“Hope in Christ”
Some people paint a dire picture of the future, and some have a rosier view. Some see technology making our lives ever better, until everyone enjoys a basic universal income and we spend our time in leisure and happiness. Others see climate change and other gloom and doom scenarios leading to a dystopia in which suffering and misery are the norm. Some prognosticate progress. Others claim the good old days are gone. But seeing that no one can really see the future, how does a Christian view the question? How are we to look forward, and think about what is to come, especially for us?
The Christian answer to this is hope. We are not naive about the suffering and troubles of the world. In fact, Jesus, Paul, even all of Scripture paint a picture of troubles that are ever increasing up to the end. Yet we also recognize the promises of God in Christ are for us – and those promises are what really matter about the future – our future. We are in Christ, and so we have hope. Christ lives, and so we will live. Christ has the victory, Christ has won us an inheritance, and in Christ nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Today's reading from Romans 8 really revolves around the Christian idea of hope. Here Paul spells out several reasons we Christians can have hope for the future, come what may. And the hope of the Christian is far more reliable, far more certain, and much more all-encompassing than any fleeting hopes this world has to offer.
This is more than Paul offering us some upbeat platitudes to buck up and cheer up and see the glass as half full, there's always tomorrow. Christian hope is a hope in Christ. It is built on Christ, it looks to Christ, it trusts in Christ.
This chapter, Romans 8, is the culmination of thought, a sort of a “so what” to everything Paul has laid out up to now. He spells out the righteousness of God that comes only by faith in Christ. And then he shows what such faith looks like, not only now as we continue to struggle with sin, but also the end of faith – that is, our hope for glory.
First, it is hope in the midst of suffering.
Paul does not deny that Christians suffer. But he calls us to keep our suffering in perspective. He's not ignoring or downplaying suffering. Remember, Paul himself knows suffering well.
This is not a situation of “easy for you to say, Paul, you're not going through what I am.” Paul tells us about his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
And yet this same Paul can say the sufferings of this life aren't worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.
And then there's Jesus. The man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. The one who suffered for all. He has bourn our griefs and carried our sorrows. He bore even the cross, to win us the victory. Christ calls us to follow him, carry our own cross. He knows we will suffer. But he also knows the vindication of the Father – and the vindication we too will see.
Our suffering is temporary, but our hope is for eternity. Our suffering is here for a little while, but God will wipe away our tears and we'll be with him forever. Suffering results from sin, and sin has met its end in the suffering and death of Christ. And so whatever we must endure here in this fallen world isn't worth comparing, it doesn't even tilt the scale, when weighed against the blessings that will be revealed. This is hope. Not a dismissive attitude toward suffering, but a sober assessment of where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
There is a glory that will be revealed to us. It's already there, of course, but unseen. Hope is the assurance of that which is unseen. And on the last day it will be revealed. All will become clear. We will see who is truly a believer, who is truly a son and heir, and the inheritance that is ours will be on full display.
This hope is not only for us, but for all creation. Creation waits for it, Paul says, with eager expectation. He's personifying creation here to show us a few things – one, the extent of sin's corruption, and two the extent of the restoration that is our hope.
Creation is fallen. It's broken. And it all goes back to Adam and his sin. When Adam, whom God placed over creation and charged him with dominion – when Adam sinned, all creation fell with him. It was subjected to futility. It was placed in bondage to corruption. This explains so much suffering. It's not that God brought it or wanted it. But Adam sinned and brought sin's consequence of death to all.
And so creation is groaning. It's like a woman in labor, going through fits and starts of pain and suffering. Natural disasters, diseases, chaos, sorrow, and all sorts of trouble. It comes and goes, but it seems to be getting worse overall. It comes and goes, but it seems to be driving toward something. An end is coming. A new heaven and a new earth is promised. Creation will be restored, for the sin that held it in bondage is paid, and death – the last enemy to be defeated – will see its end when Christ comes in glory.
The creation's hope is related to ours, you see. For the renewal and restoration in Christ is not just for the world, it is for you. And it's not just for your spirit, it's for your body. The whole creation is redeemed in Christ. And you, your whole person is redeemed in Christ. This is our hope. To be saved, body and soul, forever.
This is why Christ died in the body, to redeem us – including our bodies. This is why Christ rose, bodily, from the dead – to save us, bodily, from death. This is why he promises a resurrection for us – a resurrection like his – a life of the world to come that we confess in the creed and look forward to in faith.
Too many Christians today think of heaven only in spiritual terms. Too many funerals proclaim our dead loved ones are “in a better place” as if that's the end of the story. It's true. The dead in Christ rest in peace. But there is even more hope! There is a resurrection in the offing. Your body will rise and live. And it will be suffering-free. Pain will be gone. Glory will be revealed as the sons of God enjoy his inheritance forever. This is our hope. This is our future.
Admittedly, we are still weak. We don't always believe it like we should. We sin like we shouldn't. We don't live in accord with this hope. We don't pray like we should. We often don't even know how. But God does not leave us without help. He sends his Spirit.
And while the Spirit works through the word, yes... and the Spirit is in us by our baptism, yes. The Spirit strengthens us for good works and keeps us in the faith, yes. But wait, there's more... the Spirit also intercedes for us. He acts, like Christ does, as a go-between. And here's a wonderful promise: That the Holy Spirit prays for us even when we don't know what to pray. This is a great comfort!
I would love to have perfect prayers. Wouldn't you? But sometimes in this mixed up crazy fallen down world – I don't even know what to ask. I would love to pray every time that I should – but like you, my prayers aren't as frequent as they should be. I'd love if my prayers were pure and holy like Christ's, if they were selfless and loving even to my enemies – but I can't always get over myself and pray “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. But guess what. The Spirit prays for you – and better than you – and in your place. He prays in ways that you can't – with groans that words cannot express (and please don't ask me to explain that, but doesn't it sound great?) Just as Christ does for us what we can't do for ourselves in dying for our sins and winning our redemption – so also Christ's Spirit does for us what we can't – and prays for us, intercedes for us perfectly, in accord with God's will.
So wait patiently, Christian, with hope. You have the first fruits of the Spirit – a down payment on the great reward that is to come. You have the word of hope. You have the forgiveness of sins. You have the blessings of baptism. You have the holy supper of Christ. You have the Spirit's prayers. You have a promised inheritance. You have a glory that will be revealed. You have a resurrection in your future. And you have Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of your faith. The redeemer, the savior, the one in whom we hope. Trust in him, and the sufferings of this world are truly not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.