IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 38, September 17 to September 23, 2001

A Sermon on Romans 8:28-39

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

Like most of you, I watched in horror as Tuesday's events unfolded. Honestly, it has taken several days for the magnitude of what has happened to sink in. I began with disbelief and numbness. Over the past week, I have felt sorrow, fear, anger, and mourning. Sorrow over the magnitude of loss — the countless stories of grief. Fear over the reality that my family, my friends and my flock could be struck by this same menace. Anger at the fiends who hold life so cheaply that they cavalierly destroy thousands of civilians for their cause. And mourning for the loss of innocence — a kind of innocence that my generation carries because we have never lived through a prolonged war. It has been said, and it is true, that nothing will ever be the same.

This week Christians have cried together. We have shared stories together. We have wondered about the future together. We have prayed together. Today I am not prepared to give you an exposition of a Biblical passage. I have not researched the text. I cannot give you a detailed analysis of the Greek or of cultural factors that bear upon this passage. I do not have clever illustrations or well thought out applications. All I can tell you is that Tuesday, as I sat glued to the television set, I knew that I could not continue through the gospel of John this week. I wrestled with the question "Shall evil prevail?" I needed comfort. I needed to know that in the face of such evil, we were still in the tender care of God. As I anticipated the future, I saw nothing but test and trial, and I needed the comfort that only Christ can bring. I found comfort in Romans 8:28-39.

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom. 8:28). In times like these, if we are honest with ourselves, we question the truth behind these words. The good? What possible good could come from such merciless acts of blind hatred? What possible good could arise from so many lives taken? Where is the good in all this?

Notice what this passage does not say. It does not say, "In all things God works for the pleasure of those who love him." Nor does it say, "In all things God works for the preference of those who love him." It says, "In all things God works for the good of those who love him." The good is not about what we want or what we hope for. The good is about what is true and right. The good is quite simply our progressing in our personal relationship with Christ. Period. That is the good. Anything that advances that cause, whether it be joy or hardship, pleasure or pain, works for the good.

I know that is a hard message. Quite frankly, the implications of it scare me because I believe we will be called upon to make great sacrifices. Insofar as those sacrifices cause us to rely on Christ all the more, they are for the good. I question whether I am strong enough for the trials that may loom ahead. Is my faith strong enough? But through these words of scripture, I can see that even if my faith isn't strong enough now, I can hope that God will use what will come to strengthen my faith beyond what I thought imaginable. I think many Christians experience this — we think the burden is unbearable until we are in the midst of it. Then we find that, somehow, God has given us the strength to persevere through the present trial, through the present moment.

Indeed, this is the case already. Can we not see that even now good has arisen from the present crisis? Our nation has come together in a unity that has been unseen for the past half century. Old conflicts are buried, and a new solidarity has arisen. The self-serving tone that has been infecting our country for the past three decades has quickly dissipated to reveal an attitude of self-sacrifice. And most importantly, millions of people have begun to consider the questions of life and death — the questions of meaning and purpose that only faith can answer. People who haven't prayed in years have found themselves on their knees. And the name of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to the assembled leadership of our country.

Indeed, not only are we in a time of strengthening for our faith, but we are also in a time of opportunity. For as people begin to look beyond themselves, Christians can be there to offer them hope. We can tell them our story of the eternal hope that Christ offers through his self-sacrifice and resurrection. We can offer them the hope of personal transformation through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the winds of spiritual revival are prepared to break at last across our country. Yes, God does work all things to the good for those who love him.

However, we cannot trivialize this hope. Our hope is not a badge that we wear, and then take off when it suits us. Verse 29 tells us our hope arises from a relationship that transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ. Therefore, in all that we do, we must strive to do right. While God does work all things to our good, we must strive to do good to others so that they may see our hope and believe in our God. Therefore, we must be cautious against temptation.

Our peculiar danger at this time is the lust for revenge rather than the desire for justice. We see the lust for revenge expressed in threats against mosques and Arabic Americans. We've heard threats of vigilante justice against people whose only "crime" is sharing the nationality or religion of the accused. Such threats are wrong. There is nothing of Christ in this lust for revenge, and we must not succumb to it. We must respect and protect our Arabic American neighbors, for they too are created in the image of God. If they are persecuted, then we become no better than the monsters behind Tuesday's crimes.

This is an incredibly difficult issue. While it is right for us to pray for justice, we ourselves must not seek revenge. The Psalms and the Prophets are filled with prayers for justice. Psalm 11 is a statement of confidence in God's justice, and it ends this way: "The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur, a scorching wind will be their lot. For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face." It is right to pray for justice, but anytime we pray for justice, we must also look to our own hearts. If we are to pray for justice, then we must be prepared to confess the sins of our own hearts. Integrity demands it. We must confess our sins and do our best to make them right again. If we pray for justice, but are not willing to subject our own hearts to scrutiny, then we are engaging in awful hypocrisy.

Scripture itself prompts us to such confession. 1 John 1 says this: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." If we pray for justice, we must confess our own sins. And yet, we find that confession of our sins is simply another of those hard things that brings us closer to Christ. The deeper we examine ourselves, the more we will discover the subtle ways we break God's Law. As we confess and honestly repent, we draw ever closer to Christ.

This is my prayer for the church during this time: I pray that God would give us the courage to persevere through the trials ahead, the opportunity to share our hope with other Americans, the wisdom to distinguish between justice and revenge, and the strength to be a moral beacon to this great nation. I cannot say how God will answer this prayer; I cannot predict the future; I cannot foretell what is to come. But I can say this with confidence: evil will not prevail. Evil can steal planes, but it will not prevail. Evil can destroy buildings, but it will not prevail. Evil can take the lives of thousands in an instant, but it will not prevail. We will stand against evil. Many will falter, some will fall, but evil will not prevail. I can say this with confidence not because of battleships or military might, but because, like Paul, "I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:37-39).