July 20, 2020
The Proper 12A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 29:15-28 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 119:129-136 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 8:26-39 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 49 (Lord’s Day 18)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Author: Scott Hoezee
Probably most of us have benefitted from mnemonic devices at some point. We might remember the primary colors in the visible light spectrum by remembering the name Roy G. Biv (which in turns gives us Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). A strange one used by my junior high science teacher has nevertheless stuck with me: Kathy Pulled Candy On Friday – Good Stuff. I don’t know what it means to “pull candy” but it has always helped me remember Kingdom Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.
In our seminary preaching 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”: One Text, One Theme, One Doctrine, One Image, One Need, One Mission. Each is important but it is the One Image that students sometimes struggle with. But 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 that bombard listeners and become jumbled in their imaginations.
But in the latter portion of Matthew 13, Jesus is on something of a simile and image 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 that 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 disciples 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.
Frederick 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.
A 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!
Author: Stan Mast
If I am Esau, sitting back home in Beersheba, the injustice of my situation is infuriating. I’ve been deceived and robbed. My life has been forever changed by the slippery ways of my little brother. My birthright is gone; so is my blessing. I’m left here with my blind old father and a mother who loves my younger brother more than me.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. If I could, I’d kill the little thief. But he’s gone, long gone, running off to uncle Laban. He’s gotten away with it. He’s ruined my life and he’s gotten away with it. Indeed, my father even sent him off on good terms, even after the way Jacob deceived him. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe the injustice of it all.
It’s not hard to put ourselves in Esau’s sandals, is it? The world is full of Jacob’s—scoundrels who get away with it. All around us are liars who occupy positions of power, thieves who never get caught, manipulative co-workers who get the promotion even though they didn’t do the hard work, kids who get you into trouble but never get called into the principal’s office themselves, terrorists who kill hundreds and then slink off to enjoy their rewards, parents who abuse their children and no one ever guesses. The world is full of smooth slippery rascals who do wrong and never get what’s coming to them. They get away with it. The injustice of it reeks to high heaven.
Well, this part of the story of the man who wrestled with God assures us that heaven smells the stench, and responds in a way that would make Esau smile, for a long while. Because, you see, at Paddan-Aram, in the home of uncle Laban, Jacob discovers that what goes around comes around. In uncle Laban, Jacob meets himself multiplied, an older, slicker, greedier version of himself. The little deceiver meets the artful dodger, the prince of thieves meets the king, the deceitful weasel of Beersheba is outdone by the wheeler dealer of Haran.
It all began well enough. Jacob is warmly welcomed by Laban, though some scholars suggest that Laban’s hospitality may have been driven by the memory of the lavish gifts he had received years before when Isaac came looking for a wife and found Rebekah. At any rate, Jacob is accepted into the family, falls in love with Rebekah, and begins to work on Laban’s ranch. Laban even wants to pay him.
But as soon as money gets mentioned, the trouble begins. Of course, Jacob doesn’t want wages; he already has prosperity guaranteed by the stolen birthright and blessing. He wants a wife; that’s why he is here. I’ll work seven years for the hand of your younger daughter Rachel, the gorgeous, shapely one.
Well, we all know how the story goes, so I won’t retell it in detail. You probably won’t have to either, unless your church is a bit biblically illiterate. I will highlight how Jacob got back in Haran exactly what he had done in Beersheba, tit for tat. The deceiver gets deceived.
The one who deceived his blind old father, taking advantage of the darkness in which Isaac lived, covering his smooth skin with goat’s skin, is deceived by Laban, who covers weak-eyed Leah with heavy veils so that Jacob doesn’t know it’s her, then slips her into Jacob’s bed in the darkness. The younger son, Jacob, who said, “I am your elder son,” receives the elder Leah as his wife, when he wanted the younger Rachel. The thief who stole the benefits of the first-born son receives the deficits of the first-born daughter.
Jacob’s mother loved him more than Esau, and her lopsided love resulted in conflict between the children of Jacob and Esau that is still being felt all over the Middle East. Jacob loved the younger daughter more, and his unbalanced love resulted in years of tension between the children of Rachel and Leah, leading to the selling of Joseph into slavery in Egypt. The blessing Jacob cheated Esau out of back in Beersheba guaranteed Jacob prosperity, but here in Haran Laban cheats Jacob out of his prosperity, or at least tries.
There are probably more parallels, more examples of pay back, of justice done exactly. What goes around comes around. Or as Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please the sinful nature will reap destruction.” If he sows to the flesh, he will reap the flesh. If he sows evil, he will reap evil; if he sows deceit, he will reap that; if he sows theft, he will reap that. So says the word of God. It’s a message that would make Esau smile, I’m sure.
How does that strike you? How will your church hear this story? One side of me says, “Praise the Lord!” How wonderful to know that justice will be done in this world of scoundrels and villains! To think that everyone will eventually get what they deserve, exactly and without reservation, is a real comfort—Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, serial killers, multiple rapists, abusers of children, terrorists, your worst enemies and mine. There’s one side of me that thinks this would be a better world, a good and moral and just world, if the law of “what goes around comes around” worked exactly and without exception. One side of me thinks that.
That side of me would make a good Hindu. At the heart of Hinduism is the doctrine of Karma, according to which everyone gets exactly what their actions deserve. Indeed, human life is all about working out the results of Karma. That’s why Hindus believe in reincarnation, the belief that people don’t just live one life; they are reborn again and again, given new bodies time after time, reincarnated, recycled until their karma is worked out.
The wheel of karma spins, and so in one life you might be a wealthy man, in the next a dog, in the next a poor woman, and in the next a cow. The level of being in which you are reincarnated is determined by what you did in a former life, by what your karma was. There is absolute justice, an unbreakable law of cause and effect operating in life, an unbreakable connection between what you do in one life and what happens to you in the next. Everyone gets exactly what they deserve. The wheel of Karma says that what goes around comes around.
Well, the Bible doesn’t teach that. And though that might disappoint us as long as we are thinking like Esau about Jacob, the Good News of Jesus Christ will make us rejoice when we recognize that we are Jacob. Yes, this story of Jacob assures us that there is justice in this world, that the Jacobs of the world don’t just get away with it, but that’s not all there is to it. Indeed, the Bible has a very different view of human life. It is not a cyclical affair, an endless recycling until we get it right and justice is done, an unbroken circle of cause and effect, the spinning wheel of Karma.
No, according to the Bible, human life is a story with a beginning and an ending and many chapters in between, a line that moves from one point in time and space to another. And that line can be interrupted. The story line of our lives can be broken into by the grace and mercy of a personal God. That God is not only just, but also merciful; he not only punishes sin, but also forgives it; he not only visits our sins back on us and even our descendants, but also laid those sins on the back of his only begotten Son. So, we don’t just get what we deserve; we get much more, and better.
So it is that Jacob, after experiencing the results of his deceit and thievery in his own life, does finally go back home, married with children and much wealth. That chapter entitled “What Goes Around Comes Around” is only one chapter, albeit a long one, in a much longer story that is entitled “The History of Redemption.” It is a story that will lead back to Beersheba, and down to Egypt, and back to the Promised Land, and up a hill called Calvary, and into a heaven filled with the likes of Jacob, who sinned terribly but found forgiveness through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
What goes around comes around—a satisfying truth for the likes of Esau, and a threatening one for the likes of Jacob. Be assured, my friend Esau, that there is justice in the world, because it is ruled by a just Judge. Take comfort in that if you’ve been cheated and deceived and ruined. And take warning from that, O Jacob, if you think you can get away with it. What you sow you will reap.
But that’s not the end of the story, because as Romans 5:20 puts it, where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. So even the Jacobs can rejoice. The world is not ruled by impersonal forces of cause and effect but by a personal God who specializes in the surprise of grace. That’s why you and I can rejoice—the Judge of all is the King of mercy. So even if you are in a Jacob and Esau chapter in your life, and you are Jacob, you can rejoice in glorious hope, for Christ the Judge will come to gather all his saints to their eternal home.
The last line of the piece above comes from that majestic hymn, “Rejoice the Lord is King,” which you might want to use to cement the emotional force of this story. Stanzas 3 and 4 capture the twin poles of our story:
He sits at God’s right hand till all his foes submit,
Bow down at his command and fall beneath his feet.
Lift up your hearts, lift up your voice.
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice.
Rejoice in glorious hope; for Christ the Judge shall come
To gather all his saints to their eternal home.
We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice;
The trump of God shall sound, rejoice.
God’s dealings with Jacob in Paddan-Aram were meant not to punish him, but to change him, to help him become Israel who would bring the Savior into the world. His cheating heart was as hard as the heart of the cheated Esau. Both had to be changed by grace. The much-acclaimed movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” gives a marvelous example of a hard man being changed by grace.
A cynical and angry journalist is given the assignment of doing a brief piece on “Mister Rogers” of the beloved children’s TV show. The journalist has been deeply wounded by his no-good father, so he lives a closed and bitter life. Not surprisingly, he approaches his assignment with a negative attitude toward this ridiculously kind and caring TV figure. What’s his angle? Who is he really? Over the course of several visits, the reporter is softened and healed to the point where he is reconciled to his father before the latter dies.
Before you preach on this story, watch that movie to get in touch with the human dimensions of Jacob and Esau, so that you’ll appreciate the power of divine grace.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Perhaps this would feel striking at any moment. But during this COVID-19 time and all that we have experienced in recent months, parts of this snippet of the longest psalm feel particularly odd. We have been living in largely unprecedented circumstances for most of 2020 and certainly since early March. Governors and mayors in particular have had to tap emergency powers and issue more executive orders than most of them ever imagined doing when they got elected to their respective offices. Some Governors have issued more Executive Orders in 4 months than they ever imagined doing across the span of their entire political careers!
The mandated shuttering of businesses. Mandates to wear masks in indoor spaces. Closing schools and issuing Stay-at-Home orders. Re-opening things like bars only in some places to have to close them again after new outbreaks of the coronavirus cropped up. Just generally 2020 so far and in most places has seen a major uptick in orders, laws, mandates, rules, and regulations as officials and ordinary citizens alike try to navigate this highly strange and frightening time.
What one has generally NOT seen, however, are people with their mouths open like hungry baby birds, practically panting after the reception of new laws. Indeed, there has been huge agitation in many places—sometimes in the form of heavily armed protestors at state capitol buildings—to resist mandates and new laws, to spit out of their mouths executive orders about masks and the closing of bowling alleys and such. A vast hungering for laws is not something we are seeing very often these days.
Psalm 119 is, of course, one giant ode to the splendor of God’s Law. Just about every Hebrew synonym for “law” in the dictionary crops up repeatedly across this psalm’s 176 verses. The psalmist almost trips all over himself to wax poetic on the beauty, splendor, wisdom, necessity, and what-all-not of God’s Law. And as in verse 136 at the end of this Lectionary selection, whenever the psalmist considers the disrespecting or disobeying (or ignoring) of God’s Laws, it becomes an occasion for genuine sorrow.
Even absent this strange time of pandemic when so many people in so many places have chaffed under laws, rules, statutes, and regulations they don’t like, you don’t generally find quite this much enthusiasm for any form of laws and rules. At best we take them a bit for granted. At worst we regard them as necessary evils (that we would happily disobey if we could even as with things like Speed Limits we push the legal envelope and cheat a bit as it is).
And if and when we see people flouting the law—and for believers when we see people in the world flouting God’s Laws specifically—we might get angry about such a thing, we might get upset or ticked, we might express surprise or outrage. But weeping??? Not so much. Not very often anyway.
This gap between how the author of Psalm 119 felt and the way we often feel either reveals that this poet was a bit of an odd duck who geeked on the Law to an inordinate degree or that quite possibly there is sometimes something rather wrong with our own perspective on these matters. But since most of us would embrace the idea that this psalmist was writing ultimately under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it probably is our perspective that needs some work.
Oh, not in regards to temporary laws like the ones of late mandating the wearing of masks in public places and certainly not about mundane things like Speed Limits or No Trespassing signs or this or that environmental law seeking to curb car emissions. We need to focus here on the big things of God’s Law, on the big and permanent and organically true Laws that reflect the way God set up this cosmos in the first place. This is where we as followers of God through Jesus Christ could properly crank up some Psalm 119-esque enthusiasm.
Because as Psalm 119 knows, the Law is a gift. It reveals to people with eyes to see and ears to hear the blueprint of creation. And as any architect and builder and carpenter knows, blueprints are awfully important. When you remodel your kitchen and want someone to knock out a wall so you can fit in a double-wide refrigerator, the blueprint is what will tell you whether the wall in question is a bearing wall or not. If it is, knocking it out will collapse that entire end of the house onto your head. You’ll have room for that big refrigerator all right . . . right after you spend another $10,000 repairing the damage from the collapse. Blueprints keep you from drilling holes into electrical wires behind the wall and other such mayhem that can hurt you.
The Law, Psalm 119 knows, is a guidebook for delight and flourishing. It was written by the Creator who fashioned this whole world in the first place so he knows where all the bearing walls and electrical wires are and can guide you therefore into safe and happy living. Only a cruel and unkind god would set creatures loose into a world without giving them any hint as to where the dangers and pitfalls were. But a loving God like Yahweh of Israel didn’t want that and so gifted God’s people with the Law. It’s a good thing. We should pant and pine for it. We should want it to guide our steps so we avoid any landmines out there.
And when we see it violated and flouted, we should feel sadness most of all. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we see that a trusted uncle flouted God’s Law and so molested a young niece, raping her, abusing her, scarring her for life. And we weep over such betrayal, over such a violation, over such a corrupting of an innocent life. But if we had eyes to see, we might recognize that dramatic though child sexual abuse is and as offensive as it is to almost anyone (religious or not), the truth is that things nearly as egregious and injurious to the creation and to the people and creatures in this world happen all the time when people ignore the boundary lines God put into place. Most every case that makes it to a court somewhere probably can be traced back to some ignoring of God’s Law or another. The failure to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is behind most crimes big and small and since this is the encapsulation of the whole Law according to Jesus, most bad things that happen stem from a failure to love. And a failure to love is a flouting of God’s Law.
In the abstract we might say we dislike regulations and laws. They clip our wings, stifle our freedom, keep us from doing what we want to do. But in the longest possible run, we should pant after a full understanding of God’s Law—and pine also for the strength to then follow that Law—with all the intensity Psalm 119 can muster. It really is the path to flourishing and delight.
In the 1980s film Witness, a young Amish boy witnesses a brutal murder in a train station bathroom while traveling by train with his mother to visit his Aunt and Uncle after the recent death of the little boy’s father. The boy gets interviewed by the police who then force the boy and his Amish mother to come with them in a detective’s car to see if the boy can identify a possible suspect. The Amish mother protests at one point since this violates their Amish ways. “We want nothing to do with your laws” she says. This causes the two police detectives in the car to chuckle as one of them replies to her, “We meet people who think that way all the time.”
That is surely true of the average police officer. But in essence, how often doesn’t God hear the same thing from the creatures he made in his image: We want nothing to do with your Laws, O God. How this grieves God. How it ought to grieve us as it did the poet of Psalm 119.
Author: Doug Bratt
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.