Preached at Mt. Tabor UCC (St. Louis, MO)
In C.S. Lewis’s classic, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Lucy and her three older siblings are sent to live with a Professor in the English countryside in order to escape the Blitz – the Nazi German bombing of Britain. Now this professor lives in an incredibly large house. And, of course, when you are a child, there is one perfect thing to do in an incredibly large house – play hide and seek.
So that’s exactly what they do. Lucy hides in a wardrobe and realizes she is rather cold. She wraps herself in a coat and tries to press herself to the very back wall so that she is as hidden as possible. And she discovers something interesting – there is no back wall. Instead she finds that she is in a forest – in the winter. And she stumbles upon a faun.
She is in another world, there in the midst of her own. She stays with the faun until evening, sharing tea, conversation and music. When Lucy finally steps back into the wardrobe, she is convinced that her siblings are going to be sick with worry – only, no time has passed at all. And not a single one of her siblings believes her story of the world in the wardrobe.
Paul would have been sympathetic to Lucy. His contemporaries knew there were two worlds – or ages. There is the present age and the age to come – easy enough, right? The present age was known as an age of sin and death. The new age was when God would bring all of creation into relationship – when God wouldn’t just be God of the Israelites, but of all nations and all creatures. Paul believed that Jesus ushered in the beginning of that new age, but we won’t be fully there until Christ’s return. They were – and we are – living in the “already, but not yet:” two worlds at once – the present age and the age to come are coexisting.
Part of that belief was that these new Gentile believers – Gentile meaning anyone who isn’t a Jew – didn’t need to convert to Judaism in order to follow God. Did anyone here become Jewish in order to follow Jesus? There’s a reason for that: we, as Christ followers – as Christians – believe Paul. The idea of converting to Judaism to follow Christ may seem strange to us, but back in the first century, it was a huge debate – the topic is discussed in several of Paul’s letters. The first followers of Christ weren’t a separate religion from Judaism – they WERE Jews. They went to synagogue and studied Torah. Paul was one of them – a Jew, but a Jew stating that Jesus opened things up for the rest of us, to include us in the family of God, too. This signaled the new age.
And that is important as we look at today’s text. We read that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But do we believe that?
In the news right now, we hear of jobs that could be lost over issues related to the debt ceiling. We hear that severe famine has been declared in Africa and is claiming the lives of countless people. We hear of farmers along the river who are losing crops and nutrient-rich soil due to all the flood waters and those in Texas who are desperate for water.
On Tuesday, I attended the funeral of a 28-year-old girl who spent the last few years homeless, relying on the kindness of friends for places to stay. By the time she went to the clinic for the pain she was feeling, she had stage 4 breast cancer. Four months after her diagnosis, she was gone.
On Friday, a bomb went off in Norway, killing over 92 people. A twin attack occurred at a Norway youth camp where a shooter chased 600 people down a hill and into a body of water. People tried desperately to hide or swim to safety. The news is already telling the stories of those who played dead while others were falling around them. The gunman shot and killed at least 85 people. The person arrested and being tried for the crime is labeled by the media as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist. A Christian. One of us.
Where is the good in those situations? Do those people just not love God enough? Are they not called according to God’s purpose?
It is easy to say that the good comes from those who rally together to provide relief. Or those who were blessed as a result of the deceased’s lives.
But what do we say to those caught in cycles of abuse? Those whose families – generation after generation – beat submission into spouse and children? I can’t help but wonder if our attempts at calling something in those sorts of situations “good” isn’t merely doing a disservice to those who are genuinely hurting.
Until the new age is fully here, we have situations that are painful – some that may even be Hell on Earth. You have watched people live them – perhaps you have lived them yourselves. Living in the “Already, But Not Yet” gives us the ability to name bad situations for what they are – to allow time and space for grieving, suffering and healing. We can recognize and stand with those who are in terrible circumstances without the need to call them something different or pretend that all is well.
But – BUT – we aren’t left there.
If we look back a few verses – into the lectionary readings for last week – we’ll see words about hope, about how all of creation is waiting eagerly, is longing for the revealing of the children of God, waiting for the day that we will all be adopted. The new age has begun, but it isn’t fully here. So we hope.
We can smell dinner cooking and may even be eating the first course, but we haven’t reached the main course yet – or, my favorite, dessert. God is working to reconcile the world – to put all of the creation into a right relationship with each other. We aren’t there yet, but we see hints.
We see those hints as people work together to protect the Earth’s precious resources. We see those hints as people resist spending all their money on themselves, but instead set some aside for those in need. We see those hints as men and women stand up for those who are being treated poorly.
We get to help bring about this new age – we pray for it every week as we say the Lord’s Prayer together “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” This “new age” is the kingdom of God. It is God’s will being done here, in our neighborhood. We don’t always know what that looks like, but Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is interceding on our behalf – filling in the parts of our prayers that are beyond our understanding, beyond our ability to ask.
Paul asks “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
Paul’s questions recognize the very real problems that people faced – that he faced. He knew the way certain groups persecuted – and even killed Christians. He had been part of that group before his own conversion. He knew that he was a prime target for it now. Paul spent time in prison, had people make pact to kill him. But his answer is beautiful, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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.”
I don’t know what you are going through today, what difficulties you face. I do know that they are real – that life can be incredibly difficult. I hope you know today that you are not alone, but that the God who created you is with you through all things. I hope you know that the Spirit is praying on your behalf. Thanks to Jesus, we can see the hope of something amazing – of a new world.
For we know that neither death nor life, cancer nor terrorism, nor powers, nor governments, nor debt ceilings, nor economies…Nothing. NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.