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We’re continuing on in our consideration of life in the Spirit. What’s happening in the first part of our reading this morning is prefigured at the end of the passage that we read last week, though we didn’t read it last week – “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we may also be glorified in with him.” We’re looking at the present time and what is to come. The already of the power of God and the not yet of the power of God. The appearances in which we live and the reality of God in which we live.
Someone has described the situation like this: “We are already God’s children but do not yet see him face to face. We are already heirs but have not yet received our full inheritance. We are already glorified but have not yet been accorded our final glory. In the “not yet” time of this life we struggle in the midst of suffering and sacrifice”. Followers of Christ face mortality. Followers of Christ face persecution for their faith and suffering. How can we talk about having moved into a new realm or gone from death to life or slavery to freedom in Christ or dying with Christ to be raised to new life when we look around us?
We talked last week about being children of God; of no longer being slaves to fear. This does not mean that the follower of Christ is immune to suffering. We find in fact that suffering marks the path to glory. Paul was someone who had an unshakeable confidence in the love of God and an unshakeable hope in the promises of God. Paul was also a man who knew suffering in way few of us might be able to imagine. Paul had no fear of the hardships that he had experienced – afflictions, calamities (shipwreck), beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleeplessness nights, and hunger. I feel like in my own life I’ve barely known suffering for Christ. I’ve hardly ever even been mocked for it, even as a child. We don’t know what lies ahead of us of course. Societal collapse. State-sponsored persecution for our faith. Who can say? It’s been happening to Christians for over 2,000 years now, and there’s no reason to think we’re immune to it. Troubles from without, troubles from within. Illness. Our mortality. Doubts. Questions that arise like “How would I face persecution?” “Maybe I’m suffering for a reason” or “What if I awake on the other side of death and find out I’ve been fooled?” “What if I don’t wake up at all?” “Where will the love of God be then?” Paul has the courage to lay these questions out on the table. We do well to consider them. Whenever I’ve spoken about my feeling that I’ve never really suffered for my faith, I’ve had some of the dear elders in our congregation tell me that they pray that I would be ready for any persecution when it comes. Let us all be ever ready for what may come as we persevere together. Let’s get rooted and grounded in these truths now so that we’re not casting about or flailing about blindly in the midst of calamity or loss. Let us look at the question “Why did Paul hold such unshakeable hope?”
“I consider (not just a matter of personal belief but a firm conviction) that the sufferings of this present time (the now time) are not with comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (18) As followers of Christ we take the long view. This does not mean we’re blind to what’s going on around us, and the hope in which we live is meant to inform our present in significant ways. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. We know about the kind of glory that we may seek, or ascribe to others, or that is ascribed to us by others. Gridiron glory if you’re a football fan. Death or glory as the saying goes. Fame. Renown. Making a name for ourselves. What does it all mean in the end? A chasing after wind? What does it mean when the centre cannot hold or the diagnosis comes? Glory. What kind of glory do we mean when we talk about the glory of God or being glorified with God? The Old Testament talks about the weight of glory. It talks of the glory of God as being the manifestation of God’s presence. We look forward to a whole new manifestation of God’s presence when the home of God is among mortals, and He will dwell with them, and God himself will be with them and be their God. To be glorified with God means to share or participate fully in the eternal life and fellowship of God the Father, Jesus, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of God. This has not yet come. This is the unseen thing, for we don’t hope for what we see. It is the unseen future toward which we look forward, and which colours each moment in which we live. We wait with eager longing or eager anticipation. We find that we do not wait alone. We find here that the deliverance brought about by Jesus is not just for humanity but for all of creation. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…” How wonderful that we can be reminded of truths about God in creation particularly if you have a pet at home, who waits with eager expectation for good things. How wonderful it is that birds sing in the morning before the sun comes up, in anticipation of the sunrise. God’s restoration plan is for all that God has made. Creation was subjected to futility through our failure, through our messing up. Deliverance is truly cosmic. This is why we sing at Christmas “No more let sins or sorrows grow/Nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make His blessing known/Far as the curse is found.” Creation itself waits with eager expectation for the day when it will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. In the meantime creation groans. May we hear the groans of creation too. May we ask ourselves how we are called to take part in God’s restorative work now; how we are called to live in light of the hope contained in those words “Look, I am making all things new.”
In the meantime, we groan, alongside creation like a woman in the throes of labour pains. Not in despair, but with longing. Not in defeat but in confident expectation of new life. Why confident? We have the Holy Spirit in us. We have the first fruits of the Spirit in us as we wait. We have the appetizer or the amuse bouche if the restaurant is very fancy which is a foretaste (a pre-taste) of the meal that is coming or the banquet we will share. This enables us to wait with patience and with perseverance. We find that the Holy Spirit is also making noise in this section of Paul’s letter, praying for us with sighs too deep for words. Sometimes we don’t even know what to say to God. Sometimes we feel we can only groan to God. The Holy Spirit knows our heart, and God knows the mind of the Spirit, and we are caught up in this divine relationship and intertwinedness even then.
So we know, followers of Christ. So we know, you who love God. Remember that Paul is addressing these words to followers of Jesus, and he here he refers to them (us) as “those who love God.” We know, you who love God, that all things work together for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Let this not be a pious “there there” that we say to someone who is suffering acutely, or someone for whom things are falling apart. This is not simply an “everything will turn out ok” circumstance-wise because we know that often things do not turn out ok or how we would like them to turn out. Paul is talking big picture here, the biggest picture. We who love God may rest in the truth God works with any circumstance in which we find ourselves to bring about God’s saving purpose – to bring about the goal toward which humanity and all creation is moving; the making of all things new and a sharing in the glory of God’s presence.
You who love God, God knew you before the foundations of the earth were laid. God destined you to be conformed to the image of his Son before the foundations of the world were laid.
Paul is not trying to come down on any side of a predestination debate here, but I do want to pause and say a couple of things. You may know that there has been much debate among theologians around predestination, double or single, supralapsarian, infralapsarian, Calvinist, Arminian, free-will Baptists, peculiar Baptists. If you don’t, don’t worry about it for now. I will say though, that I believe we run into trouble when we try to apply timelines (and ask questions like “What came first, foreknowledge or predestining?” to a God that exists outside of linear time. We get into trouble when we try to apply logic to faith – something that at heart, a mystery. Even Mr. Spock found that logic failed as he went through his experiences aboard the Starship Enterprise; he needed the Vulcan side and the human side. In the incomprehensible mystery that is faith, God plays a role in predestining us before we were born. We also have a role to play in responding to God’s call in faith and trust. If we put it all on God or thought that faith is solely God making arbitrary decisions, we might say “Well I guess I just wasn’t predestined – too bad for me” or too bad for whomever. If we thought that we have come to faith solely because of us – because we studied the religions of the world and we came to this logical conclusion – we would leave out the truth of faith as unmerited gift from God. We hold both of these to be true, we who love God. I can say confidently that Jesus took hold of me and continues to hang onto me. My response is to cling onto him. We can use the example of falling in love. We know that falling in love goes beyond us making a logical decision based on a set of factors. Sometimes all the factors are there, and you feel nothing. When it comes to falling in love, alongside decision making there exists the truth that some things are meant to be. (surely Elvis wasn’t wrong)
End of Interlude
“Those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified (makes right, forgives); and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Paul is talking big picture here, and in true Biblical style, he’s talking about a promise of God that is to come as if it has already happened. We live in the in-between time in the Spirit of God, who enables us to bring those promises for the future into our present.
We bring God’s promises for the future into our present by standing on them; by being reminded of them; by reminding one another of them. We come back to them time and time again, not only when the howling wind of fear and doubt assail us. I said last week that we have nothing to fear and I know that sometimes I find myself afraid anyway. I know I speak of unshakeable confidence in the love of God and I know that doubts creep in. I hear the liar’s voice, the accuser’s voice. I know that we struggle with circumstances of our lives. Our sister Bonnie Hartley died this past May. Bonnie faced many struggles in her life. Bonnie wanted to continually hear about and be reminded of God’s grace. She wanted the second half of the passage today read at her funeral. I’m going to read it now with very little comment:
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ[a] who died, or rather, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.
Followers of Christ through the ages, from Paul on down to Bonnie have lived with unshakeable confidence in the love of God. One of them is John Chrysostom (literally John Golden-mouth, so well did he speak). He spoke out against abuse of authority and glorification of leaders. He faced opposition. He faced exile. Here are some words he wrote about assurance:
“The waters have risen, and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus.
What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it.
I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.”
May this be true for each of us, dear family.