Written for and delivered at Oviedo Presbyterian.
Primary texts: Romans 8:14-28; Psalm 139
Secondary text, as read during children’s moments: The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
One of the joys of my current job is helping my boss write his monthly email to the staff and volunteers who serve with us on campuses across the country. This email isn’t about tactics or resources, so much as the pastoral side of his leadership. He uses these opportunities to share what he is learning from God through his time in Scripture.
We usually talk for 20-30 minutes about what he’s been reading and how it is reflected in his day to day life. Then I take the notes from that conversation and write up a devotional to send out. It’s fun to hear his perspective, and he’ll often ask what I know or think about a particular passage or event in the history of the church.
As we started our most recent writing session, just after Easter, Mark looked at me and asked, “So what do you think Paul’s sermons were about?”
It took me a moment – is this a trick question? I will freely admit I don’t have the whole of the New Testament memorized, but I couldn’t think of much evidence in the scriptures.
We know where Paul preached, roughly when, and often we have a good sense of how people reacted to them. We know the story of his conversion. And we have his letters. While they aren’t sermons, Paul’s letters are filled with the sort of encouragement, admonitions and teaching on right practice we expect from a sermon.
We know Paul would have preached from his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible
And it’s a fair bet he would preach from his deeply personal and powerful encounter with the Risen Christ.
I think that the prayers that he offers in his letters- prayers on behalf of these fledgling Christian communities – offer a glimpse of what he might have preached. Paul prayed that the followers of Jesus – Jews and Gentiles alike – would understand the power of the resurrection. The power that raised Jesus from the dead, and the promise that He was only the first.
Paul longed to see people living in the power of the Spirit of God. The Power of God that came upon the disciples on Pentecost. The power of God that knocked Paul to the ground on the road to Damascus.
Over and over again, Paul encourages us to lean into that power, trusting that the God who did not withhold Jesus – his only Son – would provide for us all that we need, and more than we can ever ask or imagine. So that we will use that power to maintain a healthy body, a body that can build God’s kingdom
When Paul wrote this particular passage in Romans, he was thinking about and writing to people who were hurting,people who were suffering. I could spend the next few minutes talking about the letter’s historical setting and the sort of suffering they were dealing with… but I don’t think I need to.
Because when I look around this room, I see people who know what it means to suffer. I see faces well-acquainted with sorrow. Some of us are in the midst of grief and coping pretty well. Others find getting out of bed and making it through a day is emotionally exhausting. Many of us have fought through or continue to deal with significant illness or injury. Still others know the deep pain of providing care for a person you love deeply as they decline.
The hardest truth is that not just a few of us could put check marks by several of those categories… and then some. Yes, this little band of saints has just flat been through it the past several months.
Which is probably why reading through this chapter of Romans the other day at work was one of those sweet moments of grace. The sort that God sends at just the right time, and so often catches me off guard.
You see, in addition to your faces, the photo album I carry around in my heart includes the faces of patients and family members I met in the hospice unit. The faces of my friends and family members scattered across the country… So many people walking though difficult times and in dark places.
And here was Paul, reminding me that we are not alone. We are not forgotten.
We are not being kicked about by some deity that can’t be bothered to treat us any better. Our God is with us.
The Holy Spirit that leads us to God does not sell us into slavery, tricking us into the hands of a capricious master. The Holy Spirit opens our hearts so that we might come to know a loving, merciful God.
The God who knows our suffering because He has suffered.
The God who adopts us, claiming us as sons and daughters. Sons and daughters who are co-heirs with Christ – the very Son that God sent to save us. The Son who sits at the right hand of God.
I love the picture that Paul paints here to help us understand the sort of relationship that we have with God. We can call God Abba – that’s the same Aramaic word that Jesus used to cry out to God- not the more formal “Father” but a more personal word, closer to Daddy or Papa. It’s the name for the one we call when we need strong arms that can scoop us up and carry us to a safer place.
Thinking back to Pastor Paul’s sermon last week, I suspect that for many, the image of God as the Mama who comes to our aid is just as powerful. Because the point here is not God’s gender… it is the relationship. We don’t have to settle for simply knowing about God or of God. We can know God.
Through God’s Spirit, we are connected to God deeply, intimately… from our very beginning. In Psalm 139, the psalmist points to the care that God puts into our creation:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
Here and in Psalm 121, we are reminded that we aren’t mere objects, mass-produced and left to fend for ourselves, even if we want to go it alone.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Like the Runaway Bunny’s mother, our Abba God is with us, going before us and coming behind us. God is with us in our adventures, and God remains with us in our suffering.
In our darkest nights – the ones that are so often sleepless – God’s spirit remains with us. And while we may not be able to recognize its light, or it may seem to be only a pinprick of light, the darkness does not overcome it.
In the moments when all we can do is sob. Or stare into space wondering if there will ever again be words… those are the moments that the Spirit cries out on our behalf.
Interceding with sighs too deep for words.
This knowledge doesn’t change how much we suffer. Or the fact that there is suffering in the world. Or the fact that pain and sorrow are a great big old bowl of yuck.
But what Paul reminds us is that this isn’t the way it’s meant to be.
One day, the resurrection power that brought Christ from the grave is going to be let loose on all creation. That’s what the groaning Paul describes as labor pains is all about – the cosmos straining to be set free from sin and death, to be freed from brokenness and evil, and to know full reconciliation with its creator.
Our present suffering, real and painful though it is, can never compare with the glory that will be revealed when we are all made new, when we all know the full and complete presence of God. When we join with members of every tribe, tongue and nation praising God and worshiping around the throne.
That is what we wait for. And that is what we hope for… that future reality that we can’t see. It is kind of hard to imagine from the seat I’m in.
But that is hope, isn’t it? Trusting that something we can’t see is on the way.
Believing… That joy is on the way
Trusting… That healing is on the way
Hoping… That the string of awful days will come to a close. That a broken heart can be put back together
No matter the name for our sorrows, no matter how far they carry us from the life we call normal, hope tells us that God is there.
And the very same Spirit that empowered Jesus to say “Not my will but thine” and continue his journey to the cross is in you and me, allowing us to see each others’ pain, binding us to one another afresh, empowering us to care for, pray for and serve those among us in need.
We have hope in the power of Christ to transform us. And we have hope in the will of God to redeem all circumstances, working all things together for good
In the middle of the 14th century, a young woman living near Norwich suffered a severe illness. While she was apparently on her deathbed, Julian had a series of intense visions of Jesus Christ, which ended by the time she recovered from her illness.
Julian wrote about her visions, and began exploring what they meant theologically.
In spite of living in a time of turmoil, plagues and sorrow, but her theology was optimistic. She spoke of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion, as opposed to law and duty. In Julian’s view, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted. This ran counter to the common belief that God punished the wicked, as evidenced by the Black Death and a series of peasant revolts. Through her visions, Julian came to a more merciful theology, She believed that God loved everyone and wanted to save them all.
One of her best-known prayers reflects her view of God’s presence and care for us- even in times of great turmoil and suffering- It is a beautiful expression of hope that we can claim as well.Would you pray it with me?
In you, Father all-mighty,
we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Saviour.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit,
is marvellous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us
and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well.