Monday, February 26, 2018

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent 2018 (1 Yr lectionary), "Tested and Hopeful"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Please listen again to the words of our sermon text for today, Romans 5:1-5, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The Bible tells a story of a certain young man, who was born to a loving father and mother, and who became a little bit spoiled. In fact his father loved him so much, that the other brothers became jealous of all the favoritism and hated him. His na├»ve pride irritated them, and finally they planned something unthinkable—getting rid of their brother. They sold him to slave traders, and lied to their father that he’d been killed in the wilderness. His life was turned completely upside down—going from a spoiled and wealthy life to being sold as a slave by his own brothers, and forced to live in a foreign land.
His story didn’t end there, but the next bad turn was a false accusation by his master’s wife that put him unjustly in prison for a long time after. Finally, after many years of growing and maturing—at last freedom came. But not only freedom, he rose to become the second most powerful leader in all of Egypt. If you don’t already know, it’s Joseph, the favorite son of his father Israel, also known as Jacob. Joseph plays a central role in the last 13 or so chapters of the book of Genesis, and how the Israelites—his family, first ended up in Egypt. Joseph is an excellent example of what Paul describes in our reading, about suffering working in us.
Paul names two things believers in Jesus rejoice about—rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God, and rejoicing in our sufferings. If the idea of rejoicing in your sufferings or hardships sounds unbelievable to you, then listen on. Paul says “suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” Joseph underwent a true transformation of character through the suffering that he endured. He would have never become the man that he did without those trials and sufferings that he endured, and how it built and shaped his character. I don’t know whether he spent sleepless nights in that foreign land wondering why all this happened to him, or what God’s plan could possibly be in all this, but I don’t doubt it. I don’t doubt that he wondered in the worst times, wondered if and when things would ever change, or if he’d ever see his family again. I encourage you to go read the whole story yourself sometime, to experience all the amazing drama, but in the end, Joseph was reunited. When his brothers asked for his forgiveness, he freely forgave; and explained “you meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). By the end of his life he had gained a whole new perspective on his suffering.
Joseph’s character transformation to a spoiled boy into a mature man and tested leader, who showed wisdom, poise, integrity, and mercy, came about through the suffering that he experienced, and how God worked it together for good in his life. No two people’s lives will ever be exactly the same, and the point is not that all suffering turns out so well. Last week we talked about the suffering of another bible character, and discovered that  we can let suffering destroy us, define us, or develop us. In other words, we can let suffering ruin or freeze our life, locking us down or swallowing us into it. Or we can let it grow and develop us, as we surrender to letting God work out His mysterious plan in us, and accepting what we can’t change, but committing it to His will. How is God shaping your character through testing in your life? What are you learning, and how have you grown as a result of suffering? The fact that you can’t see how the suffering may be shaping your life and character, doesn’t mean that God can’t do so if you surrender the things you can’t change to His will.
There’s a little chain reaction of dominoes in our reading—“suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” Endurance is the ability to last through something. Not to come through “unscathed”, untouched by what we endured, but the patience to finish. Scripture tells us that God does not willingly afflict or grieve humankind (Lam. 3:33). Suffering may be prolonged—there may be times when we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. But with faith in God we know it’s not forever, and that even if the transformative purpose is hidden from us, God is still good and we can and should hope, because hope in God is never put to shame.
Endurance produces character. That word character means when someone is “battle tested”, or “tried and true”; “genuine.” In our modern, technical age, everything gets a thorough testing before it goes to market, or is opened for use. Bridges must meet rigorous and strict standards as they are built, to make sure they’ll hold the weight limit securely. Cars are tested to all kinds of extremes for safety in a crash and reliability on the road. Car manufacturers boast of exceeding safety standards, or their rewards for excellent reliability and comfort. Car seats are safety tested to give the best protection to your infant or child. And thank goodness that these things are all tested! But who or what tests your faith? What is the “battle-testing” of our faith, that reveals whether or not it will endure to the end? Suffering tests our faith, and God watches over it all. Suffering usually seems like something we want to avoid—but when God lays it upon us, it is for our own good, for our endurance, character, and hope.
Not surprisingly, hope is my favorite part of this whole chain reaction. Hope is the end result of that chain of dominoes tipped over by suffering. Hope does not put us to shame. Again, I don’t know the inner mind of Joseph, when he went through his ordeal, but I imagine there were times when he hoped against hope, and prayed and prayed. His hope did not put him to shame. It did not disappoint. Hope, I think, needs some real definition here. Life can make hope seem like a wishy-washy, fragile, empty thing. “Don’t get your hopes up”—the glum side of us often says. Or we talk about a “hope and a prayer”, if somebody’s chances are a real longshot. But this is not the kind of hope, spoken of here in the Bible verse. An earthly hope might be nothing more than wishful thinking, or a dead-end trail marked by broken promises. But God speaks of hope in entirely the opposite way.
Hope does not put us to shame. What is this hope set on? Not uncertain things or wishful thinking. Biblical hope is set on God’s promises. A better word to describe this biblical hope, might be “confidence.” And what promises of God are our hopes set on?
Hope and faith link arms, are joyful “buddies” if you will, who have their eyes fixed on Jesus. Hope and faith are locked on the promises of God for us in Jesus Christ. The Romans reading began: “we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Hope and faith get their confidence from knowing that Jesus has cleared the way for us to have access to God, to have peace with Him, by the forgiveness of our sins. And this is the beautiful foundation for hope and faith to endure and grow character in the midst of sufferings. By knowing that Jesus, God’s Son, has given up His life for us, by dying on the cross and rising from the grave, we can be certain that whatever sufferings we endure, we can make it through with Him. Whatever hidden purposes God may have for us in the challenges of life, we know that He will lead us, guide us, and be with us every step of the way. We’re not abandoned to purposeless, meaningless, hopeless trouble—but we have the promise that God is testing and growing our character—He’s shaping us into people of firm and joyful hope. People that can even stare down times of poverty, weakness, loss, illness, and even death—knowing that in all things God’s works together for the good of those who love Him, in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:28).
Facing suffering is never fun—no matter what form it takes—and it’s not some challenge to stand up under your own strength while you are being weighed down. But hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. While we feel emptied by the cares of this life, God is pouring His love into us by the Holy Spirit. Hope and faith are an open tube into which God pours His peace, love, reassurance into our hearts, so that we can stand and be strong—not in our own strength, but in the strength that God supplies. Paul also learned this truth in his own suffering, that God’s grace is sufficient. God will always provide what is necessary. When we look at our resources and strength and measure it all too small, God says His grace is enough.
How do we know this is true? Because of God’s faithful record—through the lives of people like Joseph or Paul. Through the lives of Christian brothers and sisters who we’ve known that have endured, developed character, and lived a joyful hope in Jesus. But most especially we know God’s grace is enough because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Suffering that He willingly endured to redeem us from our sins. Even in this suffering and evil, God worked out tremendous good. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, that many lives would be saved. The character of God shown to us in Jesus Christ—is that God is always turning the terrible things in this life around for good. The sins we inflict on ourselves or each other, and the sins inflicted on us—even in all that mess, God still continually works out goodness, healing, growth, restoration and life. God continually pours His love into our hearts, and shows how much greater His goodness is than all the evil that afflicts this world, even than death itself. And in the very end, when all this life has drawn to a close, we will once again see proof that hope does not put us to shame. We’ll see it when Jesus, our hope, comes back to end this world of sin, and create a new a world without sin, filled only with goodness and life. His promises are always good and true. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read through the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and while you are reading, consider the question of how God used his sufferings to produce endurance, character, and hope in Joseph. What changes did his character undergo through what he experienced?
2.      What two things does Paul say Christians rejoice about, in Romans 5:2-3? How did God’s plan ultimately work for good for Joseph? Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28.
3.      Suffering can destroy us, define us, or develop us. Explain what each of these mean, and how God intends for the last—to develop us—to be the actual purpose and outcome. In Romans 5:3-5, what is the “chain reaction” and the final outcome it leads to?
4.      Why do we know that God does not delight in bringing suffering on us, and that it won’t last forever? Lamentations 3:33.
5.      In life, what things do we depend on being “tested and true” or “battle tested.” How does our faith and character undergo its “battle testing?”
6.      Why does hope not put us to shame? Romans 5:5. Explain the difference between “earthly hope” and “biblical hope.”

7.      What object do faith and hope lock their eyes on? What (or who) is the basis of our confidence, and how do we see and know that this is true? 

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