The Basis of Real Hope

Sermon preached Sunday, July 20, 2008 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Psalm 139:1-11.

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. 

That’s the Spirit!

Sermon delivered Sunday, July 13, 2008 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Psalm 119:105-112.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! In today’s gospel lesson Jesus warns us about some of the difficulties involved in hearing and understanding God’s word for us and we can relate, can’t we? Who among us at one time or another has not had difficulty in understanding some passages of Scripture? After all, this very issue is one of the main reasons why people are reluctant or unwilling to lead small group Bible studies! Or who among us has not at one time or another been too busy with life or too consumed with our own worries that we have neglected our daily disciplines of prayer and Bible reading? It might be the demands of our job or family. It might be health or financial troubles. Maybe it is a shattered interpersonal relationship. Whatever the trouble or concern, it is certainly easy for us to identify with those who struggle to hear and understand God’s Word. 

And as we think about Jesus’ words in this parable and start applying its lessons to our own lives, we can find ourselves to be quite uncomfortable because what Jesus is really talking about is the state and nature of our relationship with God, something that really is a matter of life and death. After all, in Jesus’ parable, only one in four ever seems to hear and understand God’s word and bear fruit. Those aren’t exactly good odds, are they? Moreover, based on Jesus’ words, we are left wondering if it is entirely up to us to get our relationship with God right. 

Perhaps you are one of those people right now who is struggling mightily with something that is preventing you from developing your relationship with God or that is choking it off. Perhaps you are afraid because it feels like you are being left to your own devices to develop a relationship with God and it feels like you are just spinning your wheels. If you are, I want to encourage you to take heart and hope this morning because this is not the end of the story. God never leaves those of us who seek him to our own devices.

Where is God’s Grace?

We see this truth powerfully affirmed in our epistle lesson in which Paul declares that there is now no condemnation for those of us in Christ. By taking on our flesh and allowing himself to be crucified, God himself bore the punishment for our sins and made reconciliation and relationship with him possible again. He did what we cannot do on our own because we are broken and sinful people. The cross is the symbol of God’s justice for us and we can remember thankfully the extent to which God will go to make a relationship with him possible. If God loves us enough to suffer torture and death for our sake, why would he leave us to our own devices as we seek to develop our relationship with him?

But sometimes we Christians stop at the cross and forget the other magnificent truth contained in our epistle this morning. Not only has God acted decisively for us once and for all, he has promised to give us the Holy Spirit to live with us each day to help us grow in our relationship with him. Paul was so sure of this fact that he declares boldly that if we do not have the Spirit of Christ, i.e., the Holy Spirit, we do not belong to him, and if we do not belong to Christ we do not have life in us!

Does this mean we can relax and take it easy and let the Holy Spirit do all the work in developing our relationship with God? What would happen to any relationship if one party let the other party do all the work? The relationship would eventually die and our relationship with God is no different. God will not allow us to escape our responsibilities in our relationship with him; we must do our part to help the relationship grow. What he does promise, however, is to be with us every day to help us in our struggles that threaten to destroy our relationship with him and to overcome our sinful and fallen nature that makes us hostile toward God and threaten to destroy us. We must do the work and humbly submit ourselves to God’s presence with us in the Holy Spirit, and if we do, God promises to be there to help us.

Where is the Application?

So how does this apply to Jesus’ parable in our Gospel lesson this morning? While Jesus certainly expects us to take responsibility for our spiritual growth, as today’s Gospel lesson makes abundantly clear, he never expects us to go it alone in our journey toward Christian maturity. After all, didn’t he tell his disciples on the night before he died that it was to their advantage for him to go away so that he could send the Advocate to guide them in all truth (John 16:7ff)? For this to happen, however, we must have faith to accept his promise to be with us and do the things that are necessary on our part to cultivate the Holy Spirit’s presence in us so that we learn to recognize him and the help he brings. 

The person in Jesus’ parable who heard the word gladly but then fell away when trouble and persecution came did so because he did not do the things needed to develop the necessary deeper soil, i.e., a deeper faith and trust in God, that would to allow the Holy Spirit to help strengthen him to withstand his trouble and persecution. While Jesus doesn’t say exactly what the person did not do, it is not hard for us to imagine. The person likely did not engage in the daily disciplines of Bible reading and prayer or get plugged into a group of believers to help him grow in faith and understanding, and to help sustain him when times got tough. In all likelihood, the person probably had other priorities in life that were more important than having a relationship with God—job, family, friends, hobbies, etc.—and so never took the time needed to ask the Holy Spirit to help him in his faith journey or reflect on the Spirit’s presence and activity in his life. So when trouble came, as it inevitably will, the person simply did not have the resources needed to withstand the trouble and know God well enough to trust and rely on him to see him through.

Likewise, the person who heard the word but who allowed the cares of life to choke off the development of his relationship with God did not have the needed perspective and will to allow the Holy Spirit to help sustain him in life’s darkest hours, power that can only come from an intimate knowledge and trust in the power of God to sustain and ultimately deliver us. Rather than seeing life as attaching oneself to the Source and Author of all life the way Paul did in today’s epistle lesson when he talked about living life in the Spirit and about the power of the Spirit to raise our mortal bodies to life, a perspective that shaped all of Paul’s priorities in life and oriented toward becoming like Christ, the person in Jesus’ parable apparently saw life as a biological function, living in the here and now rather than seeing life from an eternal perspective. As a result, the person had some misplaced priorities in which the things of life became more important than having life itself and it ultimately killed his relationship with God. That was Esau’s big mistake, wasn’t it? He gave up his spiritual blessings from God for something that was immediate, finite, and transitory. 

Regardless of motives—and we need not believe the people in Jesus’ parable were particularly bad or evil—unlike the person who had the good soil, and who took the time and effort needed to allow the Holy Spirit to work in him, these two persons did not do what it takes to cultivate the Holy Spirit’s presence and were therefore left to their own devices because the Spirit never forces himself on anyone to make them do something against their will, good or bad.

So what can we learn from this? First, we must embrace God’s promise to be with us each day and do the things needed to cultivate his presence so that we recognize the Spirit’s presence and power in our lives. If we want a relationship with God, we must first have the faith and trust in God to deliver on his promise to be with us each day in the Holy Spirit and then take responsibility for our part of the relationship by making our relationship with God a priority. In practical terms, this manifests itself in our daily Christian disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. As we do so, we need to have tools available to help us in our study of Scripture, tools like a good study bible that will allow the Holy Spirit to help increase our understanding, or a Prayer Book to help us pray when we cannot or do not know how. 

We then must test the truth of the claim by taking the time to reflect on our relationship with God and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. This won’t happen if we do not take sufficient time each day to read, pray, and reflect, both by ourselves and with other Christians. Are you giving sufficient time each day to allow the Holy Spirit to work in you? Most of the great devotional masters agree that we need to spend at least an hour a day in prayer and Bible reading. How much time are you giving? The answer you give will tell you a lot about where your priorities in life are.

Second, like Paul, if we are to cultivate the Spirit’s presence in our lives, we must put to death those things in us that prevent us from surrendering ourselves to God and which grieve his Spirit. Paul talks about this constantly in his letters and the traditional term for this is mortification, which simply means putting to death those things in us that prevent us from surrendering ourselves completely to God. For example, in Galatians 2:20 Paul talks about being crucified with Christ and later in Galatians 5:22ff he talks about the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Immediately afterward, however, Paul talks about those belonging to Christ having crucified the flesh, i.e., putting to death those things in ourselves that will allow the Holy Spirit to help us grow in our faith and relationship with God. For the Holy Spirit to work in us and help us in our faith journey, we need to learn to put to death our own sinful and selfish desires so that we can be more open to the will of the Spirit and begin to bear his fruit. Learning to die to ourselves is VERY difficult, however, and we cannot possibly hope to do so on our own. Yet it is precisely in our struggles to die to ourselves that we can and must have confidence that the Spirit will help us to do so. As I talked about two weeks ago, doing so allows God to prove his trustworthiness. God does not promise us an easy time in our spiritual growth; he does, however, promise us power to overcome our fallen nature through the presence of the Holy Spirit if we do our part. What in you is preventing you from deepening your relationship with God? Ask God in the Holy Spirit to help you put to death whatever that is and expect him to answer you. Start by looking for the fruit of the Spirit Paul described in Galatians 5:22ff.

Last, we need to learn to develop an eternal perspective on life, the kind that Paul had. This will help us prioritize things in life and deal with its hurts, heartaches, and darkest moments. If we see life as having a relationship with God rather than as a biological existence, it will help us deal with the brokenness of our own lives as well as in the lives of our loved ones because we can better understand that pain and suffering is temporary, hard as it is for us to bear, and that the death of our mortal bodies does not bring an end to life. God has promised us that those who live in him now will live with him forever, and has made it possible for us to have this life-giving and sustaining relationship with him through his death, resurrection, and daily presence of his Holy Spirit.

I would like to close by giving you an update on how I am dealing with my mother’s illness, which I hope will illustrate what I have been talking about [personal testimony about Daily Office, prayer, and struggles].

What about you? What kind of soil do you want to cultivate? Do you want to focus your time and energy on things that are immediate, transitory, and lead to death, or do you want to focus on things that are permanent, eternal, and life-giving?  If you pick the latter, the Holy Spirit will be with you each day and help sustain you in your journey. He will be with you in good times but especially in the bad times and help you cultivate a relationship with him that will last forever; but you will have to focus your time and energy on doing the things that will cultivate his presence. How do we know this? Because he has promised us in his Word, he has taken on our flesh to make the promise possible, and lives with each one of us who believes, ready and willing to help us deepen our relationship with God. That’s good news now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.