Proper 12A

July 21, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 29: 15-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 8: 26-39

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                Christian author Doris Betts tells a story about driving down the highway in North Carolina and seeing a highway patrolman beside the road.  Apparently a chicken truck had run off the road and broken apart.  Chickens were running loose.  The driver was trying to recapture the chickens.  People were trying to steal the chickens. There was chicken blood everywhere. It was a scene of mixed horror and humor, and the patrolman was trying to bring order out of the chaos.  That’s us, says Betts.  In the middle of life’s chaos with its horror and its humor, we try to bring order, meaning, and stability.

    In these last words of Romans 8, the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides us a perspective on life that not only brings order to the chaos, but also enables us to live joyfully, peacefully, hopefully, and faithfully in the midst of the chaos.  Paul sums up that perspective in three statements that I would call the bedrock certainties of life.  He leads off with this first certainty.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  We know this, says Paul.  There’s no doubt about it.  It is one of the bedrock certainties of life—“in all things God works for the good of those who love him….”

    That is, arguably, the most magnificent promise in the Bible, and perhaps the most difficult to believe.  Some of you have read Angela’s Ashes, a bestselling book about the miseries of growing up poor in Catholic Ireland.  It is written by Frank McCourt, who recalls that in the space of 3 years, the McCourt family lost an infant daughter and twin toddler sons to poverty, hunger, and disease.  As the family prepares to bury the second twin, Father McCourt prays, “Dear God, this is what you want, isn’t it?  You want my son, Eugene.  You took his brother, Oliver.  You took his sister Margaret.  I’m not supposed to question that, am I?  Dear God above I don’t know why children have to die, but that is your will.  Could you at least be merciful?  Could you leave us the children we have?  That is all we ask.  Amen.”

    How can we believe in this magnificent promise in the face of such unspeakable tragedy?  Well, first of all, we must understand the promise.  Frankly, some of the difficulty we have with it stems from the fact that we have misunderstood it.  Maybe the easiest way to understand what it means is to get clear on what it doesn’t say.

    For example, it doesn’t say that all things are good.  This is not a promise that flies in the face of reality and claims that even really terrible things are good.  Later in this passage Paul will mention things like persecution and famine and death, and he never hints that such things are good in themselves.  Some things are not good; they are downright evil and wrong, and we ought to hate them and try to get rid of them.  The promise is that all things, even the bad things, work together for good.

    But that brings me to the second thing this promise doesn’t say.  It doesn’t say that things just kind of work themselves out by some sort of natural process.  This promise is true only because God is at work in all things, even bad things.  Other translations of this text leave God out of the picture—“everything works together for good.”  That translation is based on the fact that the word “God” is not found in the Greek of verse 28.  But God is certainly the one who does this miraculous thing, as is obvious from the marvelous and mysterious words of verses 29-30.  An old Reformed confession calls those verses “the Golden Chain of Redemption,” because each verb is tied to the other verbs by a common subject, namely, God.  “Those whom he foreknew, he predestined; those he predestined, he called; those he called, he justified; those he justified, he glorified.”  God is the actor in redemption, even as he is the actor in keeping the promise of verse 28.

    This is why the promise is so certain; it is based on the effective choice and powerful activity of God from eternity to eternity.  The God who loved us from all eternity and will get us to perfection in eternity is not about to leave our fate in between to chance or the forces of evil.  The text does not say that things will just sort of work out somehow; it says that God makes all things work for good.

    Again, the text does not say that things will work out the way we want them to, even if we are sure that it would be best if they did.  It says that God will work for “the good,” and defines that good in a very specific way in verse 29.  We have been predestined “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”  That is our destiny, our highest good.  There is nothing better than to be like the Son of God with all the privilege and honor and wealth and power and blessing that includes.  The text does not say that we will get everything we think is good, but that in all things God works to get us the ultimate good.

    Again, the text does not say that this will happen quickly or painlessly.  We will be “conformed” to the likeness of Jesus, and the word “conformed” has about it the idea of being shaped, molded, squeezed, and thrown into the oven.  Think of what a potter would do to turn a simple lump of clay into a lovely piece of pottery.  Such “conforming” might take time and it might cause pain.  This is not the promise of an easy life.

    Finally, the text does not say that this promise is for everyone.  In the Greek, the idea thrust forward is that this promise is for those who love God.  It is not a promise for those who hate God.  Of course, God in his infinite mercy may very well make things work for the good of those who hate him and want nothing to do with him.  But God makes no promise to that effect.  This is a promise for those who love God.  However, knowing that we waver in our love for God and desiring to anchor this promise in something more solid that our shifting affection, Paul closes with this business about God’s call.  This promise is for those who are “called according to God’s purpose.”  Who are they?  Not people who love God perfectly, but those who have solid evidence of God’s call in their lives, which is a simple trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

    That’s what the promise means, and doesn’t mean.  “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love the Lord, and are called according to his purpose.”  That brings us to the next and more difficult question.  In the midst of all the terrible things that can happen to us (which Paul brutally lists in verses 35 and 36), how can we be sure that this magnificent promise will hold true for us?  Well, says Paul, we can be certain of that because we know two more things.  There are two more bedrock certainties of life– God is for us and nothing can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    “What then shall we say in response to this?” asks verse 31, referring not only to the few verses we’ve just talked about, but to all this Gospel that has been spelled out in 8 long and complicated chapters.  What is the conclusion of it all?  What does it all amount to when you take away all the fancy theology?  Just this—God is for us.  Ultimate reality, the heart of the universe, is not hostile or indifferent, but benevolent to the inhabitants of planet earth.

    In the Civil War novel, Cold Mountain, Ruby and Ada argue “whether the world might better be viewed as such a place of threat  and fear that the only appropriate attitude was gloom, or whether one should strive for light and cheer, even though a dark-fisted hand seemed poised to strike at any moment.”  To which the Bible replies with bed-rock certainty, ultimate reality is not a dark-fisted hand poised to strike at any moment, but the hand of a Father who is determined to bless his children.

    God is for us, and Paul spells out what that means in numerous ways.  God protects us.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  The answer is, many and much.  But God is for us, and he will protect us so that the good he wants for us will be accomplished for us.  God provides for us.  After all, he gave us his Son.  If he did that, how could he not also give us all things?  God saves us our own sin and his own judgment.  “It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn us?”  Many will try, but it will have no ultimate effect.  Indeed, Jesus continues to live for us and is seated at the right hand of God for us to make intercession for us.   Note the echo– “for us, for us, for us.”  Those two words ring through the passage and in our hearts.  That is the bedrock certainty underlying the magnificent promise of verse 28.

    But how do we know God will always be for us?  I read recently that the great central question of today’s youth is not, “What is the meaning of life?” but “Will you be there for me?”  It is a completely understandable question in a world filled with separations of all kinds—broken marriages, broken promises, broken contracts, bankruptcies, death of all kinds.  How can you count on anyone to be there for you tomorrow, even if they are for you today?  Good question.  The Bible asks it of God.  “Who shall separate us from the love of God?”  And then it lists all the terrible thing that can happen to us.  How do we know God will be there for us through all the vicissitudes of life?

    Here is the third bedrock certainty of life.  “I am convinced that nothing in all of space, nothing in all of time, nothing human or sub-human or superhuman, nothing in the entire universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  There is the reason for our certainty—not some abstract idea of God, not some system of theology, not a tradition of belief, but the personal reality of God’s love, God become human and dying on a cross out of love for us humans.  Christ Jesus our Lord is the ultimate proof that God is for us.  He is the final guarantee that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

    We’re all a little like Moses standing on Mt. Nebo at the end of the long wilderness wandering of Israel.  He looks south, back toward Egypt and the wilderness, back to the past and life’s surprising journey and the grace of God in his life.  And he looks west across the Jordan, where he can see the Promised Land, the future, where he is not privileged to go, but which he can see in broad contour.  So far the similarity. Here’s the great difference. We shall enter the Promised Land and live forever because Jesus is our Savior and Lord.

    Now in the meantime, standing here on Nebo between our past and our future, we know three things for sure.  God is unalterably for us; nothing can separate us from his love in Christ; and whatever happens to us God will work to our final good.  And because there are these bedrock certainties, we won’t just make it through.  We won’t stagger to the edge of Jordan and stumble across.  No, we will be “more than conquerors.”  Indeed, says Paul, we are already.  We may not feel that way all the time, but we are.  And we will feel like “more than conquerors” as often as and as long as we stand on these bedrock certainties of life.

    Illustration Idea

                For a different way of thinking of life, consider this poem by Jason E. McBride.

    The morning air thickens

    with lilac

    and I am like this fly

    who strains against its net

    prison.  The web, strung taut

    between waxy leaves,

    catches sunlight in dew drop

    prism pockets—a beautiful

    death.

    With a thousand eyes

    he marvels

    at the finely wrought tapestry—

    even while he trembles

    at his certain end—to be devoured

    this early hour

    of his life-span:

    a day.

    Quite unlike the attic’s

    dark corners, where cobwebs,

    overbaked in stale summer heat,

    sag with the weight of dust.

    I’ve seen a hollowed fly carcass

    dangle there, gazing up at bare

    rafters with a thousand empty

    stares.

    I have such moments.

    In them, I, from my spinning sphere,

    send a cry through cupped hands,

    hurling sound waves that bend

    in space—up—past the moon,

    echoing around Neptune, words

    toppling over words, crunched

    and stretched by the Doppler Effect

    in a web of whirling worlds

    and silent spaces.  My voice,

    dissipating through galaxies,

    fills constellations with mere

    whispers.

    And you, Lord, pressed

    your stethoscope to the chest

    of the universe and listened.

    And my cries came to you,

    like gnats or flies,

    through the screen door

    of your clean and furnished mansion,

    buzzing in the shiny

    waxy caverns of your

    ears.