Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 31-39 More than conquerors

A few weeks ago, I managed to tick something off my bucket list - to ride the train from Coleraine to Londonderry, and enjoy the spectacular views along what Michael Palin has described as one of the best train journeys in the world. That’s a fairly leisurely one, compared to another target - to climb to the top of Cuilcagh, and stand on the highest point of Fermanagh (and Cavan!). To get up there, even with the new walkway, will take effort, but it will all be worth it, to see the view from the top.

Now to get to the top of Fermanagh would be one thing, but how much better to get to the top of Everest? Well, in a sense, that’s what we’ve been doing these past weeks as we’ve journeyed through Romans 8. A number of commentators remark that Romans 8 is the Mount Everest of the Bible, the high point of the truth of Christianity. Well now we reach the summit, the pinnacle of what it means to be a Christian.

So far we’ve seen that to be a Christian means no condemnation - we already know the end result, the verdict has already been passed. To be a Christian means living as a child of God, as the Spirit confirms who we are as he dwells in our hearts. To be a Christian means living with hope-filled hearts, as we long with creation for our renewal and redemption. To be a Christian means living by the Spirit’s help in our prayers, and taking refuge in the truth that God is working in all things to fulfil his good purposes for us - to make us like his Son.

It’s as if we’re going up and up, the summit of the mountain rising before us. It’s like an orchestra coming to the climax, the music getting louder and louder. And Paul in verse 31 brings us to today’s passage as he writes: ‘What then shall we say to these things?’ How do we respond to all we’ve heard? How do we summarise it all?

Here’s how Paul does it. You might have heard of the kids’ science centre in Belfast, W5. It’s dedicated to getting kids asking the 5 W questions - who, what, where, why and when. Well here, Paul asks 4 W questions - all starting with the same W. They’re there in verses 31, 33, 34 and 35. He asks over and over - ‘who’. And each time, the answer is the same. The answer is ‘no one’. But it’s as if Paul is playing the ‘yes no’ game - you know the one, we play it sometimes at youth fellowship, where you’re not allowed to say yes or no, and if you do then you’re out of the game. Well each time, rather than simply saying ‘no one’, Paul gives us a fuller answer, directing us to who God is, and what he has done for us.

So let’s dive into the passage, or lace up our walking boots and climb higher and higher as we stand on the solid rock of Christ, this Mount Everest of his love for us. Verse 31 is where we find the first question:

‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ That ‘if’ isn’t there to make us wonder if God is for us or not. This isn’t something that is in doubt for the Christian, for the one who trusts God. Rather, it’s asking, if this is indeed the case, if God really is for us (and he is!), then who can be against us? Who can oppose us?

And perhaps at times you might be able to supply a list of people who might be against you. You may even find that most people are against you! But Paul says, why would that matter, if God is for you? In the early church, a bishop by the name of Athanasius defended the orthodox teaching of the Trinity, while a number of church leaders embraced the Arian heresy (which taught that Jesus wasn’t fully divine). Some came to him and said, look, Athanasius, the whole world is against you, to which he replied, ‘Then Athanasius is against the world’ (Athanasius contra mundum). He knew that God was for him, so he could stand against all who opposed him.

And Paul gives us the evidence for God being for us - ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ God the Father gave up his beloved Son, he did not spare him, as a sign of his love and attitude towards us. He will surely give us all things. So who can be against us? No one, because God is for us.

Question two: Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? And again, you might think, plenty of people, who know all sorts of things about us. But once again, our eyes are drawn to God, to what he has done and is doing for us. ‘It is God who justifies.’ That is, it’s God who declares that we are in the right with him. We have been declared ‘not guilty’ by the judge, the charges won’t stick. So who shall bring any charge against us? No one, because God has justified us.

Question three: Who is to condemn? And you might have a list of possible candidates, people who pass judgement on you or what you have done; perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s stinging words. But do you see how Paul answers this one? Again he draws our eyes to what God has done for us. ‘Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.’

We’ve already seen that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and here’s why. Jesus is the one who could condemn us. He lived the perfect life; he obeyed where we all failed; he set the standard, and so could condemn us.

But as John 3:17 puts it: ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Jesus has died for us, been raised for us, is at the right hand of God for us, and is praying for us. By his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continuing ministry for us, we are under no condemnation. No one else’s opinion really matters! So who is to condemn? No one, because Christ died and lives for us.

Three questions down, one to go, and this is the big one, the last step to the summit. This is where we might stumble, might struggle to see it, and yet this is the pinnacle, the very top of all the truth, the secret of the Christian life. Here’s the question: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’

And straightaway, Paul gives us a list of possible contenders. ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ And these might be the things that would make you question whether God loved you. Or perhaps you can come up with another situation, where it might seem like God had ceased to love you, that you had been cut adrift from God’s love.

That’s why Paul quotes from Psalm 44 here - ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ In context, the Israelites weren’t suffering because they had turned away from God - they might have seen some sense of justice in that. No, they were suffering, being slaughtered, because they loved God. ‘For your sake’.

But isn’t that the point? The very things that might seem to point to the absence of God and his love, are actually the things that prove God’s love. The times when God might seem to be furthest away are actually the times when God’s love is the nearest and most precious. It’s what makes us more than conquerors - winning when it looks like we’re losing. Knowing his love more when it would appear that he is absent from us.

So who can separate us from the love of Christ? Paul gives us a list - a list of things that he is sure cannot do it. ‘For I am sure [convinced, absolutely certain] that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.’

Think through that list. Take time to read it over carefully later on after you get your dinner (and resist the urge to have a snooze). Think - is there anything at all that could separate me from Christ’s love? Not death nor life - so whether I’m living or dead, Christ loves me. Angels can’t affect his love for me, neither can rulers - the people in charge of the country, the Queen, the Prime Minister, even Donald Trump. Anything happening now, or anything happening in the future (and your past is already dealt with). Not the powers - spiritual powers, demons. Neither height nor depth - things high or low, whether we’re up or down. Now even if you think of something outside those categories, the last one will cover it: ‘nor anything else in all creation.’ Nothing at all. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.

Four ‘Who’ questions. Each one answered ‘no one’ - because of all that God has done. And these four truths, this Everest is yours today, ‘if God is for us’. Perhaps you’ve been discouraged, facing opposition, or charges, or condemnation, or wondering if you’re beyond God’s love. Climb onto the rock of Christ, take in the view, and stand firm on God’s love. Find encouragement as we meet around the Lord’s table, as we recall his love for us.

Maybe you find yourself on the outside looking in. It’s like walking past a house and smelling a delicious meal being cooked, and you wish you were inside enjoying it. You wish you had all these blessings, and knew the love of God for yourself. Well, just step inside. Receive these promises as you turn to Christ, and realise what he has done for you, and trust in him, and revel in his love. Come today.

Who can be against us? Who shall bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No one. We are more then conquerors, because he has loved us. He loves us. He will always love us.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th December 2016.

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