• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Hopefully Convinced

Sermon Series, "Summer in Rome" week 4 of 4

Four-week series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Preached July 26, 2020 for the 9:30am Virtual Worship


Context

I hope you’ve been enjoying this summer series from Romans. Caitlan and I have already read and preached from Romans 5, 6, and 7. Today, we turn to Romans 8.

In a way, everything Paul has been working on over these last few chapters is leading to this… this confession about the broken reality all around us, and this confident hope Paul has found. Paul wanted to give that hope as a gift to his sisters and brothers in Rome. I hope to be able to share it with us today.


Prayer


Scripture/Sermon Romans 8:18-39

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time aren’t worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.


19 See, the creation has been waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 --- the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who created it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 (and) We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains all the way to now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, the ones who are the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our selves. 24 and by hope we WERE saved. But hope that is seen isn’t hope. --- who hopes for what is seen? 25 But when we hope for what we do not yet see, we CAN wait for it with patience.


26 That’s how the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to wait, pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with (prayerful) sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the will of the Spirit, because the Spirit is interceding for the saints according to the will of God.


28 We know that all things are working together for good for those who are loving God, who are called according to God’s purposes. 29 And those whom God knew from the beginning God also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son in order that he might be the firstborn of a large family. 30 And those whom God predestined, God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified.


31 What are we then to say about these things? If God is for us, who could prevail against us? 32 God, who did not withhold God’s own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will God not through him also give us everything else? 33 Who could prosecute any charge against God’s elect? It is God who judges. 34 Who is in a position to sentence? Only Christ, Jesus, who died, yes, and who was raised (from death), (and) who is at the right hand of God, (and) who even now is interceding for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,


“For your sake we are being killed all day long;

we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”


37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.

(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)


Sermon Hopefully Convinced

This chapter is why I wanted to preach and teach Romans this summer. Somehow, Paul moves from “all creation is groaning” to “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” I don’t know about y'all, but that’s the journey I am needing lately. I’m hearing creation’s groans. They are strong and loud, and I want to move us together from the groaning of our world toward Paul’s beautiful hopeful confidence in God’s never-failing love and pure purposes and grace-giving power.


But, I’m aware not everyone listening agrees "all creation is groaning with labor pains," attempting to birth something new and beautiful from the brokenness around us. I’m finding plenty of people, friends, colleagues, sometimes myself unable or unwilling to see, hear, or face the sin and evil around us anymore.


I get it. To look at it even one more second feels so heavy and heart breaking, and I’ve been watching people I know and love, and sometimes watching myself, shove our heads into the sand or shrug our shoulders, or try to distract ourselves or pretend there’s no point in dwelling on the groans of creation.


We’ve found coping mechanisms, designed to keep the weight of sin and evil around us from flooding into us and ruining the good we need, or drowning us in despair.


The first coping mechanism I’m seeing in some (and sometimes in myself) is an attempt to avoid the groans. If we see a bad report, a hard news story, a truthful account of sin and evil, we quickly turn our eyes and attention to a sunset, a flower, a loved one.


Sure, look for the beauty. Yes, look for the positive. Look for the good, but never at the price of missing the real consequences and pain of sin and evil on us, our neighbors, and all creation. That’s why Paul, in Chapter 5, laid out the harsh reality of sin and evil in God’s good creation, so we couldn’t ignore it. This coping mechanism will fail us, and isn’t true to Christ.


A second coping mechanism I’m seeing in some and sometimes in myself, is how we shrug off the groans of creation. We see them and hear them but then shrug as if to say, “Okay, yeah, it’s bad, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” I get that too. To admit any ability to DO something about sin and evil in this world feels, inside us, like an overwhelming impossible obligation. IF there really is sin and evil in the world still, AND if there is SOMETHING we COULD do about it, then to NOT do something would make us guilty and bring shame on us. So I’m seeing some people (and sometimes myself) shrug off the reality of sin and evil by trying to convince ourselves, there’s nothing we can actually do to change the world. Its too big... Its out of my control… Its all in God’s hands… Why not just shrug and enjoy the day?


That’s why Paul in chapter 6 spent so much time reminding us, yes, sin and evil are overwhelming, so much so, that when Christ came among us and put himself under their weight, it killed him and he died. BUT, Paul reminds us, he rose again, to new life, where the burden on his back is no longer the sin and evil of the world, but the much lighter cross, a new found fullness of life, a life of wholeness, justice, and peace. And we, as the reborn into his family, now live that life with him, and are called and compelled to live it in the face of any remnants of sin, evil, and death. We aren’t with Christ if we shrug off sin and evil as if we are powerless to change it. To be with Christ is to freely, fully live as if its already changed, and to engage it until it’s fully changed for us, for all children of God, and for all the groaning creation. This coping mechanism will fail us, and isn’t true to Christ who never shrugged off sin but sacrificed to heal it.


There’s one more coping mechanism I’m seeing in some (and sometimes in myself) when we can’t ignore the groans of creation or shrug them off. We see it, and feel the need to do something about it, so we try to clearly name and define sin and evil. We are calling out friends and family. We are going after leaders. We are cancelling, boycotting, and defriending. We are op-ed-ing one another, and suing one another. We are passive aggressively posting at one another, and lobbying for and against one another. We are pushing for changes to old laws and for new laws to match our vision of good versus evil, or pressing to hold onto current laws that already match our version of good versus evil.


That’s why Paul in Chapter 7 warned us about the Law. Human beings have been trying for a long time to write down enough words to fully define good, and to make laws that will force others into that good, so the good can hold the bad accountable to the written-down vision of God’s good community. But Paul taught us our laws become tools of division, oppression, and judgment in our hands. They give us a false sense of clarity and power OVER our brothers and sisters, and the very laws we write to protect community become wedges of sin and evil, dividing us from one another. Even when we want to build a good and holy community, we infect the laws we write with our biases and preferences, and end up doing almost as much harm as good. There’s no way to law and order, or riot and anarchy ourselves out of the problem of sin and evil. This coping mechanism will fail us, and doesn’t match the life Christ lived and modelled for us revealing the true spirit of the Law and undermining the letter of it.


Do you hear creation groaning? Are you willing to listen, and imagine there is something we are created and called to do about it? Are you tired of the endless arguments over our broken incomplete definitions of good versus evil, right versus wrong? Are you needing a journey from deafening brokenness to confidence nothing can separate us from God?


Paul gives us a strategy. We can’t ignore the cries of injustice. We can’t pretend we aren’t called, enabled, and empowered to make a difference. We can’t argue, debate, or litigate God’s good kingdom onto others.


So, in Chapter 8, Paul invites our way forward through a hope. A hope in what, though? Our hope is in a confidence God’s beloved community, God’s kingdom, is coming true for all creation, because of who God is, what God has done in Christ, and what we will now do with God because we believe those first two are already true.


Our only faithful coping mechanism is a hope… not a hope in something we can already see or already know, but in something we haven’t yet seen. Our hope needs to be both a constant remembering and reimagining of God’s beloved community, AND a confidence and commitment that it is coming. We must dream it, and envision it, and describe it for one another, and let’s others' descriptions of it soak into us. We must trust God has already done enough to ensure its arrival, and must clearly admit it isn’t here yet, and must spend our lives helping it come, and must fully trust our works with God are not in vain. Kingdom is coming.


If our hope, our imagination of Kingdom has us going to it and leaving others behind to continue their suffering and groaning, then our hope isn’t big enough. Our hope has to imagine kingdom coming toward us, and changing everything for all creation, not just ourselves.


If our hope imagines a place somewhere else where only the good people, the good-enough people go, then our hope isn’t big enough. Our hope has to imagine Christ’s sacrifice being more than enough for the really good, the kind-of good, the not so bad and the terrible, and bringing wholeness and peace to ALL of God’s creation, not just some subset of it.


If our hope imagines a place we can build all by ourselves, through better smarter laws, then its not big enough. We’ve seen what happens when we broken human beings get involved. Even the laws we write from our best intentions have downstream consequences of sin.


And if our hope imagines our actions mean nothing, do not affect, or soothe, or accelerate the healing of our groaning creation, then our hope isn’t big enough. We must see the difference, and must respond to God’s calling to contribute, embody, witness to, and live the community of God whether we see it making a difference or not.


We were imagined and created for this hope, and have been transformed toward it through Christ, and are now being called to live it. Just as those things are true because of who God is, we can be sure nothing, not death nor life, not saints nor sinners, not politicians or preachers, not things of the past, things happening today, or things that might happen in the days ahead, nothing ever will be able to separate us and all of God’s precious creation from the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Benediction

Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown


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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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