Someday, Sons You Can See…

Curtain

Romans 8:19 “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Who are the sons of God? They are the people, both men and women, whose sins have been washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ. They stand before God without a single stain of sin or imperfection, not because of any holiness they have produced themselves, but because Jesus has beautifully dressed them in the radiant love of his own holy life. By faith God has made them his own children. He promises to give them all the joys and pleasures that are part of the family home in heaven. They are you and me and countless other Christians who call Jesus Savior.

This is reality, but let’s be honest–these sons of God are not easy for us to see now. We don’t look much different than the general public. Our skin doesn’t shine with an other-worldly glow. We haven’t sprouted halos. Little glimpses of the new life of love and faith inside of us shine through in what we say and do, but the better we get to know other Christians, the more involved we become in working together with fellow members of our church, the more we realize that the same pride, prejudices, selfish ambitions, and resentful feelings that dominate our world still cling to the sons of God.

Why should God’s own children suffer so? Might we not expect that those who call God their Father and heaven their home have life a little easier than those who don’t?

But remember, reality is more than we can now see! We are God’s children, his sons right now, together with all the blessings of God’s love and grace that go along with it. Though this may be difficult to see at the moment, we look forward to the day when God promises it will be clearly revealed.

Do you know what else we cannot see? We aren’t the only ones looking forward to that day. The whole creation waits in eager expectation for it. Paul’s words actually picture the creation craning its neck to see, like little children in a crowd getting up on their tiptoes and stretching themselves as tall as they can to see the parade, or the playing field, or the stage.

The day of our Lord’s return, the day he comes and ends this world’s misery, impresses many people as a day to dread. The whole creation teaches us to expect it eagerly. It’s the day our place in God’s family will be clear for all to see.

Suffering in Perspective

Pain

Romans 8:18 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

Don’t get the idea that Paul is here offering his opinion. When he says “I consider,” he is using a word from the commercial world of business and finance. It is a conclusion which has been reached based upon a careful examination of the facts, not guesses or assumptions. The figures have been added up, and the sum total has been established.

Paul knew how things could add up on the suffering side. In his travels as a missionary, he constantly lived with some unknown painful condition he could not get rid of. “My thorn in the flesh,” he called it. He had received the same skin-ripping whipping that Jesus received before his crucifixion 5 times in his life. It was such an agonizing experience, it was considered a punishment just short of the death penalty. A number of years ago our government protested the “caning” of an American vandal in Singapore as cruel and inhuman punishment. Paul received this sort of beating with a rod at least 3 times during his journeys for no good reason.

Perhaps the suffering in your life rivals that of the apostle. Mine does not. I point this out not because our suffering counts for less if it doesn’t add up to what Paul experienced. I only want us to understand that he was not speaking from some ivory tower. Paul knew pain personally.

He also knew that it is an unavoidable part of life for those who follow Jesus. We’ve made such enemies here by following him. The Devil would like to take your illness, your loss, your grief, your anxieties, or your struggles, and use them to squeeze the spiritual life out of you. He wants to convince you God has turned against you, if he exists at all. He knows many Christians will do almost anything to escape their misery or distress, even if it means compromising their faith or denying their Savior. This side of heaven, we suffer.

I don’t need to convince most of you. Our suffering is self-evident. And yet, unpleasant though it is, Paul promises that these present sufferings “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Is that hard to believe? We know our sufferings well. We experience them every day. We know much less about this future glory. Paul doesn’t describe it in detail. On the whole, the Bible has relatively little to say in a detailed or descriptive way about that glory. It rather tends to dwell on the troubles that will be left behind in heaven. How could that future glory outweigh our present sufferings so far, that not only does it make up for them, it really exceeds any comparison at all?

First of all, God considered this glory so important for us, such a precious thing for us to have, that he placed all the guilt for our every single sin upon his only Son, and he sacrificed him on the cross just to give us this glory. Our possession of this gift is worth the life of Jesus.

Secondly, the fact that even the Bible writers struggle to describe this glory is for our comfort. It so far exceeds any good thing we know on earth, that there is little to compare it to. The German settlers in the part of Minnesota where I grew up made a rich breakfast food called “gritwurst.” It’s so unique I don’t have anything to compare it to. I could give you the ingredients, but that would make you wrinkle up your nose, when in fact it has a wonderfully rich flavor. On an infinitely grander scale, heaven so far exceeds anything we have experienced that God simply assures us it will be pure joy.

Thirdly, in 2 Corinthians Paul describes these same sufferings as our “light and momentary troubles.” Even if our lives are sheer misery for 70, 80, or 90 years, the pain will come to an end. It is momentary compared to eternal glory. And if this glory is eternal, that means that it can’t be numbered by years. How can you compare something in time to something eternal? Our suffering doesn’t compare to what is coming. This helps us to keep our present sufferings in perspective.

Forgiven Forgivers

empty wallet

Matthew 6:12 “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

When we pray about forgiving those who have sinned against us in Jesus’ prayer, we aren’t trying to cut a deal with God. All the peace that comes with his forgiveness would quickly disappear if we believed that, in order to have a sin forgiven, we had to find an occasion to forgive someone else.

Rather, this reflects the effect of God’s forgiveness on forgiven people. Our relationship with God is not the only relationship sin destroyed. It has exactly the same effect on our relationships with each other. When someone sins against us, they fail to pay us the love they owe. Our own debt to others grows when we sin against them. Anyone who has ever had a bill collector pestering him knows what has happened to the relationship between himself and those he owes. Anyone who has ever been owed money that is not being repaid in a timely way knows the strain this puts on a friendship. You begin to resent the person who owes you. The person who owes may begin avoiding you. The relationship may be destroyed. This also happens when the debt is not a debt of money, but of love. Unforgiven sin not only drives us from God. It drives us from each other.

It was God’s forgiveness that restored our relationship with him. That love has had a profound effect upon our hearts. It moves us to desire reconciliation with the world the way God does. We aren’t just servants, slaving away for our divine master. Jesus told his disciples before he died that they were no longer servants, who don’t know their master’s business. They were friends. He made them (and us) part of his family business. We share our Father’s concern. That means we joyfully forgive those who owe us, who trespass against us.

In this way God has given us a wonderful medicine for dealing with the hurts we dish out to each other. It is true that we have been hurt–we can genuinely say we have been sinned against. Others have not paid us the debt of love they owe.

But we don’t have to live with the misery of grudges and resentments constantly seething underneath our skin. As you know, the key to any good relationship is communication. The key thing we must learn to communicate to each other is forgiveness. That is the key thing our Savior has communicated to you and me.

Forgiven Too Much?

Folded hands

Matthew 6:12 “Forgive us our trespasses.”

This isn’t a prayer taught to the world out there. It is you and me, the Christians, who need to ask God to forgive our sins. We need to ask him regularly. Sometimes people wonder if we really need to bother about forgiveness after we have become believers. Wasn’t that all taken care of at the cross thousands of years ago? Didn’t I personally receive my pardon when I first came to faith? The answer to those questions is, “Yes, of course, God has already forgiven us.” But have our new sins become any less serious?

Repentance isn’t a one-time experience. It is a way of life, an ongoing way of regarding sin. If we continue to see our sins the way that God sees them, we will want to hear that they are forgiven. They are frightening. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us, forgive us, forgive us,” every time we pray his prayer.

This prayer also humbles those who use it. It puts us all in the same boat. We may be tempted to look around and see others we believe are just a little less sanctified than we are. But when we pray forgive us our trespasses, we all drop to the same level. Their sins are lumped together with ours, and we stand together as people deeply in debt to God, in desperate need of his grace.

Jesus’ words also teach us about God’s place in the relationship. He is eager to give us all the things he teaches us to ask for in the Lord’s prayer. Sometimes we pray for things we can’t be certain God wants us to have. But when Jesus teaches to pray “forgive us our trespasses,” he isn’t an insecure parent dropping hints about a gift he has chosen for his children: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had one of these? Wouldn’t you like to get this or that for your birthday?” He is flat out telling us: “Ask for this! This is exactly what your heavenly Father wants to give you!”

Can there be any doubt he wants to forgive our sins? Look at what he was willing to pay to get us this gift! Would God give up his own perfect Son for us if he was not fully devoted to forgiving our sins? More than the diamond on your finger, or the car in your driveway, or the house in which you live, or the job that pays your bills, the most expensive gift that we have ever received is the forgiveness of our sins. God’s Son died on a cross for it. As gifts go, it knows no equal.

Is it any wonder that he wants us to take this gift out and enjoy it again and again? We might sooner get sick of breathing air and drinking water. We might sooner grow tired of being loved and cared for. God’s children live for the forgiveness of sins. Take everything else we enjoy away. If we have only forgiveness for our sins, God has taken care of our every need.

“They Are Weak But He Is Strong”

Muscle

Zechariah 4:6 This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.”

The Hebrew words behind “might” and “power” suggest a wide variety of human resources. The word “might” can refer to the strength of a warrior, or the strength of a nation in terms of its army, or the strength of a people in terms of its wealth. The term “power” can refer to physical strength, or the talents to be able to do something, or the stamina and courage to stand up under some hardship.

Personal skills, armies of people, a healthy supply of money, boundless energy and tireless workers–all of these are valuable assets no matter what people set out to do. Zerubbabel needed them for his project: rebuilding God’s temple. But he had become discouraged and let the project languish. He let the whole thing sit and collect dust when his supplies seemed to run short.

Did Zerubbabel understand how the Lord gets his work done? Does the Lord let his people live under the impression that their service to him is a “do-it-yourself” project? When you look at the great things God’s people accomplished in the Bible, was it because they were so well supplied with worldly resources? Is that how Abraham got a family, or Moses got the people of Israel out of Egypt, or Joshua conquered the Promised Land, or Gideon defeated the Midianites, or David became the King and led Israel to glory? When the Lord told Zerubbabel, “Not by might nor by power…” he was revealing nothing new. But God’s people need to hear the same old lessons over and over again.

Like Zerubbabel, we put too much stock in our tangible, earthly resources. That can be spiritually deadening. It leads to a misplaced trust. We idolize things that are no more than tools, no more than means to an end. We begin to believe that our investment, our handiwork, our materials, our technology, our skills are what make our service to God so successful. We take pride in the wrong things.

Zerubbabel had a more important resource at his disposal, and that was the Spirit of God. The importance and practicality of this for building a physical temple may not be immediately obvious to us. In order to explain, the Lord had given the prophet a vision.

In the vision Zerubbabel was one of the two olive trees standing by a lampstand and providing its oil. His associate Joshua the High Priest was the other. These two men had been anointed by God to feed the faith of the Jews in Jerusalem from God’s word. Where God’s word is preached, God’s Spirit is at work. As long as these men kept holding God’s promises before the eyes of their fellow citizens, hope would live, faith would burn, and that faith would shine in the lives of God’s people.

You see, Zerubbabel’s building project was first of all a spiritual building project. What he needed more than stones, or money, or laborers, or ways to cut through government red tape were people who knew God’s promises for them and for this temple, and believed them. Someday this temple would be the place to which their Savior came. Here Jesus would bring salvation. A people who believed the promises of God, and could see their own role in God’s plan, would be eager to finish the project God had given them.

God builds us into temples where he himself still lives through his Spirit. And where is that Spirit of God at work? When a child is brought to baptism, God is building by his Spirit. When the nursery class learns to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” God is working by his Spirit. When adult Christians are led to ponder how God’s anger and love met at the cross of Jesus Christ to accomplish our full forgiveness, God is building by his Spirit. Our God has tied the work of his Spirit to the message of his forgiving love in Jesus Christ.

God’s Spirit working through this good news is the power by which God’s real work gets done. The Lord invites us to trust his tools for building people. The Spirit may look weak, but he is strong. The Gospel message may look weak, but it is strong.

And we may look weak and insignificant in the grand view of history and before all the giants of our age. But then we are just the kind of people God chooses so that his power and glory might be magnified, and so that we might be built into his living temples today.

Soon To Be Dust

dust bowl

Psalm 90:3 “You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’”

The length of our lives is affected by many influences both within us and around us. Diet and exercise, whether we drink or smoke, what combination of genes we inherited from our parents— all these things add years or take years from our lives, according to the doctors and researchers. Actions of others around us we can’t control– the drunk or reckless driver, the violent criminal, the terrorist mastermind — all may shorten our lives as well.

In the end, the Lord himself determines the length of our lives. He is the one who has set the limits. Psalm 139 reminds us, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Or, as he tells us in Psalm 90, he is the one who turns us from living creatures back to dust. God has decided ahead of time that none of us will live forever in this body in this place.

The time we do have is relatively short. Moses’ pictured it this way: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning— though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered” (Psalm 90:4-6). In light of the eternity God has existed, it doesn’t surprise us that a thousand years slip by like a single day, or even the dark hours of a single night, from God’s point of view.

The same sort of thing happens to us on a smaller scale. Our lives flash before us and are gone like the sweep of a broom. They seem to shoot up like new grass just after it rains, but by that same evening, the mower may have cut it off and it is dry and lifeless.

Haven’t you experienced this apparent acceleration of time yourselves? When we were three or four years old, waiting a month to our birthdays, or to Christmas, seemed like an eternity. As we approach young adulthood, our high school years or college years pick up speed and move along at brisk pace. By middle age time is moving so fast we can’t keep up with everything that is going on. By the time the honor of “senior citizen” is bestowed on us, events of our youth may seem like just last year.

Isn’t the lesson clear? The number of our days has been limited by the Lord, and even if we die a natural death, they fly by quickly. Lord teach us to appreciate and use every one, for we will run out of them, they will come to an end, more quickly than any one of us knows. Today, this hour, is the time to confess our sins and seek God’s grace. Now is the time to be reconciled to God through faith in his Son. This is the moment to find forgiveness in Jesus’ blood and unending life in his resurrection from the dead.

The Lord will turn us back into dust sooner than we think. This is the day to discover (or rediscover) his plan to reassemble that dust into living men and women again.

From Tears to Joy

teardrops

Psalm 126:4-6 “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”

Not nearly all the tears that we shed as Christians are tears of joy. If you skip ahead in the book of Psalms to Psalm 137, you find these same people, so full of joy in Psalm 126, so full of grief on the way into captivity that they could sing no songs. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept,” they lamented.

Our own tears come from many sources. But I don’t have to tell you this. You know it already. The tears are more familiar to us than the joy the psalm celebrates. There are the tears of repentance when the consequences of our sins and failures are so obvious that even we can’t pretend that they don’t exist anymore. We cry tears of grief over the inevitable losses we suffer– those we love, things for which we labored and lost. The hard work and frustration of being a faithful Christian employee, student, parent, citizen, or church member can bring us to the point of tears. “In this world, you will have much trouble,” Jesus warned. We may be saved already. We may be heaven bound. But we are not a finished product yet. As God continues to work with us and shape our Christian lives for his service, we often “sow in tears.”

Does this contradict all the promises of unbridled joy and laughter in Psalm 126? Not at all! It simply sets us up to better appreciate them. St. Augustine once observed, “Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.” He illustrated this by describing sailors fighting for their lives in a storm on the verge of wrecking their ship. At one moment they all grow pale at the fear of their coming death. But then the sea calms. As great as their fear was during the storm, their joy is even greater now that they are safe–a joy they would not have even known if it weren’t for the danger.

The deeper our sorrow for the damage caused by our sins, the greater our fear for their danger, the heavier we feel the cross of following and serving Jesus in this life–the greater our joy when God delivers us with his promises of forgiveness and love. The greater our joy when we see the great things God has done for us in a manger, and on a cross, and at an empty tomb.

“He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”

We Are Filled With Joy

laughing woman

Psalm 126:1-2 “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.”

Just how great are the things the Lord has done for us? We get a feel for the extent of his goodness in the reactions of God’s people when they returned from captivity in Babylon. They described the blessing they received in terms of dreaming and laughter.

I know of only one place this side of heaven where we can have life just the way we want it all the time, and that is in our dreams. We may sometimes be critical of daydreamers, but it’s no secret why we all indulge ourselves in those little fantasies. Nothing is impossible in them, and nothing ever goes wrong there.

When the captive Jews returned to Zion, to Jerusalem, they felt like they were in a dream. It’s not that their return was unreal. They really returned. But it was so far beyond what they ever hoped for anymore, it was a matter of things going so right, and having things so good, that it was the kind of pleasantness usually reserved only for dreams. What made their joy even greater was that this was a dream come true.

So great was their joy that they laughed out loud and burst into songs. Singing when you are incredibly happy and amazingly blessed isn’t hard for us to understand. I’ll bet you often find yourself humming or whistling a tune when things are going well.

But when was the last time you were so overwhelmed with joy that you laughed out loud? I’m not talking about laughing because something is comical. This definitely isn’t mocking laughter. I mean laughing because what has just happened to you is so unbelievably wonderful. I have seen people shed tears of joy. I have shed a few myself. But I have trouble remembering a time when I was so moved by the great thing that had happened that I erupted in spontaneous laughter.

That’s what happened here. The Lord had done such great things for these people by letting them go home that they had to let loose with laughter. And you know, the Lord has done even greater things for us. When we let the good news that God has sent us his own Son sink into our hearts, there is a source of source of happiness and joy unlike anything else we have known! This joy is available to you know matter who you are or what your circumstances might be. It doesn’t matter how much or little you have, what horrible experiences you may have suffered, how hard your life might be. God has sent us a Savior! God is forgiving our sins! God is blessing us with eternal life! Eternal life– not just a long life, or a better life–eternal life!

The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

The Timeless Good News

creaation earth

1 Peter 1:20 “He (that is Jesus) was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”

We are a pragmatic people. We like things to be practical. We don’t like to be bored with things that we already know. I know from personal interviews that this is why some don’t come to church more often. One person once told me she isn’t coming back at all if we insist on preaching about how Jesus saved us from our sins every Sunday. She feels that her time is too valuable to waste like that.

God hasn’t gotten bored with the work of our redemption for thousands of years. That God has redeemed us from our sins is not just one of many teachings found in the Bible. This is the one great work that has occupied our Lord’s attention across the great sweep of time, and even before time began. It has been the point of all human history. It is truly the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, of all Bible teachings.

It was so important to him that, even before he made our world, he had already made his plans for redeeming us and chose Jesus to carry those plans to completion. It was so important to him that Jesus did not fail to come and carry out our redemption in these last times. And these are the last of times. There is no greater revelation of God and his love to be made in this world before Jesus returns to bring this world to an end. If the careful execution of his plan to redeem us has so occupied the attention of our God throughout the ages, perhaps we can learn to value it as he does.

Generations of Christians past have learned to do so:

I love to tell the story,
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when in scenes of glory
I sing the new, new song,
‘Twill be the old, old story
That I have loved so long.
I love to tell the story;
‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and his love.
(Arabella Hankey, 1834-1911)