Sunday, November 27, 2016
Sermon: Romans 8: 26-30 God's Good Purposes
Back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defence was giving a briefing to journalists, when he came off with a line that has gone down in history. Speaking about the situation in Iraq and the issue of weapons of mass destruction, he said this: ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’
Now if you followed all that, you’re doing better than me! What he was trying to say is that there are things you know, and things you don’t know. And as I was preparing for this morning, Donald Rumsfeld’s line came to me, It seems to fit so well. You see, in our Bible reading today, Paul says that there are some things we don’t know, and some things that we do know.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working through Romans 8, as Paul describes what living the Christian life is like. It’s living with no condemnation - the end result is already known in advance. It’s living with as God’s children, with the Holy Spirit confirming our identity. It’s living with hope, as both the creation and we wait for the renewal of everything as God’s kingdom is revealed.
And now, Paul says, it’s living out God’s good purposes for us in his world. It’s not always easy, not always straightforward to live the Christian life, yet Paul gives us plenty of encouragement as we seek to do it - especially when things are tough.
In verse 26, we find the things that we don’t know. ‘For we do not know what to pray for as we ought.’ I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself faced with a situation, and you just don’t know what to pray for. Perhaps someone you love faces a difficult decision about work, and you don’t know which would be best. Or a friend shares some news with you, they ask you to pray for them, and you’re stumped. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to pray.
You see, sometimes we imagine that God is like a giant slot machine in the sky. You say the right prayers, in the right way, at the right time, and out pops your answer. But he’s not like that at all. As Romans 8 has been reminding us, he’s our Abba Father, our dad. He loves us and cares for us.
So Russell and Wendy, you don’t expect Arthur to say to you ‘My dearest mother and father, if it wouldn’t trouble you, could I at your earliest convenience have some milk, please?’ No, you just hear him crying. Or you just know what he needs, without him even having to cry. You provide all he needs (even if he doesn’t realise it).
God not only knows what we need, but he has also given us his Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness. Do you see what the Spirit does for us? ‘but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.’ Last time we saw how the creation groans, and we groan as we wait for God’s purposes to be completed. Here, the Spirit groans, as he prays for us. God the Holy Spirit prays for you to God the Father! When we don’t know what to say or how to pray, God does it for us. And God does it perfectly - verse 27, ‘according to the will of God.’
Now in other places in the Bible we’re told that Jesus is praying for us - here we’re told the Holy Spirit is praying for us, especially in those moments when we don’t know what to pray for. What an encouragement!
So even in that unknown there is a known - we don’t know what to pray for, but we know the Spirit is praying for us, according to God’s will. In verse 28, we move to something that Paul says we definitely can know. So let’s read it, and then think it through.
‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’
So what do you make of that sentence? There might be some who think - how can we possibly know that? It might sound like blind optimism, someone who always tries to find the good in everything. Maybe it’s a bitter pill that someone has tried to get you to swallow when something that’s definitely NOT GOOD has happened. All things work together for good?
That’s what the Bible says here, and to be able to know this truth, to really know it, and be convinced by it, we need to see who it’s for, and what it’s promising. So who is this promise for? ‘For those who love God... for those who are called according to his purpose.’ There’s no ‘or’ in between - this is one and the same group of people - if you love God, you have been called by him. So it’s God’s people in view. And what is promised? All things work together for good. That’s good in God’s eyes, rather than our eyes. You see, we think of things that would be good for us, things like being famous, or rich, or popular, or successful. Never being ill, never grieving. (It’s like a grown up Santa’s list).
But the good that God has for us, his purpose for us, the reason he called us... is found in verse 29: ‘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.’
The good that God is working out in our lives, in all things, is this: to be conformed to the image of his Son. Or in other words, to become more like Jesus. Now I can never really see family likenesses - I don’t know if Arthur is more like a Fleming or a Dunn (maybe the families can settle that later on over lunch!). But God’s purpose in our lives, his will for us, is for us to look more like Jesus
And he brings it about through ‘all things’ - the bad as well as the good; the difficult as well as the delightful. Sometimes on XFactor you get the contestant with the ‘sob story’ who might use it to gain some sympathy and more votes. But God uses all things, every detail of our lives, the ups and the downs, to make us more like Jesus.
If you are a Christian, if you love God, then this is God’s purpose for you. The story goes that the artist Michelangelo was asked how he had been able to sculpt his famous statue of David from a big rock. “It’s easy,” he said, “you just chip away the bits that don’t look like David.’ This is what God is doing with us, in everything that happens, working to chip away the bits of your life that don’t look like Jesus, so that you bear the family likeness.
Perhaps you’re experiencing this chipping away right now. You’re going through difficult days and you think - God, why are you letting this happen? God is using it for your (ultimate) good, and he knows what he’s doing. You see, verse 30 is like one of those moving walkways you get in airports, or maybe better, an escalator. You step on, and you’ll be brought the whole way to the finish. (v29: Foreknew), then predestined, then called, then justified, then glorified. What God starts, he finishes, to work out your salvation.
If you are a Christian today, you have been known by God from eternity past; he has already set your final destination to be heaven with him; he has called you to hear and repent and believe; he has justified you, made you right with him through the sacrifice of Jesus; and he (not will) has glorified you - already made your future certain and set his glory on you. All this is yours in Christ. And all this can be yours, if you’re not yet a believer - today you can hear his call, you can respond to Christ, and receive everything I’ve mentioned as your very own.
Donald Rumsfeld called his autobiography ‘Known and Unknown.’ When we’re faced with our unknowns (when praying seems hard, when life seems tough), we can rest on our knowns - the Spirit of God is praying for you, to become more like the Son of God, as the Father brings us along the golden chain of salvation. We know that God knows (even when we don’t) - so keep trusting and loving him as he works out his purposes in our lives, according to his will.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th November 2016.