What follows is a sermon I wrote and preached for a preaching class last semester. I print it here for a number of reasons:
(1) I am going out of town for the weekend and thought I should leave something for my blogging friends to peruse at their whimsy.
(2) I wanted to share some more personal things with my readers, but I haven't found the right outlet yet. I thought this would be a step in that direction.
(3) Given all the spirited debate about women's roles over at SBC Outpost, the mischevious part of me thought it might be fun to ruffle some feathers with a sermon written and preached by a girl. We can discuss whether I should have preached in the first place at a later time.
I know its long, but for those of you who wade through it, I hope you are edified and strengthened by the Spirit of God. I left in the divisions of the movements for easier reading. Have a blessed Lord's Day.
On the afternoon of January 26, 2006, a little over a year ago, I received a sobering phone call from a woman very dear to me, 46 year-old Susan Cunningham. I don’t remember much of the conversation now, but four of Susan’s words are seared into my brain forever: “stage four pancreatic cancer.”
Only two years prior to this conversation, I had held Susan’s hand as she made the decision to turn off life support for her 15 year-old, son. London had been born with Lissencephaly Syndrome, a rare brain condition that caused his brain to remain smooth, preventing normal development and ensuring a lifetime of seizures and surgeries. Susan persevered in all this with uncommon strength and grace. But, at fifteen, London contracted double pneumonia, followed by a blood infection, and his body could no longer go on. Susan sobbed uncontrollably when they turned off the machines, unable to watch while her beloved son slipped away.
Now, Susan herself was facing a fatal disease, one that would likely claim her life in 6-8 months, even with the proper chemotherapy. As I drove to Denton to be with her that afternoon, I remember thinking, “How is this happening? What is she going to do now? Has Susan not been through enough trials?”
As you know, Susan’s experience is one of thousands. I’m sure that you could follow her story with your own, because the experience of trials and suffering is universal. In the center part of his letter to the Romans, Paul reveals how the Gospel speaks to suffering in the Christian life, saying, no matter how things look, God remains firmly on the side of his people. God is shaping our lives along the same lines as the life of his Son, who was crucified and then raised from the dead. With God on our side like this, we cannot lose, for nothing will get between us, and the love of Christ.
From this testimony, then, I say to you today: You can triumph in the midst of trials because God stands with you in Jesus Christ.
The first section of our reading, verses 28-29, is among the more familiar verses of scripture in the church today. Because of its affirmation that “all things cooperate for the good,” verse 28, is pasted on church bulletin boards, embroidered on decorative pillows, and even printed on “Christian” candy wrappers. From these uses, one would think that v. 28 is some kind of Christian “power of positive thinking” slogan, just a nebulous, pedestrian assertion that everything will work out for the best; which, by the way, falls flat in the hospital waiting room.
Verse 29, on the other hand, has become a hotbed of rigorous, deep-thinking theological debate. What does it mean that “those God foreknew, he also predestined”? Was God’s foreknowledge causative and was God’s predestination unconditional? And, can the process of being foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified, ever be interrupted or cancelled? It is clear that this understanding of v. 29 has the makings of a heated Calvinist-Arminian debate, but not a genuine answer to hurting people in the midst of trials.
So, I want to put aside all of the possible things we could get out of verses 28-29 and focus instead upon the real point Paul is making. And it is this: God uses every trial to conform you to the image of Christ. You only get to this understanding by reading verse 28 and 29 together. In so doing, you realize that the “good” for which “all things work together” is, in fact, conformity to Christ’s image. This is the ultimate good. This is the end to which God is constantly working in your life and mine.
But, what does it mean to be “conformed to the image of Christ”? A clue to the meaning of this phrase is found in the word translated “image,” which is literally “icon.” After Hagia Sophia, the Chora Church, or Church of the Holy Savior, located in Istanbul, is the most important Byzantine monument in Turkey. Although it is not as grand in stature as other Byzantine churches, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the exquisite beauty of its mosaic iconography, which dates to around AD 1320. Undoubtedly, the most spectacular site is the church’s massive dome. If you stand directly beneath the dome and gaze upward, once your eyes adjust to the bright light bouncing off of the brilliant gold leafing, you see the image of Christus Pantocrator at the center, surrounded by 24 icons of the saints, each emerging perpendicular from Christ’s image like the luminous rays of the sun.
To be sure, the icons of the Chora Church are an enigma for Protestants. But for the devout artist who painstakingly constructed the mosaics, they serve a vital purpose for Byzantine worship. In his depiction of Christ, the iconographer’s goal is not a portrait, but a visual, symbolic, and expressive representation of Christ’s eternal glory. Thus, everything about the picture is fashioned in with this objective: from the lines of the clothing, the colors in the face, the shape of the eyes, nose, and mouth, even the length of the hands and fingers. The artist utilized every last detail to create what the Orthodox Fathers called a window into heaven”—a glimpse of the glory of God.
In the same way, Paul says, God is fashioning you into an “icon” of Jesus Christ—but one even more glorious than the mosaic domes of Istanbul. And, the tools of God’s artistic endeavor are not just the good parts of your life, but also the trials and tribulations. Hence, “all things are cooperating for the good.” This is not to say, of course, that God causes all things. It is repugnant to most of us, I think, to suggest that the tragedy of AIDS, or the hardship of a disability, is caused by God. No, Paul says that God uses all things as the means of our formation into icons of Jesus Christ. God desires that everything about you reflect Christ’s love and goodness. As the infinitely skilled Artist of souls, God’s work continues through every moment of every trial and tribulation today.
Now, I imagine that many of you who have been through all kinds of trials and tribulations, find yourself wondering: “You may say that God uses every trial to conform us to the image of Christ, but how do I know that is really for my ‘good’? How do I know that I can trust that God is for me and not against me? How do I know God isn’t punishing me or toying with me in my suffering?”
We find the answer to this question in verses 31-32. Here, Paul responds: God delivered up Jesus Christ to death for you.
One of my favorite paintings is The Christ of St. John of the Cross by Salvador Dali. Its title comes from the 16th century Spanish friar known as St. John of the Cross, upon whose drawing the painting was based. When Dali first presented the work in the summer of 1951 in Port Lligat, Spain, critics panned it as an artistic digression. Today it is considered a “masterpiece” and one of the best-loved works of art in Europe.
The genius of The Christ of St. John of the Cross is that Dali painted the crucifixion as seen from above. The effect of this sharp angle is dreamlike, as the viewer must take in the crucifixion from a “God’s eye perspective.” Looking upon the downcast head and outstretched arms of the crucified Christ, you perceive it all as a heavenly spectator, as one who is watching the Son of God die alone against a darkened sky, suspended between heaven and earth.
I think this image is helpful for us as we contemplate what it means that “God is for us,” as Paul says in v. 31, because it recalls for us that God had to “give up” the Son to this fate for us. Overcoming his cherishing, admiring, affectionate bond with the Son, the Father delivered him over to be betrayed, abandoned, mocked, flogged and beaten, spit upon, nailed to a cross, and pierced with a sword, like an animal to be butchered. All this—why? Because, as Paul says elsewhere, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” In that moment of pain, agony, and defeat, the Son of God took upon himself all of the violence, suffering, and sin of the world, absorbed it into his broken body, and disarmed it forever through his obedient death. If you are looking for proof that God is on your side, you need look no further than the crucifixion of the Son of God.
The great theologian Karl Barth said it this way:
If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there—Jesus Christ. On the frontier of what is observable He stands delivered up and not spared. In place of us all He stands there, delivered up for us all, patently submerged in the flood.
This means I can say with confidence that nothing you go through is a judgment of God. Your loved one’s sickness is not an angry judge’s retribution. Your broken vehicle is not a sign of God’s displeasure. Your marital strife is not a result of God’s wrath against you. On the contrary, as those who are in Christ, the crucified one, God is for you, not against you, in and through all things. Trials are not the place where God is absent, but the place where God is most miraculously present in divine love.
As we move through last portion of the text, you should be able to find your present troubles, whatever they may be, in the two lists of verses 35-39. The first list can be understood to represent the spectrum of earthly tribulations, brought about by our life on this earth and our mission as disciples of Jesus—trouble, distress, and danger. The second list can be understood as cosmic tribulations, the ones we don’t normally consider, brought about by the evil forces of this world, which seek to destroy God’s work in us—death, angels, and principalities. The conflict you are having with your church leaders—perhaps you can find that in the first list. The addiction you thought was gone, but you continue to fall into—perhaps you can find that in the second. In either case, Paul’s response is the same: God’s love for you in Christ makes you a conqueror in every trial.
Paul uses his words carefully here. Notice he does not say, “You can become a conqueror in every trial.” Nor does he say, “You must try to become a conqueror in every trial.” No. Paul’s perspective is clear: “In all these things we prevail completely through Christ, who loved us.” Even while you are in the middle of the trials, you are a glorious conqueror right now. So, the question is not whether you will triumph in the midst of trials, because the work of God in Christ has made you a conqueror. The question is whether you will choose to look upon your trials and say, in faith, God’s love for me means that I triumph in every trial.
A contemporary picture of this truth is found in a story from the life of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as told by Jim Wallis. During the fight against apartheid, the notorious South African Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George during one of Bishop Tutu’s sermons at an ecumenical service. The diminutive bishop stopped preaching and stared intently at the intruders as they filled the cathedral like scurrying ants, lining the walls from back to front. They carried writing pads and tape recorders to document whatever he said and threaten him with imprisonment, or worse, for any audacious utterances. Bishop Tutu had already spent a number of days in jail a few weeks previous, as part of the Pretorian regime’s desire to make a point.
Although the people gathered in the cathedral squirmed in tension and fear of more violence, Bishop Tutu met the eyes of the soldiers with his own steely gaze. He affirmed to them in a defiant tone, “Yes, you are powerful, very powerful…but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” Then, Bishop Tutu’s countenance changed and he smiled with genuine warmth. In an extraordinary challenge to tyranny the slight preacher extended his arms to the gun-toting representatives of South African apartheid and said: “Since you have already lost, I invite you today: come and join the winning side!”
Indeed, like Bishop Tutu, God’s love for you in Christ makes you a conqueror in every trial, no matter who or what you are up against. You can stand in boldness and confidently challenge the universe, with all its malevolent inhabitants: “Who will bring a charge against me? Who will condemn me? Who will separate me from the love of Christ?” The answer you receive will be the same as the one from the South African soldiers: silence. Nothing—nothing—and no one can separate you from the love of Christ. As you know, the seeds to the destruction of apartheid were already blooming when Bishop Tutu voiced his defiant invitation. So also, the cross of Christ has disarmed the powers and principalities of this world. Nothing can stand against anyone who is in him.
After uncovering such wonderful truths, I find myself saying the same thing as Paul: “What then are we to say about these things?” I think perhaps the best way to close is to finish the rest of Susan’s story introduced previously.
My husband, Ronnie, and I spent the last three weeks of Susan’s life with her in Denton, traveling back and forth between hotel room and hospital room. Even with aggressive chemotherapy, the cancer had advanced rapidly throughout her body in a matter of months, filling her pancreas, liver, and lungs with large, painful tumors. In our time with her, Susan was on so much morphine that she was rarely awake for visits and couldn’t carry on an extended conversation. Most of the time we sat and watched her sleep, alternately reading, praying, and talking quietly.
Although this time was exhausting and heartbreaking for us, it is the sweet and tender moments that I now recall as glimpses of triumph. In the rare times that Susan roused from her morphine slumber, she would look sleepily into her nurse’s face and, pointing to me, ask, “Have you met my beautiful daughter-in-love?” (That’s what she called me, her “daughter-in-love,” because she said “daughter-in-law” sounded too cold.) Other times, she would gaze dreamily at her son, my husband, Ronnie, and coo, “I love you so much,” extending her weak and bruised arms to grasp Ronnie’s neck and hold him close.
It remains a wonder to me that in the midst of the excruciating pain and mind-numbing medication, what remained in Susan when her mind and body failed was the depth and power of her love for us. Looking back at that experience through the lens of Romans 8:28-39, I see in Susan’s words—those lucid professions of love—proclamations of defiant, Christian triumph. The cancer killed Susan, but she conquered through it all. Even as her body deteriorated, Susan joined the Apostle Paul in testifying confidently that: You can triumph in the midst of trials because God stands with you in Jesus Christ.
After all, you have chosen to follow in the footsteps of the Messiah-King, whose path to the resurrection and ascension into glory was paved with betrayal, beatings, and brutal, tortuous death. As a follower of Jesus, you commit to an identical path: triumph in suffering, not triumph without suffering. But, your dead Messiah-King was raised eternally after three days—the sign to the world that God’s reconciliation was complete and the power of evil had been overcome. We embrace this Way, not because of a morbid love for trials, but because the resurrection promises triumph through it all.