All Things Work Together for Good
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
24 July 2005, 10:30 (Trinity 9)
Romans 8: 26-39
I want to preach this morning on this one extraordinary verse in Romans 8: 28. All things work together for good for those who love God.
It's part of a stunning cacophony at the end of Romans Chapter 8, where Paul expresses his unshakeable confidence in the greater purposes of God in our lives. If God is for us, who is against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? I am certain that nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God.
These are fine and inspirational words until we have to cash them in. Until they are put to the test. Because these words have to illuminate the truth even in the light of the London bombings or the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres. Or, indeed, even in the trivial round of a bad hair day.
John Calvin once said that "it is certain that not a drop of rain falls without the express command of God". Do you believe that? Is that how you see God? As intimately involved in ordering every last detail of life? And if he is, then how do we make sense of things that go wrong?
Where do we see the hand of God in the events that shape and fashion our lives, and how does God intervene in the affairs of the world?
Is Romans 8: 28 simply the spiritual equivalent of the power of positive thinking? A sort of mind over matter that helps us cope even with the most awful events of life. Or is it something more, something deeper, something stronger than this?
I think there are two equal and opposite dangers in the Christian life. One is to assume that God exists simply to make us happy. A sort of divine genie who we can conjure up at will to give us an easy life. The other is to assume that God is distant and uninterested in our lives. But the truth lies somewhere between the two.
Some years ago Susan Howatch wrote a remarkable novel based around this solitary verse from Romans 8: 28. It was called Absolute Truths and the central theme of her book was that whatever happens in our lives good or bad it can be redeemed in the hands of the creative God. In the middle of her story the narrator, a man whose life is falling apart around him after the death of his wife, goes to see a sculptress. In the studio of this sculptress is the latest sculpture that she has been working on, a pair of hands beautifully crafted and redolent with meaning.
The man gets into a discussion with the sculptress over the process of making such a beautiful piece of work and she says. "Every step I take, every bit of clay I ever touch, they are all there in the final work. If they hadn't happened, then this" - she gestured to the sculpture - "wouldn't exist. In fact they had to happen for the work to emerge as it is. So in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears, everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I re-use, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that, in the end, nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me".
And, as the story unfolds, the man begins to see his own life in these terms. As God takes all his mistakes and his wrong turnings and the difficulties of the past and reworks them within his life to create a different pattern. Something new and more creative for the future.
This image of God as a divine potter forming and fashioning and reforming our lives to make us according to his pattern, is a powerful image. Within the pages of scripture it speaks of the creator and his creation, and of our dependence, our willingness to place ourselves at God's disposal, to be pliable and malleable in God's overall plan for us. And, indeed, as Susan Howatch points out, of God's ability to take and reshape and refashion our lives in a positive way through even the hardest and harshest of circumstances.
This, of course, is very easy to say once you have come through those difficulties. It is far harder to say it when you are in the midst of them, but even so it is worth remembering.
Arthur Ashe the tennis star who died of AIDS after receiving infected blood wrote his memoirs in the book Days of Grace. There he writes these words. "I do not waste time pleading with God to make me well. I was brought up to believe that prayer is not to be invoked to ask God for things for oneself. Rather, prayer is a medium through which I ask God to show me His will and to give me strength to carry out that will."
It is not, indeed it cannot be, that God sends the bad stuff and the dark experiences of life. Rather it is that God can redeem the most difficult experiences and bring good out of evil - if we will offer our lives and this possibility to God in this way.
And, of course, it does not have to be in the great and momentous events of life that we do this. Let me give 2 trivial and minor examples.
I was beginning to think about this sermon as I was travelling back from Birmingham recently and, as is often the case, I was racing a bit against time to get back to Rochester and I hit solid traffic at the bottom of the M1. So I had to detour and was significantly delayed. It's frustrating to sit in a traffic jam when you are in a rush to get somewhere.
I had to remind myself there, in that very ordinary situation, that all things work together for good for those who love God and this experience could be used in a positive way in my life. Just thinking about it made the detour easier to cope with. I got back to Rochester and walked in through the front gate of the Deanery and managed to trap my thumb in the gate as I opened it. It was momentarily excruciatingly painful. Again, I had to remind myself, all things work together for good and, in a very small way, I was able to use that thought to redeem this very trivial incident. It helped me think about and pray for those who are suffering far more intense and life-changing pain.
The point is, if all things do indeed work together for good for those who love God, this is something utterly transformational for life! Every single little incident can be redeemed. What is it that the Bible says? Do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good. That’s quite a thought to hold in our minds at the moment.
I have been very impressed by the determination of the ordinary Londoners not to be intimidated by terrorism. I think the same is true on a spiritual level. If you determine to look for the silver lining in life. If you determine not to be intimidated by evil, then it opens up a very different pathway and pattern in life. That's why praise and thanksgiving is such a powerful, spiritual weapon. Because it refuses to accept the logic of despair and lifts the soul ever upwards to faith in God.
The twins we are baptising today are a remarkable gift for Simon and Fiona. All new life, of course, is a gift, but there is an extraordinary story here that Simon is happy for me to recount. When Simon and Fiona found she was pregnant with twins, they were advised to cancel their dream holiday and avoid flying. Which is why they didn’t land in Sri Lanka in the early hours of Boxing Day last year......the morning of the tsunami. Even before they were born, Elloise and Candice brought to their parents the gift of life.
Which reminds me of an old Chinese story which is not Christian but which is a help in understanding these things. It is the story of the old man at the fort.
An old man lived with his son at an abandoned fort at the top of a hill. One day he lost his horse and the neighbours came to express their sympathy. But the old man asked them "how do you know this is bad luck?" A few days afterwards his son, who had gone searching for the horse, returned with a number of wild horses.
So his neighbours came again, this time to congratulate him. But the old man replied "how do you know this is good luck?" With so many horses around, his son took to riding them and it wasn't long before there was a broken leg in the family.
Once more the neighbours came round to express their sympathy, but the old man was not to be moved. He answered. "How do you know this is bad luck"? The next year there was a war and because the old man's son was lame he didn't have to go to the front.
You don't have to be Chinese to get the point. You don't have to be a Christian to get the point, but you do have to be a Christian to go further than this. To say the last word that needs to be spoken. For the point is about God and his loving will. If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ. I am certain that nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God.
We are people who believe in God's faithful, gracious, loving and unconquerable purpose for us all. We are people who believe that all things work together for good, for those who love God.