When Gratefulness Blooms

Romans 8: 1, 18-28

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me from the law of sin and death…I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager anticipation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we, ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Romans 8: 1, 18-28

Today is All Saints Day, and we remember our loved ones who have passed away since our last all saints’ service. As we thank God for the lives of so many saints, our hearts are heavy. These are the people who shaped our lives with meaning, love, and kindness. We recognize that anger, denial, and depression are normal stages of the grief process, and with work, those stages may finally pass. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We may receive comfort, but sometimes when we experience the loss of a loved one, no matter what happens in the course of life, sometimes we never really “get over it.”

When we mourn the tragedies and the unfairness of life, such as the genocide half a world away, the abject poverty, the pain of war or violence, we open our hearts, but we mourn in a different way than the way we mourn for our loved ones. We care about the pain of the world and open ourselves to mourning, but mourning our loved ones can tear us apart-that person is still a part of us and we cherish the memories so much. We do not want to let that good part of ourselves go, and because of that life can feel as if we are being chased by despair.

There is a real life story that will illustrate this. Jorg Gerkin was a Nazi soldier who was captured in Africa during World War II in 1943. He was held at Fort Denning in New Mexico, but escaped in 1945 and began a life on the run. He worked as a farmer, a tennis coach, and a ski instructor. He was a part of a rescue effort from the 1952 train wreck at the Donner Pass when skilled skiers saved over 200 people. Everytime he turned around, he felt as if the authorities would capture him and that he would be incarcerated again. Finally after 20 years on the run, he turned himself into the naturalization and immigration office. They accepted him and made him an American citizen. He had spent his whole life terrorized by fear, but forgiveness, and a new life was waiting for him.

When we lose a loved one we may be on the run from despair, feeling condemned to a life of painful grief. Paul states there is no condemnation for those in Christ, and that we should not live in fear because we have been adopted by God. We are to consider our heavenly home, which is so far greater than our current home that it is not even worth comparing. Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Paul introduces an interesting though somewhat hidden image at this point in the verbal adjective translated “not worth comparing.” It is the Greek word axîos, from the verb agô, which means “to drive,” “lead,” or “cause to move.” Figuratively used, it refers to something that is heavy enough to promote motion in a balance or, as we would say, to tip the scales. It is clear what Paul is suggesting. He is saying that the future glory laid up for us is so weighty that our present sufferings are as feathers compared to it and that they cannot even begin to move the scales.

Not only is our suffering and grief outweighed here on earth, but when we consider the joy of heaven mentioned in Revelation 20:4, we see our loved ones are living in the ultimate joy of salvation: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Our loved ones are complete and whole in every way, and filled with joy! Knowing that should help our grief tremendously. In the Old Testament, when Joseph’s father passed away, he grieved for many months. In the New Testament, Jesus wept when he learned that a friend had passed away. Yes, it is all right to grieve, and we hope this Scripture will give us comfort.

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” (Romans 8:28) Taken by itself, this passage can cause resentment and confusion, especially when we hear it right after a loved one passes away tragically. “Don’t worry, God is making good out of this.” It is not very comforting to hear that-it does nothing to ease our pain. We take that verse out of context when we use it to help explain why something bad has happened.

This passage does not mean that our life circumstances will be good or become better because we trust in God’s love. The verse continues, “. . . for those whom are called according to his purpose….to be conformed to the image of his son…” which takes into account our whole life will be made good, not just our life circumstances, but our whole life, which includes heaven in our Christian perspective. It is a much more comprehensive statement to say that our life includes heaven.

So as we grieve, we wait for that greatness that is ahead. Paul said that all creation waits. Don’t you love the image of creation stretching its neck to see the glory that awaits, as if it is looking at someone getting off a plane or a train? Let us look ahead to see our loved ones in their glory, with eyes of joy, not with despair, but with gladness because we will join them in the fullness of heaven. It is so difficult to wait for that glory when despair makes life feel so dim. We have to look through the despair and grief to what is coming next-the greatest beauty and joy beyond what we can even imagine.

Several weeks ago our sanctuary was filled with scaffolding as we had our fans fixed. It reminded me of a European tour that I took years ago when everything seemed to be covered with scaffolding. The tour guide apologized again and again, “Take my word for it, this may seem so unattractive right now shrouded in scaffolding, but actually, it is being restored to a beauty it has never seen before!”

Paul writes that as our exterior seems to be wasting away, our interior is constantly being renewed. No matter what physical or mental deterioration is happening to us, I believe that we are being renewed within. Our souls are being prepared for heaven. Even families of Altzheimer patients can take hope in this verse. When a family member has totally drifted from their former self, the family can take hope knowing that deep within, the soul is still being prepared for heaven. In their future glory, the frustration of this life will be replaced with joy.

“For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what is unseen, we wait for it with patience.” Since life contains cycles of finding and losing, the church’s task is to show others the path to hope. Christian hope makes a difference in how we die, and in how we grieve. Hope means that we don’t just focus on those we’ve lost and how they lived. We also focus on why they live and why we, too, shall live eternally. All Saints Sunday considers the certainty of God’s promised glory that awaits in the coming Kingdom of God and that we surely will see our loved ones again.

The best Christian example of how this promised glory can help us grieve and find hope is found in the story of the origin of one of the most popular German hymns, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Some scholars estimate that in 1618 to 1648, Germany’s population dropped from 16 million to around 6 million as it suffered in the European 30 years war. The Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart saw disease, famine, and bloodshed tear his community apart. An epidemic in 1637 brought him over 4,000 funerals in that one year- and one of the victims was his own wife. It is a great testimony to the Christian tradition that he wrote this hymn in the midst of that:

Now thank we all our God With heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done, In whom His world rejoices,

Who, from our mother’s arms, Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

 

O may this bounteous God thro’ all our life be near us,

With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;

And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills in this world and the next.

 

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,

The Son, and Him who reigns with them in highest heaven,

The one eternal God, whom earth and heav’n adore;

For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

May we share the taste of the glory that inspired these great words of hope! When you consider your loved one, a blessed saint, may gratefulness bloom in your heart instead of despair. Amen.