TEXT: Rom. 5:1-8; Matt. 5:1-12
Last week we began talking about the book of Romans, and we’re going to stick with that book for a number of weeks. So, if you’re behind in the Daily Walk, at least jump ahead and read the book of Romans. Then you’ll be better able to follow along with the sermons, even if you miss a week.
The beginning of Romans 5 could actually have followed as the next paragraph after Romans 3. Romans 4 is really a sidebar illustration to support Paul’s point that we are justified by faith and not by works. In chapter 4 he talks about Abraham, who God called righteous before his circumcision and not afterward. He’s saying to the Jews that righteousness is about relationship with God—something that goes on in the heart—and not about outward acts.
So, after proving his point that we are not made righteous by our actions but by God’s grace, Paul goes back to continue the discussion from chapter 3, which ended with talk of what Christians should not be boasting about. A word about boasting. The image that word conjures up in English is never a good thing. We imagine someone sort of gloating…raising themselves up, while putting others down at the same time… “I have this and you don’t…nyah, nyah.”
That’s one meaning of the Greek word, but not the only one. The word can also be translated as “glory” and “rejoice” and “joy.” In chapter 3, Paul is saying we have no business boasting about how good we are or how we’ve kept the law so perfectly that we are justified by God. Nobody can do that without God’s help, says Paul. Our righteousness is God’s gift, not our achievement.
But then in chapter 5, after proving his point with Abraham in chapter 4, he goes back to talk about what we CAN boast about, and this is where we have to remember that the Greek has meanings for this word that are not negative. These are not the things we can use to prove we’re better than others, but these are the things we can rejoice in—the things we can be happy about.
It starts out well. We can take joy in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Okay, good. I’m with him. Makes me happy, too. But then, he throws a curve that reminds us of the story from Acts where Paul and Silas are singing hymns after being beaten and thrown in a dungeon. He says that we should take joy in our sufferings. What?
It’s the same sort of odd pronouncement that Jesus makes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where he lists all of the people who are “blessed” or “happy.” The list includes the poor, the hungry, the persecuted. I daresay most of us don’t feel particularly happy or blessed under those circumstances. In fact, when those times of suffering hit, I often get people in my office who feel that God is punishing them or has cursed them. In fact, I have yet to have a single person in 12 years of ministry come to me to say how honored and privileged they feel because God has let them suffer one misfortune after another.
And yet, at other times and in other places, that was not the case. If you ever read the medieval Christian saints and mystics, you will find example after example of people crying out in joyous worship because they were considered worthy to suffer as Jesus suffered. A number of them actually prayed for horrible diseases or circumstances so that they could share in the sufferings of Christ. I can’t say that I’ve done that. And I can’t say it’s high on my list of priorities of things to pray for.
But I think we do have a point of connection with Paul when we think of the way that hardship builds character. There’s a certain shallowness to those who always have had life handed to them on a silver platter, and when we’re going through rough times, we want people with us who know about those rough times first hand. We don’t want the simple platitudes, we want the understanding of someone who has been there.
Both the Beatitudes of Jesus and these statements of Paul indicate that the purpose of our life here has very little to do with our ease and comfort. So much Christian preaching in the media seems designed to convince us that God’s main goal is to make us all happy, wealthy, and successful. I’m not sure what Bible they’re reading, but the one I’ve got has an awful lot of uncomfortable stuff about crosses and persecutions and spiritual warfare in it. Not that God is opposed to us being happy, but it seems pretty plain to me, just from my own life, that Christian faith is much more likely to mean trouble than what most of us consider “happiness.”
Fortunately, Paul doesn’t just say we should take joy in suffering, he tells us why. The answer, as it turns out, isn’t so that we can share in the sufferings of Jesus. It’s so that we can grow our souls and know the love of God. It’s what annoying people have always told us when they say, “It’s good for you, it builds character.” Of course in some people it doesn’t. For those without a faith foundation, suffering can produce anger or depression that can end up in murder or suicide. But Paul is writing here to the church in Rome and he is talking about those who have accepted God’s gift of righteousness and justification. He is talking about the way suffering produces fruit in the life of the Christian.
Paul lays it out: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Again, it helps if we understand some of those words in the original languages. English doesn’t always provide a word that has the range of meaning of the original, and we literally lose some things in the translation.
The word translated here as “character” is translated as “experience” in the King James, and I like that better. The word has the sense in Greek of something that is both experienced and proven. “Tried and true” might be a good phrase for the word. What that means is that in the person of faith, the trials of our lives produce the spiritual fruit of patience; and as we patiently wait, God’s steadfast love for us is experienced and proven. Because we have experienced God’s love for us through the darkest of times, we have hope that there is nothing that can stand in the way of God’s love for us…something that Paul will spell out at the end of chapter 8.
Suffering begins a process that ends in hope because somewhere in the depths of it, God shows up and proves that we are not being punished, that we are not cursed, that God does indeed love us and is with us through it all. That allows us to face whatever else comes our way with the hope that we have placed our faith in what is true, that the Holy Spirit really is within us, and that we will not be disappointed in our ultimate hope of sharing in God’s glory.
Jesus has taught us to cast our burdens and our sufferings on him. That first step is the way to ensure that the process works as it is intended. Like with the discussion in chapter three about righteousness, we’ve got to quit trying to deal with it ourselves. By ourselves, we will not handle it well. God is love, and the one whose eye is on the sparrow is not too great or too busy to receive the burden of our sorrow. We’ve got to get over that and turn our sufferings over to God.
That’s not easy, but make a point of it. Whatever it is that you’re going through, offer it up every day in prayer. “Take this situation, God. Take it and use it for the good of your kingdom. Use it to make me a better person. And show me where you are in the midst of it.” Some people just pray a prayer like that. Other people need a more physical reminder and they take a box or an envelope or something where they can actually write out the cause of their distress and physically put it in something that offers it up to God. You can also burn it as an offering…whatever helps you.
But when you offer it like that, you have to be willing to accept God’s timetable…which is almost never our own. That’s why suffering produces patience. We give it to God, and then we have to wait for God to resolve it or bring some good out of it. Taking the issue back from God and trying to deal with it ourselves, messes up the progression. Patience is the proof that we trust God to handle it…even if the situation is not changing as fast as we would like. Which it usually doesn’t.
When we have proven our faith through patiently waiting for God, we are rewarded with the experience…the proof of God’s love, and the character of God’s faithfulness. That experience makes us hopeful and better able to face the next time around. Eventually, after enough times through the mill, we aren’t just hopeful, we’re sure that God is with us every single step of our lives. We know then that God is real, that God is love, and that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from that. And that is why we rejoice.
None of this is easy, and if it’s the first time that life has really slammed you…or the first time you have tried to approach life’s slamming with a faith-centered response…it is very, very hard. That’s why having a faith community—a church, or even better a small group within the church—is so important. Especially the first time through, we often need to be carried by the faith of others. Otherwise we’ll break down and take the suffering back from Christ, and try to deal with it ourselves. And if we do, we’ll have no patience, no God-proving experience, and end up with fear of the next assault rather than the hope that God will see us through.
If life has hit you, turn it over to God. Hang with it, and take joy in knowing that if you will be patient, God’s love will be proven to you. If you’re fairly comfortable right now, look for ways to help hold the light for others while they wait for God. And take notes…your turn will come one day.
This has been absolutely true in my life. Sometimes, when the suffering has been of my own making, God’s love is made known by revealing that to me, urging me to repentance and receiving God’s forgiveness. Other times, when the suffering has been imposed from the outside, God’s presence has been made known through the extraordinary kindness of others, the peace that truly passes all understanding (since I have no business being peaceful in the midst of such things), through passages of Scripture that leap off the page to console me, or sometimes just an overwhelming sense of God’s love.
And then, when it’s over, I can assure others of the truth that I know. God is there…no matter how dark, no matter how painful, no matter how unlikely that seems. God is there and God is love. It’s the assurance given to those who will put their suffering into the hands of God. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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