Sunday, January 06, 2008

I Owe, I Owe...

Do you remember the old bumper stickers of the seventies and eighties? One of the most depressing was a take off from the Dwarves’ song from Snow White. Instead of “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho! It's off to work we go…” it read “I owe, I owe; so off to work I go…” Depressing isn’t it? Especially so soon following Christmas!

I'm not going to make you feel any better.

According to the last figures I've heard the average credit card debt in America is $8,000. In a recent Associated Press release, “Americans are falling behind on their credit card payments at an alarming rate.” Much of the crunch is tied to the mortgage woes of America as the housing bubble has popped. Bankruptcy is no longer an option because of the reforms made in 2005 making it more difficult to walk away from legitimate debt.

So when we pick up our Bibles and read Romans 8:12 where Paul says: So, my brothers, we are in debt—we really have a grasp of the idea, don’t we? We know what it is to be in debt! Isn’t too much fun. But Paul is quick to point out something: We are not in debt to our old sinful life-style! We are not in debt to live after the flesh! Our debt is different than that. Living according to our old life-style of sin will only get us killed. It will destroy us. No: our debt, our obligation is a good sort of thing. You see, we’re in debt to the Spirit of God—to live after his direction.

Instead of living according to our own selfish purposes and desires—instead of a self-centered life-style we are called to put to death our self-centered ways and live according to the desires of God. Why is that? What has the Spirit done—what has God done that puts us in obligation to him? Well, of course, Paul has been making a case throughout Romans how we have been brought into the family of God by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We’ve been declared innocent of all wrong doing and acquitted by the sacrifice of Jesus. As a result of that we are now in God’s debt.

But it doesn’t stop here. Paul goes into more detail regarding what the Spirit has done and is doing in our lives. As we explore this theme in Romans 8:12-39 we begin to realize just how indebted to God we really are. Let’s take a look to see just what God has done and is doing in our lives.

We find ourselves in debt to God’s Spirit because the Spirit has made us God’s children:
because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.*
We haven’t been given a spirit of slavery and fear—we’re not back in Egypt! It isn’t always obvious to those of us who are 2000 years removed—but to these Jewish Christians such as Paul, Peter, or the writer of the book of Hebrews you can’t read the story of Christ, you can’t talk about following Christ without some reference or below the surface recognition of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The parallels are always there, even if they are sometimes below the surface. When God brought Israel into the wilderness and out of Egypt he declared Israel as his children, his heirs. We are reminded of Hosea’s words: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Those words were later applied to Jesus—but now they are also applied to all who are God’s people. The Spirit has given us the title of children of God and heirs of God! In fact, through the Spirit we call out Abba! Father! Even the pain and problems we face in this life become means by which we identify with Jesus.

Expanding on the idea of suffering, Paul continues:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 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. 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.
Here he gives us two more reasons why we are obligated to follow the Spirit’s lead and control--and they can be summed up in one phrase: the glory to be revealed. First, the creation itself will be renewed and remade. Again, we’re reminded of Israel coming out of the wilderness. She was promised land. We think of Palestine. But for those who belong to the Spirit that promise transcends a little tract of land in the Middle East. The whole of creation is now ours! This isn’t a promise to return to Palestine—it’s a promise of a return to Eden! Ours is the world—to bring about God’s justice, mercy, and love. And some day God will work it all out by transforming everything to the way he originally intended. Along with that is not just transformation of the creation, but also transformation of our own bodies. Paul talks about this more and in greater detail in 1 Corinthians 15 when he speaks of the resurrection from the dead. It is something that hasn’t happened yet. The world still groans and our bodies still get old, still decay, and still die. After all, if we already had all of this in its final form Paul wouldn’t be using the word “hope” would he? Hope refers to something we haven’t actually received completely. But it is something for which we groan for, strive for, and hope for.

Paul continues to describe why we are in debt: not only are we God’s children, not only do we have the promise of transformation, but we also have one who lives inside of us who intercedes for us: the Holy Spirit:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.
Even though the present sufferings don’t compare to what God has in store we still suffer, we still groan. Sometimes our pain and frustration is so unbearable, we can’t even give intelligent voice to it. All we can do is cry out with guttural sounds and sobs. Many of you know exactly what I mean, too. Don’t you? But this isn’t just our groans from personal pain—it is also the frustration we have when we read the papers or watch the newscasts. We see ruthless people crushing the innocent, we hear of famines and earthquakes, natural and man-caused disasters, we see our own friends hurt or people caught up in miserable self-centered living and we feel helpless in the face of such problems. We don’t know how to pray—except to groan. But God, through the Spirit, searches our hearts. The Spirit translates what we cannot articulate. And God understands, and yes, he answers.

And part of that answer comes in vv. 28-30:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
This text is often misunderstood and misquoted. Not everything is good. You lose your job. This passage doesn’t mean you will get a better one. You get ill. This passage doesn’t mean you’ll be made well. But those who belong to God can find meaning even in pain; because God can take the ugly things in our lives and weave something beautiful out of our lives. Listen carefully to this: who lived the most beautiful life on earth? This is an easy question to answer. Who had the greatest purpose? Whose life was filled with a mission that forever changed the world? Go ahead and say it, you already know: Jesus! His life was filled with power, purpose, strength, and beauty. It was also filled with incredible suffering and sorrow. In fact, the beauty of Jesus shined more brightly through the dark night of suffering. It was by his wounds that we were healed. It was through his suffering the world was made better. And Paul tells us God can take even the painful events of our own lives and mold us into the image of Jesus. In fact, I’d like to ask: how could we ever be molded into the image of Jesus if we never suffered? Isn’t that part of the image? And this is another reason why we are in debt to the Spirit, to God. He takes all things to work for our ultimate good: that ultimate good being our transformation into the image of Jesus.

Paul ends this chapter with one more reason why we are in debt to living after the Spirit: even in the face of suffering and evil—absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul piles one word on top of another; one phrase on top of another; one idea on top of another all expressing the same idea, all saying the same thing as if he doesn’t want us to miss this: nothing can rip you from God’s hands! If God is on our side, who can oppose us? It may look as if we are on the losing end! We may face death all day long, we may be counted as sheep for the slaughter—but we are conquerors! No, we are more than conquerors through him who loves us! Listen to what Paul says:

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughteredNo, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No one can accuse us, no one can condemn us, no one can separate us from the love of God!

No wonder Paul says we are in debt to live according to God’s Spirit! He has given so much! He has made us children and heirs of God! He has given us the world and a promise of re-creation. He translates even our deepest groans to God, transforms us even through suffering into the image of Jesus, and he guarantees that no one and no thing can separate us from his love.

So, as you pay that credit card bill this month—as you write that mortgage check, remember you owe a greater debt. Remember what God, the Spirit has done in your life and give your life over to him to follow his desires and his dictates!

May you recognize your debt. May you joyfully give up your life in God’s service. And may you recognize the debt you owe does not even compare with the glory God has promised to give you!
*All scripture quotes are from the New International Version of the Bible.

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