On the way to church this morning, I pulled over by the side of the road and outlined a different sermon than the one I wrote and practiced this week.
Here’s the text I wrote. I don’t have a copy of the actual sermon preached today, but this should live on in some way.
I want to do something in this sermon today that I don’t know how to do.
I want you to hear Paul’s word to the Roman church as a word to us as well. I want you leave here today sure of this one truth: God is for us.
Easy enough, you might say. We all get that. But, you see, there is a difference. I don’t want this word to be one more thing that gets said from a pulpit that goes into your ears and then gets lost in the jumble of other things that fill all our heads. I don’t want it to be like the seed that falls on rocky ground and quickly withers away.
I want this to be a word that we all leave this place having truly heard: God is for us.
And, I don’t know how to do that.
I don’t know how because I know my voice is just one little sound in the great noise of our lives. We are surrounded – flooded – with voices that tell us something different. They may not say Paul is wrong. They may not say that in plain terms. But they mean it.
Here’s an example.
Jalen Rose was a basketball player for the University of Michigan and in the NBA. Now he’s a TV and radio personality. He talks about sports for a living. Is there any doubt in any of our minds that sports is among the most important forces in American culture these days?
Here is what Jalen Rose says. On a radio show not too long ago I heard him talking about athletes negotiating their salaries. He said something like this: In this life, you do not get what you deserve. You get what you can negotiate.
Think about that for a moment. You do not get what you deserve. You get what you can negotiate.
He is saying that life is a struggle and a fight. We only get from life what we can force other people to give us. If we want to do well, we need to spend our energy increasing our leverage. We need to try to negotiate a better deal.
Mr. Rose went on to say that his point was not just about sports, but about life.
If I went and told this story at the Kelley School of Business where I teach, every head would be nodding right now. Yes. Absolutely, they would say. Amen.
Some of us bring this view of life to the church. Our faith becomes a negotiation with God. If we do x and y and z, then God, we think, has no choice but to do what we want in return. We can wrestle salvation, peace, and happiness out of God if we just use the right technique and get the right leverage.
One day I was talking with a group of men about salvation. The question came up in the group: If someone like Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden had a death bed conversion, if he repented truly and deeply of his sins, if he called out to God for mercy, if he put his trust and faith in Jesus Christ, would he receive forgiveness and grace? Would he go to heaven?
My first answer to such questions is always that God alone makes that decision. But then I shared the story of the thief on the cross.
That black Friday on Golgotha, two criminals were crucified on either side of Jesus. These two men were executed by the Romans because they were wicked men who had committed crimes. We don’t know what crimes, but they themselves admit they deserve their punishment. One of the men turns to Jesus and insults him and reviles him just as the crowds did. But the other one turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And what does Jesus say to him?
“This day you will be with me …” Where?
I told this story and one of the men in the group spoke up. He said, “If that is true, why do I come to church every Sunday?”
It is one of the saddest questions I’ve ever heard.
This honest, hard-working man had been going to church all his life. He’d been trying to obey God’s commands.
He’d given generously to the church and to those in need.
He’d done all of this for his whole life because he was trying to earn his way into heaven. He’d been trying to score enough points with God to ensure he got on the up elevator when his time came.
All those years and he’d never heard the simple message of Paul to the Roman church: God is for us.
A couple weeks ago, Lisa and I took Luc to get his final set of booster shots. He had to get four injections, two on each arm. He was very brave, but a little kid can only be asked to do so much. When the time came, I sat in the chair and put him in my lap. I wrapped my arms around him in a bear hug from behind and pinned his arms to his side. Lisa held his feet down. And the nurse plunged the needles in his arms as fast as she could.
I remember Luc’s screaming and crying. I remember feeling his body thrash as he tried to get free.
We make him do this to keep him healthy and safe, but if there was any way I could take those shots for him, I would. If I could take the pain on myself rather than force him to experience it, I would. But I love him. I want him to be healthy. So, I do this to him.
Parents, you understand this. Husbands and wives, you understand this.
Can you imagine what God the Father must have gone through? The words from Paul are so plain as to numb us to the significance of it all. In the NRSV translation it reads: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us.”
I want you to ask yourself this. Parents would you give up your own life to save your son or daughter? Husbands and wives, would you give up your life to save your spouse?
Okay. Now this one: Would you hand over the one your love – your son, your daughter, your husband, your wife – to be tortured and executed in pain and humiliation to save people that never met him and frankly don’t deserve him?
How much does God love us? How much is God for us? He loves us so much that he gave his only Son that we might live. Not live just in heaven, but live today. He gave his Son so that the power of sin and death might be broken in our lives, today!
God is for us.
But here I am back to my problem again. I can say this over and over and over, but I cannot make it have any power of meaning for you. In the end, the great joke on preachers like me is that. Only God can give you ears to truly hear this. Only God can make these words penetrate to your heart.
We United Methodists look back to a man named John Wesley as our spiritual father in faith. He was a priest in the Church of England who spent his early years in ministry trying hard to earn his way into God’s love. Wesley prayed every day. He read his Bible religiously. He visited men in prison. He gave to the hungry and the poor. He met every week with other young men where they would confess their sins to each other and support each other as they tried to walk as Christ walked.
He was one of the hardest working Christians in all of England. And his heart was cold and empty. He would later say of his youth that he had not even the faith of a stone in those days. He was working, working, working to earn God’s love and be worthy of God’s salvation. And the more he worked, the less comfort and joy he felt.
He could recite all the right Scripture. He knew in his head the answer to all the important questions. He could read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. But like so many of us, the words of Paul were just words to him.
“God is for us,” the preacher would say to the young John Wesley. He would nod. Get back to work. And fret about the sad state of his spiritual life.
Then one night he went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. There the young men gathered were reading Martin Luther’s notes on the Epistle to the Romans. And as he listened, the most amazing thing happened to young John Wesley.
He wrote in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
On that night, John Wesley by the grace of God learned the most basic truth of all Christianity. God is for us.
Wesley went forward from that day on fire to spread the message of God’s love to all who would hear. He preached in fields and in the open-air markets. He went to the people and places that the church of his day would not go. He said that God wants all people to be saved, and he spent his life riding his horse from village to town across Great Britain trying to reach every man, woman, and child he could with the story of God’s love for us.
He opened schools. He opened homes for widows. He spoke out against slavery. He and his brother Charles published hymn books and materials for the people called Methodists to help them live into their faith.
In many ways, the ministry of John and Charles Wesley was a response to Paul’s question: Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
With Paul, the Wesleys said no one could separate us. Hardship, death, governments, and illness, none of it could stop God from loving us and being for us. Not even our own sin, the darkness in our own lives, whether it is out in public for all to see or hidden away in our deepest secret places, not even this can keep us from the love of God.
The only thing that can, they said, is us.
God reaches out to us with love and forgiveness and life, if we will only receive it. If we will only let go of all these other things that we cling to and grab hold of God. If only we will trust Christ as the one who loved us first, God will free us from every chain that binds us.
This is what the Wesleys preached. It is what Paul preached to the Roman church. It is the same word for us today.
In his 87th year, in 1791, John Wesley died. His last words were reported to be: “The best of all is, God is with us.” I hope the Rev. Wesley would not frown too much if I refashioned his closing words.
The best of all, my brothers and sisters, is God is for us.
Let us pray …