Sermon transcript – “Why God’s Love Prevails, Part 5”

TranscriptWHY GOD’S LOVE PREVAILS – Why Series pt 5
Pastor Sun Hee
Romans 8:28, 31-39

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
 we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor 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.

GOD MAKES BEAUTIFUL THINGS

We just read today from a very familiar passage, Romans chapter 8, where we heard these words: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It’s one of those standard Christian verses that make it to many top ten lists. The top ten most quoted verses. The top ten pastoral responses when there’s nothing else to say. The top ten scripture passages to make it into decorative Christian wall art or a Hallmark card. All things work together for good…

Well, according to the Apostle Paul, these words are more than just mere Christian-ese or some spiritual cliché. They are really at the heart of answering a lot of our “why” questions. For the past few weeks, Pastor Ann has been leading us in a discussion of some of the hard and tough questions that we face in life. Why do good people suffer? Why do my prayers seem to go unanswered? Why is God’s will so difficult to find? Now, if you have been with us through this series, you will have come to learn to your dismay, that there are really no easy clear-cut answers to these questions. In fact, if anything, often times we find ourselves left with more questions than answers. And frankly, the reality and presence of these questions are really hard to deal with.

Well, some of you will know that I was on a retreat this past weekend down in Santa Cruz with a bunch of our young adults – a retreat called, Deeper Calling. And actually I was wrestling with some questions of my own. Like why did it have to rain on the one weekend we plan to have this retreat? It was wet. It was messy. And it poured off and on throughout the retreat, until of course, the retreat ended. Then the sun came out. Why? Or why were the bathroom stalls so small? No kidding, the bathroom stalls at the retreat center made airplane lavatories look like luxurious restrooms. They were really, really small. I think some of us were actually afraid to go in, thinking that maybe we would not be able to come out. Why? And why was there only one shower for a cabin that holds twenty-five people? I know we are supposed to be about community, but this was kind of pushing it. Why?

Okay, I admit my questions may be a bit superficial, but I raise them to show you something I learned at this retreat – something that addresses the very questions that we have been wrestling with in this series. And what I learned is really what the Apostle Paul is proclaiming in his letter to the Romans. All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Or put another way:
God makes beautiful things, God makes beautiful things out of the dust.
God makes beautiful things, God makes beautiful things out of us.

These were the words that we sang over and over again at this retreat in Santa Cruz. It kind of became our theme song, if you will. And I totally saw these words unfold over the course of the weekend and become reality. And it blew me away. What we started with was certainly not what we ended with. I mean, can you imagine what it felt like for us to fight through the rain and traffic to get to the retreat only to find that we had to cram into cabins sharing one shower with a bunch of strangers and feeling a little tentative about using what one of the pastors called “the toilet of no return”? Not great. Not great at all. But again, this is what we started with. Not much more than what seemed like a pile of dust. More on this a little later.

What does God do with a situation like this? How does God work in the midst of despair and hopelessness? And more importantly, where is God when people suffer, when prayers aren’t answered and the will of God is so hard to find?

ADAM’S ANSWERS
In the fourth and final chapter of his book entitled, Why?, Rev. Adam Hamilton summarizes and drives home the ideas that he had been hinting at throughout the first three chapters of his book – ideas that help us to answer these questions at hand. This is what he says:
“I will suggest that God walks with us, that God works through us, that God takes the evil and suffering that occur in life and forces them to serve us, and that God ultimately will deliver us.”

In other words, what Adam Hamilton seems to be saying is this: life may be full of unexplainable suffering, and there may be times when God even seems silent, and we may find ourselves wrestling with doubt and racking our brains to figure out the will of God, but the truth remains, we are not alone in this struggle. We are not alone in these questions. And there may be situations we find ourselves in where it seems like we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, or where we feel like all hope is lost and we have exhausted all of our resources, but the truth is that God is still at work. He’s not finished with us yet. God is making beautiful things, God is making beautiful things out of the dust.

This is what I witnessed first hand at this retreat that I attended in Santa Cruz. And in particular, I observed three things that helped me to put a lot of our “why” questions into perspective. The first is this: Everyone is broken in some way. Everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or how old you are, what kind of job you have or don’t have, whether you’re single or married or divorced or on Match.com, whether you’re a man or a woman, or longtime church member or atheist. Everyone’s broken.

This is so important to acknowledge, I think, because so often when we are in the midst of some sort of suffering or pain, we think we are the only one. And when we ask the questions of why, it becomes a very lonely experience. You all know what I am talking about. Well, at the retreat, we talked about our Deeper Calling and the need to go deeper with ourselves. We talked about what it means to go deep below the waterline to see and get in touch with the things that often times remain hidden and largely submerged, not unlike an iceberg. And it was noted that we hide these parts of ourselves because we fear rejection, or judgment, or simply because we think we are “the only one”.

But by the grace of God and with the Spirit’s moving in our midst, one by one, each of us started to share what was deep below. Pains, hurts, doubts. And it was truly moving to listen to the various stories that demonstrated that we are all broken. And I want to note that it wasn’t one of those types of sharing where we were like competing against each other to see who’s more broken. It wasn’t what I like to refer to as the “Olympics of Pain”… you know just one massive pity party. No, it was truly an authentic and deep type of sharing, and it showed us that we are all struggling and that we are all broken.

Which brings me to the second thing I observed at this retreat: brokenness doesn’t mean uselessness. You see, what I clearly saw at the retreat was that God uses one person’s story to heal another person’s pain. It was amazing to witness that as people started to open up and share from the deepest parts of their lives and deepest parts of their brokenness, other people started to resonate and connect with what was shared. And I don’t think that any person had any idea of how deeply impactful their sharing would be to another person’s heart. No one set out to share thinking that somehow God would take their words and use them to mend the brokenness of someone else. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. One young adult had shared about his five years of being an atheist and how now God had brought him back. That testimony touched another young adult’s heart that confirmed his own call back to the church after being away for a while, and actually you are going to hear from him in a few minutes. And believe it or not, this person’s testimony that you’re going to hear very soon deeply touched and inspired one of the pastors at the retreat. That pastor, of course, was me.

And there are many more testimonies like this. Testimonies from people who attended a retreat for the first time. Testimonies from people who have attended many retreats before but went deeper for the first time. Testimony after testimony, I witnessed God using people’s stories to heal other people’s pains.

A lot of times when we are going through our pain and suffering we don’t think that the pain or suffering will ever be something useful in our lives or something that will be useful for anything for that matter. But as Adam Hamilton says, God takes the evil and suffering that occur in life and forces them to serve us. I love this thought. When we suffer, that is not the end. When we experience pain, that is not the end. God is going to use it and redeem it. And as we heard Paul saying today in Romans 8:28, God will work all things together for the good. This is so true.

And this brings me to the last observation that I want to share. Ultimately, we find God in the journey and not only in the destination. When we experience suffering and pain, we need to know that God is right there with us. When we are lifting up and sometimes even crying out our “why” questions, we need to be reminded that God is not absent from our lives. And certainly, our real life testimonies will speak of not feeling God at all times and in all places. And certainly, in the midst of our pain and brokenness, many times we feel as God does not hear our prayers. And we find ourselves waiting for a different time, a new day, an alternate scenario or a destination, if you will, where “there you will find God” and “there you will experience God.” But the truth is that God is available in the here and now. It’s not something we have to move towards and travel great distances to experience. All we need to do is open our heart and invite God into the journey. Our journeys may not change. Our pain might not go away, but God will become real and we will experience the one truth that always remains: God’s love will prevail.

I’m always amazed when I think of those words that were found carved into the wall of Nazi concentration camp cell:
“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when God is silent.”

In many ways, this is our proclamation. This is our testimony. In the midst of all of our pain, all of our suffering, all of our brokenness, all of our feeling like dust, God is still here with us in the journey, and that God is making beautiful things out of dust. This is real, friends, and to show us how real this is, I want to invite the person that I mentioned a couple minutes ago. Some of you will know him, and after today, many of you will want to know him. So, Arvin, would you come up and share your testimony with us now? Let’s welcome Arvin with a warm applause.

[Arvin speaks]

DEEPER CALLING, DEEPER CONVICTION, DEEPER COUNTING

Thank you so much, Arvin. Our God is great, amen?! What Arvin shared is indeed a testimony of the way that God works in our lives. If we are willing to go deep and keep our hearts open, God’s love will prevail.

I love what Adam Hamilton writes at the close of his book, Why? This is what he says:
I have come to appreciate how Frederick Buechner captures this when he said, “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” The words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann have also resonated with me as he described the meaning of the resurrection of Christ in this way: “Since earliest times Easter hymns have celebrated victory of life by laughing at death, by mocking at hell, and by making the lords of this world absurd.” (Adam Hamilton goes on to say) Every year I end my Easter sermon at Church of the Resurrection in the same way. After twenty years the people anticipate it. I note that people ask me, “Do you really believe this story about the resurrection? Do you really believe that Easter means the worst thing is never the last thing? Do you really believe that good will triumph over evil and God’s plan will ultimately prevail?” And my answer is always the same, “I not only believe it, I am counting on it.”

Friends, this is exactly what we need to do. In hearing the deeper calling of our God, we need to experience a deeper conviction, and in experiencing a deeper conviction, we need to practice deeper counting. We need to count on God and the truth that God’s love will prevail.

And so, I am going to invite you to do simply two things today to apply this whole series to your life and to your faith. One, if you are in the midst of some sort of struggle or pain or brokenness, don’t ever give up hope. God makes beautiful things. God makes beautiful things out of the dust. The worst thing is never the last thing, amen? We can count on that.

Two, shift your focus from “why” to “who”. I know that those “why” questions are important, and I know that we need to be honest in raising them. But don’t dwell on them, because what is more important is not “why” is this happening, but “who” is with you as its happening. And today, Paul says, God is with you. God is always with you.

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
 we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor 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.

In the light of this amazing love of God, let’s continue to open to God’s leading to share and bless one another. God is indeed making beautiful things out of us. Amen? Let’s pray.

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