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.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 18-25 The Hope of Glory

“The price was heavy, but it was worth it.” Words taken from a letter written by soldier in the Royal Irish Fusiliers to his parents shortly after the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago. When we hear of the dreadful conditions the soldiers faced - the sea of mud in the trenches, cold and damp from the rain, the rats and lice, the constant danger - we might wonder what kept them going? The answer, of course, was victory. To win the war, they would put up with anything - as the soldier said, ‘The price was heavy, but it was worth it.’ Their sufferings wouldn’t compare to the victory that was to come.

That same idea is what lies behind our reading from Romans 8. Let’s see how he says it: ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.’ It’s as if Paul has a pair of scales, and in one side, he puts the sufferings we endure, and on the other, the glory to be revealed. It’s not that they’re close, neck and neck, about the same. No, he says there’s no comparison. The glory completely surpasses and totally outweighs the sufferings.

Now, it’s not that Paul didn’t know anything about suffering. In another NT letter, he outlines some of what he had endured - beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, constant danger, toil and hardship, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. (See 2 Cor 11:23-29). He knew what it was to suffer, so he’s not making light of suffering, rather, he makes much of the glory to be revealed.

So why does he say that? Paul gives us the reason in verse 19. ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.’ Perhaps you know some people who are eagerly waiting for Christmas. They’re counting down the days, they know how many sleeps it is, they just can’t wait. Well Paul says that the whole of creation, the natural world around us is waiting like that - with eager longing - not for Christmas, no, but ‘for the revealing of the sons of God.’

Creation can’t wait until God’s children are revealed. It’s as if it’s standing on tip-toes watching for the moment. Why? Well that’s what verse 20 tells us: ‘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.’

At the minute, creation is subjected to futility. It’s in bondage to corruption. I don’t need to tell you that. You experience it every day. Things wear out and break down. The lovely banana you were going to eat has turned black and mouldy. The thorns and thistles and weeds spring up. As the hymn puts it, ‘Change and decay in all around I see.’ It’s the world as we know it, but it’s not the way the world was originally made.

Our first reading from Genesis 3 showed us the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s decision to rebel against God’s good and generous rule. The world comes under the curse, but it’s in the hope that one day the bondage will cease, and creation will share in the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

No wonder the creation waits eagerly! And then Paul gives us another picture of the creation ‘groaning together in the pains of childbirth.’ I’m not really fussed on medical programmes, but sometimes ‘One Born Every Minute’ will be on the TV. Even if I’m not watching, you can still hear the sounds of the delivery suite. The groans and pains come, but are worth it whenever the baby is born. It’s as if the creation is groaning, waiting for what comes after, the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Just think what this means. The gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus isn’t just about me and my ticket to heaven. The victory Jesus has achieved, the salvation on offer, is for the whole creation. Jesus redeems and saves the natural world, as he makes the new heavens and the new earth.

In verse 23, we see that the experience of the creation is also our experience, as we long for Christ’s return. ‘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, the redemption of our bodies.’

The ‘we ourselves’ here is speaking about the Christian, the person who is trusting in Christ. Throughout this chapter, Paul is showing us what life as a Christian is like in this world, and here, he says that a Christian is someone who has ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit.’ A Christian is someone who has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, the firstfruits of glory. It’s a bit like when there are cakes being made, and you get to lick the bowl. You know the cake will be good because the first taste is good. The Holy Spirit gives us a taste of heaven here and now. But that first taste only makes you long for the finished article even more. Having licked the bowl, and smelling the cake in the oven, you can’t wait for a slice of the cake.

So just like the creation, (do you see how the same words are used?), we too ‘groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.’ We just can’t wait for the glory to be revealed - when we are known for sure as God’s children, when our bodies are redeemed and glorified.

That is still ahead of us - as we know only too well in our frail and feeble bodies. In the meantime, we’re suffering, struggling along, looking forward to what will be, with a sure and certain hope. That’s what hope is all about - looking forward, eagerly waiting, even though we don’t see it now. Because if we had it already, then it wouldn’t be hope. No, Paul says that ‘if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’

So how good are you at waiting for something? Do you get impatient? Feel like giving up? Wonder why you’re bothering at all? Wondering if it’s really worth it in the end?

Remember what Paul sets before us here. The glory that is to be revealed to us (and in us), when we are adopted as God’s children and our bodies are redeemed and made new. The glory that will be when this world is redeemed, and corruption, decay, sadness, sickness and suffering is no more.

With a future as bright as this, as glorious as this, Paul urges us to keep going. Your sufferings now may seem overwhelming, you might feel like despairing, but they are not worth comparing with the glory that is coming. This is the promise given to us by God, as he gives us the firstfruits, the foretaste of glory - in his Holy Spirit.

You can know this hope today. This future can be your future, as you receive the promise, and trust in the one who overturns the curse, the one who has defeated the serpent. Trust in the Lord Jesus, and you too can look forward to the immense glory waiting to be revealed, as we wait patiently, on tippy-toes, for the completion of God’s purposes and the renewal of all things.

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday 13th November 2016 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 12-17 Children of God

This morning I want you to take a chance on me. I’ll need you to gimme gimme gimme your attention, because knowing me knowing you, this is something you need to hear today. In fact, it’s better than money, money, money, and if you get what this morning’s sermon is all about, then you’ll get on like a dancing queen.

This morning we’re thinking about Abba - but not the Swedish pop group. Instead, we’re thinking about our Abba, and being able to call God Abba, as Paul says in verse 15. ‘By whom we cry, Abba! Father!’

We’re in a short series, as we work our way through Romans 8, and think about living by the Spirit. A fortnight ago, we heard about the wonderful good news that ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We already know the verdict on the last day; we’re already confident that nothing can condemn us because we are in Christ. Now that is good, and great, and wonderful, but there is even more to the Christian life than just knowing that truth.

Today, Paul opens up a bit more of what that means for us, as we are brought into God’s family and receive the inheritance. So let’s dive in at verse 12, as we unpack the glorious riches of Christ.

Verse 12: ‘So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.’ Paul says that we are debtors, that we owe something to someone. He doesn’t spell it out here, we’ll work it out in a second, but notice that he tells us who we don’t owe anything to.

‘Not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.’ I wonder if you’ve ever changed jobs. You’ve worked hard for your previous employer, but now you work for your new boss. And then your old employer comes round, asking would you do a wee something for them. Could you help out? You would be able to say, I don’t owe you anything. I’ve finished working for you, you don’t control me any more!

That’s what’s going on here. Paul has showed how we have been rescued from living according to the flesh, living according to our own desires. We don’t owe it anything - our time for living by the flesh is finished. But you might still be wondering, well, who do we owe something to?

Look at the contrast Paul sets out in verse 13: ‘For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’

These are the only two ways we can live - either by the flesh (the path that leads to death), or by the Spirit. So it must be the Spirit, to God, that we owe everything. We’ve been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - everything we have is because of God. So how do we pay our debts? How do we respond to God’s good news?

It’s by the Spirit, as we put to death the deeds of the body. Do you see how strong this language is here? It’s not just ‘don’t do those things you used to do’, it’s ‘put to death the deeds of the body.’ But it’s not something we can do by ourselves - it’s ‘by the Spirit’ - we need his power to lead us and change us, to kill off our sins.

When you look at the two ways to live, which do you think is the easy one? Living by what pleases you, or killing off your sin and living to please the Spirit? It would be far easier to do what you want. The struggle is to put to death the deeds of the body, because, deep down, we might still want to do those things. But there is encouragement here. You see, if you’re struggling, if you’re fighting against your sin, then that’s a good sign. As verse 14 continues: ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.’ If you’re struggling with sin, if you’re (by the Spirit) putting it to death, then you’re being led by the Spirit. And if you’re led by the Spirit of God, you are a son of God. (Or a daughter! The language of sonship is because at this time only the sons inherited from their father).

What an encouragement! Perhaps this week you have been discouraged by your weakness; by how easily you’ve slipped again. You know better, you try harder, and still you fall. The fact that you’re frustrated is a good sign! It shows that you’re led by the Spirit, and that you are a child of God.

And it comes through the Holy Spirit, verse 15: ‘For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to bring fear and slavery. Rather, he is the Spirit of adoption. He brings us into God’s family, he makes us into a child of God, and teaches us how to call God our Father. Abba (not the Swedish pop group), Abba is the word for dada, daddy, dad, in Aramaic. It’s by the Spirit that we can call the God of the universe our dad. We who were on the outside are brought in by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit confirms what has happened in our hearts.

‘The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.’

The Spirit confirms that we really are God’s children, and he also confirms that we are God’s heirs. God’s inheritance is for us, for all who believe, for all who are his children, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

What a transformation in a few verses! From owing everything for our very lives in verse 12, to inheriting everything in verse 17. Everything the Father has is ours in Christ. The glory lies ahead, and in the meantime, as children of our Abba Father, we are called to live by the Spirit, and put to death the deeds of the body.

Perhaps as you hear of what the Christian life looks like, you think to yourself, that sounds great, but I’m not there. I just do what I please. I live according to the flesh. Turn around today! Don’t stand around on the outside any longer! Come in, come home, and know the God of the universe as your Abba, your dad.

But maybe you are a Christian. You’re finding things tough. Sin keeps popping up. You keep doing things you don’t want to do. You’re struggling. Be encouraged by the Spirit living in you, leading you to keep fighting as you put your sin to death. You’re not living in slavery and fear; you’re adopted as a son, a child of God.

God gives you what you need to live for him - the power of his Holy Spirit dwelling in you. Keep going! Keep fighting!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th November 2016.