Are you tough enough to finish well? No? Pastor Hinkle has good news for you. You can trust God to see you through.
2020 has been a tough year. Some of you have suffered greatly and all have had to struggle with fear and uncertainty.
In times like these, we may feel like the disciples in this morning’s Gospel lesson who had been rowing against a strong headwind all night. When Jesus first approached walking on the water they were afraid. Was the ghost-like apparition coming to toward them a harbinger of their deaths? As you and I look at the present turmoil and wonder what trials the future holds, we may have doubts about our ability to persevere in the faith, to complete our course successfully.
But in our epistle lesson, Paul encourages those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ for life, righteousness, and the promise of glory, to trust God to complete what he has begun in us. All these troubles work together with all our blessings for the good of those who love God, so that God’s plan and purpose may be accomplished in their lives.
This plan of God’s is very ancient. It precedes the creation of the world. God, who sees the end from the beginning, looked out into the future, far beyond his work of creation and He saw all that was to come. He saw mankind turned away from him. He saw the work he would have to do to prepare the world for his Son’s coming. He planned how Christ would redeem believers by his death upon the cross. He saw how the gospel would be preached throughout the world and where it would progress and where it would be opposed. He saw you. And he saw me. And he saw all of those who would believe in his son Jesus. And he saw them receiving the Kingdom that he had promised.
And so, when God said “let there be light” he had already seen all that would come to be. And looking into the future, he saw you and what you would be, and he chose you to become like Jesus.
When my daughter came to stay with us at the beginning of this crisis, a nearby pet shelter offered to provide a rescue dog to keep her company. There were several dogs that were anxious to meet her, but her eye fell upon a dog that remained in the back of its kennel. It had been abandoned and had had to fend for itself until it was rescued. It was happy to be in a safe place and it wasn’t anxious to leave. She chose that dog. It didn’t choose her, she chose it. And in the course of two weeks they formed an unbreakable bond.
In a similar way, God has chosen you as his own dear child. When Paul says, “those he foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his son,” he is saying that God chose you before he created the world. He has a specific plan for you and that plan is to make you like Jesus, a beloved child of God who loves him in return, one who is joined to him by an unbreakable bond of love and affection. As a result, you are becoming a righteous person who does what God asks even when it is difficult, someone who will share his glory for all eternity.
Curiously, this is where the suffering that works for our good comes in. The things that we suffer are building virtues like courage, endurance, perseverance, and hope in us. They give us a chance to exercise our faith so that it can be strengthened, and they give God a chance to work in our lives and the lives of others around us.
Bearing with suffering for the sake of others also helps to conform us to the image of Christ who suffered for our benefit. Such suffering was a defining characteristic of Paul’s ministry. He suffered shipwrecks, stoning, floggings, imprisonment, privation, opposition, and even eye trouble, in order to bring the Gospel to the people whose lives he touched.
We often see Paul’s statement that all things work together for the good of those who love God too narrowly because we each see himself standing in the center of that promise. We try and sometimes fail to imagine how some of the things we suffer could possibly benefit us, but Paul says these things work for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. That is a much larger circle of possible benefit than a single person. It includes you, but it is not limited to you. It includes many others who know you or who are touched by your life.
For a modern example, consider Joni Erickson Tada. As a teenager she broke her neck diving from a raft. Her life was saved, but her spinal cord was severed, and she lost the use of her legs and arms. In her autobiography she wrote that, if she had been able, she would have killed herself several times, but God had other plans
She became a professional artist who painted very finely detailed work using a brush that she held in her mouth. She signed her paintings with “PTL, Joni.” Her autobiography became a Christian bestseller and her story became an encouragement to countless others. In the years since, she has gone on to write other books that deal truthfully with suffering and the questions it raises. She also works to provide hope and practical help to disabled Christians who lack the resources for adaptive equipment. God never abandoned her, and he has used both her injury and her gifts for the good of those who love him.
Paul goes on to say, that those God predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, he has also called. In this context, Paul uses the word call in the same way it is used in Luther’s catechism when we say that the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel.
As part of his plan, God calls those whom he has chosen to faith in his Son. Until God arranged for someone to bring the good news about Jesus Christ to you, you. were lost. You were without hope and without God. But God’s power worked through the Gospel to summon you to faith. The Gospel gives life to people who are spiritually dead. It frees them from the power of sin and the devil and shows them the way to God. God did all of that for you when he called you to faith in his Son.
Paul adds that those God has called, he also justified. God called you to faith and considers that faith righteousness. Whether you have done anything good or not is moot. God declares you innocent of all wrongdoing because he has held Christ accountable for your sins. Since God, the Lord and judge of all has declared you innocent, who could possibly condemn you? The devil and others may try, but in every case their complaints will be dismissed because the judge has already ruled. Your crimes were charged to Christ Jesus who was executed for all the evil mankind has done.
Therefore, you should not even condemn yourself. Yes, acknowledge your sins and turn away from them, but no, don’t punish yourself. Instead, forgive yourself and present yourself to God for his service.
After Paul says that God has justified us, he says that he has also glorified us. Note the past tense. This is what we call a prophetic perfect. The thing being spoken of is so certain that the prophet speaks of it as if it is already done. Paul and the prophets speak in this way because from God’s perspective, outside time, you have already reached the goal to which he has called you. He can see his work finished and complete. You are standing before his throne in your resurrected body. Death has been conquered. Every trace of sin has been removed. You are no longer even tempted by evil. In this future, which is already present to God and therefore more certain than tomorrow’s sunrise, you are rejoicing in what God has done for you, your suffering is long ended and you are rejoicing in the reward you have received for your service to Christ and your neighbor.
Because all of this depends upon God and his almighty power, nothing can prevent this future from coming to pass for those who love God. Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. Not suffering, not persecution, not war or famine or a pandemic, or even death. For God who raised Christ Jesus will also raise you.
Knowing this you can be convinced like Paul was that
neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39
For the one who loves us is almighty and unchanging. His purpose is fixed, his call irrevocable, and nothing can stop him from fulfilling his promises. You will become like Christ and share in his glory. Amen.