Sermon notes 07-26-20 Sure and Certain Unseparation
Romans 8:26-39 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those 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 among many brothers. 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 shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded 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 sure 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. (ESV)
I am going to begin on a very somber note, but please don’t run off until you hear me out; I promise I’ll lighten up by the time I’m done. The somber truth is that sooner or later in this earthly life, we will be separated from everyone we love. We all know this, even if we don’t like to think about it. We have all felt the pain of being separated from someone we love even when that separation is only temporary, and I think there must be no greater emotional pain than the pain of separation. Even the anticipation of being separated from someone we love is painful. When we are in any kind of pain, we need something to give us comfort, and this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered by many to be one of the most comforting passages in the entire Bible. It contains one of the most quoted verses in the Scriptures, Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
I want to talk with you this morning about the comfort and the promises found in this passage for those who follow Jesus Christ, and I want to identify three specific promises that we can claim from these verses: one promise regarding bad things, one promise regarding good things and one promise regarding best things. The first promise is: Bad things ultimately turn out for our good. The second promise is: We will not ultimately or permanently be separated from the good things; and the third promise is: The best things are yet to come.
Even if you might never have read for yourself the passage that Kim just read for us, you have more than likely had it read to you when you attended a funeral. It is one of the “go to” passages for expressing comfort and hope during times of loss and separation. Funerals are certainly a time when we are most profoundly aware of loss in our lives. The greatest losses we experience in life are when we are separated from our loved ones by death, so there is great comfort in the words of Paul who assures us that not even death can separate us from God’s love.
But we all know that funerals are not the only time in our lives when we experience separation and loss and grief. Death is the great separator, but separation and loss are common experiences throughout life as well. We can become separated from many things: from our good health, our independence, our friends, our freedom, our sense of security and stability, our homes, our dreams, our careers, our income, our support systems, and on and on. Separation is an unavoidable part of life. Even the choices we make in life result in separation. Every choice we make necessarily separates us from the other choices we might have made. We become separated from all the things that we will not be able to do because of the thing that we have chosen to do. Separation is prevalent even in natural processes of life like growing up into adulthood, which separates us from our childhood. Growing old separates us from young adulthood. We raise our children with the expectation that they will one day separate themselves from us to form their own families.
Separation is a sure and certain part of life, and sometimes the separations and losses of life can be overwhelming. Sometimes the losses of life pile up so much that we feel like we don’t even know how to pray. Paul is writing about one of those times, and the first great comfort I find in this passage is the admission by this greatest of all the apostles that even he had times of not knowing how to pray. Paul includes himself when he writes in the first person plural, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.”
Just a few verses earlier in Romans 8, Paul had been writing about the fact that all of creation is groaning as it awaits redemption and freedom from corruption. As we look around at our world today, we could easily infer that creation must be groaning more than ever as it awaits redemption and freedom from the corruption that is so apparent. Paul says, each of us are likewise in a position of weakness, inwardly groaning as we experience all the losses and separations and sufferings of life, at times rendering us unable even to pray. But Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is working at times such as these, helping us in our weakness and interceding for us according to God’s will. What a relief and a comfort it is to know that in those times when we feel unable to pray as we ought to, the Holy Spirit prays for us!
Next we come to that beloved, often quoted yet sometimes misused verse, Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. What does Paul mean by this, that all things work together for good? How can this be? First of all, we should understand that the term, “all things” means that even as Christians, as those who love God, we are susceptible to all the things that happen in this life, even the bad things. Paul teaches that “all things,” even bad things, can happen to Christians. He lists examples of some of those things later in this passage: things such as hardship, tribulation, suffering, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and the sword. These are all things that can happen even to those who love God.
It is tempting for Christians to think that bad things should not happen to those who love God. There are even preachers who proclaim that kind of thinking; it’s called the prosperity gospel. But if that is what we think or believe, then, when bad things do happen to us, it seems shocking or unfair to us. We might even conclude, when bad things happen to us, that it must mean we do not love God enough, or that God doesn’t love us. When bad things happen to us, it makes us feel separated from God, makes us think God has abandoned us.
But friends, loving God does not exclude us from experiencing all things. Nowhere do the Scriptures say that bad things will not happen to those who love God. We are not promised that our circumstances will be better than anyone else’s. In fact, we are assured that when we love God and follow Jesus Christ, suffering will be a part of our experience. Jesus did not suffer so that we would never have to suffer, but because Jesus suffered, we become more like Christ when we suffer.
Paul says all things work together for our good, but Paul is not saying that all things are good things. Bad things do happen to us, but for those who love God, we have the first promise: that God will take even bad things and work them together for our good. You may know the story of the burning hut that illustrates this promise.
The only survivor of a shipwreck washed up on a small, uninhabited island. He prayed fervently for God to rescue him, and every day he scanned the horizon for help, but none came. He eventually managed to build a little hut out of driftwood to protect him from the elements, and to store his few possessions. But then one day, after scavenging for food, he arrived home to find his little hut in flames, the smoke rolling up to the sky. The worst had happened; everything was lost. He cried out with grief and anger, “God, how could you do this to me!” Early the next day, however, he was awakened by the sound of a ship that was approaching the island. It had come to rescue him. “How did you know I was here?” the man asked his rescuers. They replied, “We saw your smoke signal.”
That is a fictitious example, but I think we can all look back at our own lives and see times when God used bad things, struggles and experiences of suffering and separation and loss, and God brought good out of them. It has been said that everything is necessary that God sends, and nothing can be necessary that God does not send. God takes the struggles, separations and losses, the bad things that we experience in life, and transforms them into things like endurance, character and hope. The result of God’s transforming power is abundant life. God uses the bad things that happen to us to bring us to spiritual maturity. In the hands of God, the bad things we experience ultimately make us more Christ-like. So that’s the first promise: Bad things ultimately turn out for our good.
And the second promise is: we will not ultimately or permanently be separated from the good things. Paul says with absolute certainty, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” In the providence of God, the bad things that happen to us lead to life with God from which we will never be separated. Paul tells us, If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? God gave even his own Son for us, so we can be sure God will not keep any good thing from us. We will not ultimately be separated from the good things God promises.
And the third promise is that the best things are yet to come. Paul teaches that those who love God and who are called according to his purposes are destined for restoration into the image of God in which we were created and for which we were intended. Those called to be followers of Jesus Christ will all be together with him and we will be made like him! That is what it means to be glorified. Paul teaches that our glorification with Christ is guaranteed; the best things are a certainty for us.
So sisters and brothers, as those who love God, we claim the promises that bad things ultimately turn out for our good; that we will not ultimately or permanently be separated from the good things; and that the best things are yet to come. These promises should not, however, lead us to trivialize suffering, or to seek out suffering, or to claim that bad things are good things. Sin is at work in our world to try to destroy and undermine the good things of God. Death, loss, separation and grief are all bad things that are part of our experience, but God is stronger than sin, and God’s love is stronger than death. Christ gained victory over death and over all that would separate us from the abundant life that God offers us.
Through Christ, the sufferings that we experience in life are transformed.
God takes the bad things that happen to us in our lives and makes good things out of them, things that form us into the image of Christ, things that we will never be separated from, things that can never be taken from us. God’s love makes us into his beloved children, brothers and sisters with Christ, destined to share together in his glory. This is our sure and certain hope from which we can never be separated. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Some material for this message was derived from Tim Keller’s sermon, “A Christian’s Happiness” and from Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3.