St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 16th December 2012
Reading – Romans 8:18-27
It’s round about this time of the year we start to have all those programmes which review what’s happened over the past twelve months. This evening we as a family will be glued to Sports Personality of the Year 2012, and I think you’ll agree the choice of winner this year is going to be harder than ever. Then, between now and the New Year, there will be the more serious programmes, looking at the news headlines and the big disasters. And somewhere among the schedules there will be a poignant reminder of the great and the good who have passed away, and the legacy they have left behind.
As with any year 2012 has had its highs and its lows. We have had so much to be thankful in the past year, perhaps more than for a very long time, but there have also been real tragedies, and real heartbreaks. And of course that’s been true not just on a national or international level. It’s been true for us on a more personal level as well. As a church family we are in a very different place from where we were at the beginning of the year. Over the past 12 months we have laughed and wept together, rejoiced with those rejoice and mourned with those who mourn.
And the simple question I want to ask this morning is this: where is the hope? Sometimes it’s hard not to disagree with the world-weary writer of Ecclesiastes who wrote: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9). There might be new records on the sporting field, or new feats of endurance. But there seems little evidence overall that we learn from our mistakes, that generally we are becoming wiser or cleverer. Who is to say that at the end of 2013 we won’t be looking back on a similar mix of triumphs and disappointments, of celebrations and tragedies?
This to me is why the season of Advent is so important. Although it tends to get swallowed up by Christmas, we need to reclaim Advent and the great message of hope that it brings. Because if we’re only looking forward to Jesus’ first coming, if all we are celebrating is a miraculous birth two thousand years ago, then we are missing the point. Jesus didn’t come just to give us a nice story about a young mother bearing a child in a stable in faraway times. He came to give us a hope and an assurance that there is more to life than this brief existence here on earth.
And that’s why during Advent we haven’t been looking at the Christmas story itself, but this wonderful chapter from Romans which explains just why Jesus came. We have already seen Jesus came to set us free and to make us sons of God. This morning we shall see that He has come to give us hope.
As Paul writes in verse 18: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. That is Christian hope, in a nutshell. That one day we will be free of all that separates us from God. We will become part of God’s family worshipping round the throne of Jesus. And because of God’s grace and mercy we will share in the very glory of God.
Now let’s be very clear what Paul is and isn’t saying. He isn’t saying that our present sufferings are unimportant. Eastern religions teach that the path to true enlightenment is detachment from suffering and pain, and that is a lie. Just as Jesus entered into a suffering and broken world, so we are called to stand alongside the broken, the sick, the poor, the vulnerable. Nor is He saying we are simply called to grin and bear it. The stiff upper lip is a British characteristic, not a Christian one. We will rightly find ourselves crying out with the saints, “How long, O Lord?” But if we have truly understand what the coming of Jesus means we will live with one eye on the future, knowing there is more than the present turmoil and confusion we see around us.
So what exactly are we looking forward to? Paul spells this out in the following verses:
Firstly, we are looking forward to a new creation.
At the moment, as Paul puts it in verse 21, creation suffers from bondage to decay. It’s something we all know to be true. Crops fail; rivers flood; forests burn; earthquakes shake and destroy. Although God made the world to be beautiful, although He filled it with so many good things, there is something that is not quite right with the world as it presently is. To use Paul’s poignant phrase in verse 22: the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. It’s a haunting image of the sense of frustration all of us feel when we see goodness and beauty wasted and destroyed. And as Christians I think it is particularly important we are realistic about the world as it really is.
So what’s gone wrong? Has the world somehow spiralled out of God’s control? Is He no longer able to manage what goes on around us? Well, there are deep mysteries here that can’t be fathomed in a single sermon. But Paul assures us that even this bondage to decay was part of God’s plan. We may not fully understand why. We may have many genuine questions. But because Jesus has come into the world as Saviour we can have confidence that somehow even creation itself will – in the words of verse 21 – be brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Not just a slightly improved, patched up earth. But a brand new earth where Eden will be restored, where God will once again be pleased to make His dwelling among us. How and when this happen I do not know. But I know I can trust the one who defeated even the power of death and who has given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee for what is to come.
And this leads to the second point, that we are looking forward to a new body.
Now I don’t need to tell most of you that bodies wear out, and often fail to do the things we want them to do. I won’t ask how many of you can still touch your toes or run a mile! But the great hope of the Christian faith is that one day when we are raised up to share in Christ’s glory we too shall receive a new body. For just as Jesus was raised up in bodily form after the resurrection, so too we shall one day receive a resurrection body. There will be no more aches and pains, no more snuffles and colds. We will be fit and well forever, able to concentrate fully on our eternal praise of God Almighty.
This doesn’t mean that our life here on earth will necessarily be any easier. Indeed Paul tells us that as believers we will share in the same sense of frustration that the rest of creation experiences. We too will groan, as Paul explains in verse 23, because we live in a constant tension between what we experience now and what we know will happen in the future. Yes, we are already sons and daughters of the living God, as we saw last week, but we have not yet received our inheritance. We know we are called to wait patiently until the Lord calls us home but if we’re honest don’t all of us long for that time when – in the words of Martin Luther King’s epitaph – we can say, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last”.
That’s why it’s just so important for us to grasp what Paul says here about the work of the Holy Spirit.
First of all, if we believe and trust in Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit indwells us. As we saw last week, in Romans 8 verse 9, if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But let’s be clear what the indwelling of the Holy Spirit means. It’s not just that we have a warm fuzzy feeling inside us, like the children on the Ready Break advert. It’s not just that we have particular gifts or ministries we would not naturally possess. Rather we have the Holy Spirit living in us as a guarantee of what is to come.
That’s why in today’s passage Paul talks about the Holy Spirit as the firstfruits. Now to us who don’t live in an agricultural society we may wonder what are firstfruits. But to Paul’s listeners the meaning was clear. The firstfruits were the first part of the harvest offered to God, in the expectation that God would provide a future blessing, that is, the rest of the harvest. And Paul was saying, in effect, to the church in Rome that God Himself has provided the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of future blessing, of the time when we shall meet with Him in glory.
Yes, our circumstances now may be painful and difficult. From a human point of view there may appear to be little in the way of hope. But the very presence of the Holy Spirit with us tells us that come what may, one day we will be with Jesus forever. His promises and His purposes stand secure, and they are there for us to claim in this self-same power of the Holy Spirit as our rock, our fortress and our shield.
And there’s more. Because secondly, the Holy Spirit interprets the very deepest longing of our hearts. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot about groaning in this passage. You’ve got creation groaning in verse 22. You’ve got believers groaning in verse 23 and verse 26 talks about groans that words cannot express. Sometimes, you see, when we look at the state of the world, or think about our own situation, words fail us. But that’s OK. When we do not know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit takes even those emotions we can’t express, and those thoughts we can’t get straight, and converts them into powerful, effective prayer.
And I don’t know about you, but I find this work of the Holy Spirit such an encouragement. So many people find it difficult to pray, not because they do not want to pray, but because they do not know what to say. At the back of our minds we have this idea we have to use the right language or the right kinds of words to talk with God. Of course, if we can put our prayers into words, so much the better. Our Heavenly Father delights to hear us pray. But if for any reason we cannot, if all we can do is groan, or sigh, or weep, the Holy Spirit can take whatever we express as an offering to God. What matters to Him is not what you pray, but the fact you want to pray. He will accept the desires of even your heart.
Which leads onto my final point this morning, that the Holy Spirit intercedes on behalf of us before God our Father.
Now I realise this word “intercede” is a good religious word that we often use without fully explaining what it means. But in essence it is simply the Latin word for a “go-between”. Later on, in verse 34, Paul will describe how Christ Jesus is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. It’s a staggering thought, but one I hope you can grasp, that we have both God the Son and God the Holy Spirit pleading on our behalf before our Heavenly Father. We have Jesus who points to His finished work on the cross and opens up the way for us to be accepted into the very presence of the King.
And here we have the Holy Spirit who comes before the Heavenly Father with our groans, and turns them into effective prayer. For as Paul writes in verse 27: …he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. (Romans 8:27). If that is not an incentive to pray, then I don’t know what it is. God the Son and God the Holy Spirit interceding on our behalf, and our Heavenly Father welcoming into His presence. Just spend a moment reflecting on the amazing fact you have God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit on your side.
And when you reflect, then you begin to understand what Advent is all about. It is not about grimly clinging to a hope against hope. Nor is it about grappling with difficult theological issues such as a new creation or the redemption of our bodies. It is about looking forward with confidence to a future which has been secured for us by Jesus’ first coming and which has been guaranteed to each one of us personally by the Holy Spirit.
It really is so important we don’t let Advent get swallowed up by Christmas. Take time to thank God for this future that lies beyond the events of this world. Take time to ask if you know this Jesus for yourself in a real and personal manner. And be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, indwelling you, interpreting your prayers, and interceding for us in accordance with God’s will.