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Rethinking Trials and Temptations

Sermon Theme: God Is For Us

What can separate us from the love of Christ? There is not one thing, not one person, not nobody who can separate you from the love of God in Christ for you. That is the plain-faced, straightforward assertion of Romans 8:31-39, psalm, and hymns today: that “God is for us” in Christ.

God is for us. Amen, please stand. Not really, not yet, but why not? At the end of this last week, I had this inner dialogue going on in my head about whether I could or should preach a sermon of just four words, and I wondered if it could be done, and I think I could, just so long as those four words are: God is for us. That is the plain-faced, straightforward assertion of all the Scripture readings, psalm, and hymns today: the unassailable promise of the gospel that God is for us in Christ. What we have in Romans 8 is one of those sections of Scripture (really, like all of them) where the best thing I could do to serve you as your pastor would be simply to stand up, read these verses, say “Amen,” and sit down. Frankly, I don’t know where to start (or to stop!), but we’ve got to start somewhere. So how about where the second reading begins. Paul said, “What, then, shall we say in response to this?” Or, as you have it in your service folder, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things.” What are these things to which we’re responding? Well, the whole book of Romans up to this point, I guess. But since I can’t tease you with the prospect of a four-word sermon and end up keeping you here until lunch walking through seven and a half chapters of Romans, permit a quick cruise through just Romans 8, the verses leading up to the text for today. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. That’s it! The verdict has been spoken. “No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and that means you and that means now. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. The Apostle Paul knew it just as well as you do: Life is tough, but Jesus wins, and in him, so do you. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Have you ever been in such distress that you tried to pray, and you opened your mouth, and the words just couldn’t come out? Well, the Spirit of God promises to work with that and speak to the Father for you. And we know (not, “We think…we hope…we’re optimistic about…”) that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. All things for your eternal good? Yes, all things! You’re thinking, “That’s crazy! I can’t believe that!” And you’re right, you can’t…but you will.

What shall we say in response to this? What’ve you got to say about all that? Let’s hear Paul deliver the payload, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” That’s the biggest “if” of all, isn’t it? If I could somehow know that God is for me, then everything else would fall in place. If I could be sure that God is actually on my side, then even when sad, bad, or difficult things happen in my life, I could know, I mean, really know, that it’ll be alright, because I have the certain confidence that God is my ally and active in my life to do me good. If you’ve ever entertained doubts or wondered and worried about whether God is for you, then worry, wonder, and doubt no more, and look to the LORD who provides the sacrifice; not just a ram caught by its horns in the thicket, but the Man out there in the wilderness forty days and forty nights facing down the father of lies. Every year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. And every year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we have this inclination to try to make this story all about us and our battle with temptation – but the gospel isn’t about you. In its first place, this is a story about Jesus and what he’s done for us. If you’ve ever wondered if God is for you, look at Jesus still dripping from the water of his baptism, the Holy Spirit “Threw him out, cast him off” into the desert to face the devil’s temptations; so eager is he to go and fulfill where we had failed. God knows that when it comes to facing temptation, we didn’t need a second chance, because we’d mess that one up, too. We needed a second Adam, a Substitute, all of humanity reduced to One perfect Fulfiller of God’s law and Defeater of Satan’s temptations. The One who gets it right while we were forever getting it wrong.

Still wondering if God is for you? Listen to Paul’s next rhetorical question: He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? The perfect Fulfiller of Law and Defeater of Satan was not spared, all so that you would be. Think of all the things that parents want to spare their children in life – pain, hardship, loss, rejection, difficulty, suffering, death – and then consider what it means that God did not spare his own Son, but sent him straight into that buzzsaw of rejection, pain, and death on a cross all so that he could spare you. It’s certainly not that God the Father thought so little of Jesus, but that he thinks so much of you. There’s no hazy middle or sliding scale of God’s commitment to you. Oh no, in Christ Jesus, he’s all in. He’s taken upon himself your flesh and blood, and right along with it every one of your sins. God is not ambivalent about you; he is for you, and in Christ, he proves it. As if all that weren’t enough, Paul’s not done with you just yet: Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? That’s a fabulous question, but it’s rhetorical, you know. Who could possibly accuse you of being guilty of sin when Almighty God himself has declared you to be innocent in his Son? Who gets to accuse you? No one…not the devil, because he’s been defeated; not my conscience, because it’s been cleansed; not my heart, which will always try to condemn me, because God is greater than my heart, and he knows all things.

Not long ago, I came across some really helpful advice on how to preach and teach God’s Word to his people. The suggestion was to consider any text of Scripture through the lens of two simple questions: What does Christ intend to give in this text? What gets in the way of Christ giving what he intends to give? So, let’s try it with Romans 8. What does Christ intend to give you in this text of Scripture? The unassailable, incomparable promise that God is for you, that your sin is forgiven, and that nothing can separate you from his love. What gets in the way? The answer to this one is invariably the same no matter what text of Scripture you’re looking at. What gets in the way of Christ giving his gifts? I do. Almost as if Paul anticipated this particular problem, he said, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Call me crazy, but those all sound like sure-fire ways to be separated from everything good. Trouble, hardship, and persecution mean you have no peace; famine and nakedness mean you lack everything; and danger and sword mean you’re done for. And it won’t do us any good to dance around the issue: what about your sin? You confessed it a few minutes ago. The ones we know about are bad enough; so we can only reason the hidden sins will send us straight to hell. A few minutes ago, we sang Psalm 25 and every time I sing or read that psalm, there’s one verse that absolutely nails me: Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways. Here I am, asking God not to remember something I can’t possibly seem to forget, and all the while wondering when will my “youth” will be over and my rebellious ways be at an end. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? It seems a whole lot – my sin, my sorrow, my circumstances. But, wait a minute, come on people, four-word sermon: God is for us, isn’t he? The devil won’t let God’s plainspoken promises get in the way of his lies – so he’ll try to convince you that all those aren’t really for you. Those are all other people – like the good people. And the devil can be pretty convincing; he seems to have all the evidence he needs to back up his case. Look at the irredeemable mess you call your life – you expect me or anybody else to believe that God is for you? Look at your weakness in the face of temptation – giving in has practically become a reflex for you now; it’s just too easy. Have you forgotten how defeated you look and feel, especially when you compare yourself to everyone else around you? And that’s right where the devil wants you, listening to his noisy lies and trying to drive out the sure and certain promises of God. That’s what he was trying to do with Jesus in the wilderness. And if Satan has the gumption to come after the Son of God himself, don’t you think he’ll take a run at us, too? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Now that sounds about right, there’s something we can relate to. To look at our life and our place in it and assume the best we can make of it is to think of ourselves like sheep heading inevitably to the slaughter, the whole purpose of my life just seems to be to get fat and die. What shall we say in response to this?

Did you like the hymn we sang before the sermon? What a Reformation battleship, really fabulous – and it’s not even October! Some of you might be humming the tune in your head right now…I’d like you to speed up your mental metronome and zip ahead to the final lines of the third stanza: “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will. He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him.” I’ve been singing that hymn since I was a kid. Have you ever stopped to think, “What in the world does that mean?” What is that one little word that will take down the prince of hell? Throughout the years, there have been a lot of guesses – the name of Christ, his proclamation of “Finished!” on the cross – and they’re all true enough. But on at least one occasion, Luther himself identified what his “one little word” was. Do you know what the one little word is that can send the devil packing? Liar! Do you see how this works in the context of one single day of your Christian life? The devil will make a lot of sense, and seem to have good evidence to back up his case. What will you say in response to this? One little word. Look at the mess you call your life, you expect me to believe that God is for you?! Liar! My Savior has promised me that he’ll never leave me nor forsake me. You’re too far gone; your sin unforgivable; your mess unredeemable If the people sharing your pew knew what kind of person you really are… What will you say to that? One little word. Liar! In Christ my God has removed my sins from me as far as the east is from the west. Because of Jesus, the sins I can’t seem to forget God promises never to remember. Yes, I am a sinner, but I have One who was tempted in every way, just as [I am] – yet was without sin. Jesus Christ is his name and lives every minute into eternity to stand before the holy God and speak in my defense.

So, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Go ahead, ask all the questions you want, do every bit of mental math, dream up any possible concoction of situations or scenarios in which you think you could be separated from God’s love for you in Christ. Go ahead, take your time. The Apostle Paul and I will wait. And then come back to hear Paul’s defiant cry of faith: “No.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” None of those things gets to have the last word about you, because Christ Jesus already spoke his name upon you in the water of your baptism. And now, you and I can answer every one of the devil’s temptations to despair of the love of God or doubt the presence of God in the exact same way Jesus did. Do you remember how Jesus handled the devil’s lies? By resting himself completely in his Father’s perfect Word. It is written, man does not live on bread alone…It is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test…It is written, worship the LORD your God and serve him only. So when you and I are tempted to despair of God’s love, or somehow think that he isn’t actually on our side, we can answer the same way, “It is writtenupon me, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” I am his and he is mine forever. “God for us” is a neat and tidy three-word summary of all redemptive history, and through your baptism into Christ, you have been woven into his story, and there you have your place, safe and secure in his love for you.

Are you ready to take this thing home? For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither 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. As far as promises from God go, this is about as big as it gets, and each one of these unparalleled promises is aimed in your direction. Because of Christ, sin can’t separate you from your God; sorrows can’t separate you; your circumstances can’t separate you; nothing can pull you away from him. Was there anything left off of that list Paul rattled through? What can separate us from the love of Christ? Death can’t do it, because Jesus defeated it; life won’t either because Jesus lived it for us; not angels, because Jesus is their boss; not demons, because Christ is fond of driving them out; not the past because Jesus forgave it; not the future because Jesus holds it; not height nor depth because Jesus came from the highest heaven to sink himself into the lowest depths of our condition; as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love, as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed your transgressions from you; not anything else in all creation because Jesus is the One who created it and sustains it still. There is not one thing, not one person, not nobody who can separate you from the love of God in Christ for you.

Here we are, all of four days into Lent, and what do we see? The end from the beginning: A Savior who fulfills where we failed, a Champion who goes to a cross and come out an empty tomb so he can make you a promise that not even death can undo. This is it: our God, a Father, who wants all his children home for Easter, and the Spirit will see to it, because in Christ, God is for you. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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