Friday, March 27, 2009

Salvation Now

The following is the third sermon, based on Romans 8:12-27, from last week's mission:

SALVATION NOW:  What in this world is God doing?

The pastor of the largest congregation in the U.S. extends his influence by television broadcast and writing best-selling books such as Your Best Life Now. Numerous megachurches across the country attract people through high-tech entertainment offered in a context called “worship” and sermons (if such a traditional word is used) that often focus on self-help and the pursuit of happiness. The insinuation is that being a Christian is “fun” — that Jesus adds sweet icing to the cake of life.

Paul’s letter to the Romans and the witness of the Church throughout history is that Christian Faith turns the values of the world up-side down. It takes faith to believe this (and again, true belief will always affect the way a person lives). The result is hardly ever something that can be called “fun.” The world-spirit hates the implications of Christian Faith (such things as God’s authority, things that are absolutely right and wrong, the reality of sin and the call to admit it and repent, the implications of death being necessary for spiritual life, and the difficulty of dying to self).

The gospel is the good news of salvation, something a world that has gone insane with evil (1:18–3:20) desperately needs. The good news is that God has given his Son, Jesus Christ, to do what we could never do for ourselves (3:21–31). So, if God has forgiven us — if the death of Christ makes things right with God (the emphasis of chapter 5) — then why do we need to worry about sin? Chapters 6 and 7 elaborate on that, but one way to summarize it is that there a corruption (sarx, “sinful nature”) in our human existence that fights the life of God that comes to us in Jesus through his Holy Spirit.

In chapter 8 Paul develops what we might call life in the Spirit. Early in the chapter Paul says: The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace... And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (8:9). How does a person experience the life of the Holy Spirit (or, in other words, live a Christian life)? Paul answers that question: You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (8:6).

The question is what controls you? A good word here is “mind-set.” Our mind-set affects our attitude and our value system. It is the orientation out of which we think and act. It is our world-view. A Christian mind-set understands that God is the center of everything. Truth is what God says; not what people popularly think. A desire to please God is inherent in a person who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean, in day to day life, for us to enter into God’s salvation? What does salvation in the “now” look like? Is it the happy face on the pastor of America’s largest congregation? Is it finding a church that makes us “feel good?” Or, to look at the issue I’m addressing from the opposite perspective, how does Christian Faith interface with the brokenness and evil and pain that is in our world? What does God’s salvation mean for those who would follow Jesus right now, in this world with all its threats and suffering? There is no realistic Christian Faith apart from this issue. So, what in this world is God doing? God is calling us to know him and to be like him. And those things are totally embodied in Jesus Christ.

Being a Christian is serious stuff. Being a Christian is based on the necessity of the Son of God dying for our salvation. Being a Christian is believing that trying to live according to our own desires is deadly. Being a Christian is embracing God’s desire for us to be like his Son.

This is not to say that Christians will be perfect — far from it. Sometimes Christian identity will be displayed in someone who, in a moment of weakness, gives in to sin, but then cries out to the Lord for forgiveness and prays yet again to be delivered from sin. And the more sensitive a person is to the Spirit, the greater the consciousness of sin — even to “little things” that many people would excuse as “normal.” Augustine made this observation: “It is human to err; it is devilish to remain willfully in error.” The bottom line here is a person who is honest about sin and desires to please God instead of living for one’s self. There is a sense of belonging to God like a child to his father — being welcome and yet being accountable. This is how we can know the life of the Holy Spirit at work in us.

Now it might seem that as long as we turn our hearts to the Lord then the power of the Holy Spirit would always enable us to rise above all the “stuff” that tries to pull us down. This is not the case, and this is why it is important for us to know what God is doing.

As we identify with Jesus (6:3,4).... as we consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11).... as we invite the Holy Spirit to control us (8:6,11).... we find the life of the Spirit of Jesus working in us just as the Spirit worked in him... if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (8:17b). To belong to Christ is to share not just his sonship — his blessings (8:15), but also his rejection and death.

What does it mean to “share in his sufferings”? One thing is to be realistic about suffering. Any given week is full of examples of ways people suffer.... Every day, all around us, there are people — and many of them are Christians — who face failures, disappointments and depression. All of this and more is suffering. If we are not grounded in a biblical view of evil and if we do not have a Christian understanding of suffering we will never be able to mature in our faith (and we will face the danger of spiritual shipwreck by a discouragement — and a resulting disobedience — that abandons faith).

There is a reason people suffer. There is a reason something is always going wrong somewhere in the world. Our world is “fallen” — it is not what God intended when he first created. Nature, for all its wonder and beauty, is not perfect (we should remember this when “nature” is used an excuse for sexual immorality). The “curse” that Adam and Eve were warned about if they disobeyed God has happened: the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it... (8:20).

Nature is broken beyond the ecological damage done by humanity. The psalms use anthropomorphic images for nature in response to God’s salvation: all the trees of the forest will sing for joy (96:12b); the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing together for joy (98:8). Paul says here that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (8:22). Perhaps it is not too farfetched to see earthquakes, volcanos, hurricanes and tornadoes as emotional eruptions by a universe that actually experiences the devastation of sin.

For those who can see it, the Bible truly gives us pictures of reality. We live in a world that threatens and hurts us; that is its nature because although it was created by God, it has also been affected by the curse of sin. At the same time we are invited to trust a God who has already acted to save us and who promises us a world where everything will be put right. We need to understand that, for now, these two things stay in constant tension. Jesus himself said, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33b). We want to ask why it’s this way. God reveals himself as One who has the power to create this universe and who has the kind of love to give his Son to die for us. So why does God allow suffering to continue?

Some things have to be experienced in order for us to understand and for them to become an actual part of us. This is a crude analogy, but the purpose of backpacking is not merely to reach the next campsite; the purpose of hiking is the trail itself. A backpacker would scorn a ski lift ride to the top of the mountain where the night’s lodging is planned. On a far grander scale, history is the stage for the unfolding of God’s purpose. Suffering is one way we learn the true value of God’s ways, and suffering along the way is the proving ground of arriving at God’s primary desire us.

There is a danger of trying to use a false “spirituality” to secure our temporal comfort and security apart from any real desire for God. This is the heresy of the (so-called) “health and wealth gospel” that is so prominent among television preachers. According to them, God supposedly becomes the magic genie who will make life pleasant. Yet God knows that when life is too pleasant we become self-satisfied and self-confident; we forget him. The “good life” seldom leads to godliness. God wants people to see that their desires for good are ultimately a hunger for him. C. S. Lewis called it “a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy” (“The Weight of Glory”). In his book, Mere Christianity, he says:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

Yet we so easily get distracted and sidetracked by whatever is close and immediately appealing. The enemy of our souls is so good at counterfeiting. The twistedness of our broken world puts things backwards, enticing us to believe lies that promise life but only deliver death. There are people who are persuaded that suffering is having to miss a favorite TV show!

One reason Jesus had to suffer was to show us the true nature of sin. Christ on the cross is what God thinks of sin. Christ on the cross is a picture of what sin is and does. God has designed salvation so that, not only does Jesus take upon himself the suffering of sin, people who follow Jesus experience some of the suffering so that we know the horror of sin. There is deep witness to this in the church. Let these testimonies sink into your mind and soul:

Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations (Augustine).

The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his (George MacDonald, 1824-1905).

It would be just another illusion to believe that reaching out to God will free us from pain and suffering. Often, indeed, it will take us where we rather would not go. But we know that without going there we will not find our life (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out).

Do you know what suffering does in a Christian? It drives a Christian to prayer. When we are pulled into the heart of the reality that something is wrong in this world — when the wrongs of this world touch us so that we hurt so deeply that it seems all we can do is groan — we find that God is there. The word “groan” appears three times here in short succession (and only six other times in the New Testament). We are told that sin is so bad and so pervasive that creation groans (8:22). On top of that, Christians groan (we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly (8:23). But we do not groan alone: the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (8:26).

It seems there is a popular stereotype that the ministry of the Holy Spirit always produces joy and victory in Christians. Or the Holy Spirit is the one who makes worship alive and thrilling. Both of those things are partly true, but that is not the whole story. The Holy Spirit also meets us in the depths of our despair. Here we find the Spirit active not so much in the heights of spiritual rapture as in the depths of our human inability.

If we are honest, we all have moments — maybe days, or longer — when we feel “I can’t do this.” Maybe it is the weight of our own burdens: physical, relational, emotional or a gigantic struggle with sin. Maybe it is the weight we carry for someone else that we love so deeply that their pain is our pain. All we know is that our groaning becomes one with the deep pain of the whole world and we are afraid there is nowhere to go, no way out.

In those times, Christians pray — pray as they maybe never have before, and pray as they never thought they could. It is in that kind of praying that we find a depth in God that can come no other way than by suffering. It is there that we taste a bit of what Jesus did for us. It is there that we know — we experience — how desperately we, and the whole world, need to be saved.

It is in those times that we understand something of what God is doing. We get drawn into what he has already done; that is why we have hope and that is why we pray. We also become aware of what God has yet promised to do — what he must do if salvation is real and is going to be complete.

Right now, we are only “half-saved.” We are “on the way.” Suffering is not yet over. The redemption of our bodies (the resurrection) is still something for which we wait eagerly (8:23). Full salvation is coming, and in the meantime God is working on us.

One day a man received a call at this rural office saying that Jessica, his 8-year-old daughter, had fallen and cut her lip and that his wife was driving her to the doctor's office. Jessica and a friend had been playing hide-and-seek in the dark; she tripped in the bathroom and cut her lip wide open on the side of the counter. He raced over to the doctor’s office to meet them and the doctor said he'd need to sew up the lip, that there would be some pain, but that some day she'd care about how her lip looked. For him to be able to do a decent job, she'd have to stay perfectly still. The father talked to his daughter and explained what would happen — that it would hurt until the shot numbed it and that she'd see a lot of activity going on around her, but that she had to stay still, so he was going to stand behind her head, put his hands on both of her shoulders to hold her steady, and that she was to look up at him while he talked to her the whole time. He told her to keep her eyes on him, that he wished he could take the pain away but that even more, he wanted her to be whole.

That is so much like what God does for us in remaking us to be like Jesus. We feel the hurt and pain and think God is pressing down on us when he's actually staying alongside us and holding us still. He doesn't enjoy seeing us in pain but knows that it's the only way for us to become whole, and that as long as we keep our eyes on him and listen to his words, we'll find healing and wholeness.

God has started something incredible and wonderful in the people who receive his salvation. He has promised its full conclusion, but it is not yet full reality: hope that is seen is no hope at all — who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (8:24b,25).

Waiting patiently is so hard. I am terrible at it. Do you know one reason we can be patient? God is working his Spirit into those who belong to him, and the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (8:27). What is God’s will? The last section of this chapter takes us there (and we’ll look at that tomorrow night).

But in the meantime.... And that is where we are right now, “in the meantime” — living in two worlds: this seen world that is passing away and yet also in a world that is unseen but promised (and here for those who have faith to see it). If we have this faith it is because the Father is working his Spirit into our life — the Spirit of Jesus, who lives in all who belong to him.

What is discouraging you? What suffering weighs on your soul? Can you see it in the context Paul gives us as he started this section? I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (8:18). What is God doing right now? He is not giving us our “best life now” — that is not what God has promised. He is working his Spirit into all who belong to him even in the midst of this world and all its suffering. And God’s Spirit is life.... a salvation that is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

No comments:

Site Meter