Sunday, October 26, 2014

“Living Without Conceit”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 11: 1-2a; 11-12; 17-25; 28-32
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   October 26, 2014

Do not be conceited, but fear….”  (Rom 11:20 NAU)


Does God hear the prayers of Jews?”  

This question was a very hot topic in Southern Baptist Churches back during the 80’s and 90’s.    During one particular Bible study I was leading, a deacon answered that God would definitely not hear the prayer of a Jew and he added, that if unless the large Jewish community living in our town did not confess faith in Jesus Christ, they were all going to hell.  

Hearing this, I turned and asked him whether or not someone should go and share the gospel with them?   He shook his head “Yes!”  Then I asked, “Will you go with me into that large Jewish community and witness to them?”   He declined.   He said that wasn’t his thing.
Then I thought to myself, “Can a person who believes that all Jewish people are going to hell and does nothing to save them, be saved?”     Interestingly, that fellow was the first deacon I ever had who had served time in prison.   His attitude toward the Jews was quite ironic.  He believed that God had mercy and spared him, but he did not believe God would spare the Jews.  

To paraphrase Paul, that man sounded very ‘conceited’ in his faith.   Isn’t that the opposite of what Paul recommended to the Gentile Christians of his own day: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. (11.20-21). 

WHAT PEOPLE CAN’T KNOW
When Paul warned: “Do not be conceited”, he was talking to Christians; Christians who thought they knew the fate of the Jews and that they were better than them because they were Christians.   If Germany had only read this part of the Bible, there may not have been a Nazi Germany or World War II.   If they only realized what Hitler didn’t know.

I’m sometimes amazed at what people think they know, especially when it comes to religion.   A couple of years ago, a very strong message was being preached by a very popular and gifted young preacher, Rob Bell.  He even wrote a book to share his message with a great title, “Love Wins”.   I liked his title and I liked some of the things he said in the book.   But he also made a very risky claim about what he knows about, “Heaven and Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived”.   The book does make some important points about God’s love for everyone.  He also revealed some very bad logic in a lot of evangelical thinking about God and salvation.   Rob Bell strongly believes it is wrong to say that God freely offers us his love and grace, and then sends us to Hell to burn forever if we don’t respond the right way.  What kind of God gets mad and sends you to Hell because you don’t like him?   This kind of attitude is certainly not like Jesus’ when he commanded us to “Love Your enemies” and Bell says, if God does also love his enemies, God looks hypocritical, unloving, uncaring, and angry.  It just doesn’t make sense. 

Bell’s book set off a fire-storm among evangelicals.  Even some mainline denominational magazines reacted negatively to some of the things he says in his book.   Rob Bell’s emphasis on the final victory of God’s love makes it look like Bell either believes in Purgatory (a place where people are given a second chance after death which not clearly taught in the Bible), or, it makes him sound like he is a Universalist (saying ‘Universalists are Christians, too’), making Jesus and the gospel seem less important, especially since, as the book claims, Rob Bell already knows “the fate of every person who ever lived”  (See “Love Wins” by Rob Bell, Harper One, 2011)

What is most dangerous about Rob Bell’s message is that his book claims to take to places in Rob Bell’s own mind and heart, where the Bible does not go.   In other words, he claims to know some things that has not been revealed or made clear.  This is what makes any religion or religious claim risky or dangerous.   When people claim to have some kind of “special knowledge” that is so wrapped up in what they think, know, or want to believe, even when it sounds good and is well-meaning (which I believe Bell is), we can become conceited in our opinions.  Conceit is what puts us in very risky and dangerous territory. 

I’m starting out with the these two controversial topics, “Does God Hear Jewish Prayers” and  Rob Bell’s struggle with Heaven and Hell in “God Wins!, because the question of ‘who will be saved’ is  also part of Paul’s struggle when he thinks about his own people, Israel.  Our text today begins today with a very big question that must have been a hot topic in Paul’s day:  “Has God rejected his people?”  Christians accepted Jesus, but Israel rejected him.  Does this mean God will also reject his people, Israel?   That’s the question on Paul’s mind and heart.

We ask similar questions, don’t we?  What happens to those who don’t put their faith in Jesus Christ?   What happens to those who are unchurched and say they don’t believe in anything?  What happens to those, even as Christians, who refuse to go with God where God is going?  Once God moved from working through Israel to working through the church, and many refused to go where God went?   Using a Bus analogy, what happens to those who decide either to “get off the bus”, because they don’t like where God is going and what happens to people who decide not to “get on the bus” in the first place?  This is the same kind of question Paul is dealing with when he asks, “Has God rejected his people?” 

WHAT ONLY GOD KNOWS
This question about who God has rejected and who God will accept is important for Paul because Israel is not only his spiritual heritage, but they are his family.  “May it never be!”  he cries,  “For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin…”  (1.1). These are not just strangers Paul can easily forget.   Paul has become a believer and a follower of Jesus, but his family hasn’t.   Maybe some of us can identify with Paul’s hurt and pain.  It makes all the difference in the world, when you are talking about family, doesn’t it?

In the movie I mentioned a few weeks ago, “Heaven Is For Real”, a book and movie based upon the true story of a little 4 year old boy who had visions of Heaven, there was also a very interesting sub-plot going on.  In the church, where the little boy’s Father was pastor, there was a woman on the church board, who did not like the pastor talking about Heaven all the time.   When he was listening to his little boy tell incredible things, he just couldn’t help it.  But still, the woman didn’t like it and she wanted the pastor to stop, maybe even to leave.   It turns out, that the reason she didn’t like the pastor talking about Heaven, was because she had lost her son, who was killed as a solider, fighting in Afghanistan.   Heaven had become painful for her, because she did not know whether or not her son was a Christian when he was killed.  She struggled with the eternal fate of her own son.  She didn’t have the knowledge of Heaven that the Pastor’s child claimed to have.   Out of her own pain, she was attacking the preacher for preaching about Heaven because she didn’t want to have to think about it.

Sometime or other, the question of Heaven and Hell comes home to each of us?  When we have a loved-one who dies and we wonder whether or not we will ever see them again, or when we worry about the fact that they or someone we know, has never made a decision to accept Jesus as their savior, or when we know someone really didn’t live as if Jesus was their Lord, then we wonder?   It’s one thing to talk generically about the fate of the people who’ve never heard the gospel, or to discuss whether or not God hears the prayer of a Jew or whether or God will save good people who are of another religious faith, but when it comes to thinking about the lost or saved among our own family members, then the whole question comes alive, or as we say, comes home to us.

In this text, as well as the surrounding passage of Romans 9-11, the question of the fate of Paul’s own spiritual and physical family, Israel, has finally come home to him.   After he has spoken to the Romans about God’s wrath from Heaven and God’s grace in Jesus Christ, he is reminded again that his own people have rejected Jesus.  It is a truth he just can’t stop thinking about, neither can he stop searching the Bible and his own heart for answers.   He desperately wants to know, what only God knows!   He wonders, “God has not rejected His people, has He?” (1.1),  Now, in this text, Paul claims he has been given an answer, “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew!” (11.2).   But how can Paul know?  How can Paul know what only God knows?  How can any of us know what God only knows?

One of the most important words Paul gives us in this whole discussion is the word “mystery”.  In verse 25, Paul says, “I do not want you, brothers (and sisters), to be uninformed of this mystery---so you will not be wise in your own estimation” (11.25 NAU).   In other words, the only way you can know what only God knows, is to let go of what you think you know.   Only when you do this--only when you let go of your own arrogance, you own conceitedness, and only when you let go of your own very limited, and shortsighted understanding of God, can and will ever learn how to fully trust in what “only God knows”.     This can be the most wonderful knowledge of all, if we will trust it and believe it.  It is the knowledge that is never conceited, never arrogant, and never snobbish, but always shows reverence for God, trusting that there are some things that only God knows and that we all have to see through that same ‘glass darkly” ( 1 Cor. 13.12) and live within those great mysteries (11.25) we call God, love, life, death and hope. 

WHAT WE ALL MUST KNOW
But what can we know?  What does Paul learn about God’s way of salvation and what can we know?   Well, if you look closely at this passage, you’ll find that the answer Paul finds is not simply a truth we need to know, but it is the truth we ‘must’ all know, or we put ourselves in danger of separating ourselves from God’s love.  I want to make this very complicated passage as simple as possible, so I’ve compacted Paul’s answer into two clear conclusions about the ‘mystery’ of God’s saving love.

YOU CAN’T GET CONCEITED    One of the most important things to know about a mystery, especially the mystery of God’s  love and grace, is that a mystery remains  a mystery even when it is made known to us.    The mystery of God’s love and grace is exactly that kind of mystery, Paul says.  It is a mystery that we must never get big-headed about it.   This warning keeps coming up in Paul’s discussion about salvation.   It’s not that Paul is unsure about God’s power to save through Jesus Christ, but Paul is sure that we can’t always see the big picture of what God is doing.   He reminds even the Christians at Rome, “Do not be arrogant….” (vs. 18) and he warns them, “Do not become conceited…” (vs. 20) and then he gives them this big warning:  “If God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either” (vs. 21). Right after this, we come to one of the most important revelations of truth and mystery in the whole Bible, which starts with “BEHOLD!”:  “BEHOLD, then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off….” (11:22)

When the controversy about Rob Bell came out a few years ago, it reminded me of something another great evangelical French theologian (Jacques Ellul) once said in regard to the question, who will be saved?    Ellul said he believed in God’s universal salvation, which goes out to the whole world, but he also added, that to become a Universalist, that is, to believe that everyone will eventually be saved, is something that the Bible nor God has never revealed.  Ellul goes on to say that of course, he would like to believe it is so, and hopes that God can somehow do it, and he even thinks there is something very sick about a person who would not want it to be so.   Then Ellul concludes with this warning about both the amazing kindness but fearful severity of God:  God is love and God is indeed merciful and kind to all,  but the thing that God, Jesus or the truth of the Bible will not bear forever, is a person who has been given the revelation of God’s truth of love, mercy and grace in Jesus and would then, reject it, mock it, or refuse to be moved by his love when it has been revealed.   When you reject God’s love, grace and truth, there is no hope.   (http://jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/ellul/what.pdf).  

Paul would agree with Mr. Ellul, and he would add one more thing:  Even if a Christian, who has known God’s love becomes conceited or arrogant in that love,  they will not be spared either.   “You must continue in that kindness or also will be cut off….” (11.22).  That is the warning, that we must know.   This is, says theologian N.T. Wright, the real thrust of this passage, to warn  Gentiles Christians (today that’s us) not to think for one moment that they know everything about God’s plan or think they are the only part of it.   This is no better than those Jews who once thought they were the only ones God loves (See N.T. Wright’s, Paul for Everyone, Pt. 2, p. 55).

GOD ALWAYS CARESI’m sure that to hear such a warning about being fully and finally ‘cut off’ from God’s eternal love, sounds harsh to any who have made the very dangerous mistake of believing that God is some big ‘push-over’ that will forgive anything and everything, no matter what.   What we all need to see is that there are two great truths that are revealed in this text:  One is that Paul warns anyone who would oppose God’s love that even love will prove to be severe against those who resist love.   We must never underestimate just how much a loving God hates evil and ‘must’ oppose those who refuse to receive love, for the sake of love itself.  Love is what matters to God, because God is love, and we must receive his love and continue in his loving kindness without getting all arrogant and conceited.   We can’t become conceited because, while God is love, this means love carries with it a big warning to those who don’t love.   How can God receive those who refuse to receive his love and remain love himself?  That's the warning we must all hear.

The warning needs to be clear, but also, we must never mistake of thinking that God ever stops loving, ever stops caring, ever stops hoping and ever stops working for us, or for anyone else, for that matter.  The bottom line from Paul’s message, when he says, in verse 32, that “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” means that God always cares.   God always cares because God is love.  Love can’t do anything but care, and keep working for changing the ways of the world, the ways of nations, and the ways of people, even our own ways.  God cares for us all uses not only the failure of the Jews for the salvation of the Gentiles, but God can also use our own failures, sins and mistakes for showing mercy on us too, if we would allow it.  "If" is always the big question?   "Don't be conceited, but fear..."  Paul says.   What he means is that God will not violate our decision to refuse his love.  Even love cannot change a heart hardened with hate, pride, and conceit.  

Paul's final word is that God allows our disobedience, so that he can show us his mercy.  But even God's mercy depends a heart open to receive love.  Will we allow God to care this much for us, and to teach us to care and ‘to continue in God’s kindness’?    I told you recently about a childhood neighbor of mine, who recently developed a brain tumor.  When I told you about him, he had not yet passed away.   Not long ago, I went to his funeral at a Baptist church in New Hope community.   This was quite interesting, because I always knew him as a Methodists, not a Baptist.  He had married a Baptist girl when he was 35, but it was only in the last few years that he became a Baptist.  

I don’t know all the details about what happened, but at his funeral they spoke of the hurt, angry and feelings he had in recent years, which must have been, now in hindsight, part of his illness, for it was surely not part of his character.  He was always an easy going, caring, family person, who loved his church and community.  But in recent years, he got very upset about things and left his life-long church and moved to join another church.  

When they finally discovered that Ray had a brain tumor, his condition worsened quickly.  I went to see him and you could see his discomfort.   His pastor told at the funeral, that when he visited Ray his normal response to “How are you doing” was strange and new to him.  Ray would answer in his normal, calm but uncomplaining way, “Doin.”   

Then, right before Ray died, the Pastor visited him again, but this time when he asked, “How are you doing” and the pastor expected the same answer, he didn’t get it.  When the Pastor finished asking him, he turned and looked up into his Pastor’s eyes and said with a great big smile, “EVERYTING IS JUST FINE!”  Even with all his pain, and even with his wife trying to hold back tears, God’s love and care came through in the moment when it was needed most, all the struggle, anger and emotion was gone, and everything was just ‘fine’.

I don’t know of a better way of interpreting what Paul is saying about salvation.   When Paul thought about it, prayed about, worried about, and studied about, the answer that God finally gave him was simply this:  Don’t be conceited, because God cares for everyone, and as long as you continue in His loving kindness yourself and keep showing and sharing his love, you can trust that because God is kind and God is love, that one day, everything will be just fine.   “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever.  Amen (vs. 36).”



Sunday, October 19, 2014

“A Compassionate Life”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 9: 1-5;  10: 8b-13.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   October 18, 2014


For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,…    (Rom 9:3 NAU).


 We live in a secular age.    “There is a widespread sense of loss, if not always of God, then at least of meaning”, says philosopher Charles Taylor This is what can happen when sacred and religious concerns have been pushed to the fringes and margins of public life. 

Recently, I’ve been reading a new Biography about Abraham Lincoln, written by Ronald White, who reports that during Lincoln’s day, religion played a very important part in politics of this young nation.  Even though Lincoln himself did not attend church regularly (he grew up an uneducated backwoods Baptist), Lincoln’s own political speech and very personal faith was filled with references to God, faith, morality and religion.   He could not escape the moral and religious concerns of faith.   

I don’t know if whether it is true that more people are against ‘religion’ these days, but I do know that the voices against it have become stronger, more aggressive, and sometimes outrageous.   Case in point is the rise a new kind of atheist in American life.  In the very popular writings of these “new atheists” (Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and others)  there is an urgent claim that religion should no longer be tolerated in America, but that it should be criticized, countered, and exposed by rational argument, especially when it attempts to influence national or scientific opinion.  In other words, religion may be understandable for the simple and stupid, but it should have no place among the smart and informed.   Fueling the fires of this growing negatively toward religion is what Islamic religious radicals did in America on 9/11. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Atheism).

THE MARK OF A TRUE RELIGION
As religious people ourselves, we should understand some of this concern about bad religion.  Jesus also had something against the negative religious practice of his own day.   It was both human politics and humanly organized religion which threatened true faith and was largely responsible for putting Jesus to death.   We cannot and must not ever deny or forget the fact that some of the harshest words ever spoken against the religious were spoken by Jesus.   He called those teachers of religious law in his day, “hypocrites” (Matt. 23: 13), “blind guides” (23.16) and even worst, “sons of hell” (23.15).    

But do you know what it was that Jesus was really speaking out against?   It was not faith in God, nor was it his own Jewish faith.   In fact, when speaking out against the religious leaders of his day, he recommended, “Do what they say, but don’t do as they do” because “they say things, but don’t do them”  (Matt. 23.3).    Jesus was not against faith or religious practice, but Jesus was against the misuse, the abuse, and corruption of religion.   Anything that is good in life is corruptible?   Someone’s thinking can become corrupted.   A person can become corrupted in their way of life.  A community can become corrupted.  A church, a mosque, a temple, shrine or synagogue can become corrupted too, just like any religious faith can be used for an evil purpose.   This is exactly what happened on 9/11, when a way of faith became a way of hate.   That was the day Islam was publically exposed as a faith that can be easily corrupted and used as tool for evil.   What about Christianity?  What about us?   Do you think the faith of Christians might also so easily be abused and misused?     It already has.

It is not often that an Episcopal speaks well of a Baptist minister, but Fleming Rutledge does.   She refers to young David Gushee, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust”, explaining in detail what happened to the Jews under the Nazis.    What is most striking about his short survey, is how in so called, ‘Christian Europe’ most of the members of all those Christian churches, “turned away their faces” and failed to oppose Hitler.  She also comments how one great Scottish Bible expositor, Alexander McLaren, wrote on every part of the Bible, except Romans 9-11, which he ignored.  He went straight from Romans 8 to Romans 12, without giving a single thought God’s plan for the Jews  (See Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel,  Eerdmans, 2007, p. 274).      

And, it is not just Jews who have been hated by Christians.  Christians have also hated and killed each other, in the name of God.  When I lived in Europe, I came to know the man who ran a copy shop in my neighborhood.   Once I asked him about Church, and he told me that he loved to study Church History and Church Architecture, but then he added that he would never, ever, again enter a church to worship.   Why I asked him the reason, he told me that when his Father has opposed Hitler,  and refused to fight in Hitler’s war, that it was the Church members who turned him in to the authorities.   His Father was sent off to fight in Hitler’s war and was killed.  He declared that he would never put any confidence in any church.

We all know people who have been hurt by religion, churches and by Christians.   There is no excuse for the wrong that has been done, the hurt that has been cause, and the evil that has been allowed to grow within religious communities who claim to do good and speak truth.   All of us should shudder to think of the abuse of children that has come to surface in the American Roman Catholic Church, or even to think of all of the negative deeds that have been done in the name of God throughout history---such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or even in attacking Native Americans.   There is simply no excuse for it, and those who misuse, abuse, and exploit religion, should be exposed and expunged.

How should we expose, expunge and eradicate bad religion?   The best way is to come to know and experience what healthy and honest religion means.    True religion is exactly what we see happening in the mind of the great apostle as he deals the struggles of his own faith.   For you see, a faith that never admits its own doubts, struggles and shortcomings is more easily corrupted.  But a faith that is honest, truthful and authentic can fight against its own corruptibility, as well as the evil in the world.    Do you know how Paul is doing that?  He is doing it by his own compassion.  His passion for Jesus does not release him from his compassion for people---even for his own people who have rejected his new found faith in Jesus Christ.   It is great compassion that Paul feels when he says,  “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites (Rom 9:3-4 NAU).   Can you feel his pain with him?   If you don’t feel this kind of compassion for people who are separated from Christ, or separated from your own points of view, there may already be something corrupted about your faith. 

The one thing we can know about Jesus and about Paul, and about every true Christian, is the mark of compassion for another.   You can’t have Christian faith without also having a compassionate faith, and you can’t live a Christian life without living your life with a compassion for others.

Do you recall the moment when the Rich, Young, Ruler can to Jesus asking “What He should do to inherit Eternal Life?”  (Mark 10: 17-22).   In the ancient world, you didn’t earn something valuable, as much as you inherited it.  If you didn’t inherit anything, most likely you would have nothing all of your life, and the same went for religion too.   Do you recall how Jesus responded to that Young Ruler?   After Jesus reminded him about keeping the commandments, the man answered that he had always followed them, even since he was a child.    Jesus told him there was only one more thing his religion lacked.   It lacked compassion.   What he needed to do what to sell all he had, and give it to the poor.   This was test of true faith.   But when the Rich Man heard that, he went away with great grief.  We really don’t know if he was grieving over having to give away all his money, or whether he was grieving over not being able to gain eternal life.   One thing for sure, Jesus made it clear:  Without compassion there is no true religion and no eternal life.

NEVER USE RELIGION AS A WEAPON
The point Jesus made with his whole ministry on earth, and even made the same point in his death, is that without compassion for others there is no true faith in God.   What there is only a concern for yourself, for your own salvation, your own truth, and your own opinions.    “How can you love God, whom you haven’t seen,”   John wrote in a letter to as church, “when you don’t love your brothers (and sisters) you do and can see?”   This is the direction in which a true, compassionate religion must be lived---not just for oneself, but for the sake of others.   If the life and death of Jesus gives us any clue to finding true faith and true life, it is that true religion means giving your life away and caring for the hurts, needs, and the struggles of others.

But again, this is not always what we see in religion is it?   While I believe that the majority of people who have faith do care and have compassion, what we most often hear and see about are the few who get religion wrong.   This is what we hear most about from Islam these days.   We see or hear about the few radicals who use religion as a weapon of hate and evil, instead of focusing upon the many who are inspired by religious faith to do good, to bring about good, and to show love in the world.  

This brings me again to a particular part of what Paul is saying in today’s text.   We must notice particularly how Paul does not use his faith in Christ to accuse others, but rather his faith bears the burden upon himself, saying, “I wish myself accursed, separated from Christ, for the sake of my brothers (and sisters)”.   Do you realize what Paul is doing here?  He is not putting the albatross of his new faith around the neck of the Jewish people, but he is taking the burden upon himself, wishing that he could do something that could change their hearts toward Jesus.   He does not condemn them, but he is ready to take the condemnation himself.   He does not blame them, but he is trying to come to grips with what this ‘rejection’ might mean God’s plan.

I wish we could all learn from Paul’s approach.  I wish the church could be wiser in its approach.   I wish we could all come to realize that religion should never be used as a weapon against those who disagree with us.  I wish that differences in faith could be grounds for dialogue, rather than grounds for divorce.   I wish we could learn how to talk about our differences rather than take up arms to defend them.   Here, I remember what Charles Spurgeon once said, when someone asked him why he didn’t preach a sermon in defense of the truth of Bible.  He rightly responded with the question, “How do you defend a lion?”  Then he recommended, “Just turn it loose, and it will take care of itself.”

I became a Baptist pastor, in a time when my denomination was embroiled in a so called “Battle for the Bible”.   There were those who said that if we don’t get rid of those who don’t agree with our own interpretation, they will take our denomination down.  Do you realize what happen?  Those passionate Baptists got together and used the Bible as a weapon of “holy war”, instead of a tool for love.   And they were indeed able to able to get rid of all those who disagreed with them, but the question today is this:  Are Baptists any better off?    What those passionate Baptists did not realize is that the real enemy is not them, but ourselves.    I would answer that no people are better off when they turn the tools for love into weapons of war, division, suspicion and hate.    Abraham Lincoln would have definitely agreed.   As I said earlier, he left the Baptist church, and left church altogether, his biographers said, because he did not like the divisiveness he saw in the religion of his times---among Baptists, among Methodists, and even among Presbyterians and Episcopalians.  Lincoln’s favorite quote against the passionate, emotional, uneducated and divisive religion of his day was from Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”   Such religion can’t stand and it won’t stand, because any religion that uses its own beliefs and teachings as weapons of hate instead of tools for love, cannot stand in the mind and heart of God. 

GOD’S DESIRE TO SAVE EVERYONE
The reason compassionate faith can’t be used as a weapon, is because must be a religion of love and outreach, or it is no true religion at all.   A true religion of love must be filled with compassion, which is a compassion for everyone, or it fails to be what it says it is---a faith that desires the salvation of everyone.   

When Paul speaks of his on Jewish family in this text, his “very own kinsmen according to the flesh” (9.3), for whom his “heart’s desire and prayer is for their salvation” (10:1)  in Jesus Christ.   We need to see how Paul speaks about them in some very particular and affectionate terms calling them “Israelites to whom belongs the adoption of sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temples service and the promises….from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all….”  (9: 4-5).  

Pay close attention to what Paul is saying here.   All the wonderful spiritual heritage and blessings Israel received were not intended for Israel alone.   The family of Abraham were called to be blessed, so that they could be a blessing  (Gen. 12), which means they were to be a “priesthood” (Ex. 40.15)  to bring God’s blessing to the whole world.   But when Israel failed be that ‘light to the nations” (Isa. 42.6) , God had to send forth His blessing another way, through the coming of the ‘faithful’ and ‘righteous’ Christ (Eph. 1.3), so that through him, everyone can be blessed (Eph. 3.6).    Now, through Christ Jesus, the message of ‘salvation’ is made accessible and available to all ‘by faith’ so that, as Paul writes, ‘the word is near, in your mouth and in your heart…  that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved….for Whoever will call on the name of the LORD will be saved.” (Rom. 10.9; 13).    This word for “whoever” or ‘whosoever’ is a word that resides at the core of being, and living a compassionate Christian life.   It is the “voice” of those who preach such good news of the God’s salvation for ‘everyone’ or ‘whoever’ that, as Paul says, has “gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world”  (10.18).

Again, don’t miss Paul’s point.  The Christian faith, faith in Jesus Christ, should never be considered a faith for some, for few, nor a faith for the most righteous or most privileged, or even only personal and private, but the Christian faith is a faith that should display public compassion for anyone and everyone.   This great desire for the message of God’s saving power in Jesus to reach out to everyone, to whosoever, and to all is the foundation for a compassionate Christian life.   If we do not have such compassion, as Paul had, not just for his own people, but for the world, and for all those who need God’s saving, healing, and redemptive word, then we don’t have true faith.

Unfortunately, a lot of Christianity, a lot of religion, and a many well-meaning religious people, need to be reminded, as Paul’s heartbreak reminds us, that the religious life is a religious concern that is also a compassionate concern.    World religion authority Karen Armstrong writes that from Confucius to Christ and even now to Oprah, religions of the world have preached compassion at their spiritual center.   One thinks here of one truth that is at the center of most every religious belief in the world:  “The Golden Rule:  Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”   The problem is that while we may say we believe this, we don’t always live it, show it, make it our priority, and instead, in some strange attempt to defend our own religion, we become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  As Armstrong goes on to say, “People often prefer to be right”, than to have compassion.”  (http://www.npr.org/2011/01/10/132809627/concrete-ways-to-live-a-compassionate-life).

I’m glad, however, that sometimes Christians get it right.    A good example something that recently happened in Texas.   Patrick Greene was, what we could call, a militant atheist. He threatened to file lawsuits against the courthouse in Henderson County, Texas, if they didn’t remove a nativity scene from the public property.  It wasn’t just that he didn’t believe in God; he fought publicly against the expression of Christianity wherever he deemed it inappropriate.

Greene, who had been a taxi driver for 33 years, was diagnosed with cataracts. He didn’t have insurance or the cash needed for necessary surgery, and so he was at risk of losing his license and his only stream of income along with it.   Upon reading about his situation, Jessica Crye mobilized people at her Christian church to donate to a fund to help Greene pay for his surgery.   The small community of faith collected $400, and their generosity inspired others to join in.   Atheists and Christians came together to add to the fund until there was enough for Greene to cover his medical bills.

Patrick Greene was dumbfounded. He could hardly conceive of a Christian woman, whose faith had been the object of his attacks for years, would respond his disdain with compassionate generosity.   Most important is Crye’s response to Greene’s need.  In looking past their differences, and even his own disregard for her closely-held faith, she found her sense of compassion.  It was this Christlike act that moved Greene to reevaluate his position on faith.  Crye and her church did not hold the gift over his head, requiring him to renounce his atheism in order to receive it. They didn’t crow about a sense of moral superiority. They just gave because they believed it was the right thing to do.   This is why Patrick Greene, a lifelong atheist known for his public stands against Christianity, recently announced that he has become a Christian.

Compassion has no agenda.  It has no goal, but to do good and to show love.  If it does have another agenda, it’s no longer compassion.   But if we give without expectation of a result, we leave room for Love to inspire.

Paul wants desperately to bring a very different kind of faith into the world which focuses upon God’s loving kindness and mercy to the world.   There will always be those who will not accept or receive that message.   But Paul still has great compassion, even if they have rejected God’s message.  Paul does not make them his enemy.   Paul does not condemn them to Hell.   Paul still has great appreciation, great respect, and great heart-felt concern even though they disagree with him about Jesus.   How can Paul be so compassionate?  How can Paul continue to pray for them, have concern, and show love them?   If you recall, it was Jesus, the compassionate and forgiving voice, who saved Paul from his own religious snobbery and stubbornness on the Damascus Road.   Now, Paul has a new Lord, a new master, and he has a new way of living his faith.   He lives for the loving Christ, who once had compassion and showed mercy to him.  When you meet that kind of Jesus, you will live a life of compassion too.  Amen.        

Sunday, October 12, 2014

“Too Deep for Words”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 8: 26-39.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   October  12th, 2014


“….The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
                                                                                         Romans 8:26 (NASB 1995)

There are some things in life that cannot be understood with words.  

How do you explain a star?  How do you describe looking up at the Milky Way on a clear night without any clouds or street lights?    

Once, while living in Europe, I got up in the middle of the night in the dead of winter to observe a comet.   It was completely clear and cold, very cold.  When I looked up I saw more stars in the sky than I had ever experienced in my life.  There was more brightness than darkness, and there was no moon--- nothing but stars.  It was as if everything glistened.   There was no darkness at all.   The view was beyond words.

But maybe you can remember some other thing in your life that has had a similar impact upon you?   What about a particular sunset?
A sound in the wind caught your attention.
The rhythmic splashing of the waves on the beach.
The birth of your child.
The smell of grandma’s kitchen.
Your wedding day.
Your first kiss.
Your child’s first day at school.

Some things just cannot be explained, but can only be remembered and felt, but they cannot be explained.   It's profanity to try.  

Here, in today’s text, the apostle Paul is trying to find words to describe God's love.  Like the Spirit who speaks in a language “too deep for words” (v. 26), the love God reveals to us can't be explained, but can only be experienced.   Love has a language all it's own, which catches us up in the wonder, grandeur and glory of God.  

WHAT CAN WE SAY TO THESE THINGS
The bottom line for Paul in speaking of God’s love is that nothing,  which also includes nowhere  we can be or no one who is against us—no thing, no person, and no place, can ever separate us from God’s love.   And when Paul says nothing, he means it.   Nothing that ever happens, nothing that God has created, nor anything that we could ever imagine — real or unreal, can ever separate us from God’s love.  Nothing, Neinte, Nada, Nichts

And even though Paul does not specifically say it this includes, even we ourselves.  We also can’t fully separate ourselves from God’s love either.   For you see, most often, the greatest threat to knowing and living in God’s love is not what happens to us, but how we ourselves deal with, interpret or perceive what happens.   The big ‘who’ against us, the “who’, who will most often condemn us, and ‘who’ we always must conquer, can be our own feelings, our own ideas, or our own thinking.    This is why Paul prefaces what he says in this text by asking us to ask ourselves: “WHAT THEN DO WE SAY TO THESE THINGS?”  (v.31).

Haven’t we all known people who have taken great pains to do everything in their power to separate themselves from love?  These are the kinds of people who will avoid church, because they are afraid they might be changed.   These are the ones who put up a rough, gruff, hard exterior, to keep other people at a distance, because they fear love might just enter their hearts.   (We’ve probably done it too).  They might either refuse to work for love, or they might even work against God’s love coming into the world, into a life, or against love coming into the new age that is still coming, refusing to let God have his way, or only letting God’s way, be our own way (or the highway).  But again, with amazement in his voice, Paul says that no matter what we do, no matter what we think, we cannot be separated from God’s love.

Love must win, even if we don’t understand this at first.   Love will win, even if this world is now standing against it.  This is what Paul means, when he says the “Spirit helps us in our weakness” and even “intercedes for us”.   God’s love will and must win, that is, if we want it to---if we don’t refuse it within ourselves.   Even when our actions, or events, or people in the world, bring us in direct opposition with God and his love, God can bring good out of bad situations---with only one qualification---when we love him as he loves us.   For you see, God’s love only knows one boundary---the line we ourselves tell love not to cross.   Love cannot violate our space, unless it is freely received.  It can't force it's way or it can’t remain love.   

 Paul found out first hand, what it means to stand against love, but then to only to fully receive it.   He too did not know what love was, at first.  He was trying very hard to kill and eradicate the Christians who preached, taught, and lived God’s love.   He tried to stop love from spreading around in the world, but then love caught up with him.  Paul was not caught, convicted, or forever criticized for his hate, but Paul was caught by loved himself.   In one amazing moment on the Damascus Road, the Lord Jesus confronted Paul (then Saul), reminding him of God’s love, asking him to choose love, saying “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”  (Acts 9. 5).   And like Paul, we too can be, the greatest threat to God’s love in our lives.   But when Paul choose love, and to love, instead of choosing hate,  choosing to give, instead of taking, and to choose to go and obey (Acts 9.6) instead of staying back,  it was this unspeakable love overwhelmed him, gifted him, and called him to love God, to preach love,  and to love others, which included forgiving and loving himself, as God loved him.

KNOWING WE ARE LOVED (no matter what where, or who)
Maybe that’s the hardest thing to do; to really love ourselves as God loves us.  Maybe the most threatening evil in the world is not what’s out there, outside of us, or over there, away from us, but maybe it’s right here in what’s within us, or close by us.    Perhaps when Paul asks, “Who is to condemn us?”  (v. 35) and also asks, “What do we say to these things?” he recognizes that the greatest threat to any of us are the negative thoughts we have within ourselves?  

This was certainly true for comedian Robin Williams, wasn’t it?  Who knows what clinical depression was doing to his mind and heart?  Who knows what kind of negative thoughts or irrational fears were going through his mind when he learned he had disease that he could not conquer?  Maybe he was afraid people would not love him?  Maybe he was afraid that his life no longer mattered?  Maybe he just couldn’t think at all and everything went dark?   Even though you should never blame a person for having a mental illness, that does not take away that person’s need for love, or that person’s responsibility to find and receive love.

In the week right after Robin William’s suicide, Time Magazine Online linked me to a very interesting article written on a religious website, called Patheos.  The article caught my attention because it was entitled, “Christianity Can’t Replace My Zoloft!”   It was written by a Christian named Brandon Robertson, who admitted that he suffered with depression and was being treated with medicine, even though he was a Christian.  Some of the things Brandon shared in that article are important.  He said he was first prescribed meds for his depression his freshman year in college.   Brandon became a Christian at age 12, and was told that Jesus would free him of his anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, but it didn’t work.  What people were telling him even brought him more anxiety and more depression.   Because of well meaning, but uniformed believers, his problem had become not only a mental problem, but was also a becoming a religious one.  

But as Brandon studied more psychology and theology, he learned something that has been liberating for him.  He said,  “Jesus hasn’t taken away his need for Zoloft “ and he has learned that "none of us will ever find full satisfaction or wholeness in this life."    He came to realize that that "Jesus didn’t come to make us happy nor to give us a better quality of life, nor to meet all our needs.   No, Jesus came to love us as we are, to give us a mission that includes our gifts and our brokenness."   Sometimes, Brandon admits, "it is his illness, his sickness, his needs and his struggle that enables him to have a message and a mission in the world, not only to learn to cope himself, but to help others grow and cope as well."  He said, "the message of the cross is not to offer us comfort and satisfaction, but it is to show us love, amplified in suffering, which calls us to join, not run from, the pain in this world. "  Brandon concludes,  “There isn’t a person in the world who has ‘perfect peace’ or ‘total wholeness’ and that’s a good thing.”  We would not care at all, if we didn’t all (even Christians) have problems like everyone else.   (http://time.com/3111329/christianity-zoloft/).

Brandon’s discoveries are certainly not answers that will enable a mega-church to grow, but they are answers that will grow a faithful and true church, reminding you and me, that no matter where you are, no matter how much you are struggling or how much you are suffering in this moment, that God is not against you, and God has not abandoned you.   For when Paul says that “nothing will separate him from God’s love”, he didn’t say this because he avoided all these threats, but he was suffering from them, right in that very moment.    For you see, in the Bible, as in real life, the Kingdom is never fully here, but is always coming, and never fully comes.  Do you know why?   We live in a very imperfect, fragile, and incomplete world, and we are not yet who, what or where we one day will be.   When we still suffer and hurt, even after coming to know Christ, we must not think for one moment that God is against us.  We must affirm love and we must affirm life, no matter what we are going through.

KNOWING HOW TO LOVE (no matter what, where or who)
Do you know why it is some important to affirm that we are loved?   Listen to the one more important thing Brandon Robertson said about Jesus and Zoloft.  “The truth is, I will probably always need my Zoloft.   I am not limiting God’s power to heal me, but I’m admitting that maybe ‘healing’ would be the worst thing God could do.” 

Do you know what would make somebody who struggles with an illness say a thing like that?   Brandon is saying that when you know that you are loved, no matter what you are going through, this is where you also learn to know how to love others, no matter what they are going through.   Brandon continues: “It’s in the falleness of this world, that God is most present.  It’s in our suffering that our motivation to work for the kingdom is fueledIt’s in our brokenness that faith give us hope for a better day.   And, perhaps most importantly, for the sake of love, I might add, that it’s also in our own loneliness, that we learn how to love and serve God and to love and serve others.   Only when we truly know how much we are loved, no matter what happens to us, will we be able to love and keep on loving, no matter what comes to us in life. 

Most of you recall how upset Real Estate Tycoon Donald Trump was when he heard the Samaritan Purse care workers infected with the Ebola Virus were coming to back to the U.S. for treatment.  Just before their return he sent out series of panicky tweets. July 31: “Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days … KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!” Aug. 1: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S.” Later on Aug. 1: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!”

In response to Donald Trump and the Angst over helping the American Health Care workers,  Pennsylvania Baptist pastor John Piper,  composed a poem inspired positively by the Samaritan’s Purse workers (and their love) and negatively by Donald Trump (who had little love in his heart for anyone but himself).   The poem is called,  Ebola, Summer 2014:   
Today a thousand dead. And more   To die. A common ache, like flu,
Then nausea, a fever-soar,   A hopeless clinic interview:   “There’s nothing we can do.”
The bleeding has no bias. These:  A child, a chief, a friend, a nurse, Liberian, and Leonese,  From Guinea, Texas, taste the curse— And kindness, from the Purse.

Samaritans, six thousand miles From home and care, subdue their fears,
And wonder if a sneeze defiles,    Or if a healthy fluid clears      The curse. Perhaps their tears.

But now two treasured ones, struck down,      Contagious still with death—and love—Fly back to us, our joy, our crown,      A touch of grace, a gentle dove,      Yet through a plastic glove.

While in our land we see today     Another virus spreading, dumped, More deadly, in the soul. They say,      “Why bring them home?” Though you be stumped,    
This grace will not be trumped.              
(http://www.worldmag.com/2014/08/a_virus_more_deadly_than_ebola).

It doesn’t matter how big you are, how rich you are, how smart you are, or how important you are.   Like Paul told the Corinthians,  “If you don’t have, love: you have nothing!”   And when you have love, when you know God’s love, you are not only able to love others, you are able to receive God’s love, and then, nothing on earth, from heaven, or even in your own pocket, will ever separate you from such a great love.    Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

“Living On Tiptoes”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 8: 18-28.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   October 5th, 2014

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28 NAU)

Many of us can recall, either from history or from history class, Dr. King standing on the capitol steps in Washington, saying in unforgettable words:  “I have a dream….!   King preached: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.   And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."  
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“I have a dream today!” King unforgettably preached, though that dream has still not become a full or complete reality.   But we can say, perhaps, that Dr. King’s dream has become more of a common prayer and uniting hope for us, has it not?   It is closer to a reality today that it was in that day when bombs were still blowing up in the streets of Mississippi and Alabama.   What Dr. King lived and died for, was not in vain, and has had a lasting and irreversible impact on our nation as ‘one people, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’.  

So much of what we say in our pledges, in our vows, in our sermons, speeches, laws, in our constitution and even in our Bible, is much more of a prayer, a hope and a faith, than it is or has ever been a full reality, isn’t it?   I remember reading somewhere that most of the laws of the book of Leviticus, where never, ever, fully lived out or practice.  God called the people to be holy, but they never were ever able to completely live up to it.  In the same way, our political forefathers had high hopes for our nation, but we have seldom lived up to all those ideals.   So why try, right?  Why keep on keeping on, when we are doomed to miss the mark and fail to see the dream come completely true?   We should just forget it, shouldn’t we?   Or should we keep trying?

In today’s text, Paul also faces the realities of the ‘sufferings of the present time’ (v. 18) and the ‘futility’ of some much that is found in the world and in life.   Since things are so bad, so imperfect, and so corrupt, we should just forget it, right?  Wrong!  No, Paul argues that no matter how bad it seems, hope must never be lost.   He says we must keep on loving, keep on doing good, keep praying, keep hoping and keep working for the future, until that day when the hopes of today become the reality of tomorrow.   

The reason for Paul’s hope is expressed in one of the most quoted, and misquoted verses of the Bible, Romans 8.28, where Paul writes, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”(Rom 8:28 NAU).   However you come to interpret the meaning of this great verse, you must somehow show that it reminds us that more than anything else, the Christian life is a life that focuses upon hope in God’s promise.  And if you are going to be a Christian and live as a Christian, you must learn to live your life on your tiptoes, waiting, expecting, hoping and praying toward what you should do next and as you wait on what only God can do.  

WE KNOW GOD CAUSES ALL THINGS
Perhaps you’ve heard that expression that many speak in times of suffering, trouble or pain: “I don’t understand, but I believe there is a reason for everything.”   While that is not a biblical word, it is a word of hope for many.    Paul does not put it that way, but he does begin very close to it when he begins by saying that “We know God causes all things….”   

This does not have to mean that God pushes buttons and makes everything happens that happens, but it does mean that God is ultimately responsible for everything that could, might, or does happen.   The ancient Jews believed this.   They even believed that God brings ‘evil’ and ‘evil spirits’ into the world, as well the good spirits.   A Christian today, like Paul, would likely attribute the evil in the world to Satan or to Sin, but even here, we must agree with the ancient Jews, that if God is truly God, then everything that happens is either done by him or allowed by him.”

However, this is exactly where a great problem of faith appears.   If God is God, then why does he allow so much evil, suffering, and pain in the world?   This is one of the most, if not the most difficult question, any theologian or Christian has to think about, if they are honest with their faith.  Now, you can be ‘dishonest’ in your faith by neglecting such a question, but you can’t be honest, transparent, and serious.  Without struggling with things we have difficulty reasoning in faith, is a failure of faith.    Peter Rollins, a young Irish Christian philosopher puts it this way:  “…..embracing the fragility and tensions of life...brings with it the possibility of true joy.” (From  as quoted at www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/99140.Peter_Rollins).

For most of us, the most difficult question put to faith is why?  Why does God allow innocent people to suffer, especially children?   Many people have lost hope in God either through watching a child suffer, or even worst, watching their own child suffer.  When we feel this kind of pain, it can be even worse than feeling the pain of injustice, hurt, or harm that might come to us.  How can a loving God create and cause such a world that can be both so caring, on the one hand, but also so cold and cruel, on the other?    As one person suggested, such a God can seem to be worse than a monster.  Monsters are bad all the time and we can hope to avoid them; but a God who says he is love, but allows such evil to threaten and devour seems more like a cruel despot who only lures us in for the kill.

I’ve told you about how my heart cringed, when in my youth, our interim pastor visited a church member who had just lost their young child in a terrible accident.   Because they were our neighbors, I just happened to be there when that pastor came and I will never forget how he looked those broken-hearted parents in the eyes and coldly advised them to accept the will and purposes of God.”   Even as a young boy of 16, I could not believe that this preacher was telling them to do such a thing.  Even if it this were the only true option (and I don’t think it is), this did not seem to be the right time to tell them they had to get used to it.  In all honesty, I don’t think the pastor meant to hurt them, I just think he was naïve, but such naïveté can be very, very dangerous.   This is why you shouldn’t just give anyone a license to preach.

TO WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD
So how do we, who believe in a loving God, dare keep faith and hope in God, even when bad things happen?   Can we really say there is a ‘reason for everything’ that happens, or is there a better way to believe and hope?   Perhaps we can now look deeper into the kind of hope is Paul suggesting for us in this very important passage.

Right up front we must observe how Paul does not say that God causes everything that happens exactly as it happens, but he is saying that God causes “all things to work together for good.”  Again, Paul is not saying God causes everything, nor is he saying that everything that happens is ‘for good’.    He is saying that God can work ‘for good’ in ‘all things.’  That is very important difference.   But is it enough difference to keep us believing in God? That’s the real question. 

In you drive to Myrtle Beach, you can go through a town called Mullins S.C.  Several years ago, Effingham Baptist Church, a small little rural church, was burned down in an act of racial violence.   They even had photographs in the USA Today, showing pictures of the pastor and church members in stunned disbelief as they survey the gutted building where they had worshiped.    

After some time, a brand new church building stood where only ashes and ruin had been several months before.  After seeing the article in the USA Today, calls started coming in from around the United States with offers of support.  People from across the country drove in to help physically rebuild the church and to offer emotional and spiritual support to this small congregation.   

While many Christian groups were among the supporters, people from a variety of religious backgrounds participated in the rebuilding, including folks from Jewish, Bahá’í, Muslim, and other faith traditions.  After the building was rebuilt, there was an uplifting rededication service and God’s glory filled the sanctuary when the mass choir sang.  Then the pastor, Rev. Shaw, held up the Holy Bible, the one that had survived the flames even though the whole building was destroyed.   In his closing words, this quiet, humble man challenged the congregation to put aside all of this talk about the "black church" and "white church" because as Christians, we are all the church of Jesus Christ regardless of our race. The joyful celebration in the sanctuary continued after the benediction, as everyone adjourned to the tents outside to partake of the home cooked soul food the church mothers had prepared. (The story is told by Keith Cornfield at goodpreacher.com). 

No one ever figured out who set the fire; there were no suspects; and surprisingly few seemed to be focused on legal justice.  Because the reality was that the love that went into rebuilding Effingham Baptist Church was many times greater than the evil that had caused it to be burned down.  God’s grace was evident in using this incident to increase the faith of the congregation rather than to destroy it.  God’s grace shone brightly in the eleventh hour, when it seemed that all hope was lost, and that evil had triumphed in Effingham.  Even Satan’s grand attack could not destroy God’s Holy Word, held triumphantly in the hands of Reverend Shaw and in the hearts of all gathered there that evening.   Here’s the proof: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."

Our passage from Romans begins as it speaks of the ‘suffering of the present times’, but it ends by saying that nothing can separate us from God’s love.   This passages promises us that regardless of the trials we face: whether it is the destruction of our churches or homes though fire or natural disaster; the devastation of our bodies through illness; the dissolution of our relationships through death or divorce; or the demoralization of our faith through a life full of disappointments, losses and broken promises; none of these things can ever separate us from God’s love.   No, not tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword. No matter how bleak our circumstances; no matter how hopeless we may feel in the depths of our souls: God promises that He will never leave us or forsake us. And even if it is not until the eleventh hour, God will always be there for us.    This is Paul’s word of faith.    

So, we do not have to say that ‘there is a reason for everything’ to have faith, but we can say that in everything God is at work to bring something good, and even that with God’s help, good can come out of anything, no matter how bad it is in the moment.’  That would be a much closer to what Paul is saying.   

TO THOSE WHO LOVE GOD  
But still, is this enough?  Is it enough to say that God allows suffering, death, destruction to come into this world so that he can bring greater good?   Is that a good enough explanation?  Probably not.   Unless love comes into the picture and into our hearts, no explanation works. 

When Paul says that “God is at work in all things to bring good to those who love God”, it sounds like he means that things will work out for the people who love God, but it won’t work out for the people who don’t.   The point seems to be: ‘you’d better love God’ or you are really in trouble.   

But is this really what God is like?   Is God only working good for those who love him back?   Is that the kind of God we serve?   If it is, what do we do with those passages where it says, “The Father makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on both the evil and the good” (Mat. 5.25).   What do we do with that text where it says, “Love your enemies….Do good to them” (Matt. 5.24).  Would Jesus tell us to do good that God doesn’t do?   Or what about where it says, “even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us?”   The point of the Bible is that it’s not our love that determines God’s goodness to us, but it God’s love that is the source God’s goodness and ours.   “God is at work in all things to bring good”, period.   But it is only those who ‘love’ God back, who are able to see what is happening, and what will eventually happen.   

One of the worst things in the world is a person who can’t see the possibility of ‘good’ when hard times come.  That kind of person does not know love, probably because they have not known love in their life, and for them, believing in love and believing in the good that is still coming, is practically impossible.   My point is this:  When Paul says, God ‘brings good to those who love God”,  he does not mean God is excluding good from anyone, but he does mean that not everyone is capable of believing and trusting that love.   God is at work, but only those who love God can see it.

Recently I watch the movie, Heaven Is For Real.   I must admit, that I was a bit skeptical of the book and the movie.   Then the Southern Baptist Convention started to condemn the book and the movie, “and all heaven books and movies” and it finally made me want to see it.  
(http://www.abpnews.com/ministry/organizations/item/28841-heaven-tourism-critics-welcome-sbc-resolution).   

In their resolution against the movie and the book,  I agreed that no movie can tell us that “Heaven Is For Real”.   Jesus himself told in a parable, that Abraham refused to send someone back from the dead to tell others about Hell or Heaven, so maybe the SBC got this right, I thought.  Then I saw the movie.   The movie was well done.  It is well acted, not overly pious or religious, and it doesn’t try to prove any certain point.  It tells a story.   It tells how a Pastor and a Church struggled to understand how a little 4 year-old boy came to know about things he really shouldn’t know about; what Jesus looks like, what heaven looks like, what his parents were doing while he was in surgery, and how he met his grandfather pops, met his unborn sister, who died in a miscarriage.   How did this little boy know all these things, he'd never been told?   Even the Father, who is the pastor can’t figure it out and he almost loses his job, wondering and talking about it in his sermons?  He consults a psychologist who thinks it’s all illusions, even if it is mysterious.   His wife was not convinced either, until she heard her 4 year old talking intelligently about his unborn sister.  She never told him anything.  How did he know?   The boy did not die.  But, somehow, it appears that he visited Heaven, when he was near death with a fever.   We are amazed.

When I was sharing about this movie, with one of my friends, who is a retired pastor from First Baptist Mt. Airy, he told me that through the years, he had two different people who claimed to have had near death experiences, where they saw something of heaven, and then came back.  He said that the one thing both these “men” had it common, is that when they after they had those experiences, they were unafraid.  Even when they died later, they faced their own deaths with tremendous courage, fearlessness, without worry and with great peace. 

What are we to make out of it all?  “When you love God,” and I means, when you ‘really love God’ and you know you are loved by God,  you trust that love will work things out.   It is amazing what ‘love’ will show you, teach you, give you and how it will mold both your living and your dying.   

 I’ll never forget how my own cousin's little daughter, Heather, was struck with Cancer at 4 years old, and eventually lost her struggle.   I recall how she suffered terribly, but also heroically and showed so much love and maturity beyond her years.   Maybe, because all she had experienced in life was love, she could not see anything else.  She just could not see anything ‘bad’ in her impending death.   It was very hard on our family to let her go, but it never seemed to be so hard for her.   Through the lenses of love, she had different view .  It was our job, as adults, not to tell her what we saw coming, but to join with her in what she saw, which was far better.   This is the kind of vision of that can come to those who love God, and know they are loved by God.

TO THOSE CALLED BY HIS PURPOSE
But there is one more thing.   God is not just looking for our love, but God is working for our good.  We can believe that?  Love is powerful; more powerful than death.  We must believe that.  But can we believe in a greater purpose?   This is what I think people are referring to, when they incorrectly say, there is a (good) reason for everything.  They want to find a purpose, a meaning even in the worst of life.

While there isn’t, I believe, a good reason for everything thing that happens (like why I dropped my toothbrush, or why I was injured in a car wreck),  I do believe, in the love and grace of God, we can, with God's help, make meaning and purpose out of the worst things that can happen, as well as the good things.   Because God is a 'work in all things" we can know that even though life can be ‘random’, and many things can rightly be called ‘accidents’, the God who has subjected “creation to futility (vanity, KJV) has also "subjected it, in hope” (8.20).  

When my Father was dying with incurable cancer, rapidly spreading in his neck and chest, during those last couple of months, he could barely talk without great effort and pain.  My Dad had been very healthy all of his life, and his suffering was exceptionally hard for him and for us.  My Dad had claimed to have never had a headache in all his 78 years.   On his dying bed I had to ask him, once more: “Dad, have you had a headache yet?”  He answered negatively, so then, I asked him more personally, “How are you?  His answer was a comfort to him, and to me:  “Whatever the will of the Lord is.”  Then he said it again,  as he fought back the pain in his throat,  “Whatever the will of the Lord is.”  I sure my Dad might have spoken a few more times after this, but these are the last words I remember:  "Whatever the will of the LORD is".

When my Father said,  "Whatever the will of the LORD is", he was putting his trust that God's will and purposes will be worked out, even in his dying.  That doesn't mean that everything in life happens the way God wills.   Jesus would not have taught to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” if everything happened as God will's.   That’s also why Paul says God ‘subjected the world to futility (as risk of being nothing)… in hope (that life might mean something)”.   Everything is not as it should be,  nor is it as God wants it to be, but God is still at work.....  As long as love is at work, God is at work, for God is love.   God allows for delays, detours, and disappointments (for him as well as for us).   The cross of Christ continues to show us that even in the darkness, most painful moments of life are not beyond God being able to work out his purposes.  You can keep loving, keep believing, and keep working out your own faith, even with “fear and trembling”, because God is still at work.

When Martin Luther King Jr., said “I have a dream”.  His dream, just like our own dreams in life, only become lasting and enduring, when they link up with God’s eternal dream----a dream that is still being worked out.   Our lives only matter, our suffering only matters, our goals and purposes only matter, when they link up with God's purposes---purposes that are still unfolding.   That's why we should learn live our lives on tiptoes.   In faith, in hope, and in love, both in both pain and in faith, along with Paul, we all stand on tiptoes, to get a glimpse of how God's dream, God's wishes, and God's will, fully and finally, becomes true, both in our living and in our dying.  Amen.

“Lord, help me to live not only for myself, but for you.   Help me to know that my life matters because I find myself living out your purpose in this world that belongs to you.”  AMEN.