December 26, 2010

A Hope Fulfilled

So all this month we have been talking about hope.  The reason for this is that I believe Christmas is a season for hoping.  I happen to think that hope is even more important at Christmas than joy, peace, or even love.  I’ve said that a few times in this series, but think about it.  Yes, people want peace at Christmas.  Parents want their kids to get along and kids want the same of their parents.  Yes, people try and reproduce some past vision of holiday spirit (joy) they had when growing up.  Adults want to reclaim the Christmas joy of their childhood.  Yes, people still need love at this time of year.  We are programmed culturally to “aw” even bigger when people fall in love at Christmas than at other times of the year.  But hope is the biggie.  Everyone has hope at Christmas.  Kids hope that Santa will have left just the right presents under the tree for them Christmas morning.  Adults hope for the ultimate Christmas gift too.  Christmas is also the last holiday before the new year begins so there are many who are filled with a sense of hope in the coming year.  People hope that next year will be better than this year.  For those who have been living lives recently that have been fairly devoid of love or joy or peace, they hope that these other three would return quickly.  People everywhere hope for a white Christmas.  I’m hoping that as my parents get on the road here in a couple of hours they will drive safely through the mountains of West Virginia and across the plains to get home sometime tonight.  All this is to say that Christmas is a season for hoping.

The problem that we at times run into is that people put their hope in the wrong things.  We place our hope in things like the latest and greatest toy, in family returning home, in relationships being healed, in making ourselves a better person, in Christmas itself.  This tempting but ultimately false desire is what this series is all about correcting.  Three weeks ago we talked about the beginning of our hope.  We discovered that hope comes when we are dwelling fully in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  When we put ourselves in such a place (with God’s help) we will find the freedom and life which we might have been hoping to find in other places.  The following week the choir and cantata cast gave us a beautiful picture of how this hope might play itself out in our lives.  We saw how a family being torn in a thousand different directions managed to find hope in the story of the baby born at Christmastime.   Then last week we talked about the fact that dwelling in Christ through the Spirit may be a starting point for our hope, but this cannot be its sole source of substance.  Our hope must be filled with a sense of anticipation of the glory and good waiting for us when we cross the finish line on this life.  With these two set before us as the aim of our hoping we will have what we need to persevere through the various trials and tribulations of this life.  We will be able to push through regardless of the things going on around us because we know that what we have ahead of us if we stay on the path is immeasurably better than what we have now.

All of that brings us to this morning.  This morning we are going to finish our journey through the eighth chapter of Romans and in so doing take a look at some of the most encouraging verses in all of Scripture.  We face a host of different trials and tribulations, setbacks and sufferings, in this life.  We can have our hope start in the right place and even be filled with the right substance, but still, we are weak.  We are broken and frail and it’s a wonder that we manage to make it through this life with any hope at all.  In any event, when the sufferings of this world come to bear—and boy do they at times—even the strongest of us begin to questions: Is God really there?  Has He forgotten about me?  Have I done something wrong such that I am no longer within reach of His saving love?  Questions like these can take a person down some pretty dark paths if they are not aimed in the right direction.  Well, something cannot be aimed properly if it doesn’t have a sturdy foundation.  When knitting a scarf, it’s possible to take a long, loose piece of yarn and set to work, but it’s easier if it’s attached to a solid ball.  Getting right down to it, when this world comes knocking, if our hope does not have a firm foundation, it makes little difference what its starting point and substance are.  So then, where is the foundation of our hope in the face of the trials of this world?

In order to answer this question, grab your Bibles and turn with me for the last time to Romans 8 and find v. 31 when you get there.  I will tell you: these verses almost drip with hope at each word.  Let’s work through them carefully so that we may see the proper foundation of our hope.  Paul begins with a question: “What then shall we say to these things?”  The natural question here is what are “these things”?  Well, it could be simply that Paul is referring to what he said in vv. 28-30 which we talked about last week.  But I tend to think Paul has a bit more in mind.  Certainly all of chapter 8 is in view here, but I think we can stretch back even further than that to the beginning of the book of Romans.  This is an exclamation of amazement.  As I said in the first part of this series, Paul is spelling out the straightforward, no-holds-barred Gospel here.  Ever do something really bad as a kid and have your mom or dad look at you and ask: “Well what do you have to say for yourself?”  This is the same kind of deal, but in a good way.  In light of the wonders that Paul has been revealing, this is him coming up for a breath and asking about how we should respond to this.

After this initial exclamation Paul begins to unpack the wonders of the Gospel through a series of six questions before landing with both feet on the foundation of our hope.  He asks: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Was anyone in here the teacher’s pet in school?  For my teachers, do you have a few special students that you really do show some favoritism towards?  (I know the “right” answer is no, but be honest.)  What does being the teacher’s pet mean?  From one who often was a teacher’s pet, it means that you have a special relationship with the teacher that goes beyond the classroom.  The teacher is willing to make the extra effort to make sure you are really getting the lessons because you have demonstrated that you are going to meet her halfway.  The teacher also puts forth a little more effort than for others to make sure you have the kind of environment that allows you the best chance of success because you’ve demonstrated that you’ll help him out by not distracting the people around you.  It also means that the teacher is going to look out for you should conflict situations with other students arise.  Because of your position those situations will come, but they will not ultimately succeed in their designs.  In the same way, if God is for us—and the message of the Gospel is that God is for us—people are going to oppose us.  Paul isn’t saying otherwise here.  But their designs are not ultimately going to prosper because God is on our side and His plans trump everyone else’s.

Paul doesn’t leave this question to stand on its own though.  Verse 32 offers some justification with another question: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”  God demonstrated that He is for us by giving up His Son for us.  This is key.  Paul certainly has the crucifixion in mind here, but we cannot limit his focus to that.  God was giving up His Son in no less of a way in the incarnation than in the crucifixion.  Lisa and I (more specifically, Lisa) are about to bring our second child into this world.  I still remember when Noah was that small.  Babies are literally helpless.  They have no muscle control.  They can’t eat solid food.  They can’t control their bowels.  They can’t talk.  They can’t really see very far.  They are totally and completely dependent on the people around them.  In Revelation chapter 1 the apostle John describes a vision he had of the risen and glorified Christ, a vision of Christ in the glory that had always been His from the beginning of time.  He describes seeing “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow.  His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refine in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”  When John saw this he says that he fell like he was dead.  Any of us would have done exactly the same.  This is the glorious Son of God.  Co-eternal and co-existent and co-glorious with the Father.  This is the Son about whom God declared His love and pleasure.  And God sent Him to earth as a baby.  For us.  This would be like me sending Noah to live as a sea slug for a while in order to save the sea slugs.  If sea slugs were capable of conscious thought and emotion they would trust me explicitly because of this.  If I gave up that which was most precious to me for their sake, then there is literally nothing I wouldn’t do for them.

This is what God did in sending Jesus to earth as a baby.  He didn’t come as a conquering king the first time.  He came as a helpless baby.  He didn’t even come as a baby born to a wealthy family who would be financially capable of meeting all of His needs.  He came as a helpless baby born to a dirt poor family.  This was God’s ultimate gift.  There is literally nothing else greater He could have done in order to demonstrate the degree to which He is for us.  There is no higher price He could have paid to convince us that our hope is secure in Him.  There is not a single other act He could have performed to demonstrate more clearly His love for us.  In this we uncover the foundation of our hope: the love of God as demonstrated through Jesus Christ.  Our hope is rooted in the love of God through Jesus.

If God did this thing for us, because of His love for us, then there is nothing too great for Him to do on our behalf in order that we might become fully who He designed us to be—perfectly conformed to the image of His Son.  Imagine a scale from 1 to 100 of all the things that God could have done to demonstrate how much He loves us and wants to see us prosper and mature to the fullness of Christ’s stature.  Prior to Christ God did some pretty amazing things like, create the world.  This would sit at about a 20.  The sacrificial system that He put in place in order that we might have a way to get out from under the incredible burden of sin temporarily would be somewhere around 30.  The prophets with their constant warnings of judgment and promises of hope would be like a 40.  All that is to say that prior to Christ God did some pretty incredible things to demonstrate His love for us.  The very fact that He kept interacting with us in hopes that we would finally accept His love and the lifestyle that comes along with it ranks at least to 50.  But we just didn’t get it.  We were too stuck on ourselves as a species to look around us and see what He was doing, to see the extent of His love.  We were still a hopeful people then, but we pretty consistently placed our hope in temporal things.  Things that were going to come and go and leave us with a lot more time left to hope fruitlessly for our situations to improve themselves.  So God came along and said, “Alright, enough playing.  I love these people too much to leave them hanging like this.  It’s time to set in motion my master plan which will absolutely blow the roof right off the building.”  Thus, the incarnation.  Thus the babe born at Christmas.  Thus the death of the Son of God.  Thus the resurrection and promise of eternal life.  He shot right past 100 and didn’t stop until He got to 1,000.  If His love as expressed through Jesus led Him to this radical act (and I use that word simply because I don’t know of a stronger one) to demonstrate His intention to see us freed from the bondage of this world and made perfect in the image He designed us to bear, then we can hope in that love.  We can set our hope right on that rock and though the waves of our current reality might crash against it pretty hard, it will not budge.  Our hope is rooted in the love of God through Jesus.

This is what the rest of the chapter demonstrates.  Think about this for just a minute.  What are some of waves of this reality that crash up against our hope?  Who in here has ever done anything that you knew was wrong?  You knew it was wrong and felt so guilty about it that you were sure God’s forgiveness and love were no longer available for you.  How does the lie here go?  “I know the Bible says that God is love and that He loves the whole world, but surely He can’t really love one so sinful and broken as I am.  The list of charges against me is simply too great for His love to overcome.”  What does Paul ask in v. 33?  “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?”  The answer?  God is the one who justifies.  This may sound like a strange response to Paul’s question, but it is the best response.  God is the one who justifies people.  Therefore, if we have been justified—pronounced right—by God then there is no charge in this world that will stick.  What God has justified, none can bring charges against because they have been satisfied.  We are justified by God once.  In His love for us as demonstrated through Jesus, God accepts the atoning work of Christ on our behalf and pronounces us justified when we submit our lives to His Son’s authority.  Nothing in this world can change this.  Our hope is rooted in the love of God through Jesus.

Well, what else threatens to destroy our hope?  Let us be honest: sometimes we feel the burden of our sin in a particularly acute fashion.  We know we are justified by God, but we don’t live in this light.  So Paul asks the question again but in a different way: “Who is to condemn?”  I can think of three who are to condemn.  We are condemned by ourselves when we decide to play god in our own lives.  We are condemned by the people around us when we hurt them in some way.  And we are condemned by the devil himself in an attempt to keep us from the grace of God.  Yet when we are rooted in the love of God through Jesus, these condemnations simply won’t hold.  Jesus Himself—the one who died and rose again, the one through whom God loves us, the one who came as an infant to reveal the Father’s glory to us, the one by whose righteousness we are justified—intercedes on our behalf before the Father.  Think about it like this: we amassed a huge debt on our credit cards—maybe that’s not such a stretch for some of you?  All of our debtors begin calling the credit company with their list of charges against us, and let’s face it: it’s a pretty big list of charges and they are all true.  The credit company weighs the case against us and prepares to bring forth its decision and at the last minute someone comes along and says, “Oh, that case?  I’ve got that one.  Clear the balance sheet because I’ve already paid the price.”  And immediately the charges are dropped and the condemnations lose all their merit.  In His love for us, God accepts His Son’s intercessions and we are reconciled to Him.  We find ourselves to be members of His family with a secure future ahead of us.  This is hope we can hold on to.  This is hope rooted in the love of God through Jesus.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the things we have done which threaten to keep us from God’s love; it’s the things being done to us.  Sometimes, like Job, we ask the hard questions and feel distant from God because the walls of life are caving in around us.  Paul addresses this as well: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”  Again, the response is straightforward: “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  As with the statement about God’s justification, this one doesn’t make a lot of sense as a response to Paul’s question until you think about it for just a bit.  The point here is that all the things Paul lists are happening to us.  We do go through all kinds of trials and tribulations.  We face all manner of sufferings and setbacks.  And yet God’s love for us through Jesus remains unchanged.  Therefore, if they haven’t yet, they won’t separate us from God’s love any time soon.  When our hope is rooted in this love, it might be shaken.  In fact, in this life it probably will be shaken.  But as long as the object of our hope remains secure, our hope remains viable.  Earthquake proof buildings don’t resist earthquakes because they are incredible rigid and strong.  They resist earthquakes because their foundations are solidly built to absorb the movement.  Well, in the same way, our hope is rooted in the love of God through Jesus.

No, none of these things ultimately possess the power to destroy our hope unless we let them.  The foundation of our hope is simply too secure.  Paul expresses this incredible truth in one of the most hope-filled passages in all of Scripture: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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.”  Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.  This is the great rock of reality to which we can moor our drifting souls; to which we can chain all of our hope.  God began hinting at this hope the moment we drifted away from Him for the first time.  This first hint was followed by some three thousand years of hints and promises that something was coming that would put to bed all the pitiful lies and deceptions people clung to in order to generate enough hope to keep putting one foot in front of the other; to keep getting up out of bed each morning.  And then came the big one.  God the Son stepped down from His position of glory and into the flesh of a helpless infant born to a poor Galilean family.  This infant would grow to become the man who was God.  This God-man lived a sinless life and yet was put to death for a list of crimes He never committed.  The grave was never designed to hold Him, however, and He rose on the third day, permanently putting the love of God for His people on display.  Not only did this put God’s love on display, but this love itself provided a rock of hope on which all who so desire can build their lives.  This hope lies in a promise: the same love that drove God to raise Jesus from the dead and give Him a new, permanent body will one day accomplish the same feat in us.  Additionally, we can start living in the reality of this love now.  And this hope and life and love are available for any who desire to give their lives to it.  Our hope is rooted in the love of God through Jesus.  This is the greatest reason for hoping.

This morning we are going to celebrate this hope in a tangible way.  Before Jesus gave up His life He shared the Passover meal with His disciples for the last time on this side of eternity.  In this act He revealed in part the inner workings of the foundation of God’s love expressed through Him.  It was going to work because Jesus, acting as God and as man, was going to erect a new covenant of life with God that would be cemented through His body and blood.  This sacrifice would successfully and completely atone for human sin because the offering was both blameless and human.  His body was broken in place of ours and His blood was spilled to make the covenant active.  It is these two elements which we remember this morning as we eat the bread and drink the juice.  It is the hope in these two elements—clearly on display this weekend as we celebrate the Christ child—that we toast and in which we rejoice.  And this morning we are going to eat and drink as a body.  Receive each element and we will consume them all together once all have been served.  If you are among those who confess Christ as Lord then you are welcomed to join in with us.  You are welcomed to join us as we remember and celebrate the roots of our hope: the love of God through Jesus.  Deacons, come forward as I pray.