Yesterday’s sermon …
- Came from a not-very-Christmasy section of Scripture, Romans 8:35-39;
- Taught that in Paul’s life, Paul’s “hypothetical” list of separators in Romans 8:35 was actually anything BUT hypothetical;
- Talked about the relentlessness of our son when it was 2 1/2 and the stick-a-bility of my mother’s now 104 year old birthmark;
- Landed at this bottom line: Your unbearable pain is not match for his unbreakable love.
Is it OK with you all if we ramp up to Xmas with a look at some words that on the surface have nothing to do with Xmas? And yet words that when you scratch beneath the surface end up having everything to do with it? And is it OK if we do all this by looking at a section of a letter that is really more like an invitation to a party? And when we’re done – if you’ll let me do this non-Xmasy thing – I believe that you will have learned, seen, & been touched by something that will radically alter how you feel about God, pain, Xmas, and life? Is all that OK? Apparently ignore the calendar but the benefit is that it will alter the trajectory of your life?
Here’s the thing. We’re going to look at Romans 8:35-39, which means Paul has just finished this incredible section of his letter/sermon/Magna Carta, a section that has included gems like Romans 5:8, 6:23, and 8:11:
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[a] Christ Jesus our Lord.
11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of[a] his Spirit who lives in you.
READ ALL. And after that intense & lengthy portion, it’s almost like Paul is exhausted – which he probably was, since he wrote while dictating and pacing. And he wants to celebrate everything that has just been revealed through him, especially since 9-11 is gonna be ANOTHER very hard, intensely person road to hoe. So, here: LET’S PARTY. 8:35a is really sort of a song, though we don’t have the melody:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Now check out 8:39b:
nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ah! Bookends! Inclusio! Starts with a question in 8:35a that doesn’t need an answer, it just advances his passion. What can separate us from God’s love? Then he gives his hypothetical list of possible separators in 8:35b:
Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
You know what’s great about that list? There was nothing hypothetical about it for Paul. He wasn’t writing or singing about that which he’d never been through; this list doesn’t come out of thin air! He’d gone through ALL OF IT – check out 2 Cor 11:23-27!!!
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
(READ) – with the exception of “the sword.” And guess how he died? The sword. Intense pain was the story of his life – physical pain, emotional pain, relational pain, and even some self-loathing pain. I don’t think following Jesus really led to Paul’s “best life now” but it sure did result in a life that mattered.
Huh. For an ancient guy, he sure had modern problems. Because is there not pain in a home or two around this place? It’s the time you FINALLY went to the marriage counseling and it turns out your mate was only doing it to get the counselor’s “permission” for divorce. It’s the wayward, drug addled child who needs one addictive chemical to get over the addiction to the other, more potent, one. It’s the chronic fibro myalgia. It’s the depression that hits at the most inopportune times, never related to circumstances. It’s that sense that you’re UNWANTED, even in your own home. And while I haven’t had a lot of “sword” in my life, there were gunshots on my street recently. And most people here haven’t had the “famine” thing, but guess what? We’ve got some enormously courageous refugees here who have. Who know. Yeah, all around us is all kinds of pain, some of it physical, more of it relational & emotional, and Xmas doesn’t minimize it, it magnifies it. And it can become unbearable.
And yet why does Paul raise this question? Look at his answer in 8:37:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
NO. And then IN. Circle that. Not around these things, but IN them. I love the bible’s realism. It’s not about the avoidance of pain or the escape from it but the triumph IN it. And look again at what the ADHESIVE quality is in it: not God’s power or his wisdom (what I like to talk about most!) but his love. Huh.
And then, with all that said, Paul goes into dancing mode. Celebrate good times, come on. 3
READ 8:38-39. Now let’s read that out loud and together:
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There’s the bookend for us! And what Paul does with all these images, with this epic pile on is not so much so that we parse and pick apart each word. Instead, it’s there to convey the totality of everyone and everything that opposes us, that pains us, that wants to work as a great separator of us & God. To get us to doubt him, doubt ourselves, doubt life … doubt TOMORROW. The totality of things that you’re the VICTIM OF and the VILLAIN IN, whatever, it doesn’t make God stop loving you. Like it or not, accept it or not, feel it or not, you’re loved.
And separate? Paul is asking, really, what can UNSTICK you from God’s love? God’s love for you is like PoliDent (AV), it’s like peanut butter in the roof of your mouth (Do it?), it’s like the lady who superglued her eyes together (AV), it’s even like this couple (AV). It’s even like this catch from the New York Football Giants! (OBJ insane catch) And his answer to what can unstick you from God’s sticky love? None of that stuff can! Not the best thing you’ve done, not the worst thing that’s happened to you, not your closest friends, bitterest enemies or most cunning & baffling forces. None of it.
See what Paul has done? See why Xmas does no good if we leave Jesus in the manger? See why God’s WITH-NESS is totally part of his LOVE-NESS? It’s this: Your unbearable pain is no match for his unbreakable love. God with us means God deeply in love with us and that love chases, harasses, surrounds, and enfolds you, know it or not, like it or not.
When our son Riley (now 27) was 2 ½, we were living in Monroe and there was this morning when I had a big appointment later that day. Needed my sleep. Fully rested! He had other ideas – he was like, “I’m up! Relate to me!” And he kept coming in and BECAUSE I NEEDED TO SLEEP we kept putting him back. Finally, after he conquered us one more time, I looked at Julie and said, “He’s relentless.” And so he was. And so is God. Motivated by love, he is “I’m up. I’m alive! Relate to me!” He is relentless. Why? Your unbearable pain is no match for his unbreakable love.
You may be filled with regret, with self-loathing, with a closet filled to overflowing with skeletons. And God loves you ANYWAY. REFRAIN.
It’s like as stuck as a birthmark. I’ve told you before that one of my earliest memories of my mom is leaning over me and praying the Lord’s Prayer when I was scared to go to sleep. I remember her birthmark right here (point), a place you can only see if your little and someone is leaning over you. Well, guess what? When I saw her a bit ago, I checked under her chin and … it’s still there. A 104 YEAR OLD BIRTHMARK. Nothing’s gonna unstick her from that. That’ what it’s like. Like it or not, know it or not, God’s love is stuck on you. Your unbearable pain is no match for his unbreakable love.
And then, remember how I told you to circle IN? In all these things MTCs? Love of God IN Christ Jesus our Lord? Many times we think difficulties & pain cast doubt on God’s love or care. Paul would say the reverse: they are proof of it. Because God can love you IN that pain that is better for you and truer in you than if he love you OUT of that pain. Or away from that pain. He’s an IN God, thank God. And the way that it works, with our IN God in the middle of unbearable pain is like this guy: POP UP PUNCHING BAG DEMO. Do you know what the weight is? The ballast at the bottom. God’s love. This propels you back so that you’re not a victim but a victor. REFRAIN
Can I confess something? I’m not all that motivated – USUALLY – by love. When I think about what is good about being a Christian, I tend to dwell on how interesting the bible is, or how cool God’s answered prayer is, or the power of the Holy Spirit, or even the giddy assurance of salvation that Easter brings. But not love. And yet by diving deeply into Romans 8 – AT CHRISTMAS! – I just have been gripped by it. I am loved ANYWAY. In spite of my needlessly competitive streak with other preachers. ANYWAY. In spite of my obsession with appearance and reputation. ANYWAY. In spite of growing up in a home where political passion replaced relational emotion & I still feel some of those scars. ANYWAY. I can’t make God UNLOVE me. He’s stuck on me. And pain that I feel and pain that I cause is powerless in the face of that. Your unbearable pain is no match for his unbreakable love.
Can you … can you allow that to wash over you? God’s love is stuck on you? The abortion you had or paid for? Too late. God’s love is still stuck on you. The DV that you endured or perpetrated? Too late? God’s love is stuck on you. The loathing that you have for the family you’re gonna see over Xmas? Too late. God’s love is stuck on you. The fact that you feel unwanted in your own house? Too late. Stuck on you. The truth that you GOT SAVED but now you’ve done stuff that you don’t FEEL SAVED? Too late. Stuck on you. Your unbearable pain is no match for his unbreakable love.
I may have told some of you before of the time down in rural Florida, a little boy was walking near a pond near the family home. (Child, water, FLA . . . you know what’s next). As happens down there, a gator bit on to the boy’s legs. Fortunately, the boys’ mother was near, saw what had happened, was filled w/ adrenaline, and grabbed his little arms. Tug of war started. More tug. More war. The gator was stronger but the mother was more determined. Great thing was, a farmer drove by, heard the screams, had a gun in his gun rack, took aim, and shot the gator dead.
Remarkably the boy survived though he had some nasty scars on his legs. Several weeks later a reporter came to the hospital room to do an update. He asked the boy if he could see the scars on his legs. He pulled sheets over so he could. But then the boy did something else: “But look at my arms! I have some great scars there, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let me go.”
You. And you. And you. Loved with that same ferocity and that same determination by a God who is stuck on you. Let it be so today and all Christmas long.