Sermon delivered on Trinity 6A, Sunday, July 23, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
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 28.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the first time I have preached on my birthday. It doubtless will be an even more spectacular sermon than usual, precisely because it is my birthday and unlike the Beatles, I know you still need me now that I’m sixty-four. I know you still need me because of my brilliant sermons, rugged good looks, and award-winning personality™, not to mention my great humility. That and one other small thing. Like you, I no longer stand under God’s just and right condemnation because of the cross of Christ as we saw last week. Good News, that. Have you pondered it this week? I hope so. So what happens now? What should be our expectations as recipients of God’s astonishing love and mercy? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
St. Paul wastes no time in telling us in our epistle lesson. We are God’s children and are therefore heirs of God! Think about that for a moment. We are going to inherit God’s kingdom with all of its attendant good! We are heirs, of course, because of what God has done for us on the cross of Jesus. If we tried to lay claim to any of God’s kingdom on our own, we would find ourselves bereft and without a family, exiled to the streets as desperate beggars because as we also saw last week, left to our own devices we are all enslaved to the power of Sin and as the apostle warned us in Romans 6.23, the wages of sin is death, and death certainly isn’t part of God’s kingdom. That’s why we must always recognize that our inheritance depends solely on Christ. We are joint heirs with him because in our baptism we know we have died with him and look forward to being raised with him. This is our glorious inheritance!
So if we are heirs of God, what can possibly go wrong? This no condemnation stuff is awesome, baby. Smooth sailing from now on, right? Not so fast, says St. Paul. As God’s heirs you can expect two things from your inheritance: suffering and redemption. Well, Paul, we like that redemption thingy. But suffering? What’s that all about? What the apostle is urging us to do is to think clearly about living in a world that has been corrupted by human sin and rebellion and the attendant evil so that it labors under God’s curse. More about that in a moment. Like other biblical writers, most notably the author of Job, St. Paul here assumes the presence of evil in God’s world but does not try to explain it. Rather he tells us what we can expect as Christians who now no longer live under God’s condemnation as the rest of the world does.
First, the apostle talks about our own fallen nature. If God has condemned our sin in the flesh by sending his own dear Son to bear our just condemnation, why would we want to go back to our old rebellious ways of living? Why would we choose to live life without God? That kind of living, where we pander to our own selfish and disordered desires, i.e., where we live according to the desires of our flesh as St. Paul puts it, leads only to death. There’s no future in it—literally—and its source is the Satan himself who hates us and wants to see us utterly destroyed. Who in their right mind would go back to a life of slavery when they could have real freedom instead?
But here’s the problem. As we saw last week, although evil, Sin, and death have been defeated on the cross, there’s still quite a fight left in them, not to mention the dark powers behind them, so that we have to work each day to kill those disordered and death-producing desires in us. This is no small or easy task and we can expect to suffer as we work to kill off our hostility and rebellion toward God. Who wants to stop doing things that feel so good, even if they are so wrong? The good news is that we don’t engage in this struggle on our own as St. Paul reminds us. We do it with the help of the Spirit, who testifies to us through our doubts and fears and darkness that we are God’s beloved and adopted children, heirs to his eternal kingdom, in and through Christ, and that we can stop doing those things which keep us hostile toward God.
Putting to death our fallen nature is not the same as self-help or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We already are free from God’s just condemnation because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is nothing we can do bootstrap-wise to earn that pardon. God gives it to us because he loves us and wants us to live, not die. Yes, we struggle to kill off our disordered desires in the power of the Spirit and sometimes we fail because we are that infected by Sin’s power. But God’s power is greater than Sin’s and even in our failures, we no longer stand condemned because of what Christ has done for us. Moreover, we are to take heart because we know we do not struggle alone. We have our Lord Jesus present with us in the power of the Spirit to help us overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, and who will always forgive us when we miss the mark. As St. Paul will tell us next week, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen?
However, there is another dimension of our suffering that St. Paul talks about. It is suffering that results from living in a sin-sick and evil-infested world, and we all know what that looks like: desperate poverty, cruelty, racism, addiction, alienation, war, injustice, all kinds of deviancy, greed, hatred, idolatrous self-worship, adultery, abuse, sickness of all kinds. The list goes on and on and it is enough to overwhelm us. When that happens, we need to return to this chapter in Romans to be refreshed and encouraged by it because it is precisely at this point that Paul makes the bold and audacious claim that God is going to heal his world from top to bottom. St. Paul tells us that the whole creation groans in eager anticipation for the redemption of our bodies, i.e., for the coming of our Lord Jesus and the resurrection/transformation of our bodies, so that we will once again be the wise and just stewards God created us to be. Our sin and the evil it unleashed has made a mess out of God’s good world. But St. Paul makes the astonishing claim that it is God’s intention to restore his good creation through the agency of his Church, through losers and ragamuffins like you and me, as we suffer on behalf of creation. Far from withdrawing from the world, God calls us to bear its pains (and our own) by taking on its wounds and scars and afflictions. We do this in and through prayer and humble, loving, and selfless service to others. We give our time, our effort, and our money to help alleviate suffering wherever we encounter it. We don’t turn our backs on the world’s worst and neediest. We embody the love of Christ to them in the power of the Spirit. And when we trust God enough to start doing this, guess what? We will suffer because we will be abused and exploited and scammed and mocked and everything in between. But the kingdom comes through our suffering.
For you see, suffering is the way God redeemed the world. Think it through. Christ suffered for us and so we suffer for the world on his behalf because he has given us the precious gift of life. Impossible! we want to snort back at St. Paul. You are out of your mind. I’m not finished yet, says Paul. There’s more. As Christians you are going to be confronted with the additional challenge of dealing with your afflictions and the world’s, even when you can make no sense of those afflictions or see any hope of them being successfully resolved. We all know what that looks like. I’m thinking, e.g., of Len and Sharon, who are dealing with Len’s chronic and debilitating back pain. Despite several rounds of surgery, despite our persistent prayers, nothing seems to be getting better. I’m thinking of those of you who are under- or unemployed with little hope of sustainable income in the foreseeable future. Each one of us here bears the pain of unresolved and/or unjust pain and suffering. It’s enough to crush us and make us think we are Godforsaken.
It is here that the apostle speaks of hope, the sure and certain expectation that comes from having an unshakable faith in the God of the Bible, despite our circumstances, because we know that God never reneges on God’s promises and God has promised to one day heal and redeem us so that our suffering ends forever. Listen again to St. Paul as he speaks of this hope.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8.22-25).
This is why Paul tells us that our current sufferings, terrible as they are, are not to be compared with what awaits us. God has promised to heal and restore us fully when God brings in his promised new world at our Lord’s return to complete the redemptive work he started in his death and resurrection. This God can be trusted because this God has overcome all that opposes him: the world, the flesh, and the devil, but in a most unexpected way—the way of the cross. And this is the path God expects us to take so that in our faithful suffering, God will use us to help bring about the world’s healing and ours. Creation knows this and eagerly anticipates it. Do you?
Let us be clear about what Paul is saying here, my beloved. He is not telling us to minimize our suffering or discount it. Anyone who has really suffered knows what a bunch of pious caca that is. There are times when we have all felt Godforsaken in our suffering and where we can make no sense of it. It is precisely then that Paul tells us to remember our hope, to remember that we are God’s heirs. Think about this with me carefully for a minute. When we feel Godforsaken, we must head back to the foot of the cross and remember the supreme example of Godforsakenness. As our Lord Jesus was bearing the full brunt of God’s just condemnation of our collective sins and the full power of evil unleashed on him, he too experienced being abandoned in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend or imagine: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27.46)? Cry out those desperate words with your Savior as he was being crushed and condemned for your sake and then remember that God used his suffering to bring about your redemption. Take comfort and hope in that. This is not a God who abandons you.
Or go and read great stories like our OT lesson today where we find Jacob, the deceiver, the one who lied, cheated, and connived to steal his inheritance, the one who took pride in depending on his own cleverness to get what he wanted, just like you and I do. And what was God’s response to him as he fled for his life in today’s story? Don’t be afraid. I am with you and I will fulfill the promises I made to your grandfather Abraham through you. I am close by. That’s why I allowed you to see my ladder so that you know heaven and earth are not far apart nor am I far from you, even in your smug and sinful foolishness and folly. I am God and am always good to my promise. The God who made that promise to Jacob makes that same promise to you in and through Jesus. He’s with you right now in the power of the Spirit and when things get so bad in your life that you can only cry out Abba Father! because you don’t know what else to say or do, remember that it is the Spirit himself, not you, crying out to God on your behalf, the God who knows you intimately and loves you thoroughly as our psalmist proclaims, the God who wants all to be saved and thus is patient in executing his final justice as Jesus reminds us in our gospel lesson today (cf. 2 Peter 3.3-9).
This is our hope as Christians, a hope not based on the chances and changes of life, but a hope based on the faithfulness and love of God the Father made known supremely to us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot as yet see this hope. It has not been made fully known to us yet. That’s why we call it hope. But it’s a done deal and it frees us to act as God’s heirs, to be bold in our proclamation and good spirit. There is no place for moping and feeling sorry for ourselves as Christians. We are no longer under God’s condemnation and we have a real future and a hope! As we have just discussed, when we see our suffering for what it is and that God actually uses it to help bring about his kingdom, we will have hope even in the darkest night. This in no way diminishes the seriousness of our suffering or our struggles with it. It simply reminds us that suffering can be redemptive, even when we cannot see how. That takes great faith and a humble acknowledgement that there are some things in this life that are simply above our pay grade, even as we put our hope in God to fulfill his redemptive promises one day.
But if we really do not know this God about whom we have been talking—the God of the Bible, not the one of our own imagination or the world’s—we will never have this hope in our suffering and we will be defeated. To be agents of God’s redemptive plan for us and his creation, we must steep ourselves in Scripture to know this God and this God’s promises to us. We must be focused in our prayers, both for ourselves and for the world, and persist in them even when no answer is apparently forthcoming. We must come to table each week to feed on our Lord and be refreshed and reminded that he really is present with us in the power of the Spirit. And we must accept the gift of fellowship with which God has blessed us to strengthen and encourage each other in the midst of our trials and sufferings. This is our inheritance, my beloved. Suffering and redemption. When we know we are heirs to the best inheritance in the world, it frees us to endure our suffering and to act boldly in the present on Christ’s behalf because we know our future is secure. We know our future is secure because the Spirit testifies to us that we have been claimed by the suffering love of Jesus Christ our Lord and so we await our final glorious redemption at his Second Coming. And that, my beloved, is Good News, strange and vexing as it sometimes sounds to us, 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. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen. And until you do, equip us to fight the good fight on your behalf. Amen.