Monday, January 9, 2017

When You Suffer, Do You Boast?: Romans 5:1-5

When I was about eleven, my family and I had gone over to a great aunt’s house on a Sunday after church.  We bar-b-qued hamburgers and sat around watching football.  Of course, my Dallas Cowboys were playing.  I remember this stuff vividly.  They were playing the late game, and they played the Los Angeles Rams.  I was rooting whole-heartedly for my ‘boys, and I was convinced they were going to win.  How convinced?  My dad told me, “The Cowboys are going to lose.”  I said, “No way.  They are going to win!”

Dad said, “I’ll bet you.”

I rose to the challenge, “Deal.”

Dad said, “How much?”

I thought for a moment before responding, “A quarter.”

Now, before you laugh too much, you have to realize just how much a quarter meant to me.  You see, I loved playing video games.  That quarter wasn’t just a quarter.  It was a game of Pac-Man or whatever arcade game I could come across the next time my family and I went out.  I took great joy and pleasure in playing those games–even though I wasn’t particularly good at them.  To bet a quarter was a big deal.

And my ‘boys lost!!!  I still remember going into my room and digging around for a quarter to hand to my dad.  –No, he didn’t let me off.  I had to pay up!!

Do you know, to this day, I have never bet on another football game or sporting event?  Lesson learned.  There is a risk on betting on an unknown future.  You can easily lose.

But, let’s turn the tables for just a moment.  What if you knew the future?  What if you knew what was going to happen at a particular game–who was going to win?  What if you knew it beyond the shadow of a doubt?  I tell you what I would do.  I’d be booking it to Las Vegas, and I would be a whole lot wealthier, that’s for sure!  Knowing the future gives you confidence in the present.

But there is a problem.  We don’t know the future.  We have the capability to think about the future.  We have the capability of figuring out what will probably happen in the next few moments; hours; or even days.  But all it takes is one little surprise; one little change in some variable, and all our preparations are null and void.  Therefore, we always seem to be a bit concerned about what will happen next.  We always seem to be a bit antsy about what might be just around the corner.  What will the future hold?  Sometimes we are excited about it.  Oftentimes we are fearful of it.  And in our culture today, fear dominates.  We tend to be afraid to bet; to risk; to take that chance lest we lose.

Christians take a bit of a different view toward the future.  In fact, we face the future with confidence–with hope.  St. Paul begins laying this out in the book of Romans chapter 5.  Just a quick recap from before we took our break from this book because of Christmas: Romans chapters one through most of three were spent laying out humanity’s failure to live up to God’s expectations and the reasons we were under the wrath of God.  At the end of chapter 3, Paul shared the good news that God’s justice and God’s mercy had combined in the work of Jesus who became the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ’s actions have justified us, and we are now right with God.  We are saved when we trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own.  Paul then used chapter four to show how this justification by grace through faith was consistent with God’s action toward the founder of the Jewish faith: Abraham.  Paul now moves forward to share the consequences of God’s action in Jesus Christ.

We begin with verse one: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.   We must read this carefully because Paul says here that we have peace WITH God–not the peace OF God.  The peace of God is a sense of calm that comes over us in the midst of various situations in life.  Sometimes we sense that peace.  Other times, we don’t.  Such peace is an important part of the Christian life and deserves its just due, but this is not what Paul is talking about here.  Paul is speaking of the peace that comes after two sides are reconciled.  No longer is there animosity.  No longer is there anger that divides.  No longer is there separation.  There is peace because our sins are no longer a cause of hostility.  God no longer bears his righteous anger against us.  We are at peace.

Secondly, verse two begins with these words: 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.  Through Jesus we now have access–the way is opened with no obstacles to the grace of God.  Think of it this way: in ancient times, in order to have access to a king, you first needed grace–worthiness imparted to you by the king so that he would meet with you.  Through Jesus, we have such access with God.  No longer are there any barriers between you and God.  Folks sometimes ask me to pray for them with the words, “Because you have a direct line to the big Guy up stairs.”  I humorously try to say, “Well, you do too.  We share the same access.”  Through Christ this has been given to ALL of us.  No one has any advantage.

Finally, Paul says, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Earlier in chapter 3, Paul spoke about how boasting was excluded by the grace of God; however, it is important to note that Paul wants us to realize that we cannot boast in ourselves and what we do.  Boasting in what God has done, is doing, and will do is certainly allowed.  In fact, it’s sort of what we do as a church when we worship!  We loudly and boldly proclaim our God!  We loudly and boldly speak of what God does!  We loudly and boldly tell others that God has saved us; that God provides for us; and that God will secure our future.  We boldly boast of how God has prepared a place for those who trust Him and how He will raise us to eternal life–just like He raised Jesus to eternal life.  We boast in God’s goodness!!!

However, Paul suddenly broaches a different subject.  Right after saying that we boast in the glory of God–we boast in God’s goodness, Paul says, “3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.”  Some scholars believe that Paul is heading off a criticism that is often brought forth.  A criticism that says: you boast about the goodness of God, but look at the trials and tribulations you go through.  Look at all the evil that is still in the world.  Look at the sickness that some of you have.  Look at the persecution that others are bringing upon you.  Why would you boast in God with all of these things happening?  Paul does not shy away from this question, and rather than offer excuses for such matters, Paul says something that many of us frankly have a difficult time doing.  Paul says that we boast in our sufferings.  I mean, really, think about this.  How many of us say, "Hey, I got diagnosed with cancer, woo hoo!"?  How many of us brag about having frozen pipes this morning?  How many of us jump up and down when we lose a job?  No.  We don't do this at all.  We become despondent.  We want sympathy.  We want compassion.  We never boast.  Yet, Paul says, "We boast in our sufferings."

Now, let me be quick to point out that this does not mean that we celebrate the fact that we suffer.  As Timothy Keller said, “That would be masochism.”  We aren’t sadistic.  We don’t rejoice that we suffer.  But we can boast in the midst of it.  How?  How in the world can we boast in our sufferings?

Paul continues:  knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  Let’s go through these step by step.  Paul first says that suffering produces endurance.  The word endurance here carries a sense of steadfastness–meaning you don’t waver.  You are focused.  Suffering strips away all of the unnecessary distractions so that we know where and what to stand on.  Suffering helps us to see what we can really count on–what is lasting.  And when we find what we can stand upon–what is strong; what endures, then character is formed.  The Greek here gives us a sense of “testedness” or “genuineness”.  When all is stripped away, and you are left with what is lasting, you are tested–genuine.  Your true nature is revealed.  And what is a Christian’s true nature?  If we know we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ–what does our heart show?  It shows that we are full of hope.

How does this happen?  I have dealt with such matters repeatedly with folks who go through suffering. By the time all is said and done, you can tell the difference between folks who put their trust in God and those who have trusted other things.  Let me use the scenario of someone who was diagnosed with cancer.  The folks who have trusted other things go through having their endurance tested, and their character is revealed.  When money did not bring about a cure; when doctors failed to stem the cancer; when family and friends could not make them better; when all of these things were stripped away and there was nothing left, folks who had no trust in God generally became bitter and angry and depressed.  They were defeated.  However, when the same things happened to those whose trust was in God, they too found that money couldn’t cure; doctors couldn’t stem the tide; that family and friends couldn’t make them better, but instead of becoming bitter and angry and depressed–they trusted that God would care for them.  They trusted that even though they might die, that God would bring them unto Himself.  They had hope.  It radiated from them.

Paul finishes with these words, “5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  A better translation would be “and hope does not shame us.”  Hope does not shame us.  This is important on two counts.  First, as I hinted at in my example above, if you put your hope in anything except God, it will disappoint you.  It will bring you shame.  Only God will not disappoint you.  Only God will not shame you.  If your hope is in God you will never be let down.  You can be confident.  And that is the second point of what Paul leads us to.  We can have absolute confidence in what God will accomplish.  This is the meaning of hope in Christian terms.  Most of us when we talk about hope, we think about wish fulfillment.  “I hope I win the lottery.”  “I hope it rains.”  “I hope gas prices don’t go up.”  We can’t be confident of any of these things.  Hope is a guessing game, and if what we hope for doesn’t come to pass–we are disappointed.  In fact, my mother-in-law is fond of saying, "Spit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which one fills up faster."

       Christian hope doesn’t say that.  Christian hope says, “I believe that God will provide exactly what I need when I need it.”  And that is not a hope that will disappoint.  That is not a hope that will bring us shame.  That is a hope rooted and grounded in who God has shown Himself to be.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the love that He Himself has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the fact that God did not withhold His own Son, but sent Him into the world to die for us.  It is a hope rooted in the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

This is the promise that we hold in our hearts.  This is the work of God that we stay focused upon.  We know that He loved us enough to die for us.  We know that He raised Jesus from the dead giving us a vision of what we will experience when we trust in Him.  We know that the future rests in His hands.  Our future is taken care of.  We know what to expect.  And if you know what the future entails, then you can live with confidence.  You can face suffering with confidence.  For suffering produces endurance–it helps you see what you can count on.  When you see what you can truly count on, your character is revealed–everyone can see what is truly in your heart.  And if you understand what God has done–hope reigns supreme.  And that is something to boast in!! Amen.

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