40: Spiritual Value of Endurance

Today we conclude our sermon series called “Numbers Matter.”  Each week over the past month we’ve been focusing on a different number prominent in scripture and talking about how it can help shape our faith today.  We’ve covered the number 3, which signifies balance; 4, which helps us make godly decisions; 6 – a number of imperfection, which reminds us of our need for God’s grace; 7 – which gives us perfect perspective; 10 – a number of accountability, reminding us to love God and love our neighbor; and 12 – which signifies inclusion. Today we conclude with #40.

40, in scripture, represents a long time; a test or trial of some kind; a challenge; something that has to be endured.  Noah’s ark was battered with rain and flooding for 40 days and 40 nights.  The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land.  Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments.  Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days after his baptism.  And he walked the earth for 40 days after his resurrection before ascending into heaven.  Each of these examples of 40 signify a long period of time.

But 40 is also a number of preparation.  God uses challenges to prepare people for something important.  Noah’s 40 days in the ark prepared the world for a new beginning.  The Israelites 40-year march prepared them for a new home.  Moses’ 40 days on Mt. Sinai prepared the people for a new society.  Jesus’ 40 days of temptation prepared him for his ministry, and the 40 days after his resurrection prepared his followers to continue the ministry in his absence.  So 40 reminds us of the spiritual value of endurance.

Jesus said, in Luke 21:19, that “by our endurance we will save our souls,” reminding us that there are many excuses we can find to give up on God.  If we’re looking for a way out of our commitment to God, we can find one.  He wants us to know that life is hard.  Before the kingdom of God comes, things will be difficult.  Meaning that as long as we live on this earth, there will be things that we will find challenging at best and devastating at worst.  And if we make our happiness or comfort a condition for why we worship God and believe in God, we will invariably give up and say “I can’t believe in a God who would allow this thing or that thing to happen.”

But Jesus said, by our “endurance” we will save our souls – not our happiness, comfort or satisfaction.  The spiritual value of endurance is the ability to see that God is in it with us for the long haul and not just for incidental moments of pleasure, and that the path we walk with God is the only one that is truly life-giving. The spiritual value of endurance is the ability to see that God is still God and still good, even though things don’t always turn out the way I may be hoping.

And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, talk about where the ability comes from.  In chapter 5, he said that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not disappoint.  By this Paul does not mean that God causes suffering for the purpose of giving us hope.  Rather, he means that the struggles we face can reveal something inside us – a character – that is greater than the hardship in front of us.  That character is the image of God within us, in which we were created.  It is stronger than anything we can come up with on our own.  It may lie dormant in us for a long time, but it can be awoken and activated and empowered when we are willing to trust and believe in it – in the midst of our difficulties.  That’s the spiritual value of endurance.

I experienced the truth of this in a special way some years ago in Louisiana.  A friend’s grandmother was in hospice care in our neighborhood and as a favor to him, I visited her – and really more his mother who was taking care of her mother (his grandmother) in her house.  Through those visits I developed a relationship with the family and after the grandmother died I was talking with her daughter – my friend’s mother.  She was telling me that her mother was raised Catholic – as many Cajuns are – but when she married her husband, who wasn’t a church-goer, she stopped going to church.  In fact, for the next 60+ years no one in the family could ever remember going to a worship service for any reason.  But the day before she died, the daughter was walking down the hall when she heard a low, muffled noise coming from the dying woman’s room.  She was lying in a hospital bed and by this time she hadn’t spoken a word of meaning in days and had longed stopped eating and drinking, her organs completely shutting down.  But at that moment, the woman looked in the room and saw her mother’s lips moving.  “Mama, are you trying to say something?” she asked?  Her mother’s lips kept moving but she couldn’t understand what was being said.  So she walked over, leaned her cheek and ear over her mother’s face and heard what her mother – without opening her eyes – was whispering… “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…” and “Glory be to the father and to the son and to the holy ghost…”  Over and over again.  She hadn’t prayed those prayers in over 60 years.  But here and now, with her physical life slipping away, when Alzheimers had robbed her of her most treasured memories and Parkinson’s had long ago stripped her of her most accomplished abilities, it was words of faith that she clung to most.  For decades they had lain dormant within her, but when life’s greatest struggle confronted her, they were awakened.  They helped her endure that challenge.  And they helped prepare her to receive the eternal weight beyond all measure.

This past Wednesday I got a call from a local funeral home.  They said they were in desperate need of some pastoral help.  A young woman, age 19, recently engaged to be married and several months’ pregnant, collapsed last Saturday night in her home and died suddenly in the arms of her fiancée who had tried in vain to save her life.  They had no church.  No pastor they knew.  Would I be able, they asked, to help lay this young woman to rest.  Two days later – this past Friday – I did the best I could and by the grace of God the family got through what was – as you might imagine – an extremely emotional service.  Because, after all, are you ever “ready” to close the casket on your baby girl???  Over and over, everyone who knew her said – and sobbed – What do we do now?  How am I going to be able to go forward?  I don’t think I can endure this day – let alone a lifetime ahead of me – without her.

As I think about our worship today – in light of that young women’s family this week – and of the much older woman in Louisiana from years ago – I am convinced that in our deepest darkest valleys there is one thing that gives us hope to carry on and which ultimately leads us to life.  It is not intelligence or evidence or theory or proof or expertise.  It is faith – a faith that doesn’t change though all may be in chaos around us.  A faith that says we are not defined by the condition of our earthly lives or our earthly bodies, no matter how broken or battered they may be.  A faith that says even though this challenge seems to last forever, it is temporary.  A faith that says God never gives up on us – even though we may be tempted to give up on God.  And a faith that says that God will see us through – because God is using this challenge to prepare us for something important – something different than everything we know now, for sure, but also something more important than everything we have ever known.