Sermon delivered on Trinity 7A, Sunday, July 30, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a splendid day to listen to a sermon, don’t you think?
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105.1-11; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have been working through the climax of this section (chapters 5-8) of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Two weeks ago we saw that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because of his saving death and resurrection. Last week we saw that to be in Christ requires our suffering for his sake because the powers, while broken, are not yet fully vanquished. Today, St. Paul offers us much-needed encouragement as we live in God’s fallen world as redeemed followers of our Lord, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.
“All things work together for good for those who love God.” That probably wasn’t the first thought that occurred to Jacob when he woke up the morning after his wedding. Jacob, the master deceiver, found himself deceived and forced to work another seven years to secure his beloved Rachel as his wife. Assuming Charlie Gard’s parents love God, I’m pretty sure they are struggling to believe this promise in the aftermath of their infant son’s illness and death (may God have mercy on the sin-sick souls of those who prevented them from bringing Charlie to the U.S. and then home to die). Likewise for the families of the young man killed and those who were critically injured at the state fair this past week. Likewise for Bishop Grant LeMarquand, one of my old professors at Trinity, and his wife, Dr. Wendy, who must suspend their ministry in Africa because of life-threatening health issues confronting Wendy, thus leaving a medical and spiritual void in the lives of those they have served so well. Likewise for many of you whose lives have been disrupted by all kinds of affliction, and who continue to struggle to make sense of it all.
To add insult to injury, we hear the mocking voices of those who are hostile to the faith and who see our struggles and failures to live as Christians. Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God act? You are a fool to believe such nonsense as St. Paul writes in Romans 8. If God were real, God would do something about all the suffering and injustice in the world. How is God possibly working for good in all things for you who profess to love God in Christ? Then there are the troubling voices from within, from time to time asking the same taunting questions.
And yet… And yet… These questions all presume to know how God can and should work in God’s world, bless our pointy little arrogant heads. They presume that because God is all-powerful, God will just wave God’s hand and destroy all the forces of evil in one fell swoop. Doing so, of course, would mean that God would have to destroy the entire creation and all of us because we are all hopelessly infected by the power of Sin and Evil. But we know Scripture consistently testifies that God in his faithfulness has promised to ultimately redeem his creation, rather than destroy it and every living creature in it. You do know that, don’t you? No, the long perspective of Genesis, not to mention the whole of Scripture, tells us quite a different story about how God is at work to bring about God’s promise to heal and restore God’s good creation gone wild.
We see God working in the life of Jacob and his forebears Abraham and Isaac with all their duplicity and half-faith, to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham to make a family from his loins that would be so large it could not be counted (mustard seed, anyone?), and through that family God would heal, bless, and restore God’s world (Genesis 12.1-3; 17.1-7). This is our first clue as to how God chooses to work to heal and restore God’s good creation: through human beings and through ways that are both mundane and spectacular. And what was Abraham’s response? Twenty-five years went by and no promised offspring. So he and Sarah took matters into their, um, own hands and voila! A son was born to Abraham’s slave Hagar whose offspring would be at war with Abraham’s offspring to this day. Not only that, but twice Abraham lied about his relationship with his wife Sarah to save his own skin. These aren’t exactly paradigms of faithful and virtuous behavior, but God worked through them and Abraham’s line eventually produced Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, just as God promised. But for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God’s hand wasn’t always readily apparent and so they sometimes (often?) resorted to taking matters into their own hands, especially Jacob the deceiver, just like you and I do today when God’s hand isn’t readily apparent in the midst of the chaos and suffering in our lives.
Notice that the writer of Genesis never tries to explain why God operates in this way. Neither does the psalmist in today’s psalm. Instead, he simply proclaims the faithfulness of God. So does St. Paul in our epistle lesson. As we saw last week, St. Paul assumes we will suffer on behalf of the Messiah because it was in suffering that Jesus broke the power of Sin over us and took on our just condemnation so that we would no longer stand condemned in God’s eyes. This is the essence of justification about which St. Paul speaks today.
No, instead of trying to explain why God apparently doesn’t act in the ways we want or expect God to act, the apostle assures us that God is indeed active and involved in God’s world. How does St. Paul know this? First and foremost because he had met the risen Christ face-to-face and knew that the resurrection was an historical reality that made Christ’s death on the cross all that it was, at least as far as we can plumb the depths of its meaning. As St. Paul would write to the Colossians, on the cross the dark powers and principalities had been defeated. Hear him now:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15, NLT).
Now in today’s lesson St. Paul makes the astonishing claim that we are more than conquerors through Jesus who loves us. If we assess the truth of St. Paul’s statement—not to mention the rest of the NT writers—based on evidence from this world, we are likely to conclude that they are delusional (and so are we who believe their claims of God’s victory over the powers of Sin, Evil, and Death). But St. Paul would tell us that his claims of Christ’s victory over the dark powers is not based on deductions from our daily experiences. After all, he wrote his letter to the Colossians while he was imprisoned for Christ’s sake and would soon be facing more imprisonments, persecution, and ultimately death because of Jesus. Rather, St. Paul would tell us that his claims are based on the faithfulness of God first revealed to the patriarchs and manifested supremely in the cross of God’s own dear Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, St. Paul’s claims were based on faith, a gift from God the Father himself, and available to all who want it.
This is how it goes. We know that in all things God works for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, even when we cannot see it in the life of the world and in our own lives. In addition to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle assures us we know this to be true because of three other reasons: 1) the groaning of all creation to be liberated; 2) our own groaning in our suffering as we await the redemption of our bodies, i.e., our resurrection; and 3) the inarticulate groaning of God’s Holy Spirit who lives in us. All these are signs that God’s promises to heal and redeem God’s creation and us are true. If we are old enough, everyone here has been in a situation where we have reached our wits’ end. We don’t know what to do or say, let alone pray. And so we groan in our misery. It is precisely at this moment that St. Paul tells us that God’s very Spirit is also groaning in us on our behalf and for our good. So in the desperate times of our lives we have God’s assurance that both the Son and the Spirit are interceding for us on our behalf, and they are doing so because it is the will of God the Father. And in doing so, somehow we find the strength to endure and to press on as we walk through life’s dark valleys. I suspect that if I were to ask you to give me an example of this from your life, every one of you here could give me at least one example of this phenomenon occurring. We find unexpected strength, or a friend or a stranger suddenly appears in our life to say and/or do just what we needed to hear or see at that moment. And the funny thing is, we didn’t even know we needed what we got till it happened. For Christians, in light of what St. Paul tells us here, there should be no such thing as coincidences or chance happenings. Nothing happens by chance. Nothing. We can have confidence that in the smallest things, the hand of God is at work on our behalf for our good. Amen? Be mindful of this and work to cultivate this mindset as you live out your days with their various trials. You’ll never regret it.
Our Lord Jesus says much the same thing in our gospel lesson. He too was besieged by the “why” questions. If you are Messiah, why aren’t you kicking butt and taking prisoners? Why have you assembled a ragtag group of followers and go about espousing peace and doing all kinds of healing? God’s people won’t get free by doing that stuff! To which our Lord offered, in part, the parables we read in our gospel lesson today. The kingdom of heaven (or God’s kingdom, not God’s space) is like a mustard seed or like yeast. You don’t see either actively at work in their normal operation. But at the end of the day, you see massive results. And so God is at work in me, God’s Son and Messiah, to bring in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. And guess what? God is calling you to follow me and give yourselves to me utterly. Yes, you are losers and ragamuffins just like my original followers. Like them and like Jacob and the patriarchs, your faith will waiver and you will conform your lives to mine in very uneven ways. In fact, you’ll get things wrong as much as you get them right. But if you resolve to understand what the kingdom is about and how God works through me and what I must do for you, and then through you as you give your lives to me, you will know that the kingdom does come on earth as in heaven. Don’t waste time asking and trying to answer questions you aren’t capable of answering. Focus on me. Give your lives to me. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love and forgive your enemies. Don’t judge others in a self-righteous manner. Develop a generous heart because your Father has a generous heart and gives to you far beyond anything you deserve. Work for the good of others, even if it costs you a great deal. Suffer for my sake. Don’t lose heart or hope. Why? Because eternal life in God’s new world is worth more than anything else in all the world. Your worldly aspirations of power, security, and wealth cannot save you. Neither can any identity other than being in me save you. I know. It’s enigmatic and perplexing this side of the grave. But take heart and believe because I have overcome both the world and the grave, the latter which you will see when I raise you from the dead upon my return to finish the work I started.
This is why we are more than conquerors, my beloved, the only reason why we are more than conquerors. We live in the power of God, a power nothing or no one can defeat, strange and inexplicable as that can be for us at times. We have given our lives to Jesus, the Son of God, who has conquered all by his saving love on the cross and who has been raised from the dead as a tangible sign of the fulfillment of God’s promise to heal and redeem us forever. We have God’s very Spirit who witnesses to us and who groans on our behalf when we are afflicted. Please. May none of us ever throw away this pearl of greatest price because it is the only pearl that really has any eternal value to it. It is the pearl of the Good News of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.