Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5
At the start of the Thirty-Years War, Martin Rinkart was one of four Lutheran pastors in the city of Elienburg. As the years of the war dragged on, conditions within the city became worse and worse. Because Eilenburg was a walled city, many refugees fled there hoping to find security and safety while the war raged on the outside. But soon the city became overrun with people and the living conditions became appalling. Armies pillaged the fields nearby and food became scarce. Plague and sickness spread quickly through the massive crowds. The people started dying in droves. Pastor Rinkart soon became the only pastor left in that city as the others died or left. Death became so prevalent that he would conduct as many as 50 burials a day. In the year 1637, he buried over 4,000 people, including his own wife.
Yet, through it all, Pastor Rinkart was and remained a prolific hymn-writer. And in the midst of this war and all of this devastation, he wrote these famous words; ‘Now thank we all our God; with hearts and hands and voices. Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms, has blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.’
Who could find such words to speak, much less to sing, when experiencing such horrors? Who could ever even think of such things when sorrow and death are all around you? What in the world could he feel thankful for? Where would those in his world find reason to rejoice? It sounds impossible; it sounds like something out of a fairytale, doesn’t it? If you knew someone who could speak of such joy as he was going through such loss, you would wonder if they had lost their mind.
But Pastor Rinkart, along with his faithful members, were able to sing those words in truth. Because even as they went through a war that ravaged their lands and destroyed their lives, they were able to look beyond them, and see peace. Not peace between the nations that battled. Not peace between the armies that fought. No, they fixed their eyes on a greater peace, one that superseded all pain that they felt, one that overwhelmed all sorrows in their heart. They saw and they knew peace with God through Jesus Christ. And for that they would give thanks. Because of that, they would rejoice in everything, even in their sufferings.
That is quite a strange thought to our ears, isn’t it? Rejoice in our sufferings? Who thinks like that? ‘Hooray! I just broke my leg! I can’t wait to wear a cast for the next six weeks! My friends are all being mean to me at school. Awesome! My boss is being a real jerk to me. Yes!’ That’s not how we react to suffering. That’s just not normal. No, when we are hurting we get mad, wanting someone to blame for our hard times. Or, we get depressed, wondering to ourselves, ‘Why does this have to happen to me?’ Or, at best, we grin and bear it, in a way accepting it, but still not being too happy about it. That’s the normal response.
But Paul says here that this is not what we do. No, we Christians respond differently. We can actually be happy in our sufferings, or as the Greek expresses it, boast as we go through sufferings, because we know what they bring. From suffering comes perseverance; the learned skill of enduring through trying and troubled times. And from this perseverance comes character; a quality within us that is now ready to face more sufferings, even if they are worse than before. And from this character then comes hope; the conviction within us that is sure that whatever comes our way, it will not destroy us, but we will overcome it.
Does that sound like a rejoicing moment to you? I mean, I guess it’s alright. But it really doesn’t sound all that enjoyable. We know that some blessings come through the difficulties that we face; that we are built and strengthened by the hard times. But that doesn’t make them fun to go through. That doesn’t make them easier to experience. And no matter how much we might try and tell ourselves that this rough stuff is for our good, it’s not going to suddenly make our hearts leap for joy as though it’s the greatest thing ever. Really, it feels like more of a root canal. It’s not pleasant, but it has to be done. No one truly rejoices in the midst of a painful procedure, not matter how much good it will do.
So what is wrong with us? Why aren’t we looking at things the way that Paul says that we should? Why aren’t we ready to sing ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ at every waking moment of our lives? Well, it’s all a matter of where you are laying your hope. When we go through suffering we go looking for some kind of release, some kind of peace. And where is the first place that we often look? Is it not to ourselves? We look inwardly to solve the problem, to ease the pain, to find some peace. And on top of that, we focus on the here and now, concentrating on where stand in this life. ‘What’s going to make me feel better right now?’ With these things as our primary hope, it is no wonder that we find rejoicing so hard to come by, for this world is full of pain and disappointment.
But making matters ever worse is that we are ignoring the real peace and hope that could truly bring us joy. This life is not the be all, end all. Our days spent on this planet are not what matters most. There is a greater relationship that supersedes all others, a life to come that lasts far longer. Our connection to the Triune God has more value and more importance than anything else we can think of, because it lasts for all eternity. But how do we treat it? Too often it is of secondary concern, a tool only used on Sundays, if that. It becomes something that we assume will always be there, while we spend our time on more pressing earthly things.
This is why we find peace lacking in our lives. This is why we come up short on hope. This is why we find no joy in our suffering. For we have neglected and ignored the only true source of all these things. We have too often set aside the one true God in our day to day lives and treated him with scorn. And for these sins we deserve to be treated by him in the same way; cast aside and ignored forevermore.
But the Almighty did not want to be enemies with us. He did not want our relationship with him to be so broken. He did not want us to live without hope. So his love for us was spurred into action, with each person of the one God doing their part. The Father send forth his gift to us, the finest treasure the world has ever seen, his only begotten Son. This perfect and innocent Son then went forth into this world, never losing sight of what truly mattered, but always doing what his Father, our Father, wanted. Through his holy life we are counted as ones who have always done what is right, as straight A students in the classroom of heaven. But this was not all, for this Son also went to the cross, receiving the scorn of our sins and shame of our guilt, and so won for us forgiveness by his death. And then the Holy Spirit came, pouring out the unsurpassed love of God into our hearts, planting faith in Christ, the sure and blessed hope that we are not guilty; that we are justified. Through this we have real hope. Through all this we have peace with God.
Does this not amaze you? Does this not blow your mind? You have peace with God! You haven’t done anything to deserve it. You haven’t been so squeaky clean that God couldn’t help but like you. If anything we have done everything in our power to drive him away from us. But here we stand, not under his wrath, but wrapped lovingly in his grace. Here we stand, with the certain hope of heavenly glory with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forevermore. Does that not fill you with joy?
You see, that is the secret to rejoicing in everything, even in our sufferings. It’s not that we are happy to feel anguish or that we go looking for pain. Rather, this peace is just so huge that it makes everything else tiny in comparison. Even though I must suffer through mockery, insults, and mistreatment in this life, I will still rejoice for I have peace with my God and Savior who always treats me well. Even though I must suffer through the pains of aging and the trials of sickness, I will still rejoice, for my God has promised me that through these hardships he will bless me and bring me closer to him. Even though I must watch my loved ones suffer, even though I will know the sorrow of loss and death, I will still rejoice, for I have the hope of everlasting glory, where my loved ones will hurt no more and where I will know peace forever.
This is the joy that we have for every day of our lives. And this is the confidence that you have, Maci, as you embark on the long journey that we call life. The Triune God has given to you all that you will need. He has given you grace in your baptism, marking you as his child. He has given you peace through his Word, filling you with his Spirit. He will soon give you strength through his Supper, cleansing your conscience from all guilt. In all this he has forgiven you, justified you, and saved you. And so you have joy.
But this does not mean that life will be easy. It does not mean that your days will be pain-free. Along the way you will experience loss, you will go through hard times, you will struggle and you will shed tears. But as you experience all these things, you will also rejoice. For each and every day you will hold on to the hope that does not disappoint, the love of God that has been poured into your heart. Remain steadfast in what you have learned. Continue to grow in the grace and forgiveness of Christ. Remain focused on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then you will rejoice in everything. Amen.