So many Christians cherish this passage that it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of its central meaning. Paul talks in it about pivotal truths like providence, predestination and justification. Yet all of those things are like signs along the road that point to one central truth: God’s love is as invincible as it is sometimes unfathomable.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson isn’t first of all, about misery or salvation. No, Paul first and foremost wants his readers to understand something about the tenacity of God’s love for God’s adopted children in Jesus Christ.
Yet we can’t really appreciate that tenacity until we confront the human misery that sometimes seems to threaten it. Of course, as Fleming Rutledge points out, most of us naturally prefer to avoid such suffering.
So those who have ever been seriously sick have probably had at least some people they know avoid talking to them. If one’s child has ever been in legal or spiritual trouble, some friends have likely avoided him or her.
The college-age son of one of my earliest mentors died in a motorcycle accident. Don told me about his experiences to help me, he said, minister to people in similar pain. He said the most helpful comforters were those who just silently squeezed his hand or told him how sorry they were. Don also told me, however, that some colleagues also said insensitive things to him. It’s as if those pastors couldn’t handle this glimpse of their own morality in their colleague’s son’s death.
That’s why my loved one’s reactions to my cancer diagnosis remains such a wonder to me. I don’t remember any of them saying anything stupid to me about. I do remember how quickly they showed up in visits, phone calls, cards and emails. Friends and acquaintances didn’t seem to try to avoid my illness’ seriousness. They stared at it with me.
Paul too looks right into the mouth of a roaring lion that is misery in this evening’s text. He recognizes that the Christian life is not some kind of perpetual holiday. The apostle bluntly acknowledges that the Christian life includes sometimes excruciating and almost unbearable suffering.
Paul even catalogues some of the sources of that misery. Some of it, of course, Christians inflict on ourselves. So in verse 33, for instance, the apostle alludes to the guilt we have because of the sins we commit. In verse 34 he also refers to God’s condemnation that people naturally deserve because of our sins.
Yet people and circumstances inflict other misery on us. Paul mentions things like trouble, hardship, famine and nakedness. He even dares to cite things like persecution and martyrdom that sometimes happen because of Christian faith.
It’s sometimes tempting to assume that such misery will have the last word, especially in a world that knows so much of it. I think of someone I’ll call Anne whose family and friends inflicted almost unspeakable misery on her.
Her father and two brothers took turns systematically abusing her. Her mother obstinately denied the abuse she once even witnessed. When Anne fled her miserable home for a Christian family for whom she babysat, the husband abused her. When she fled that for a distant country, a neighbor abused her. So for most of her life, Anne assumed abuse would be the defining characteristic of her life.
It’s now easy for people to wonder if things like this global pandemic and systemic racism will have the last word. Cases of COVID-19 are rising across the world, with the United States “leading” the way. The virus remains resistant to easy understanding of it. What’s more, the vaccine on which so many are now counting are notoriously difficult to develop.
On top of that, recent events in the United States have brought into sharper focus the disparities in the ways Americans dole out justice. Racial injustice, prejudice and blindness to it remain so deeply embedded in society that some wonder if we’ll ever be able to fully destroy their noxious weed.
What, then, asks Paul, rhetorically, shall we say in response to this and other misery? First, in all of our misery God somehow, according to verse 28, “works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes.”
Somehow, in other words, even the suffering of those who love God, must serve God’s good intentions and purposes. They must in some sometimes-mysterious way aid things like the unveiling of God’s children. John Calvin commented about this: “All things which happen to the saints are so overruled by God, that what the world regards as evil, the result shows to be good.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to see how that good is greater than that evil. I think of some of the good things that have come from, for instance, the young pre-sem student Matt’s accident that left him deeply disabled. His parents tell me how it has deepened the faith of many people who know and love Matt. I think it has also heightened appreciation for basic things like safe travel.
But I can’t tell you how that good is greater than the good God could have done through a physically and mentally healthier Matt. So we can only pray for the trust that clings to that faith through some miserable dark nights.
Christians sometimes must desperately hold on to Paul’s assertion that no such suffering can separate us from God’s persistent and eternal love for us. Those, after all, whom God predestined, God has also both justified and glorified.
So not even intense suffering can wrench us out of God’s loving hands. In fact, though Romans 8’s preachers and teachers must always say this very carefully, God’s Spirit sometimes seems to use such misery to speed up what God’s beloved people call our sanctification.
Who has the right to charge sinners like us? Only the God who has already adopted us as God’s children! Who alone has both the right and the power to judge us by sending God’s beloved people to hell? Only the very same Jesus Christ, who already lived, died and rose again from the dead for his followers!
A colleague compares it to walking into a courtroom. Your knees knock and your palms sweat because you know you deserve to go to prison. Yet the prosecuting attorney recommends the judge set you free because she’s already accepted the punishment you deserved in your place.
Paul, in fact, also insists that not even the kind of suffering that other people or circumstances inflict on Jesus’ followers can separate us from God’s tenacious love. So no trouble or hardship can have the last word.
The apostle claims that, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases this, neither trouble nor hard times can defeat God’s redeeming love. Not even homelessness, bullying threats or backstabbing can drive a wedge between Gods’ loving care and us.
Paul should know. In II Corinthians 11:24 he writes, “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned … I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.”
So Christians’ baptism doesn’t include a money-back guarantee that we won’t encounter death, angels or even demons. God doesn’t guarantee that we won’t experience the loss of our job, health or memory. Terrorists and global warming may strike very close to home. Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters may endure broken relationships, miscarriage, infertility or even random violence.
Yet God tightly holds us closely to himself in God’s love. While God may not spare God’s deeply beloved children from danger, God goes with us, by the Holy Spirit, right through that trouble. God’s love, in fact, stays right with us until we enter God’s glorious and eternal presence.
So, as Paul writes, in all of these dangers and in all of this misery we are “more than conquerors.” We are, literally, what a colleague calls “hyper-conquerors,” “super-winners,” not just “over” these things, but also “in” these threats.
God’s adopted children may not escape depression and cancer. Yet they won’t conquer us. Christians may have to battle disability and doubt. But they won’t win the victory over us. God’s beloved people may have to fight sins or addictions that stubbornly cling to us until the day we die. Yet God’s love will have the last word.
That means that, among other things, God’s adopted children don’t need to always have the last word. Were it up to us, we’d want happiness, health and good relationships. God, however, may choose to give us only some or even none of those things. Yet Jesus’ followers still let the Spirit direct our lives. We walk the way of the cross, following Jesus Christ into even loss, suffering and death.
After all, as my colleague and friend Scott Hoezee writes, “The secret of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is that we become winners by losing, we gain life by dying, we gain the victory in all these things that pain us because it was precisely for all these things that Jesus came into the world in the first place.”
So God’s dearly beloved people look for ways to respond to God’s tenacious love by coming alongside those who suffer. The Spirit equips us to persistently walk with the people who are trudging through dark valleys. We pray for the strength to allow nothing in our power to separate the miserable people we love from us.
Because both of Prasanna’s parents died of AIDS when she was 3, her grandmother raised her. Yet meeting her physical needs drained that vegetable vendor so much that she had no energy to show her granddaughter love and affection.
God, however, knew Prasanna longed for the love that only God can provide. So God’s Spirit drew her to a Children’s Bible Club where she experienced that love for the first time this year.
Her teachers encouraged Prasanna and made her feel special. They told her about Jesus and his love that’s so tenacious that he died on the cross for her. That helped Prasanna profess that God is her heavenly Father who knows all of her needs.
Prasanna remained an orphan whom her overwhelmed grandma struggled to raise. She faced a very uncertain future. Yet Christians stuck by her, showing her that by God’s tenacious love, not misery, always has the last word.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2020
Romans 8:26-39 Commentary