Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re certainly living in an interesting time in human history. I know I'm already sick of hearing the term “coronavirus,” and I'm sure you are as well. But even aside from the virus itself we have to deal with the panic that is associated with it too. So much so, that I hesitated to use the word “sick” in saying that we were “sick” of hearing about this “sickness.” It's very easy for us to take a look at our world and to lose hope, to give up, to let go. But God is good. It was back before Christmas that I decided I'd be preaching on today's lectionary reading from Romans 5, which is incredibly pertinent to our situation. They are words of peace and of hope, of suffering and endurance, words that are incredibly important for us at this time. And even the hymn that we just sang—Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me—is fitting for today. In this hymn, we ask God to be who He says He is, our Rock, our Fortress, our God who is mighty to save. Again, I picked out this hymn about a month and a half ago, before any of this present crisis was upon us. God is good, all because of Jesus.
At least that's what Paul says in today's text. “We have been justified by faith and have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” Paul's Foundation and our Foundation are one and the same: our Lord Jesus Christ. The center of Paul's whole theology is Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you. Paul told the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It's all about Jesus. He has done the work of salvation. He is the one who has brought you into the faith. He's the one that offers you the gift of faith and forgiveness. In Jesus, we have peace with God because of all that Christ has done for you and me. We have nothing to fear from our God.
I can't tell you the number of articles I've read this week that ask the question, “is God mad with humanity?” They’re afraid that God is punishing mankind with this disease because we’re sinful, or not worshiping Him correctly, or whatever fits their story. But that’s just not how God works. If you and I received the punishment that we deserved for our sins, we would have been killed a long time ago. Because of Jesus, you and I have peace with God. We don't get what we deserve for our sins because Christ has already paid that price. It's all about Jesus. In Christ, you do have peace. In Christ, you've been given this gift of God's grace that covers all of your sin. In Christ, your sins are forgiven. So we pray:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in Thee,
Let the water and the blood,
from Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure:
cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r. Amen.
That double cure is a gift. Freedom from sin’s guilt and freedom from sin’s power only come by the grace of God. We often use the word “grace,” but we don't often think about what it means. Grace is receiving what we don't deserve. To receive God’s grace means that we don’t deserve what He’s offering us, but He gives it anyway because of His great love for you. When you think of grace, think of God's one-sided action. It’s all Him. It’s because He decided that He was going to give you a gift. So He gave you a gift. Well, lots of gifts actually, but today Paul focuses on the gift of forgiveness and the gift of faith, which clings to the gift of grace.
Even faith is not your own work. Faith is not something that you can muster up of your own accord. It is a gift of God. Quite frankly, you have nothing to offer God. A lot of our more modern praise songs love to sing about giving God “your heart,” as if that's something worth giving. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Do you think that's something worth giving God. He doesn't need your heart. He doesn't need you. But although He doesn't need you, He wants you, and He is at work doing everything, so that you might be His forever. We have been justified by faith, something outside of ourselves, leading us to peace with God through Jesus Christ. Through Him, we've also obtained access by faith into grace in which we stand. It's all God's work.
Now if through that discussion you might still think that maybe you've earned God's pleasure or some other way, we'll jump ahead to verses six and eight. “While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We don't have to have it all worked out. We don't have to have the right answers. Our lives don't need to be perfect before we receive Jesus. Instead, while you are still sick and full of sin, Jesus has died for you. He didn't wait until you had your act together. No, at the right time He gave His life for you freely, and willingly.
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill the Law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone.
Thou must save and Thou alone.
Paul continues: this whole situation this gift of God—of faith and of grace—should lead us to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We hope in the glory of God because we know it is yet to come. We know that we will be with Him and like Him as he is. It’s a process that starts in this world, and is perfected in the next. We have this promise both now and not yet. In general, you and I are becoming more like Christ or at least that's the plan. And yet we know we will never be perfect, until Christ makes us perfect until he finally does away with our sinful flesh and gives us a clean heart, a renewed body and mind, flesh free from sin. That resurrection is yet to come and nothing can tear us away from God’s promises.
That doesn't always mean that this world is easy, but Paul goes on to say that we rejoice, not only in the glory yet to be, but in our present situation, no matter what it is. He says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” We rejoice in our sufferings. There are a few of us, suffering in body right now. And that will be something that as the situation progresses, we're going to have to deal with. But right now, our suffering is mostly on the mental side. Our anxiety, our fear, our worry is causing us to suffer more than anything else. Very clearly you and I are broken, not only in body but in mind as well. We know the truth. We know that even if we die we will be with Christ and yet the panic, the fear, the chaos that’s all around us and within us makes it very difficult to understand and believe what we know to be true.. It's hard for us to wrap our minds around, it's hard for us to turn on the news, it’s hard for us to understand. This virus and the unknown it brings can scare us senseless. And Paul says what now? We rejoice in our sufferings?
We rejoice because we know what our sufferings are. We know that they are manifestations of our sinful nature, the effects of sin in this world, and the devil’s attempts to tear us away from God. And as we suffer these things, we also learn how to endure them. We realize that we can survive from one moment to the next. And if that's happened up to this point, it's probably gonna happen again. And we endure our sufferings which changes our character, which gives us hope for what's ahead. Very clearly this world is broken. And yet, even in the brokenness of this world You and I are being transformed, given a chance to grow and develop as believers, given a chance to trust God more, to hold ever closely to his promises. We’re given a chance to pray:
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to the cross I cling.
naked, come to Thee for dress,
helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me Savior, or I die.
In all of this, we have hope. We have hope because of God's love that was given by the Holy Spirit who Himself was given to us. We have hope that this world is not all that there is. There is a spiritual reality, a spiritual dimension to existence that we pay far too little attention to. This world's sin and chaos and brokenness will be destroyed, wiped away, done away with. Jesus Christ will reign supreme over a new creation. He will give us a new heavens and a new earth, purified as through fire, getting rid of all the sin, all the impurities, the coronaviruses, and giving us a new creation.
This means that when you and I face death—and we will one day—our deaths are transformed. Death is still not good, it’s not right, it's not how things are meant to be. Yet we know that death is but the entrance into eternal life because of Jesus. We have a hope for the future, a hope that's more than just this world getting healthy again. Christians throughout time and history have talked about this a lot more than we have in our day and age: they talk about the “art of dying well,” of coming face to face with death remaining strong in the faith. It's a practice and art that you and I must learn, whether we're facing the coronavirus or not. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us, because you and I have been given the gift of Jesus Christ, because we've been given the gift of faith, of grace, love, and the Holy Spirit Himself. You have hope and can die well, knowing that Christ will never leave you nor forsake you.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyelids closed in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
see Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell