07/23/17 “Freed for Hope”

Romans 8:12-25

There is so much that’s wonderful in our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that it was hard to pick out just one idea to preach on. Of course, he reminds us that when we stop living according to the ways of the flesh—those worldly desires that can separate us from God, from others, and from our true selves—when we die to those ways, we can begin living according to the ways of the Spirit.  Paul tells us that allowing the Spirit to lead us allows us to live as children of God—not with fear or a sense of slavery but with a closeness to God that allows us to call on God in the most intimate way—by calling God Father, as a small child would call her father “Daddy.”  When we do that, Paul says, it is God’s own Spirit affirming that we are children of God and, not only that, heirs of God just as Jesus is.

Of course, Paul adds, there is a caveat—being heirs to the same kingdom as Jesus means that we are also heirs of his suffering.  Suffering with him and on his behalf are part and parcel of being God’s Spirit-led children. But, Paul assures us, whatever we suffer now is small potatoes in comparison to the glory that will one day be revealed in us.

And, we’re not alone in either our suffering or our anticipation of our inheritance!  All of creation is in the same boat with us. The sinfulness of human beings has consequences for all of creation, and all of creation waits for that glorious day when human beings are revealed as God’s children and transformed by God’s grace into the just and righteous stewards of God’s creation that we were commissioned to be.  For it is then that creation, too, will be restored to the state that God intended for it from the beginning.  Just as we ourselves wait for the completion of the new birth that we have begun to experience, the whole of Creation is waiting along with us for its rebirth.

So, just within these few verses, Paul gives us a lot of material to work with: our adoption as God’s children and heirs with Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s witness to our own spirits, the nature of suffering in our lives, and the place of Creation in God’s redemption plan.  But it’s the last two verses that I’d like to focus on today, the ones about hope and waiting: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

We use the word “hope” in various ways.  Often, we use “hope” as a synonym for “wish.” The other day, I came across an article about the difference between “wishing” and “hoping.”  The writer explained the difference this way. He said that “wishing” is used to talk about situations which we desire but are impossible:  So, I might say “I wish I were six feet tall,” but the fact is I’m not going to get any taller than the almost 5’4” that I already am.  Or I might say, “I wish I hadn’t eaten so much at dinner last night,” but I did and I can’t change that fact now.

Hope, on the other hand (according to this writer), is what we do when what we desire is possible but not a sure bet.  It’s like saying “I hope it will be nice for my cook-out tonight.” It’s possible that the weather will be nice, but it’s also possible that it will rain.  Or you might say, “I hope I can lose weight this summer,” because it’s entirely possible that through diet and exercise you could get your body in better shape, as long as your will-power doesn’t fail you.

But there is another kind of hope that the essay writer did not address—the hope Paul is describing here.  That hope is Christian hope. It’s certainly not a synonym for wishing for the impossible.  It’s not simply a desire for something that is possible but uncertain. Our hope a trust in what has been secured by something that has already happened: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Greek word that Paul uses for “hope” conveys this: it is a looking forward to something with some reason for confidence that it will come to pass. We certainly have reason for confidence in the hope that what God has promised, God will fulfill.

Much of what Paul describes in our passage are expectations for the day when Christ comes again and completes the recreation of the world.  There’s a fancy theological word for thinking about that day: “eschatology”—talk about how humanity and all the world as we know it will be transformed into what God intended all along.

It is in that day—the eschaton—that we will see that any and all suffering that we endure in this world pales in comparison to the glory we will experience then.  It is in that day that all of Creation will be freed from the degradation it has suffered as a result of humanity’s sinfulness. It is in that day that all who live according to the Spirit’s leading, redeemed by the blood of Christ and made God’s children, will receive their full inheritance as heirs with Jesus—an inheritance that we taste but a small part of in this world.  Freed from sin, freed from death so that we may have abundant life, we are freed to place our hope for these glories in Jesus.

But, all these things lie ahead of us—at least, in their completed form.  A world of complete shalom—healed, whole, and restored—is still some ways off.  We live in what we call a “now and not yet” world.  We get glimpses of what will be, in those moments when we feel the Spirit moving in us and among us.  We see hints of it when we witness acts of forgiveness and generosity and love, or when we ourselves are able to live in ways that we know leave God smiling.  If you’ve ever stood on a mountain top or looked out across Lake Erie, gazed into the night sky or into the eyes of a newborn baby, you’ve had a taste of the splendor that is coming. When Jesus came into the world, God turned the world onto a new path towards renewal and healing—towards becoming God’s kingdom in all respects, and we see glimpses of it now.

But as much as we see now, there is much we cannot see.  That is the “not yet” part of God’s kingdom here on earth.  It lies in future.  How far distant in the future we do not know.  And Jesus told us that it is not for us to know.  He says in Matthew: “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, we hope in what we do not see.

So, what’s a Christian to do as we wait for the eschaton—that transformation of the first heaven and the first earth into the new heaven and the new earth?  Paul’s words in most Bible translations are similar to the one Pat read for us: “We wait for it with patience.”  But is not a “get comfy and doze off” kind of patience.  It is an eager awaiting. This is a straining forward toward what lies ahead, knowing it will be wonderful and beautiful, willing to trust in God’s timing but eager for that time to come.

Placing our hope in what we cannot see can be hard.  People may challenge us and suggest that in the face of all the problems the world is facing, and has faced for millennia, we’re a little deluded if we believe in this idyllic world that’s supposedly on its way.

We may also struggle with our own doubts.  When our hearts break at the reports of cruelty and violence in the world, we may wonder if our hope is misplaced.  When we hear of, or experience ourselves, financial insecurity and a day-to-day struggle just to put food on the table and gas in the tank, we may wonder just how much longer we need to keep up hoping in the promised glory.  When we suffer pain and loss—either our own or that of a loved one, we may wonder about how anything can outweigh the suffering we’re experiencing.

We may struggle as a congregation with the challenge of waiting patiently. There’s no denying that we are small, we are largely old, we don’t have much money, and the building needs a lot of work.  By fleshly standards, we’re not doing so well, and we could easily let that deter us from living in hope, just as the Roman church could have been deterred by the suffering and challenges they were enduring.

Paul understands this.  So, he urges believers—the Romans and now us—to wait with patience.  But this isn’t just the patience of standing in a slow-moving line and not getting mad at the cashier.  It’s an endurance in the face of difficulty.  It’s a steadfast and persevering fortitude.  It’s a patience that looks around at what is now, acknowledges the “not yet” which is unseen, and not only hangs in there but moves toward it.

But how can we do that?  How can we live today with that sense of endurance and perseverance?  We can do it because of the freedom Paul has been describing for us—the freedom Jesus secured for us.  Freed from sin, we can see our doubts for what they are—the attempt of the sin remaining in us to lure us away from our trust in God.  Jesus has freed us from that sin; it no longer has the power to rule us, as long as we allow the Spirit’s power in us to hold sway.

We have been freed from death—the spiritual death that comes when sin takes over. We are freed from death because we know that the sufferings of this life—the grief, the pain, and the worry—are real and hard but they are not the whole of life.  We know that God is with us in all our circumstances.  Knowing this, we are freed to hope in Jesus—freed to rely on the certain promises of God that we are God’s children and heirs with Christ, awaiting that glory which is our inheritance.

Freed from sin, freed from death so that we might experience abundant life not just after our earthly lives are over but here and now, we are freed to live in the hope Jesus secured for us and freed to live out of that hope.  In that freedom, we have been given the Spirit’s power to persevere in being an outpost of God’s kingdom in this place.  We are freed to see that what we have is more valuable to Jesus than what we lack.  What we have is a commitment to growing in our relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son.  What we have is a commitment to serving in Jesus’ name.  What we have is a desire to be the heart of Jesus, beating in the heart of Whitehouse.

The hope we have—the sure and certain knowledge that we have a glorious inheritance awaiting us—frees us to live in that hope, and the in-dwelling Spirit gives us the power and ability to live in that hope. The Spirit places an eagerness in us—an eagerness not just to live in the hope of what is to come, but an eagerness to live out of that hope now. And so, we continue to be part of Bible studies and Sunday School classes that help us grow in our love and knowledge of God. We continue to worship together, because we know that God is present and pleased when we gather in praise and prayer and hearing the word proclaimed. We continue to serve in Jesus’ name, and we look for ways, large and small, to help others come to know our Savior through their relationships with us.

What will come of this is unseen, just as the full glory of our inheritance is unseen.  And it may feel like a long wait with little progress toward the desired end.  But I saw something the other day that we should keep in mind when we start to feel discouraged.  I’ve shared with you that at my daughter’s urging, I’ve taken up running.  I’m a little embarrassed to call it running, since I do what’s called “running intervals”—I run part of the time, and I walk more of the time.  I reached a milestone on Friday: I was able to increase my running time to one minute for every two minutes of walking.  It doesn’t sound like much, and it took me almost nine months to get there. I posted it on my daughter’s running group Facebook page, a little sheepishly because I know the women in the group run much farther distances and at a much faster pace than I do.  But one of the women in the group posted this encouraging word: “Remember: ‘Forward’ is a pace.”

As we move toward the unseen future—either that future of the eschaton or the future we have ahead of us in this life, as individuals and as a congregation, we may feel like we are making little progress and doing it slowly.  But we have a sure and certain hope that frees us to move forward, and forward is a pace.  We move forward as we continue to hope for what we do not see. We move forward as we wait with eagerness for what is to be revealed in us and through us.  And as we do, we become signs of that hope for others.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young