The Bitterness of Suffering – Bitter Herbs


March 20 – Third Wednesday in Lent

by Pastor Pete Scheele

Read Matthew 27: 26-31

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Grace and peace to you as you let Jesus help you with the bitterness of sin, from God, our Father, our suffering Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the heart of Berlin, Germany, stands the modernistic Lutheran Church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Church erected after World War II. Right next to is in shocking contrast, looms the ragged, charred and ghostly outline of the original Kaiser Wilhelm Church, bombed during World War II and almost beyond recognitions. Instead of leveling this eyesore in an effort to erase from memory the horrors of the bombing and burning of their city, the Berliners chose to leave it standing on one of their busiest streets as a reminder to all who pass it that war is evil and that they had brought war’s  miseries and destruction upon themselves.

When the long awaited, much prayed-for day of deliverance finally arrived, and the Lord God set the Israelites free from their Egyptians slave masters, God decreed that these emancipated people should not forget the bitterness of their 400 years of slavery.  First, their masters had oppressed them with forced labor, hoping to weaken the Israelites and reduce their numbers.  When that strategy failed, then the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.  They made the Israelites’ lives bitter with hard labor making bricks and mortar for the houses and temples of the Egyptians. The king of Egypt also instructed the Hebrew midwives to kill every newborn Hebrew boy.  NO exceptions and NO excuses! None of the bitterness should be forgotten by the Israelites even after they leave Egypt.

So it was on the first Passover and every Passover, that the Israelite people painted their door frames with the blood of the unblemished, year-old lambs so that the angel of death would Passover their dwelling and strike dead only the first-born humans and animals of the Egyptians.  As they went into their houses and sat down for a victory celebration, the Passover Seder meal, the master of the house would get up and wash the hands of all those who attended to remind them that God their ultimate master would wash away all their sins.  Then they would begin the meal that included not only roasted lamb and unleavened bread, but also bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8). The Passover was their victory dinner, and the menu featured raw horseradish roots! Yuk! But why?  Why did they need to remember what surely they most strongly wanted to forget?  Why year after year, when they celebrated Passover, must they always eat such bitter food?  What must be remembered?

We to are endangered and we weaken ourselves when we forget.  We must remember that we are living in a world where everyone’s hands, hearts and minds are soiled with sin.  True, the Israelites had not brought their bitter suffering upon themselves as the Germans had brought the suffering of war on their land, but the Israelites and the rest of us must live out our days in a fallen world; A world subject to spiritual attacks of all kinds; A world where astonishing human achievements are marred by greed, selfishness, hatred, jealousy and misguided notions; A world where each of us fail to live up to our potential and to God’s expectations or requirements; a world where we push God aside to live by our own wits and wisdom thus suffering the consequences of our idolatry to our self made gods.

We live in a world where bitterness is a reality and we must remember that it is a part of our lives. If we do not remember, then what?  What are the consequences? Well then we begin to blame God and others for our misfortunes.  We develop what we might call a royalty complex, where we thing it is our right to live like and kings and queens.  We deserve the good things in life and we are justified in doing whatever it takes to get it and keep it.

What’s more, when we forget the truth about our life, that it is fallen, it is broken, it is far away from God, then we also forget that everything that we have is a gift and we take for granted – our wearisome demanding jobs; our friends and families; those who don’t always give us the respect and attention we deserve, those who wrong us; our weather; our political freedoms; our opportunities – they are God’s undeserved gifts to us. When we forget these truths, we turn into whiners and complainers, weak and unprepared to handle adversities.  We need our horseradish root, lest we forget who we really are and what we really should expect in life after what we have done.  Do you remember how sinful and bitter your life should be because of your slavery to sin?  Taste the bitterness of the horseradish root now and eat some of it.  Taste its bitterness and remember the truth of what life is like and what you and I are like in our sins.

As you eat your bitter horseradish root remember your God.  He is a God who hears our groans of disappointment and bitterness, who knows that some of it at least, if not most of it, is of our own making – and yet He never turns away from us.  He sends Moses to face off with the oppressors of the Israelites.  He sends One greater than Moses, not only to face our oppressors and slave masters, but to swallow all the bitter pains that life can create, all the bitterness of broken relationships, the wars, the cheating. . .  all the bitterness I’ve introduced into this world  and all the bitterness that each of you’ve created in this world also. Up to the cross Jesus when to swallow it all – My sins, your sins, everyone’s sins – so that we need not to live in the bitterness of life any more.  As we eat the bitter horseradish we must remember – even if it means swallowing a bitter piece – that all the bitterness that has come into our lives because of our slavery to sin has been taken away by God’s love for us.  We have been set free from sin, death and the power of the devil by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus is with us and for us in every situation, for after our sins killed Him, God raised Him from death.  No sin, no holocaust of evil, no hurt or need can keep Him away for us. One of our century’s greatest stories of the Lord’s victory over sin and suffering can be found in the life of Corrie Ten Boom.  Perhaps some of you have read her story, The Hiding Place, or have seen the movie version of her life.  If so, you’ll remember when Corrie and her sister, Betsy were prisoners at Ravensbruck, a hideous, lice-infested concentration camp. Betsy secretly led a Bible study for other women in her barracks, but one woman refused to participate.  She jeered at Betsy, asking the same question so many of us wonder about, especially when we taste the bitterness of sin in our lives. “If God is so good, why does He allow such awful suffering in this world?”

Can you answer that question?  Momentarily, there in the Ravensbruck barracks, no one could either. Finally Corrie admitted she could not answer that question, but what she knew and shared with all the women, is what we celebrate this Lenten season and every Lenten season; That God came into this world as the person of Jesus Christ, He became one of us, suffered as we all suffer in this world and then suffered the judgment of God and all His anger for all our sins, so that we could live with Him and never suffer again.  Jesus Christ suffered with us and for us to take the bitterness of sin out of our lives.  He did that by suffering bitterly on the Cross of Calvary for us so that we don’t have to suffer hell.  That suffering was far bitter than eating a thousand bitter pieces of horseradish raw. Because of Jesus’ suffering, God forgives all our sins and we are set free to live in God’s perfect love now and forever with Him and all believers.

Now take a bit of the candy that each of you have in the sack with the horseradish.  You know when Jesus comes into our live by His Word and Sacraments He does more than just take the bitterness out of our lives.  He brings into our lives a sweetness of His love.  His love is even sweeter and better than the best candy you could ever eat. In fact God’s love and forgiveness is a thousand times sweeter and better than any piece of candy because it doesn’t leave but stays with us for all eternity.

Tonight each of you have been given a bag full of remembrances.  I hope that you will remember how bitter sin makes life – like the bitter horseradish root.  I also hope that you are living with the sweet taste of God’s love and the forgiveness in your lives, for that is what He wants us all to have now and for all eternity.   Go and share your remembrances so that others will come to know the sweetness of God’s love in their live now and forever.  Amen.

Let us pray: O Almighty God, we have brought the bitterness of sin into this world and You have freed us from that bitterness by Your Only Son, Jesus Christ.  Help us to remember the bitterness that we have been freed from as we grow in the sweetness of Your love given to us through Your Son, our suffering Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.  Amen.