This morning we are baptizing six month old twins. It’s a joyous occasion that we have been repeating often lately, because we are in the midst of a season of baptisms in our congregation, a veritable baby boom. Today Melissa and Erica will bring their sons to the font and they will receive this sacrament in which we affirm that they are God’s, and that God loves them beyond measure.
But first, there’s the Scripture we read today. The one that tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
I worried for a moment when I started thinking about this Scripture and about suffering and endurance that after months of middle of the night feedings, sleep deprivation, and more that Erica and Melissa might think I had deliberately chosen this passage to talk about the perils of parenting twins.
Don’t worry, you two. Endurance produces character and character hope. So by the time you get these boys off to school, you will probably be two of the most hopeful people we know.
But the reality is that this passage isn’t about Melissa and Erica. At least, it’s not about them any more than it is about any of us. Originally it was from a letter, one sent by the apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Paul had never been to Rome, but he was planning to go and meet this church. And so, before he got there, he wanted them to know who he was, and what he believed.
And in particular, he wanted to write about what he believed about salvation. He wanted them to understand in particular what it means to be saved not through our works, not by how great we are, but instead by faith and by God’s love and grace.
And it’s in explaining this that he writes these words: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
It’s that line, about suffering and endurance, character and hope, that always strikes me. Because, as much as it was meant for a church 2000 years ago, it was also meant for you, and for me.
And there’s so much about that line that needs unpacking, and understanding. Because the idea that our sufferings are the start of this journey to hope is a dangerous one if it is misunderstood.
When I was a college freshman I was in this leadership program where we did a lot of outdoor challenges in order to build leadership skills. One of them was rock climbing where we scaled the face of this cliff in north Georgia. And the motto that we kept hearing all week, especially during this cliff climb, was one you’ve probably heard before: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
For a long time I liked that idea and the thought that by challenging ourselves we become tough. Invincible even. Because when you’re 18 and standing on a mountain and the big challenge ahead of you is climbing a rock, it’s easy to look at the world and say “bring it on”.
But all of us reach a point in our life where the things we are facing actually do look like they could kill us. And sometimes, even if they don’t kill us, they don’t leave us stronger. Sometimes they might even leave us broken.
I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons. I’ve never believed that. God is up there throwing down car crashes and cancer so that we can toughen up. God is not sadistic like that.
But the reality is that, as Hemingway said, “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” We are all going to be broken at times. We are all going to suffer. We will lose people. We will be hurt. We will be lost.
But, for some at least, in our weakness we will also become strong. And that strength will come not because we have endured, but because in the midst of the hardest moments we have recognized our limitations, and found that we are being upheld not by our own virtues, or our hard work, but by nothing other than God’s grace.
This passage, with this line that sounds like you could paint it on the wall at a gym somewhere along with other motivational sayings, has nothing to do with how great we are, or how hard we can push ourselves. Instead, it comes in the middle of a passage about grace, and about how God’s love is so great that it alone is sufficient for our salvation, in every sense of the word.
If you have ever had a time in your life when you felt broken, one when it felt like you were at rock bottom, one when it seemed like you had failed time and time again…then you are extremely lucky.
You probably think I have no idea what I am talking about right now. How can pain be luck? But I do know what it’s like to hit rock bottom. And I do know what it’s like to fail, and to fail again.
But the good news comes in this: that also means that I know about grace. I know that in the hardest times, God’s grace is what can lift us up. And, just as I know that light shines the brightest in the darkness, I know that God’s grace is better than anything because it came to me when I needed it the most, and deserved it the least.
On second thought, we aren’t lucky if we’ve known grace. We are extraordinarily blessed.
And so, when we see that grace, when we realize that it doesn’t come from our own work or worthiness, that’s when what Paul is talking about here really matters. That’s when character comes into play. And that’s where hope comes from.
That’s because for those of us who would follow Christ, those who know that we have received grace upon grace, it is how we respond to that grace that comes to define our character.
The truth is if we really have experienced grace, then we cannot help but respond in one way: with gratitude. If we have truly been lifted up, then we cannot remain unchanged. We have to become people of light. People of grace. People of generosity. People of character.
And perhaps because of all of that, people of hope. Because Paul was right about that. In the end, we hope because we have known what it was to feel hopeless. And we have found that it wasn’t true. Because where God is, there is always hope.
And so, as we prepare to baptize these two children, these embodied reminders of God’s grace, that’s what I hope that we teach these boys as they grow. I hope that we teach them to be hopeful.
Because Caleb and Spencer, they are going to grow up. And, as hard as it is to imagine today, they are going to suffer. They are going to have nights when it feels like God is so far away. No matter what the people who love them do to bubble-wrap them and protect them, they are going to suffer. Because they are human. It’s unavoidable.
But today we are affirming that those moments won’t be the end of the story. We are saying through these waters of baptism that there is grace. And along with their mothers, we are going to guide them in their faith journeys to become people of character, because they will know that grace. And they will grow to be men who have hope. And, even better, men who give that hope to our entire world.
Caleb and Spencer, you are beloved children of God. And you are the hope of the world. Amen.