Rev. Sherrad Hayes
June 14, 2020; Second Sunday after Pentecost; WPPC (online and in sanctuary)
How do we have the strength to stand? How are we able to endure, and not only to endure, but to rejoice in suffering? How do we know that the desperate hope we have that the future, for us and for our children, will be brighter and better? How do we know that hope won’t turn into some big disappointment? Paul gives us the answer. And, friends, it is truly the only answer to all of these “how” questions: the peace we have with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. For all of our worldly wisdom, all of our earthly proverbs, all of the good advice we’ve received from parents and preachers and self-help books, none of these (for all their genuine worth) can give us what we truly seek: assurance of how this is all going to end. I know some of us have been doing more than our fair share of TV watching these last few months. I know I have! (Though with a toddler and a six-year-old, I guarantee you that it’s not been necessarily what I have wanted to watch!) And in watching so much TV (or movies, or reading books) there’s something that I know that has occurred to you. The ending matters. It matters so much that it often leaves you with your lasting, overall impression of the story. We judge the quality of movie or TV show or book by how it ends. Does it make sense? Does it tie up all the necessary loose ends? Does it tie too many of them up? What happens to 2 our favorite characters? And, is what happens to them satisfying? Is the villain defeated? Is there peace? Is there some kind of resolution that gave meaning to the whole thing? And it’s in this search for meaning that we often look to the ending. If the ending is unsatisfying, then why did we spend – or waste – all of that time? This is especially true for book or a TV show where we’ve invested hours of our lives, hoping against hope that the end will be as good as whatever drew us into the story. And for each of us, we probably remember those times where the ending wasn’t quite satisfying. Like a champion diver, like a world-class gymnast, the story-teller has to stick the landing! Otherwise, so much good content can become wasted, frivolous, or worse yet, meaningless. Our passage from Romans this morning begins with ending in mind. For those of us who have faith, like Abraham, we do not have to worry about where we will stand with God when heaven comes crashing down to earth on judgement day. We have been justified (declared righteous, vindicated, found not guilty) before God through the work of Jesus Christ and through his work alone! By our own actions and by our own failure to act, we would have been and should have been declared guilty and punished! But out of the great love which God has loved, we are declared innocent because of the death of God’s own son. And even more than this. Because God’s own son lives, we too have life, abundantly, now and forever. God’s grace remains the first, last, and most important word over our lives. It is the free, unmerited favor of God that gives of the same peace with which to face the present and to face the end. It is this peace with God, this restored relationship with God, by which we are able to stand – right now – and face the uncertainties of this world. And it is this peace with God by which we are able to hope, not just for a brighter future, but for a perfect one! And we are not put 3 to shame in hoping. We access this peace through faith, through trust in the one who is alpha and omega, the author of the beginning and the end. Screenwriters, TV showrunners, novelists . . . all of these are human beings who are capable of producing less-than-perfect work. Our hope for a good ending is often put to shame because these stories are crafted by flesh-and-blood, mistake-making human beings. Sisters and brothers, the one who made you and everyone you’ve ever met, the author of our destinies does not make mistakes. We can anticipate – and more, we can rejoice – about the future because of the God who loves us so much, he was willing to become one of us and die for us! We rejoice in the hope of future glory in Christ because we have peace with God right now! And all we have to do is trust him! Place our faith in him! Receive, as little children, the good gift he has given us! Friends, this is the summary of verses 1-2 of our passage for today: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” And I need you to remember this, because verses 3-4 so often get misinterpreted and misunderstood: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. Certainly, there’s some worldly wisdom here. Any of us who’s been around long enough to endure life’s challenges knows that there are times of trial that make us stronger. There are times of testing that strengthen us. There are times of difficulty that shape us and mold us into 4 better people. This is true. And many of us will choose to do hard things exactly because we know that we will turn out better in the end for having done them. Friends, hear me well, this is not what Paul is talking about in these verses. At least, this is not what Paul is talking about apart from Christ. Because for those who have been around long enough to not only endure life’s challenges, but also to endure life’s sufferings, we know that – apart from Christ – not every bit of suffering leads to growth. Some suffering, taken from a purely worldly perspective, is quite pointless, isn’t it? Hasn’t that been this year? I saw a cartoon (ok, a “meme”) on the internet that read: “At this point, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if every month of 2020 ended in Oompa Loompa song and dance about the lesson we were supposed to learn that month.” Y’all, I haven’t seen an Oompa Loompa, yet. We desire meaning, but we are only able to see as through a mirror dimly. We do not know what the near future will bring. We do not know, now, what the worldly point to all of this is. This is real life, not an Aesop’s fable where we are told the proper lesson. Are there lessons to be had? Sure. But apart from Christ’s redemptive work, we have to confess that most of our human-made explanations for suffering really fall short. What doesn’t kill us does not always make us stronger. While it is sometimes true, that is a false hope. There is quite a bit in this world and in this life that does not kill us but makes us weaker. 5 Don’t be fooled. Paul is not talking self-help strategies here. But he is talking about the real result of the gospel. There is too much sin, too much suffering, too much evil in this world to think that it just works itself out for good on its own apart from the saving work of God. If I’m honest with myself, there are wounds I will carry all the way to my death which are meaningless apart from the redemptive work of Christ. There are physical frailties, injuries, mental illnesses, spiritual damage, societal injustices, and world-wide hurts that are, frankly, too deep to be repaired by us on our own. They must be cured by a miracle of God. To be able to rejoice in suffering is a miracle of God. It is not something you can work up on your own by positive thinking. It is not something you can produce simply by a change in attitude. It is only in Christ that these words have any truth at all: we rejoice in suffering, because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. We can rejoice in suffering because we know that suffering is not the end! We can rejoice in suffering because Christ suffers with us. Suffering produces endurance because God’s own Spirit – poured out on us and present with us – produces endurance. Endurance demonstrates our tested character only because God has placed his character in us through his Holy Spirit. Character produces hope – true hope – because our hope for the future is not some wish dream dependent on us to make it happen. We have hope that is sure and true because Christ Jesus died for us. While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. 6 Friends there are sufferings and trials and wounds and hurts in this life that will leave you weak. And you won’t have a clear explanation for them. And there will be times where no amount of positive thinking will heal your pain. You will be left with uncertainty. You will be left feeling helpless. You will be left feeling weak. And it is exactly there, in that feeling of weakness where Christ meets us. Friends, hear the good news of the gospel: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” All of our suffering finds its meaning in the Christ who suffered for us. And in that we can rejoice! All of our faintheartedness finds its endurance in the Christ who endured such suffering for our sake. Rejoice! All of our sinfulness finds its character in the Christ who gives us peace with God. Rejoice! All of despair finds its hope in the Christ who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Rejoice! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.