by Brian Walsh
[A sermon on Romans 8.22-30 preached at Wine Before Breakfast, January 8, 2013]
When the phone rang, I could hardly begin to comprehend what was being said to me.
“There was an accident.”
“A small group retreat.”
“Michael has died.”
I had to ask the caller to slow down.
Explain to me what happened.
Tell me again what he had just said.
Michael has died.
It was twenty-five years ago this month.
Michael Hare, my friend and colleague in campus ministry,
the IVCF staff worker for McMaster and Brock Universities,
had died in a tragic car crash.
It had only been a week earlier that Michael and I shared leadership for a retreat with the Brock Christian Fellowship. I had served him communion on that Sunday morning.
And now, one week later, returning from another retreat, Michael was dead.
His wife, Catherine was a young widow, and his young son left without his father.
I immediately returned to Brock, where I served as the Christian Reformed Campus minister.
The students were in shock and grief.
There was a leadership vacuum.
There was a campus memorial service to prepare.
The first thing I did was to gather a group of students together to share their feelings and to pray.
We went around the table.
Everyone had a chance to share what was on their hearts.
And one by one, these young Christian students reached for the only thing that they could find to give them hope.
“Michael is now with the Lord, and that is a better place.”
“God is going to use this in wonderful and powerful ways.”
“God has a purpose in all of this.”
And then, almost inevitably:
“All things work together for good for those who love God.”
I was deeply uncomfortable with how quickly these young students wanted to find something good in all of this. And as the sharing came around the group and back towards me, I was torn – not wanting to strip them of what comfort they found in this language, but also not wanting to allow them to so quickly rationalize a tragedy that took a beloved brother away from us, and stripped his young family of a husband and a father.
But it was the last student in the room who broke the bubble.
“I don’t believe any of this,” he said.
“I don’t believe, can’t believe and refuse to believe that any of this is God’s will.”
“I can’t worship that kind of a God!”
“This is too awful, too painful, too wrong to be able to accept so easily and so quickly.”
I was so grateful to that student for his honesty.
I was so grateful that he refused to provide a sweet coating to such a bitter tragedy.
I was so grateful that he was not going to allow a benevolent determinist to be his God.
We face the same kind of struggle whenever tragedy hits.
There is no sugar coating the deaths of Newtown, Connecticut.
There is no sweetness in the suicide of our sister Joanne in the Sanctuary community.
There is no ‘divine will’ to be discerned in the deaths of 60,000 Syrians in their civil war.
St. Paul tells us that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love God.”
But surely this is not to dismiss or disregard the real pain and suffering that we face.
I mean, this magnificent chapter of Romans is full of pain and suffering.
We suffer with Christ, Paul writes.
And while he will want to place this suffering in the perspective
of what he calls “the glory about to be revealed to you,”
it is clear that such suffering sets off a groaning throughout all of creation;
a groaning that reaches right into the very heart and being of God the Holy Spirit.
Paul speaks of a waiting and longing for redemption precisely because he knows that our present reality is so far from such redemption.
He speaks of a hope that is not seen precisely because
there is no hope to be found in the mangled body of a dad and father,
the lifeless body of an aboriginal sister,
or in the bloodied bodies of children and teachers,
a mother and her so terribly disturbed son.
No wonder that even God is at a loss for words.
Where is God in all of this?
Before answering that he is enacting his will towards some sort of good,
we need to answer that God is speechless in his grief in the face of these tragedies.
This text is too dynamic, too full of pathos, too full of longing and waiting, too much taken up with a God who is fully involved in our groaning, to be read as a piece of pious determinism.
The Spirit intercedes for the saints,
intercedes for Michael Hare and his family,
intercedes for Joanne of the Sanctuary community,
intercedes for the children of Newtown,
intercedes for the families of the dead,
and, yes, intercedes for Adam and Nancy Lanza,
because the Spirit knows the will of God,
and that will is for life, not death;
that will is for goodness, not evil;
that will is for love, not hate.
Paul isn’t offering us determinism here.
He is giving us a glimpse into the heart and purposes of God.
We are saved in hope, he has just written.
Hope for what?
Hope that love wins.
Hope that goodness is stronger than evil.
Hope that we will be conformed to the image of Christ.
Hope that we will come to full humanness in Christ, that we will bear the image of God in our lives, and not the false and violent images of idolatry.
Hope that humanity and all of creation will come to the fulfillment of our calling.
Hope that our violent injustices will be transformed by the justice of Jesus Christ.
Hope that instead of shame, we will be a people of restored glory.
“Those whom he foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”
Don’t get hung up on later theological debates about predestination here, friends.
That’s not the point.
God’s foreknowledge is more a matter of loving us before we were born, then it is a statement of God’s omniscience.
And God’s predestination here is that we be conformed to the image of his Son.
Do you want to know God’s purpose for your life, then be like Jesus!
That is God’s purpose.
We are not predestined to violence, to death, to tragic brokenness.
We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus.
We are predestined, called, and find our deepest meaning and fulfillment by being invited into the family of Jesus and living as a member of that family.
And this, Paul says, is our glory.
It all comes down to glory:
… we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him;
… the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us;
… that the creation will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God;
… those whom he justified, he also glorified.
This glory is the Kingdom of God that overthrows the kingdom of death.
This glory is the homecoming of God’s children as loving stewards and caring homemakers.
This glory is manifest when the weighty presence of God takes up residence in lives of restored justice.
This is the glory that we meet when God’s purposes are fulfilled and love wins.
This glory is the hope that animates our lives against the evidence, in the face of such tragedy.
Paul’s vision does not cover up the real evil that wreaks such pain in our lives.
He faces that evil squarely and insists that
goodness is stronger than evil,
love is stronger than hate,
light is stronger than darkness,
truth is stronger than lies.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live in Paul’s world.
I want my life to be animated by this kind of hope.