For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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. Romans 8:38-39
On Canada Day a few years back, we experienced an extraordinary rain storm. Sure, the sky looked threatening, but no one could ever have imagined the volume of rain that came down within three-quarters of an hour. Street intersections which normally would have rivers down the street gutters now had knee-high torrents. It wasn’t as if we weren’t expecting a storm. Working in my garage, the humidity was such that I welcomed the change a rainstorm would bring. I just never imagined that it would come with such volume and with such vengeance.
Daily life also has its times when things can be just normal; at other times, we bask in the quietness of a lull. However, as with the way that the weather was, sometimes we experience an overload of problems. Oh, we have seen times when we knew that there would be a period of unpleasantness, perhaps an operation, or some sort of discomfort, but then things suddenly twist from bad to worse, and you find yourself in a maelstrom of difficulties, grief and hardship. It can come with a forcefulness that can knock the wind out of you.
Years ago our family life was going along normally, and then my eight-and-a-half-month pregnant daughter-in-law experienced, as the doctors put it, some “complications.” Suddenly in one day, although we had a new healthy granddaughter, my daughter-in-law walked very close to the edge of death. Happily a week later she was released from hospital, but still faced six weeks of recuperation.
Death can hit with a startling swiftness: In my first year of ministry, Saturday night I was at a wedding reception talking with an older gentleman for quite a bit of time. There was no indication that he was feeling weak or at the edge of death, and yet on Sunday morning his wife called to tell me that he had died. That was my first funeral.
Death and its destruction intrudes into our lives – no matter how acquainted we may be with it in regard to family and friends, sometimes it can just suddenly and overwhelmingly pile up. In one small congregation, for about two months I had to inform a weekly women’s Bible Study group of yet another death in the congregation. The sadness and the darkness seemed almost tangible, settling its weight upon our shoulders, constantly in the background of the mind, creating a dismal atmosphere to our congregational life. The holes were torn into the fabric of our lives, with an accompanying emptiness and lostness to what had once been routine. Little incidentals: a greeting here, a conversation there, a shared card game – things which added color to life became missed.
“In the midst of life, we are in death; to whom can we turn but to You, O Lord?” the prayer book asks. It is good to be here today, to address these feelings; they are real and they won’t just roll over and go to sleep. Jesus Himself, as perfect as He was on this earth, felt the power of grief when he wept at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus. It is good then to be able to turn to this same Lord and there to discover comfort, help, assurance and hope.
How easy it is to feel very alone, with your feet knocked out from under you, even wondering whether God has perhaps forgotten about you. But in the midst of such dramatic changes of life comes St Paul’s statement in Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, …nor things present, nor things to come, … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is a wonderful reassurance for the times of grief!
Paul’s chapter is very remarkable as it expresses so much hope and encouragement, reassuring us of our connection to God, grounding our confidence in His forgiveness toward us; it leapfrogs beyond the frailties of our humanness and it speaks of the extraordinary lengths God has already gone to for our sakes.
And it does not occur in a vacuum. Paul had just described in the previous chapters such things as how encompassing is the rebellion of our sin against God, how Jesus died even for His enemies, how the Holy Spirit came to live in us so that there would clear and unhindered communication with God the Father, how His presence is concrete evidence of the extraordinary privilege of being adopted as God’s very own children, placed into God’s heart on the same level as His Love for Jesus His only Begotten Son.
Now at the apex of this chapter, Paul, in wonder and also in assurance, declares that all he has talked about is so solid, that he is convinced that nothing that can ever separate us from the Love of God. Not even death. Even when you feel so sad and overwhelmed as you unwillingly look death in the eye, even in the extraordinary loneliness that death creates in our lives and in our souls, even at those times when the world seems just so distant when we cry out in our loss, Paul shakes his head and declares that the evidence compels him to realize that there is nothing that can separate us from the ultimate commitment of Love God has for us.
God stands as One Who has experience in the matter of death. He is One Who understands. The cross of Jesus stands as more than an event where God released us from the penalty of our sin. You also have the amazing and unique picture of God the Father watching His dearly beloved Son dying in extreme agony, as well as of the Son Who Himself stood at the graves of those He loved.
Paul is convinced. The proof is too strong for him to deny. He has seen what God would do in the utmost worst of conditions, that even there God’s Love did not stumble, that even there God did not withhold His greatest and most costly gift, His own Son, and Paul knows that nothing can compare with that. There is too much commitment in God’s heart. Having seen the extent that God has already gone in order to give us life and an eternal future, Paul can speak with absolute certainty that nothing can stand in the way of the deep and steadfast Love described. That is the comfort, the strength, the reassurance, and the joy that takes us beyond loss toward the morning.
You would think that God would by nature be insulated from such human experiences. But that is the secret and wonder of Christmas. In ways we just cannot comprehend, the whole of Jesus life on earth is a declaration of how God made Himself vulnerable. There is hunger and thirst, there is frustration and discouragement, there is weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, and abhorrence of His coming suffering and death in His Gethsemane prayer.
Even in the terrible loneliness of death, there is One Who will stand by your side, with you and in you. And there is nothing that will break God’s willingness to do this for your sake. When death makes you feel so all alone, grief tends to get bottled up inside. It is like an acid that eats away your insides. Who can you talk to who is willing to listen for the first time, if not for the tenth or the hundredth time? There is One Who will hear every word, because there is nothing that can separate us from His Love.
Yes, the grief. the heartache and the loss of death still must be lived through, just as much as the faith and reassurance of Jesus Himself did not take away the pain and emptiness that He felt on the cross. However, that God would make Himself so vulnerable does fly in the face of our sense of loneliness. No matter what we may feel, Jesus has proved, as His Name, foretold from of old, is Immanuel, that indeed “God is with us.” No matter how bleak the situation, no matter how overwhelmed by death, no matter how so alone we may feel, Paul declares that the proof is beyond doubt – it is utterly convincing, that nothing can separate us from God’s Love.
What a confidence that creates! Every step in life which we take, there is Someone fully in stride with us. As we reach out to what seems to be such a distant world, we touch a Face that is filled with a deep Love toward us. As we cry out in loneliness, there is One Who holds not just us but also our hearts close to Himself.
But then also, when the day is done, God doesn’t helplessly shrug His shoulders. Yes, He has heard our hearts; yes, He has made Himself vulnerable in order to understand our loneliness. But when the day is over, He turns us to the morning. There is a day in which He Himself will wipe away every tear forever. On that day there will be joy like we could never know on this earth. All who have held on to this Love which refuses to be diminished will gather around you in an extraordinary reunion which will never again have even a shadow of death.
Therefore even in the midst of loss, even when that loss is exceedingly sudden, we know we have an assurance that we can lean on, One Who will always be there, always ready for whatever the moment may bring. That’s where the Gospel [Matthew 14:13-21] is so important on this day where we contemplate the suddenness of how life can change. What you don’t see in the reading is how just prior to this account is when Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. Upon hearing this, Jesus wanted to be alone – just like you and I might do, and yet when he saw the crowd which had come to Him, He had compassion on them, and reached out to touch, to heal, and to feed.
In the perplexity of life, in our bewilderments, our griefs, our shock, we come to the Lord and find that this is not unfamiliar territory to Him. But the thing that stands out in the Gospel reading is compassion, and we find that He has not changed over the thousands of years since He walked this earth. Even now He reaches out to you and to me in His compassion to let us know that He is indeed here among us again, there in Holy Communion. And there is healing not for the body, but particularly for the soul and the spirit, as He touches us with His resurrection power, as He reassures us that nothing has the last say except for Him.
What hope this gives us! For us who continue our lives, and for those who are no longer part of our lives, we are reminded that not even the power of death can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus – and through Him we have link that will not fade away, that will not get lost or forgotten. Those whom we have loved, cherished. and appreciated in Christ Jesus, will not disappear in the heart of God. Jesus has given us His solemn promise that all of His People will be with Him, ‘seated on the very throne of God’ is how Paul described it in Ephesians [2:4-7].
“I am convinced … that nothing in all creation can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus,” is what Paul wrote. His message is that in the bewilderment of life, when things happen with great suddenness and forcefulness, when it is not a rain but a deluge, when it is not a wind but a whirlwind, even there we cannot be separated from God’s Love made visible when Jesus reaches out in compassion to touch, to heal and to give life.