I’d like to add an acknowledgment before this week’s sermon. One of my main sermon preparations each week is to translate the section of the Bible that the sermon is based on from the original Greek or Hebrew text. I don’t claim to be a biblical languages expert, but I can work with the text well enough that I can draw some important insights from it beyond what an English translation says. That is really an important exercise for any pastor to do before he writes a sermon. Anyone who has worked in another language knows that you can’t merely translate word-for-word from one language to the next. Some expressions don’t translate easily, some words don’t have equivalents in other languages, and some points of grammar in one language may not be able to be expressed in another. The bottom line is that it’s important for a pastor to work with the original text before he gets up before his people and says, “This is the Word of the Lord.”
The seminary I attended drilled that into us strongly. Don’t just read the English. Don’t just read a commentary. Do your own work! And there’s a lot of value in that advice. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value reading different English translations or reading a faithful commentary. This week in particular, I found that one of the new commentaries on my shelf helped me catch some insights from the Greek text that I didn’t catch on my own. So, for any pastors who happen to stumble across this blog, I thought I’d leave a little information about a new commentary on the first half of Romans by Prof. Em. David P. Kuske, a former professor of mine at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. I won’t launch into a long advertisement about this book, but here’s a link for it at Northwestern Publishing House. It’s a worthy investment!
One other note: The conclusion quotes a hymn by Lutheran pastor and poet Jaroslav Vajda [1919-2008] called, “Then the Glory.” This is a companion hymn to Vajda’s “Now the Silence.” “Now” is a hymn about worship here on earth, and “Then” is a hymn about worship eternally in heaven. Since “Then the Glory” fit so well with this week’s sermon, it forms the conclusion of the sermon and will also be the closing hymn in the service. “Then the Glory” is hymn 218 in Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal.
That said, here’s this week’s sermon, based on Romans 8:18-25.
YOUR BEST LIFE THEN
How many of you know who Joel Osteen is? Osteen is the pastor of the largest mega church in America, Lakewood Church in Houston. A few years ago, Lakewood Church actually renovated the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, and turned it into their new church facility. There’s no question that Osteen is a major figure in the church today.
Osteen is also the author of two best-selling books. The first was called, “Your Best Life Now.” The book is really a reflection of Osteen’s preaching and overall message. Osteen preaches that if we use positive words and positive thoughts in our life now, we can make a better life for ourselves right now, right here on earth. I see no harm suggesting that people speak well and think positively, but if that’s the gist of his message (and from the sermons I’ve heard him preach, it is), does it square with the message of the Bible? Can we really achieve our best life now as we live in this world? Will the right words and right thoughts overcome sin’s influences and permit us to experience our best life now?
The Bible readings for today’s service put us in mind of Jesus’ final judgment. Today’s Gospel (Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43) suggests that our best life is not going to be in this world, as Christians (the wheat in the parable) live in a sinful, unbelieving world (the weeds in the parable). Today’s Second Lesson (Romans 8:18-25) states that our best life is yet to come in heaven. That reading from Romans chapter eight will guide our sermon for today. St. Paul shows your best life then. Our best existence is yet to come for God’s creation and for God’s children.
1. For God’s Creation
We’ve tried to plant a rose bush near the parsonage, but before the roses could blossom, the deer always seemed to sneak in and eat them up. We used to have a green lawn with grass next to the church, but you know how much grass isn’t there now when you walk from the parking lot to the playground. Nature has a way of frustrating us. But sometimes nature has a way of downright scaring us. Think of the recent Midwest floods. Think of the fires all around our state. Think of a new hurricane season in the South. Think about disease and hunger and epidemic around the world.
Sometimes nature can scare us. Nature often frustrates us. But in today’s Second Lesson, the apostle Paul suggests that nature itself is frustrated. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” When sin came into the world, it didn’t only affect human beings; it also affected creation. There’s no question that we would like a life without sin’s effects, but Paul says that even creation wants a life without sin’s effects. Listen to those verses again together with the next few verses that follow, which provide a fuller picture of the situation. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Let’s say that you attended your community’s Fourth of July parade, you arrived later than you had hoped, and you ended up watching the parade with a couple of rows of people in front of you. You stand tall and stretch your neck to see what’s coming down the street. You put your kids on your shoulders so they can see what’s coming. That’s a good way to describe what Paul says here. Creation eagerly wants to see what’s coming in the future because it will be better than the present.
There is a second picture Paul uses to show us that creation’s best life is yet to come. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Think about that picture. No woman would voluntarily experience childbirth if she didn’t expect to hold her newborn son or daughter in her arms in the end. She goes through painful ordeal because she knows something better is yet to come. In the same way, God’s creation endures sin and frustration because it knows that it is going to be released from sin’s bondage in the end. Creation’s best life isn’t now. Creation’s best life is yet to come.
That can be a hard truth to swallow. That’s hard to accept because we would like to think that we can solve all human problems in this life. We like to think that creation’s best life can be right now. We’ll find a cure for all disease. We’ll put an end to famine and world hunger. We’ll achieve peace among all nations. We’ll make poverty a thing of the past. We’ll get gas prices to go down and the economy to go up. But if we think we can achieve that, or if we make that our primary purpose and mission, we will have missed the point that our sin affects creation as much as it affects us. Sin frustrates creation! The world is in a real sense going to hell – metaphorically – and because of our own sin, we sin deserve the same – literally! We can’t even begin to talk about our best life now because our life now is filled with inbred rebellion against God and inevitable distain for one another. We can’t begin to talk about creation’s best life now because creation is filled with sinful people like us and sinful affects that we see day by day.
2. For God’s Children
You may wonder why I would be so critical of a man like Joel Osteen. You may not be aware of the religious movement that he is a part of. Osteen is a part of a Christian religious movement called the “Word-faith” movement. The basic premise of the Word-faith movement is simple. If you say negative things about yourself, you will curse yourself in this life and you won’t enjoy much success. If you say positive things about yourself, you will call down blessings on yourself in this life and God will begin to bless you abundantly. So if you are enduring hardship in life – well, that’s your own fault for not using enough positive words!
If those thoughts were presented as pop psychology, some of those thoughts (e.g. speaking and thinking positively) would be fine – although those ideas don’t belong in a Christian pulpit. But can you see how that kind of thinking could lead someone to despair if their life isn’t going as well as they would like? People could (and have been) led to despair by the Word-faith movement because they can’t seem to achieve success by merely using the right words. They’re trying to achieve their best life now, when they should really look forward to their best life then. We have seen how that is true for God’s creation, but in the other verses of our reading, it’s also true for God’s children.
Listen again to the opening verse of the Second Lesson. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Imagine that Paul wrote a list of all the advantages of life in this world and all the advantages of eternal life in heaven. After writing out the lists, it would be a slam-dunk to determine which one is the better existence. Paul knew that, as a child of God, our best life isn’t now, but then, in eternal glory.
Now Paul adds this thought. “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Children of God and believers in Jesus have “the firstfruits of the Spirit.” Their God-given faith is the proof and guarantee of a better life to come. God’s children know that they can anticipate “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” This is the life to come, a life when our adoption into God’s family is made visible and our bodies will be freed from sin’s temptations and effects once and for all. If that’s what is to come, we have every reason to hope. Christians can look forward to something that is worth waiting for. Your best life is not now, but then.
If there is a better life coming for God’s children, then think about the comfort you have knowing that you are God’s dearly loved son or daughter. The Lord shows you how his Son became your brother, so that you could become God’s children. The Lord reveals a love for you that sent his own Son to the cross to redeem your sinful body from sin by offering his holy body into death to pay for our sin. The Lord proves to you that you have a better life to come because Jesus’ resurrection opened up the doorway to that new life.
Life’s disappointments will still come, but they’re only temporary, because your best life is not now, but then. Unexpected turns and unfulfilled hopes with come down the road of life, but they’re only temporary, because your best life is not now, but then. Jesus Christ defeated your sin then – in the past – and rose to promise each of you, God’s own children, that your best life is then – in the future. At your baptism, God gave you eternal life, a gift that will carry you into eternity at his side. At this altar, God repeatedly previews the heavenly feast at which you will be seated with all his blood-bought saints. In his Word, God beautifully pictures your best life then in glory. Even in picturesque poetry penned by Christians past and present, we are reminded that our best life is not now, but then…
Then the glory Then the rest
Then the Sabbath peace unbroken
Then the garden Then the throne
Then the crystal river flowing
Then the splendor Then the life
Then the new creation singing
Then the marriage Then the love
Then the feast of joy unending
Then the knowing Then the light
Then the ultimate adventure
Then the Spirit’s harvest gathered
Then the Lamb in majesty
Then the Father’s Amen
Then Then Then