Brave New World - Romans 8:18-25
In January 1995 a vicar in Bedfordshire caused a national outcry by publishing an article in his parish magazine. In the article he said that the "complete ignorance of the things of God unites 95% of the people living in the parish who live out their sordid little lives without any reference to God." No surprise he caused an outcry! Its very hard hitting and I wouldnt advocate the way he said it! He blatantly accused 95% of his parishioners of living sordid little lives. Imagine the outcry if Melvin wrote that in the Messenger. Well one writer in a national newspaper wrote this in response: "The accusation of having a sordid little life probably hits a more raw nerve today than at any other time in history. For, now that most of us have given up on the afterlife, we are very touchy about whether we are making the most of our earthly one. The phrases of the age are quality of life, live life to the full and lifestyle. The worst insult is to get a life. We pore over newspaper day-in-the-life celebrities and wonder whether we would be better off if we moved to the country, went to the gym, or dressed only in white and ate raw celery.....We scheme to get a few extra years and then worry about whether we will enjoy them..... [We do anything] to disguise from ourselves the fact that, secretly, most of us are afraid that we do indeed live sordid little lives.... So accuse of us of sordid little lives at your peril, vicar. The reason we get so cross is that we know they are sordid. We are all, when we can spare the time from the mean, coarse, squalid, selfish business of getting through the day, looking for a way out."
Well that article is brutally honest, and pretty depressing. The author is openly admitting that many lives are lived with the hope that there is something better, looking for a way out, but never actually finding it. The pollsters tell us that the majority of people living in the UK do believe in an after life, albeit somewhat vaguely. Brian Johnston, the Radio 4 Cricket commentator, wrote these words in his autobiography, echoing perhaps what many feel: "I find the after life an impossible place to imagine or believe in, though I persuade myself that there must be some light at the end of lifes dark tunnel. But I do not find it easy to conceive what it might be." Well is that all there is? A vague hope with no grounds for believing it? Are we forced, as the vicar says, to living sordid little lives in the vain hope that there is something out there?
Well the Bibles claim is that there is something out there. A God who created us, a God who cares for us and who has got involved in the world he made and we ruined, and a God who has offered us the hand of rescue through his Son Jesus Christ. And tonight we come to the end of the story. We discover that God has got something wonderful planned for his people who trust in him. And its something so wonderful that all this worlds pains and problems are as nothing compared to that future glory. Our present sufferings, says Paul in verse 18, are not worth comparing to the glory to come. But Paul is no blind pie-in-the-sky optimist. He is realistic about the present, but also lifts our horizons to the future glory to come. And it is only as we see the future as it will be, that we can live in the present with confidence and hope. So well look at our passage under two headings:
1) The Present Pain
2) The Future Glory
And as we look at this passage tonight, well see that both creation and human beings are intricately tied together, so that the future of one affects the future of the other.
1) The Present Pain
So first, then, the present pain. Paul has just said in verse 17 that the children of God are co-heirs with Christ. That is our status as Christians. But with that glory of being a co-heir with Christ, comes the cost of suffering with him and for him. Through suffering comes glory. But Paul goes on to say in verse 18 that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. The future glory far outweighs the present pain. But for the present we must endure suffering. Now the suffering that Paul has in mind is primarily that of suffering for being a Christian, especially in the light of verse 17. But the rest of the passage makes it clear also that suffering means all that goes with living in a fallen world, where there is sin, disease, sickness and death. So suffering takes on a wider meaning. And that suffering and pain causes both creation and Christians to, what Paul calls, groan.
a) The Groaning of Creation- Have a look at verse 22. Paul tells us that "we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time". So creation is groaning. It is fed up with its present lot. So what does Paul mean here? In what sense is creation groaning and why? Well the reason is that creation is not at present the way God designed it to be. Now by creation Paul means everything in the world created by God but not including human beings. Paul deals with them separately. You see when God first brought his creation into being, he declared in Genesis 1 that everything was good. It was perfect. But that is not the way things are now is it? Paul tells us what happened in verse 20: "Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it." And in verse 21 he says that it is "in bondage to decay." Something drastic happened to this perfect creation. And what was it? Well only one thing in the Bible fits the bill, and that is the fall of man. In Genesis 3, we are told that mankind rebelled against his creator, took on divine attributes for himself and decided to rule his life his way. But God wouldnt have it. As a God of justice he punished man by driving away from his perfect environment. But it wasnt just man who was affected. Creation itself was affected. In this first rebellion of mankind, the very cosmos was somehow put out of kilter with its maker. We are told in Genesis 3 that God also cursed the ground because of man. And from that day onward, creation was subject to frustration and decay. Once sin entered the world, everything was affected.
You see man is the pinnacle of creation, and creations goal is to give glory to God. The Bible explains that to us. And mankind is if you like the mouthpiece of creation, he is the guardian of creation. If he is corrupt that affects the whole of creation. By way of illustration, imagine an orchestra, with all the instruments ready to play. But they are all idle and dusty, because the conductor is nowhere to be seen. He is in his room composing his own music, his own random scribblings, ignoring the music of the composer. And without the conductor, the orchestra are frustrated. And so creation groans. It longs for that day when the sons of God will be revealed. When history will be wrapped up by Jesus and everything will be made new. But for the moment creation is out of kilter with its creator. Its obvious that the world is decaying isnt it? Whilst it still is a very beautiful place, yet it is ravaged by storms, global warming, horrific earthquakes. Quite frankly it is not the world God intended. It too has fallen victim to mankinds rebellion. And so creation is groaning, longing for that great release. Thats the first part of the present pain that Paul explains.
b) The Groaning of Christians- But Paul also explains that part of the present pain is the groaning of Christians. Now notice that it is groaning not moaning! Have a look at verse 23: "Not only so but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly " We too groan as Christians because we also long for that great day when we will be fully redeemed. You see our problem is that we are not yet fully and finally saved. Yes, we have received very much as Christians. In fact, we have everything we need for salvation in Jesus. And yet there is still an element of full experience to be had. But that will not take place until we get to heaven. So it is a mistake for us to think that this is all there is to the Christian life. Rather there is much more to come. The Spirit is only the firstfruits. The firstfruits were that bit of the harvest which came first. It guaranteed that the rest of the harvest was on the way, and it was a foretaste of the full harvest. So we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. Not that we will get more of the Spirit. We have him all now. Rather our experience of him now is only a foretaste of what heaven holds for us with its delights of being with God face to face.
And that is why we groan in the present. We realise that this world is not all there is to it. We know full well that our full inheritance is to come, and so we groan, longing for heaven. C S Lewis called this world shadowlands, the point being that reality was heaven, the world to come, not here on earth. So our groaning is a pointer to the fact that there is more to come. We hate the fact that our bodies are racked by sin, we struggle with the fact that we must deal with illnesses and worse. We dont moan, whingeing about life here on earth. Rather we groan, eagerly longing for our redemption, the life to come.
Now we mustnt misunderstand Paul here. He is not demeaning our suffering here on earth and saying it doesnt hurt or doesnt matter. Rather he wants us to see that this present pain is not the norm. This is not the way God intended the world to be. Our present pain is to be endured with one eye on the future. Paul was no stranger to suffering. Listen to what he says in 2 Corinthians 11: "I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death time and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a day and a night in the open sea I have known hunger and thirst and I have been cold and naked." Yes he knew suffering. And he groaned. And yet he got through it all, however painful and terrible it was, by having one eye fixed on the future. He knew that this present pain was not normal.
David Watson who was a world wide Christian leader died from cancer in 1984. Just before he died he wrote these words: "A doctor complained recently: Our patients expect us to make them immortal! Many cling tenaciously to this life because they fear there is nothing more to come. Todays preoccupation with youth and youthfulness demonstrates the same deep seated anxiety about the future, especially the last enemy death, of which cancer seems the most frightening symbol. One day we stand to lose everything of this world, and no-one knows when that day will come. Once we have lost our lives to God, however, we belong eternally to him; and in Christ we have all that is ultimately important. If we spend our whole time worrying about ourselves we have missed the point of our existence God offers no promise to shield us from the evil of this fallen world. There is no immunity guaranteed from sickness, pain, sorrow and death. But what he does pledge is his never failing presence for those of us who have found him in Christ. Nothing can destroy that. Always he is with us. And in the long run, that is all we need to know."
Both Paul and David Watson had come to see that though the present pain was very painful, yet they groaned for the greater reality, and they knew that their present pain was not worth comparing to the glory that would be theirs.
2) The Future Glory
So then we come secondly to the Future Glory. We have seen the present pains and the groaning of the creation and the Christian, how we long to be rid of these sinful decaying bodies and groan for the future glory. What about this future?
a) The Glory of Creation- Well first for the creation, Paul says there will be a liberation. Do you notice what Paul says at the end of verse 20: In hope.. The curse and the judgement in Genesis 3 was set in the context of hope. That hope was that one day a rescuer would come to reverse the curse, to take the punishment mankind deserved, to destroy the works of the devil, as promised in Genesis 3 v 15. And it has happened. And so the future is guaranteed. Creation is now eagerly awaiting the time when that freedom will be given to it. The time of labour pains is almost over. The new birth is almost here. Verse 22: The hope is that "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." And in verse 19 Paul says that "the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of glory to be revealed". The word Paul uses here is of someone craning their neck to see. I remember going to watch U2 at Wembley Stadium several years ago and the whole 4/5 hours I was standing up I was virtually on tip toe, straining to see what was going on. Well creation is straining to see the sons of God revealed. It is waiting for our glorification, the day when Jesus comes back again and we will be given new bodies and led into the new creation. It will be the day when the conductor is finally brought to his senses and leads the orchestra in the playing of that incredible piece of music all to Gods glory. Only then will creation fulfil its purpose of existing for the glory of God. Everything will be righted. Everything will be renewed. The old order of things will pass away and the new creation will pass into being. As Peter puts it in his second letter, "We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness."
Now let me ask, does that prospect thrill you? That one day creation will be liberated from bondage, that one day God will renew the heavens and earth and all of creation will be brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. God doesnt expect us to look forward to some anaemic harp playing for the rest of eternity. He doesnt expect us to be thrilled by the thought of occupying a fluffy white cloud for the rest of eternity. That is the stuff of myth. No, God has promised us a new heaven and a new earth, a glorious city where God is, a beautiful place where God and his people will dwell in harmony together forever. That is the glory of creation.
b) The Glory of the Christian- But then lastly, there is the glory of the Christian. Because that is what the creation is waiting for, and this is Gods final act in the great plan of salvation, as Paul puts it the revealing of the sons of God, the glorious freedom of the sons of God. And Paul says in verse 23 that we "wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." Now the fact is that we are sons and daughters of God now. As we saw earlier, we do have some of blessings of heaven now. We have the first fruits of the Spirit. And Paul tells us in Romans 8 v 15 that we have received the Spirit of sonship. There is a sense in that we are already adopted sons of God. And yet, the best is not here yet. We do not have everything yet. There is more to come. We are still living in Shadowlands. The reality is our full adoption, as we finally receive all the rights of inheritance as Gods people. And Paul says that one of the blessings to come will be the redemption of our bodies. Paul here is referring to the NT doctrine of the resurrection of Christians. That is when Jesus comes again, he will take all Christians, living and dead, to be with him to his kingdom and we will receive new bodies fit for the new heavens and the new earth. Now were not told much about them. But what we do know is that we will be like Jesus, made fully in his image and well be fit to inherit the new creation that will be liberated when we are glorified.
And Paul tells us that we are to wait eagerly for this great day. He tells us that it was in this hope that we were saved. We were saved in hope. Our salvation was always going to be fulfilled at the end of time when Jesus comes back. That is what we are hoping for. We are showing our faith in that promise keeping God, longing for him to return. Of course you cannot hope for what you do see. You only hope for what you cannot see. We dont see this yet, and so we hope. And this isnt a vague wishy washy hope, like the hope that Sheffield Wednesday will be promoted to the Premiership. That is a groundless and vain hope. This is a hope grounded in reality. It is a hope guaranteed by Jesus own resurrection. And it is a hope that will one day be fulfilled. And so says Paul we wait for it patiently, persevering through the present pains, and pressing on to the great day.
Now again let me ask. Is that your hope? Could you say of yourself that you are eagerly expecting that redemption, that final salvation. It is a certainty. Are you longing for it? Because it is only when we focus on our real future, that the present makes sense. For our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. People often say that Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use. Well Ive yet to meet anyone who has been so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use. Were often so earthly minded that were no heavenly use. The people who have been the most use for the kingdom of God have been the most heavenly minded. They focussed on the world to come, because that is reality. Take Lord Shaftsbury for instance. He reformed the treatment of the insane, he pioneered the legislation against the exploitation of labour in factories, he sponsored low cost housing for the poor and free education for destitute children. He was a committed Christian. And he said these words about himself: "I do not think in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lords return." He was so taken up with the thought of heaven that his life and priorities were shaped by Gods agenda.
I wonder how much our lives would be different if we lived truly believing that our future was guaranteed and our real home was in heaven. If someone were to look at our lives, would they have to conclude that we are living sordid little lives, as that vicar suggested, living only for the present? True Christianity lives for the future. A future guaranteed by Jesus work in the past. Yes our present may be full of pain. But it will lead us to groan inwardly, longing for the glory of the future, the new heavens and new earth, the redemption of our bodies. And it will lead us to sit light to this world. We will know that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. And like Paul well be able to say that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will one day be revealed in us.
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