Sunday Sermon 24 May 2015 – God for us
Acts 2: 1-4
Romans 8: 18-39
Two weeks back we were looking at Romans 5 – about the love of God being poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us as believers. Romans 6 had its own challenges – how we die with Christ and die to self.
Romans 8 is the culmination of the whole discussion through this important letter in the New Testament. It reaches a highlight in that wonderful piece about the “all things” working for good and about the “no-things” that can separate us from the love of God. It’s what I call the 8-28-38 factor.
Verse 28 says this: 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Verse 38 follows: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Okay 39 gets thrown in the mix too. But you can memorise this as the 8-28-38 factor!
It’s quite a radical assertion really – all this talk about suffering. Some people try to say that suffering or persecution are signs that God is not with us. There are many in the church worldwide that assume that God’s blessing should be seen in prosperity and permanent success.
In reality, suffering is there. Christ suffered – and we are likely to as well. We don’t seek suffering or purposefully inflict it on others – but when it comes along we embrace it and put our faith in God. We have to remain open to the truth that God is with us.
Romans 8 verse 28 is a favourite. Lots of people memorise this as a verse of comfort in bad times. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. In fact it is a difficult verse to translate. It is better like this – with God as the agent and subject: 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. It is NOT saying that everything that happens is God’s will. For example if someone you love suffers, or someone else’s sin causes you pain – this kind of thing is not God’s will.
We find comfort in verse 28 – yes. But not everything is God’s will. Not everything happens for a reason – apart from the underlying infection of sin and evil in the human heart of course, which is multiplied in the institutional sin of organisations that commit evil atrocities. It is saying this – whatever happens God can work for good. His love and grace don’t have a boundary – they extend even over the horrible stuff.
Verse 35 raises the question: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Verse 38 lists these: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We see these terrible apocalyptic things in the movies – these great end of time fictional scenes of destruction. On real TV we see real war, terror and trauma around the world.
In those days they lived under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Warfare, famine and death were that much more tangible. They knew suffering as the persecuted church.
Paul is writing to Romans in Rome – they knew “trouble, hardship, persecution, or famine, nakedness, danger, or sword…”
Simon Ponsonby in his commentary on Romans entitled “God with us” talks about the modern era and suffering and gives us these sobering facts: There is natural suffering – that which stems from the creaking creation we inhabit: tsunami waves, earthquakes, famines, droughts, the ecological crisis. Based on widely quoted statistics it is safe to estimate that over 500 people will starve to death during the time it takes you to read this chapter (of his book – 3.6 people per second).
There is also man-made suffering – that which is caused by human being against human, evidenced in the irresponsible handling of creation, wars, violence, theft, greed, and wickedness. There are an estimated 30 million slaves or bonded slaves in the world today, (203) more than at any time in recorded history. That number may in fact exceed 100 million (204) if we include sex-trafficked people and child labour. Worldwide, $2.4 trillion dollars are spent annually on an industry that creates or manages violence (the defence industry), while a tiny proportion – $175 billion – could eradicate world poverty with one investment. (205) And then there is suffering particular to Christians.
He goes on to day this: Being a disciple of Christ invites hardships, from discrimination to persecution. In all except thirty of the world’s 200 nation states Christians face oppressive measures, ranging from deprived economic or human rights to actual threat to life. And we must add to this the bitter war waged by the enemy of our souls, who aims well his targeted temptations, torments, and trials because we follow Christ. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (pp. 244-245). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.
Earlier in Romans 8 (19-22) the text shows us how the world is warped – Luther says we are curved in on ourselves. God does not just fix human nature – but also all of creation needs to be straightened out as God recreates everything. In Psalm 96 and 98 creation also leaps for joy when God comes to judge the earth. Look at these verses:
Psa 96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; Psa 96:12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy Psa 96:13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
Psa 98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Psa 98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy Psa 98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Which leads us to the other reading in the narrative lectionary today: Acts 2:1-14. This is the promised coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. God moves in this mighty way, as the promise made by Jesus comes to fruition in the upper room.
This is the presence and power of God who speaks to us in our various personal languages. God is at work in power through the Spirit – and the restoring process of the coming of the Kingdom which began in Jesus continues! The boldness that the Spirit brings to the disciples propels them out with a message for the whole world. Pentecost Sunday is a significant reminder of this new beginning and launching of the church into mission.
God is still with us primarily through His Holy Spirit.
What does this work of the Holy Spirit mean for us?
How do we know that the Holy Spirit is at work?
- Well we come to faith through the work of the Holy Spirit. We have a spiritual birth. Or in Paul’s terms, we are adopted children of God – as we read earlier on in Romans 8. (Both translations are quoted).
Rom 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. Rom 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” Rom 8:16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (NRSV)
Rom 8:14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. Rom 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Rom 8:16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (NIV 84)
- And of course the new birth Jesus speaks of in his conversation with Nicodemus: Joh 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
- Christ became the presence and power of God for the early church and through history – by the indwelling Holy Spirit. (He left them at Ascension and promised to be with them always. How? Through His Spirit who is also called the “Spirit of Christ”.)
- I spoke this week at Rosedale – and we talked about the fruits of the spirit. You know the Galatians 5 list off by heart now! Paul lists the works of the flesh with them. Gal 5:22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, Gal 5:23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. We had a good chat about which of these we lack the most! You will know where you stand in terms of deficits here. (Like the little boy who prayed: Lord give me patience, and I want it now! Paul goes on to day: Gal 5:24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (We spoke about dying to self last week didn’t we?) He goes on to say: Gal 5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
- Then there is Pentecost – where the gifts of the spirit begin to manifest. Speaking in tongues, in other languages is one of them. 1 Corinthians 12 gives a list of the gifts of the spirit. There are people gifts in Ephesians 4, and other spiritual gifts in Romans 12. All of these are important.
- Then there is John 14-16 – rich in Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit the teacher, counselor and comforter. Have a look at these verses:
Joh 14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— Joh 14:17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
Joh 14:26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
Joh 15:26 “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me
Joh 16:7 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
Joh 16:8 When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: Joh 16:9 in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; Joh 16:10 in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; Joh 16:11 and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. Joh 16:12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. Joh 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. Joh 16:14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. Joh 16:15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.
THEN THERE IS THE GROANING – which caught my attention this week
Look again at this passage: Rom 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; Rom 8:23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Simon Ponsonby gives an illustration of this which I identify in my own response to all kinds of things: I recently watched news of wicked abuses in Uganda comprising child sacrifice and child trafficking. I groaned aloud, and told my wife to turn the TV off. I could not take it. The next day I was sitting in town when an African woman carrying a small child walked by me, and I instantly recalled the TV reports, the abuse of the children, and I involuntarily groaned aloud in pain. The Spirit within was moving me to groan at the pain in the world. God who sees all must be continually groaning. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 247). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.
He explains this as follows: And Paul says we who have the Spirit groan inwardly as we await the great and glorious day when Christ returns and embraces us. We possess the Spirit but we still groan. This is important. Possession of the Spirit does not end or even dull our sighing and crying. Possession of the Spirit brings a deep joy, but it is joy amidst grief. We who have the Spirit still groan. Perhaps we groan more so. For possessing the Spirit, we possess the mind of Christ, and we see even more keenly the suffering in the world. And yet we also see by that Spirit the new world that is to come. And the chasm between the reality and the hope produces a deep longing and sighing. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 247). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.
This groaning is not just a New Testament thing. Moses records in Exodus 2: 23– 24, “the people of Israel [in Egypt] groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 248). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.
Ponsonby continues: John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, spent a total of twelve years in jail for preaching the gospel – something prohibited to all but licensed and ordained Anglican vicars! He wrote, “The best prayers have often more groans than words.” “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8: 26). Our groan evokes the groan of God. God is neither absent nor indifferent. He is present and attentive and responsive – even if we don’t always perceive him as such at the time. He is there, deep within, and by his Spirit he joins his sighs to ours as a joint offering to the Father in intercession.
In verse 26 we see a wonderful triplet: the Spirit helps us, the Spirit intercedes for us, the Spirit groans for and with us. God is not passive – he is not in this context an unmoved mover! He is groaning by his Spirit, praying within us, praying for us, praying on behalf of us… groaning God. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 248). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.
And in verse 34 we read this reminder too. Best read again from verse 31: 31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
So what about you and me?
- When the Holy Spirit indwells us, transforms us, the comforter, (parakletos) – called alongside us – we see things differently.
- Nothing separates us from His love. That love disturbs us – we begin to feel more compassion for those in need, and we groan in the face of terrible pain and tragedy, abuse and violence.
- This love and power has to move us to more prayer, intercession, and action. Priorities change – we change – through the work of the Holy Spirit.
When the church (especially our local church) is not what it is supposed to be – the hope for the world (Bill Hybels often talks about this) – I begin to groan and sigh as well. I cry out to God for His transforming power to change us all.
The great news is that God is for us! This is clear from Romans 8: 31 – What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
The question which is raised is this: are we for God? Or are we in it for ourselves? That’s a challenging question.
You can generally discern of people are “for God” – there is an openness to the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth!
What is our response to this God who has done all this for us?
Come Holy Spirit! We need to cry out to God for His Spirit to move in the lives of all we encounter. In church, in our families, in our streets and our communities.
(I am indebted to Simon Ponsonby’s thoughts on this passage – as referenced in the sermon notes.)
Blessed are you, God of power and majesty, this day we give you thanks because in fulfilment of your promise you pour out your Spirit upon us, filling us with your gifts, leading us into all truth, and uniting peoples of many tongues in the confession of one faith.
Your Spirit gives us grace to call you Father, to proclaim your gospel to all nations and to serve you as a royal priesthood. For these and all your mercies, we praise you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Blessed be God for ever!