Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.
Let’s revisit the year so far: COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, widespread protests demanding for racial justice, impeachment, a fractious Democratic primary, a record-breaking economy followed by a rapid, self-imposed shutdown, widespread job loss, backlogged medical procedures, swarming locusts on the African continent, democracy under threat in Hong Kong, an ongoing crisis in Syria, brush fires in Australia ... and that’s just what came to my mind in the last 15 minutes.
I think I can say without risk of overstatement that 2020 has been a meat grinder. Is there any gift to find in this hellscape?
In shuffle this week’s texts. God shows up in all of them as a gift-giver. But these gifts appear in unusual and easily dismissible ways: in a dream (1 Kings 3:5-12), on the lips of a supplicant (Psalm 119:129-136), buried in a field (Matthew 13:31-32, 44-46), folded into dough (Matthew 13:33), in our weakness (Romans 8:26-27), in trouble and hardship (Rom 8:35-39), and of course in Christ’s death “for us” (Romans 8:34). While written at different times and under different circumstances, all of these texts depict a generous, gift-giving God.
It can be strange to read about gifts while living in an age of wrath, like the one we are currently experiencing. All of creation writhes and groans under the crushing intergenerational weight of human sin, neglect, and indifference.
This is what judgment feels like. This is what the “day of the Lord” sounds like, when the roar of the lion can no longer be muffled by the din of denial. This is what happens when we neglect—as Solomon so clearly did did—the gifts of wisdom that we have been given (see 1 Kings 11). This is what it feels like for the sins of our ancestors to be visited upon the children in the third and fourth generations.
All those Sundays when we prayed, “your kingdom come,” well, it’s here. And to borrow Amos’ own language: it is “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:20). We are reaping a harvest of our own planting.
But in this field of sorrows, God’s kingdom is present, and awaiting joyful discovery (Matt 13:44). Christ’s word of reconciliation, forgiveness, and liberation arrives in the midst of judgment—at least it should. As Christian preachers, it is important that we help our congregations understand the age of wrath that we live in.
It’s not about making people feel guilty; it’s about bringing people face-to-face with how their sin and brokenness concretely impacts the people around them. One element of the pastoral call is to you’re your congregation recognize contextually how vulnerable people in your midst labor underneath layers of generational disadvantage and faltering institutions. In doing so, you are helping your congregation see that the groaning of society echoes the groaning of creation (Romans 8:22).
But it is also crucial that you, Working Preacher, offer another word—a word that may feel strange and, to some, even tone-deaf in our current moment of wrath and fury. And that is the message found explicitly in Romans 8, posed here in the form of two questions: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35, 37).
Paul’s choice of the term, “more than conquerors” (better translated verbally as “hyper conquer,” hypernikomen) is interesting.1 Victory, in the context of Romans 8 is not defined militaristically. It’s not about conquering people, nations, or territory. We “hyper conquer” because we are unbreakably attached to Jesus Christ. No force, circumstance, or event can sever this attachment.
Some may feel uneasy about preaching words like this, wondering if the free gift of the Gospel might somehow dull the ethical urgency of the moment: “If I tell them that Christ loves them so radically, won’t they just go back to taking shelter in their privilege? Won’t they see this as a convenient exit ramp off the long road to justice?” But this fully misunderstands the kingdom of God, and instead adopts an old but now fashionable critique of religion as “opiate.”
The kingdom of God, while at first invisible and hidden, grows into a sheltering and life-giving plant for God’s creatures (Matthew 13:31-32; see also Daniel 4:19-22). It spreads throughout the dough, transforming everything it touches (Matthew 13:33). The kingdom of God does not produce cowardice and retreat: it electrifies people with abandon, courage, and joy (Matthew 13:44-45).
The kingdom of God doesn’t close us to the world—it opens us to it.
There is no doubt that we live in an age of judgment. As in the times of Jeremiah, God’s wrath rages outside Jerusalem’s walls through the armies and ambitions of Nebuchadnezzar. And yet, as wrath reigns down upon the city, Christ joins us in the rubble, offering another word: No trouble or hardship will be able to separate you from God’s generous, forgiving love. May we hear this word in our pulpits and may it open us to the world.
- Arland J. Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 340.