Based on Romans 8:26–39
In the documentary film titled “Between Homes,” a young man named Nick Jaffe decides he needs to do something memorable in what so far has been an ordinary life.
And so he buys an old sailboat, fixes it up, learns how to sail, and eventually sets out on a course from the UK across the Atlantic to Barbados, then across the Pacific to Australia.
And he does this all alone.
In the three years he is intermittently at sea, he runs into dangerous storms, has a plethora of frustrating repairs, and gets caught in the doldrums and circular patterns and ends up going nowhere for days upon days.
Of course, he also experiences amazing rainbows, sunsets and following winds that re-energize him and give him hope.
But at one point in his longest leg across the Pacific when storms are beating him up, he debates seeking help from God:
“I never asked for God’s help on land, why should I ask for God’s help on the sea now?”
It’s not a stretch to say the young sailor didn’t believe in God.
And at the end of his trip, when he finally sees Australia looming across his bow, he breaks down —
Not because of his accomplishment; but because his journey is over, and he knows he must return to the ordinary life he once knew,, and from which he tried to escape.
After dropping anchor in port, he sleeps a final night in the sailboat and repeats these sad words:
“What was I expecting?”
You see, no one met him at port. There was no fanfare. No one helped him.
Instead, customs met him at the dock with a $3,000 bill that he must pay to enter the country legally.
His journey just simply ended.
And a few weeks later, he sold his boat.
Nick’s story is depressing to me — and maybe to you — because his faith was misplaced.
Instead of finding comfort in how God promises to be with us and how God’s will prevails, he looks only to himself.
In the middle of the ocean, with no real grounding, he’s all alone, and he’s completely lost.
And when he reaches his destination, he’s just as alone and lost.
He simply got into a boat to escape the nothingness that haunted him, and he sailed across two oceans looking for something he couldn’t ever find.
What was he looking for?
Or, to use Nick’s own words, “What was (he) expecting?”
Compare this young sailor’s experience to what Paul is writing in his letter to the Roman church that we read in Romans 8.26-39 today.
You see, we all have a choice.
Nick, the sailor, alluded to it when he debated seeking God’s help.
And this is the gift God gives us, freely.
When we accept Jesus Christ into our lives, we receive God’s Spirit.
Jesus calls the Spirit our Helper, or Advocate.
And Paul refers to this in the opening of this reading, beginning in Verse 26:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
What is Paul saying here?
Even if we don’t know what to pray for or how to pray, because we have the Spirit within us, the Spirit helps us.
It’s not we who are sighing — and a better translation is probably groaning — it is the Holy Spirit.
In other words, the Holy Spirit is groaning — almost straining — with effort to make known to God what our hearts long for.
Like if we were in a court of law, and we don’t know the legal terminology to argue.
So a lawyer steps in and represents us.
The Spirit is like this — representing our thoughts and emotions that we cannot articulate even in prayer.
Nick didn’t appear to have that.
I say “appear” because I don’t know if God can’t see what is in Nick’s heart.
I tend to think God does… But it has to go both ways.
Nick doesn’t have faith, so he doesn’t know this language and this help is available to him.
You might be asking “What difference would it have made if Nick knew Christ?”
“Would that mean people would be waiting for him at the end of his trip?”
“Would he have been happy instead of depressed in the throes of the Pacific storm?”
Let’s let Paul answer that, and we can see it beginning in Verse 35:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
And Paul continues, quoting from Psalm 44, Verse 22:
“As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
If the young sailor asked me those questions about what difference Christ would have made in those desperate times, these verses might have come to mind as well.
And here it is: We suffer.
In life, we sometimes go through pain.
We have hardships, we fail, people fail us, bad things happen.
In other words, we have storms in our lives.
Popular Christianity likes to call them “seasons.”
And sometimes those seasons are stormy.
Sometimes, the storms are so bad, all we can do is lay on our beds and cry.
Sometimes, our prayers are simply “God, please!”
Sometimes, we can’t even verbalize that.
Have you been there?
But our prayer isn’t “What was I expecting?” like Nick’s;
Because to pray — even inaudibly and unable to articulate — is an expectation in itself.
Even when we can’t find the words, praying is an expression of trust.
Trust that even in our low conditions, we hope — we expect — God will hear us.
What is praying if we don’t expect God to hear us?
And guess what? That’s faith.
How does Paul articulate this in his letter to the Romans?
We have to peddle back a couple of verses, beginning at Verse 31:
“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
Two brilliant things here:
First, Paul goes right to the Cross.
He says God didn’t withhold his own Son from the Cross, but gave Jesus up for us.
And because God gave his Son to pay for our release from our bondage, why wouldn’t God hold to the promise that we are free?
It’s like if you ended up in jail and someone came by and bailed you out — whatever the cost — would you walk out of the cell, or would you stand there thinking that you’re still a prisoner?
It’s like God is saying “I bailed you out,” and you’re saying “No, you didn’t.”
You are now free. The debt has been paid.
Why stand there behind the bars?
Second, Paul talks about elect and predestined.
This simply means that we are brothers and sisters of Christ because we’ve been offered Christ’s love.
We have been elected to be the heirs of God’s promise as children of God.
Christ elected to pay that debt for us.
And because we belong to Christ, Christ — in Paul’s own language — “indeed intercedes for us.”
In Pastor Chris’s own words it’s this:
When you accepted Christ as your savior as well as his payment on the Cross for your debt, YOU ARE SAVED.
Back to Paul — and one of my favorite verses in all of the Bible — Verses 38 and 39:
“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.”
NOTHING can separate us from God’s love.
Now, usually I give you the history and context before delving into the day’s reading.
But I want to work a little backwards.
We remember Paul was a pharisee — one of the hypocritical religious Jewish leader of the day.
And Paul was a shining star with the pharisees.
And he persecuted Christ-followers, like Stephen, who was stoned to death under Paul’s watch.
Until Jesus got hold of Paul and helped him see just what he was doing.
That’s all in Acts 9, and you can check that out on your own sometime.
So the non-Christ-following Jews in Israel would persecute the Christ-following Jews.
But Israel also was under Roman occupation.
And we know, too, that the Romans were persecuting all Jews, no matter whether they followed Christ or not.
What does this say about Israel?
Israel is supposed to be God’s promised land — and the Israelites were chosen by God — or elected or predetermined, to use Paul’s language — to be God’s children.
And once again, God’s children — Abraham’s heirs — are under attack.
But what do we know about being God’s children?
What do we know about being Abraham’s heirs?
Abraham, whom God covenants with, to create this place called Israel from which God’s love, promise and covenant will be spread to ALL of God’s children in ALL nations.
So who was Paul writing to?
Yeah, the letter is to the Romans — the Roman Church.
That’s the capital of the Empire, and it’s a long, long way from Israel.
Paul is writing in the year 57 to the church in Rome where both Jews and Gentiles — in other words ALL of God’s people — are worshipping Christ.
And there was great persecution of Christ-followers.
The emperor Claudius almost a decade prior to this letter, ordered the eviction of all Christ-followers from Rome because they have caused such a commotion in the Roman way of life.
Claudius died, and three years later, the Roman church is still going, but needs to hear this message that despite the suffering and persecution the church is experiencing, God’s purpose and promise prevails.
Even through their suffering, God is with them because God’s purpose — to be with us always, and to let “the kingdom come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — that will all prevail.
This is Paul’s message: Hold on! Believe! Trust! Have Faith!
Because God continues to fulfill the promise.
God watched as his own Son was crucified that we no longer be separated by our brokenness, our sin.
That we were given God’s spirit when we accepted Christ, and God’s spirit lives within us and will never, ever abandon us.
That God’s spirit will advocate for us.
So that God’s purpose will prevail in our lives.
Understanding the context, we can now come back to what this piece of Scripture means in our lives.
God’s purpose, plan and covenant are still working within us.
God’s Spirit is helping us to make that happen.
So we can look through a more broad, modern lens at this verse and see that we are heirs, too and despite our own suffering and persecution, God still promises to be with us.
God’s plan will prevail.
Well, because our brokenness — sin — was paid for on the Cross.
The prison door is open!
Nothing can ever separate us from God.
So if nothing can ever separate us from God — “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” — that means the battle has been won.
Satan is defeated.
And now it is our job to work to make good through the love of Christ and spread that news.
And this is how we transform the world.
So let’s reframe this a little bit now.
When the storms of life are raging, will we have to endure the suffering from them, even if we accept Jesus as our savior?
Unfortunately, yes. Sometimes, we just go through storms.
But in those storms, are we separated from God?
Does it help in knowing this?
I certainly hope so.
Because we are connected to something so much bigger than our suffering.
That suffering is a fraction of our lives.
It doesn’t feel that way, and it’s hard to rejoice in any of the suffering that I’ve felt personally, and I’m sure it’s the same for you.
But Paul is saying “Hold on.”
God will bring us through these storms.
It is God’s promise.
We won’t ever drown in them.
Even if we can’t find the strength, the Spirit will help us.
Even if we can’t find the words, the Spirit will help us.
God will hear us. Always.
God will understand. Always.
There’s a really heartbreaking scene in this sailing documentary we talked about earlier:
At the beginning of the trip, young Nick is going through the inventory of his boat, and he makes a special note of showing this three-piece suit that he has wrapped carefully in plastic and stored away.
He says he’s going to put on the suit as he pulls into port when the journey is complete.
He never does put on the suit.
There was really no reason.
Nick felt alone, because he was truly alone when he reached that shore.
This latter part of our reading — this language of promise that Paul conveys — often is read during funerals.
I’ve read it a few times; it’s actually part of our funeral liturgy.
Because in death, we can compare ourselves maybe to sailors who reached their final destination here on earth.
On that shore.
Having Christ with us on that journey gives us two things:
First, it promises that when we’re finished, we have Christ and we have those faithful who have finished their journeys awaiting us; and
Second: When we step off that boat, we begin a new journey, and we, too, will welcome those faithful who follow us onto that beautiful shore.
It’s in this sense that God’s kingdom is both/and.
God’s kingdom is both heaven and here with us now, because Christ is with us now and will be then.
But it’s while we’re on this journey that we have to let everyone know they are God’s children, too.
That they are rightful, chosen heirs.
No matter who they are.
The more people who accept God into their hearts, the more the kingdom here expands.
The more the kingdom expands, the less suffering and the less darkness in the world.
And through it all, it’s because God’s purpose prevails.