What Then Shall We Say in Response to These Things?

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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.

Scripture: Romans 8:31-39
Confessional Reading: Lord’s Day 10

Sermon Prepared By: Rev. Jeff Vandermeer, Simcoe, Ontario.

The year: 1935. The place: Texas. The scene begins with a young man, heading into town, looking to blow off some steam by having a few drinks. One leads to another and then to a few more. Before the night is over, this young man accidentally shoots and kills the local Sheriff, a family man with two young children. While it was truly an accident, this young man.., this young black man… living in Texas in 1935 is lynched for his actions and dragged through the town by his foot as a sign to all other “would be vagrants”. One night – 2 people dead – what a waste.

Now, if I was a seminary student, just getting my feet wet doing this preaching thing, the preaching professor would be shaking his head right now. He would be shaking his head because I have just committed one of the cardinal sins of preaching. In fact, he probably would have stopped me already. He would say something like: “You cannot allow one of the characters to die in your introduction. It’s just bad form. It is too jarring for the audience.” And he would be right. He would be right every day except for today. Today, our entire conversation is jarring. Today, our entire conversation cuts to the very core of our being. Today it would be wrong to not start with death or deep suffering in the introduction. For today, our conversation is about questions. So many questions.

For the Christian, one of the main questions that explodes in our minds when we hear a painful story of death, human suffering and waste is: “What do we understand by the providence of God?” Providence being God’s role in controlling things here on this earth.

And here is an answer: “Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty-all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand”.1

Well that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? In fact, many of you will find this answer familiar. It comes from the Heidelberg Catechism of all places, answer 27 to be exact. But does this answer really sum up the entire conversation? This answer is great theology – great talk about who God is, but does it hold water in real life? Does it hold water when we hear about dead sheriffs’ with families and people being killed simply because of skin color…, when we think about tsunamis and airplanes flying into buildings…, when we think about bombs in markets and soldiers dying…, when we see parents holding lifeless babies in their arms…, when we are told that our parents will no longer live together anymore…? Does this answer hold water when the abuse and pain and suffering of life haunt all of us, when we lie awake at night and stare at the ceiling with minds filled with questions? Does this answer hold water when we finally allow ourselves to ask the simple yet profound question: “What shall we say in response to all these things?”

You know, we love to talk and sing in church about the good things in life, about how Jesus saves us from our sins, how life is better with God than without – and these are all good and true things – but what about when life is not good; when we don’t experience good things? When life is good, when our bank accounts are full, and our children are healthy and our parents love each other, we can shout about God’s goodness, God’s care. We often use fancy theological words like God’s providence and God’s sovereignty, but do we really know what they mean? Because when life throws us a curve, when the heating check bounces and the house begins to grow cold, when the bald child is laying in the bed in the cancer ward, when dad no longer sleeps at home anymore, what shall we say in response to these things?

Well, we begin by seeing that the Catechism rightly projects a life choice that we must all face. On the one hand, we can believe that all things come to us by chance. When life throws us a curve, we can attribute it to chance. Or, as the Catechism rightly notes, we must acknowledge that all things come by God’s fatherly hand, that God is in control of all things. And for any of us who have experienced real suffering or death, we know that this is not an easy choice. This is an incredibly difficult choice – one which causes many people to decide to walk away from the church/Christianity/God. On the one hand, we can fall into hopelessness. On the other, a God who sometimes allows incredible pain into our lives. There are questions. So many questions – and I must be perfectly honest – there are no easy answers. We will not find answers to all our questions today. For life is filled with questions for which we do not know the answer.

But today, we are not going to sweep the tough questions aside. We are going to face them. We are going to look for some sort of answer. The Catechism cannot accept that all of life is simply by chance, and I am going to use this as a starting point. And because of this, because we don’t leave life to chance, we are going to look at the question of a good God and suffering in this world. We are taking our tough questions concerning suffering and God’s relationship to it, putting them in the introduction, and facing them front and center. We are going to look at these hard questions. We probably won’t find all the answers. But what we might find could be something even better. So, what shall we say in response to these things?

Not surprisingly, this is the first question that Paul also asked us. Paul is speaking the same language we are. Paul is having the same conversation with the church in Rome as we are having today. Paul’s answer is 5 more questions! Paul, just before these five questions, has just finished talking about the creation groaning, about the tsunamis of his day. Paul has just finished talking about Christians groaning inwardly, looking to the day when our bodies will be like Jesus, when cancer and divorce and death of children will be no more. Paul has just finished talking about the Holy Spirit groaning on our behalf, pleading for us. Paul, together with us here today, raises the question: What shall we say in response to these things?

Paul’s first response is another question, a surprising one considering the circumstances: If God is for us, then who can be against us? And to this he adds the second question - And if God was willing to see his son Jesus go to the cross on our behalf – on all of our behalf – will he not graciously give us all things? Paul begins by giving us two more questions to ponder for a moment.

Question 1: If God, the most powerful being in the entire universe, is for us, then truly, who can be against us? We have the most powerful being ever imaginable on our side – who can stand against us?

Question 2: And is this God a lightening bolt thrower? This most powerful being, does he throw a curve ball just for fun? Paul answers this question before it is even on the brain. No, this is the God who did not spare his only Son – the God who gave Jesus, his own Son, on our behalf. Will this God not graciously give us all things?

Paul lets these two questions percolate and then fires two more:

Question 3: Who can bring a charge against the people who God has chosen? He answers this one, as if the answer wasn’t obvious. No one but God.

Question 4: Who is the one who condemns? NO ONE BUT JESUS – The Jesus, who gave his life for us – and get this – who is now sitting at God’s right hand and is interceding and pleading for us.

Paul, in a short series of 4 questions, gives us a picture of a God who is on our side, so much so that he would send his only Son. This is the picture of God that Paul paints for us today. Paul in a series of 4 short questions moves the conversation from the theoretical to the practical. The questions we’re asking today are not about philosophical understanding. They are about relationships, about the people we love – and Paul answers in kind. Paul doesn’t give us a philosophical answer; Paul gives us the person of Jesus. Jesus who died and rose from the grave to make us right with God. Jesus, who is now at this very moment at the right hand of God interceding for us, pleading for us, groaning for us.

We want answers. We want to know why. We want to know the reason for suffering, but today we have to admit that God doesn’t often give us that. And frankly, even if we knew the reason, I am not sure we would be so pleased with it. But God doesn’t leave us alone. We are given the person of Jesus. Jesus cries with us in our pain. Jesus holds us in our pain. We are not alone. And yet these words can sound empty and hollow, much like Lucy’s words sounded to Peter, Susan and Edmund in C.S. Lewis’ book, Prince Caspian.2 (This story is the version that we find in the book, not the movie)

The four of them, along with Trumpkin the drawf, had just finished an exhausting, frustrating day trying to find Prince Caspian. Caspian desperately needed their help, and a whole day had been wasted chasing rabbit trails and dogging enemy arrows. Exhausted they had fallen asleep, only to have the one saving grace of the day, a good sleep, shattered by Lucy’s hair-brained tails of seeing Aslan, the lion.

Lucy finally wakes everyone up, and tells them that she has seen Aslan, and points to him. But no one can see their friend, their hero. Only Lucy can see Aslan. Peter, Susan, Edmund and especially Trumpkin tell Lucy that she is dreaming. They tell her to go back to sleep. “If Aslan was really there, we would be able to see him too,” they say. Lucy gets so frustrated that she vows to follow Aslan alone, and it is only after this that Edmund first, then Peter, then Susan and finally Trumpkin, agree to follow Lucy without ever seeing Aslan.

Lucy follows Aslan, and the rest of the group follow Lucy. Aslan leads them over dangerous cliffs, through treacherous valleys, through thick forests, all in the dark, but as the children follow… first Edmund, then Peter, then Susan, and finally even Trumpkin all eventually are able to see Aslan. By the time they reach Caspian, all five in the crew can see Aslan clearly.

Paul paints a similar picture for us today, a picture of a Son who is now the lion interceding for us. But this Son, this Jesus, this lion, is often very hard to see. The exhaustion of life, the frustration of following rabbit trails can cause us to miss Jesus completely. The questions that we have about death and cancer and tsunamis can blind us to the reality of Jesus Christ and his place in our lives. Well, Paul sticks his neck out, just as Lucy did, and says, “I have seen this Jesus. I know him. And I will follow though no one else will.” And then Paul invites us along on the journey by asking one last question.

Paul says – “I have seen this God; and because this is the God we have… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”

And here is the crux of our questions today: Shall tsunamis? Shall cancer? Shall death? Shall suffering? Shall planes flying into buildings separate us from God?

One has to wonder what emotional state Paul was in when he quoted Psalm 44:22, also verse 36 in our text today. Paul probably remembered some of his friends who had quoted these very words just before being murdered because they were Christians. Paul’s eyes must have filled with tears when he wrote these words. As Paul looked forward to the mountains that he would have to cross, to the treacherous valleys he would have to go through, to the life that he would ultimately lose before meeting the lion of Judah, to the beatings and the rejections and the time in prison, I suspect that Paul probably put his pen down for a bit before continuing, for this is the last question for us today.

In a world full of questions, answers would be wonderful. But the answers to our questions are not philosophical words, but the Word himself. The answers to our questions are not abstract thoughts because we don’t ask abstract questions. The answer is not something, but someone. The answer is personal because our questions are personal. The answer is Jesus himself. Jesus personally, relationally reaches out and promises that nothing can separate us from his love.

So how does this knowledge of God's creation and providence help us? If we take the step to follow Lucy and Paul along the mountain, into the valley when we can’t see what or who we are following – how does this help us? How does the person of Jesus help us? Well, here the Catechism helps us again. “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.”3

The Catechism echoes Paul’s final statement in our passage when Paul says: For I am convinced… Now the word “am” must be read like this: For I have been convinced, and am being convinced even today, and will continue to be convinced until the day I die. Past, present, future are all actions that Paul has very little control over. Lucy didn’t choose to meet Aslan in the forest, just as Paul did not choose to be convinced or persuaded. Paul has been persuaded, he has seen Jesus with his own eyes, and now Paul is coming to us in the night, when we are lying in the dark, wondering about the exhaustion and frustrations and pain of life, wondering if we are on the right track. Paul comes to us and says, “Even if you can’t see Jesus at this time; trust me – I see him.” Paul says to us today, “I have been convinced. I am being convinced. I will continue to be convinced that neither death or life neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul does not end with a question. Paul ends with a person. Our world is not governed by chance, but by Jesus, who intimately knows our suffering, and who will allow no separation from him. But what about the Sheriff at the beginning, the young black man in the introduction? Well, God might not often give explanations or answers, but sometimes, in odd and unexpected places, we are given glimpses into God’s reality.

We never do learn the name of the young black man, but we learn that the sheriff’s name was Royce Spalding. His wife’s name is Edna, and these characters are brought to life in the movie, Places of the Heart.4 For the entire movie, Edna struggles to save the family farm. Edna takes in a blind-boarder to help make ends meet. Edna is just about to give up, when an African American drifter, Mose, shows up and after considerable struggle, the farm is saved. The movie ends with Edna, Mose and the blind-boarder all heading to church to give thanks for the harvest. They sing “Blessed Assurance: Jesus is Mine” as the communion plate is passed. The blind man takes the plate and passes it to Mose, and as he does he whispers, “The body of Christ.” Mose takes the plate and passes it to Edna, whispering, “The body of Christ,” and Edna then takes the plate, and passes it to – unexpectedly – Royce (her dead husband) who then takes the plate and hands it to the young man who killed him.

In this moment we get a glimpse into eternity, into the realm of the unknown, into the realm of God. In the small dusty town of Waxahachie Texas in 1935, where people are so caught up in the harsh realities of life and death, the realities of losing family members and farms, and segregation, even those who are separated by life and death are together at the table prepared by our Lord Jesus Christ; even those who cause sin and pain against one another are unified…

Sometimes we get glimpses, but we always have the person of Jesus. Jesus is more than a glimpse or an explanation. He is the person we need more than anyone else. Jesus is the person who allows us to say, along with Paul, in all confidence that we have been convinced; we continue to be convinced; and we will continue to be convinced into the future that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

1 From the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer #27

2 This story is found in C.S. Lewis book – Prince Caspian, copyright 1951

3 From Heidelberg Catechism Answer #28

4 From the movie, Places of the Heart, released in 1984, starring Sally Field, Ed Harris, John Malkovich and Danny Glover. I found this example in the book It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian by Tod Bolsinger and much of the language in this analogy is drawn from his vivid retelling of this tale.

 

Order of Worship

Opening Welcome

Opening Prayer

Gathering Song: “How Great Thou Art” PsH #483

Call to Worship: from Psalm 22: 1-2 and Psalm 23(suggest that it be read responsively)
Pastor: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer – by night, and am not silent.
People: The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.
Pastor: He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
People: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Pastor: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
People: Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
God’s Greeting: “May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.” 2 Corinthians 13:14

Time of Worship in Song: “God Himself is with Us” PsH #244
“Fill Thou My Life, O Lord My God” PsH #547

Prayer of Illumination

Scripture Reading: Romans 8:31-39

Confessional Reading: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 27-28 (We suggest not reading it as both questions and answers come up in the sermon)

Sermon: “What Then Shall We Say in Response to These Things?”

Prayer of Application: Gracious God, we love you because you loved us. We thank you for the sacrifice of your Son on the cross, for his resurrection and his ascension to the throne. We thank you that he now intercedes for us. Father, we have questions. We wonder why things happen in the way they do. We ask that in the midst of our pain and suffering that you would make yourself known to us even more. We thank you for who you are, for your love for us, for your great faithfulness to us. It is because of the relationship that we have in you that we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Song of Response: “Great is Thy Faithfulness” PsH #556

Offering

God’s Blessing: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. Amen.” Numbers 6:24-26

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