Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (2/8/15)
Text: Romans 8:28-30
Theme: It Is Well With My Soul!
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll – whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul” – beautiful words in and of themselves… even more beautiful when you know a little bit of the background.
The hymn we just sang (When Peace Like a River) was written by Horatio Gates Spafford. Horatio was a successful businessman who lived with his wife and four daughters in Chicago in the mid-1800’s – successful in business that is, until the great Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed everything he had worked for.
But fire wasn’t the only tragedy to come Horatio’s way. Later he and has family bought tickets to sail to England – at the last minute Horatio was forced to stay behind. His wife and four daughters went on without him – but they never made it, at least not all of them. The ship collided with another vessel and sunk. Only Horatio’s wife survived. All four daughters drown in the icy waters of the Atlantic.
Horatio was inspired to write the hymn we just sang as he passed over the place where his daughters drown on his way to be with his heartbroken wife in England.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll – whatever my lot, though hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
Our purpose this Sunday is to identify for whom Jesus came – his target audience. The hymns we’ve sung and the readings from the Bible have left us a trail of bread crumbs – let’s see where they lead…
The first lesson for today brought us face to face with a familiar person – Job. As you know, the life of Job made the life of Horatio seem like child’s play. On day one of Job’s whirlwind tour through hell on earth Job lost practically every cent he owned and seven sons and three daughters – in one day! On another day the only thing Job had left, his health, was taken away from him as painful soars covered his body – it’s no wonder the words we read from Job 7 ended like they did. “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.”
Our second lesson for today brought us face to face with another familiar person – Paul. Paul boldly says that God is working though all things for our good – what are those “things?” In Paul’s case, those “things” that God was using are listed off for us in 2 Corinthians: Imprisonments, beatings, exposure to extreme weather, stoning’s, shipwrecks, sleeplessness, hunger and so much more.
Add in the history of the hymn we just sang and the Gospel reading and Jesus’ target audience becomes pretty clear, doesn’t it?
Jesus didn’t come to rub shoulders with the successful and wealthy. He didn’t come to give a pep talk to people who were trying really hard all on their own. He didn’t come to congratulate the people who thought they had it altogether, who thought they had life pretty well figured out by themselves.
Jesus came for the sick. He came for the destitute, diseased, and dying. He came for those shunned by society, the prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and addicts. He came for the brokenhearted – for those whose hearts had been ripped out of their chests and stomped on as they watched loved ones die and the things they held dear torn away.
This is a Sunday that hits close to home for people like us – people who have known, are knowing, and will know sickness, loneliness and broken hearts. This Sunday hits close to home for anyone with half a heart who has been watching the news in recent weeks, and years for that matter.
“This is why I have come,” Jesus said in Mark – because there are so many people in this world like Peter’s mother-in-law and those nameless people possessed by demons, so many Horatios and Jobs and Pauls, so many people who are hurt and need help – “This is why I have come.”
And this is where we might start to lose some people if this were an audience made up of believers and unbelievers. This (the teaching that Jesus came for the sick and suffering) is a big stumbling block for a lot of people – it’s what they call the Christian problem of suffering. We say that God is good and that he is capable of doing whatever he wants – so following that logic, why hasn’t God stopped all the suffering of this world? We say that Jesus came to fix the suffering of this world, but that was 2000 years ago and there are still a lot of people suffering. Logically, these people say, this means that either God isn’t good because he doesn’t care about the plight of people on this earth, or he isn’t capable of ending suffering, in which case he’s not much of a God…
You and I would never take that tone with God, would we?…
You see, we are not just here to set up a straw-man and tear down those people out there who have a problem with God and suffering. If you want to find someone who needs an attitude adjustment when it comes to the suffering in this world and God’s relationship to it, you don’t need to look any further than this room – you don’t have to look any further than the heart that’s beating in your chest.
We may not come right out and deny that God exists or that he’s good, but that doesn’t mean we are perfect at handling the problem of suffering.
Here’s the big problem that really hits home for us – if you were handling the idea of suffering the way God wants you to, you would never worry – never, about anything.
Think that through with me. Paul tells us (God tells us!) that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. In the words of John Newton (the author of the next hymn we are going to sing, Amazing Grace) that means “Everything is needful that [God] sends. Nothing can be needful that he withholds.” Think about that (think about it for the rest of your life, it will do you good).
That means that you can never rightfully worry about anything again because whatever happens, it’s all a part of God’s plan. It’s for your good. It’s something that he in is infinite wisdom decided you needed – Which means you have absolutely no reason or right to worry about it.
That means that if tomorrow you woke up and had a day like Job, the proper response would be to get down on your knees and thank God for giving you what you needed that day. That means that if today on your way home you got in a car accident, were completely paralyzed, and everyone you love died, the proper response at the end of the day would be to sing with Horatio, “Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
Friends, we get in a fender-bender and we get all bent out of shape.
It’s not just the world out there that displays a lack of trust that God will in fact work all things for our good – that when Jesus said he came for the suffering, he meant it.
So, what are we going to do, not just with the problem of suffering in this world, but also with the problem of our hearts? This is where our paths do split with the rest of the world.
They run away from God (even though that doesn’t solve their problem: they run away from God because they don’t trust that he can fix suffering but all that does is leave them to suffer in this world without God and without hope that things will get better).
We run to God. We run to God not because we are so much smarter than the people out there. We run to God because he has called us, and shown us, and taught us the real cause of suffering (sins committed by people like us) and just what he has done and is doing about it.
Here again we have a trail of breadcrumbs to follow and see what God has done and is doing about suffering in this world.
Horatio, Job, Paul – they suffered an incredible amount, even the people that Jesus healed when he was on this earth would continue to suffer from different things in their lives, but do you know what else they have in common beyond the suffering? Right now, every single one of them is sitting in heaven – the heaven that God himself describes as the place where he will wipe every tear from our eyes!
God promised through Paul that he would work all things out for the good of whom? Those who have been called according to his purpose, and what is that purpose? Paul tells us.
Before this world was even created, God foreknew you. He knew your name, how many hairs would be on your head, where you would live, what you would do, all the ways you would suffer. Before this world was even created he knew that one day you would be with him in heaven, forever.
And so, from before the creation of the world, God’s purpose (in everything he has done) was to get you from point A to point B – from this world of suffering to his side in heaven.
Think about that for the rest of your life! That’s what it means when Paul says God foreknew you. That’s what it means when Paul says you were predestined. God thought of you before he did anything else, and he loved you enough to make sure you would be in heaven with him forever and ever.
And those God foreknew, those he predestined, he also called. When, in time, his thought became a reality and you were born, he guided this entire world so that you could come into contact with him – who he really is, what his love is really like. He guided all of human history so that when the water ran down your head and his name was spoken at your baptism, your heart would hear the calling and believe.
And those God foreknew, predestined, and called, he also justified. In time, he sent his Son, Jesus, to live in this world of suffering, to carry on his shoulders suffering that we can’t even imagine. He sent his Son to die so that you, a dirty sinner who has done more than your fair share to cause more suffering in this world, could be declared “not guilty,” cleansed, forgiven, set free.
And those God foreknew, those he predestined, those he called and justified, he will also glorify. You do not have to be afraid of tomorrow, you don’t have to have a problem with suffering in this world because you know that one day you will be standing in the glories of heaven – it’s a fact that no one and nothing can take away from you.
Friends, let’s do something today that we don’t usually do. Let’s re-sing the hymn we just sang. This time I want you think about everything I’ve just said, think about all the things that have gone wrong in your life, everything that is going wrong, and everything that could go wrong, and boldly sing of the peace that God has called you to have – come what may, it is well with my soul.