Sermon prepared by Rev. Carel Geleynse, Flamborough, Ont.
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:28) Think for a moment about who wrote these words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course. These are words that came from the pen of the apostle Paul. This is the same man who wrote that "Five times I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. 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. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (II Corinthians 11:24-27)." "In all things God works for the good of those who love him."
How can Paul say this? Does he really believe it? Some who hear this may be inclined to say, "come off it, this is merely some religious talk, one of those typical pious statements which may make us feel good but really does not mean very much." Let's face it, this is one of those texts of the Bible that we can find so irritating at times, particularly when people quote it to us in the face of some sort of disaster.
As we are struggling with cancer, or some other illness; as we are constantly having to live with the effects of depression or some other chronic ailment which affects us every minute of our lives; as we are struggling with abuse in our lives which we cannot seem to shake; as we live with poverty or are facing terrible drought conditions; or as we stand at the grave side of someone we deeply loved, some people will remind us of that text, "in all things God works for the good of those who love him."
Others will speak about tragedies as "blessings in disguise," and yet others will simply say, when something happens, that "it is God's will." These sorts of lines, while they may be easy to say, are sometimes very difficult to believe. At times they can be irritating and perhaps even for some infuriating. And often, if said at a funeral or in the face of some tragedy, they are of very little comfort to us at that moment.
In 1979 a tornado hit the town of Woodstock, Ontario. Included in the terrible destruction was the Maranatha CRC and the Woodstock Christian School. The church and the school were left in ruins. Thankfully no one was in the school or the church at the time. Little consolation could be given at that time with the lines, "It is God's will; "all things work for good for those who love the Lord," or "this is perhaps a blessing in disguise." At that time the people could only see destruction and years of work and energy destroyed in one fell swoop.
Think of Joseph, whom we read about earlier from the book of Genesis. The Bible tells us that "Israel (or Jacob) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons (he had 12 in all), because he had been born to him in his old age." (Genesis 37:3) This love led to Jacob adorning his son with the coat of many colors, as it has become known. It is recorded that "when his brothers saw that their father loved him (Joseph) more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him." (Genesis 37:4) Later on their hatred led them to want to kill their 17-year-old brother. But instead of being killed he was thrown into a pit and then sold as a slave to the Midianites. Jacob was told that his son had been killed by a wild animal.
Meanwhile Joseph was sold to the Egyptians where he spent a great deal of time in prison on false charges. While Joseph stayed true to the God of his fathers, I suspect it would have been of little comfort to the teenager if we would have told him at the time that he was being sold into slavery, "this is a blessing in disguise. This is God's will. Don't worry, Joseph, remember that all things work for the good of those who love the Lord." As he was being tied up and dragged away from his family and everything he knew, he could probably not see much good in it. As a matter of fact, he was probably terrified, as any person would be. He was being torn from his family, against his will, and led to an unknown future; as a matter of fact he probably figured he would end up dead somewhere and never see his father or family again.
That is usually the way it is when someone we love dies, or when a tornado strikes, or when an illness we dread hits someone: we tend to wonder about God's will. We tend to wonder about the good in it. And certainly the idea of it being a blessing in disguise is really not much comfort to us at that time.
And yet, it is often the case that when something happens people will, almost naturally, begin to search for the good in it. That search can sometimes become a frantic one in which a strenuous effort is made to at least find something "good" in a horrible situation. The need to find something "good" in a horrible situation is necessary; it seems to somehow make the situation more palatable. "There must be something good that comes out of everything that happens," we tell ourselves, "because if there is nothing good then things are, indeed, meaningless."
And sometimes there are some things that we point to and say, "If it would not have been for the illness, the person may have never come to know the Lord. If it were not for the death of a parent, the brothers and sisters may have never been reunited. If it were not for some natural disaster, people may never know what it means to share or to give of themselves."
Thinking back to Woodstock and the aftermath of the tornado, some would probably suggest that it was a blessing in disguise. Both of the buildings were restored. An old school was modernized and expanded. An old church was modernized and expanded. The Christian Reformed community was able to worship for quite some time in a Presbyterian Church in town and through it all became more a part of the community than ever before. There were probably other positive things that came out of the disaster of 1979.
Look at Joseph. The litany of woes he experienced in his life led him to Pharaoh's court to interpret a dream. That interpretation of the dream, given to Joseph by the Lord, led to Joseph being made second in command in Egypt, which led in turn to Jacob's family coming to Egypt in search of food during the 7-year famine. When Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to look for food little did they know that they stood in the presence of their own brother Joseph. But such was the case.
God had worked it so that the result was that Joseph ended up saving his father and his brothers and providing them a place in Egypt where they were watered and fed during thefamine. When the brothers finally discovered what had happened and that Joseph was now a powerful ruler, they fell on their knees and begged for mercy. But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." (Genesis 50:19-21) I'm sure you can add your own story of something good coming out of a bad situation.
Sometimes that "good" we are searching for is hard to find. We wonder if any "good" can be found among the murder victims of our land, or if any good can come out of the carnage on many a highway, as people's lives are suddenly brought to a screeching halt because of an accident. We wonder about the "good" in places where the atrocities seem to continue in spite of all sorts of peace initiatives.
Closer to home, we wonder what good can come out of the loss of a child, or the illness of a child. What good can come out of a lack of rain? What good can come out of an ongoing life of abuse? What good can come from broken relationships? And so on. The list is long and each of us can think of situations in which we wonder. In such situations, upon hearing the words of our text, we may be inclined to clench our teeth and say, "yeah, right, sure. God is working for my good in all of this misery?"
And yet, the Bible records the words of our text not merely as a theory of some sort that is usually or quite often correct, but it records the words of the text as a fact. It is simply a fact, whether we like it, or understand it, or experience it or not, that all things, note the words, all things, including those things we would consider as "bad", work for the good of those who love the Lord. The reason the Bible can make such a pronouncement is because it recognizes that the Lord God is the ruler or the governor of all things.
Romans 8:28 is a text that is found in a chapter dealing with the process of salvation, which, of course, will be climaxed with the return of the Lord Jesus upon the clouds of heaven. It is a process that will culminate in the presence of the new heaven and the new earth. It is on that new earth where those who love the Lord will dwell for all eternity.
This is, of course, ultimately what this text is talking about. God is working out his plan of salvation in the world and nothing can stop him, and everything that happens somehow finds its place in that plan. While we may not understand it from our perspective, yet it all fits together. It is like the example of the embroidery. On the underside of the embroidery there are strings going every which way, but on the top a beautiful picture is emerging. God sees the top, we see the bottom. But everything that happens flows through the hands of the Almighty and is woven into the tapestry of history. We don't always understand it.
Consider Joseph and his trials. The saving of Joseph ensured the continuation of the people of Israel, from whom the Messiah, the Lord Jesus was to come, and did come. We can be sure that Joseph did not understand what was happening to him when his brothers sold him into slavery, and he probably protested and sobbed endlessly as he was dragged away by the Midianites. It was only in retrospect that Joseph was able to explain what happened. But that is not always the case.
We don't always have an answer as to why bad things happen as they do. "And it is foolish to pretend to know when we don't," writes Dr. Neal Plantinga in his book A Sure Thing. "We sometimes think we can tell what good reason God might have for allowing evil, but often we can only guess.
"Maybe God allows people great freedom to do both evil and good because else they wouldn't be humans at all, but only robots. Maybe God doesn't turn all guns into salami and all bullets into bubbles because then the world wouldn't be real and couldn't be counted on. Maybe God allows diseases and tornadoes to make us depend on Him or to make us more courageous. Maybe God sometimes sends punishments on a whole nation. Or maybe there are times when a person's suffering — and the way he handles it — draws others closer to God.
"It is hard to say in a particular case. Often we do not know why God permits a certain evil. But we do know this: just as a doctor must sometimes hurt you in order to help you, so God is always working with us for good. Even when we can't see it or tell it. That is sometimes harder to accept. But no God, and no good, would be even harder to accept.
"We know one more thing. Our Lord Jesus himself, as he died inch by inch from his fatal wounds, shouted 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'
"Two days later he was alive again and speaking peace to his disciples. God does act against evil and for good. It is part of his providence." (Plantinga, A Sure Thing, pg. 45)
"In all things God works for the good of those who love Him." The reason why the Bible can make this statement is because it takes a very wide view of life and history. Our view is always very limited, and therefore we struggle.
Consider the bee. In its first stage of life or of development it is in a hexagonal cell wherein enough honey is stored for it to eat from until it reaches maturity. The honey and the bee are sealed with a capsule of wax. Once all the honey is gone, it is time for the bee to come out of the cell. The wrestling, the struggle, the strain the bee has to do to get out is apparently quite something. It has to remove the wax cap which is no easy task and then it has to climb out of the cell, which by now is a tight prison. We may be inclined to have pity on the struggling bee, and we may wonder why it has to have such a rough time. Yet in the agony of the exit the bee rubs off the membrane that hid its wings. Once out of the cell and rid of the membrane, the bee is able to fly! What good is there in the struggle? The bee will not see that until afterward. He may even question the necessity for the struggle and the agony. But ultimately it is for his good.
So it is also in human life. All sorts of painful things may happen to us. "Our hearts may be broken a thousand times in this world, and our bodies wracked with pain. But these things are part of the Refiner's fire, the crucible of the kingdom of God." (R.C. Sproul, The Invisible Hand, pg. 175)
That which we experience here on earth is part of that struggle of life in a sin-filled world. What good is there in the struggle? Now we may not see, but James does tell us that the testing of our faith produces perseverance and spiritual maturity. Ultimately, says the Bible, it is worked for our good by the One who has all of history in His hands.
The story is told that when St. Augustine was advanced in years, he saw the storm clouds rising of the imminent invasion of the Roman empire by the barbarians. He feared the marauding host would destroy the work he had labored to establish. He went to God in prayer and uttered a petition in three parts. He first asked that his people would be spared the devastation that could result from the barbarian invasion. Second, he asked that if that were not the will of God that he be given the grace to accept it. Finally, he prayed that in either case God would take him home soon. (Sproul, The Invisible Hand, pg. 175)
Augustine could say along with Martin Luther the words of Luther's well known hymn: "Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also." And they could say this because they believed and understood deep in their hearts that all of history, and all that happened to them found its place in the governing hands of the Lord of the universe, a Lord who continues to work out the plan of salvation.
One final note. The text talks about all of this in the context of "those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:28) God's people are being discussed here. Those who do not know the Lord and who remain unrepentant will ultimately not have everything work for the good. Rather such posture invokes the wrath of God. But those who love the Lord can live with the utter security and assurance that they belong to their faithful Savior Jesus Christ, in life and in death, and nothing is able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
While we may not in the midst of misery like to hear such statements as found in our text, yet it is true that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. Surely this is where our comfort lies.
Proposed Order of Service
Call to Worship
Prayer of Invocation: We confess that our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth. Lord, we pray that grace, mercy and peace may be granted to us from God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son through the working of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Opening Hymn: #253, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty"
Confession of Sin
Assurance of Pardon
Hymn: #384, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"
Guide for Grateful Living (Exodus 20 or some other passage from the New Testament such as Colossians 3)
Hymn: #291, "May the Mind of Christ, My Savior"
Scripture Reading: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 8:28-39
Text: Romans 8:28
Sermon: "All Things Work for Good"
Hymn: #221, "We Know That God Works Things for Good"
Doxology: #593:5 "My Song Forever Shall Record"
Benediction: We pray that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit my be and remain with us all, both now and forever. Amen.