"From a Dungeon of Our Own Making to An Unbridled and Unshakable Love: The Greatest Story the World Has Ever Known”
Many people believe that the Bible is the greatest book in the world. Many people believe that Romans is the greatest book in the Bible. And many people believe that the 8th chapter of Romans is the greatest chapter in the book of Romans. So I have some great material to work with today.
But before we get into this great material, I want to talk about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. You may recall that Sergeant Bergdahl was in the news a lot earlier this year because, after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan five years ago, he was recently safely returned to the US in exchange for five Taliban detainees.
Amid all that is going on in the world, this was THE news story for quite some time, and why not? Think of how many important and emotional themes were wrapped up in this story.
On the one hand, you have this notion of our military as heroes, the deeply engrained commitment to “leave no one behind,” the sense that a family, a president, a country will do anything and bear any cost to bring a captive soldier home safely. We Americans would be hard pressed to push back against any of that.
But there is another, darker and more controversial side to this story. Did Sergeant Berghdahl abandon his station? Did he empathize with the enemy before or during his captivity? Should we be honoring such a man with the title of hero? Was he worth searching for, and was he worth trading detainees for?
And what about President Obama’s choices? How many lives did he imperil while searching for Sergeant Bergdahl? How many lives will be endangered as a result of freeing these five Taliban captives? Was Sergeant Bergdahl worth such a swap? And was President Obama trying to spin this dark tale into a feel-good story to score himself some political points?
I don’t know. I’m not trying to make any kind of partisan argument here. I just want to use the story of Sergeant Berghdahl to draw us into a more intimate understanding of who our God is and what our standing is before him. So, let’s go back to Romans 8. I want to read verses 28 to 39.
The book of Romans was written by the apostle Paul, who also wrote 12 other books in the New Testament. But many people consider Romans to be Paul at his finest. Here he is, like a high-powered lawyer arguing his case in court, marshaling evidence that speaks to head and heart, until you are left utterly convinced and breathlessly convicted.
And what is it that Paul is arguing? Well, for the first seven and a half chapters, he develops five powerful themes that find their absolute climax in the passage I just read. Let me touch on these themes very briefly.
One, God is glorious.
Two, man has fallen short of that glory by exchanging it for things that are not God.
Three, man is helpless to be reconciled back to God.
Four, God alone does the reconciling work, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
And five, that reconciliation extends to us through our faith in Jesus Christ and not through any work that we do.
Taken together, these five themes, which run through the first seven and a half chapters of the book of Romans and through many of Paul’s other books, are what Christian folks often refer to as “the gospel.” When we are exhorted as Christians to “preach the gospel,” these are the core components of the message we are preaching. It is, by our confession, the greatest message in all the earth.
And yet I wonder if that message has lost its bite in our lives. You may know that “gospel” means “good news.” Is this message “good news” in your life? Do you react to it, every day and every hour and every breath, as you would with other good news you receive? Do you jump up and down, hold your heart and cry, frantically reach out to your friends and family because you are overflowing with joy?
I want to. I want you to. I want our church to. And I think we will, once we truly understand who our God is and what our standing is before him. And to help us with that, I want to go back to Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
You see, we ought to relate very strongly to him. We too have been enlisted into a great and terrible conflict. But we have abandoned our mates and neglected our posts. And we find ourselves commiserating with the enemy. And now we are held captive by that enemy, with no hope for escape from a dark and dank dungeon.
Let me stop here for a minute. Here’s the problem. We don’t in fact relate very strongly to Sergeant Bergdahl’s predicament. We consider ourselves upstanding citizens, do-gooders, fervent believers. We are far from that feeling of hopelessness that comes from being shackled by our own waywardness and by the vileness of our enemy. We have distracted ourselves, convinced ourselves, anesthetized ourselves from feeling that feeling of utter lostness.
When was the last time you felt utterly lost? When was the last time you grasped at the core of your being just how shackled and abandoned you are? When was the last time you crumpled to the floor because you had nothing left to say or do in your own defense?
Why do you think so many powerful hymns that we sing have this imagery of light piercing into a dark and dank dungeon? It is because we need to be reminded that we are in fact, without the saving work of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, locked up in that dungeon.
And it is an imprisonment of our own doing! We wandered away, we took up with the enemy, and we now find ourselves shackled by that enemy. We are, like Sergeant Bergdahl, without a defense and without a hope.
Let me take a step back here. Actually, some of us have no problem relating to Sergeant Bergdahl’s plight. For some of us, the enslavement of our sinful ways is not a long past or theoretical thing, but a very real day to day struggle. For some of us, we feel the shackles on our limbs, we smell the dankness of the dungeon we are in, and our eyes have long lost hope of seeing light again.
If you are there, you are not far from the radiant love of God. Because a prerequisite of needing, seeing, and receiving that love is being emptied of any sense that our worthiness, our hope, our rescue comes from ourselves. A prerequisite of needing, seeing, and receiving that love is being emptied of any sense that our worthiness, our hope, our rescue comes from ourselves. It does not and it cannot. But it can and does come from a God who, of His own free choice and out of His abundant love, chooses to reach into that dungeon of our own making to rescue us into a magnificent light.
Here is Paul, bringing his forceful argument to a fevered pitch in this second half of the 8th chapter of the book of Romans. He knows his own heart and the hearts of his readers, and he knows his God. And so he writes, under the inspiration of God Himself, to melt away all that might stand between us and God’s unbridled and unshakable love for us.
For one, we might consider ourselves too lost to be found, too beaten down to feel we can ever hope for good, too sullied to be glorified. Just as Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics sneer at the thought of so flawed a man being saved and honored, so do the accusations of others, of the enemy of our souls, and of our own hearts beat us down.
But Paul says [8:28-30]. God has a plan, and it is to glorify us, and He will not be deterred from achieving that plan, and from doing so in a way that ultimately glorifies Himself.
Two, we might wonder if we are worth saving at all. Time Magazine asked this very question about Sergeant Bergdahl on its front cover story last month: “Was He Worth It?” It’s not just the five freed Taliban captives, but also the five years of searching for him and the current political and geopolitical headaches associated with his return. So too might we question whether we deserve to be rescued at so great a cost.
But Paul says [8:31-34]. If God is for us, who is against us? The answer is: a lot of people! Including ourselves sometimes. Paul’s point is not that there is no one against us, but that the fact that God is for us trumps everything. And the fact that God has expended His Own Son to be for us means that there is nothing else He can’t and won’t do to continue to be for us.
Which brings me to my third and final point, which is what makes all of this “good news” indeed. And that is that all of this flows from God’s unbridled and unshakable love for us.
Whether or not Sergeant Bergdahl’s actions were flawed, the fact is that he was rescued. And whether or not President Obama’s motives were flawed, the fact is that he authorized the rescue. Even as the pundits and the public argue over actions and motives, the story has a happy ending for Sergeant Bergdahl and his family.
How much more is Romans 8 a happy ending for humanity. The “good news” about the story of God and His dealings with us is that there are no uncertainties. You can argue about whether Sergeant Bergdahl’s actions were flawed; I don’t know. But I do know that we are certainly flawed and without hope in a dungeon of our own making. And you can argue about whether President Obama’s motives were flawed; I don’t know. But I do know that God’s love is certain to overcome that dungeon and to pour forth His love into our tattered lives. Paul writes [8:35-39].
This is the culmination of Paul’s argument, an argument he has been building now for eight chapters. God is glorious. We are lost. And there is no way out. Woe on us!
Ah, but wait! There’s good news! God initiates and secures the rescue. He pours His light into the dark and dank dungeon, rids us of our shackles, and rips apart the iron walls that caged us.
And He did it out of love. It is a love that cost Him His Own Son, a love that we cannot ever be separated from. Not by tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword or death or life or angels or principalities or things present or things to come or powers or height or depth or any other created thing. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For five long years, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl lived in the utter hopelessness of his captivity. Shackled in a dungeon of his own making. A nation divided as to whether he was worth saving. And at great cost, he was rescued.
What about us? Do we understand how utterly lost we are without the saving work of Jesus Christ? Can we feel, smell, and taste the dungeon of our own making? At great cost, we have been rescued. God did it all. And He did it out of love. And He promises that nothing will be able to separate us from that love.
The story of Sergeant Bergdahl’s captivity and rescue gripped us for many weeks earlier this year. May the story of our own captivity and God’s rescue compel us all of our days. Amen.