In the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the penultimate volume in that magical series, the prime minister of England is worried.
Strange and ominous things have been happening across his country – dozens have died when a well-built, heavily-traveled bridge snapped in two for no apparent reason; a deadly hurricane has appeared out of season; a string of particularly vicious murders have occurred with not a shred of evidence left behind.
The prime minister is in his office alone, late at night, feeling a growing sense of dread as he ponders these unexplainable events. That feeling is not eased by the sudden arrival of a guest through his fireplace.
The minister of magic has come to warn the non-magical prime minister that dark forces are spreading across the land, including the dementors, the life-sucking guards of the wizard prison Azkaban.
The prime minister shivers. “Didn’t you tell me before they’re the creatures that drain hope and happiness out of people?” he asks.
“That’s right,” the minister of magic replies. “And they’re breeding.”
I think one of the reasons that JK Rowling’s series about the boy wizard has been so successful for so long is that despite the magical powers their characters possess, the world the books describe is such a familiar one.
You don’t need the threat of dementors to feel like dark forces are abroad in the world, and that hope and happiness are in danger of being replaced with fear and despair.
In the world of Harry Potter, the forces of good are gearing up for an inevitable battle with the forces of evil. Both sides have powerful magic at their disposal.
But Dumbledore, the wise wizard who is headmaster of the magical school Hogwarts, reassures the young wizard Harry that he has a power on his side more potent than any magic the evil Voldemort and his minions can summon.
That power is love.
Harry’s parents’ love shielded him from Voldemort’s attack when Harry was a baby. And although his parents are dead, their love abides with him still, giving him power stronger than any evil.
We denizens of the Muggle, or non-magical, world that exists outside the pages of Harry Potter may not have magic to help us through times of darkness, but we, too, have love that is greater than any magic or weapon that humans can devise.
The verses we heard today from Paul’s Letter to the Romans are a potent reminder of the power of God’s love.
Paul knows what it is like to live in times of darkness. He has been persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned for proclaiming the gospel of Christ. He, of all people, knows that a life of faith does not mean a life of ease, that faith is not an inoculation against tragedy, despair, and dark times.
The words that we heard today were written for those times – times when we may not even know how to pray, times when we feel alone, times when God may seem remote and far away.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul writes. “We do not know how to pray, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
When we are at our lowest, when there are no words to express our longing, our grief, our anguish, the Holy Spirit is there, interceding for us and bringing all our pain and needs to the God who created and loves us.
Because of the certainty of God’s love for us and for all creation, Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”
I have to admit that statement has always troubled me. I cringe when it is quoted to people who are suffering or in distress. It is the worst kind of pastoral care.
We know that all things do not work for good, that sickness, death, disaster and evil are very real, and they are not good. A look at the headlines of any newspaper confirms that reality.
Paul does not mean to deny the reality of evil. He is not saying that all things are good, but that God can and does work for good in all times and places, in any and all circumstances. Because we are in God’s hands, evil will not have the last word; death will not have the last word.
Apart from God’s promises, we will wonder about our future and that of our children and children’s children. Left to ourselves, it seems that fear and terror have no foreseeable end.
But our eternal destiny is not in our hands. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, giving us courage and hope even amid the darkest of human circumstances.
Scripture commands us again and again, “Do not be afraid!”, even though – as Scripture also tell us – there is much to be afraid of.
The God of all creation is a God of love, and that God is for us, not against us. Nothing, no matter how violent and death-dealing, has the power to separate us from that love.
That is why Paul can say, “If God is for us, who is against us?”
Again, Paul is not being Pollyanna here. Hardship, distress, disease, famine, poverty, war – these are the realities of life in our time and every time.
When those things happen, as they inevitably will, there is a temptation to believe that God has deserted us, that we have been abandoned by the one who created us, left to face difficulties on our own.
Paul emphatically assures us that is not the case.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” he asks.
No matter where we are when we ask that question; no matter what our circumstances, the answer is the same:
“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”