[This sermon was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on July 26, 2020, and can be seen and heard on their FaceBook site.]
When I’m home at 6:00pm, if nothing else is going on, I usually have the local news in TV. It often sounds something like this:
The global pandemic infected thousands more people in our country today… Protests about systemic racism nationally and locally are happening downtown regularly, and now even in the suburbs and rural towns…. Local schoolboards are trying to figure out how school will open this fall semester, if it does… The Congress in Washington DC is trying to hammer out a relief package to help the nation get through the economic crisis facing thousands of small businesses and even large businesses…. But wasn’t the weather great today? Let’s take a quick look at the weather for tonight and tomorrow. Wasn’t it a beautiful day! Really? The world is in upheaval.
Neil Postman wrote about this in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The torrent of global, national, and local news can be overwhelming and numbing. No wonder that if I’m doing nothing else at 7:30pm, I like to turn on “Jeopardy!” and escape the messiness of our world for 30 minutes.
But there is no escaping for people that take the Bible seriously. If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to redeem people in their brokenness, we had better be concerned about the world and our corner of it. Every book in the Bible was written in a particular time and place about which God cared. When we read the Bible, we don’t leave it back there and then, but we hear God speaking here and now. God still loves this world and Jesus is still redeeming us in our brokenness.
This has to be the craziest summer of our lives. COVID-19 is a global challenge. In our country, which leads the world in cases and deaths from this novel virus, we are at the same time facing the challenge of systemic racism being unmasked. Nothing about this summer is what we thought it would be six months ago. The baseball season just began, almost four months late with no fans in the stands. Our world is topsy-turvy.
The world in which Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome was topsy-turvy. The Roman emperor, Nero, was corrupt. He was crazed about his power and ruthless in exercising it. In that fledgling young church, set in the greatest city of that time, the struggle between Jewish believers, the first wave of the new church, and gentile believers, the second and larger wave, was raging. They were dealing with political corruption and rampant racism. Sound familiar? It is no wonder, then, that Paul addresses both ethnic groups in this letter. Under Nero, the persecution of the church would get worse. It was no easy matter to become a follower of this Jewish peasant Jesus of Nazareth. The road was often hard and bumpy and dangerous.
At the heart of Romans is chapter 8, half of which is before us today. It is in some ways the hinge of the letter. If we don’t get this understanding right, we won’t get the rest of the letter right. Two of the verses are particularly memorable. I memorized them in my youth and have not forgotten them. They stand like the vertical suspending towers of a great suspension bridge. Those suspending towers enable the deck of the bridge to carry pedestrians, cars, trucks, and heavy cargo.
The first is verse 28: “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.” This verse is sometimes translated, “and we know that all things work together….” This NIV translation is preferable. It is God at work in all things. This is not a call for stoicism, for a stiff upper lip, or a Pollyanna optimism. Rather, it is telling us that God is at work in every situation, every circumstance. Sometimes people say that everything happens for a reason. I don’t know just what that means. Many things happen because of human sin and human stupidity. Many things happen because God has established natural laws that are predictable. That is why science is valued by people of faith. God is at work in the natural order. The powerful truth of Romans 8:28 is that God is working in all things—both the good things and the bad things—for the good of those that love God.
There is a global scope to God’s work among us. In Colossians 1, Paul writes in the most expansive way of God’s work in Jesus. Listen for the uses of that little word “all”:
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:16-20)
This is our confidence: “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him….”
The second suspending tower closes the chapter in one all-encompassing statement: “For I am convinced that neither death nor 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.”
Having established that God is at work in all things for the good of those who love God, Paul reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God experienced in Jesus. Nothing. Our faith isn’t dependent on circumstances. Our faith isn’t dependent on happy moments. Our faith isn’t dependent on how good life can be or how bad life can be. Our faith isn’t dependent on our ability to explain it or understand all that is going on around us. Our faith is dependent on the love of God exhibited in Jesus.
Back to the news in our world. A hurricane is thrashing the Gulf coast of Texas…. Yesterday about a thousand American died from COVID-19. Over four million have been infected thus far…. And this was in our news. Nine days ago, a great American, Congressman John Lewis died. Two years and four months ago, our Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died. I was still new to this region and didn’t know her, but I heard that John Lewis was going to be one of the speakers at the public memorial service at Kodak Hall. I went to it to hear John Lewis. Several thousand people attended. I was seated in the third balcony. There was a former president of the US, a former candidate for president, many members of Congress, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives present. And John Lewis was there. It was a thrill to be in the same room with him and hear him speak. Now our nation is rightly remembering and honoring this icon of the civil rights movement and the conscience of the Congress…. We do not despair. God is at work in all of it. And nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Two nights ago, I stood at the edge of a cornfield in Marion, Wayne County, with my wife and four family members. We gazed at the sky to the northwest for 30 or 40 minutes, until we began to see a comet just under the big dipper. That comet called Neowise was about 64 million miles away. It’s nucleus is just three miles wide. But we saw it. I was awed at the majesty of creation. Behind us Jupiter and Saturn were bright and brilliant. Overhead we could see some of the stretch of our galaxy, the Milky Way. And there was a comet that won’t be visible to this planet for about 68,000 years. We were awed at the immensity and grandeur of the universe.
We worship and serve the God of all creation. And that God is working in all things on this little planet for the good of those that love him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.