Sunday, July 26, 2020

Phil Kniss: If God is for us

“The God who is for us”
Romans 8:26-39

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Is God on our side, or not?
We would like to think so.
Everyone would like to think so.
People on opposite sides of almost any struggle
would like to think God is on their side, the right side,
and not the other.

We can’t have it both ways . . . can we?

Well, let’s look.
What does the apostle Paul mean in Romans 8,
when he talks about God being “for us”?
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Sounds like a battle cry to rally the troops.
Have no fear!
Victory is guaranteed!
God is on our side!
And God is most assuredly NOT on our enemy’s side!
So, to quote Shakespeare, “Once more unto the breach!”

I’m afraid that in the Christian world,
this idea of God being on our side
has been around for a very very long time,
and has done a very lot of damage to God’s reputation.

History’s worst example of this was the medieval Crusades,
where Christian soldiers fought
under the command of pope and bishop
to serve the empire,
and did battle with Muslim occupants of the Holy Land,
with the cross of Jesus emblazoned on their shields.
Apparently, they just knew whose side God was on.

In the year 1095 Pope Urban II,
in a fiery speech to the soldiers before one of the Crusades,
told them to shout when they attacked their Muslim enemies,
with the words, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!”

We aren’t usually that blatant about it anymore.
Or that violent.
But the mindset of conquest
is deeply embedded in the Christian psyche.
You still see that kind of religious language in most modern warfare,
and in many aspects of everyday life.
You see it in the culture wars.
You see it in partisan politics.
You see it in professional sports.

We all love to imagine that whatever the struggle,
God wants our team to come out on top.

But is that what Paul meant when he said,
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Well, let’s assume this statement stands as-is:
“God is for us.”

Okay, then let’s dig deeper.
What, exactly, is God for?
Is God for our victory over every adversary, in every struggle?
Is God for our health and wealth and prosperity?
Is God for the fulfillment of our desires?
Is God for our happiness?

If our answer is yes to those questions,
then, if we are honest, we have to admit
that God is coming up short a lot of the time.
God’s intentions are blocked, over and over.
God’s plan is stymied.
God’s will is outright foiled and spoiled.

Or . . . there is something else going on.

Paul tells us in Romans 8 that God does have an overarching purpose.
There is an end-game.
There’s a trajectory toward which God is moving.

Paul never mentions that God’s end-game equals
our success and happiness.
Because it doesn’t.

Take Romans 8:28, for instance.
It’s commonly misunderstood.

I grew up with this verse, thinking, “Ah!”
“All things work together for good,
for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
In other words, I was hearing,
no matter what bad thing might be happening to me right now,
someday I’ll see how it was actually a good thing.
Because it was all part of God’s good plan.
God’s hand was behind it, God was doing it,
because God has a master plan,
and—for those who love God—any disaster is part of it.
Any, including a pandemic, theoretically.

But I think that’s a misreading.
Romans was written by a suffering apostle to a suffering church.
There was no sugar-coating the horror befalling
the people who loved God,
and were called according to God’s purpose.

The apostle was wanting the Romans to know,
and by extension, wants us to know,
that even in the middle of an unmitigated disaster,
God is not walking away.
God is in our circumstances,
around our circumstances,
and above and beyond our circumstances,
to accomplish God’s will of shalom.

Probably a better way to paraphrase Romans 8:28 is
“In all things, God stays at it, working for good.”
In all things, large and small, good and bad,
God stays actively involved.
God has not abandoned us in our suffering.
God intends shalom and reconciliation for all.
God is working for good,
even while God’s loving nature
prevents God from coercing us or manipulating nature
or violating free will.

It’s another way that God holds back, that we talked about last Sunday.

When we accept this,
the promise in Romans 8:26, two verses earlier,
sounds even sweeter . . . and I quote.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
We do not know what we ought to pray for,
but the Spirit himself intercedes for us
through wordless groans.
And the One who searches our hearts
knows the mind of the Spirit,
because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people
in accordance with the will of God.”

There, dear friends, is what it means for God to be FOR us.
God sent God’s spirit to be with us, dwell in us,
even to the point of becoming—becoming—
the wordless groans in our inmost being.
When we run out of wisdom to know how to pray,
When we run out of courage to pray what we’re really thinking,
When we are so destabilized,
we’ve run out of the ability to even know what we want,
much less articulate it in coherent speech,
We can trust our wordless, groaning prayers,
because they are issuing from the Spirit of God,
and they, according to Romans 8
will intercede for us in accordance with the will of God.

I don’t even need to know how that all works.
But it gives me courage to pray when words fail me.
Because I don’t need words,
I only need to be willing to let go
and give the Spirit within permission to groan.
Those groans may be audible
as they work their way up through my vibrating vocal cords
and then out of my mouth.
Or they may be silent and completely internal.
Either way, those groans vibrate at a frequency God hears,
because they vibrate in God’s frequency.
Or in Paul’s language, “in accordance with the will of God.”

We are in multiple pandemics right now.
Political demagoguery.
And more.

Disaster is rampant.
But God is still FOR us.
God is still for the shalom of all people and all creation.
That theological affirmation . . . Has. Not. Changed.
So this is not a time to forget how to pray,
how to get on the same frequency as the one who is for us.

Yes, of course, we keep acting.
We keep working—working even harder, if that’s possible.
We work in concert with each other,
for what is right and just and good
for all people and creation.

But at the end of the day,
we also need to know how to place ourselves in God’s care,
how to find solace in the knowledge that God is for us.

For that, we are invited to find a place of rest, of yieldedness, of prayer.
A place where words are not required.
A place to let the groans vibrate within,
because scripture promises us that
when we run out of words,
the Holy Spirit of God intercedes for us,
through wordless groans.

God is with us.
Our circumstances, no matter how desperate they are,
are not unknown to God.
Our suffering is not lost on God.
In fact, nothing is lost on the breath of God,
in the words of that song we love to sing.

Those words, “nothing is lost . . .”
do not mean God is the agent of our suffering,
nor do they mean God will rescue us from it.

They mean just that—our suffering is not lost on God.
God knows and is right there with us in it.
When these endings too soon, or beginnings too late,
happen to us, and they will . . .
we are still able to sing,
either with anquished groans, or with full confidence,
“Nothing is lost on the breath of God.
God sees with love,
and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.”

—Phil Kniss, July 26, 2020

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