Sermon on Romans 8:28–30, Pentecost 10
Little children are always asking “Why?” Something I remember—I must have been about two or three years old—was asking, “Why doesn’t Grandpa have any hair on the top of his head?” Mom said, “Well, that’s something that happens. When men get older, sometimes they lose their hair.” “How did he lose his hair?” “It fell out.” “How did it fall out?” “It fell from his head to the floor.” “Okay.” Those questions can be cute—sometimes a little maddening for parents—but they’re part of a child finding out how the world works. After a while, as we figure out more, we don’t ask “Why” and “how” quite so much.
When we become adults—there are still some questions. Especially when we’re trying to find meaning or purpose in the events of life. Romans 8:28 is a passage we learned in Catechism class, and it’s a passage we go back to when we’re asking those questions “Why?” In Romans 8 St. Paul tells us, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The NIV translates the verse to be more active on God’s part, “God works all things for the good of those who love him.” Either way, a word that perplexes us—and a word that should give us supreme comfort—is that one word All Means All…
- I. The things that seem good to us, and the things that seem bad to us,
- “All things work together for good.” That’s what the Bible says. And it’s not hard to see the joyful occasions and successes as good. You have some accomplishment at work or you have a new job opportunity that opened up for you. You celebrate some milestone in life—a birthday or an anniversary. You have some joyful event, a wedding. The good is obvious. And it’s actually fun to imagine where some of these things are going. New job? More money. Success? Hopefully more success. More parts of the plan falling into place. A wedding? An addition to the family. Joy. The sticking point—the challenge—in that word all, “All things work together for good” is the things that seem bad to us. From the inconveniences and irritations, to the heartbreaks and hardships, to the tragedies. A highschooler asks “Why did my girlfriend dump me? How can that be good?” A worker asks “Why am I stuck in this dead-end job. It’s a drag. How can this be good?” A health problem makes everyday life more of a challenge. Some health problems cause serious setbacks. “I can’t do this anymore—or I can only do some of these things with difficulty. How can this be good?” And then there are the tragedies. In the last weeks we heard a news story about a mother and three young boys, members of one of our churches in northern Illinois who were killed when someone else failed to stop for a stop sign. “How can that be good?”
- There are two things we have to remember. The first is, What ‘good’ are you thinking about? Short-term or long-term? You and I can be pretty shortsighted when we think of our own good plans. Sometimes, after many years, we figure some things out: “That thing I wanted long ago—that I set my heart on so much—would not have been good.” It was disappointing that the one girlfriend dumped me, but that opened up the way for the one who has been with me for more than half my life. It was good that the better job offer fell through because that would have taken me away from a better, more solid career. Too often, our idea of good is focused on our instant gratification. How good is that? It gets us into more trouble, doesn’t it? I want it now! Drugs, sex, ambition, greed, all for now—not thinking of God’s commands or will, or that God has something better for us, for now and forever.
II. “For good” means God’s eternal purpose.
- The second is that God looks at all things from his eternal perspective. And his best goal for us is to have us in heaven with him when this life is done. St. Paul even says so here: “…those God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called. Those he called, he also justified. And those he justified, he also glorified.” Because God’s point of view is eternal, a lot of his plans will be beyond our understanding. He even says so. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Because you and I are mere mortals, confined by time—time is our only viewpoint, and we always are living on that razor’s edge of The past lays open before us, but the future remains hidden.
- God sees it all. In his wisdom, he knows what good he is working out—in our inconveniences, heartbreaks, hardships, he knows what is better for us now—and what is better as he leads us to himself—what will keep us on his righteous path so we remain firm in his Word and in the faith as long as we live. And remember his highest good—that he wants us to be with him in heaven when this life is done. A good guess about God’s good plan and purpose in some of the worst hardships is that God is using that to train us and get us ready—to lift our eyes above all of our smaller goals and to set them on God’s heavenly goal. I told this story back in November, and I’ll tell it again. When my Dad passed away in September, it was after a pretty difficult year of decline. “Why so long?” we might ask? “Why so many losses? How can that be good?” Well in his last days, Mom told him, “You’re going home to Jesus.” He answered, “When!?” After the losses, he was ready. If everything in life went perfect, we wouldn’t want to let go. The hardship was training and readiness. The Bible calls it discipline. (Hebrews 12:5ff). Then there are those losses like the young family in the last weeks. Why would God take someone so early—too early as we see it. God does tell us about that, too. In Isaiah 57 he says, “The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.” From his eternal perspective, God knows what he is sparing someone. He knows if there is something worse down the road awaiting for them. In doctrine classes at the Seminary, I remember reading that God determines the end of a person’s life based on his gracious will. The Scripture before us today (Romans 8:28) was one passage given to support that, and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29). “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace.” God knows what time is best. It’s heartbreaking for those left behind—but also a reminder that our vision of the future is very limited.
Conclusion: I want you to think of the worst thing we celebrate. Good Friday. We have a reminder of it on our altar. I wear a reminder of it around my neck. Some of you have reminders of it on a wall hanging or picture at home. For God, Good Friday meant that God gave up his only Son. For him, it meant torture, pain, bleeding, suffering, heartbreak, and death. Look at that cross with the figure of Jesus on it and ask, “How could God bring anything good out of that?” Later in Romans 8 St. Paul says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). We may not know God’s plan. We may never understand it completely. But this much we know, because God has promised it to us, that he does have a good plan and purpose for us. That he is working all things, good and bad, for the good of those who love him. Because this is a matter of faith, it means that we know his promise, accept it as true, and trust. It doesn’t mean we know all the details. Only that he promises good. His worst worked this good: our redemption. The forgiveness of our sins. Jesus was offered as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. He gives himself to us. He invites us and receives us to himself for the sake of Christ. This is the wisdom from on high. This is the precious treasure and pearl that are worth everything. Yes, we will still ask “Why?” But the answer we hear may be simply, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).
We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose, because those God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called. Those he called, he also justified. And those he justified, he also glorified. (EHV)