November 8, 2015

No Separation

Passage: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Romans 8:31-39, Mark 12:38-44
Service Type:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, in the eleventh month of 1918 marked the end of the First World War. British author and commentator H.G. Wells published a number of articles in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of that war, calling it “the war to end all wars.” By the end of that war 61,000 Canadian had been killed. Just twenty-one years later in September of 1939 German military forces invaded Poland and the Second World War began. Another 42,000 Canadians lost their lives in that war.

In a thirty-one year period (1914 to 1945) over 100,000 Canadians were killed in military action. In 1945 the population of Canada was between 11 and 12 million people. But when you stop to consider that the greater portion of those who lost their lives were males between the ages of 18 and 25—approximately 1 million of the population of 11 million—the loss of 100,000 comes into a clearer picture of the impact for our country.

1. “I am convinced,” exclaimed the Apostle Paul “that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love? Much seems to. Much intends to. I cannot imagine the misery of trench warfare yet can observe that for those involved the entire experience would surely seem far from the love of God. AS we reflect this Remembrance Day on the sacrifice of so many we are confronted with the staggering loss. The impact of war’s horrors on those who came home, for example, appears to separate us from God’s love and for those whose faith such bewilderment extinguished it seems to succeed in separating us from God’s love.

Consider further the grief of families who lost loved ones; the loss of the potential contribution they could have made for our country and society had there been no war. Some of them might have been preachers whose voice for the gospel was silenced or teachers whose potential future students lost a great mentor or skilled craftsmen whose talents will never benefit the lives of clients. We must confront that there is much that intends to separate us from the love of God.

In one of his books Dr Leslie Weatherhead, notable British Methodist preacher and skilled psychologist, wrote, “If you were aware of the suffering found in the smallest hamlet in England, the smallest, you wouldn’t sleep at night.” I have been engaged in pastoral ministry for over thirty years. When I first began I might have considered Dr. Weatherhead’s comment to be hyperbole. In the course of my pastoral experience my exposure to people’s suffering has taught me that his assessment is correct.

I am not saying that life is only misery. I am saying that a sober assessment teaches me that much seems to separate us from God’s love and is in fact aimed at separating us from God’s love. Disease victimizes and isolates us. Infirmity threatens us. Pain warps us. People carry unrelieved burdens.

Martin Luther maintained that if faith is to thrive we have to shut our eyes and open our ears. I find myself agreeing with him. We must open our ears because the gospel is heard, heard with our ears and heard in our hearts. We must close our eyes, on the other hand, because what we see whenever we look out on world-occurrence; what we see contradicts the gospel. The gospel (heard) assures us that God loves us so very much he couldn’t love us more. World-occurrence (seen) declares to us that God doesn’t love us at all.

Now some might say that such closing of the eyes is simply to ignore reality. Preacher, you are simply whistling in the wind. Many conclude that this contradiction indicates there is no God who loves. Those who draw such conclusion need to soberly confront the implications of such a conclusion. If you say there is no God then the contradiction disappears.

If there is no God then there is no justice: no one is ultimately held to account; there is no ultimate redress for wrong because the categories of right and wrong disappear and there is only preference at best. In such a universe—as many atheist philosophers have pointed out—there is only a blind pitiless indifference; some, win some lose; there is nothing (or no one) to contradict. As Richard Dawkins succinctly put it with respect to human life: “DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

The gospel declaration is that this contradiction we experience arises out of human sinfulness; occurs because humans have turned away from God having denied the goodness of God. I would invite you to consider that the contradiction exists because there is someone who is contradicted. In other words, we experience the contradiction because God has not stopped calling to us that he loves us—there would be no contradiction except that God loves you so very much he couldn’t love you more.

So what do you think? Does God love us? Is his love strong enough, and is love’s grip on us firm enough, that nothing will ever be able to separate us from an oceanic love vouchsafed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord? My heart resonates with Paul’s. Like him I am persuaded that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And like him I have every confidence in what I hear (the gospel) even as I am troubled at what I see.

2. So, what reason does Paul have for his exuberant exclamation? What is the ground for his unshakable confidence in the love of God? Why is Paul so confident that nothing is going to be able to overturn God’s determination to love you? Before we explore the answer to this question it is good to note that Paul is aware that much in life aims at separating us from God’s love and may seem to have separated us.

Listen to the litany of love-separating experiences that Paul asserts are no barrier to our Lord’s love of us: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness (exposure), peril, and sword. He pushes further—neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.

In this litany I wonder why Paul speaks of “life” as having the potential to separate. Let me ask you a question. How many people have you seen appear to possess iron-fast faith when they were needy for any reason only to jettison such ‘faith’ when they were no longer needy? We should admit that life at its best is no less a spiritual threat than death at its worst.

Let me also say a word about the powers Paul identifies. When Paul speaks of principalities, powers, angels, things present, things to come, he has in mind cosmic powers; any and all cosmic powers, some of which we can identify and some of which we never shall. Paul’s point is this: regardless of the nature, scope and virulence of cosmic forces, no one of them, nor all of them together, will ever be able to separate Christ’s people from Christ’s love.

Why is Paul so confident? The ground for his confidence is twofold; namely, what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and what God is doing in us through the Holy Spirit. What God has done for us in Christ is the ‘outer’ foundation of his confidence; what God is now doing in us is its ‘inner’ ground.

As for this outer confidence Paul poses five unanswerable questions to us. The first is this: If God is for us, who is against us? Plainly, nothing and no one can be against us finally, conclusively, effectively, because nothing and no one is going to overturn the Creator himself. Just as plainly Paul is well aware of all the things lined up against us. Paul does not ask us “who is against us?’ He asks, rather “Since God, the living, lordly sovereign creator of heaven and earth; since God is for us, who or what could ever rival him or threaten us?” Nothing, obviously.

The second question. He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? The apostle’s question is more profound. “Since God didn’t stop short of giving up his Son, would he ever stop short of giving us what we need to be his people, the apple of his eye?”

There’s an allusion here to Abraham of old; Abraham and Isaac; Abraham and Isaac trudging with leaden foot and breaking heart up Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s faith is to be tested by the summons to offer up Isaac, his long-awaited son, his only son, only son, (the text in Genesis drives home to us.) And then, when obedient Abraham raises the knife above Isaac, a ram appears and Abraham’s son is spared.

Does God love you and me less than Abraham loved Isaac? He loves us more. After all, when God’s love for us met our profoundest need God’s long-awaited Son, his only Son, wasn’t spared but rather was given up for us all.

The third question. Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Justification is one of Paul’s favourite descriptions of God’s people. Here’s what he has in mind.

You and I are sinners. We are covenant-breakers. We repeatedly, characteristically, break our promise to God that we are going to live as his people. In his mercy God has given us Jesus of Nazareth, the covenant-keeper. Jesus of Nazareth is the only instance anywhere in the world of a human being who keeps humankind’s covenant with the Father. As you and I cling by faith to Jesus Christ, our faith binds us to him. In fact our faith binds us so very closely to him that we are identified with him. Identified as we are with him, when the Father now looks upon that Son with whom he is ever pleased, he sees you and me included in the Son.

The fourth question. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Will Christ condemn us? He went to hell and back for us. His ongoing intercession for us is effectual. He pleads on our behalf the ongoing efficacy of his atoning, pardoning sacrifice. Since the efficacy of his sacrifice he pleads effectually, nothing and no one can negate his forgiveness and find us condemned.

The fifth question. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? We have already answered the question. No one. Nothing.

The inner ground of Paul’s confidence is the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work within us.
The Holy Spirit is God, God in his utmost immediacy, intensity, intimacy. The Spirit is God in his immediacy, intensity and intimacy surging within us, rendering us certain that we are God’s child now and shall never be forsaken. The Spirit is God within us making us vividly aware of his presence and power and purpose.

The outer ground of Paul’s conviction is the truth and reality of all that God has done in Christ for him. The inner ground of his conviction is his experience of what God the Spirit is doing in him. So it is for the simplest Christian.

Pastor H.B. Charles of Jacksonville, Florida tells the following story about a woman he knew who showed up at church and prayed the same simple prayer. "O Lord, thank you Jesus," she prayed week after week.

Finally somebody asked her, "Why do you pray the same little prayer?" She said, "Well, I'm just combining the two prayers that I know. We live in a bad neighborhood and some nights there are bullets flying and I have to grab my daughter and hide on the floor, and in that desperate state all I know how to cry out is, 'O Lord.' But when I wake up in the morning and see that we're okay I say, 'Thank you Jesus.' When I got to take my baby to the bus stop and she gets on that bus and I don't know what's going to happen to her while she's away, I cry, 'O Lord.' And then when 3:00 P.M. comes and that bus arrives and my baby is safe, I say, 'Thank you Jesus.'"
She said, "Those are the only two prayers I know and when I get to church God has been so good I just put my two prayers together, "O Lord, thank you Jesus."

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.