Scripture: Romans 5:1-11
In 1989 musician Billy Joel was at a turning point in his career. The successes of songs like Piano Man were well behind him. In 1989 he turned 40, which in Rock and Roll years is well over the hill. He was in the studio working on recording Storm Front, which would be his first album in over three years. While there one day he struck up a conversation with a much younger recording artist. This person had just turned 21 and they were complaining about coming of age in the 1980s. He saw his current times as one of upheaval and uncertainty and he lamented about how much easier young people had it thirty years ago. Billy Joel was a fan of history as well as having more life experience, did not agree with this assessment. This conversation led him to write the lyrics for what would become the biggest hit off his Storm Front album. In “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Billy Joel goes through 117 events or people between 1949 and 1989 to illustrate a simple fact. It does not matter what era one comes of age in, “We didn’t start the fire, It’s been burning since the world’s been turning.”
The idea that world is getting worse is not hard to find. For my entire life this is a consistent message I have heard. When I was young I would often hear my grandparents complain how things are not like they used to be. Growing up in the church, I would commonly hear people older than me complain about how things are not like they used to be, everything is more dangerous, no one is trustworthy anymore, kids are more out of control, the list goes on and on. Everything is getting worse is a message that I have consistently heard for just shy for forty years now. I have heard that viewpoint expressed as recently as last week, but it cannot possibly be true. If the world had been consistently getting worse for the past four decades then by this point we should have all taken the fury road out beyond the Thunderdome into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The fact we are not there shows that the constant doom saying of everything getting worse might be slightly over exaggerated.
However, I have to acknowledge that right now we are in one of those seasons where it kind of does feel like everything is getting worse: Opioid addiction is on the rise. People are becoming more polarized. Wildfires ravage entire countries while hurricanes drown whole islands. We are staring straight into the face of a global, pandemic outbreak and despite all our technology the news is all fake. We didn’t start the fire, it’s been burning since the world’s been turning.”
There are honestly are a lot of reasons to feel uncertain, anxious, even a little afraid. That is just mentioning the big picture stuff. That says nothing about the individual battles we are all fighting. It says nothing about the pain of loss, the uncertainty of the future, the strained relationships, and chronic health issues that so many of us face and can cause us to feel that each new day may not be a good one. In times like this, in days like today, we might feel like resigning ourselves to truly believing that everything is, in fact, getting worse. I fully acknowledge that for several of you, if you are being honest and keeping it real, that is where you are at. I get that, but that is also why I am so thankful for this morning’s scripture. In times and days where we feel like everything is getting worse, this morning’s scripture is exactly the message we need to hear.
The fire has been burning since the world’s been turning and we can clearly see that in scripture. Troubles and problems are not just an invention of the modern era. Paul likely wrote the book of Romans in the 50s, roughly a decade before he would be killed. This was during a time that history remembers as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. It is seen as the most stable and prosperous time of the Roman Empire. Yet, even then the fire was burning. Just a couple of years before Paul wrote his letter to Rome, Nero ascended to the position of Roman emperor, and he already had begun to create stress and friction. In Jerusalem, political anger at Rome rule continued to brew and even led to political assassinations. The Pax Romana was not as peaceful as the name suggest.
This does not even begin to touch on the suffering that Paul had endured. Before Paul wrote Romans he had written both of his letters to the Corinthians, and in 2 Corinthians he touches on the suffering he personally experienced. In 2 Corinthians chapter eleven he writes, “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was pelted with stones. Three times I was shipwrecked. I spent night and day in the open sea, I have been constantly one the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger, in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
Paul knew what it was like to suffer. I don’t know about you but I do not want to experience the fear of being shipwrecked one, much less three times. I also would rather go through life avoiding being pelted with stones, beaten with rods, or receive 39 lashes. It is fair to say Paul had more personal experience with suffering, with fear, with anxious situations, and with uncertainty than I have, than likely most of us have. Keeping Paul’s background in mind, it makes this morning’s scripture all the more extraordinary when Paul wrote “we glory in our suffering.”
Now again, I cannot speak for you, but rejoicing and suffering seem to practically be antonyms. Like most of us, I tend to try to structure my life in a way to really minimize the amount of suffering present, so given that suffering is not a reason to rejoice. It is because of our experience of suffering that we feel like things are getting worse all the time. Often we go out of our ways to find reasons to find joy in something as a distraction from the suffering around us. Yet Paul instructs us to rejoice in our suffering.
He goes on to explain why we should, “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character”. Now this sounds a bit like a cultural message that we often hear in the face of suffering the idea of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” That is a great for message for some people, but it quite simply is not the reality for everyone. We survive what does not kill us, but we are not always stronger for it. There are times when we are left feeling weaker and oh so tired. There are times when we do not have the leverage to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. There are times when our own strength is not enough. Because life is messy and those times exist, I am so thankful that Paul did not stop at suffering produces perseverance which produces character. He went that character leads to hope and hope does not disappoint. Hope does not disappoint because of what our hope is in. Hope does not disappoint because as Paul wrote in verse 5, “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Our hope is found in God’s love, and that hope should be greater than all of our suffering. Paul writes about why we can have our hope in God’s love. You see, at just the right time when we were still powerless, Christ died for the unglodly.. .While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We can rejoice in our suffering because if God’s love for us was so great that Jesus hung on the cross for our sakes, then we can know that God will always be there. We can rejoice in our suffering, because the pain and heartache we suffer in times of darkness cannot dampen the joy of knowing Christ. We can rejoice in our suffering because while we may be weak, he is strong. Our strength may fail, but in the times of our deepest suffering we are upheld by the strength of this mighty hand. So even though we are in a time where it feels like things are getting worse, even though this is a time where it feels like the world is on fire, all of that does not hold a candle to the flame of the Holy Spirit within us. No matter what we are going through, no matter how deep the loss is in your heart, no matter how scary the nights of uncertainty are, no matter how long and bumpy the road still is . . .you see at just the right time, God is there for each of us. God has proven God’s love on the cross and we can claim an assurance that God’s love will never run out. It may feel like our world is on fire, but friends God is holding the hose and it is full of living water.
In the 19th century, the world was literally on fire or in the very least Chicago was. The Great Chicago fire of 1871 was a major setback for a number of people. This was true for Chicago based lawyer Horatio Spafford. A lot of his wealth was tied up in real estate investment, so when the city went up in flames so did much of his fortune. The fire hit at an especially hard time for him, because that year he was still grieving the unexpected loss of his young son to Scarlet Fever. These back to back tragedies were having a negative impact on his family, so he and his wife decided that they would take an “extended holiday” to England. Spafford, his wife and four daughters were in New York to board a boat, but a couple of days before departure Spafford found out that all of his financial affairs were not in order. He told his family to go ahead while he finished all of his business up. While his family was at sea, there was a terrible storm and the boat sunk. His wife was rescued and made it safely to England, she sent back a telegraph that read “Only I remain.” Spafford’s four daughters had all drowned at sea. Bereft he boarded a boat to join his wife. While at sea the captain made it a point to come and quietly tell Spafford that they were sailing over the area where his children had died. At that moment Horatio Spafford knew a depth of suffering beyond what most of us could not comprehend in our worst nightmares. But Spafford also knew Jesus. So as he floated across the watery grave of his children he wrote these words “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 with my soul. It is well, It is well with my soul.”
Spafford could write It is well with my soul, because his hope was in something far greater than the money, power, or comfort of this world. His hope was in Jesus Christ and the suffering he experienced did not change the assurance that he had peace with God through Jesus Christ and he continued to have the hope that God’s love had been poured out.
How is it with your soul? Perhaps the better question to ask is where is your hope found? Because hope is what propels us onward, hope is what tells us that come what may, we will find the way. Every single person put their hope in something, but I submit to you that only those who’s hope is in Jesus Christ can be able to rejoice no matter what, even in times of suffering. Because you see, at just the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Christ died for you. Christ died for me. Because of that no matter what happen in life, it is well. It is well with my soul.