The Future - Romans 8:18-39
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
~~The Future SJN .MP. 23.12.18
I think it would be true to say that in the United Kingdom in particular, but also in the West in general, there is an almost oppressive sense of uncertainty regarding the future which in turn breeds anxiety leading to fear. Whether it is the apocalyptic hysteria, surrounding Brexit, the nervousness of what might happen in the White House with Trump, the increased fragility of relations with Russia, the constant threat of Jihadists in our major cities, or the concerns of global warming- uncertainty does seem to be the order of the day. Some of you may remember the song from the movie, ‘Paint Your Waggon’? ‘Where am I going][, I don’t know, where am I heading, I ain’t certain all that I know is I am on my way’. That would not be a bad signature tune for 21st century leadership- whether political or ecclesiastical. Our civilization appears not so much to be born under a wandering star, but a shooting star- it meteoric rise shows signs of plummeting to a sudden end.
Perhaps such ‘doom and gloom’ is not what you came to hear this morning; you were expecting something a little more uplifting in church.
Well, whatever the Christian religion is it is nothing less than a religion of hope. Not the Pollyanna dewy eyed optimism which denies reality, but the clear sightedness of faith which looks reality squarely in the face against the backdrop of the greater reality of God’s changeless character and his Master plan for the world in the Gospel. And that is what we are about to see in what many regard to be the high peak of Romans, chapter 8-the spiritual Everest from which we can view the great vista of God’s eternal plan of rescue for sinners and the renewal of a universe dragged down by man’s rebellion.
First, Paul begins with a realistic view of the present, vv 18-25. In verse 17 Paul has made it clear that Christians will one day share in Christ’s glory but there is a condition attached, namely, we share in his sufferings. There is no crown without first a cross. And without minimising the anguish which all Christians will go through in varying degrees, Paul nevertheless asserts that what is to come will so monumentally transcend any joy we could even begin to think of that it is simply not possible to compare our present experience with what is to come. As C S Lewis once said, if we were able to see what Christians will one day be, we would be tempted to fall down and worship them. In fact the whole of creation is, as one translation of verse 19 puts it, ‘standing on tiptoe’ in eager expectation just waiting for this to happen because when it does it will mean the end of all the disorder, and all the pain and all the disfigurement it has been experiencing ever since the fall of man- vv 20-21.
And in many ways, because the Christian knows what is to come, for him the sense of longing and anguish will be all the greater-v22-23, ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’
The truth is that if their life is not cut short, Christians grow old, their eyesight and hearing begin to fail, their memory becomes not what it once was, they feel the cold more easily than they used to and so the longing for something better and the shear weariness of the present can sometimes simply seem too much to bear. That is not unusual. It is not a sign of weak faith, but true faith because it recognises that we literally live in a ‘damned world’, v20, but which also knows there is a better world to come and therefore waits in hope- vv 24&25.
As you many of you may know it was Martin Luther who upon reading Romans rediscovered the main message of the letter that we are justified- put right with God- through faith. And having endured the loss of his 13 year old daughter, Magdalene, battling with failing health himself, in January 1546 wrote this to a friend, ‘I who am old, lazy, worn out, cold, chilly with only one eye to see with now write to you. I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbour as Christ gave himself for me.’ He then prayed these words: ‘O heavenly father, God of all comfort, I thank you that you have revealed yourself to me your beloved Son, Jesus Christ in whom I have believed, whom I have preached and confessed, whom I have loved and praised… I pray dear Lord Christ, let me commend my soul to you. O heavenly father, if I leave this body and depart this life, I am certain that I will be with you forever and that I can never, never tear myself out of your hands.’ And you know, you couldn’t ask for a better summary of Romans 8 than that.
But the question is, what will enable rank and file Christians like you and me to keep on keeping on when we feel least able to do so? Part of the answer is the assurance of God’s presence- vv 26-27; just look at verse 26, ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.’ Now I must confess that I don’t particularly relish the thought of getting older and all that entails with more pills to take and more visits to the doctor. And one of the things that sometimes niggles away at the back of my mind is this: what will happen if ever I come to the point when I can no longer pray? Perhaps I will simply not have the energy to do it or the mental capacity. What happens when I am maybe so confused that I will not know how to pray let alone what to pray,? Is that a concern that ever crosses your mind? Well, here is a verse which is meant to lay all such anxieties to rest: the Spirit of Jesus will keep praying for me, knowing what I would pray if I could, gathering up the occasional sighs which might be all I can manage, in order to craft them into some of the sweetest, most beautiful, most heartfelt prayers that my heavenly Father will ever hear. I really do believe that on the basis of what Paul is saying in this passage.
Did you notice that there is an awful lot of groaning going on? The universe is groaning, Christians are groaning and even the Holy Spirit is groaning, all longing for the completion of God’s great plan of redemption- the redemption of a universe under a curse.
And whilst we are not in any way to downplay the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we being the first fruit of a mouth-watering harvest to come-v23, we should not overplay it either. The fact is that our full and final redemption is very much future, v 23, ‘we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’ It is a waiting game we are in- not hanging around passively, but living with hope in a world still broken, still bleeding and still bruised, and we are broken and know what it is to hurt too. And one of the sure signs that we are adopted into God’s family and heirs with Jesus Christ is that inspite of the knocks, regardless of the disappointments and setbacks, is that we still keep on going, ‘onward and upward’ moving from the shadowlands of this world to the sunlit uplands of the next.
But how do we know that those setbacks won’t be permanent and somehow wreck God’s plan for us? Paul addresses that concern in the next section- the certainty of God’s plan, vv28-30.
Paul is not using a preacher’s licence when he says that ‘in all things God works for the good for those who love him who have been called according to his purpose’. Like a master weaver our heavenly Father takes the threads of our lives with their many colours: some dark, some bright, and weaves them into a rich tapestry of his making which one day he will display before the whole universe to demonstrate his unlimited power and unfailing love towards his own. Elements in our lives which appear to us to be wholly negative- the disease, the tragedies, the moral slippage, will not be lost on God and wasted in his great plan-because even these he will use to refine and restore his children whom he loves.
And the reason for our certain hope that this will be so is given in what has been referred to as the ‘golden chain’ of our salvation where there is not even one weak link which will fail in v 30, ‘And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’
Just try and grasp this the best you can: in eternity past God so foreloved you that he set his heart on saving you (predestined) and for that to become personally real in your life, when you heard the Gospel message, his Holy Spirit worked in your dark, hostile mind to enlighten it and subdue it so you would be enabled to believe (he called you); and then God declared you to be in the right with him, acquitted of your sin and accepted by him (justified) and so with all those links in place, comes the final link in the golden chain with eternity future in mind he ‘glorified you.’ The astonishing thing is that while this is still future, Paul uses the past tense -glorified to get over the fact that our ultimate salvation is so absolutely certain that it can be spoken of as having already taken place as far as God is concerned- it is a done deal. This chain of salvation can’t be broken because God forged it. God the Father determined it, God the Son executed it and God the Holy Spirit applies it, both in the sense that he converts us and sanctifies us, but also in that he is the one who is going to raise us from the dead with new bodies, as he did with the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so at last we find ourselves standing on the summit of the great mountain itself- the security of God’s protection, vv 31-39.
One of the fears which will sometimes plague the earnest Christian is the fear of not making it to the end, the fear that something will happen which will disrupt their faith and throw them off track. It may be the threat of persecution; the possible loss of a loved one; the fear that when it comes to death itself then their faith will fail. Do such thoughts not bother you or is it only me? It is when the ‘what if’s’ loom large in our minds that we effectively become paralysed in our Christian walk. But here Paul faces those ‘what if’s’ head on. ‘Think it through’ he says, ‘If the God of the universe is for us, then who can be against us?’ v31. It’s a no contest. If God did not withhold his greatest gift from us- his Son, why do we think he will withhold from us lesser gifts? It’s a no brainer. No one on the judgement day is going to be able to accuse us before God, even our own consciences, because God has already declared us to be in a right standing with him-justified- because of our faith in Christ-v33. There is no barrier big enough which will keep out Christ’s love, no wall high enough which it cannot surmount, no sin dark enough that it cannot forgive. In fact we are not going to leave this would as mere survivors, having just scraped into heaven by the skin of their teeth, we are ‘more than conquerors’- ‘literally ‘super- conquerors’ says Paul, through Jesus ‘who loved us.’ Notice the tense there. It is not the present tense, ‘Jesus who loves us’ (although he does), but loved us- past tense which is significant. Where do we see that ‘loved us’ but at the cross? It happened as an historical certainty. And just as certain is the love it displayed which will never, ever dim or run out. So no matter what trial or opposition you might care to envisage, nothing, literally nothing will ever be ‘able to separate us from God’s love which is in Christ Jesus.’
And so Paul runs through an extensive if not exhaustive list of the things which hypothetically might pose a threat to our final salvation and writes, ‘For I am convinced (that is certain on the basis of everything he has been saying in Romans so far) that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth (and here is a reference to the position of the stars and the idea that somehow the ‘fates’ might exercise some kind of power- the basis of astrology), nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
So what might holding these convictions work itself out when we are facing hardship of one kind or another?
let me tell you about Bishop Stanway. This godly Bishop had been used by God
to multiply churches in East Africa. In Tanzania alone he was responsible for
establishing 20 dioceses and in retirement helped found a theological college
in North America. Professor D.A. Carson writes of him in these terms: ‘But
when I met him, he had returned to his native Australia and Parkinson’s
disease had so debilitated him that he could no longer talk. He communicated
by writing on a pad of paper, more precisely he could no longer write, but
printed his answers in scarcely legible block letters. By the time I got to
know him a little, I felt emboldened to ask him how he was coping with his
crippling disease. He had been so active and productive throughout his life;
how was he handling being shunted aside? He had to print out his answer on
that pad of paper three times before I could read it: ‘There is no future
in frustration.’ Carson adds, ‘Bishop Stanway would not allow himself
the luxury of frustration. He lived with eternity’s perspective before
him and frustration plays no part there. He simply had not tied his ego to
his service, so that when the active, fruitful forms of service he had enjoyed
for decades were withdrawn, he himself was not threatened. He could still
trust in his Master and pursue what was best within the constraints imposed on him.’
Stanway kept before him his own future in Christ, which is also yours and mine. What is that- it is there in v 29, ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.’ C.S. Lewis put it like this, ‘This God is going to take the feeblest and the filthiest of us and turn us into dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures pulsating with all the energy and joy and wisdom and love we could possibly imagine. He’s going to turn us unto bright stainless mirrors that reflect back his character perfectly.’ That is our future. And that is why Paul’s letter to the Romans is the clearest Gospel of all.
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