by David Baer, May 10, 2015
Text: Romans 5:1-11
Eight months ago a little baby boy came crashing into my world three weeks early. His mother and I had only just begun planning for his arrival. We didn’t have a bag packed for the hospital. We didn’t have our parents in town to take care of our oldest. We weren’t ready, either mentally or practically. For that matter, neither was he—he wasn’t officially premature, but he was little: at just 5 ½ pounds he came into the world with lot of growing left to do. And it happened stunningly fast. I counted about 4 hours between sitting on our couch watching television and holding a newborn baby. But all our incomplete preparations and all our former expectations have faded away over these past months. Surprising and confounding as we may have found his early arrival, it was the right time. It was the right time for him to be born.
You can write down a date on a calendar, you can make plans, you can stir up hopes or fears around something that is supposed to happen, but it’s not always up to you, is it? A job opportunity, a vacation, a wedding… Whatever plans you make, whatever preconditions you set down, the world is full enough of surprises that what seems to be the right time to you may not be when it happens. Quite apart from us, quite apart from our plans and hopes, there are times and seasons that spring forth, and flourish, and then fade.
This is true of the ties between people, too. The person you’re married to might be someone you didn’t give a second thought to when you first met. There came a season when mutual attraction drew you together and matured into love and commitment, at the right time. But even if you had known then what the future held, you couldn’t have spoken with this person in the same way as you do now. It wasn’t the right time for closeness, for familiarity.
Sometimes the seasons pull us apart from other people, instead of drawing us together. Sometimes it just happens—you moved to New York and your friend moved to California, your lives moved forward, and you no longer share the same interests and circumstances that connected you. But sometimes one or both of you bear the responsibility. You neglected him, or he let you down at a time when you needed an ally. You spoke carelessly, or she chose to give her time and attention to someone else. You were hurt, betrayed by someone to whom you let yourself become vulnerable. Can you sit down and talk and listen as though it never happened? Can you jump right back into the safety and closeness you used to feel? No, because the time isn’t right. The season may be ripe for expressing regret, for extending forgiveness. It might be the right time for catching up. But it’s not the same time as it used to be. It may someday be the right time for togetherness, but it’s not the right time now. There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain, says the Preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Relationships have their own tempo and rhythm.
What time is it for you and God? There are times and seasons in our walk with the Creator too. There’s a child’s season with God—a world buzzing with wonder, all its parts lit from within, and the sense that some One so vast and wise and good must have scattered autumn leaves and snail shells and dandelion seeds where we could find them. There are seasons of gratitude and grace, but also seasons of disappointment and absence. There are seasons of estrangement—when did you first discover how deeply you could hurt another person? Why did God give you this power to wound? Or maybe you were the wounded one.
We read this morning from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. When Paul talks about sin and sinners, he’s not talking about people who do bad things. A sinner is not someone who makes a bad choice. A sinner is someone estranged from God—maybe angry and defiant in that estrangement, but maybe just hurt, confused, and hopeless. To be sure, bad choices flow out of our estrangement and alienation from God. We set up altars to false gods—wealth, respectability, security. We jealously serve our own interests at our neighbors’ expense. We hurt our own bodies and spirits, and the bodies and spirits of people around us. But at the root of all of this is Sin, with a capital S, which is separation from God.
How does God treat us in our season of separation? Does God wait for us to come to our senses and stop hurting ourselves? Does God write us off as lost forever? Does God pretend everything is fine? No. These are all things we might do when we’re estranged from someone, when we have a relationship that’s broken. But Paul says this about God’s timing: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” When Paul says “we” and “us” here, he means all human beings taken together. When we were at the height of our estrangement from God, when we were at our least lovable, right then was the moment when God showed us the greatest love.
One Saturday morning when I was about 4, I trapped myself in my room. Before my parents were awake, my brother and I were taunting each other from our bedroom doorways, since we weren’t allowed to leave our rooms. Finally, I slammed my door in my brother’s face, which may have impressed him—I don’t know. I was too busy screaming for help, because the door was jammed. My father couldn’t even take it off the hinges, because the hinges were on my side. He finally got me out by cutting through the screen from the outside—we lived in a single-story ranch house—and having me open the window. I remember I felt scared and guilty. I had isolated myself in my room, and in a sense I had got what was coming to me. But what I remember is being carried in my pajamas through the front door and to the kitchen table, where we sat down and had pancakes. Someone once told me that grace is the name for what happens when God gives you the good you don’t deserve instead of the bad that you do. Being rescued from my room and brought inside to breakfast is my earliest memory of grace. At the time I most deserved the isolation I chose, I got pancakes instead. And probably some kind of consequence too… But that’s not what I remember. What I remember is having parents that loved me no matter what.
When we were still weak and unlovely, Christ loved us. When we were strangers and enemies, Christ died for us. It makes no sense. But it is the right time for God. And there can be no mistake. It is God who reconciles, not us. It is God who brings us back, not we who come back to God. It is God who loves us first, when loving God is the furthest thing from our minds, and yet we do love, because God first loved us.
God’s sense of timing has a consequence that sticks with us. If God loved us when we were most unlovable, if Christ died for us when we were most undeserving, Paul says, “much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” What might be possible once we’re no longer separated from God? If Christ died for us when we were enemies, what will his love do for us now that he has made us beloved friends? “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul says, “through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Having received such astounding, unmistakable love, having been reconciled to God singlehandedly by Jesus Christ, we have incredible confidence that God is for us, no longer ever against us or apart from us.
To everything there is a season, but only God can change the seasons. God melts the ice of isolation, God breathes the warm wind of grace to call us out of the dark caves where we had hidden ourselves away. God moves first, and alone, to win us back, to claim us as beloved children. At the right time, at the time when we least expected God’s love and favor, Christ gave up his life for us and brought us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.