Tuesday, May 24, 2005

the sufferings of this present time and the signs of the spirit

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (Romans 8. 14). We are no longer slaves, and here we are reminded of Egypt, and Pharoah, and the oppression of human bondage. We are children of God.

Paul is talking about the new life and the old life, a theme he has been working with since the fifth chapter of Romans. You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, Paul reminds these new Christians. When Moses had led the people out of slavery, he held before them a vision of entering the promised land. But on the way they had to pass through the wilderness. The wilderness was chaotic, dangerous and uncertain. They were hungry, thirsty and confused. Some wanted to go back to Pharoah; “at least in Egypt we had three meals a day”, they said.

Jameson Jones, who was Dean of Duke Divinity School when I was a student, once said that every church he had ever served had a “Back To Egypt” committee! That’s because change is tough, and the future is always unpredictable, and sometimes we know we are on the way to the promised land but now it seems like wilderness, and like the country song says, we long “for the good old days when times were bad”.

You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. We are not God’s biological children. We are not Christians because of our race or ethnicity. We have been adopted. We are not slaves. We are the adopted children of God. Then Paul tells us what it means to be a child of God.

Growing up in the church I knew instinctively what it meant to be a child of God. I knew it from sitting next to my grandfather and drawing pictures on pieces of paper that he would bring (he didn’t want me wasting the church envelopes). And I knew it from a couple of songs that we would sing. Some of our best theology has always been in our music.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

Jesus loves the children of Haiti and the Sudan, Jesus loves the children of Israel and Palestine, Jesus loves the children of Afghanistan and Iraq, , Jesus loves the children of every corner of Charlotte. Jesus loves children who are healthy and children are sick, children who are safe and children who are missing. All the children of the world…We also sang another song:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so
little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong
yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me the Bible tells me so.

These songs taught me that I was a child of God, and that Jesus loved me. In the 8th chapter of Romans Paul is teaching the early Christians that they are children of God. And just as those songs stay in our memories, he wants them to remember two things: a word and a sign.

The word is Abba. When we cry Abba it is the spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Abba was the Aramaic word for “father”. Aramaic was the language that Jesus spoke. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had prayed, “Abba, if it is possible let this cup (of suffering) pass from me” (Mark 14. 36). The Spirit prompts us to use the same word Jesus used as we address God.

Abba was not a formal word for a cold and distant father figure. Abba is not a word that has to do with parental authority. Abba was an intimate word, a name for a parent that we might only use within the household. We are children of One who knows and loves us intimately, and because we are adopted children we also know that we have been chosen. This is a basic meaning of what it means to be a Christian. God’s Spirit dwells within us, and we know that we are God’s children. We used to sing this: little ones to him belong.

And so we are a part of the family. There is a powerful longing to be a part of the family. Just in our time, think of the stories about children raised by aunts and uncles and father figures and adoptive parents: Luke Skywalker and Star Wars; Bilbo, Frodo and the Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter.

These stories grab people, they wait in line to buy these books and see these movies because they tap into the powerful longing we have to belong. We knew it when we were children. We sang it: little ones to him belong. When we cry Abba it is the spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

We are children of God. And if we are children of God, Paul says, we have an inheritance. Now the inheritance is the future glory, the promised land, the life to come. But on the way we are going to struggle. On the way we are going to pass through the wilderness.

And that brings us to the second way we know we are children of God: the sign of the cross. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we suffer with him, so that we also may be glorified with him. And then Paul continues: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

I think Paul speaks of the suffering of God’s children because he wants us to know that life is not always going to be a playground. We are children of God, but we must also become children of God.

When I was a kid I was a big baseball fan. My father was also an avid baseball fan, and his favorite player was Ted Williams. Ted Williams died about three years ago. It is possible that he was the greatest hitter who ever lived. He was the last player in the major leagues to hit for an average of 400 in a season; in his career he hit 521 homeruns; he took time off, at the height of his powers to serve in the military, both in World War II and in Korea.

After his death, he was mourned. It was the passing of an era. Then a rather unseemly thing began to happen. His son had developed a scheme to have his body cryogenically frozen (“This is not science fiction---I am not making this up”), so that his genetic material could someday be sold. Future parents-to-be could purchase his material so that their sons or daughters could hit a baseball like Ted Williams. They would become, in essence, children of Ted Williams!

It is a strange story, but it caused me to wonder: how do we become children of God? Not biologically. Not genetically. Not by being born into the right family. We become children of God as we discover this relationship with the One whom Jesus called Abba, Father. One of the best ways to discover this relationship is to learn to pray the Lord’s Prayer. We also become children of God as we suffer, under the sign of the cross. And this is sometimes difficult for us to comprehend, because we want to shield our children from suffering. We want to avoid suffering. I want to avoid suffering. I thank God for the scientist who invented Novocain.

But we live in a world that suffers. The image Paul uses is pretty clear. The old world is crumbling, like the stock market in a nose-dive. The creation is degrading, all the signs point to decay. But something is about to happen. It’s like pregnancy. The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains, and not just the creation, but we ourselves. Now Pam, my wife, could stand here and speak from experience, but in pregnancy life is not the way it used to be and life is not the way it’s going to be.

It’s like labor pain. But the pain of labor is bearable because we live in hope, and in hope, Paul says, we are saved. In the meantime, the Christian life can be painful, like labor; messy, like childbirth. It’s like being adopted into a family, and we’re not really like the father or the mother, but maybe if we live around them long enough and listen to them attentively enough, we will become more like them.

We live with a word—Abba—and a sign—the cross, and a hope for what we do not yet see. We await something new, something that will change our lives, something we cannot make happen. It has begun, like the breaking of water on the way to a new birth. Something is going to happen, and it is going to change our lives! How do we know this? It is the spirit, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, whose gift we celebrated on Pentecost, bearing witness with our spirit.

God is going to do something else. And so, Paul promises, the spirit helps us in our weakness. Suffering and decay all around us, but there is going to be a new world. The contractions have already started; there’s going to be a new birth. We are not going to go back to Egypt. We are bound for the promised land.

It’s true. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.


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