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Tag Archives: Romans 5:1-5

The Hope That Does Not Disappoint

(a sermon for July 22, 2018, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost,  based on Romans 5:1-5)

One year for his birthday – I think he must have been 12 or 13 at the time – our son Zachary got himself a model rocket with his birthday money. As I recall, model rocketry was all the rage that year – the kids had been building their own rockets at school and launching them out on the athletic field – but now, as was and is typical of our son, Zach wanted to take things to the next level.  And I’ll tell you what, this rocket was cool; bigger and better, with considerably more firepower than the dinky little models they shot off at school (!); and it even had a tiny camera in the nose cone so you could take pictures of from 500 feet up!  So this was a big deal; and after waiting days for the right weather and opportunity for “launch,” the moment finally came and on a crystal clear Saturday morning Zach went out to the field behind our house to set this thing off.

And off it went, indeed!  It went higher, faster and straighter than any rocket he’d ever launched before!  The only trouble was that as it flew the rocket started to veer ever-so-slightly toward the sky above the woods adjacent to our house; which meant that when it finally fell to earth, the rocket would almost certainly get caught in a mess of tree branches and be lost forever!

But that’s not what happened (!), because just as the rocket’s pre-installed parachute deployed there was a hint of a breeze beginning to blow off the Scarborough marsh; and, as if by grace, this little bit of wind literally changed the course of the rocket’s descent:  from the woods, back across our field and the parking lot of the church, and out toward the main road, where finally and gratefully it gently hit the ground!  It was, as they say, “another happy landing,” except that as Zach was running up the parking lot to retrieve the rocket, a car turned the corner and ran right smack over it, smashing the rocket into several different pieces!

Now actually, to his credit Zach was pretty philosophical about the whole thing; I remember that for days, he’d tell the story to anyone who would listen and it always ended with, “You should have seen it go!” In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the mangled remains of that ill-fated model rocket is still in a box somewhere!   In the end, I suppose it was something of a life lesson; a reminder not only that what goes up must come down, but also that oftentimes what comes down, comes down hard, and that happens, it can hurt!

To think about this in broader terms, one of the truths of life that we all have to come to grips with is that suffering comes to everyone sooner or later. We may well have moments that we “fly high” in this life, and those are truly the moments we live for; but it’s just as likely that we’ll find ourselves “falling to earth” from time to time. The only question that remains is when it the crash comes, will it destroy us or simply bolster us for the next launch?

And therein lies the parable!

It has been justly said, you know, that suffering is an equal-opportunity offender!  No matter who we are or where we are in life, hard times come to us all: accidents happen, illness comes, jobs are lost, age brings the deterioration of body and mind; people we love break our hearts as they make destructive choices; and we get hurt by cruel words and mean deeds.  Sometimes we end up suffering because of things that have absolutely nothing to do with us; we simply get caught up in the crossfire of somebody else’s situation!

It’s simply part of life, and if you’ve ever been there then you know just how overwhelming, exhausting and ultimately, destructive it all can be!  You get to the point, sometimes – especially when the troubles just seem to accumulate, layer by layer, upon your shoulders – where you simply don’t have the stamina to keep going; you’re feeling as though you will collapse if one more thing happens to you!  You’re literally “sick and tired” of it, so much so that you’re tempted at varying times and degrees to either give up, wallow in self-pity, indulge in bitterness and blame, or simply choose to withdraw from life altogether; or else you’re hurting so bad that some voice inside you is telling you that anything’s got to be better than what you’re feeling right now, and so you start seeking out anything at all that might make you feel better; even if that comes at the expense of your health, well-being, reputation, relationships, or your life!

This is suffering at its worst, friends; it is the embodiment of utter hopelessness.  But it’s precisely this kind of suffering to which Paul is referring in our text for this morning, when he says that we are to “boast in our sufferings.”  I don’t know about you, friends, but nothing I’ve been describing here sounds like anything we’d want boast about or to “glory in,” as it’s translated elsewhere (NIV)!  Yet, as inconceivable as it sounds, here is Paul proclaiming to the early church and to us, to glory in our suffering, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

Looking at this passage from Romans, it’s important to understand that in no way is Paul suggesting that God is causing us to suffer so that we can learn endurance, become stronger people or better Christians; God never wishes suffering upon us to “teach us a lesson.”  But the fact remains that suffering is a reality, and what Paul is saying is that while most everything else in our lives can and does disappoint, there is hope that will not disappoint; the hope that comes from God:  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.  And we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  In other words, because of God the bad times that come to us do not have to make us bitter; they can make us better!

Central to our Christian faith is the knowledge that God loves us; and that this is a love revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Through Christ, God names us and claims us as his own, and wants the very best for us; friends, the good news of our faith is always and ever that our lives and our living matters to God!  So, while human suffering might be inevitable, God will use that suffering to bring us closer to Him, helping us to stand strong and endure all the pain that comes our way.  We will find the hope we need to get through it all, and it is a hope that “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Friends, nobody wants to suffer; but the good news of this text is that there is spiritual depth to be found amidst all the sufferings we face in this life, and that God does find incredible ways even in our worst moments to hold us close, build us up, and  fashion us for the purpose he has for our lives… and, might I add, for the world!  That’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “We have peace with God… [and] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”  But the question is, do we believe it?  Do we trust God to lead us through the suffering, and to provide us with the hope that we need?  More to the point, do we really believe that God loves us, and that our living matters to God; and do we believe it to the extent that we’ll let God shape our lives and living?  Let me suggest to you this morning that the less we believe that God loves us, the more likely it is that we will respond to the bad times of our lives with bitterness and resentment and bad behaviors.  It’s hard enough trying to stand upright with everything “piling on;” without the strength and endurance that God offers, we risk collapsing under the strain!  To stand strong amidst all that life can and does dish out, we first need to have faith in the love of God.

Of course, truth be told, most of us have a hard time giving up our control of things; to “let go and let God.”   I have to confess, folks, that all too often in my own life I could be the  poster boy for this!   I cannot tell you the number of times when I’ve found myself so weighed down with life’s stresses and circumstances that I’m just about crushed; and yet, what am I doing?  I’m strategizing – I’m thinking to myself, OK.  If I just do this and that and then take care of the other thing, I’ll fix this.  If I just work a little harder, if I’m just a little better or smarter about it, then everything will be fine!  But what do I accomplish by that?  That’s right; NOTHING!  More often than not, I end up piling more guilt and responsibility upon my own shoulders than what ought to be there, and more often than not things get worse rather than better.

But let me tell you something, friends:  throughout my life, it has only been when I have had the faith to get out of my own way and let God lead that I’ve found relief from whatever is weighing me down; it has only been by the grace of the Lord, his Spirit working in and through my life as well as through the lives of others around me that I have known the real hope and the peace that I need to endure.  And I’ll tell you something else; on those occasions when I finally recognize what God has been doing in me and for me, I am bowled over by a truth I had previously failed to recognize:  that it was a gift; a gift of grace.  It was the gift of God’s Spirit pouring the abundance of his love into my heart.

And that same gift, friends, is being offered to you – right here and now – by the God of grace who loves you beyond measure; the God who wants you, in the midst of all your troubles, to have the hope that will not disappoint. And all you have to do is accept the gift.

James Bracher, a congregational pastor and leadership consultant, tells the story of a conference he once led in which among the speakers was former President Gerald Ford, as well as several of his associates.  Bracher wrote that he was so excited about the former president coming to speak that when the time came to meet one of those associates to prepare for the conference, Bracher started gushing like a fan talking about a rock star.  “Do you know President Ford?” he asked.  “Do you know the president?”  But he was both confused and humbled by the associate’s response:  “Jim,” he said, “the question is not “do I know President Ford?” but, rather, “Does President Ford know me?”

Bracher goes on to explain that while hundreds of millions of people know the president of the United States, how many people do you suppose President Ford would say he knew; I mean, really knew, because a real relationship with someone, be it the president or a neighbor down the street, requires not only that you know that person, but also that person knows you!

That’s how it is with God, beloved.  We know God; but the real blessing comes in the fact that God knows us; that he really knows us.  “God knows our soul,” Bracher concludes. “God knows our intentions, motivations, anxieties, deepest hurts and most noble ambitions… what makes our faith so wonderful is that we have access to the grace of God,” and because of this God meets us where we are and how we are and helps us to build a life of meaning and impact.

Only time will tell what this coming week will bring to our lives: maybe our rockets will be flying high, or perhaps they’ll come crashing down to earth; who knows?  But the good news is whatever happens, the God who knows us and loves us will be there; empowering us and bringing the kind of insight, understanding and peace that we might not otherwise have known.  My prayer for all of us today is that while we may not “boast of our sufferings,” we can certainly rejoice in hope that will not disappoint. For this hope, and for the love in which it is grounded…

…thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Unwrapping God’s Gift: Prince of Peace

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(a sermon for December 27, 2015, the First Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on Roman 5:1-5; Luke 2:8-20 and Isaiah 9:6)

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6

Every Christmas season carries with it some very special memories; and in our family the Christmas of 2004 will always be remembered as the one in which my wife Lisa became an international media sensation!

And I’m not kidding (!)… the story is that that year the school system where we lived had essentially banned all things Christmas:  there were to be no decorations,  no music, no parties, not even a “Merry Christmas” was to be spoken, while the origin and meaning of Hanukkah was being taught as a matter of cultural significance; this despite the fact that there had long been a policy in that system (developed together by school officials and local clergy, I might add) to allow for both traditions to be an appropriate part of the curriculum, and observed with equal respect and all due celebration.  It just didn’t seem right that Christmas should be totally ignored, so along with another concerned mother in the community, Lisa went directly to the school board to ask why!

And it just took off from there:  suddenly we’re being called by the likes of the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Sydney Australia Daily Telegraph (!), all wanting to know about the battle these two women were waging in the so-called “War on Christmas!”  Lisa was interviewed on radio talk shows, both locally and across the country; Court TV wanted to talk with them; and Fox News had actually scheduled a live remote before they got “bumped” by developments in the Iraq War!  And the thing was, it was never about Christmas “versus” Hanukkah; this wasn’t meant to be a statement on religion and certainly not an opportunity to proselytize.  It was simply a heartfelt desire that our community be wholly inclusive of both traditions of faith during a very important holiday season.  But that didn’t stop the media from pressing their point; and in fact, what I think I’ll remember the most in walking in the house in the middle of the afternoon just a couple days before Christmas – a time when, as you can imagine, Lisa is crazy busy getting stuff ready for the holiday (!) – yet she’s still, albeit very reluctantly, talking on the phone (and looking rather harried, I must confess), and as she’s talking, Lisa is rolling her eyes as she hurriedly scribble a note to me which reads:  “THIS IS CNN!”

The good news about all this media scrutiny is that it culminated in our local school board realizing it needed to honor its own policy; and as an affirmation of that decision I (for some reason!) was invited, along with a local rabbi, to take part in a big event at the middle school to give a presentation on the origins and meanings of both holidays, and to do it from a faith perspective!  There was music, and laughter and story-telling (both the rabbi and I got to read from holy scripture); there was even a rousing rendition of “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” – complete with foot stomping (!) – sung by over 200 middle schoolers, which is an experience in and of itself!  The whole thing, I have to say, went a long way in both celebrating our diversity and appropriately keeping the joy of Christmas and Hanukkah alive in our community.   But even more than this, I have to tell you that in this little holiday celebration, in which for a few wonderful moments we were all truly “one in the Spirit” and were in one small but significant way “the whole people of God,” this pastor began to see just a joyous glimmer of what “peace on earth, goodwill to all” can really look like in this world as we know it.

It’s easy, after all, for us to become cynical about that particular sentiment of the season, is it not?  Given the on-going reminders we receive of the state of terror and violence all around us, to say nothing of the constant vitriol that emanates from the mouths of both those in power and those who wish to be in power, it’s hard not to begin to echo Longfellow’s verse about how “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.”  Moreover, for so many this time of year there is this overwhelming sense of sadness, grief, anger and even fear that cannot help but cast a pall on any feeling of Christmas spirit.  Truly, the dream of peace on earth does seem so elusive, but oftentimes we’d settle for some peace of heart and mind!  In all honesty, I think that’s one reason that so many people find their way back to church this time of year; because we are simply yearning to know in our own hearts the experience of a “silent, holy night” where “all is calm and all is bright” and to have it linger forever.  We need for the world… and our very lives… to be made full and whole.

So isn’t it wonderful, then, that our God has given you and me the gift of a child who will be called “Prince of Peace?”

It’s the last of the four names given to God’s promised Messiah in Isaiah, and in many ways it’s the most amazing of all.  For what we have here is the bold portrayal of the God of the Universe coming to this battered and bruised world of ours to bring peace – real peace; deep peace – that represents more than merely the absence of strife and war, but also peace in the sense of wholeness, harmony and fulfillment.  It is no accident that the Hebrew word Isaiah uses here is, in fact, “shalom,” which we understand to mean the whole peace of God; literally “to bind together the fragments of life into a meaningful whole.”  Actually, what comes to mind here is the image of a braided “rag rug.”  Have you ever seen one of these?  These are rugs literally woven and braided together with old and ragged bits and pieces of cloth, taking that which individually means nothing and which holds no strength, but which together can be something of great beauty and purpose.

God’s peace, God’s shalom, is much like that; in which the bits and pieces of life’s many experiences woven into something of meaning and insight and fulfillment.  And isn’t that true; so often in and through all the myriad stresses and conflicts of life, we will find ourselves, often inexplicably, experiencing God’s peace; a clarity amidst the murkiness that helps us to know which way to go, with a sense of God’s perfect presence and love as we do so. This is what can only be described as deep peace; as Robert Raasch has defined it, it is “the kind of peace that enables us to experience an inner calm in spite of all the circumstances that would normally cause us stress.  It’s like the calm in the eye of a hurricane… perfect stillness and peace while storms rage all around.”

And what makes this all the more incredible is that this one who comes to us in the manger of Bethlehem, this tiny infant who is also named Jesus, is the one who will be called “Prince of Peace.”  That’s significant, too; for in Isaiah’s time, the title “prince” did not so much suggest an heir to a throne as it did a chief, an overseer, an owner; so what Isaiah is saying is that true peace will literally belong to the Messiah, the “Prince of Peace,” and that in turn, his peace will be our own, both now and eternally.  As Paul said to the Romans in our epistle reading this morning, “Therefore, since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access to this grace in which we stand.”

What this all means, beloved, is that no matter what happens to us in this life, no matter where we are or what we’re going through; whatever challenges await you and me during the year 2016 and beyond, God will not let us go through it alone; through Jesus our Emmanuel, God gives us the strength to face it, endure it, triumph over it, and grow from it.  We need not feel weighed down by the harshness of life, nor be paralyzed in fear of life’s injustices and uncertainties, but in fact dwell in a life that’s whole and full and imbued with purpose; for “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ!”  It’s true, deep peace, and it’s what leads us to all joy in living. It’s like the story of the little boy who misunderstood the words to “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing;” you know, the line, “peace on earth and mercy mild?”  Well, this boy might have said it wrong, but he got it right when he sang, “Peace on Earth and Mercy Wild!”  Jesus, our “Prince of Peace,” brings us a mercy that’s wild, indeed!

On a starlit night roughly 2,000 years ago, a motley group of shepherds were “living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock.”  Understand that these were “third shift” shepherds; odds are they didn’t even own the sheep, but worked for those who did!  The truth is that even they knew they were the last people who ever expected to see “an angel of the Lord [standing] before them,” much less a “multitude of the heavenly host.”  But it was to such as these to whom the angels’ message of a Savior was given; and it was they who first heard that glorious proclamation of peace!

I have to say that it’s always sort of intrigued me to think that just as soon as the “angels had left them and gone into heaven,” the shepherds immediately ran to Bethlehem “to see this thing that [had] taken place, which the Lord [had] made known to them.”   Certainly, this was incredible, life-changing good news, but there were still practical matters with which to contend; for instance, weren’t they concerned about what would happen to the sheep?  Don’t you think these “third shifters” would have been worried about still having a job in the morning if they just ran off “willy-nil” like that?  Certainly the more reasonable and prudent thing to have done was take care of business first and then, after the sun came up, go into Bethlehem to check things out?

Well, of course, they had to run to Bethlehem to see this; they’d heard the voices of angels, for heaven’s sakes!  They’d seen a heavenly host and heard the good and joyous news of a promise fulfilled: that of a baby born who is “the Messiah, the Lord,” and that in and of itself filled them with all glory.  But I suspect it was even more than that; that in those first moments just after the angels departed, these shepherds were simply overcome with the feeling of it all… first that bit of linger fear that comes with having experienced a heavenly host (!); and then the sheer excitement of the news that had been told them; but then something else…  this profound feeling of calm, really, and a sense of well-being that was quickly and steadily bubbling up into… an incredible experience of wonder and joy!  It was peace; and not just the peace on earth of which the angels were singing, though that was very much a part of it, but also a deep peace that was rooted deeply within their hearts.  And so, who could do anything else at that moment but go and see, and then run to tell the world!

Dear friends, the challenge for each one of us – especially now as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day become Christmastide – is that is we come to recognize and truly know that wondrous, joyous peace as our own, so that we might be moved to live out of the wonder and joy of it.  And as we’ve said, it’s not always easy given the chaos and confusion of the world around us, and the prevalence of all that which would actively work against Christmas and Christ in the culture of these days.  But just as a diverse group of middle-schoolers can be gathered for a few choice moments for a truly “faith-filled” celebration, so our Prince of Peace can come into our world, our lives and our hearts to unite us with him.

For as Christmas surely comes, beloved, so does Christ!  To slightly paraphrase something written by Presbyterian poet Ann Weems, “Even now [he] comes in the face of hatred and warring – no atrocity too terrible to stop it, no Herod strong enough, no curse shocking enough, no disaster shattering enough.  For someone on earth will see the star, someone will hear the angel voices, someone will run to Bethlehem, someone will know peace and goodwill:  the Christ will be born!”

The Prince of Peace will come!

May the gift of true, deep that he brings be yours today, tomorrow and in every day to come in the new year.

And may our thanks ever be to the God who comes to us as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!”

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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