Our sermon series, “Roman Road,” continues with Part 10. In this sermon, we turn our attention to Romans 8:26-39, including Paul’s beautiful crescendo to the symphony he’s been composing up to this point: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Hear this good news: If you are a child of God through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, nothing can separate you from God’s love!
Sermon Text: Romans 8:26-39
The following is my original manuscript.
Lisa, my wife, gave birth to our middle child on the living room floor of our house in Tucker almost ten years ago. Some people plan to give birth at home, with a midwife—and doing so is a trendy thing these days. When you plan to have a home birth, however, that means that you want to give birth at home; Lisa was, by contrast, an unwilling participant. But she gave birth at home in spite of what she wanted because her husband was out of town on an “emergency” business trip in Florida, and was not home to drive her to the hospital in the middle of the night. Can you believe he did that? No wonder she divorced that guy! Just kidding, just kidding! I am that guy! As it’s so easy to see in hindsight, I should not have gone out of town so close to Lisa’s due date.
Lisa’s mother showed up to drive her to the hospital, but by the time she got there it was apparent that Lisa wasn’t going to make it. So her mom called 9-1-1. The first responders were about eight or nine of Tucker’s Bravest—firefighters—and they were hugging the far wall, as far away as they could get from Lisa. Because they wanted nothing to do with birthin’ no babies. They reassured Lisa that the paramedics would be there shortly. And they were. When the paramedics arrived, Lisa’s first question was, “Do you have any drugs?”—because she really, really wanted an epidural at that point. And the paramedics, who barely arrived just in time to catch Townshend as he came shooting out, said, “Oh, no… It’s much too late for that!” So Lisa gave birth without the benefit of drugs—on our living room floor! And for that, she certainly deserved mother-of-the-year for 2001. And of course every year since then!
We want to avoid pain and suffering, which is why we Americans tend to worship at the altar of modern medicine. There’s a magic pill, we imagine, for every problem these days. Have you watched some of these prescription-drug commercials on TV? Side effects may include dizziness, constipation, and death. Consult your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. I’m not against medicine and prescription drugs, but no pill can change the basic fact that pain and suffering are a part of life.
And Paul wants us to know that pain and suffering are a part of a Christian life, too. Earlier in Romans chapter 8, he writes that all creation is groaning as if in the pains of childbirth. And we the church, who are working with God to give birth to this new world, who are bearing witness to the reality of God’s kingdom both in the here and now and on the other side of resurrection, and who are living our lives as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, are groaning right alongside it.
What does this mean? Among other things, it means that we shouldn’t say this: “I’m a Christian! I’m trying to be faithful to Jesus! I’m trying to do God’s will! Why am I suffering like this? Why is this bad thing happening to me? Why am I going through this hard time?” Rather, we should say, “Because I’m a Christian… because I’m trying to be faithful to Jesus… because I’m trying to do God’s will… I should expect for suffering to come my way. I should expect that bad things will happen. I should expect that I will go through hard times.”
Does that sound like a hard teaching to you? How can it be any other way? We’re following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, who tells us that if we want to be his disciples, we have to take up our cross—take up our instrument of torture and execution—and follow. That we have to die to ourselves—die to our old, sinful selves—in order to find the meaning of true life in Christ. That if someone punches us on one side of the face, we’re supposed to turn our head so that he can punch us on the other side, too. That if someone takes our coat, we should give him the shirt off our back as well. That we’re not supposed to worry—about anything! That getting unjustifiably angry at someone is as good as murdering them. That lusting after someone is the moral equivalent of adultery. That there should be no limit to our willingness to forgive others who do us wrong. That failing to love and care for the least among us is identically equal to failing to love and care for Jesus himself. That we’re supposed to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Doesn’t all that sound hard? What we’re being asked to do as disciples of Jesus Christ and as the church is all but impossible! In part because it goes against the grain of our own defective human nature. In part because it goes against business as usual in this world. In part because, in ways that we can’t even understand, Paul wants us to know that it goes against unseen spiritual forces that are stacked up against us and want to do us harm. This is what Paul means when he talks about “rulers” and “powers” in verse 38.
And some of you are like, “Brent, you’re a scientifically minded person… You’re a smart and sophisticated guy. Sort of… And you’ve been to that ‘liberal’ seminary at Emory University… Are you really telling us that you believe in SATAN—like the church-lady on the old Saturday Night Live—that you believe in the devil and his minions?” And my answer is… Yes, I do. I don’t believe in this guy. I don’t believe in the horns or the cloven hooves or the pitchfork or the horror-movie kind of devil. But I believe strongly that there are unseen forces, “principalities and powers,” Paul calls them in Ephesians, working in large and small ways against every good thing that we do for God’s kingdom in this world.
And these evil forces will find any foothold they can to undo the good work that you’re trying to do—in your personal life, in your family, in your marriage or relationship with a significant other, in your job, in your church. Satan wants to destroy your faith. And if Satan can accomplish that without your even knowing it—by helping you to live your life as a practical atheist, failing to trust in God in any meaningful way, and yet continue to think of yourself as a Christian—all the better!
So of course living a Christian life is a struggle! We have so many forces working against us. But not only that… There’s a strange and potentially troublesome idea that is nonetheless true: This struggle is good for us. It helps us. God will bring good out of it. The new Common English Bible translates verse 28 in the clearest, most helpful and most accurate way by saying, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God works all things together for good. Notice this is not at all the same as saying that everything that happens is good, as if we were Hindu all of a sudden, and evil wasn’t really all that bad if only we could see it from the right perspective. No… Paul emphatically believes that evil is really evil; that suffering is really something that we suffer; and that bad stuff happens all the time in the world that goes against God’s will and God’s kingdom.
But Paul also believes that a sovereign God rules the universe who is more powerful than the very worst evil in our world. The cross proves that! The resurrection proves that! Our God has the power to take the worst of the really bad stuff that life throws our way and bring something genuinely good out of it for us Christians. That’s just the way God is.
The movie Soul Surfer, which is based on a true story, illustrates this idea very well. A competitive surfer in Hawaii named Bethany Hamilton is surfing one day when her arm gets chomped off by a shark. We took our three kids to see it, and we were a little concerned about the shark attack scene with our seven-year-old. When we started hearing the ominous music [imitate Jaws theme] we were going to shield Ian’s eyes. But there was no Jaws music! There was no warning whatsoever! Everything was just happy and fun and playful and whomp! Out of nowhere this shark bites this girl’s arm off! Well… Kind of like in real life. We don’t get a soundtrack warning us that bad things are about to happen!
And the movie shows how, after much struggle, Bethany is able to become a professional surfer, even though she only has one arm. But the movie doesn’t sugar-coat it. She’s not as good a surfer with one arm as she was with two arms. And she can’t do things that she could do before. She couldn’t do things that she genuinely enjoyed doing before—like playing the ukelele. In spite of this hardship, a reporter asks her if she had to do it all over again, would she have gone out surfing that day when the shark attacked. And she said, “Yes,” she would. Not because the shark attack was really good in disguise, but because of the way God had used it! She was able to bear witness to her faith in a way that she couldn’t before. The movie rang true for me.
There are some bad things that have happened to us that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy, and yet God has used even these things to make us better people, better disciples, better Christians. If anything happened any differently along the path of our life, we would be different people. And don’t you love who you are today? You are who you are today in part because God has shaped you through even our painful experiences.
I saw this new Planet of the Apes movie last week. It made me miss Roddy McDowall and Charlton Heston! But the movie tells the story of how these apes got so smart to begin with. Turns out there’s this super-virus that someone created in a lab, which showed promise of possibly curing Alzheimer’s. Never mind that it also unleashes a deadly plague on humanity! Anyway, it also has the effect of making apes much, much smarter. One of the chimps, who has been treated with the virus and is already super-smart, want his fellow apes in captivity to become super-smart. So he breaks into the lab one night, steals these all these canisters of the virus, and—in order to make all of his fellow apes in captivity smarter—breaks the canisters and releases a cloud of mist while the apes sleep—like spraying Lysol in the faces of the apes. The next morning the apes all wake up and—ta-da!—they’re brand new monkeys; they’re practically ready to ace the SATs! Just like that!
Don’t we wish the Christian life were like that? That God would spray some magic spiritual mist in our faces and make us brand new people—having dealt with all our sin and suffering in one fell swoop. But Paul wants us to know that that’s not how God operates. We become these new people in part through suffering, through hardship, through struggle. God shapes us and forms us and transforms us through it all. It’s a process. It takes time.
I said earlier that our task as the church was all but impossible, and I meant that. But it’s not ultimately impossible. Why? Because we’re not alone in all of this struggle and hardship. God’s Spirit is working in our hearts through it all.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Paul is drawing upon his own personal experience here, reflecting on the ways in which he’s suffered in his life as a Christian.
What would you add to that list from your experience?
“Will losing your job separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! Will financial problems separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! Will problems in your family separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! Will problems in your marriage or dating life separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! Will problems in school separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! Will health problems separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! Will even this terrible economy separate you from the love of God in Christ?” No. Why? We’re more than conquerors! In all these things we are more than what? Conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.