(Romans 8: 26-27, 31-35, 37-39)
Before I begin, I want to share a bit about the sermon series Rebecca and I are beginning this Sunday, a series that runs through the next four weeks. The theme of our series is Christ is King; and if it sounds like I added emphasis on the word “Christ,” it’s because that’s exactly what I did. Christ is King.
Now I imagine there are a few of you who are liturgically-inclined and ready to interject and say, “But Steve, Christ the King is not a sermon series theme, it’s an actual Sunday in the liturgical calendar and it’s still four weeks away.” And you’d be right. Christ the King is the final Sunday of our liturgical year, right before the beginning of Advent. You can think of Christ the King Sunday as a kind of exclamation point at the end of the story that our liturgical year seeks to tell – a story that begins with the birth of Jesus and takes us through his ministry on earth, on to his death and resurrection and the beginnings of the early church. At so at the end of this grand story, on Christ the King Sunday, we proclaim loud and clear that Jesus Christ is king and lord of all.
Now it may seem odd to take the focus of a single Sunday and extend it out over four. In more normal times, one Christ the King Sunday would be plenty. But you may have noticed that we are not living in normal times. And so back in the spring, when your ministerial staff began planning worship for the fall and wondering what the people of God would need to hear in November 2020 – with all that is going on, all that we know is going to take place and perhaps more importantly all that we do not know – when your ministerial staff thought about that, the one thing we felt would be critical in this moment would be reminding ourselves over and over how Jesus lies at the center of who we are, no matter what. No matter who wins an election. No matter what happens with the virus No matter how good things are or how bad things get, Jesus Christ is king and lord of all.
And so we are going to take a full four weeks to dig into Christ as King, so that we as followers of Jesus have a theological and biblical framework through which to interpret whatever might happen in the coming days and weeks and view it through the lens of faith. As I’ve said before, our job as pastors is not to tell you what to think but what to think about. This month, this November 2020, we want you to think deeply about what it means for Christ to be king and lord of all.
And there is perhaps no better Sunday to begin this journey than All Saints Day. Always the first Sunday in November, it is the day we give thanks to God for those in our family of faith who have died in the past year, speaking their names and lifting up their lives as they’ve made the transition to the Church Triumphant. It is a bittersweet observance, full of both celebration and mourning. And it leaves us with something akin to what Paul mentions in our passage today; what he calls sighs too deep for words.
I just love that expression. Sighs too deep for words. I love that Paul lets his inner poet loose, which he’s not known for doing. Sighs too deep for words. Although the truth is, “sighs” may be a little watered down. I actually like how another translation puts it: groans. Groans too deep for words! That’ll preach, right? Groans because our longing for God is real. Groans because that longing is built into our DNA – as we’ve been saying all year, we are meant to be connected with God and with each other and with our neighbor.
And yet the pain we feel when we’re not making that connection is real. We know that feeling. We’ve all felt it at one time or another.
It is felt by the woman whose father died long ago but she never quite dealt with it, so that whenever his name is mentioned her eyes well up with tears. It is felt by the man who lost his job when the factory made cutbacks, and the bills keep stacking up on his kitchen counter. It is felt by the young girl who thought all was on track for the wedding, until her fiancée decided he’d rather pursue his career than a relationship and left her hanging three months out. And it is felt by the person whose life looks normal from the outside, but deep within rages a spiritual battle, because the shame is relentless and they simply cannot fathom why a loving God would ever want to have anything to do with them. It is felt by all of us at some point because our lives are an assortment of highs and lows, of joyful praise and deep groans; and oftentimes it can seem like the groans far outweigh the joy.
And to this, Paul lifts up an amazing truth in our passage. For it is not just our sighs, our groans. Listen again: The Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Did you catch that? It’s not just us doing the sighing here. It is also the Spirit. The Spirit who “intercedes” for us – a word that means “to intervene on behalf of another.” God intervenes on our behalf, no matter what.
Think about that. Whatever happens, God is there. Right there with us in our world, in our lives, in our joys, in our struggles, in our fears. God is there God has always been there. God was there when the world was created and fashioned. God was there with the Hebrews as they made their way out of bondage in Egypt and through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God was there with the people as they ran through king after king after king after king….after king…after king. Leaders come and go, some good, some not-so good; but God is always there. God was there with the Jewish people living under Roman rule in the person of Jesus. God was there with the church at its beginning and is still with it today. God not above us or below us or off to the side of us. God right there. With us.
And it is this God – a loving and compassionate, close God – who responds to the struggles of a broken world with “sighs too deep for words.” And to be clear, these sighs are not the sighs of a God who is ready to throw in the towel on us. These groans are not the groans of an indifferent deity. No, these are the sighs and groans of a God who chooses to be in the mess with us, who understands and feels our pain and wants so desperately to join us in it – because that is where we most need God, because that is where God most wants to be.
Which is why Paul says what he says at the end of his eighth chapter, words that have resonated over thousands of years: that nothing can separate us from God. Paul lists off a host of things that some might think would get in the way. Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Nothing at all can or ever will separate us from the love of God.
These words are often spoken at funerals and memorial services, a time when the pain of grief can feel an awful lot like separation. A proclamation that even death – even death! – cannot separate us from God. We hold on to that truth on this All Saints Day as we honor those who are no longer with us, as we revisit their absence and are reminded once again that nothing can separate.
And we continue clinging to this truth as we live in strange and precarious times. In these times of division and discord, in these days of anxiety and uncertainty, we cling to the knowledge that the God who groans with us is the God who will never be separated from us. Jesus Christ, who we proudly proclaim as King and Lord of all, never leaves our side.
Maybe this is easy for you to hear. Maybe you’ve always felt the closeness of a God who loves you, the immediate presence of a savior who walks with you. Or maybe you have not always felt this way. Maybe you have struggled to feel that closeness and have even experienced times in your life when the separation from God feels almost insurmountable.
If that is the case, then please hear me when I say this:
I know that the death of loved ones is especially acute on days like these. I know there is a lot of anxiety around the election – not just with who wins or loses, but what happens around that and after that, and what things will be like going forward from it. And I know we are both weary of and frightened by a virus that has profoundly interrupted our lives, has kept us from those we love, and in some cases – over a million worldwide – has brought an end to those lives.
And into all that uncertainty, I simply want to say this: God‘s got this. God‘s got this! And that doesn’t mean that the grief doesn’t sting or the results of an election will always be to our liking or the impact of a virus will not be devastating. All it means is that the same God who holds us in death, the same God who holds us in our grief, is the same God who holds us in these strange and uncertain times, now and always.
Beloved people of God, I want you to hold on to that in the coming days and months, for the rest of this year and in the years to come. There is so little of life that is certain. The sighs will come. The groans will happen. And God is right in the thick of it all, holding us even closer.
Lean into that anytime you feel as if God is slipping away; and know beyond a shadow of doubt that God holds you close and nothing can separate you from that.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
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