6th Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert
At Columbia Theological Seminary, in our final year, we preached in chapel, what was known as the senior sermon. While I had preached two or three times before all the weight of seminary experience sort of hangs on this final sermon, preached to professors and students alike. I chose this passage because it was and still is one of my favorites. I don’t remember many of my own sermons, but I do remember that one, titled “From Groaning Travail to Glorious Liberty” This one is less academic, but I still retain those key words, groaning and glory.
I mean, really. What is life but an unpredictable movement between groaning and glory! Failures and successes. Agony and Ecstasy. Bad news and good news. Sadness and gladness. Grief and joy. Tears and laughter. Sickness and health. Storms and sunshine.
And what it is that keeps you going in the groaning, failure, agony, bad news, sadness, grief, tears, sickness, and storms? Hope. Hope in the glory that is to come. “For we know that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the hope about to be revealed to us. “ Hope – that’s what keeps you going. Hope in God. Hope in the God who is for us, never against us. Hope in the Christ who makes us more than conquerors in our struggles. Hope in the Spirit who groans with us. Hope in the One who works all things together for good, even when we cannot see anything good at all.
And this scripture passage teaches us to hope, and that’s why we need to know it like the back of our hand, like the sound of our mother’s voice. We need to know this passage so well, that when horrific news as it always does at some point in life, we can say, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.
Please take your bulletin home this week and spend some time with the scripture insert. Bolster your faith so you’re ready for the hard knocks of life. Read it every night. Put it on the refrigerator or the bathroom mirror or write parts of it on your laundry room wall. Live with these words for a while, and see if you don’t grow to love them like I do. See if they don’t provide strength for every trying hour.
Now this is a long passage, chocked full of deep theology. Let us gather our wandering spirits and give this beautiful scripture the attention it deserves.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 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? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 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. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.
Paul peppers this passage with the reality of suffering, the experience groaning and agony, and salts it with the hope of glory, of God’s power to save us from this mess.
Now if you saw the quote “We are more than conquerors” without understanding the context of the hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword, then indeed those words would seem triumphalistic, but they are not.
Richard and I made two difficult phone calls Friday to dear friends of ours, charter members of the Immanuel Church in Montgomery. Several years ago we felt helpless as we tried to care for them, as their marriage was ripped apart by the ravages of addiction, despite the best intentions of each. We kept their son for a couple of weeks, while custody issues were solved. Great people. Painful time back then. And now more pain.
On Thursday, this son of theirs died in his sleep at age 26 – likely from the complications of diabetes. No warning whatsoever. Was doing great managing his diabetes. What a neat guy this young man was! Great sense of humor, resilient, deep-hearted. He double majored in religion and anthropology. Worked in the University labs caring for research animals.
Our conversation with each of his parents was definitely not a time for easy assurances like “All things work together for gogod to those who love God.” This was a moment for groaning. At times like this, we join the Spirit in sighs too deep for words. Yet each of them seemed to have an indescribable God-given grace in sharing with us their nightmare experience. This father talking about finding his son three days dead, yet still able to rejoice in the gift of his great personality.
This mother, saying to us, nearly as soon as she answered the phone “I know. There are no words.” She has lost so many things, but she has not lost her wisdom. Back in the late 90’s this talented and caring friend of ours lost her sobriety, her job, her dignity, her marriage. Then more recently, she lost her mother, her sister, and now her only child. But she spoke last night of the blessing of being there in the dying moments with her mother and her sister, and of her sorrow that her son was dead three days before anyone knew. Who would know? A responsible young man not answering his phone -- who would worry?
If God is for us, who is against us? Well, at times it seems like there is lot stacked against us, if not people, circumstances, evil in the world. A crazy fundamentalist Christian gunman randoming shooting down teens at camp, even in peace-loving Norway. He is against us. Extremists and corrupt power brokers in Somalia, who have contributed to the food crisis, which may be the worst there in 50 years, threatening to kill over 800,000 children. They are against us. Sometimes the political jockeying of our own country’s leaders in House and Senate makes us wonder if they are against us. I don’t think they are, but sometimes it feels like that, because we are trapped in a problem of our own making. If God is for us, who is against us? We’re up against a lot. We’re up against cancer, up against Alzheimer’s, up against national debt & economic woes. Nearly everyone of you has a family relationship issue of one kind or another which is threatening or difficult.
But the point Paul is making is not that there are no dangers or threats. No, he names them – hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. But he says they cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In fact, he concludes the passage with the strong knowing words “I am convinced” He is convinced that neither death, nor life, nor politicians (corrupt or weak though they may be) nor things present or future, nor any power, nor anything else in all creation (that’s a broad phrase) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If I believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, I will still hang on to hope, even if my own child dies. If I believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love, I will still hang on to hope, even if I am dying. If I believe that that nothing can separate us from the love of God, I will still hang on to hope, even if the world as we know is dying!
But remember, Paul says hope that is seen is not hope. We hope for what we do not see, and so we must wait for it with patience. What we see is the suffering. What we feel is a groaning sadness. What we experience is trouble, uncertainty, grief, worry, heartache, sometimes making it hard to pray. We’re trapped, trapped in our bondage to decay. Our bodies are falling apart day by day. We experience the labor pains of living, yet we know that the futility we see is not all there is to see.
If we look with the eyes of faith, with Romans 8 eyes, we can also see that God is at work, that God is for us – and God is bringing us and this hurting world to the freedom we have been promised as God’s children. We might not know how to pray but the Spirit can moan like no one else and God knows the mind of the Spirit. So we are strengthened to hope. We can wait with patience. We can walk through hell, and know that not even hell itself can separate us from God, because Christ himself went there and has endured it all to raise us with him to new life, to bring us the hope which carries us beyond the miserable groaning to the glory without end.