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Deep Grace: Freedom’s Hope


Freedom’s Hope

Romans 8:18-27


What’s your favorite fairy tale? Do you have one? It’s okay! You can admit that you have one. No one but your family can see you. No one will know. Tough truck driving, beer drinking, hunter dude your daughter is sitting beside you right now saying, “But daddy, I saw tears in your eyes when we watched (insert her favorite one here) last night.” It’s okay. No one but you and she will know.


Disney has made a fortune transforming most of the classic fairy tales into their Disney Princess movies. Unfortunately, the modern retellings of the classic stories tend to skim over many of the real hardships experienced by these beloved characters so they can jump quickly to the part about living happily ever after. But the original stories were honest about the pain and struggles of life.


Take Cinderella, for example. Her story is a favorite of many, and her enormous castle dominates the landscape at Disney World. In fact, its silhouette is Disney’s logo. In the original story, Cinderella was first orphaned, then enslaved before she tried on the glass slipper that changed her world. The evil she faced was far more sinister than that depicted in her wicked stepmother and her two stepsisters in Disney’s version. And Sleeping Beauty? In the traditional story, a fairy wasn’t invited to a party celebrating the baby’s birth, so she put a curse on the baby – that at the age of 16 he would prick her finger and die. A good fairy then changed the curse so that she didn’t die, she was placed in a deep sleep, and could only be awakened by the kiss of a prince. But even then, she slept for 100 years before she came into her “happily ever after.” And during her 100 years of sleep, her relatives mourned, and her mother died of a broken heart. The Brother’s Grimm concluded their original story with these haunting words: “They lived happily ever after, as they always do in fairy tales, not quite so often, however, in real life.”


Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International, an advocate for at-risk women and children around the world. She has visited brothels, foster homes of children living with HIV/Aids, and refugee camps. And in thinking about the disconnect between our popular renditions of fairy tales and life as we know it, writes this: “We want the good part of the fairy tale … we have only preserved the idea of happily ever after. On the screen and in our minds, we have rewritten the stories and forgotten about the battles the heroines chose to fight …. We have chosen to overlook the pain and the price that the players paid to find [love and justice]. But the honesty in the original fairy tales reminds us of another important lesson about following Christ: “This present world is not the best of all possible worlds. [Our imperfect world only leads] to the best of all possible worlds. Heaven is the happily ever after. Until then, we still live with frogs and century-long naps.”


In the central chapters of his letter to the church at Rome, St. Paul really gets at the core of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. After describing our fallen human natures, our hearts full of sin and our tendency to make mistakes, he encapsulates it all by describing us as dead in our sin. Physically alive but spiritually dead. Without any real hope. And then he turns the page and describes the indescribable grace and mercy of God in sending Christ to live for us a life we cannot life, and then to die for us a death we should, by rights, have to die because of our sin. And then to be raised to life in victory over sin and death. And Paul talks about the freedom we experience in Christ. And then he begins to describe how we as disciples of Christ have this incredible hope in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, even as we continue to live in this fallen, broken, and sinful world. A world that was created good. A world that we dragged into the pit of sin when we fell. So turn with me to Romans 8:18-27, as we encounter Freedom’s Hope. The hope, the real hope that we have in Christ. Read text.


Now, before we really dig in, we need to understand what hope really is. Because it’s a word we use a lot these days, but we use it in a different kind of way than the way Paul describes the hope we have in Christ.


For us, today, hope has been reduced more to wishful thinking. It’s the hope all Michiganders feel at the beginning of a new sports season. You know, I HOPE the Tigers have a good season. I HOPE the Lions make the playoffs. I HOPE the Red Wings are good this year. That isn’t hope, that’s wishful thinking, and it’s been a while since it’s become a reality, hasn’t it?


Hope, in its biblical context, is more about eager anticipation. It’s the young child standing on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the start of a parade. It’s the groom waiting for that first glimpse of his bride coming down the aisle. It’s the grandparent sitting by the phone eagerly awaiting news on the birth of a new grandbaby. In V. 19, Paul describes hope as “eager longing.” Expectant waiting. Eagerly awaiting what we know is to come but isn’t here yet. Again in V. 23 he says that we “wait eagerly.”


Paul also calls real hope patient waiting. Look at V. 25. Now, again, in our modern world, we tend to view patience as waiting politely in a long line, like at Meijer. That’s probably our most common view of patience. But for Paul, patience is more about waiting WITH FORTITUDE. Patience is bearing up, holding up, under intense pressure. It’s refusing to quit when quitting would be so easy. So for Paul, hope is waiting patiently, with steadfastness under intense pressure, but still eagerly.


Now, why is hope so important? Because we live in a world that exerts intense pressure on us. We experience pain and discouragement and frustration. We live in a world in which we suffer. And suffering is one of the biggest reasons people give for not placing their faith in Christ. Philosophers and theologians call it the problem of pain. As human beings, we’ve been wrestling with this problem philosophically since before the time of St. Paul. We’ve been wrestling with it experientially since the fall. The problem of pain goes something like this: if God is all-knowing, and all-powerful, and perfectly loving, why do bad things happen to me? I mean sure, I understand that sometimes bad things happen because people do bad things that impact other people. People drive drunk. People pick up guns and shoot other people. Ruthless dictators come to power and rule with an iron fist. I get it. But why does God allow those things to happen? And what about natural disasters? What about the fires that devastated Australia? What about the destruction caused by hurricanes and earthquakes and tornadoes? What about viruses like COVID 19? Why doesn’t God just stop all of those things?


Paul doesn’t offer easy answers to those questions. There aren’t easy answers to those questions. But he does offer hope to the suffering. For starters, creation itself was impacted by sin. Look at Vv. 19-22. God intended for us a human beings to serve as caretakers, stewards of his creation. And when humanity, the caretaker, fell into sin, creation fell into sin with her. This universe is an incredibly beautiful, wonderful, incredible, unimaginably miraculous place. It is full of wonder. Incredible places. Incredible processes at work. It’s amazing. It maintains the mark of it’s Creator. But it is also fallen and broken. And because of that it can also be a terrifying, dangerous, ominous place.


Scripture often personifies creation. The Psalmist describes creation like this “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy” (Ps. 65:12-13). The prophet Isaiah says, “The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish” (Is. 24:4). Creation experiences joy, shouting and singing. Creation mourns. Creation withers. And in Romans 8, creation groans. Longing to be set free from the impact of our sin. Longing to be returned to her original splendor. Longing, also, for us, her caretakers, to be set free from sin. Creation groans in hope for herself, and for us. Nature shared in our curse. Nature is sharing in our tribulation. And nature will one day share in our glory as well. Right now, the natural world is marked by the cycle of birth, growth, death, and decomposition. But one day, when death’s defeat at the hands of Christ is realized, the cycle will be broken.


Our fall into sin and God’s redemption of us in Christ have defined not just us as human beings, but the entire created order. And our sinful natures have impacted the natural world since the fall too. God created the cosmos in all of its glory and majesty, calling it good. And then God placed it under our care. He placed it under our CARE. He didn’t intend for us to exploit it. Use it for our benefit and the benefit of others? Yes. Advance as a civilization? Absolutely. But not to exploit it. Not to rape it. God has given us this world to care for, for HIM. It still belongs to God, not to us. St. Paul was one of the original environmentalists! And our ability to serve as godly caretakers of this place God has given to us to enjoy has been severely impacted by our fall. By our sin. Our selfishness gets in the way. Creation groans under the impact of our fall, and under the impact of our sin-marred stewardship of her, longing to be set free. Nature is fallen, and things go wrong in the natural world. We are fallen caretakers, as often as not making things worse, not better.


But as followers of Christ, we also groan. Look at Vv. 23-25. We know, deep in our hearts, that our current failures and shortcomings don’t align with our status and identity as God’s children, and it’s frustrating. Paul experienced more than his share of trouble in this world, and he describes it in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 when he says to those who were critical of him: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 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; 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; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” And on top of all of that was his own frustration with himself and his own struggle with sin. He described his own inward groaning back in Romans 7:19 when he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Paul knew how to groan. He groaned outwardly under the burden of life in this world as a follower of Christ, and he groaned inwardly, frustrated with his own sin.


But he was also a man of great hope. Because not only does creation groan with us under the burden of sin and suffering, but the Holy Spirit groans with us. Look at Vv. 26-27. The Holy Spirit, living in us as followers of Christ, longs for our full redemption. In fact, he intercedes before God for us with “groanings too deep for words.” And those groanings are “according to the will of God.” When we don’t know what or how to pray, maybe because the situations we face are far to complicated for us to discern what God really wants for us. Or maybe because our own sin and selfishness get in the way of our ability to know and understand God’s will clearly, the Holy Spirit in us is already interceding FOR US before God. Those unspoken prayers we can’t even put words to. In those times when we can’t rightly discern God’s will, the Holy Spirit is already interceding before the Father for us according to God’s will. The Holy Spirit, alive and active in all who follow Christ, doesn’t just offer us a helping hand. He actually bears our burdens with us. He groans with us.


We know the eternal life God has promised us. But we also know the fear and pain and frustration and suffering and despair that come from living in a broken world full of broken people. And we’re frustrated by our own brokenness. And so we groan. As creation groans. But the Holy Spirit groans with us, bearing our burdens with us. As followers of Christ we live as people of hope. We aren’t guaranteed easy lives. We will struggle. We experience illness and grief and hunger and financial reverses and troubles of all kinds. And we will experience death itself. We also, sometimes, experience suffering BECAUSE we follow Christ. But God’s promise to us in the middle of it all is that the glory to come, in eternity with Christ, far outweighs even the deepest of suffering that we experience now. Look up at V. 18.


And we know that our suffering is not meaningless. Paul compares our groaning to the groaning and cries of a woman in childbirth. I haven’t experienced it, and I never will. But those of you who are moms have. And you know that it’s excruciating. Pregnancy itself can be excruciating. But I can tell you this: the joy of holding that little baby far outweighs anything mom experienced during pregnancy or childbirth. It has to. If it didn’t, we’d all be only children because no woman would choose to go through that again. Childbirth involves deep, deep pain, but it isn’t meaningless pain. It is pain filled with hope, because the mother knows what is coming, and when the baby is placed in her arms, it all becomes worth it.


Elisabeth Elliot has been an inspiration and source of strength to many. Of course, many of us know that she and her first husband, Jim Elliot, were a part of a team of Christian missionaries attempting to make contact with an incredibly remote native tribe in eastern Ecuador in 1956, and that her husband Jim and the three other men on the team were brutally murdered by the very people they were trying to contact. What you may not know is that after the death of her first husband, she married Addison Leitch, who shortly after was diagnosed as having two entirely distinct, unique, unrelated, painful types of cancer. Day and night, literally, she had to care for this godly man. She said she used to pray that God would give her strength to get her through the week. Then it got so difficult that all she could pray for was that God would give her strength to get through the day. Then she used to pray that somehow God would just give her the strength to get through the hour, because at 9 a.m. it was unbearable to think about praying somehow about getting strength for 10 a.m.


In the midst of her struggle, when it was the most difficult, when Addison Leitch was going through the greatest amount of pain, she reread in her quiet time the story of (John 6), where the Lord Jesus met a little boy who had five loaves and two fish. The disciples, as always, wanted to push the little ones away, but Jesus, as always, reached out in love to the little ones. He reached forward to that little one, took that offering, as meager as it was, blessed it, and transformed it, and it fed a multitude. She realized on that day that that was what Jesus Christ wanted to do with her suffering. “What God wants us to be as a family of faith is a group of wounded healers, taking our wounds, however big or small, and transforming them into a healing ministry for Christ.”[i]


Yes, we do suffer in this world, and we long to be set free from the sin we so often struggle with. But as we groan under the burden, we live as people of hope, knowing that the Holy Spirit, alive in us, is bearing our burden with us, and that our suffering has meaning. Let us pray.

[i] “Rejoicing in Our Suffering,” Preaching Today, Tape 74