July 24, 2011

He Who Did Not Withhold His Own Son

Passage: Romans 8:32

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

When someone speaks of “baby boomers” it refers to those born in the years 1947 to 1966.  The first wave of baby boomers is reaching retirement age next year (65).  According to an Associated Press story, “younger adults call 60 the start of old age, but baby boomers are pushing that number back, according to the Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll. The median age they cite is 70. And a quarter of boomers insist you’re not old until you’re 80.”

In the 1964 movie about a nanny named Mary Poppins one of the songs A Spoonful of Sugar had this line:"Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…in a most delightful way".  The song described the way she got her employers' closed-mouth children to open up and swallow down their daily dose of nasty-tasting stuff. Could any nanny get away with that today?  Given our current sensitivity to childhood obesity, I suspect that any child-care worker caught shovelling spoonfuls of sugar down their charge's throats would be seen a villain.

Still, we "sugar-coat" reality; "Sugar-coating" is our attempt to disguise that which is truly awful with an artificial top-coat of sticky sweetness. It seems to me that when fully a quarter of baby boomers insist you’re not old until you’re 80 there is a very thick coat of sugar being layered on top of reality.  In most African countries life expectancy is 50 years of age and lower—in South Africa, for example, it stands at 49; in Swaziland at 36.  Only in western countries—in Canada life expectancy is 80 years of age—with wealth sufficient for a broad ranging good standard of health care do we have the luxury to do such sugar coating.

Even the statistic of 80 years of life expectancy glosses over difficult reality.  The thirty year old  mother of two whose husband dies of cancer finds little comfort in such a statistic; the chronically ill elderly person dying one inch at a time with ever diminishing faculty probably finds little comfort that they are contributing to making that statistic as high as it is.

When Paul writes “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God” is he sugar-coating reality?  In some respects this was Karl Marx’s criticism of the gospel when he called religion an opiate of the people.  No, the gospel never sugar-coats reality but calls people to face reality eyes wide open with its ugliness in full view.  The reason Paul can claim that God weaves good in all things for those who love him is because the cross of Jesus Christ in the prism through which reality is viewed.  Indeed, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

The dereliction of the Son on the cross in all its inhumanity and ugliness was the very thing God was able to work salvation through—evident in the resurrection of the Son.  Paul asserts that because of this we can know that in the any-things of our life God will weave the outcome of good because we are bound by faith to Jesus Christ.  The resurrection goodness now known by the Son will be ours.

1. Marcus Aurelius, a second century Roman Emperor, said; “Everything that happens, happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so”.  If Aurelius thought that he offered a positive view of reality he was profoundly mistaken; this is a very bitter tasting layer of sugar (sickeningly sweet) spread on top of reality.  To tell a person diagnosed with terminal illness that if they simply observed carefully enough they would see that what was happening to them was as it should be is a crushing “sledge-hammer” blow.  It is a depressingly fatalistic view of life. When you are the Emperor it is easy to say stuff is happening as it should; but what about the slaves on whom the wealth of the Roman Empire was generated but never shared?

I hear people express a similar idea to that of Aurelius when they say that “everything happens for a reason”.  I know what people are trying to say with this expression.  No one wants to think that what is happening to them has no ultimate purpose; to admit this is tantamount to admitting that their life has no meaning.  No one wants to admit that.  To buttress one’s self against that which feels meaningless it is declared that there must be some overriding purpose; the problem is that I just can’t see yet.

One day Jesus met a woman so crippled that she was stooped over such that she could only look at the ground; she had been this way for 18 years.  When he encountered her he did not say to his disciples (nor to her)—if you observe carefully you can that her crippling was as it should be.  Neither did Jesus say that if you could see this from his perspective you could see there is a hidden positive purpose in all of this.  Jesus said Satan did this to her.   Evil and the evil one is irrational, inexplicable; evil is never “things as they should be” or “positive purpose in disguise”.

When Paul writes that all things work together for good he is not making a comment on the relative goodness of that which happens.  His is not saying that if you look closely enough you can see God made it happen and it happened as it should; neither is he saying the every last thing that happens is full of purpose—simply wait and you’ll see.  Paul’s point is that God is up to something in you for your good and nothing that happens to you can thwart the outcome he has in mind.  You have been called according to his purpose; purposeless stuff may happen to us but God’s purpose for us is never derailed by these things.

If we could see ourselves as God sees us we would see that we are eternally loved.  The immediate ground of Paul’s confidence that God works good for those who love him is his awareness of what Jesus did for him at the cross.  The ultimate ground for Paul’s confidence is God’s eternal purpose for his creation.

In his discussion of God’s eternal purpose Paul says first that God “foreknew” us who are his people.  Everywhere in scripture, when God is said to ‘know’ someone (Amos, Jeremiah, Abraham, Hannah) it means that God has put his hand on someone and singled out that person for a special purpose and made that person the beneficiary of a special promise. When God not merely knows you and me but even ‘foreknows’ us it means that God’s purpose and promise come before he has even created the world.

Then Paul says in Romans 8:29, “Those whom he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  God’s people are to glorify him by being conformed to Jesus Christ, our elder brother.  In Colossians 1:15 Paul maintains that Jesus Christ is the image of God.  You and I were created in that image.  Sin has marred it.  Now, however, the image of God in you and me is to be re-engraved because God had pre-appointed his own people to resemble his Son incarnate.

But God’s plan and purpose to know us, foreknow us, bring us to resemble his Son; God’s plan and purpose in this regard has to be implemented in time and space.  Therefore God now calls men and women; he invites them, summons them.  We who are Christ’s people have heard and heeded that call; we have ‘RSVPd’ the invitation; we have fallen in love with someone who long ago fell in love with us.

Next, says Paul, those who have responded to God’s call God has justified.  To be justified, righteous, is to be declared rightly related to God through faith in the Son who is rightly related to his Father.

And such people, the apostle declares, God has glorified.  Has glorified ?  Has already glorified?  We aren’t going to be glorified until we are ‘in glory’, in heaven; it is plainly evident we aren’t there yet.  (We are in Central United church on a summer Sunday morning.)

So very confident is Paul that God’s undeflectable plan and purpose and promise are going to be realized that he speaks of a future event as though it had already happened just because it’s ‘as good as happened.’  Christ has already been glorified, hasn’t he?  Then his people, whose future glorification is certain, are as good as glorified now.  It’s as good as done.

All because of what Jesus secured at the cross: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

2. So certain of God’s love is Paul that he asserts that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  So what do you think?  Does God love us?  Is his love strong enough, and his love’s grip on us firm enough, that nothing will ever be able to separate us from an oceanic love vouchsafed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord?

Novelist Edgar Watson Howe wrote: “Some men storm imaginary Alps all their lives, and die in the foothills cursing difficulties which do not exist.”  There is a truth to Howe’s observation; an observation you can read in any number of forms in the self-help literature available today.  Many of the barriers we perceive in life preventing us from realizing the fullness of life are self-erected.  Every time, though, I read or hear affirmation such as this part of me protests; during the course of ministry I encounter people for whom the difficulties of life are real.  Much in the world seems to separate us from the love of Christ; much intends to.

Martin Luther maintained that if faith is to thrive we have to shut our eyes and open our ears.  We must open our ears because the gospel is heard, heard with our ears and heard in our hearts.  We must close our eyes, on the other hand, because what we see whenever we look out on world-occurrence; what we see contradicts the gospel—contradicts the gospel assurance that God loves us so very much he couldn’t love us more.

It seems to me that people often use the relative amount of contradictions to God’s love in their personal experience as the measure of the actuality of God’s love.  The premise seems to be that the reality of a God who loves is in direct proportion to how smoothly life goes for me; a function of the lack of difficulty I face.  I understand why this sort of measure is like a default programme within us; difficulty that blindsides makes us feel set aside, unimportant, picked on.  The relative manageability of the pains or perils we are exposed to is not a measure of God’s love.

Columnist and writer George Jonas recently wrote an opinion piece It ain’t easy being God.  In it he spoke of a dream; he dreamt he was God.  In his dream he sat in a celestial electronic office, going through his mail; his mail was piles and piles of prayers.  In part of Jonas’ dream God levels a charge against “the imperfect moralists who would believe in me only if I stopped them from doing evil things”.  Jonas dreamt God responding to one prayer:

“Aren’t you supposed to be omnipresent? I never saw you in Auschwitz, the gulag, Dresden ...” “You never looked for me. You were busy doing evil things.” “Why did you let me?” “Has it occurred to you that you might have acted without my permission?” But, no, that never occurs to the wannabe faithful. If human beings do something they don’t like in retrospect, it’s because either (1) I don’t exist, or (2) I’m not All-Powerful or (3) I’m not All-Good.  Men doing fiendish things used to prove the existence of evil. Now it casts doubt on the existence of God. ...  “If we’re bad, God, you don’t exist.” Talk about gall.

I remind you that it really wasn’t until the 18th century—the century when human reason becomes the measure for the truth of all things—when the preeminent question with respect to human suffering of “why?” emerges to the foreground.  It was agnostic philosophers who raised the question and the church took it over as if it this was a profound question.

But this question didn't loom large in the Middle Ages where physical suffering, at least, was worse than it is today. This question wasn't pre-eminent in the ancient world; neither was it front-and-centre in the biblical era. The pre-eminent question in the biblical era wasn't "Why?" because those people already knew why: the entire creation is molested by the evil one. It won't be molested forever, but it is for now. Therefore the pre-eminent question in the biblical era was "How long? How long before God terminates this state of affairs?

3.  Paul was certain that nothing could separate us from the love of Christ; his ground or reason is twofold.  This confidence was grounded in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and in what God is doing in us through the Holy Spirit.  (Last Sunday’s message we focussed on the Holy Spirit’s work in us, this week on what Jesus Christ has done for us).

“Since God didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t God also give us all things with him?”  Note that Paul hasn’t simply asked, “Won’t God give us everything (i.e., everything we need, in the end make life go smoothly)?”  Paul knows the persecution faced by the church in Rome and that some have perished in such persecution—they didn’t get everything they needed

The apostle’s question, however, is more profound than this.  “Since God didn’t stop short of giving up his Son, would he ever stop short of giving us what we need to be his people, the apple of his eye?”

There’s an allusion here to Abraham of old; Abraham and Isaac; Abraham and Isaac trudging with leaden foot and breaking heart up Mt. Moriah.  Abraham’s faith is to be tested by the summons to offer up Isaac, his long-awaited son, his only son, only son, (the text in Genesis drives home to us.)  And then, when obedient Abraham raises the knife above Isaac, a ram appears and Abraham’s son is spared.

Does God love you and me less than Abraham loved Isaac?  He loves us more.  After all, when God’s love for us met our profoundest need God’s long-awaited Son, his only Son, wasn’t spared but rather was given up for us all.  Abraham’s love for Isaac was ultimately spared the most terrible heartbreak.  God’s love for you and me didn’t spare God heartbreak.  Instead God loves you and me at the price of incomprehensible anguish.

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?