While We Were Still Sinners

Sermon Text – 10.06.2019

[Romans 5]
          At the beginning of last year, I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry for my ordination interview. If you don’t know what that means – basically, to become a fully ordained Pastor I had to write like 80 pages of theology and then go before a panel and defend myself. They grilled me on what I wrote and they asked me lots of questions and then I left and they voted on whether they felt I was ready to be a pastor. And last year, right before I moved to this church – they called me and told me, “No, you’re not ready – work on some stuff, come back and try again later.” So six months later, I was rewriting my paperwork, working on all the stuff they wanted me to work on, getting ready to go back before the Board of Ordained Ministry. And I went to one of the prep meetings, and I was talking to another candidate about the paperwork, and what I was going to do for the fruitfulness project – which is a major part of our paperwork. Basically we have to describe a project we started in our church, something we did to build God’s kingdom and report how it went. And my friend commented, “man, that’s a bummer you have to rewrite all that paperwork – is it frustrating to come up with another fruitfulness project?” And I turned to my friend and said, let me tell you a story.
          In the Philippines, there is a seminary – a school that teaches people how to be a pastor. And one of the requirements for graduation is that every student must go out and bring ten people to know Christ. Every student, in order to graduate must go out into the world and bring 10 people into a relationship with God. Now you have to understand, this is a muslim controlled area of the world and the church there faces extreme persecution – it’s a very dangerous place to be telling people about the love of Jesus. And a few years ago there was a graduation ceremony, for all the students who were ready to be pastors. And at that graduation ceremony at the seminary in the Philippines – they took a moment of silence in honor of the two classmates who had died attempting to bring Jesus into dangerous places in the world. Their “Fruitfulness project” was so dangerous that some of them died getting it done. And I turned back to my friend at the prep meeting for the ordination interview and said, “so you’re asking me if I’m upset that I have to rewrite a little paperwork? Nah, I’m good.”        
   Today we begin a new sermon series called Road to Rome, Part 2. We are going chapter by chapter through the book of Romans, and this week we are starting with chapter 5. One of the key themes of Romans 5 is finding glory in the midst of pain. But the truth is, American Christianity is not good at handling conversations about suffering. We have lived at the top of the world for so long, we forget about the blessing that can come through our struggles. A long time ago, back in the fourth century there was a really important church meeting called the Nicene Council. There were 318 delegates attending from all over the early church world. Of those delegates, over three hundred of them had lost a limb (like an eye or a hand, or toes/feet) by torture for their Christian faith.[1] I’ll do the math for you, that’s over 94% of the leaders in the early church had been physically attacked and permanently maimed for their faith. These are the people that gave us the Nicene Creed, one of the foundational documents of our faith. So let’s open to chapter five of Romans.


  [read v.1-2]. Now, I mentioned that this is a new sermon series – but actually we as a church are reading through the whole book of Romans in four chapter segments. We did the first four chapters of Romans back in August – and these two verses are sort of a recap of all those chapters. We have been justified by faith, by believing in Jesus we have peace with God. God is this incredible, glorious perfect thing – and we don’t measure up, but because of Jesus we have peace with God. It’s really a beautiful message, and he could’ve just stopped there – but then he ruins it by saying, [read v.3-5]. We have peace with God and that’s great, but also we glory in our suffering. We glory in our suffering – what? No, we don’t. You ever glory in your suffering? Of course not! We glory in good things, things that make us happy. We don’t glory in suffering. That sounds terrible – what is he even talking about? You know that moment when you’re running late for work, and you’re driving a little fast and you get pulled over by the cops? You ever glory in that moment? Like, aw yeah! Woohoo! So excited that I get to pay $140 to the state of Michigan. So pumped. Or parents, you know that moment when the baby gets up at 3am? And takes a full 45 minutes to get back to sleep and it’s that horrible time frame where you don’t have enough time to fall back asleep before you have to get up and so you just get up at 4am? You ever glory in that moment? Ah, yesssssss! Less sleep is the best, I’m just so thrilled that I get to start my day way before a rational, sane human being should. Just glorious. Not only do we have peace with God – but we glory in our suffering. You ever look at a teaching in the bible and think to yourself, “ew. Like, nice try Paul, but no thanks.” But then he explains it to us, he puts it out there – here is why we glory in suffering. Suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not put us to shame. Basically what Paul is saying is that we are stronger because of the suffering in our life. The struggles we go through have the ability to help us grow.
There an old story about about a guy named Parnell Bailey who once visited an orange grove. In this grove the irrigation pump had broken down. The season was unusually dry and some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water. The man giving the tour then took Bailey to his own personal orchard where irrigation was used sparingly. The trees all around were growing splendidly. The owner said, these trees can go without rain for another 2 weeks, because when they were young I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. So now, my trees are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are getting scorched by the sun, my trees find moisture at a greater depth. When we survive the suffering in our life, we find that our roots go deeper than ever before.


          Then verse six sort of shifts gears a little bit. It says, [read v.6-8]. You might recognize those words – every time we do a prayer of confession those words are the response – and I gotta say I get overwhelmed just reading this stuff. Let’s walk through it. Verse 6, at just the right time – which I think challenges us to ask, do we trust God’s timing? AT just the right time, when we were still powerless – let’s make no mistake, God comes to us BEFORE we turn our life around. God comes to us in our worst day, our darkest moment, when we are at the lowest we have ever been – that’s when Jesus shows up in our lives. When we are helpless, powerless – we are not worth anything to God, yet still he believes in us. He looks at you and believes there is more to you than your worst day. Verse seven, he compares God’s love to what we see in the world. Paul points out that dying for someone else is rare in this life. He’s like, maybe if it was a really good person – maybe someone would be willing to die for them. But they gotta be like a Mother Theresa-Santa Claus hybrid level of awesome for us to consider giving up our life for them. Nobody dies for bad people. Nobody gives up their life for the scum of the earth. Doesn’t happen. If you are going to give up your life, you want to know that they’ll be worth it. That they deserve your sacrifice. Verse 8 [read it]. What I want to point out is that God’s love is better than our love. While we were still sinners. You don’t clean yourself up and then come to Jesus. You come to Jesus as you are – broken and messed up, and God will clean you up. Jesus Christ came into this world and died on a cross taking your sin and shame – so that when he rose from the grave, when he defeated sin and death you could walk in life just like he does.
It says, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the UNGODLY. Here what I need you to see this morning. Christ ONLY died for ungodly people. It’s weird because in our culture it’s a bad thing to admit weakness. We try to hide our weaknesses, we try to pretend we are better than we actually are – we don’t like admitting that we are sinners. But Christ died for sinners. For ungodly people. So, stop pretending you’re better than you are. It’s kinda like – who my sinners in the room? And a couple people maybe raise their hand. But then Romans tells us, okay – but Jesus only came for you if you’re a sinner – and boom, suddenly everybody is saying “Oh me! Me, me, me!” If you know how good Jesus is, how much he has healed you, how much he has forgiven you –  we are eager to point out our status as a sinner. Here’s a silly example. We’ll be sitting at the dinner table, and I look at my child’s plate and see that he has followed in his father’s footsteps and avoided the vegetables on his plate. And I’ll ask – hey buddy, do you want to eat your vegetables? No. Okay, well I was thinking about having some ice cream. He perks right up – I want ice cream. Oh no, ice cream only comes for those who eat their vegetables. Suddenly he’s thrilled to eat his vegetables. I love eating vegetables. Eternity with Jesus comes to those who repent of their sin. Christ died for the ungodly – suddenly I am eager to admit my status as a sinner. Eager to admit that I am powerless, I am ungodly, that I need help – because that’s who Jesus came for.

At the end of the chapter it says, [read v.20]. We talked about this a bit back in August, the law of God helps us see where we are – it shows us that we are far away from God. [bathroom scale comparison]. But the grace of God gives us a clear lens to look at our life. We can look unashamed at our sin. I think a lot of us waste a lot of time in life trying to convince ourselves we are better than we think we are. We fill our world with distractions so we don’t have to think about who we really are. We compare ourselves to other people, we try to forget our worst moments, we focus only on the best moments – we run away from cold, lonely honesty of the mirror. But with God you have the freedom to be honest with yourself. To admit in your heart the depth of your failures. You can be honest about how low the valley goes because in the grace of God you are not defined by your mountains or valleys – you are defined by the love of God. You can admit your worst day, because with Jesus your worst day does not define you. When we step into the glory of God, into the forgiveness offered to us through Jesus Christ, that is the first moment in our lives when we can be truly honest with ourselves. Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.

          The good news this morning is that you are all dirty little sinners who will suffer in your lifetime. Wait, that can’t be right. Let me read it again. The good news this morning is that you are all very dirty little sinners who will suffer a lot in your lifetime. Wait…how could that possibly be good news? We are sinners – how can that be good? Christ died for sinners. So, if I am a sinner – Christ died for me. That’s great news! The son of God loves you so much that he came and died for you – a sinner! That’s awesome news.  But what was the other half? The good news is that we are sinners who will suffer? Surely suffering cannot ever be good news.
Once upon a time there was a man who owned a caterpillar. He took care of the caterpillar and gave it food and watched over it as it spun it’ cocoon. When it came time for the caterpillar to emerge from the cocoon, a tiny hole appeared in the bottom. It was such a small hole It really seemed like the little guy was having a hard time getting out. So the man, in compassion, cut the hole just a tiny bit bigger so that the little guy could get out easier. So he wouldn’t have to squeeze through the hard times and life would be more comfortable. But the butterfly that emerged surprised the man. It had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. He kept waiting for it to fly, but it couldn’t. The man went and did a little research and found out that the butterfly is SUPPOSED to struggle. The butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. Removing the struggle, making life easier guaranteed that it would never fly. Paul teaches us that suffering creates perseverance. And that produces character. And that produces hope. I don’t know about you, but I want perseverance. I want character. I want hope. And so I think Paul is saying, if you want to build character, you need suffering. If you want perseverance, if you want hope – you need suffering. If you want to fly, you need the struggle.

Now of course, in American culture that sounds like crazy talk. In the modern world we run away from suffering at every opportunity. We hate suffering. We hate struggling. If it’s difficult, we should give up and run away from it. Every single day I see little advertisements on TV and on my phone – and every single one of them sends me the exact same message: your life should be as easy as possible. But what I want you to see this morning is that God takes the way the world does it and flips it on it’s head. You are a sinner who will suffer sounds like TERRIBLE news to the rest of the world – but because of Jesus, because of what God has done – it becomes very good news. Maybe it’s not happy news, but it is good.


          There’s two big take aways today. First, flip the world on its head. I’m wondering – can we become people who are willing to admit that we are not perfect. In a culture that encourages us to present only the best side of who we are – take perfect selfies, post hilarious captions, and witty, clever sayings – create a picture perfect social media presence – can we in this church be radically counter-cultural? Can we be people who admit to our mistakes. People who highlight their struggles and lay their real, authentic self in front of God. Can we admit we are sinners – can we boast in God’s grace that is given only for the ungodly? Flip the world on its head. And then, after we have turned our status as broken sinners into good news because of the grace of Jesus, can we take it one step further? Can we glory in our suffering, like Paul challenges us to do? Can we believe that God can use the brokenness of this world to work a good thing in our lives? Can we look at the pain we endure, the suffering we experience and actually give thanks to God for it? Because suffering produces something more in our lives. Can we, dare I say, embrace suffering? Did you know that the times when the church has been the most authentic, has grown the most and done the most good in the world are those moments in history when we have been the least powerful? In our weakness, God has done incredible things. There’s an old story from the English writer Somerset Maugham about a janitor at St Peter’s Church in Longdon. One day a young priest discovered that the janitor was illiterate and fired him. He was a good guy, did a good job but they required people who can read. Without a job, the man invested his meager savings in a tiny tobacco shop, where he prospered, bought another shop, and ended up with a chain of tobacco stores worth several hundred thousand dollars. One day the man’s banker said to him, “you’ve done really well for an illiterate, but where would you be if you could read and write?” “Well,” the man replied, “I’d be janitor of St Peter’s Church in Neville Square.” Comfort doesn’t move us. Maybe what Paul is trying to tell us is that suffering is not the worst thing in the world to be avoided at all costs. Maybe suffering has a purpose. Did you know that the underground church is stronger than the American church? Worldwide the church is exploding in size, just not in places where church is comfortable. Think about the council of Nicea where they created one of the most famous foundational documents of our faith – and how over 90% of those leaders were missing limbs from the suffering that they endured. The moments in our history when we have embraced suffering, and worked to understand it as a gift from God that produces character, are the best moments in church history. Flip the world on its head.


          Last year I was rejected by the Board of Ordained Ministry. For the first time in my career I failed at something I was trying to do. It was not fun, and it didn’t feel good. But it WAS good. It caused me to dig deeper, to put my roots down further, to grow and get better. If I had not gone through that trial, I would not have grown. And so I’ll leave you with this – May you flip the world on its head. May you never forget that God came, not for the perfect you that has it all together, but for the broken sinner on your worst day. While we were sinners, Christ died for us. And finally, may you glory in your suffering – knowing that it can lead you to hope and hope will not disappoint. Amen. [1] Vance Havner, sermonillustrations.com