Several have asked me to post the following sermon, which I preached this week in Paul Powell Chapel at Truett Seminary. I was greatly honored by the opportunity to proclaim God's Word there, especially since it was the "prize" given to me as a Preaching Award recipient. This was my first experience to preach in a chapel or church setting and I found great joy and fulfillment in doing so. Some of you will recognize that have posted this sermon in the past, but you will notice, as well, many changes I made for my prospective "congregation." I hope this is an encouragement to some as they wade through the difficulties and troubles of life.
Triumph in the Midst of Trials: Romans 8:28-39
On the afternoon of January 26, 2006, 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? Hasn't Susan been through enough?”
As you know, Susan’s story is one of millions. Suffering is a universal experience even for those of us who call ourselves Christians. There are really only three kinds of people: some of you just emerged from hardship; some of you are in the midst of hardship right now; and some of you are going to get the phone call after chapel. Even as followers of Jesus, even as ministers of the Gospel, sometimes we are tempted to think that the Good News is impotent to speak to this, the most painful aspect of our lives. In the face of the bewildering experience of suffering, does the Word of God have something to say?
In the center part of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains in exalted language that, yes indeed, the Good News speaks to, in, and through tribulation in the Christian life. Paul says no matter how things look, God stands firmly on the side of his people. More than that, God is shaping our lives along the same lines as the life of his Son. With God on our side like this, we cannot lose, for nothing can get between us, and the love of Christ.
From this testimony, I declare with confidence: You can triumph in the midst of trials because God stands with you in Jesus Christ.
The first reason our triumph is assured is found in verses 28-29: God uses every trial to conform you to the image of Christ.
Verses 28-29 are among the more familiar verses of scripture in the church today. Because of the affirmation that “all things cooperate for the good,” verse 28, is pasted on church bulletin boards, embroidered on decorative couch pillows, and even printed on “Christian” candy wrappers. From these uses, one would think that verse 28 is some kind of Christian “power of positive thinking” slogan, just a nebulous, pedestrian assertion that everything will work out for the best.
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? Such questions have the makings of a heated Calvinist-Arminian debate, or a great elective with Dr. Olson, but they do not lead to a meaningful answer to hurting people.
If we put aside all of the clichés and controversy surrounding verses 28-29 and simply read them together, Paul’s focal point is revealed. “We know that all things cooperate for the good.” But, what is the “good”? What is the “good” to which all things work together? The answer is, conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. This is the end to which God is constantly working in your life and mine.
The word translated “image,” in verse 29 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.
Now, the icons of the Chora Church are an enigma for Protestants. But for the devout artist who painstakingly constructed the mosaics, they served a vital purpose for Byzantine worship. In his depiction of Christ, the iconographer’s goal was not a portrait, but a visual, symbolic, and expressive representation of Christ’s eternal glory. The artist utilized every last detail to create what the Orthodox Fathers called “a window into heaven.”
In the same way, 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 simply the good parts of your life, but the trials and tribulations as well—he uses all things. Of course, this is not to say that God causes all things. It is repugnant to suggest that the tragedy of AIDS, or the rape of a teenager, or death of a child, is caused by God. No, Paul says that somehow, some way, God uses all things as the means of our formation into icons of Jesus Christ. As the perfectly skilled and infinitely patient Artist of souls, God’s work on you continues through every moment of every trial and tribulation today.
Our assurance of God’s care does not end there, for in verses 31-32, Paul gives another reason that our triumph is certain: God delivered up Jesus Christ to death for you.
Those among us, who have walked through suffering and difficulty, know what it is to question, to doubt God. In the swirling tempest of struggle, when God’s face is hidden and his presence distant, we need to know that God is really for our “good.” We need to know that God is there. How do you know that God is for you and not against you? How do you know where God is in your struggle? Paul says that the answer to your question is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor, Eli Wiesel, tells of a heart-wrenching episode during his time in a Nazi concentration camp. One winter morning, some among the prisoners stole chickens. The Nazi soldiers corralled the entire camp into the freezing cold in order to root out the culprits. Hard as they tried to intimidate a confession from someone, no one budged. And so, in a desire to make a point, they selected some representative prisoners at random.
Upon wooden gallows, in the center of the campsite, they hung their examples and forced the prisoners to stand and watch. All of the men died quickly, the rope snapping their necks instantly, but there was one, a little boy, who did not. He was so lightweight that he struggled in the noose, slowly choking to death for about half an hour. Wiesel says that as they stood in the freezing cold, beneath a gray, overcast sky, watching this child die, a desperate voice cried out from somewhere in front of him: “Where is God?! Where is God?!” Deep inside Wiesel’s soul, came the answer: “He’s there, hanging on the gallows.”
Now, you can understand Wiesel’s story in one of two ways. You can conclude that Wiesel is suggesting that in the presence of atrocity and suffering, in the face of the lowest forms of human evil, God must be dead. There must not be a God if such things can happen. I prefer to conclude that Wiesel is saying that in the depths of human suffering, at the place where evil seems to triumph in grotesque and soul-deforming ways, God is intimately present with those who suffer. Isn’t that part of the Good News? When our own voices scream out in terror, Where is God?! The answer from the Word of God is the same: He’s there, hanging on the gallows.
This truth is so commonplace for us, we often simply glance over what Paul says in verse 31: God “gave up” or “delivered up” the Son to his fate. 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 a butchered animal. 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 Father watched his Son take upon himself all of the violence, suffering, and sin of this world, absorb it into his broken body, and disarm 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. Where is God when you suffer? He’s there, hanging on the gallows.
This means I can say with confidence that nothing you go through is a judgment of God. Nothing you go through is because God has abandoned you. Your loved one’s sickness is not an angry judge’s retribution. Your marital strife is not a visitation of God’s wrath. God delivered up Jesus to death for you. In Christ, the crucified one, God is for you, not against you, in and through all things. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The crucible of suffering is not the place where God is absent, but the place where God is most miraculously present in divine love.
In the last portion of the text, we find Paul’s final assurance of triumph: God’s love for you in Christ makes you a conqueror in every trial.
I’m sure that if I gave you time you could locate your present troubles, whatever they may be, in the two lists of verses 35-39. The first list appears to represent the spectrum of earthly tribulations, brought about by our life on this earth and our mission as disciples of Jesus: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. The second list appears to represent cosmic tribulations, brought about by the evil forces of this world, which seek to destroy God’s work in us: death, angels, principalities, and powers. Whatever you are going through, you can find it here.
Jim Wallis tells a story from the life of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. During the fight against apartheid, the notorious 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. Some carried guns, some carried knives, and some carried writing pads and tape recorders to document whatever he said and threaten him with imprisonment, or worse, for any audacious utterances.
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. In a defiant tone, with narrow eyes and wrinkled forehead, he said, “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. Extending his arms to the gun-toting representatives of South African apartheid, the slight preacher offered this challenge to tyranny: “Since you have already lost, I invite you: come and join the winning side!”
Paul has chosen his words carefully in v. 37. 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.” Nor does he say, “You must look yourself in the mirror and give yourself a pep talk until you become a conqueror in every trial.” No. God’s truth is clear: “In all these things we conquer completely through Christ, who loved us.” 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 this: Will you choose to look upon your trials and say, in faith, “God’s love for me means that I triumph in every trial”?
No matter who or what you face today or tomorrow, you can stand in confidence and boldly 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.
Ronnie and I spent the last three weeks of Susan’s life with her in Denton, traveling back and forth between hotel 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 just sat and watched her sleep, alternately reading, praying, and talking quietly.
Although this time was exhausting and heartbreaking, there are 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 daughter-in-love?” (That’s what she called me, her “daughter-in-love.” She said that “daughter-in-law” was too cold and formal.) Other times, she would gaze dreamily at her son, my husband, and whisper, “I love you so much.”
It is a miracle 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. Although she could do nothing to slow the cancer that consumed her body, here is the truth: in every one of Susan’s mumbled words, in every lucid profession of love, she voiced proclamations of defiant, Christian triumph. The cancer killed Susan, but she conquered through it all.
Paul says in v. 39 that he is “persuaded.” Are you persuaded? If not, I want to give you permission to acknowledge the truth. Sometimes the pain of our tribulation is so great and our mental state so clouded with doubt that we cannot muster up the faith about which I speak. Will you admit it? Will you admit it to God? God has not left you to languish alone. What should you do when you are not persuaded of your victory in Christ? A few verses prior to our text, I think we are given the answer: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
You see, it is the Father who delivered up the Son to death for you, it is the love of Christ that has made you a conqueror, and it is the work of the Spirit that will persuade you of the truth. You do not need to summon up the willpower to make yourself triumphant. You need only to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit, who desires to apply the truth to your heart. Let’s ask him to do that today.