Sunday, July 27, 2008

Three Important Truths

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Romans 8:26-39
The last nine verses of today’s second lesson, Romans 8:26-39, are the ones I’ve told Ann must be read at my funeral. If they’re not, as I’ve told many people, I’m popping out of the box and reading them myself!

From this chapter, the most magnificent in all the Bible, I think, I want to hold up to you three truths, THREE THINGS WHICH IF WE KNOW THEM in our minds, hearts, and wills, will transform our lives for all eternity!

Truth #1. One summer day three years ago, I had just finished mowing my lawn when I saw a car pull hurriedly into my driveway. The driver was a woman from our congregation. “Mark,” she said, “I tried to get you on your cell phone while you were mowing. The son of a neighbor was just killed in an accident and we can’t get in touch with the family priest. Could you come over?”

I ran into the house for my keys and drove to that woman’s neighbor's house. I didn’t know the family and wasn’t sure what to say or do. I just kept praying, “Please, God, help this family. Help them and help me to help them, too. Help, God.” It took me two minutes to get to their place and I probably prayed that prayer, parrot-like, twenty times. I simply couldn’t think of anything else to pray!

When I arrived, I gave the mother a hug and put my hand on the shoulder of the father. I stood there a lot in silence. What do you say to a couple whose whole world has fallen out from under them? I prayed with them and a short time later, I left.

I didn’t feel as though I’d done much. Later though, the young man’s father asked his neighbor, on two different occasions, to convey to me how much it had meant to him that I had been there.

I filed the incident in my mind as yet another example of God’s mysterious ways. In particular, to me it exemplified how God answers even inarticulate and sometimes wordless prayers when the words don’t come to us.

Further confirmation of how God answers such prayers came soon thereafter. For months, my former congregation kept an eight year old boy on its prayer list. When his name was first given to me, he was about to undergo a delicate surgical procedure designed to help him have some hearing, something he’d never experienced before. His mom, Carol, wrote to me several times to thank the congregation for their prayers. She said it was particularly comforting to her because all she could think to pray while Jacob was undergoing surgery was, “Please, God…Please, God.”

Carol dismissed her two-word prayers as nothing more than “a mother’s nerves.” But that’s not how God heard them! In our second Bible lesson for this morning, the New Testament preacher and evangelist Paul says, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought, but…[God’s] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

When we approach the God we know through Jesus Christ with trusting faith and authentic helplessness, the helplessness of those who know they need God and cannot rely on themselves or their own resources or on anything else, the Spirit turns our inarticulate craving for God into prayer. And it’s prayer like that which touches the heart and the will of God because in our helpless surrender, we’ve let the Holy Spirit turn our prayer into a simple plea: “In this place, in this circumstance, Lord, we don’t know what to ask for. Your will be done!”

In an effort to understand some of what is going on in our world recently, I’ve done some reading about the Muslim religion and about their holy book, the Qu’ran. I’ve read about what Muslims say about being Muslim.

In the Qu’ran, Muslims are told that the prayers offered in response to the five daily calls to prayer (adhans) are only acceptable to God if they recite the correct words with precision from the Koran and then, only if they do so in Arabic. Some Christians have similar mistaken notions about the necessity for perfection in their prayer.

Through Jesus though, we know the God Who is big enough and compassionate enough to reach out to us and to hear us even when our words and our minds are jumbled. Paul reminds us today that through Jesus Christ, we know that the Spirit is making sense of our prayers even when, as was true of me the day I was called to be with the grieving partns and as was true of Carol when she prayed for her son Jacob, we don’t know how to pray. That's the first great truth I want to highlight today.

We know something else. “We know,” Paul writes in our lesson, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

On December 26, 2004, a massive tsunami hit much of this planet. Most of its victims were Muslims and Hindus. More than 160,000 people died or went missing and more than 500,000 homes were destroyed. The estimated cost of rebuilding that housing stock is $5-billion.

As Lutheran Pastor Paul Gauche once wrote, God surely didn’t cause this tragedy. But God stirred the hearts of Christians and others around the world to respond compassionately to the needs of faraway neighbors with whom they did not share faith, nationality, and often, skin color. In the case of Christians, the began helping others in the Name of Jesus Christ, because of the prompting of God's Spirit.

A similar thing happened among Christians and others after Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of Christians, including my nephew who, from his pre-adolescent days, has known how to do plumbing and electrical work and do drywall, went to help Gulf Coast people rebuild their lives.

Even in a world sometimes gone crazy, we know that the Holy Spirit makes sense of our jumbled prayers and uses Jesus Followers to bring good out of even the worst of circumstances.

We know something else, too. Paul puts it this way: “If God is for us, who is against us? He Who did not withhold His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not with Him also give us everything else?”

The God Who came into our worlds in the Person of Jesus Christ and sacrificed Himself on a cross and promised that He would be with us always in the Holy Spirit, isn’t going to be skimpy about sharing His love and His presence with us. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever change that!

I learned this from a man named Charlie in Ann’s and my home church in Columbus.

By the time I got to know Charlie, he was an elderly man who still occasionally did house painting. But most of his time was spent caring for his wife. He was deeply devoted to her. She was bed-ridden and in need of care for many years. After a long illness, Charlie’s wife died.

On the day of her funeral, we had a luncheon at the church. As that was ending, a friend of mine, a fellow who was in seminary, and I became concerned when we noticed that Charlie had been gone for awhile. We found him upstairs in the sanctuary. He was saying goodbye to some people who had come to the funeral.

When Charlie spied the two of us, he thanked us for our concern. Then he told us, “Mark and Whitie, you know something? God has been awfully good to me. And I’m so glad that He’s with me right now.”

Charlie had just begun to go through the most horrible grief anyone can suffer and it had come at the end of long years of selfless service to the woman he adored. Yet, because of the Savior he followed, Charlie could affirm God’s goodness and presence. It’s a testimony of God’s faithfulness I will carry with me my whole life!

Charlie knew what I hope that you know: God is for you.

In remembering that, folks, we are at the very core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians. We are, according to the great Reformed Biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias, looking at the central message of the New Testament and I would add, of the whole Bible.

Through Jesus Christ, you can know of a certainty that God is for you and for every human being who has ever sinned, for everyone who has ever confronted pain or suffering or grief, for any human being who has ever drawn a breath. And there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever or will ever alter that simple fact! Jesus' cross and empty tomb stand as testament to it. God is for you!

So, this morning, I ask you to ask God to help you grow in the awareness of three major truths Paul talks about in today’s second Bible lesson. Because of Jesus Christ, know that…
  • the Spirit can make something of our prayers even when we don’t know how to pray;
  • God can make good things come from even the worst of circumstances; and
  • absolutely nothing can ever separate the believer in Jesus Christ from God’s love or care.
If those three truths don’t make a difference in your life, nothing ever will.

[The three truths identified in this sermon were first pointed out to me in a sermon found here. (Membership required for access.)]


Spencer Troxell said...

"...God answers even inarticulate and sometimes wordless prayers when the words don’t come to us."

That's so true. The times where we don't even have the presence of mind to dress up our desperation are the times that God strikes closest to our hearts. At least that's my experience.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for the comments.

What you say absolutely rings true for me as well.