a sermon on Romans 8:26-38
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on July 24, 2011
The struggle and pain of our world seem to weigh so heavily upon us these days. It’s not just the heat and humidity that weigh down our spirits – the seemingly endless debates in Washington where it’s almost as if each side chooses not to budge on exactly the things where the other side will also not move, the economy that just keeps sagging in our lives even though almost all of the traditional measures say that we emerged from recession over a year ago, wars continuing to injure and kill the bodies and spirits of armed forces and civilians everywhere and yet have no real end in sight, and Friday’s horrific terrorist attacks in Oslo, Norway, with dozens dead and injured in senseless and unthinkable violence. Beyond these things in our world, many of us have things that weigh us down in our own lives – the ordinary frustrations of daily life only complicated recently by the dreadful and dangerous heat of the last few days, the illness and hurt that strike us and those we know and love all too often, and the death of our friends and loved ones, anticipated or not, that always makes our spirits sink a little because we have one less companion fully present with us on the journey.
So in moments like these, unintentionally but certainly providentially, the lectionary leads us to these familiar verses from Romans today. Paul knew the kind of pain and sorrow and suffering that we feel in these days, and I think he expected his readers to know it well, too. So he offered these incredible words of comfort and confidence in times of uncertainty to all who need hope for God’s presence. I think it’s worth hearing these words again, this time in the fresh translation of the Common English Bible that I hope we’ll be using more often in worship in the months ahead:
In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit itself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because it pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.
We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.
So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.
Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter.’
But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created [– nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.]
There’s so much here for those who are enduring the troubles of the world, so much here for all the suffering and pain of our time, so much here for the things that divide us and seem to keep us separated from one another, so much here for anything and everything that makes us want to cry out to God in wonder and sorrow and lament.
Somehow in these simple words Paul manages to pull together the comfort and hope of the Christian faith – the amazement that the Spirit knows our prayers before we can even imagine them or voice anything, the comfort that comes in knowing that God’s relationship with us is so important that God chose us long before we could even think of choosing God, the blessed hope that God’s action for us in Jesus Christ overshadows everything else in all the world and is the seal of so many more promises, the confidence that the ultimate judge is our great redeemer Jesus Christ himself, and the wonder that in life and in death, wherever we are, wherever we have been, and wherever we go, we cannot and will not be separated from God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Whenever we feel distant from God, disconnected from our sisters and brothers, lost in the uncertainty of our lives and our world, these words give us confidence and hope that even now God is transforming the pain and suffering of our lives into something far greater.
But these words seem empty sometimes, too. When the oppressive heat just doesn’t stop and we can’t cool off anymore, Paul’s words fall flat. When our political leaders just can’t seem to sort out how to work together to lead our nation through potential crisis, Paul doesn’t have much to say. And when innocent women, men, and children are bombed and shot by terrorists who claim that their actions are in the name of Christ and that God would have it no other way, these words offer us little comfort.
But then we hear that last promise again: nothing, not even our doubts, not even our emptiness, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. Nothing – not the struggles of illness or death, not the pain or sorrow of life and living, not the frustrations of a fractured political system, not oppressive heat and humidity, not the economy that just doesn’t seem to be able to fully bounce back, not the things of the everyday that get us down, not even the horrible misuse of the name of Christ that gives us confidence and hope. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord.
These are the ultimate words of confidence and hope, words that assure us of everything we need to know, words that seal the promises of God in Jesus Christ upon our hearts. Anglican theologian N.T. Wright pulls it all together:
This love of God calls across the dark intervals of meaning, reaches into the depths of human despair, embraces those who live in the shadow of death or the overbright light of present life, challenges the rulers of the world and shows them up as a sham, looks at the present with clear faith and the future with sure hope, overpowers all powers that might get in the way, fills the outer dimensions of the cosmos, and declares to the world that God is God, that Jesus the Messiah is the world’s true Lord, and that in him love has won the victory. This powerful, overmastering love grasps Paul, and sustains him in his praying, his preaching, his journeying, his writing, his pastoring, and his suffering, with the strong sense of the presence of the God who had loved him from the beginning and had put that love into action in Jesus. (N.T. Wright, “Commentary on Romans,” The New Interpreters’ Bible)
So may the wonder of this love sustain us amidst all the heat and humidity, all the hurt and horror, all the hopes and hitches of our lives, so that we might always live to God’s praise and show all the world that nothing can separate any of us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.