December 19, 2010

Good And Glory

For many folks Christmas is a season of magic and mystery.  We see this pretty regularly in the kinds of TV movies that are popular this time of year.  One of this year’s crop of Hallmark Christmas movies is “Call Me Mrs. Miracle.”  It’s the sequel to one from last year’s crop.  I enjoyed the first one from last year and from the five minutes or so I’ve already seen from this year’s it looks to run along the same lines.  The two films kind of epitomize the magic and mystery of the season.  They center on a Mary Poppins-like character (played by the mom from “Everybody Love Raymond” for the Ray Ramano fans in the room) who brings two people together using a variety of “coincidences” and “happenstance.”  And in the end—I hope this doesn’t spoil it for you—everyone is happy and in love and they generally leave you feeling very “Christmasy,” which I suspect means they’ve accomplished their purpose.  This is, after all, what Christmas is supposed to be all about right?  Families gathering together to celebrate.  People falling in love all over again under the mistletoe.  Kids behaving extra good to keep Santa impressed.  Parents pretending that the problems they are facing don’t exist until January so that the kids can have a pain-free holiday.  This is simply how things are supposed to be at this time of year, right?  Right?

Let’s put aside the illusions for a moment.  We know the world is broken.  We know we are broken.  We talked about that last time we met like this.  We long desperately for this not to be the case.  We long for it with such intensity that by a sheer force of will we nearly push aside all our problems and create this postcard-like atmosphere for this one day during the year so that we can remind ourselves what things are supposed to be like.  But the tough reality is that the brokenness of this world doesn’t go away simply because we wish it to be so.  If wishes were all it took to accomplish this we’d have created a perfect world a long time ago.  But they don’t.  Cancer doesn’t take a holiday break.  Alzheimer’s still puts families through the ringer on December 25th.  Friends and family members with MS still wake up to another painful day of existence on Christmas morning.  Bank accounts don’t magically fill themselves.  Now, we don’t get any bills thanks be to the Postmaster General, but that guarantee doesn’t carry over to the next day (except when Christmas is on a Saturday like this year and then we get an extra day before the bills start coming again).  Tense and fractured relationships—particularly between husbands and wives—don’t suddenly heal.  Areas in which we struggle with sin don’t mysteriously become righteous on the morning we celebrate our Savior’s birth.  It would be nice if we could all have our own Mrs. Miracle, but her story is a fictional one nonetheless.  Feeling depressed yet?  My point is simply this: sin and its terrible effects don’t take a break for Christmas and no amount of pretending is going to change that.  If we are hoping in Christmas, we are going to be disappointed.

Thankfully, we have a greater source of hope.  In fact, this month we are talking specifically about this hope.  In spite of everything I just said Christmas is a season for hoping—just not in the ways the world teaches us to hope.  When we plant our seeds of hope in the places the world proclaims are safe, we will never manage to get our from under the condemning glare of the Law.  We will never start living the life that is truly life.  But, when we are dwelling in Christ through the Spirit we will experience both real freedom and real life.  That was the focus of our conversation two weeks ago.  This is a great reason for hoping.  You see, in this life we drift along without much in the way of aim and largely alone.  Even if we find ourselves in a big family as do many in this room, these are temporal families and they will eventually be gone leaving us alone again.  Just ask one like a friend of mine who so recently lost her sister making her the last of seven.  If our families form the substance of our hope we are going to be let down and left alone.  The great and awesome promise of Scripture, however, is that we need not let ourselves be limited like this.  When we connect with Jesus Christ—the baby born at Christmastime—we can be adopted into His family and find ourselves filled with a hope that the things of this world simply cannot touch.

There is a challenge here, however.  At the end of last week’s passage, Paul said that we can be co-heirs with Christ “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”  Now, we hear quite a bit about the glory part of our being adopted into the family of God, but that first part isn’t much on our radar.  Where does Paul get off saying we can only be an heir with Christ if we suffer with Him?  Isn’t there such thing as a free lunch anymore?  How is there hope in this?  One could almost get the impression that this suffering comes part and parcel with being in God’s family.  Well why on earth would we want to join a family that guarantees us suffering, even if the payoff at the end is glory?  If we are going to suffer whether or not we’re in God’s family, why sign up?  Why not stay in this earthly family where at least we know we’ll enjoy the ride to the end?  Again, where the hope in this?  Ever asked yourselves questions like these?  The answer, my friends, comes when we understand the nature of the hope we have in Christ.  The life and freedom that come from dwelling in Christ through the Spirit may be the starting point of this hope, but without understanding its substance, we’ll never really enjoy the life or the freedom.  So this morning as we go forward, I want to hang this as a question in front of you because its answer bears the key to unlocking the abundant freedom and life available to us when we are a part of the family of God: what is the substance of our hope?

In order to answer this question we are going to continue our journey through Romans 8.  If you have your Bibles with you this morning find them, open to Romans 8, and find verse 18 when you do.  Let me start reading there this morning and then we’ll unpack some of what we find.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons [and daughters] of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

After reading this, it seems that the first part of the substance of the hope we have in Jesus Christ is found in the glory awaiting us at some point in the future.  In fact, this glory is such that Paul boldly proclaims in v. 18 that the things we suffer now do not even warrant comparison with it.  Now, we can react to this kind of a statement in a couple of different ways.  We can be aghast that Paul would say something so apparently callous and uncaring.  After all, historically speaking, we don’t know of any active suffering Paul was facing when he wrote these words.  If this is the case, he’s not really in the position to aver that our current sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory awaiting us now is he?  I mean, did he have any family members dying of a horrible disease?  Not that we know of.  Was deep in struggling with some terrible temptation?  This is Paul, people.  Remember?  Did he have a spouse with whom he was badly estranged and yet still having to interact with for the sake of the kids?  He wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids that we know about.  Paul, it seems, has no grounds for saying this.  Let’s face it: in this world we suffer a lot.  Not only do we suffer a lot, but we suffer pretty severely.  Paul saying this is either needlessly offensive, or else, as the second reaction type demands, this must be some kind of glory we’re anticipating.  Indeed, for Paul’s statement to be true, then this glory we have ahead of us must go light years beyond what we are even capable of conceiving.

Not to minimize the suffering that anyone in this room is facing, but when we properly understand what is meant by the word “glory,” then we discover that there might actually be something to this second reaction.  Paul doesn’t say this to treat lightly the things we suffer—read the description of some of the things he suffered in 2 Corinthians 11 and his reaction to them—but simply because the very fact that we are promised glory reveals that a comparison between the two isn’t fair.  In fact, let me read to you some of the definitions of glory you can find in a standard dictionary: “resplendent beauty or magnificence,” “a state of great splendor or prosperity,” “a state of absolute happiness or gratification,” “the splendor and bliss of heaven,” “to exult with triumph.”  If all of those really describe what we have ahead of us when we are in a personal, active, and growing relationship with Jesus Christ then I should say our current sufferings don’t measure up.  They may be bad, but glory is greater.  They may be so bad as to leave us wondering about the goodness of God, but glory, properly understood and fully in view, is greater.  The problem is not that we have too great a picture of our suffering.  The problem is that we have too small a picture of our God and what He has planned for His people.

The next thing Paul says helps demonstrate just how great this glory is.  It is so great that creation itself is eager for us to receive it so that it might share in the splendor and celebration.  Let me offer you a bit of a theology of creation to demonstrate why this is.  When God finally created us, He made us stewards over His creation.  It belongs to Him and we will have to give an account for our handling of it (thus we should act wisely to take care of it), but He left the day-to-day operation and management to us.  Because of this, the fate of creation is tied to our fate.  In Revelation 20 when we finally receive our recreated bodies, all of creation is made new as well.  At the other end of human history, when we fell, creation was subjected to the curse with us.  Thus there is a sense in which creation recognizes its brokenness.  It possesses this recognition and is eagerly waiting to receive freedom from this bondage; a freedom that will come when we enter into the glory God has planned for us.  Now, this is not to say that creation is somehow physically sentient.  The Bible, however, consistently anthropomorphizes creation to be able to offer praise to its creator and so Paul does a similar thing here in depicting it as longing for its redemption.  As a further point in my argument, Paul describes this longing in the metaphorical sense of a woman in labor pains.  Let me assure you men, women in labor are suffering.  The women, particularly two of you right now, already know this.  But, in the same way the glory of holding a newborn for the first time is simply on another plane of reality from the labor pains, so also we anticipate our glory—part of the substance of our hope.

And a part of the magic and mystery of Christmas is that we celebrate the fact that we can start to experience this glory now.  God began to reveal this glory in a very real and physical way when Jesus was born into this world.  When Joseph was brought into the know regarding his fiancée’s mysterious pregnancy he was told that Jesus would be called Immanuel which means “God with us.”  Because God is glorious by His very nature then His glory is naturally with Him wherever He goes.  Thus, if God is with us, then His glory will be with us as well and we will be able to share in that glory.  When Simeon first laid eyes on Jesus his resultant prayer declared Jesus to be “salvation…prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”  With the coming of the Christ child into the world, the glory waiting for those who follow in His footsteps was made apparent.  All who had eyes to see it recognized it immediately and began experiencing it for themselves.  Simeon himself was old when he finally saw Jesus.  He had spent a lifetime waiting patiently and no doubt suffering under the oppressive rule of the Romans.  Yet the moment he saw Jesus he proclaimed “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”  It all paled in comparison to what lay before him, still wrapped in swaddling clothes.  His hope was given eyes to see.  He no longer needed hope because he had sight.

As a matter of clarification, I should note that it was not this physical vision of Jesus that saved him.  It was instead his hope and the life he lived in light of such hope that accomplished this purpose—just as Paul tells us in v. 24.  After all, when we can lay eyes on the object of our hope there is no longer any need for the hope.  At that point we are forced to live in light of the reality of the thing for which we were hoping whether or not it accords with our vision.  There is no longer any chance for our hope to save us because we can no longer live in its light.  And by the way, Paul says that hope saves us because when we have hope in the right thing—namely in part the glory waiting for us as the people of God—we act in faith to adjust our lives accordingly to the reality of our hope before it is in fact a reality.  Because followers of the Christ child hope in His covering us with His righteousness at the final judgment so that we can spend eternity living the life God designed us for from the beginning, we live our lives now as if this had already happened.  In taking this remarkable step of faith-powered-by-hope, we experience the other part of the substance of our hope: God’s goodness.

We can see this good proclaimed in the second half of our passage for this morning.  Let me read these words for you picking back up in v. 26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers [and sisters].  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Now, there is a wealth of theology and interpretive debates contained in those five verses.  A countless number of articles and books have been written on the subjects of vv. 28-30 alone.  Verse 28 is itself a source of great comfort to many, but it is also often taken out of context to offer comfort that I believe it was never intended to offer.  The point of these five verses is to focus our attention on the fact that the substance of our hope is not in this world.  The substance of our hope is a future guarantee of glory and good.  Yes, one can find a great deal of theological meat here for some big issue debates, but I want to focus our attention on the real merit of what’s being said in light of the preceding context.  And what was this context?  It should be clear that Paul’s efforts in vv. 18-25 are aimed at helping us understand the incredible substance that the glory awaiting us when we cross the finish line on this life gives our hope.  When our hope is so rooted in this glory which washes away the weight of our sufferings in this life regardless of how bad they seem, there is nothing in this world powerful enough to shake us.

But, the reality is that we are not always or even often so rooted.  In these times we need prayer—our never-ending source of spiritual power in the times of our weakness.  The problem with this, however, is that we don’t really know what to pray for.  Not only that, but often, when we guess at it our prayers become very much self-centered and focused on finite, physical comfort issues.  Now, God cares deeply about those things as far as they impact our keeping our hearts turned to Him, but His primary concern is not that we are healthy, wealthy, and wise.  His primary concerns are that our hearts belong solely to Him and that we are living the life He calls us to live whatever our current circumstances may be.  Because of these competing tendencies and interests, we need help.  We need someone to help us pray so that we pray for the right things.  We need someone to translate our feeble attempts to express ourselves to God into something that is pure enough for Him to hear and in accordance with His will such that He is pleased to fulfill our requests.  Well, as Paul tells us here, we have this very thing in the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit—God the Spirit—intercedes before God the Father on our behalf with “groanings too deep for words…according to the will of God.”  In other words, we can have great hope in prayer because God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit takes our feeble words and interprets them into something He can handle.

The result of this process is our good and our glory.  Indeed, the substance of our hope is a future guarantee of glory and good.  As Paul avers in v. 28, because of this, “we know [not think, not hope, not desire—we know] that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  Have you ever really thought much about this?  I mean beyond the base level of comfort it offers when we are down.  This verse is often thrown at people who are going through a hard time by well-meaning but clueless friends who don’t know anything better to say.  It’s the psychological equivalent to, “Buck up!  Things are going to get better soon.  God will make it happen if you just love Him enough.”  Ever been on the receiving end of that?  Ever want to first punch them in the face and then take them to task for questioning your love of God while you are hurting?  Is this really what Paul is saying, though?  Is this near-term, pick-me-up-when-I’m-down good what Paul has in mind here?  Is this really something that can serve as the substance of our hope?  I hope you will join with me in quickly rejecting those ideas without much in the way of secondary consideration.  Paul is not offering us the theological equivalent of “buck up” here.  This statement runs far deeper and further than that.

Now, I know this runs counter to how many understand these words, but the good Paul has in mind here may very likely not be something we experience in this life.  This is not the good associated with a momentary end to some earthly suffering.  This is the good that accompanies the glory Paul was talking about back in v. 18.  This is the good that can truly qualify as the substance of our hope.  Indeed, our hope stands on a future foundation of glory and good.  It is furthermore to our benefit to embrace the hope of this kind of good over and against the momentary relief from pain and suffering that so many of us have in mind when we think about v. 28.  Think about it: if all Paul is offering us here is this momentary relief from pain and suffering in this life, what do we do when the next round comes?  Where is the hope in that?  But if this good is the eternal good which we can experience now regardless of our pain and suffering when we live in the light of our hope and which we are eagerly anticipating receiving in full when God’s kingdom comes in power, then we truly have something substantive to hope for.  The substance of our hope is a future guarantee of glory and good.

God has this good prepared for all those who belong to Him.  This is Paul’s point in vv. 29-30.  Here’s the deal with these two verses.  Yes, they can be used to justify that God chooses who is going to be saved and these folks are going to be saved, but they can also be (and have been) used to justify that God merely decides that some are going to be saved without necessarily knowing exactly who it will be on an individual basis.  But when you really look at what Paul is saying here, His focus is not the conversion of someone from heathen to Christian.  Instead, God’s predestining people is “to be conformed to the image of His son” such that there are many who are adopted into His family thus becoming spiritual brothers and sisters of Christ.  Got that?  God doesn’t predestine some to greatness and some to not-quite-so-greatness.  He doesn’t predestine that some should suffer a lot and some a little.  He predestines for people to conform to the image of His Son.  The closer they get to this image—which only comes with His help—the greater they become in the kingdom, and the easier it is for them to see the extent to which their suffering doesn’t compare with the glory and good before them.  And the hope in this is that all those who are so conformed are able to anticipate this glory and good we’ve been talking about all morning.  The promise of this future glory and good are the substance of our hope.  It begins and ends with Christ, but these are what fill it out and keep us hoping long in the same direction.  The substance of our hope is a future guarantee of glory and good.

Let me bring this back around to Christmas.  God had had these marvelous plans in the works since the beginning of time, but everything before this was preparation for Christ.  Since His birth, and even more so since His resurrection, we have been able to live in the light of this glory and good.  With the coming of Christ into the world the glory and good God had planned for His people was revealed.  In the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger we find the love, joy, peace, and hope for which we’ve been longing our entire lives.  We find not only the revelation of the life available to those who live God’s way, but also the power to live in such a way.  In this we have hope.  We have a hope that transcends all the situations and circumstances of this world.  No matter how much we suffering, how lonely we are, the weight of our struggles, the extent of our brokenness, this hope endures.  It endures because it is not rooted in the things of this world.  We hope neither in what we can see nor in what we might see one day before it suddenly vanishes.  We hope in the coming of glory and of God renewing all things so that good reigns once more.  We hope in seeing one day how God was using the pain we endured, or worse, watched someone else endure, to form us more closely to the likeness of His Son.  We hope in the day when all the brokenness of this world is made right once again.  The substance of our hope is a future guarantee of glory and good.  This is a reason for hoping.