Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2017

Romans 5:1-8 Commentary

By now many of us have heard about the recent flap regarding the well-known contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone.”  Seems a certain hymnal committee wanted to formalize what a number of congregations had already done informally on their own and that is swap out language about how on the cross “the wrath of God was satisfied” in favor of words that did not contain any divine pique.  (The hymn’s author, Keith Getty, did not grant this request, by the way, so the hymn was dropped from the new song book.)

In a similar vein, most students of Scripture know that if you want properly to delimit a pericope in the first part of Romans 5, the natural break comes in verse 11, not verse 8 where the Lectionary would have us come to a full stop.  But that would require our reading those nettlesome verses about God’s wrath and our having been enemies of God.  We are ok with verse 8’s talk of our being sinners but let’s not mess with any wrathful imagery.

Well . . . Paul seemed to think we needed a full-orbed picture of these matters and so did go on to talk about God’s due wrath over sin (he sounded this note in Romans 1 already as well).  But really, who wants a God incapable of some righteous anger?  Given the evil that we witness in any single day’s news cycle, who would want a God who knows all of that and more and yet who can do no more than smile and hope that tomorrow’s news will be a little better?  When infants in Syria are gassed to death, when young concertgoers in Manchester are obliterated by a suicide bomber, when chemical companies willingly kill off every living thing in a river because dumping their sludge there was more convenient than other options, when a man who pledged to love his wife beats her mercilessly day after day–when all of this goes on, why would any God worthy of our worship do no more than shrug or sadly shake his head?

Doesn’t it make sense, and doesn’t it offer us hope, that the one true God would lash out with indicting judgment?!  As C.S. Lewis once wrote, yes, we all want a God of love, but if God is love, then his love is by definition something more than sentimental kindness.  God’s love is a holy love–a love that cannot ignore or weakly wave away evil deeds and people.  Many of you no doubt recall the scene in Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” when Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are describing Aslan the Lion for Lucy. “Oh dear,” Lucy says, “I think I should be quite frightened to be around a lion. Tell me, is Aslan quite safe?” “Safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the king, I tell you.”

God’s very goodness makes him a bit unsafe in a fallen world.  God cannot and must not tolerate sin.  If he did, we would have no hope of ever getting out of a cosmos that seems hell-bent on maiming the innocent, beating up the weak, polluting what’s clean, and just generally getting away with whatever it can to increase the bottom line.  We must expect that God will have some kind of reaction and we must hope that his reaction will be something far stronger than merely pleading, “Oh dear, please don’t do that.”

What’s more, for Paul this well-rounded picture of God is precisely what now generates our hope.  We were impious, irreverent creatures once upon a time.  We smelled of sin.  We did things that properly summon up anger from even our fellow creatures much less a holy and righteous God.  AND YET . . . the fierce love that burns brightly at the very heart of our Triune God was greater than our sin, stronger than any anger borne of God’s recoiling from our evil.  God could have given in to his anger, could have justified wiping us all out.  But he did not.  No, in the midst of all that came the incarnation of God’s Son and his life of sacrifice that culminated in the cross.

This generates now no less than our hope of glory.  And if it seems paradoxical to have hope in a world as filled with grim news and terrorist acts as this one, don’t let that make you doubt your hope, Paul says.  Since our hope spun out of paradox in the first place, clinging to it paradoxically in a tough world fits a larger pattern and keeps our hope secure after all.

And how desperately we need hope.  In his book, Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes reminds us that our souls need hope the way our lungs need oxygen.  Because we are inextricably temporal creatures who are forever moving into an unknown future, we need hope to keep us moving lest we become stuck, struck dumb with a paralyzing fear of the future.  Hope is God’s gift to us in this broken world–it keeps us moving.  Of course, the nettlesome twin sibling of hope is worry.  If hope is what keeps us going, worry is what makes us cautious in our steps.  If hope helps us to stride forward with confidence, worry is what makes us slouch even as we duck our heads in fear of the next blow that may wallop us up-side the head.

But we need not live that way, Paul tells the Romans (who themselves were living in the heart of the Empire’s evil darkness).  There is no blow coming to the side of our head—Christ took that for us at the very moment we most deserved to receive it ourselves.  God did the seemingly impossible to get us rescued from the darkness of sin and evil and if God could do that, then the hope that comes from such a daring move only gets more galvanized in the throes of our own sufferings and our own sorrows in this present time.  It is as though our hope of glory has been inoculated against the disease of this fallen world on account of its already having emerged from all of that sinful tawdriness in the first place.

This is the Gospel and its central paradox at its finest.  Paul understood it.  And now it is our privilege to proclaim it!

Illustration Idea


Although it was an 18-year flashback, the evil Lord Voldemort’s attempt to kill the infant Harry Potter became a climactic moment in the series/films as we learn what it was that prevented Harry from dying that night: it was love.  Harry’s mother, Lily, interposed herself between Voldemort and her son and the love in her was so strong as to cause Voldemort’s death curse to rebound and hit him instead (though it killed Lily herself, too).


What’s more, this love then attached itself to the only living person left in the room, young Harry himself.  And it left a mark on him that could not be erased (Harry’s signature lightning bolt forehead scar was but a token of the far more indelible mark on his soul).  Even after Voldemort managed to come back to life, he could not kill Harry but could only destroy the part of his own dark soul that had also attached itself to Harry in that early moment.  Voldemort could destroy the piece of himself that lived in Harry but not Harry himself—his mother’s abiding sacrifice and her love shielded him and could not be touched by evil.

The hope Paul describes in Romans 5 is like that.  It was forged from a sacrifice done for the unsuspected and the undeserving.  The love of God that overcame our sin and evil produced a hope that now lives in us and cannot be undone by the evil forces of this world.  It is secure.  It ensures we will live forever in our Father’s kingdom.  It is a living hope.  And it cannot die.


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