SERMON – MARCH 15, 2020

A sermon on Romans 5: 1-11
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 15, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning we begin with a story from the life of the great 16th Century German religious leader, Martin Luther…
The year was 1527. Ten years earlier, Martin Luther had posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg. This paper challenged the local Catholic authorities to a debate on certain church practices that Luther felt were just plain wrong, unbiblical and even evil. He could not have foreseen at that time what the results of his actions would be. The debate over the 95 Theses set off a chain of events that quickly snowballed into what historians have come to call “The Protestant Reformation.”
For most of the ten years since posting the theses, Luther had been in fear for his life. Eventually, he became holed up in the ancient Medieval castle of Wartburg under the protection of a local prince. But life in seclusion did not suit him very well. He spent most of his time writing books and sermons for publication, translating the entire Latin Bible in German, and meeting with friends. Besieged by threats on his life, seeing his work condemned and his books publically burned, and under excommunication from the church, utter discouragement clouded his life.
And the news from outside the walls of Wartburg was not good. The revolution he had started was taking some drastic and ugly turns. The peasants in some cities had taken up arms and had become lawless mobs rebelling against the government. The authorities quickly and brutally responded. Many were killed and property was destroyed. In other cities, some had become self-styled “prophets,” who claimed to have had a direct word from God. These questionable “revelations” had led them into all sorts of bizarre and cult-like actions that were, in fact, the very antithesis of the gospel message that Luther was working to spread. Consequently, Luther began having serious doubts about what he had done. He began to have serious doubts about the worth of his work. To him, it seemed like the entire world was spinning out of control…
All of these anxieties began to take a toll on Luther. His health began to decline. He battled various physical ailments and frequent insomnia. And what’s worse—he began to experience severe bouts of depression. None of his friends or supporters could seem to help Martin break out of the hopelessness which engulfed him. That is when his wife Catherine took matters into her own hands…
One day, when Luther came home, he found his wife dressed up in funeral clothes and softly sobbing. When he asked her who had died, she replied, “God is dead and I just can’t bear it, for all his work is overthrown.”
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Luther was shocked when he heard Catherine’s words. To him, her words were nothing short of blasphemy and he told her as much. She responded by telling him, “Well, you have been going around acting as if God is dead, as if God is no longer here to keep us; and so I thought I ought to start mourning to keep you company in your great bereavement…” It was then that Martin realized what he had been doing to himself. And in that moment, it is said that the healing of hope began for him.1 I guess you could say that a new hope had sprung up from within him…
HOPE—it is one of the things that the Apostle Paul talks about in perhaps the most well-known of his writings—1 Corinthians 13. In the last verse of that chapter, you may recall that he writes that hope is one of the three things that remain—hope, along with faith and love. In today’s sermon text, the apostle writes about the place of hope in the life of the Spirit. He talks about how hope is cultivated in Christian believers and how it helps to transform our lives…
Verse one begins with Paul talking about the status of the believer. He writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” “Justified” is one of those 50-cent church words that folks used to mention a lot in churches a few generations ago. It was just a natural part of church lingo. It went right along with other big churchy words like “sanctification” and “glorification.” But such terms have fallen out of fashion over the years. We don’t use those terms very much anymore. So here’s the question: What does that word “justification” mean? What is Paul talking about when he uses the term in the context of the spiritual life?
When I was a teenager in church years ago, I remember the word “justification” was given a very simple and easy to remember definition. We were told that “justification” meant “just as if” I’d never sinned. And that is right—as far as it goes. Justification means that God took away the penalty of my sin and made me right with him. Nothing wrong with that. But I have since come across another illustration—this one is from author Frederick Buechner—that I think is more true to the nature of what the Bible means when it says that we are justified with God…
In printer’s language, to justify means to set type in such a way that all full lines of text are of equal length. They are also flush on both the left hand side and the right hand side margins. In other words, to justify means to put the printed lines in the right relationship with the page they’re printed on, and in right relationship with each other. The religious sense of the word justify is very close to this. Being justified means being brought into right relationship. So when Paul says we are justified through Christ, then it means that we are in right relationship with God on the basis of what Jesus has done for us—that we are reconciled to God in Christ. And then toward the end of verse one, Paul says simply that being justified means having peace with God. This is what justification is. It is the first step in the process of salvation…
1 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand—A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 150-152, and C. Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses—Sermon Illustrations and Devotionals from the Christian Heritage (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing , Inc., 1993), 73.
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And then, beginning in verse two, Paul begins to talk about what that justification through Christ means in the life of the follower of Jesus. He writes, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”
Upon first reading this passage, something stuck out that I found a bit distracting. It’s that word boast. Did it bother you too? It occurs twice in those verses. In verse two, he talks of boasting of our hope in sharing the glory of God. And in verse three, he writes that he boasts in his sufferings. Nobody likes a braggart…I know that I certainly don’t and I can’t think of anyone else who does either. If a person is known to be someone who brags, then oftentimes they are regarded as obnoxious. People avoid being around that kind of person like the plague. So boasting in that sense couldn’t be what Paul meant, is it? So I began to look around and to dig a little deeper…
What I discovered is that translators have used a lot of different expressions to translate this verse. “Boast” is certainly one of the most popular. Coming in second is the word “rejoice.” Some other expressions that have been used include “exult,” “be happy,” “glory in,” and “celebrate.” The idea that Paul is communicating seems to be NOT to talk about something as to say “look at me” or “look at what I’ve got…and look at what you don’t.” In my experience, that is what most boasting seems to be. Instead, the boasting that Paul seems to be talking about is more about being glad and being joyful about your situation, and not being afraid to share with others what you have discovered…
I guess that helps some to understand the gist of what Paul is saying…but it doesn’t make verse three any easier to swallow. In that verse, Paul writes that we boast in—we exult in—we are happy in—we celebrate in our sufferings. That’s a hard word. It is counterintuitive. No one wants to suffer—let alone delight in their sufferings. Folks have a difficult time responding to their difficulties in such a way…
According to the Apostle Paul, it is not suffering itself that is the reason to celebrate. He writes instead that suffering is an occasion for growth in the life of the Spirit. He writes that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and that, in the end, character produces hope. And he concludes that section by stating that hope does not disappoint.
A classic analogy for how our sufferings are used by the Spirit of God in our lives to produce spiritual gain is the example of how pearls are created. You all know that pearls are created by oysters. But the pearl does not start out being beautiful and valuable. It begins as a grain of sand or an indigestible bit of food stuck inside the oyster. But instead of expelling the irritant, the oyster begins to cover it with a smooth layer of nacre. Nacre is the shiny substance of which the inside of the oyster shell is made. Over time, layer upon layer of nacre is applied until the final result is a beautiful iridescent gem—a pearl. So it is with the problems we face—and the sufferings we undergo. These things are being transformed into something positive in our lives, for our spiritual growth and all for God’s glory…
But I have a confession to make. As much as I love the cadence of these words in Romans 5 about suffering and hope, and as much as I desperately want them to be true, as I look around me,
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sometimes I find it hard to see how the sufferings of some folks have a redemptive quality about them. Wouldn’t you agree? It seems to me that there is just some suffering in the world that does not seem to have any redemptive purpose in it at all. What are we to make of that? How are we as the body of Christ to understand such suffering in our world and in our lives?
These are questions that godly people have wrestled with for thousands of years. People who are much smarter than me and much more deeply rooted in the Holy Spirit than I am have considered these questions and have not come up with any definitive answers. But here is something worthy of your consideration. This is the main take away from this morning’s sermon: We sometimes tend to confuse God’s love for us with a lack of suffering. The truth is that the two have little in common with one another.
The promise of Jesus to his disciples is that he will never forsake them. It was not that they would be free from suffering. In fact, in John 16:33, Jesus told them, “In this world you will have trouble”—not “may have trouble” or “might have trouble”, but “will have trouble.” But then our Lord goes on to tell them, “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” In Matthew 28, Jesus ends his “Great Commission” with the words, “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And we sing these great words whenever we sing the classic hymn “How Firm a Foundation”:
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I will not, I will not, I will not forsake.
The fact that we deal with difficulties on a regular basis does not mean that God has withdrawn his love or presence from us. Nor does it mean that God is indifferent to our suffering or that God isn’t interested in our lives. Difficulties and suffering are not contrary to the promises of God. Even our troubles and difficulties, when rightly understood and lived through in the light of God’s promises, will lead us around again to hope.
Perhaps the best way to end this sermon is with the words of the Apostle Paul a few chapters later in Romans 8. There he reminds us that there is a far greater benefit to the sufferings that we now endure than we realize or that we can see in the present situation. He writes:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, then we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:18, 24-25)
To God alone be the glory! Amen.