Romans 8:31-39, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 30, 2017
In the verses we read from Romans, Paul is reaching the climax of an argument that runs through the first eight chapters. He has been saying that everyone deserves God’s punishment, but God has chosen to forgive. This chapter begins, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”—and by “in” he means those who have united themselves with the Messiah by faith in God’s promise of forgiveness and salvation, and thereby become part of Messiah’s body on earth. ‘No condemnation” is the good news Paul was given to announce.
Now in verse 31 Paul begins his closing with this clear statement: “God is for us.” If you could get that truth planted down deep in your consciousness, it would change your life. God is not a judge who wants to punish us. He is not happy to throw us into hell for breaking his rules. God is on our side against all the forces of evil and chaos, and wants to restore us even though those forces have damaged us. God is for us even though God knows perfectly well we are sinners. He did not come into the world in the person of Jesus to condemn the world but to save it.
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Well, of course, there are plenty of things and people who can be against us, but Paul’s point is that they can’t win; they can’t defeat us and God as a team. Do you remember the movie The Bear, which had almost no talking? It was about animals in the wild. There is a scene with a little grizzly cub being attacked by a mountain lion. You think the cub is done for as the mountain lion moves in for the kill. Suddenly, the cubbie rears up on his back legs and lets out a little baby growl, as if confident he could scare off the big cat. Incredibly, the mountain lion shrinks back. But then the camera pulls back to show us a wider view, and we see that behind the cub is standing a massive grizzly bear, reared on its hind legs. We are like that cub, with Mama Bear standing behind us. “If Mama God is for me, who can be against me?” If God is for us, what force could possibly destroy us?
Here is how we know God is for us: God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us. If God did the hardest thing, giving up his Son as a sacrifice, giving in essence himself to death by human hands, won’t God do the far easier thing of giving us life and his protection? God has already chosen to justify us—to make us right in his sight and reconcile us to himself—so why are we afraid that he is going to judge us and cut off our relationship to him?
Paul asks, “Who is going to accuse you?” Who do you imagine is the prosecutor? It’s not God. He’s the one who has already declared you innocent. “Who is going to condemn you?” Not Jesus, the one who is in fact the judge who will set the world right. Jesus died for us and was raised, and now he is at the right hand of God the Father--not whispering dirty secrets about us, but interceding for us, for those he loves.
As the psalms repeat, “His love is everlasting.” If Jesus has chosen to love us and to bring us back to God, to give us new life and share his eternal and transforming life with us, he’s not changing his mind now. He has already decided. He didn’t wait for you to make up your mind about him. While you were still a sinner, he made up his mind and gave himself for you. Isaiah 54:10 says, “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken.”
Do you know the popular song inspired by those words? George Gershwin died at the age of 38, leaving behind the music for one song. His brother Ira took that tune and wrote lyrics for the brother he loved:
It’s very clear/our love is here to stay.
Not for a year/but ever and a day.
The radio and the telephone/and the movies that we know
May be passing fancies/ and in time may go.
But, oh my dear/ our love is here to stay….
In time the Rockies may crumble/Gibraltar may tumble,
They’re only made of clay/but our love is here to stay.
That is the song the Messiah sings to us. Nothing can shake his love for us.
Is there anyone or anything who can separate us from the love of Christ? Paul makes a list of possibilities, things he’d been through. Can trouble do it? Hardship? Persecution? Having no food? Being stripped naked? Being in danger? No. Not even facing death by the sword—which Paul knew he might face from the Jewish authorities when he returned to Jerusalem with the offering from the Gentile churches, or he might face from the Roman authorities when he made his journey to Rome. The truth, he says, is that I am facing death all day long like a sheep awaiting slaughter. But can that separate me from the love of Christ? No! In all those circumstances, against all those forces, we are super-conquerors, superheroes, because of Christ who has loved us.
Whatever you’re facing that might make you think that God doesn’t love you any more—being sick, grieving loved ones, losing a job or money, being hurt by enemies—none of those things mean that God doesn’t love you. And none of those things can put a wedge between you and God. None of those things are judgments on you; they are opportunities to trust in God’s unfailing love.
I can’t give you anything stronger to hold onto than this promise: “Nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Nothing! Not death, the thing we most fear will cut us off from God. Not this life, either, no matter how hard it is. There are no supernatural beings with the power to pull us away from God’s love—not angels and not demons, not the devil himself. There is nothing happening in the present and nothing that can ever happen in the future that can alienate us from God’s love. You can go from the highest point in the universe to the deepest point, searching the heavens and the underworld, and you will never find anything more powerful than the love we have encountered in Christ that could pull you away from him. You and Jesus are inseparable.
One of the all-time most famous sermons was given by the Scottish preacher A. J. Gossip in 1927, after the sudden death of his wife. The title was “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” The gist of it was that he had never really had to deal with that kind of tragedy, and on some level he wondered if God would be enough when the big waves hit. What he discovered in the loss of his wife was that we do not have to be afraid of death or of being cut off from God. I love the closing in which Gossip quotes from The Pilgrim’s Progress:
I don’t think you need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail; and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God. And as Paul puts it, what can separate us from his love? Not death, he says immediately, pushing that aside at once as the most obvious of all impossibilities.
No, not death. For, standing in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill, and very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I too, like Hopeful, can call back to you who one day in your turn will have to cross it. “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound” [Reprinted in Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, ed. Fant and Pinson, Word, 1971, Vol. 8, p. 238-9].
I want to tell you a story about my mom I told you once before on a Mother’s Day, not because I want to make my daughter cry but because it still fills me with hope.
Several years ago, I drove to Nashville to see my mother in the hospital. They had found tumors on both kidneys. One was large and causing her to lose a lot of blood. They would have to remove the kidney. My mother was 83 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for a few years. But something strange happened: she regained her ability to read and write, and to follow stories. She started to make sense again. I don’t know how to explain it. We thought maybe God was giving us this little window of clarity just before the end.
The day before the surgery, I was alone with my mother in the hospital room. She coughed and woke up, and called me over. “I just want to say, ‘To God be the glory.’ Even if things don’t turn out the way we all hope, it will be all right. All will be well. I’ll be with the Lord, and it won’t be too long before Ernest and I will be together again. I don’t want you to be sad. To God be the glory.” A little later a doctor came in to check on her. The doctor asked, “How are you feeling?” My mother answered, “I feel fine. I’m not afraid. God gave his only Son so that we wouldn’t have to be afraid.”
That night my older brother Bill was with me, and Mom decided to give us a sermon. It went on for almost ten minutes, but the gist of it was this: “When I was back in the nursing home I was getting discouraged. I told God I needed something to hold onto. I asked him, ‘Please give me a scripture to help me hold on. I’m getting pretty low here. Give me something.’ I opened my Bible, and you know what I saw? ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not on thine own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5-6 NKJV). See, we’re not supposed to understand it! We’re supposed to trust him. ‘In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.’ That’s what I want to say to my children now: Trust in the Lord with all your heart. I’m so glad my children all know God. We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but if I go to be with the Lord I won’t be sad. I just don’t want my children to grieve. Everything comes from God’s hand, and whatever he gives is good. He’s been so good to me. He’s always been good to me. He has kept all his promises. He’s given Ernest and me more than sixty years together. I can trust that whatever he does next is going to be good.”
Mind you, this was a woman who had lived with migraines and depression for decades, who had to give up her missionary calling and start her life over with nothing in her forties, who was placed in a mental hospital for shock treatments, who had a half-dozen miscarriages, who had countless surgeries for ulcers and all manner of problems, and had been living with Alzheimer’s for years– and was about to have a kidney removed. But she said, “God has always been good to me.” It made me think of the words of Joshua just before he died: (Joshua 23:14 NIV) “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed."
I had a well-advertised birthday on Friday and turned the corner into senior citizenship. I’m going to retire in a year. You think at a time like that, “What’s next? Is the Lord going to be there for the next chapter? Is something going to happen that breaks our relationship?” The answer, I need to remind myself, is that there is nothing around the corner that is a threat to God, and there is no circumstance that can make Jesus love me less. We are, as we have been since the day I trusted him, inseparable.
I came across a text I wrote in 2005 based on this week’s text and Psalm 139 from last week. I thought about having you sing it, but I decided just to read it to you.
Can I escape your faithful love?
Your mercy still pursues.
You find me when I soar above
Or down inside my blues.
Your awesome love fills up the sky.
Forgiveness is my air.
I know that I can never fly
Beyond your love and care.
If I should make my bed in hell
Or lie down in the dark,
You’ll show up in my prison cell
Within my question mark.
You’re present in my anxious dreams.
You meet me in my tears.
Your hand will guide me when it seems
All I have left are fears.
What separates me from your love?
What makes us come unglued?
Can enemies who push and shove?
Can my own darkened mood?
No, nothing can keep us apart,
Not death, nor things above.
Not evil, nor my broken heart,
Can keep me from your love.