Present Suffering, Future glory

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Paul knows a thing or two about suffering. Listen to his own personal litany: imprisoned, flogged, beaten, exposed to death, five times he received the forty lashes less one, three times he was beaten with rods, once he was stoned nearly to death, shipwrecked three times, a night and a day floating on the open sea, in constant danger from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, the Gentiles, in the city, in the country, at sea, in danger from false brothers, sleepless, hungry, cold, naked, bearing the pressure of all the churches he founded. Reading between the lines of his letters, some believe that Paul suffered from bad eyesight or blinding headaches. The man knew suffering.

Paul understood the source of our present suffering. We live in a fallen and decaying cosmos. The whole creation is awaiting the resurrection, just as we await the resurrection, when the sons of God will be revealed, and finally that bondage to death and decay will be broken, and we will finally experience what we now can only know in a dim way – the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Paul says God is responsible for this. It’s His doing and will. He subjected the whole created order to death and decay on account of man’s sin. Why? Because rehab and remodeling isn’t the way God fixes things. We think it is, and we act as though it were – please God, help me fix this little problem I’m having – but Death and resurrection are the ticket – not only for you and me, but also for the whole creation. Remodeling involves cosmetic work – some paint, a bit of plaster, new carpets, refinished floors, granite counter tops. When you’re done, things may look nice, at least for a while. But if the wall studs are being chewed up by termites, and the plumbing and electrical are going bad, no amount of paint, plaster, and wallpaper will keep the house standing. What’s needed is an “extreme makover.” Not a nip here, and a tuck there, but demolish the whole thing with a cosmic wrecking ball and raise up something new. A new creation. Death and resurrection.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of it. He is the Head, the creative Word in the flesh, who embodies the whole cosmos in His own body and takes it through death to resurrection and new creation. That’s where the hope comes in. This is not a hopeless situation, but the creation was subjected to death in hope, so that just as Christ broke the chains of death for sinful man, so the whole creation would be freed from its bondage to decay and be brought into glorious freedom.

Freedom. Glorious freedom. Imagine it, if you dare. Freedom from sickness, freedom from death, freedom from the bondage to decay and entropy and disorder that chisels away at us and drives us to our graves. This is our hope, a hope that is as sure as Jesus risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This isn’t “hope” in the way of “I hope its true” or “I hope it will work out this way. I’m not sure, but I hope.” No, this is hope in a sure and certain promise, based on the words of dead and risen Jesus who said, “Because I live, you will live also.”

The whole creation is groaning, and we hear its groaning every waking moment. Listen, can you hear it? $5 gas, a climate going crazy, oceans dying, species going extinct, wars, rumors of war, Iranian nukes, Islamic terrorists, anarchy in Africa, droughts, floods, famines, storms, fires, super bugs that defy modern medicines, add to the list whatever you will. It’s unmistakable and growing louder and louder each day, the groaning of the cosmos as it is subjected to frustration, to futility, to randomness and disorder and decay and death.

But hold on a second! Did you hear what the apostle called these pains? He didn’t call them death throes, the pains of dying. He called the “labor pains,” the pain of childbearing, the amplified pain of Eve on account of her sin. The groanings of this present world, all the misery you read about and experience, are the birthing pains of the new creation. Jesus said exactly the same thing. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginnning of the birth pangs.” The labor contractions of the new creation that has come in Jesus.

The way to the new creation is the way of the cross, and that means suffering. Crosses are not pleasant, painless things. We talk about a “theology of the cross” but do we understand that this means suffering, holy suffering, that brings us through death to life? Paul says we, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we who are baptized into Christ, we who are already glorified in Christ, groan inwardly ourselves as we eagerly await our adoption as sons, that is, the redemption of our bodies. Oh, we are already redeemed in Christ, make no mistake about that. Our sins are washed away in the shed blood of Jesus on the cross, a blood that is poured on you in your Baptism, poured into you in His Supper, drilled into your ears with His Word. You are redeemed. But your bodies remain captive to the death and decay of old creation.

That’s why you get sick. That’s why you age. That’s why cells become cancerous and arteries clog and bones get brittle and arthritic and minds turn to mush. Our bodies remain captive to sin and death even as we ourselves are free from sin and death in Christ. And it has to be this way. You can’t rehab old Adam. He must die. You can’t give him a superficial makeover, break some of his old habits. He is a sinner through and through. He has to die. You have died forsensically in Christ, and one day you will die in yourself. And out of that death will come your life, your adoption as sons of God, the resurrection of your bodies. The adoption papers were signed, sealed, and delivered in your baptism. Now all that remains is for God to claim you in the resurrection of your body. Remember – no rehab. Death and resurrection.

This is the hope of our salvation. It is something to be trusted, believed. It demands faith. Faith and hope go together. Hope is the object of faith. Faith is the promise of things hoped for. If you see it, you don’t have to believe it. If you have it, you don’t have to hope for it. Who hopes for what he already has? We hope for what we do not have, what we long for, what we are waiting for, like a little kid counts the days to Christmas.

Our brother Pierre sent me some great pictures from his medical mission trip to Kenya. We’ll show them in the Bible class, but let me paint a word-picture of one of them. The Lutheran church at which he worshipped his first Sunday in Kenya had been burned during the post-election riots earlier in the year. The walls of the building were badly charred, the windows broken. There was rubble all over the floor. The cross that hung behind the wall was black and cracked. Whatever design that had been painted on it was burned away; all that was left was char and soot and ash. The air still stank with smoke. Amazingly, the tiny table that served as a altar, and the pulpit, and the baptismal font were sparred as were the pews. Perhaps the wood they were made of was not as flammable.

Some might call that a miracle; I don’t know. For me, the miracle is that those people gather together in their burned out church to hear the Word of God preached from that pulpit, to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus from that altar, to have their children baptized in that font. The Lord’s business goes on as usual in the midst of death and decay and destruction. And the people trust not with their eyes – all they have to look at is a burned cross against as a sooty wall. They trust with their ears in the hope of the resurrection and the life to come that is theirs in Christ Jesus.

People who watch the world and the way the Gospel is working are telling us to watch Africa. The Gospel is spreading like wildfire in Africa at the moment. In the midst of suffer, hardship, poverty, famine, drought, civil war, oppression, violence hope is springing up. St. Paul said it earlier in Romans – where suffering, there patience, character, hope. It’s the theology of the cross. God works in, with, and under suffering to produce patient endurance, character, and hope. We worry about suffering in our culture. We don’t want to suffer. I say, bring it on. Perhaps the church in our land will develop a backbone once again.

This calls for patience. Ah, patience. Patient endurance. Long-suffering. We are impatient people, trained to have things instantly. Instant messaging. Microwave meals. Waiting is not our strong suit. The traffic backs up and we pop off in a rage. I know someone who prayed for the gift of patience. God sent her suffering, trials, and misery. I said, “Be careful what you pray for.” Patience means resting in God. Seeing beyond what the eye can see. Seeing with the ears. Clinging to the promise of life even as we die day by day. Praying each day “thy will be done” believing that the will of God is done even without our prayer.

We don’t know how to pray or what to pray for. We construct our little litanies, our collects of concerns, our pityful little pleadings and petitions. We don’t know what we’re talking about. We tell God what we want, what we need. He already knows. We tell God what to do, He knows what to do. But here’s the good part – it doesn’t matter. Pray anyway. The Spirit intercedes for us. He takes our words and turns them into groaning words cannot express. He takes our groanings too. He packages our prayers for delivery to the Father through the Son. And those prayers are heard and answered for Jesus’ sake. I think that’s why God rarely answers my prayers my way. The Spirit, who knows the mind of God, is saying, “What he really means is this.”

Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed in us. It’s what a mother about to deliver her child would say. The pains of labor are not worth comparing with the glory of the birth. The birth day is coming. Resurrection day is coming. Wait on it patiently, expectantly, faithfully, hopefully, prayerfully. It’ll be worth the wait.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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