Sunday, May 6, 2018

Groaning in Hope

We’re back in Romans 8 to look at the next bit of what the Apostle taught. In doing this I have a goal, a goal that covers a lot of territory. My goal for this sermon, and actually for any sermon I preach, is not to teach you something about the religion that you profess. My goal is quite different from that. My goal is to explain reality, to explain how life works. And that is my goal because that’s the goal of the Bible; not to teach about religion, but to teach about life. The Gospel is the only explanation of life that is true, through and through.

Today, we’re going to look at one dynamic of life that we all experience. We all have times when we struggle with life. To use Paul’s words that we are going to be looking at in a moment, we groan because of the troubles we face. That’s not some religious doctrine. It’s a fact about life. As Paul will explain, the right response to this is a lively Christian hope. And that, also, is not some religious response. It’s a response that understands life. You’re here this morning not to learn about God or to have some doctrine explained or for some other religious reason. Religion, in that sense, is just one small part of a person’s life. That’s not what we’re about. You’re here so that you can hear from God about how to live in this world as it now exists.

Now, with all of that in mind, listen to what Paul taught.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:18-25

We need to consider a few words that Paul uses. Let’s start with taking a look at one striking word that Paul uses to describe our situation.

…the creation was subjected to futility…

Futility, what’s that? It describes something that is without use or value, something that is meaningless. Now, that’s a pretty powerful word. Could it be that Paul is overstating things here? Why would he write such a thing?

It just might be that he read his Bible where it said,

To the woman [God] said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:16-19

That sounds pretty dark: pain, frustration, conflict. And when it’s all done, you end up as a pile of dust. And it’s more than just physical problems - backaches, broken bones, insomnia, cancer. It’s also about the emotional struggles that we all are confronted with.

And why all of this? It’s because of God’s curse. He is the one who subjected creation to this futility, this meaninglessness.

Yes, this is dark. But I think that it’s good to see it in this way. And why do I say that? Is it because of my melancholic personality? No. It’s because this is the way life is.

All of this explains another word that Paul uses here: groaning.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together…
Everybody groans. They may not call it that, but that is what they do when they are confronted by the troubles of life. And what does a person do when he finds himself groaning? He looks to his gods. He looks to whatever it is that he trusts, loves, fears, obeys, takes refuge in, finds comfort in.

One god that I look to is the god of food. This god, like all gods, has a gospel. Here is the gospel of this god: there is comfort in food. Sadly, there are too many situations in which I believe that gospel. So, I respond to my own groaning by eating something. And that seems to work. But there are difficulties with this solution, among which is the fact that this god’s comfort doesn’t actually deal with the problem. The reason I looked to this god for its comfort is still there, making my life difficult. It’s just been covered up for a while.

There are other gods that people look to and depend on, things like: the promise of success, being distracted from it all, a sense of being in control or the busyness that so many give themselves to. And like food, these gods seem to work. But ultimately, they all fail. Again, that’s not some religious doctrine. It’s a fact of life.

Now, when it comes to the Christian, there is something that actually makes our groaning a bit worse. Listen again to Paul. First, there’s this.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

The pains of childbirth. What’s that? It’s labor and delivery. And as some of you know from experience, it hurts. And yet, what can help is telling yourself, ‘At the end of this there will be a baby’. Creation, in its groaning, is giving birth. There will be something good at the end of this.

Paul will use that to encourage us Christians in the midst of our own groaning. Listen to how he does that.

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Yes, we groan because we have to deal with life in a cursed world. But we also groan because of the presence of the Spirit with us, the Spirit who tells us that something good will come out of all of this pain. We groan because we long for that good thing to happen. We wait eagerly for it. However, the waiting-but-not-having adds to the groaning. Our groaning is worse.

Now, what are we waiting for? Paul mentions adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. The first of those two includes the emotional healing of our souls. In that day when all the waiting is over, all the struggles that we deal with because of our lack of certainty about who we are as the sons of God, all of that will be gone. There will be a tremendous peace within, something that we have never come anywhere close to experiencing in this life. We will know who we are, the sons of God, and we will feel secure in what that means. The second of those two refers to the healing of our bodies. So, there will no longer be the frustrating and sometimes embarrassing, ‘Sorry, could you say that again? I don’t hear very well’, or other problems that come from bodies that don’t work right. With healthy bodies and souls, with all those problems removed, we will be freed to explore, in great depth, the wonders of God throughout creation, something that will make every day exciting. Though we know about such things now, we do not experience them now. No, we are waiting for them to happen, eagerly waiting.  And that adds to the groaning. It’s the pains of childbirth.

This past week someone in the Ben-Ezra family, Jonathan’s wife, suffered a loss. Sommer’s grandmother died. She was an honest to goodness believer so she is now enjoying life in the presence of her faithful Savior, Jesus. I conveyed my sorrow to Sommer that she and her family had to suffer this loss. You all have experienced this kind of thing so you know the sorrow. But I also said that I am a little envious of her grandmother. And the reason for that is clear. The groaning of this life is over for her. I am eagerly awaiting the day when it will be over for me. Or to quote Paul from another place,

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21

So, here we are, groaning because of the difficulties of living in a cursed world and because we wait for something much better. So, now what? What are we to do?

To be sure, there are good things to enjoy here. I’m looking forward to spending some time with the Illinois wing of the Ben-Ezra family at the end of the month. That will be quite good. And there are similar good things that you also enjoy. So, enjoy them!

But there will still be those times when you feel how hard life is. When that happens, groan. Understand the nature of the struggle that confronts you and express how you feel, at least to yourself - though it’s better if you have a sympathetic soul with whom you can share that. When life gets hard, groan. The psalmists do that all the time. It’s just being honest.

But Paul has something more to add.

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Yes, we groan, but we do that in hope. And that makes all the difference. Listen to something Paul wrote elsewhere.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Paul told those saints that it was okay to grieve, to groan. And that makes perfect sense. The cursedness of this world took away people whom they had loved. They died. Who wouldn’t groan? But they were able to groan in hope. As Paul went on to explain, they would see their beloved friends again.

Likewise, as we deal with the struggles of this life, we can groan in hope. As I’ve told you before, Christian hope is waiting for God to keep a promise. That’s a good definition. But I want to tweak it a bit. I want to add to it. When God keeps His promises, there are things that He grants us to enjoy. Here, we could talk about the adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. But I think that it’s important to understand that when God keeps a promise He doesn’t just give us things. No, it’s much better than that. What God promises isn’t little trinkets to keep us happy, at least for a while. He gives us what makes life meaningful and no longer futile. He gives us Himself. And while enjoying healed bodies and souls will be so very good, it will be so very good because that will make it possible for us to fully enjoy God.

So, we groan. But we can groan in hope. And here’s one thing that this hope produces. Contentment. Life will still be hard. We will still groan. But we can be assured that our groaning is the pains of childbirth. One day, the labor and delivery will be over. One day, all the promises will be kept. One day, we will get to enjoy God in a way that we never had before. As we believe that, we can, to use Paul’s words, ‘wait for it with patience’. And that will show as contentment.

Now, the groaning will come all by itself. But the hoping and the patient waiting with their resulting contentment, they are gifts of God. We cannot just try hard and make them happen. No. And the only way that we receive His gifts is by asking for them. Prayer. So, let me encourage you to ask for the grace to be able to patiently hope even as life hurts. Remember: ‘Ask and you will receive.’

And along with your asking, be sure to give thanks. Give thanks that there is something to hope for. Express your gratitude that this life is not all there is. The Gospel promises us more, much more. Believe the Gospel and enjoy what it promises.