That’s In The Bible Somewhere…: This Too Shall Pass
I only subscribe to two magazines. One is Christianity Today which comes to the church once a month and is a longstanding magazine focused on the church, the life of faith and the major current issues and world events that we as believers should be thinking about and wrestling with at this time. I have subscribed to Christianity Today off and on now for almost 25 years.
The other magazine I subscribe to is Smithsonian Magazine. In many ways Smithsonian is a history magazine but it also features articles on world events, science, technology, the arts and other subjects that are in some way connected to the work and research of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Every year at about this time, my subscription to Smithsonian Magazine runs out and I go through the yearly process of deciding whether to renew it or not. What I have learned, as I suspect many of you have learned, with your own subscriptions of various types, is that the longer I hold out, the better the deal becomes. Often times, if I wait until the last minute, I barely pay a dollar per issue and I get a discount card that I can use if I visit any of the Smithsonian museums in person. If that were not enough, I sometimes receive a free gift and occasionally I even get a second subscription to give to friend or family member to go along with my own deeply discounted subscription. In essence, what Smithsonian works hard to do is to convince me that the value of my subscription/membership in the Smithsonian Institute is just too good to pass up. As the old slogan from American Express says, “membership has its privileges”.
Romans 5 verses 1 through 5 which form our text for today has Paul saying essentially the same thing about being a part of the family of God as followers of Jesus. In five quick verses, Paul articulates some of the privileges that come our way because of our relation with Christ.
First, Paul says in verse one that a relationship with Christ, gives us the privilege of peace. Being a believer means that even when life is turned upside down, that we can maintain an inner sense of well being knowing that God is with us.
Second, in verse two, Paul says that we have another benefit which is the privilege of access. Remember, in the Old Testament world, only the High Priest could enter into the presence of God and even then only at certain times. But Jesus brought God to everyone and through the Holy Spirit, God now lives in and is at work in the hearts and lives of all believers. We don’t have to depend on someone else as it relates to our well being or relationship with God, we now have access on our own.
Third, and also in verse two, Paul says that our faith gives us the gift of hope. No matter how challenging life becomes, we remain hopeful believing that God with redeem even this. This hope is born in the fact that even in death, Christ overcame and certainly through Christ, we can do the same.
This all gets us to the fourth privilege of membership in the family of God that Paul names which may be the hardest to accept or to fathom. The fourth benefit is stability and strength in our suffering. Paul says several things of interest here. Of course, on the surface and at the forefront is Paul being clear that one of the great blessings of the family of God is that even in our hard places, our times of suffering can be occasions not only for resilience but also for growth, maturity and character development.
At the same time, what Paul is also clear about is that suffering is not only a part of the life of faith as we remind ourselves often, but, that sometimes our suffering and challenges don’t quickly go away. Instead, sometimes life’s challenges stay with us all of our lives. In these times, God’s gift is not that we ultimate get beyond them or overcome them. Instead, in these times, God’s gifts are found in our ability to keep going in spite of them.
It is here, I think, that scripture gently challenges another of those sayings that we are fond of that has some element of truth in it but that is not always true. It is the statement, “this too shall pass”.
I don’t know about you, but, I like this statement. In fact, of all of these old sayings that we have been discussing throughout September and October, I will confess, this is the one that I probably personally use the most. I like to say to myself, to friends and to you as church members “this too shall pass”. In fact, I may have said it to you at one time or another.
In essence it is a word of hopefulness. The point is simply and clear. It is the belief that whatever we are facing is temporary, momentary and that it will eventually run its course. This physical challenge or illness we are facing, will eventually be cured, go away or be resolved. This issue we are dealing with at work that has got us down will eventually be tackled or addressed. This tough season with our children will one day end in their maturity or a change of heart. This sad season in the loss of a friend will eventually give way to gratitude for their life and the blessing of a new friend or deepened relationships with other, existing friends. This is only momentary, temporary, for a season. This too shall pass.
And, without a doubt, sometimes this is true and right on target. Very, very often in life that which we think will last forever only lasts for a time. Very, very often the darkness of life that seems so overwhelming ultimately gives way to the sunrise of a new day.
The only problem is that this is not always the case. Sometimes, things do not pass. Sometimes, illnesses do not go away, severed relationships are not healed and moral failures haunt us forever more. Sometimes this does not pass. I honestly wish this morning that as your minister I could stand here and tell you that all difficult things eventually work themselves out or go away but I know and you know that isn’t true. Sometimes, things happen that affect us from this point onward for as long as we live.
It is to situations like these, that we all have, are or will face, that I think Romans 5:1-5 also speaks. For here is a reminder that God works in one of two ways. Sometimes, God works to remove our challenges which is the occasions will God allows them to pass. And, other times, God works to be with us as we find a way to live, go own and move ahead even as the challenges continue to be a real, ongoing part of our lives. Yet, thanks be to God, when this is the case and the moment doesn’t quickly go away, life doesn’t have to come to a standstill or end, because even here, to use the words of Romans 5 itself, God helps us to endure.
I think this is a very helpful and hopeful word in three quick ways.
First, it is hopeful because our temptation is to put life on hold until our hard moments go away. This truth that God is with us means we don’t have to wait, we can soldier onward. In fact, waiting for the sky to clear can sometimes be the worst response for at times it is going to remain cloudy for a long, long time to come.
Second, it is a hopeful word because it teaches us that when we know life is never going to be the same gain and that this feeling isn’t going to pass that this is not the end of our lives. Because of God, we can go on albeit in a new and changed way.
Third, it is a hopeful word, because it reminds us that what others often need is our presence not only in the acute moment of a recent challenge or current heartbreak. Instead, what they often need is our ongoing friendship, our constant support and our enduring care in the face of their lifelong challenges that never resolve. Said another way, what others often need is not someone who will say, “this too shall pass” but rather someone who has the courage to say “I know that what you are facing is not going to go away but as your friend, I want you to know that neither am I”.
Over the last year, I have mentioned a couple of times the book The Great Bridge which is the amazingly detailed account of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. The main character in the book is a man by the name of Washington Roebling who was the chief engineer of the bridge. In 1870, in the early stages of construction, there was a fire in one of the caissons that had been sunk deep beneath the water and was the foundation upon and around which one of the two pillars of the bridge would be built. When the fire happened, Roebling went into the caisson himself to try to help put it out. While the fire was successfully extinguished, Roebling feel victim of a common illness of the day that occurs when one is in a compressed air chamber and tries too quickly to return to a normal atmosphere producing what is called decompression sickness or the bends. Some folks eventually get over decompression sickness but Roebling did not. In fact, from that moment in 1870 until the day the bridge was completed in 1883, Roebling continuously fought the affects of the disease. Because he was not well, a number of the Board of Directors for the bridge felt he should quit, give up his work and let someone else take over. Because of that life altering moment, they felt he was no longer capable.
Roebling refused to quit and a few important people in his life who were his primary encouragers refused to let him quit. Instead, even though he had to work mainly from his house which sat on a hill near the construction and even though he generally looked at the bridge only out his windows, Roebling continued for 13 more years as the Chief Engineer of the project. His health would never be the same again. His life had changed forever – the illness did not pass. But, he still built one of the greatest bridges in the world even in the midst of it.
Sometimes the hard places in life don’t pass, let’s just be honest about it. But, that doesn’t mean our lives or the lives of others are over. Instead in the wisdom of Romans 5, even in this “we can rejoice” and we can help others to rejoice. Even in these things, through Christ our Lord, we can endure. Amen.