A Service of Sorrow, Self-Humbling, and Steady Hope in Our Savior and King, Jesus Christ
A Response to the Attack on the World Trade Center
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When the pastoral staff met Tuesday morning within minutes after the first strikes against the World Trade Center, we put the radio in the middle of the table. We listened and turned it off and prayed and listened and prayed – and then planned. The short-term plan was three services under one title: "Sorrow, Self-humbling, and Steady Hope in our Savior and King, Jesus Christ." In addition we would immediately make a new roof banner for the church which said, "Christ, When All Is Shaking."
In Tuesday night's service we focused on sorrow. Wednesday night we focused on self-humbling. This morning we focus on our steady hope in our Savior and King, Jesus Christ.
So how shall I strengthen your hope this morning?
· Shall I try to strengthen your hope politically, and comfort you that America is durable and will come together in great bipartisan unity and prove that the democratic system is strong and unshakable?
· Shall I try to strengthen your hope militarily, and comfort you that American military might is unsurpassed and can turn back any destructive force against the nation?
· Shall I try to strengthen your hope financially, and comfort you that when the market opens on Monday there will be stability and long-term growth to preserve the value of all your investments?
· Shall I try to strengthen your hope geographically, and comfort you that you live in the Upper-Midwest, far from the major political and military and financial targets that enemies might choose?
· Shall I try to strengthen your hope psychologically, and send you to the web page titled "Self-Care and Self-help Following Disasters" so that you can read there that "individuals with strong coping skills . . . maintain a view of self as competent . . . and avoid regretting past decisions"?
· Should I try to strengthen your hope eschatologically by comforting you that you won't be on the earth anyway when the blazing fireball comes near your town?
The answer to those six questions is very easy for me: NO. I will not try to strengthen your hope in those six ways. And the reason I won't is also very simple. None of them is true.
· The American political system is not imperishable.
· The American military cannot protect us from every destructive force.
· The financial future is not certain and you may lose your investments.
· The Midwest is not safe from the next kind of terrorism which may be more pervasive and more deadly.
· The psychological efforts to feel competent and avoid regret are not healing, but fatal.
· And eschatological scenarios that promise escape from suffering under God's end-time providence didn't work for the Christians in the World Trade Center last Tuesday, and they won't work for you either.
You Should Feel More Vulnerable Than You Already Do
So I will not contradict my calling as a minister of the Gospel by trying to strengthen your hope in those ways. Instead I want to strengthen your hope first by making sure that you feel more vulnerable than you already do in the face of last week's terrorism.
There are two reasons for doing this. One is that we are more vulnerable than we think we are. The next phase of terrorism will probably not be a replay of last week's strategy. Instead it may be, and could be, an act of chemical warfare that unleashes deadly gas or poisons a city's water supply, just to name a couple realistic possibilities. This would mean not five thousand dead, but hundreds of thousands dead. Perhaps millions. So we are more vulnerable than we think we are.
The second reason for sobering you in this way is that the kinds of sufferings that the Bible depicts for the people of God are far more extensive than what happened last week. Perhaps it will take this kind of calamity to help us read the Scriptures for what they are really saying and make us less secure with earthly things so we can be more secure in our Savior and King, Jesus Christ. For example, 1 Peter 4:12-19 says,
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? . . . 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.
So the way I want to strengthen your hope this morning is not by glossing over how utterly vulnerable we are in our earthly existence, or by deflecting your attention away from the Biblical truth that God's judgments fall on believer and unbeliever alike – purifying in some cases and punishing in other cases, depending on whether we repent and make Christ our Treasure instead of the idols of this world. I want to stare those realities of vulnerability and judgment square in the face with you and give you real, solid, Biblical hope. Not just hopeful feelings based on naive notions of earthly stability or escape from painful, purifying, disciplinary judgments.
So then, what is this hope and what is the basis for it? I'll give you my answer, and then show you where I got it from the Word of God.
· Our hope is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, not suffering and not even death.
And the two foundations for this hope are the death of Jesus and the sovereignty of God.
· Our Savior and King, Jesus Christ, died and rose again to bear our sins, become our curse, endure our condemnation, remove our guilt, and secure our everlasting joy in the presence of the all-satisfying God.
· And the sovereignty of God over all persons and events guarantees that what Jesus Christ bought for us by his own blood will infallibly become our inheritance.
Now let's go to our text and see these things in the Word of God.
Our Steady Hope: Nothing Can Separate Us from the Love of Christ
First, what is our hope in the best and worst of times? When all around our soul gives way? Our hope is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, not even suffering and death. Our hope is not for an easy or comfortable or secure life on this earth. Our hope is that the love of God will grant us joy in the all-satisfying glory of God which will continue through death and increase for all eternity.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
Your steady, solid hope this morning – and it is the only lasting hope – is that if you will trust Christ as your precious Savior and your supremely-valued King, then you will be folded into the love of God in a way that no terrorist, no torture, no demons, no disasters, no disease, no man, no microbe, no government, and no grave can destroy. That's the hope of this text. That's the hope of the Christian life. It is not a political hope, or a military hope, or a financial hope, or a geographical hope, or a psychological hope, or an escapist hope. It is a blood-bought, Spirit-wrought, Christ-exalting, God-centered, fear-destroying, death-defeating hope.
And what is the foundation?
First Foundation of Our Hope: The Death of Christ for Us
The first answer is the death of Jesus in our place. Look at verse 32: "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" The basis of our hope that God will freely give us all we need to satisfied in him forever is that he did not spare his own Son, but gave him for us all. He gave him. For us. God did this. And he did it for us. And verse 32 says that death is the foundation of our hope that he will give us everything that we need to be satisfied in him forever.
I say it like that – he will give us everything we need to be satisfied in the love of God forever – because what becomes clear in verse 35 is that the sovereignty of God does not guarantee our escape from suffering. It does not guarantee that we won't be in a hijacked plane or in a World Trade Center – or that we won't drink the poisoned water or breathe the deadly gas. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" These words cover virtually every kind of possible calamity. Distress and peril are broad, general words for dangers of all kinds. Christians are vulnerable to all of them. If your hope is to escape them, your hope is unfounded.
And I don't want to give you unfounded hope this morning. But founded hope. The Christian hope is not that we escape these things, but that they cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Second Foundation for Our Hope: The Sovereignty of God over Us
They cannot, first, because Christ paid his life to secure us for himself forever. And the second reason nothing can separate us from the love of God – the second foundation for our hope – is that God is sovereign. And the sovereignty of God over all persons and events guarantees that what Jesus Christ bought for us by his own blood will infallibly become our inheritance.
Where do I see that in the text? Consider verse 36: "Just as it is written, 'For your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.'" Now that is a quotation from Psalm 44:22. Paul quotes it for the same reason I am preaching the way I am preaching today. I learned it from him. He wants to make clear, with Biblical authority, that the Christian hope is not to escape slaughter. Christian hope is not to be kept off the hijacked plane or out of the collapsing building.
And this is not because God is not sovereign over all persons and events – governing all things for his own purposes (Ephesians 1:11). Why do I say this? Because when you go back and read Psalm 44, what you read is that God is not standing helplessly by while his people are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. He is handing them over to this suffering. Verses 10-13:
You [God] cause us to turn back from the adversary. . . . You give us as sheep to be eaten and have scattered us among the nations. 12 You sell Your people cheaply. . . . 13 You make us a reproach to our neighbors, a scoffing and a derision to those around us. 19 You have crushed us in a place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
So when Paul says in verse 36, "We are being counted as sheep to be slaughtered," he does not mean that God has lost control of his world or his people. He does not mean, therefore, that God can have no holy purposes, or gracious plans, or merciful intentions, or bright designs in this dark and dreadful and God-ordained suffering.
No. What he means is that God, who in his sovereignty hands us over to calamity, will use that very sovereignty to make life, and death, and angels, and principalities, and things present, and things to come, and powers, and height, and depth, and every created thing serve our everlasting joy in God.
Oh, in the coming days of trouble may God grant you sweet sorrow and self-humbling and steady hope in our suffering Savior and sovereign King, Jesus Christ. May the Lord keep you in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on him, because you trust in him. "Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock" (Isaiah 26:3-4, rsv).
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