Scripture: Romans 5:1-8
So it’s been a while. The last time I was able to stand up here before everyone was March 15th. It has been three months, but it feels like so much longer doesn’t it? Heck, March alone felt like it took three months to pass. As we think back over everything that has happened, the fact that we can easily forget that all of Australia was on fire in January really communicates how this year has gone. I cannot speak for you, but it seems somewhere along that time my outlook shifted from “when will this be over?” to “what’s next?” It really has been a weird year.
During these past few months one of the things my wife did to pass the time is she went back and started watching episodes of the sitcom Friends. Hearing the theme song for that show while stuck at home during a global pandemic really resonated. In the middle of April when the days were all kind of running together, I really felt this line: “It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear. When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.”
Those of you familiar with the show or line, know that despite having such downer lyrics it is actually an upbeat and positive song. That is because despite all of the bad days the chorus of the songs proclaims, “I’ll be there for you. (When the rain starts to pour)/ I’ll be there for you (Like I’ve been there before)/ I’ll be there for you.” As I read this morning’s scripture, I could not help but think of the theme song for Friends because I feel like it is a fairly accurate summary of this morning’s scripture. One of the truth’s this morning’s scripture communicates is that when it has been our week, our month, or when our year has been 2020, Jesus is still there for us.
Romans is written by the apostle Paul, and it is perhaps the closest thing the Bible has to a systematic theology. It is clear that Paul benefited from a classic education in the Greek schools of logic and philosophy because that is the approach that Paul takes in Romans to systematically build his case for grace. You might notice this morning’s scripture starts with “Therefore” and that is common throughout Romans. Paul makes a point then states “therefore” to show the application of the point and in doing so, he makes another point so that the cycle repeats. In chapter four Paul makes the argument that it is through faith, not through any action that we take, that reconnects with God. In this morning’s scripture Paul states that because we are justified (or reconnected to God) through faith, our outlook on life can and should be different. He then goes onto state the reason why we are justified through faith is because of Jesus Christ.
The way that Paul makes the argument that our outlook on life should be different can raise a couple eyebrows in verse three where he wrote, “we also rejoice in our sufferings.” I do not know about you but rejoice and suffering in my mind are more like antonyms and not two things that really go together. I think if we are not careful here, it can be fairly easy to misinterpret this scripture. After all, Paul states the benefits that comes from our suffering: suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character hope. We can walk away with the idea that suffering is good because the ultimate outcome is that it builds character. That viewpoint is problematic, and we can easily prove that to ourselves with a little thought experiment. Imagine saying to someone who just lost a loved one that really they should be rejoicing because this experience will help them learn perseverance and build character. You would not want someone to say that to you, and hopefully you would never say something so awful to someone else.
I do not think this scripture is advocating that we should view suffering as a desirable thing because the ends justify the means. If you look back at verse 3 this scripture does not say we rejoice because of our sufferings. It says we rejoice in our sufferings, the message being communicated is that we rejoice in spite of our sufferings. The message this scripture communicates is no matter what we go through we can still rejoice. This scripture is stating that we can endure what we are going through, that we can hold on to the belief that we will emerge stronger, and when the darkness finally breaks our hope will not have failed. This morning’s scripture makes this bold claim, because you see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. And that changes everything.
The problem of pain and suffering is a sticky issue in our faith. We can take stock of this year and say that 2020 has already had its fair share of suffering. In the midst of all that has happened and is going on, you do not need to look far to find hurt and cynical people who will sarcastically ask, “Why doesn’t God do anything about all of this suffering?” That is an honest and fair question. My response is that we are looking at the problem of suffering on the wrong scale. My response would be that God has done something about human suffering. In fact, God already did everything. God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God fully dealt with the problem of pain and suffering through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There will still be earthly suffering, there will still be pain in life, and there will still be loss in the world. However when compared to the vastness of eternity anything we endure now is momentary in comparison. Pain and suffering are the reality of our fallen world, but we can claim that there is a greater reality awaiting us as described in Revelation 21: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. ”
In our darkest days this perspective is essential for holding onto hope. The perspective that amazing grace has already solved our soul’s greatest problem can enable us to keep on keeping on through the twists, turns, surprises, and mistakes of life. Not only can we keep on keeping on, but we can even rejoice in the midst of our suffering because we hold the truth in our hearts that Christ died for us which proves God’s love and God’s love will never fail and never run out on us.
When we consider it what it means to rejoice while suffering, I am reminded of the story of Nijole Sadunaite. She is a nun from Lithuania. During the height of Soviet communism in Eastern bloc countries there were effort to completely stomp out religious practices, as they were seen against a Soviet commitment to science. Nijole helped run and publish an underground Catholic periodical that disseminated banned Catholic literature and reported Soviet human right abuses. As part of a crackdown she was arrested and sentenced to three years in the infamous and horrific soviet gulags. Yet she continued to rejoice. On the day she was sentenced she declared “This is the happiest day of my life. I was judged today for the cause of truth and love towards men. What cause could be more important? I have an enviable fate, a glorious destiny. My condemnation will be my triumph.” She spent three years imprisoned and she endured a variety of abuses including physical torture. However, her joy did not diminish at all. Her general attitude was really summed up in the title of her memoir where she reflected on her experience. She entitled this book Radiant in the Gulag.
Nijole Sadunaite was able to be happy in imprisoned, rejoice through torture, and radiant in the gulag because God’s love had been poured into her hearts through the Holy Spirit. She knew God had demonstrated God’s love, through Christ and no soviet Gulag was going to be able to take that away from her. Thankfully none of us are bound for hard labor in a Cold War era prison, but we can learn from Njole’s example. Whatever it is we are facing in life we can rejoice because nothing can take our hope in Christ away. Even if it is has not been our week, our month, or even our year we can keep on keeping on because we can have an assurance that Jesus will be there for us.
Life can be tough, and life can feel like a grind. However, God has proven God’s love and in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven. That truth should absolutely change our outlook and approach in life. There is a song from a couple of years ago that I think really does a great job at naming just how the truth of Jesus can change our outlook on life. The song is by Zach Williams and is called Old Church Choir. In the chorus he sings, “I got an Old Church Choir singing in my soul/ I got a sweet salvation and it’s beautiful/ I’ve got a heart overflowing ’cause I’ve been restored/ There ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy/ No, there ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy.”
I have spent my entire life in the United Methodist Church, so I know what an old church choir looks like and I know what it sounds like. I have witnessed when the church choir is really into a song. There is a joy there, which you cannot put into words but that you can feel with your very soul. Those of you who have been part of a choir or have been around church long enough know what I am talking about, and so I love the image of an old church choir representing the joy of knowing Christ. The joy that comes from being swept up in a song is a good way to capture the feeling of being swept up in amazing grace. I appreciate that in the song Zach Williams names the reason why we can have that joy down in our hearts. It is because we’ve got a sweet salvation and it’s beautiful. We have an overflowing heart that has been restored. The reason why we have these things is because you see, at just the right time while we were still powerless Christ died for the ungodly. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Friends, I can’t speak for you but I know that because of God proved God love through Jesus Christ, there ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy. No, there ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy,”
It’s been a crazy year already. At the rate this year is going, I honestly would not be surprised if aliens invaded tomorrow. No matter what happens, no matter what we endure may we be able to rejoice in our suffering, because we have a hope that comes from God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. May we keep on keeping on and may nothing, absolutely nothing be able to steal our joy.