July 17, 2011

Assurance and Hope

Passage: Romans 8:15b-17

When we cry, "Abba! Father" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

According to the story, after every Quantas Airlines flight the pilots complete a 'gripe sheet' report, which details any mechanical problems on the aircraft during the flight. The ground crew engineer then records details of action taken on the lower section of the form; it is clear that some ground crew engineers have a keen sense of humour.

1) Suspected crack in windshield. 2) Suspect you're right.
1) Number 3 engine missing. 2) Engine found on right wing after brief search.
1) Dead bugs on windshield. 2) Live bugs on back-order.

When a joke “tickles” your “funny” bone laughter is spontaneous; you can’t help but laugh.  In a similar fashion the happy person can’t person help smiling.  In sad moments, like a bereaved person, we can’t help weeping.  In all these situations the appropriate response springs forth spontaneously, without reflection or deliberation.  The bereaved person doesn’t deduce that since he’s bereaved he should weep.  Neither does the happy person conclude that she should smile.  The response arises spontaneously as a result of the particular situation.

In exactly the same way the apostle Paul tells us that the Christian can’t help crying, “Abba, Father”.  It arises spontaneously because of our situation. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”. According to the Apostle, God wants his people to know—be assured—they they belong to him. The scripture teaches us that every human is God’s creature; created in the image of God.  The same scripture shows us that a child of God is one who is possessed of faith in him.  In the first part of this message I invite you to reflect with me about the believer’s assurance—the witness of the Spirit of God to your spirit that you are his.

1. The cry ‘Abba! Father! comes forth from us as a result of our intimacy with God.  We don’t labour at ten thick books of theology, note that God is said to be Father to all to whom Christ is brother by faith, ascertain that we are possessed of faith, and finally conclude that God is our Father.  On the contrary, whether our knowledge of theology is great or little, our situation – we who cling to Jesus Christ in faith are sons and daughters of God by adoption – moves us to exult spontaneously “Father, my Father”, from the bottom of our hearts.  We cry this instantly, immediately, not inferentially.

When Jesus spoke to his Father he used the Aramaic word “Abba”.  Aramaic was the language   Jews spoke with each other in First-Century Palestine.  When Jews spoke with Gentiles they spoke Greek; but with fellow-Jews they conversed every day and conducted business every day in Aramaic.  In First Century Palestine, however, no Aramaic-speaking Jew called God “Abba”.  The word was deemed to be too intimate.  The person who addressed God in this manner would be deemed disrespectful, over-familiar, presumptuous even.

The only Jew found to be using “Abba” of the Father was Jesus.  The disciples overheard him using it several times throughout his earthly ministry.  They overheard him using it, most pointedly, in Gethsemane on the eve of his terrible trial.  Terrible as the trial was, it couldn’t deflect him from the intimacy he had long known with his Father, an intimacy his disciples thought to characterize him.  Our Lord was acquainted with his Father at such profound depths of intimacy and warmth and trust and confidence that the word sprang unbidden to his lips.

Paul maintains that faith binds us intimately to Jesus, and our intimacy with the Son is one with our intimacy with the Father.  Christians therefore find themselves crying spontaneously “Abba, Father”.  We don’t think about the matter and then conclude that God is – or might be – our Father after all.  Instead we are constrained to cry, impelled to, because our intimacy with the Father issues in exultation as surely as the happy person smiles or the bereaved person weeps or the startled person gasps.

According to the gospel the actuality of the believer’s situation before God—that we are children of God—precedes our consciousness of that situation.  “We love God because he first loved us”.  The actuality that God loves us is the very ground for our knowing (experiencing) God loves us.  We don’t start with speculation—I wonder if there is a God who loves—and then proceed to discover that there is a loving God.  No. It is in the experience of being loved by God that we become conscious that God loves us.

On a hot summer day many of us enjoy a swim in a pool or a lake; a cool refreshing treat from the heat of the day.  When you plunge into the water you become conscious that you are wet after you have actually become wet—actuality precedes consciousness of that reality. You know yourself to be wet because you actually are wet.  In a similar way, your consciousness that you are bound to Christ is preceded by a loving gracious act of Jesus binding you to himself.  When you—in an act of seeming instinct—cry to the Father in a moment of despair or joy it is grounded in the reality that you are a child of God and evidence of the same.  “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”.

John Wesley’s emphasis on this point was manifold; he believed that it was the very reason God had raised a people known as Methodists; “that this great evangelical truth has been recovered, which had been or many years well nigh lost and forgotten.”

Wesley said this in his sermon on the witness of the Spirit of God to our spirits: “It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain "the deep things of God." Indeed, there are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience. But perhaps one might say, ... The testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”

When we cry out “Father!”, this that instantly emerges from us in born of our relationship with God—a relationship that he initiates and facilitates.  Paul explains it as “that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”.  I point out to you something more that is implied in this text (and many others).  Not only does the Spirit of God bear witness to the believer, the Spirit of God gives you the ability to recognize that this is what you are experiencing.

The gospel tells us that we are dead (spiritually) in our trespasses and sins.  Dead people cannot hear.  God not only speaks to us but enables the very hearing of his word of forgiveness to us.  Keeping in mind that any human analogy we might use to depict this mystery is limited, consider voice recognition software in your computer and other electronic devices. An interesting feature is how the software adapts to recognize your voice and the way you enunciate words.  Not only does God speak to us God also provides the voice recognition software, so to speak, that you might know that it is the Sprit of God speaking.  Hence the instantaneous cry, “Father, my Father”.

Do you have people who call you and make you guess who it is on the other end of the phone; that is they expect you to know their voice and then act hurt if you don’t know who it is?  Some of you are thankful for the feature “call display” for this very reason; you see their name on the screen and decide whether you want to talk with them of not.  God does not want you guessing about his love for you; hesitant about his approach towards you.  Jesus calls to you and facilitates your hearing his call; friends, this is a call you always want to take.

Theologian James B. Torrance (Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace) defined worship as “the gift of participating through the Holy Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.”  Worship isn’t something we have to invent or maintain; instead we are “borne along” through the power of the Spirit in the Son’s adoration of and obedience to the Father. Do you not find that when the gospel is announced—even though the preacher stumbles in accurate articulation—that there is that whisper of a “yes” in your heart when the truth is heard?

Now I know that even the strongest faith is weak.  We have days those sunny days of faith when we hear Jesus’ voice ever so clearly; there are other days when it seems to us that the voice fades in the din of difficulty.  When Peter stepped from the boat to walk to Jesus on the water he started well but the reality of the sea got to him and he began to sink. Faith can feel strong in one step; weak the next.  The point I raise to you is that Jesus grabbed him and pulled him to the boat.  Our certainty in faith lays with Jesus Christ and his grip on us not on our wavering apprehension of him.  The fact that you call to him in difficulty tells you that he is near; your very call is a manifestation of the relationship; manifestation of his grip on you.

2. I invite you to reflect with me about another subject Paul touches on related to the subject of assurance; it is the subject of Christian hope.  What does Paul mean by the hope of the believer? We say, for example, “I hope it doesn’t rain today”. You and I have no control over the weather. Hoping it doesn’t rain is nothing more than wishful thinking. Is Christian hope wishful thinking in the face of all that we can’t control?

"I hope the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup."   While it is technically possible it’s extremely unlikely. Is Christian hope a hankering after what is extremely unlikely?  "I hope the world will  soon learn to get along together, and class hostility, social conflict and financial exploitation will soon be a thing of the past." This sort of hope is most naïve concerning human nature and ignorant of human history. Is Christian hope childlike naïveness with respect to our nature; our history?

For Christians hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness is marked out by major landmarks (promises he has kept) in his involvement with his people, an involvement he won’t renounce on behalf of a people he won’t abandon. One such landmark is Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt and its deliverance at the Red Sea. Another landmark is Joshua’s leading the same people into the long-promised land. The landmark that towers over others, however, and gathers them up into itself, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here all the promises of God find their fulfilment.

The Apostle Paul said that “we suffer with Christ so that we may also be glorified with him.”  He described this suffering as part of the context of the “whole creation” that “has been groaning in labour pains.”  Paul asserts that God had promised to renew the entire creation in Christ, liberating the creation from its bondage to the evil one, freeing it from its frustration and allowing it to flower abundantly. God’s raising his Son from the dead is the decisive moment of this promised liberation and is therefore the landmark of God’s faithfulness.

When Paul says “we hope for what we do not see” he does not mean that there is no ground for this hope; he never equates hope for the believer with wishful thinking, hankering for the unlikely, or naivety.  The ground of our hope is the faithfulness of God.  Who is God?  He is the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Life’s frustrations and contradictions, however, have a way of undercutting this hope.  We do feel despair.  The gospel shows us that suffering and hope hold no contradiction in Jesus Christ; as the very point he appears the most powerless—hanging limp on the cross—God does his almightiest work.  Raising Jesus from the dead is the vindication of what occurs at the cross; the certainty that the whole creation will be redeemed.

The truth of our lives is that everyone is groaning somewhere.   Everyone has to be groaning somewhere, since the apostle tells us that “the whole creation is groaning in labour pains”.  The apostle is always profound.  On the one hand by faith we are, right now, sons and daughters of God.  We know we are, and our heartfelt intimacy with our Father is as much attestation as we need.  On the other hand, there remains much about us that is struggling to be born, struggling to come to the full light of day, struggling for a fulfilment so far denied it.  We are gloriously adopted now, and we also wait for the full manifestation of that adoption.  Until then, we exult ecstatically and groan painfully at the same time.

Think about the terminally ill person, the person who is dying one inch at a time.  He groans; he is struggling to be released from all that inhibits the fullest expression of his human creatureliness and his spiritual sonship.  What about the person who is chronically mentally ill?  What about her family?  Both the chronically disturbed and their family are struggling in anticipation of a better day.  But until that day, they groan; all of them.

One day our Lord encountered a deranged man in the Gadarene hills who lacerated himself and ran around naked and shrieked appallingly; like that man whom our Lord touched as an instance of the kingdom, the deranged are divinely destined to be found, one day, seated, clothed, and in their right mind.

Within a few verses of Paul’s speaking both of cry and groan he makes two staggering assertions.  One, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Two, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Why is it, how is it, that nothing can separate us from God’s love?  It’s because God’s power, wherewith he raised Jesus from the dead, is the same power wherewith he binds you and me to the risen One in whose company we are flooded with God’s love.

Why is it, how is it, that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us?  It’s because the Son who was borne through everything that made him groan is now glorified and guarantees that our groaning will give way to glorification.

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.