on loving. I see those who are faithful to Jesus Christ though they experience ridicule and belittlement because of that faith, and yet in spite of it all, still they endure. And when I see such people, I am amazed at their courage. I watch a young man play baseball in the major leagues taking the role of pitcher though he was born with only one hand. Or I watch a group of men playing a basketball game in wheelchairs. Or I see a marvelous blind young woman walking along the streets of this city at its busiest hours, but walking with extraordinary courage and grace.

And when I see that, I am moved not to some kind of maudlin pity for such people. No, quite the contrary. I am driven to my knees in awe before the grandeur of their spirit. They are all wounded soldiers in Christ’s service, but there is about them a special splendor. In Christ’s service, only the wounded can serve.

And then I have come to believe that those who are wounded soldiers in Christ’s service have about them not just a special splendor but also an increased effectiveness. You’re aware of the fact that Helen Keller – speaking of her blindness and deafness – said, “I thank God for my handicaps because through them, I have found myself, my work, and my Lord.” She knew what she was talking about. For when at last, in her own experience, self-pity ceased, she then discovered a fuller meaning and an expanded effectiveness for her life. She recognized that she was a wounded soldier in Christ’s service, and she gave herself in service to those who are disabled. She could speak their language. She understood their fears. She walked the same valleys of despair. Because she was herself wounded, she was better able to bind up the wounds of others.

I like what someone else has said, that “The true greatness of Christianity is not so much that it seeks a supernatural cure for suffering, but that it seeks a supernatural use for suffering.” You know, that was the case right at the very heart and soul of our faith right in the life and the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ himself. We see it so clearly in these verses in the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews where we read, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted just as we are, yet without sinning.”

There is no aspect of the human experience which Jesus does not know. Christ on the cross experienced humanity’s most inhumane treatment and yet what did He do but deliver the grace of forgiveness upon the whole world from that cross. He laid down His life willingly that we might take up ours. How does the Bible put it? Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that makes us whole, and with His stripes, we are healed. In love’s service, only the wounded can serve.

But not only does Jesus know our weaknesses, Jesus also knows our possibilities. That’s why we read on in this magnificent verse in Hebrews, “Let us therefore with confidence draw near to the throne of His grace. That we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Jesus calls us, wounded though we are, to receive His grace and to enlist in His service. Do you understand what I mean when I say that the army of Jesus Christ in this world is an army of wounded soldiers? Men and women and young people tortured by temptation, broken by sin, bloodied by martyrdom, broken in half by illness and bereavement, bedraggled with weariness. A wounded army, yes, but do you understand that that wounded army is in the process of conquering the whole world? Because in the service of Jesus Christ, only the wounded soldiers can serve.

And it’s true simply because when we encounter suffering in our own experience, we are then better able to deal with suffering in the lives of others. When our own hearts are broken on the wheels of living, we are then better equipped to touch the breaking hearts of those who are around us. I don’t know that I ever fully understood that until I saw Kim Lee Shin. Trish and I met him a few years ago at the Wilson Leprosy Center in Sinhang, Korea. Kim Lee Shin has had leprosy for many years, and it has wreaked a terrible toll upon him physically. He has no fingers on either hand. One foot is completely gone. There are no toes on the other. He has no ears, no eyes, no nose, no facial features whatever. There is nothing left but a smile.

Every afternoon of the week, Kim Lee Shin gets 14 other blind lepers and they go to a little place called The Scripture House. It’s just four walls and a roof and a pad on the floor. And there, from 2:00 until 6:00 in the evening, every single day of the week, those 15 blind lepers pray and sing gospel songs and play the harmonica and memorize Scripture. They have memorized the entire New Testament, and when we were there, were two-thirds of the way through the Old Testament. Kim Lee Shin said to us, “Let us recite a chapter of Scripture for you. Pick a chapter in the New Testament.” 

“Any chapter?” I asked. 

“Yes,” he said, “Any chapter. It doesn’t matter.” 

Off the top of my head, I said, “Mark, chapter seven.” 

And with that, Kim Lee Shin turned to his 14 fellow blind laborers and said, “Mark, chapter seven.” He counted, “One, two, three.” And then in unison, word for word for word, they recited the entire seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

I felt, in that moment, the spirit and the power of Jesus Christ more deeply than I had ever felt it before. And I believe it was because Kim Lee Shin, who had encountered a suffering so deep that I can’t even begin to comprehend it, was made able by the suffering to touch with God’s amazing grace the deepest centers of another human being. And you know, I don’t know that I fully understood Kim Lee Shin until I saw some words that are, in fact, the cradle, the creed of what’s known as the Institute for Rehabilitative Medicine in New York City. You, in fact, may know the words. Here they are. “I asked God for strength that I might achieve, I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked God for help that I might do greater things, I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked God for riches that I might be happy, I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked God for power that I might stand on my own, I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life, I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered, and I, among all people, am most blessed.”

My beloved, people who in the midst of deep suffering in life give themselves over to Jesus Christ are people who prove the truth that in love’s service, only the wounded can serve. And people who live like that are people for whom burdens become blessings and labors become loves and service becomes a song. And those people are not only blessed by Jesus Christ, but they become a blessing to us all. Amen.



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