Sermon preached Sunday, July 20, 2008 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.
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In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! What do you hope for? Do you hope for happiness, both for yourself and your loved ones? Perhaps you hope for good health or financial security. Maybe you hope for a promotion or even a new job. Perhaps you hope for healing and recovery, either in your body or in a broken relationship. Maybe you are praying for a loved one or even your enemy. Or perhaps you just hope that today I will not preach for such a long time. Whatever it is you hope for, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, it is something you do not have or are able to see (Romans 8:24). What is more important, the nature of what we hope for also tells us where our priorities are, either time-bound here on earth or eternal.
Yet, we need to consider our priorities very carefully. If we put our hope in things of this world, however noble and honorable they are, we will ultimately be disappointed, won’t we? Because the truth is that we live in a fallen, broken, and sinful world, a world that is full of pain and suffering that is often exacerbated by the gift of human free used wrongly or incorrectly, and as a result we are subject to decay and death. So even if we or our loved ones recover from an illness about which we prayed, or we find our dream job or person, or establish financial security, our bodies will continue to decay and we will eventually die, and then all in this world we hoped for will be gone and become irrelevant. After all, even Lazarus, whom Jesus resuscitated, eventually died again and with him so did all his hopes and dreams. No, if the basis of our hope is on a particular outcome in this world, regardless of how noble and lofty our hopes are or whether our prayers are answered, we will ultimately be disappointed. Does this mean we should not pray or hope for these things? Certainly not! It simply means we live in a transient world that is awaiting its final redemption as Paul reminds us today (Romans 8:19ff).
But this is all rather depressing, isn’t it? That is why it is especially important for us to hear what Paul has to say in today’s epistle lesson because he rightly points us to the basis of hope that will ultimately not disappoint us.
Where is God’s Grace?
So what is the basis for real hope, the kind that will not ultimately disappoint us? Paul tells us in Romans 8:23ff—we eagerly hope for the redemption of our bodies. In other words, Paul is encouraging us to take an eternal perspective on life, one that sees life as not consisting of “stuff” or health or fame or power; but rather as having a deep and abiding relationship with the God who loves us and gave himself for us so that the kind of life-giving relationship we need to live with God now and after our body’s death is possible. Paul knew this firsthand because of his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life that reminded him that he was (and is) God’s child. This, in turn, enabled him to see life in a more permanent light, as having a relationship with God.
This eternal perspective also allowed Paul to view the things of this life with a different perspective. He understood that nothing in this world is permanent and consequently he did not place his ultimate hope on things of this world. This allowed him to be content with whatever life brought him, either good or bad (Phil 4:11ff). It allowed him to bear his suffering because as he tells us in today’s lesson, he saw his suffering as temporary when viewed from an eternal perspective. In fact, not only was Paul able to bear his sufferings, he reports in Romans 5:3ff that he rejoiced in his sufferings because they produce perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope that does not disappoint because God has poured out his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. This testimony is no small thing when we consider Luke’s accounts of Paul in Acts and Paul’s own description of his suffering for the Gospel and an especially deadly event he describes in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11.
No, for Paul life was more than just physical health and material abundance; as he tells us in Romans 8, it was growing to be like the One who loved him and gave himself for him. It was a perspective that was based on faith and trust, a faith that allowed Paul to proclaim boldly that we who have the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, are God’s adopted children and heirs of God. Moreover, it was a trust verified by Paul’s living life and allowing God to demonstrate his trustworthiness, something I talked about three weeks ago when we looked at Abraham. This was what allowed Paul to deal with his suffering and as he reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, that grace is available to us today to help us bear our own burdens.
Where is the Application?
To gain the kind of eternal perspective that Paul had that is necessary to help us develop a basis for hope that will not ultimately disappoint and to deal with life’s dark moments in the interim, we must remember our lessons from last week as well as from this week—that by his death and resurrection, God has made it possible for us to have a relationship with him again, that the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, is in us each day and he helps us bear our burdens, and that no matter how bleak this life seems, our sufferings are only temporary when we see life from an eternal perspective.
But let’s face it; sometimes this promise just isn’t enough, is it? Sometimes we can get so discouraged and feel so all alone that we are tempted to give up. This business of growing to be like Christ and developing an eternal perspective does not come easily. So what can we do in those moments? What grace is available to us? While I could list several things, I am going to focus on only two things today—prayer and the willful act of remembering—because they are critical in helping us grow in our relationship with God and I want to encourage you to focus on them by not cluttering up your plate with lots of suggestions.
First, when we have reached the end of our rope and are feeling hopeless, it is especially important that we give these concerns up to God in prayer. Paul reminds us today that the Holy Spirit within us prays “Abba, Father!” “Abba” is a deeply personal term for Father and can only be used inside an intimate relationship. So in praying like this, the Spirit himself reminds us that we who are Christ’s are children of God, and as children we have the unique privilege to seek his help and to deepen our relationship with him through prayer. If you do not know what to pray for but want to pray nevertheless, that is a tangible reminder of the Spirit’s presence in you, seeking to help you deepen your relationship with God and praying for you when you cannot.
If you do not have it in you to pray, then go the psalms and pray them; make them your own. When I have reached the end of my rope or when I am feeling God’s absence in my life—an absence that in itself reminds me that God has been present in my life—I have found Psalms 23, 25, 27, 31, 42, 56, 62, 63, and 143 to be particularly helpful. They speak of the human condition and about the trustworthiness of God. I have even prayed Psalm 88, the most desolate in the Psalter, because in the very act of praying it, I am acknowledging my utter helplessness and in a desperate act of trust, I am giving up myself and my situation to God. I also am reminding myself that I am not in this alone. And of course when I am feeling all alone in this world, I pray the psalm we read this morning, Psalm 139, that marvelous testimony to God’s intimate knowledge and care for us.
I have been encouraging you to read the Daily Office and you will recall that you can read the entire Psalter in seven weeks if you follow it. Reading from the Psalter each day reminds me that God can and does have the power to take care of my loved ones and me, even when I do not fully understand how he does so, but then that requires an act of faith and trust too, does it not?
Reading from the Psalter does not change the circumstances in my life but I have always found relief from life’s burdens when I read from it and I have committed several passages from the psalms to memory to help me in moments of great need. For example, when I become afraid of something or of an outcome like my mom’s situation or my ordination, I remember this passage from Psalm 56, “O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid” (Psalm 56:2b-4). Again, praying the psalms does not necessarily change the situation but I have never failed to receive grace, strength, and comfort when I pray them; they allow me to tap God’s grace and remind me that Christ’s grace is sufficient for me. When you are bearing great burdens or the burden of others who are suffering, and you don’t think you have it in you to do so or you just don’t know what to pray for (or how), try giving your burdens to God by praying the Psalms. In doing so you will be deepening your relationship with God and helping yourself build an eternal perspective of life. I promise you will not be disappointed.
Or when you do not have a prayer in you and/or the Psalter is not readily available but you desire to pray anyway, try praying these two simple lines, taken from Scripture: “Into your hands I commend my spirit” and “Your will, not mine, be done.” Doing so requires an act of faith and trust that you believe God is in charge despite evidence to the contrary and that you trust his good will for you and all his creatures. Repeat this prayer as often as you need, to remind you of these great truths and to help you develop an eternal perspective. I always end my daily morning prayers with the last line of this prayer (not my will, but yours) and have found that it has increased my trust in God because it reminds me that his will is always good and perfect.
Second, when you are discouraged and life seems overwhelming, take time to remember God’s mighty acts in the life of his people and your life. Remembering is an important biblical concept and we are constantly exhorted to remember God and his saving acts in history so that we will not fall away in our relationship with him and think that either we can live life without God or that we are really all alone. I have told you about some of God’s mighty acts in my life in previous sermons and one thing I try to do these days is to remember God’s mighty act of bringing faithful people like you into my life, people who encourage me about my mom and tell me you are praying for her. It doesn’t change her situation but it helps me bear it better. And so I thank God for his grace manifested and expressed, in part, through you. Thank you.
In closing, I return to the question I posed at the beginning of this sermon. What do you hope for? If you hoped for a short sermon today, I’m not sure whether you found much satisfaction. But seriously, will you choose to put your ultimate hope and trust in things that are temporary, finite, and fleeting or will you choose to put your ultimate hope and trust in the One who loved you and gave himself for you so that you can live with him now and for all eternity? If you choose the latter, it will not guarantee you a trouble-free life. Nor does it mean we should stop praying and hoping for our desired outcomes for ourselves or our loved ones. What it will guarantee is that you will never be disappointed because God loves you, created you to have a relationship with him forever, i.e., created you with and for an eternal perspective, and has done what is necessary to make that happen. All you have to do is say, “yes,” to God’s gracious invitation through Christ and he will help you navigate life’s darkest moments and then give you a new body someday and allow you to live with him in a place where there never again will be any suffering, sorrow, sickness, pain, or fear. That’s good news now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.