Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 118:14-29
New Testament Lesson: Acts 5:27-32
Gospel Lesson: John 20:19-31
My maternal family – Robbins – settled in the Kanapaha region – about half way between Gainesville and Archer – in 1870.
(My wife’s maternal family had already been in Gainesville for 20 years.)
The Robbins Dairy Farm was a legitimate operation – but its legitimacy was primarily that of a cover for the real money-crop: Moonshine.
Moonshine is made by distillation.
Corn is allowed to sour into a nasty semi-liquid mess; is cooked in a closed-in apparatus called a still – with the vapors induced by the cooking being caught in a copper coil which discharges a distilled liquid – moonshine.
The distillation process takes something really nasty and delivers something free of impurities.
The man wrote to Ben Haden:
Ben, my earthly life is closer to over than to its beginning. Common sense certainly tells me more sand has run out than remains.
I have been a believer most of my life.
I have been reasonably active in church and my faith is meaningful and has informed my opinions and decisions.
I write you to thank you for your recent message about God’s promise in Romans 8:28.
About 20 years ago I was blindsided by cancer. Treatment left me infirm for several years.
18 years ago my wife just could not take it anymore. She divorced me. We had no children.
I was 42, sick, divorced, childless.
Depression would have been a welcome improvement to me.
I was simply inert. I was paralyzed by my circumstances and could see absolutely nothing good in my future.
For some reason I continued to go to physical therapy. There I met a woman a bit younger than I.
My cancer was in remission and the PT helped me gradually regain my strength.
I fell in love with my therapist – and she with me.
We have been married for 15 years. We have a 13-year old daughter and a 10-year old son.
I am happy. Really happier than I was – although had I not gone through the valley of the shadow, I would not have known it.
My life is a testimony to the almost unfathomable truth of Romans 8:28.
The things I went through were horrible. The events themselves were negative and frightening and left me bereft, and in the moment of that bitterness, I could simply not have heard the truth of this great promise.
Taken individually, these things were universally hurtful and bad, and to have said ‘things will get better’ at that time would have been patronizing, and would have made me angry.
But, from the perspective of today – God was continually +
faithful to work all those things together for good.
Only the sovereign God could have done this, and I praise His faithfulness.
It is reasonable to assume none of the players except Jesus saw this coming.
In the Gospel narratives it is easy to happily skip along in our reading, feeling cozy and fulfilled because in the back of our mind we know how it turned out.
We know Romans 8:28 (all things work together for good to them who love God; to those who are called according to His purpose.) was physically, morally, and spiritually defined in advance of Paul’s writing of those words some 25 years later, by the events of Passion Week and the Easter Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
All things did in fact work together for good.
Eternal good. Faithful-to-the-Covenant good.
But, oh my goodness at the journey.
Oh my goodness at all the bad things that happened which God had to influence by His goodness and mercy such that even the disparate and wicked parts actually worked together for good; for the salvation of mankind through faith in God’s Grace offered in the final and acceptable sacrifice of the only begotten of the Father.
Working things together for good is not a magic trick.
It is not slight-of-hand theological mumbo-jumbo.
And it absolutely cannot be accomplished by anyone’s determination to ‘out-religion’ or ‘out-church’ anyone else.
Working all things together for good is – as is salvation – what Ben Haden would call a ‘God job’.
Only the Sovereign of the universe could influence and shape; sculpt and weave events and motives; attitudes and choices such that good ultimately prevails – even while free will remains.
And this only because the Sovereign of the Universe is God Almighty, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His:
And only because all this was manifest in Jesus the Christ, Who – along with the Holy Spirit – was with God before the foundations of creation were spoken into being by the will and authority of God.
So – yes – all things do (and did) work together for good.
But, my goodness at the journey
Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist, author, media personality, and satirist. As a young man, Muggeridge was a left-wing sympathizer but he later became a forceful anti-communist.
An agnostic for most of his life, he became a Christian, publishing Jesus Rediscovered in 1969, a collection of essays, articles and sermons on faith. It became a best seller. Jesus: The Man Who Lives followed in 1976, a more substantial work describing the Gospel in his own words. In A Third Testament, he profiles six spiritual thinkers, whom he called “God’s Spies”, who influenced his life: Augustine of Hippo, William Blake, Blaise Pascal, Leo Tolstoy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Søren Kierkegaard. In this period he also produced several BBC religious documentaries, including “In the Footsteps of St. Paul”.
His last book Conversion (1988) describes his life as a 20th-century pilgrimage, a spiritual journey.
In it, Muggeridge makes this point:
‘Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message’.
I don’t know about you, but I can usually hold onto this truth in the small things, but when faced with larger ‘happenings’, it’s more of a challenge.
So – again – I don’t think anyone but Jesus saw how all the Easter events would turn out.
The guttural disappointment of Friday still dominated.
And now it is Sunday morning.
Events really began to unravel two weeks earlier when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead – after having been entombed four days.
I think Jesus’ weeping at Lazarus tomb was less an expression of his grief at Lazarus’ death than the realization that if He did this – if He raised this man from the grave after having been dead 4 days – and with so many people having witnessed the wake and funeral and burial – if Lazarus were to appear in their midst alive and well, this would be ‘crossing the Rubicon’.
He had raised the widow of Nain and Jairius’ daughter but those events were proximate to their deaths and likely had been somewhat dismissed by the religious authorities as those folks having recovered from some sort of catatonic state. You know how quick we are to look for ‘logical explanations’ for miracles.
But Lazarus had been dead 4 days and many in Bethany had witnessed the funeral and burial.
The Jewish authorities who had dogged Jesus’ every move, had challenged His every perceived violation of the Law, and who had not hidden their contempt for his charlatan and cavalier attitude about God (even being so disrespectful and arrogant as to call God ‘my Father’. And, He even manipulated people’s fears and emotions by telling them He could ‘forgive sins’) – these Jewish leaders simply would not be willing for Jesus’ agitating the crowds with acts of compassion and kindness and miracles to continue.
Jesus knew what a cascade of events this raising of Lazarus would launch…and it made Him weep.
But, for the disciples and the horde of hangers-on, the next two weeks would be almost electric.
Jerusalem bulged more each day as people arrived at the city ahead of Passover.
Activity was frenetic and nigh-ceaseless. To give you an idea of how much was packed into these next 14 days, consider that of the 21 chapters in the Gospel of John, 10 cover the first 2 years and 50 weeks of Jesus’ 3-year ministry.
Chapter 11 opens with the recounting of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and the next 10 chapters cover only the 2 weeks between this event and His crucifixion and Resurrection.
I hope you will not miss the important unfolding of the participants in the Easter narrative.
The disciples were just in shambles. Their lives were essentially ruined. They were spiritually and emotionally catatonic. They had left everything 3 years ago to follow this Jesus.
Each had been in a trade or business – with contacts and a network of customers and centers of influence.
These were all left behind – and logic dictates these customers moved on to new suppliers – thus the disciples had no business which to return.
The disciples had followed Jesus at significant personal risk – economic, political, and religious. They had bet the house. They had burned the boats. They had believed what He had said and what they had heard and seen.
Then, in the course of 2 short weeks, everything fell apart, and He was dead – and they were lost.
In their state of paralysis the Bible tells us they were all together except Thomas– and why not? They were frightened and felt exposed and hunted and sought solace from the group.
So, it was not any of these men who risked going to the tomb Sunday morning.
It was the women.
At the risk of being labelled sexist – it is my opinion that – generally – women are more courageous than men. Their courage is often quiet and understated – likely muted due to the decibel-level of male ego.
C.S. Lewis says of courage:
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues. It is the form of every virtue at its testing point.”
The men were huddled in abject disappointment.
The women – even in their equal disappointment – girded their hearts and went to the tomb.
And, you know what they found.
Receiving the women’s report renewed the disciples – save for Thomas – who was not there.
(We will take a closer look at Thomas’ encounter with Jesus at a later Sunday.)
What happened after this renewal?
Their faith was distilled – made powerful – pure – potent. The sour mash of the Passion emerged as the amazing pure gift of Resurrection and transformation.
Their faith was renewed by the refining fire of fear and loss through the courageous women’s witness, and the preaching career of the Apostles was launched, as we read in the Acts 5 lesson.
Through the whipsaw of sudden and radical disappointment – of the future seemingly lost – God’s promise of Romans 8:28 was realized in their lives.
If anyone had said to them the Saturday after the crucifixion that ‘your life will turn out good’ – that ‘all this is for the best’ – they would have dismissed the message as having been delivered by an insensitive idiot; the patronizing palaver of a pious fool.
(This is why it is so important that we not engage in patronizing rhetoric when people are hurting. It diminishes our witness, and Jesus never did it.)
The disciples saw their disappointment distilled by the reality of the Resurrection – validating every word Jesus spoke and guaranteeing every promise in Scripture.
Their renewal was refined through the experience of seeing the risen Lord.
How is it with you today?
Many here have experienced real loss – tragic circumstance – disruptive and debilitating disappointment.
Many have endured the slow bleeding of faith as life’s sharp edges have wounded and bruised.
In these, some have become resigned that this is just the way life is, and as the sand runs out, see little chance of change.
If this is your experience, I hope you will hear the courage of the women who went to the tomb. I hope you will perceive the renewal experienced by the disciples as they heard the report of Jesus’ resurrection and then saw him in the flesh.
I hope you can look back today upon events which wounded you and hurt you and disappointed you, and see from this side of the Resurrection the profound truth and comfort of Romans 8:28; that by the power of the Resurrected Christ, all things will indeed work together for good.
If you are not quite there yet, please come back again and again to the wellspring of God’s word; of regular fellowship among His people – of which we all are; and of a willingness to go to His Word and to be instructed by those promises of faithfulness and compassion and care and unfailing love – all made believable by the Resurrection.
I pray today Muggeridge’s words will resonate in our hearts, that ‘every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message’.
I pray our disappointments will all be distilled through the promise of Grace, and that we will each be renewed by the refining of God’s Word and presence.