July 21, 2014
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In our seminary classes, we familiarize our students with Paul Scott Wilson’s little mnemonic device to ensure sermon unity: The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine or TTDINM in which each of those letters is preceded by the word “One” as in “One Text,” “One Theme,” and so on with the “I” being “One Image.” When preaching, we tell our students, select a single, central image and let that work its way all through the sermon for the sake of clarity. One good image in a sermon is much better than 4 or 5 competing and disparate images.
But in the latter portion of Matthew 13, Jesus is on something of a simile binge. The kingdom is . . . a mustard seed . . . a bit of yeast in dough . . . a hidden treasure . . . a pearl of great value . . . a net catching fish. Jesus here slides easily from the agricultural to the culinary to the marketplace and to the fishing trade. It all seems jumbled together at first blush. One of my students wouldn’t get away with this in a sermon! (Thankfully, I have never been asked to grade our Lord!)
But even though Jesus is throwing out these various images at a fast and furious pace, he’s also teaching one of the most remarkable truths that emerges from the gospel: namely, the unexpected hiddenness of the kingdom of God.
Jesus always made clear that the kingdom of God was going to save and rescue this world precisely by virtue of its being so very different from the powerful, flashy, showy political kingdoms that otherwise capture our attention. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, looks small, even tiny. It looks foolish. In fact, the kingdom can even disappear completely the way a seed gets buried in the soil. It takes 750 mustard seeds to equal one gram. Drop one of those little wisps into the dirt and you won't even be able to see it or even find it back if you try. The same is true of yeast in dough: once it's mixed into the water, flour, and oil, the yeast disappears—you could not separate it back out again (much less locate it) if you tried. Yet these tiny things have great effects.
So also with the kingdom: it's not what you expect in terms of political clout. The kingdom of God is not about gleaming capital cities studded with marble colonnades and soaring executive mansions. It's not about some fierce army plowing under the opposition by sheer dint of its power. Compared to all of that, God's kingdom looks as insignificant as a grain of mustard or a packet of dry yeast. But the kingdom can change hearts. It can change the world. It has changed the world.
The kingdom is here but it's modest. It's hidden. It's quiet. In fact, those who discover the kingdom sometimes tend to stumble upon it almost by accident. The kingdom is a great treasure, but you're not going to find this valuable commodity posted on the big board on Wall Street. No, you're going to stumble on it in some remote field. The person who owns the field won't even know it's there, but once you find it, your joy will be so massive that you'll do whatever it takes to buy that field.
All of this is profoundly surprising. We are so accustomed to these images in Jesus' parables that they typically don't strike us as absurd or paradoxical.
But they are.
Think of it: the kingdom is a seed scarcely visible to the naked eye and that disappears completely in dirt. The kingdom is yeast which a woman kneads into dough. In Jesus' day so-called "woman's work" was disdained such that Jesus was being quite provocative by making a woman the parabolic agent of working the kingdom into this world.
And has it ever struck you that the man who finds the treasure in the field is a little devious? Jesus says that this man finds some treasure in a field that does not belong to him. He then covers up this treasure again so the owner won't know it's there and then, without saying a word, he buys this field from the unsuspecting owner. It's a little sneaky! Suppose you were at a garage sale looking over some old purses. But then suppose you discovered that inside one of those old purses was a wad of $100 bills. Wouldn't you feel a little shady if you silently purchased it for $3 without telling the owner that she had missed a wee little something when cleaning out the purse before the garage sale?!
Tiny seeds, invisible yeast, woman's work, a slightly underhanded purchase: had it been left up to us, this is not how we would have described the single most powerful, meaningful, and joyful reality in the universe! But it is how Jesus described it. This is the kingdom Jesus bequeathed to us. It is the kingdom he asked us to pray for and the kingdom in which we asked us to live out the will of God on earth every day.
But this also means that if we take our cues from Matthew 13, then it is clear that both our kingdom living and our kingdom proclamation will be more about quiet acts of loving faithfulness than about headline-grabbing, bullhorn tactics. We cannot present the gospel of a suffering servant like Jesus by being arrogant finger-waggers. We cannot give the world the good news of grace if we mostly position ourselves as stern bearers of bad news and judgment. The kingdom of God represents the most powerful force the world has ever known. But we've got to let the kingdom grow and leaven in its own quiet, humble ways if people's hearts are really going to be changed.
In fact, as commentator Dale Bruner points out, it is curious to notice that in the parables of the treasure and pearl, it is only after the people run across these valuables that they become changed people who sell all they have. That may be one of the Bible's many hints, Bruner claims, that we cannot force people into the kingdom by first requiring them to follow a prescribed list of good deeds. Once you find the gospel, you have all the joy you need to motivate you to live a changed life. Until then, however, you won't find much motivation to follow the will of God on earth nor will the church's acting as the world's morality police bully people into the kingdom.
And so as bearers of God's kingdom, we keep plugging away at activities which may look silly or meaningless to the world but which we believe contain the very seed of a new creation. We keep coming to church and singing our old hymns, reciting our old formulas and creeds. All of us who preach keep cracking open an ancient book called the Bible, looking to find within it truths that are anything-but ancient. We keep gathering at sick beds and death beds and whisper our prayers for the Spirit of the resurrection to be with us in life and in death. We keep drizzling water onto squirming infants and popping cubes of white bread into our mouths in the earnest faith that through the Spirit baptism and communion don't just mean something, they mean everything.
And we keep working for Jesus in this mixed-up, backward world of ours. We quietly carry out our jobs and raise our kids and tend our marriages in the belief that God has designs for all those things and it's our job to follow them. We keep pointing people to an old rugged cross, having the boldness to suggest that the man who died on that cross is now the Lord of the galaxies.
But we cannot close out our look at Matthew 13 without noticing that after piling up one fiercely quiet and subtle image after the next, Jesus concludes with an image where subtlety goes out the window. There will come a time of reckoning at the end of all things, Jesus says. There will come a time when the “bad fish” will get tossed into a fate that is more than definitely on the grim side. So in the long run, despite all Jesus had to say about the hiddenness of the kingdom in the here and now, the day will come when the kingdom will be all in all and each person will either be in that kingdom or outside of it. We witness to the kingdom in ways consistent with the kingdom, which means lovingly and humbly and compassionately. But witness we must. The stakes are too high to stay quiet.
“Have you understood all these things” Jesus asked. Hilariously the disciple reply with a simple “Yes,” which you just know was not completely true! And to compound whatever fogginess they may had anyway, Jesus then says that if you do understand all this, you’ll be like a homeowner who brings out “new treasures as well as old.” What that means is still a bit of a mystery even 2,000 years later!
“Have you understood all these things?” Sure. Yup. Got it.
Well, probably not. But even yet today we need to understand these things well enough to sense the glory of the kingdom’s hidden nature and yet the absolute urgency of our pointing people to that kingdom every chance we get.
Textual PointsFrederick Dale Bruner in his Matthew commentary (Volume Two “The Churchbook”) believes that the “new and old” image in verse 52 refers to the new teachings of Jesus in the gospel and the “old” teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that led up to the proclamation of the gospel in Christ. In a way, this reflects back on this string of parabolic images right in Matthew 13. For those who had come to believe, based on the Old Testament, that a kingdom was always and only some shining political reality ruled over by people like David or Solomon, the notion of a hidden kingdom is very new indeed. But Bruner notes—in a comment perfect for all of us who preach—that the “new” things are also the endlessly fresh and new applications of the gospel that have come and continue to come all through the ages. In this sense, those of us who preach and who are led by the Spirit to constantly fresh applications of what we now call “the old, old story” are instruments of God to bring out the new things that confirm in every age all that is from of old.
Illustration IdeaA kingdom, Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy, is a place where one person's influence determines what happens. In the case of the kingdom of God, the kingdom is not for now a geographic spot on a map but rather the kingdom of God is present any place and every place where the influence of Jesus' living presence determines the shape of life. Wherever and whenever Jesus' wisdom, Jesus' wit, Jesus savvy, Jesus' words, and Jesus' love mold the words, actions, thoughts, and life patterns of some person or group of persons, then there is where God's kingdom is manifest. We've got to show the world how real the kingdom is by how we conduct ourselves. And the first, best way we can do that is to live as Jesus lived. Of course, Jesus did not reach everybody, and we surely won't either, therefore. To some Jesus appeared misguided, so will we appear to at least some. To others Jesus seemed quintessentially ineffective (what with all those quirky and confusing parables and that rag-tag group of loser fishermen and women of questionable repute who followed him around). So also we may never come close to generating a fraction of the kind of the head-turning excitement that tingles people's spines every time George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence walks into a Los Angeles restaurant for dinner. But we live the quiet, faithful, humble, service-oriented life of Jesus because it's all we have to go on!
Genesis 29: 15-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to ConsiderJacob is presented honestly by the author of Genesis. Jacob is very much a "warts and all" type of figure who has a predilection for deceit and trickery. Even after his dream of the ladder to heaven, still Jacob could not resist the language of wheeling and dealing in striking a kind of bargain with Almighty God. Lots of other people might have responded to such a vision by declaring, "My Lord and my God! I will worship and serve you forever!" But not Jacob. Instead he says, "OK, God: if you do what you promised, then I'll consider making you my God after all. But I'm going to wait." All along in the Bible we know that God's purposes are going forward. The fact that they did go forward is the only reason anyone ever bothered to preserve these stories in the first place. But Scripture is honest in showing us that many times the plans of the Holy One moved forward through some very ordinary events and, sometimes, even through what could accurately be described as some real shenanigans! Genesis 29 is a case in point. The tale of Jacob's arrival in Haran at his Uncle Laban's ranch and the subsequent story of the years he spent there are full of humor, irony, deception, and no small measure of dirty tricks. Curiously, God is not much mentioned throughout the bulk of these stories. In Genesis 29, the only reference to Yahweh comes from Leah but even she invokes Yahweh mostly as her partner in taking revenge against Jacob and Rachel. Jacob loved Rachel far more than Leah, but Leah was the one who ended up having all the children in this little ménage á trois and she sees it as Yahweh's way of blessing her so as to insult Jacob and Rachel. Leah may or may not have been onto something, but it's not exactly the way you expect God to show up in a "Bible Story!" Most of this chapter is just a cracking good story, albeit it very mundane in its day-to-day details. Jacob arrives in Haran at last only to fall completely in love with the beautiful Rachel. In a testosterone-fueled burst of machismo, Jacob single-handedly removes the cover stone from the well so Rachel's sheep can drink. He then discovers that Rachel is none other than his cousin and so rejoices at having found family again after being exiled from his own family of origin. Laban, for his part, grandly welcomes Jacob, but it doesn't take too long to discover that when it came to being a trickster, Jacob had met his match in Uncle Laban. (Who knows, maybe Laban was even the one who taught his sister Rebekah how to pull off the kind of deception she and Jacob had recently pulled on witless old Isaac and equally witless young Esau. There is a kind of family tradition of being sneaks!) So Laban lets Jacob work for seven whole years, knowing the whole while that when that entire long time was up, he'd be pulling a fast one on Jacob. He wouldn't get Rachel who had the lovely face of an angelic beauty but Leah who had the misfortune of having a nose like a camel and eyes like a basset hound. The story of the much-anticipated wedding night is filled with humor. As was traditional, Jacob slipped into the nuptial tent after dark, made love to his new wife, and then fell asleep with her in his arms. In the light of the morning, however, Jacob nudges Rachel awake only to find Leah's sad sack visage turning toward him! Throwing his bathrobe on, Jacob dashes across the ranch to where Uncle Laban sleeps and all-but throttles the old man in incredulous rage! Then, in a marvelous twist of Genesis irony, Laban defends himself by invoking the very same tradition Jacob and his mother had subverted back home: the tradition of primogeniture, of the firstborn coming first in all things. "Maybe you sidestepped this tradition back at your home," Laban as much as says, "but you're not getting away with it here. Leah is your wife. You can have Rachel only second." Jacob has indeed met his match! But he will still marry also Rachel. The text is dismally dismissive (and even derisive) when in verse 28 we are told that Jacob blandly "finished out the week with Leah" before finally getting the girl of his dreams. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a most unhappy way to start a marriage! Before the chapter is finished, however, Leah starts having babies, and we quickly see some famous names popping up for the first time. These children will be the heads of what will eventually become the twelve tribes of Israel. Through deception and chicanery, God's covenant is lurching forward. Promises once made to Abraham, to Isaac, and now recently reaffirmed also to Jacob, are actually coming to fruition. Amazing! The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg notes that history is the necessary horizon for all theology. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel believed it was serving a living God who was orchestrating an historical progression that proceeded in a linear fashion. History was not cyclical but linear; not just a repeating cycle that kept trudging around the same meaningless circle but actually a story that had a beginning, a middle, and some day a final and glorious end. What motored history forward was the tension between promise and fulfillment and the ways those promises ended up coming to fulfillment. Even so, however, the Bible and its authors were honest enough to admit that although history proceeds from some past point toward some future point, that line is not usually razor-straight as though drawn with the use of a ruler but zig-zaggy and jagged, full of ups and downs, unexpected tricks and even woeful setbacks. History moves and God acts, but as often as not it happens through the foibles and flaws of real people who lead gritty lives. Historian Theodore White once claimed that the job of the professional historian is to tell later generations what the past means. To do that, White says, the historian allows the passage of time to burn off all the details, leaving behind just the bare peaks and ridges of broad historical movements. So history gets divided up into epochs with names like "The Dark Ages" or "The Middle Ages" or "The Renaissance," and we quietly end up assuming that those labels suffice to tell us the past. Never mind that countless individual people and families lived in each of those periods. And never mind that the details of their lives may or may not have had much in common with the broad, epochal strokes of the historian's brush. The big things are the main thing. The rest seems somehow less important. But in this Genesis, God is in the details, even if the details are tawdry, typical, and mundane. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we don't have to think that we are subsumed into some broad epochal historical movement that steamrolls over us. Nor do we have to think that to be elevated to the status of a saint, we need to lead the kind of life that stands out, that deserves to be immortalized in stained glass. After all, if Jacob can be considered a patriarch of the faith and so his own kind of saint, there's hope for every last one of us! God does get his plans and purposes achieved through even the details of the most ordinary of our lives. There may be ups and downs for all of us, as well as for the church generally, but God is the Persistent One who keeps moving things along in and through (and let's admit, sometimes also despite) our lives. God doesn't give up. A while back I stayed at a retreat center in a quite old house. In one of the bathrooms was a sink with a leaky faucet. Every fifteen or so seconds another drop of water plopped out of the spigot and onto the hard, stone porcelain of the sink. Apparently it's been like that for a while because in that same sink I noticed a small trench, maybe an eighth-of-an-inch deep and an inch long, that had been worn into the stone. Now porcelain is very hard and water is very soft, but it's the persistence of the water that eventually makes even the stone give way. God is like that, I think. He is relentless and persistent. Even through a story as full of human foibles as this one, you know all along that the Holy Persistent One of the cosmos is at work, carving out of this world's history and out of the lives of individuals like Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Laban, you, and me the path that someday, and in retrospect, we will see leads straight into the glory of God's kingdom.
Illustration IdeaWhat does a sacred life look like? How might the life of a saint be described? In the fine film The Third Miracle, a Catholic priest is asked to investigate the life of a woman named Helen, who was reputed to have performed some miracles in her life and who, after her death, was credited with the healing of a child suffering from lupus. So the priest checks into the woman's history and background but finds a mostly unremarkable life that even included conceiving a daughter out of wedlock. Later, when the bishops and cardinals gather to hear the priest's report and so weigh whether or not to recommend her to the Vatican for canonization as a saint, one bishop is assigned the formal role of playing the "Devil's Advocate." And he quite easily was able to mention details from Helen's life that seemed to disqualify her as a saint. So much of her life was common, even now and again sinful. Ironically, in the end, the miracles are deemed to be genuine, and so despite the ordinary nature of Helen's life, the movie ends with the live possibility that she may be declared a formal saint one day after all. The preacher and novelist Frederick Buechner has written many books about Christian people, including a series of books about a preacher named Bebb and his Pulitzer-nominated novel Godric about a Medieval saint. But his books are full of the common, the ordinary, even the tawdry because Buechner is convinced that the life of a saint is not generally going to be so very different from any other Christian person's life, replete with struggles, doubts, failures, sin, fears, and the rest. Buechner has even gone so far as to say that if you actually set out to write a novel about a saint, you'd likely end up making a hash out of it. You'd likely end up trying to create a story that you think would look like a saint's life, full of piety and spine-tingling events and elevated holy language. What would result would perhaps look very spiritual but it probably would not look at all like the life of anyone who actually ever lived. Instead Buechner suggests that when writing novels, Christian writers could better simply create a flesh-and-blood character similar to any number of real people we already know and then show how the holy permeates that person's life even so.
Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 105 is one of the psalms that recite the “wonders” (5) God has done for Israel. The Scriptures suggest worshipers periodically gathered to hear such recitations of God’s “miracles” and “judgments” (5). They listened to those stories so that they might “remember” the “wonders” God “has done” (5).
Yet as Frederick Gaiser notes, this remembering was more than just simply recalling some historical facts. The Scriptures recount God’s mighty deeds so that worshipers may be drawn into those events. In a very real sense, when these stories are recalled, God’s saving work becomes, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present for each new generation.
Yet that call to remember, Gaiser goes on to note, also connects 21st century worshipers to these stories. In John 20 Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet believe.” We didn’t see, for example, the exodus or Jesus’ resurrection. Yet through the power of the Holy Spirit we believe God continues to do what God has graciously done in the past.
While Psalm 105 recounts Israel’s history, that history begins not with human actions, but with God’s promise. God, writes the poet, “remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded to a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac,” the poet writes. “He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit’.” This great promise of the land, and the way God acts to keep it, forms the basis of the praise that floods this psalm.
While Psalm 105 may seem like nothing more than a long and not particularly exciting Israelite history lesson, a close inspection of it reveals that few of its verbs actually refer to Israel. So Psalm 105 is not primarily a story of Israel’s political, cultural or military accomplishments. It’s not even mainly a story about remarkable people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
No, Psalm 105 insists that Israel’s story is actually largely God’s story. God, after all, is almost exclusively the actor in this psalm. Psalm 105 dramatically and repeatedly describes God’s power persistently at work to both save and protect Israel. God is the one who, after all, “remembers his covenant forever” (8). God is also the one who confirmed that covenant to Jacob and Israel (8).
In verse 1 Psalm 105 begins, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,” it begins in verse 1. “Make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.” This, however, isn’t just the Israelites’ doxology. It’s a song of praise that you and I also seek to join them in living out, not just on Sundays, but throughout the week.
So what does Psalm 105’s long history lesson have to do with such praise and thanksgiving that soaks this psalm? Psalm 105 gives content to Israel’s praise and thanksgiving. The Israelites aren’t, after all, just thankful in general. They thank God for very specific things this psalm describes, for the very specific ways God saved and protected them.
In a similar way, we aren’t just generally thankful either. You and I aren’t even just thankful to God in some generic ways. God has done and continues to do very specific things in our lives. So you and I try to be very specific in our thanksgiving.
Christians give thanks to the Lord most of all for the gracious gift of his Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit by whom we trust Christ for our salvation. We give thanks to the Lord for the way God works in his church to spread the gospel of joy and peace to the nations. Worshipers also give thanks to the Lord for concrete things like friends and relatives, and like food and drink. Psalm 105 reminds of what God has done, partially so that we may properly praise and thank him.
Something more, however, is also at work in this remarkable history lesson that is Psalm 105. This psalm also serves, by God’s Holy Spirit, to encourage worshipers to continue to trust in God’s good purposes. Israel can, as verse 4 calls, her “look to the Lord and his strength” because she remembers the wonders the Lord has done throughout her history. By God’s Spirit, Israel’s memory of the kinds of wondrous things God did in the Exodus builds her confidence in God’s ongoing work.
We too remember God’s faithfulness in order to cultivate confidence in God’s ongoing faithfulness in our lives. You and I remember God’s work in our past in part so that we may believe in his good plans and purposes for our future. Christians also talk to each other about what God has done in order to encourage trust in the Lord.
Yet why does God want Israel to remember what God has graciously done for her? God did them, the poet insists in verse 45, “that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws.” So Psalm 105 isn’t just a call to praise and thanksgiving or a summons to ongoing trust in the Lord. It is also an invitation to thankful obedience to the Lord.
After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God wanted a people who would live in godly ways in the midst of the world’s ungodly people. God created, protected and cared for Israel so that she would publicly “keep his precepts.” God, one biblical scholar eloquently writes, “quite literally moved heaven and earth not just to fix Israel up all nice and pretty in a land where the people could kick back and lead a rich, fat life of milk, honey, wine and cheese. No, God had orchestrated cosmic events with the goal of establishing a little colony of heaven.”
Of course, Psalm 105 doesn’t mention just how this heavenly colony fared. It doesn’t describe Israel’s largely faithless response to God’s gracious care and protection. The poet leaves it to Psalm 106 to mournfully detail Israel’s disobedient response to God’s wonders and miracles.
Yet the rest of the Scriptures show that God didn’t give up on our world or God’s idea of establishing a heavenly colony. So God sent God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the New Israel. And where the old Israel fails miserably, God’s Son succeeds completely. In the midst of the world’s blatant disobedience, that eventually includes his own murder, he is perfectly obedient.
Now, however, that Jesus Christ has returned, in body, to heaven, he leaves you and me with the task of being a colony of heaven. God graciously saves you and me, in part so that we will be an enclave of obedience in the midst of the world’s depraved disobedience.
God lovingly created, protects and cares for us in part so that we may represent and display his reign over his creation. Quite simply, God calls you and me to be different and distinct. He calls us to be holy. So in a culture that encourages people to seek their own rights in various relationships, Christians seek to serve and even sacrifice ourselves for each other.
In a society that calls us to seek out what’s best for us in our workplaces, Christians seek to promote things like racial equality and social justice. In a society that tells its senior citizens to live it up in retirement, Christians use our new free time to serve the most vulnerable citizens of our society.
“Memory” and “remembering” play a large role in Psalm 105. So those who preach and teach this psalm might peruse websites dedicated to helping improve one’s memory. Sites such as “Memory-Improvement-Tips.com,” “Memory Improvement,” and “Improving Your Memory Techniques” are eager to help memory.
Why is memory loss such a concern? It’s not just vital to things like learning and daily functioning. The loss of our memory also involves a loss of a very basic part of who human beings are.
When we forget what God has done, we lose a vital part of what God has created us to be. Is that, perhaps, why the Holy Spirit so often equips those who forget nearly everything else to remember things like psalms and hymns?
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.
For a different way of thinking of life, consider this poem by Jason E. McBride.
The morning air thickens
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
With a thousand eyes
at the finely wrought tapestry—
even while he trembles
at his certain end—to be devoured
this early hour
of his life-span:
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
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
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