November 1, 2015

No Desperation

Passage: Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Romans 8:18-30, Mark 12:28-34
Service Type:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Publilius Syrus is best known as a Latin writer of moral maxims. He lived during the last century before Christ was also known for his improvisational skills once receiving a prize from Caesar himself in a contest of improvisers. In one of his maxims he wrote: “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” I can attest to the truth of the Syrus’ maxim. Only once in my life have I been on a sailboat of any significant size. The captain of the vessel, to my surprise, invited me to take the helm for a while. The winds were light and the waters very calm. (Almost put-you-to-sleep calm). The maxim came true, “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” Even so, I noted that the captain did not sit very far from me as I piloted the ship.

We know about the life experience that Syrus was referring to with this maxim. It is easy to sing when the proverbial sun is shining on our life. When we are moving from strength to strength, when our plans are working out better than we could foresee or imagine it is a simple thing to acknowledge that the Apostle Paul is correct—“all things work together for good for those who love God.” But what about when the storm is blowing and the sea’s turbulence threatens to capsize us; when the storm clouds cast their shadows of desperation? What about those times when there’s no evidence to suggest that Paul’s affirmation is anything but wishful thinking?

We should be careful to note that such turbulence is the context of Paul’s declaration that all things work together for good.” He wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Now lest we think that Paul’s idea of “suffering” is that he is still using a flip-phone when everyone else has moved on to an iPhone 6 we only need recall some of his more harrowing ministry experiences. In his second letter to the Corinthian church something dreadful had happened to Paul; such that he spoke of it this way—“for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” (2 Corinthians 1:8) In that same letter Paul spoke of other difficult experiences—imprisonments, floggings, beatings, shipwreck, just to name some. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

So when Paul speaks of “the sufferings of this present time” here in his letter to the Romans he knows of what he speaks. He knows that feeling of desperation that attacks us in the midst of them and here he writes of how faith meets this desperation. Paul asserts that our Lord knows we will face such moments and never abandons us to this despair.

1. To be a follower of Christ is to follow in the way of the cross. Suffering is part of the deal. I know that this is not how a marketing agent would advise us in presenting Jesus but our Lord said that to follow him was to each take up our cross. Paul describes the followers’ journey as “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor whose leadership in resistance of the Nazi regime eventuated in his execution three weeks before the end of the Second World War. In 1936 in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law Bonhoeffer wrote of this way of the cross. “If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross …. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible ….”

In this world you will have trouble, said our Lord. Why? Because the world hated him first and will be unenthused about those who cling to Christ in faith. Likely you have noticed that there is not a whole lot of cheering that goes on if you stood among your work colleagues and said, “I have decided to be a follower of Christ.” Today we baptize these children in the hope that they too will come to own Christ in faith as we do; this is their parents confession. I cannot recall when any of our news media ever did a story on such an event presenting it is a positive light. And around our world 90% of all religious persecution is against Christians.

Yes there is the suffering of identification with Christ. Also, there is no exemption for the believer from the pains of life; from the turbulence and tragedies that occur. We know hostility and war to be destructive of human life yet humanity never tires of it. Paul talked of how the creation was subjected to futility; he refers to that lack of vitality which inhibits the order of nature and the frustration which the forces of nature meet in achieving their proper ends. Floods and drought are evidence of such frustration. It is evident that our bodies were made for life and living; we groan inwardly, said Paul, at the decline of our bodies. But this not a hopeless situation, according to the gospel.

2. Hope is found in the faithfulness of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. The subjection of the creation to futility is in hope for that great day when it too will be set free from its bondage to decay. God is at work moving things to that great consummation when death and crying and pain will be no more. None of this suffering can thwart God’s purposes to bring you to that glory he has in mind.

For Christians hope isn’t mere wishful thinking in the face of all that we can’t control or a childlike naïveness with respect to actualities of our world.

For Christians hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness is marked out by major landmarks (promises he has kept) in his involvement with his people, an involvement he won’t renounce on behalf of a people he won’t abandon. One such landmark is Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt and its deliverance at the Red Sea. Another landmark is Joshua’s leading the same people into the long-promised land. The landmark that towers over others, however, and gathers them up into itself, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here all the promises of God find their fulfilment. Here the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and to Israel’s greater Son overflows out onto all flesh, Jew and Gentile alike, out onto all whose faith-quickened seeing acknowledges the presence and power and purpose of God in Jesus of Nazareth. God had promised to renew the entire creation in Christ, liberating the creation from its bondage to the evil one, freeing it from its frustration and allowing it to flower abundantly. God’s raising his Son from the dead is the decisive moment of this promised liberation and is therefore the landmark of God’s faithfulness.

How is it that believers persist in hope when others see no evidence of faithfulness and no reason to hope? Because, as the Apostle Paul declares, “God’s love has been shed abroad in our hearts.” (Rom. 5:5) Or here in Romans chapter 8: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” At this moment believers are aware of God’s love flooding them. Our present experience of God is itself part of God’s faithfulness to us. This too is part of the present reality undergirding a future certainty. In other words there are two aspects to the present reality of God’s faithfulness: one is what God has done for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; the other is what God has done in us as the Holy Spirit has soaked us in the Father’s love again and again.

3. Only God can bring glory out of groaning. With God we know that all things work together for good. When Paul wrote “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”, he did not mean that sufferings were not painful. He was not advocating, “Put on a happy face” or “when the clouds come just smile them away.”

The believer is assured that God will bring to completion the work he has begun in her heart. God wastes nothing—the struggles and suffering are not a defeat, rather even in them God will work his great purposes for her. The good achieved in life in not forgotten but preserved and finally perfected. And then there is the forward look of hope that the best is always yet to come.

I want to repeat a point I have made with you before. In saying that with God all things work together for good Paul is not asserting that all things are good. In saying that all these things work for good according to God’s purpose Paul is not asserting that “everything has a purpose.” Yes, we may testify in hindsight that the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness rendered us more attentive to faith but does that make the disease a good thing? Evil is entirely purposeless; even so God can work his purposes for us in the face of such things. Consider again the cross of Christ. Here is Jesus hanging limp and powerless at the city garbage dump—killed senselessly—and yet through this God secures our redemption that has in its scope the end of all groaning and life ever more.

There is no such thing as wasted suffering for a follower of Christ. All of it moves us towards God's purpose in our lives.

4. For the believer this hope is both a gift and a command. The hope implied is Paul’s assertion that all things work together for good is certainly a gift from God inasmuch as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our Spirit-wrought inclusion in that resurrection is a gift from God. While such hope is plainly a gift, however, it isn’t gift only; it’s also a command. God commands his people to hope. To be sure, it’s only as he gives us hope that he commands us to hope, yet command us to hope he most certainly does. For this reason the mediaeval rabbis used to say that the arch sin is despair. Despite life’s contradictions we are to join prophets and apostles in announcing that day above all days when the world’s wretched neither hunger nor thirst any more, when nation no longer lifts up sword against nation, when God wipes away every tear from every eye. We are commanded to hope.

Christians are patient in hope where there is no earthly evidence to support our hope and no apparent ground of our hope. No apparent ground, I must underline, for the ground of our hope is always and everywhere the faithfulness of God, promises he has kept. Possessed of such hope, we never give up, never quit.

There are many reasons for the command to hope and one surely is this; if we fail to hope the world is abandoned. Whether we are possessed of hope as scripture speaks of hope is made plain by our answer to one question: does the world have a future? Do we expect it to have a future, or have we concluded that the world can only repeat itself until it finally burns itself out and is consigned to the garbage can?

Is God’s care for the world, for the poor and disposed pointless? Will we maintain hope inasmuch as God’s struggle on behalf of a groaning world is going to issue in splendor that will redound to his praise?

What’s the point in helping feed the people (many of them children) that our foodbank feeds? The point is that a banquet has been arranged for them at which they’ll be eating something besides tinned beans and Kraft Dinner.

What’s the point of resisting arms races, even as we are aware that every single arms race in the history of the world has issued in war? The point is that the day has been appointed when swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.

What’s the point of tireless work on behalf of mental illness? The point is that like the afflicted man in the Gadarene hills who lacerated himself and ran around naked and shrieked appallingly; like that man whom our Lord touched as an instance of the kingdom, the deranged are divinely destined to be found, one day, seated, clothed, and in their right mind.

If ever we abandon hope, we abandon the world.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose