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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 23, 2012

 

The Premise and the Promise

Psalm 48

Romans 8:28 -32

 

A guy is in the theater watching a movie when he realizes that, sitting in the two seats next to him, are a fellow and his dog.  The dog really seems to be enjoying the movie!  The dog smiles at the funny lines, even seemingly laughs, and he clearly growls at the bad guy.  The first guy whispers to the man with the dog, “Excuse me, Sir.  The way your dog is getting into the movie, that’s amazing!”  The dog owner says, “It surprises me, too.  He hated the book.”

Well, I love the book!  The Bible, that is, and I love it for no reason any more than for what it proclaims in the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul’s deepest, longest and most profound letter of all.  When Fred Craddock, Vanderbilt Divinity School’s most distinguished graduate of all, was here a number of years ago for a weekend, I remember him telling me at a dinner party that he believed Romans was the last or latest letter of Paul’s that we have.  Fred said, “The older we get, the deeper our thoughts, and the longer it takes us to express them!”  Romans 8 begins by saying, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  It ends with the promise that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come,” “nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then, in between, it makes one of the most magnificent and grand claims in the whole of the Bible: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purposes.”  This is quite a claim, precisely because Paul knows that not all things that happen to us are good.  Terrible things happened to Paul.  Shipwreck, scourging, imprisonment, betrayal, abandonment.  Some scholars believe that when Paul said, “I have forsaken everything for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” that this included even his family, who likely disowned him because of his conversion to follow Christ.  And then there was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” probably some physical ailment.  And as Paul writes this, he knows that his own death cannot be far off.  Yet still, he says it: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

 I know there are people who simply cannot buy this claim that Paul is making.  Life has been too painful for them, or fear is simply too powerful a force in their lives.  But I believe it with all my heart, because I have seen and known evidence of it again and again.  Terrible, heartbreaking things have happened in my life, and I have seen God use even them for good, for good that in my worst moments I would never have believed possible.  When Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good…,” he is referring to those who are “in Christ Jesus,” the ones he mentions in the first verse of Romans 8 for whom there is “now therefore no condemnation.”  That is, those who understand that the goodness and grace of God is for them.

To “know that all things work together for good,” you have to know how good and how gracious God really is.  And to know this, you have to know how bad, how undeserving of grace you really are.  In theological terms, you must know what a wretched sinner you really are.  Some people can never face this, or be this honest with themselves.  The tragedy of “thinking more highly of yourself than you ought,” beyond lying to yourself, is that you end up lonely and alone, unable to draw close to God, and unable to come clean with others.  If we human beings are not one in many things, we are surely one in our sin, in our selfishness and pride.  And to own this is prelude to knowing that “all things work together for good.”

I want to witness today to this mega-truth.  No matter how bad things may be today for you in your life, or no matter how uncertain your tomorrows may feel this morning, I want for you to trust “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”  I do not want you to have to face tomorrow without this hope, this knowledge.

The key to holding onto this grand truth is found in remembering who God really is.  Paul tells us this in Romans 8, verse 32.  In it, he offers us a premise, then follows it with a promise.  “He who did not withhold His own Son, but gave Him up for us all….”  This, dear friends, is the premise that Paul offers.  This is who God is, the one who spared not only His own Son, but “gave Him up” for “us all.”  God is generous and good beyond your imagining!  The heart of God is revealed by what God has done.  And the heart of the Gospel makes the claim that God gave to us Jesus, His only Son, who offered His own life as a sacrifice, a gift of love, for us all.  This is who God really and truly is.  And this is the premise Paul offers.  That Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross in Jerusalem is one of the most indisputable historical facts available to us.  Even my seminary classmate Bart Ehrman, one of the most cynical New Testament scholars in America and the chair of the Religion Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, today, argues for this in his most recent book.  He argues for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and for His Roman crucifixion in Jerusalem.  It takes faith, of course, to see this historical act for what Paul and the other New Testament writers believe it to be: God’s sacrificial gift of His only Son in an act of generous love to redeem the world.

This is who God is.  “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all.”  This is the premise.

Now, here is the promise that follows: “How will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”  God, who gave us His only Son, promises graciously to give us “all things,” or “everything else,” according to the New Revised Standard Version.

Did you hear the promise?  God promises to give us “all things.”  Did you catch that?  The Bible says that God even promises to give us “things,” to take care of our needs, to bless our lives with what we need, and even to bless us as well with the things we want.  Who here doesn’t have a life that is filled with things, not just necessities, but things that you simply enjoy?  These things are signs, actually gifts from the God, who gave you His own Son, and also gives you all that you have and all that you will ever enjoy.

As you look back over all of your yesterdays, can you argue with this?  Hasn’t God fed and clothed you, housed you, and blessed you with more than you need?  The God of all your yesterdays is also the God and Father of all of your tomorrows.  And this God is a Giver.  You can count upon God’s generosity and faithfulness to you.  God gives to you because God loves you.  It is as simple as that.

When you love someone, you want to give to them, you want to bless them.  I try to give myself to people all the time, to call them by name, to get to know them, to let them know how valued and important they are.  Why?  Because God has given so much to me, and has been so good to me beyond my deserving!

I find it is one of the best ways to remember who God is, and one of the best habits to establish to reinforce my own faith that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”  When I give, when I recall how gracious and how good God is, that grace melts away fear and possessiveness and opens my hands to share and to bless.  It is hard to remember God’s generosity when you are afraid to give, and holding onto all you’ve got with clenched fists.

This morning I noticed that my shoes looked like they needed to be polished.  I never polish my shoes without thinking of Ben Jones, my Dad.  He believed that a gentleman should always wear polished shoes, and I still recall sitting on our cellar steps each week polishing his shoes for him.  It was one small thing I could do for this man who did so much for me and was everything I could have ever asked a father to be.  I would give anything to still be able to polish his shoes.  I didn’t realize then what a gift it was to me to be able to do such a small thing for him.  We are never more alive, never more who God wants us to be, than when we are giving!

So hear today, dear friends, the premise and the promise of the Gospel: “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?”

I think of Christina Rossetti’s poem so often!

     What can I give Him, poor as I am?

     If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb.

     If I were a wise man, I would my part;

     What I can, I’ll give Him; give Him my heart.

                     Amen.

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