The partial Kingdom

Preached on: Sunday 15th September 2019
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-09-15-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: 2 Samuel 7v1-17 and Romans 1v1-6
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: 2 Samuel 7v1-17 and Romans 1v1-6
Sunday 15th September 2019
Brightons Parish Church
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I want to show your a few famous lines from films and I wonder if you can guess where they featured:
• “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Casablanca, 1942
• “Houston, we have a problem.” Apollo 13, 1995
• “Ogres are like onions.” Shrek, 2001

To really get these lines, to grasp their meaning and significance, you need to know the back story – whether it be a love story, or a rescue mission, or a simple feel good film with poignant truths – knowing the back story helps.
And the same is true of ‘the kingdom of God’ – without knowing the back story it can be quite meaningless.

We are now into week four of our current sermon series on ‘the kingdom of God’ and over the last three weeks we’ve seen that from the beginning of creation ‘the kingdom of God’ has been central to the biblical story. In Genesis 1 and 2, we saw the pattern of the kingdom, with God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule and enjoying God’s blessing.

In Genesis 3, we saw how the pattern of the kingdom was lost, for when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they were rejecting God’s rule, and as a result, they were no longer His people, which led to them being expelled… from God’s place, the garden of Eden, and consequently, they also lost the blessing of God.

But then last week, with Ian, we read from later in Genesis, where in chapters 12, 15 and 17, God makes a covenant, a promise, with Abraham to once again form a people of God, who will be given a land, who will live under God’s rule and once again enjoy God’s blessing.

So, we’re only up to Genesis 17, and yet we are beginning to get a rich and full back story to ‘the kingdom of God’. But from Genesis 17 to where we read in 2nd Samuel, it took about 900 years for everything to pass, so there’s a lot of history sandwiched between those two moments in the biblical story, which you may be glad to hear, we won’t try to cover in depth in this series.
And yet, to understand ‘the kingdom of God’, and to understand how God seeks to restore the pattern of the kingdom we need to know some of that 900-year history, which I’ll review, very briefly, just now.

Broadly speaking, from Genesis chapter 12 to Exodus chapter 18, the focus is primarily on God’s people, on how God would once again form a people who would be His special possession. And so, we find God taking Abraham, and from that old man, forming a nation, through Isaac, Jacob and then Jacob’s 12 sons, including Joseph.

Over the summer months, we worked through the story of Joseph, seeing how God’s promise began to be worked out – that this great grandson of Abraham…
was used of God to save God’s people from starvation by providing a home for them in Egypt.

But after Joseph, hundreds of years pass, and the people of God grow to be very numerous in Egypt, numbering in the millions. Yet they have become slaves to Egypt, and so they cry out to God, who hears them. He takes Moses and uses him to rescue God’s people and bring them out of Egypt, through what we call the Exodus, that act of God by which the people of God are saved.

Then, God leads them, by a pillar of cloud and fire, to Mount Sinai, which we reed about in Exodus chapter 19. And from chapter 19 of Exodus to the end of the book of Leviticus, we now find a focus on God’s rule and blessing, for in those chapters, we see how the people of God… are to live, and also how a holy God can presence Himself amongst His people so that they have relationship.

After Leviticus, we have the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, and whilst some of their content continues to describe the rule of God, these books also begin to move the focus onto God’s place, that land which was promised to Abraham many years before.

Now, the people of God are still, at the beginning of Numbers, situated at Mount Sinai, but because of grumbling, protest and unbelief the people of God are punished, and instead of a few months’ journey to the promised land, they travel for 40 years around the desert, so that all but two of that generation pass away, all who were filled with ingratitude and unbelief.

Eventually they do reach the promised land, but under a new leader, under Joshua, and they enter the land of Canaan, taking possession of it, and settling into a place that flowed with milk and honey.

At the end of the book of Joshua, Joshua himself gives a warning to the people, to not turn away from the Lord, and the question arises: will they or won’t they? What will happen to the people of God now?

We then enter into the book of Judges, where there is a cycle of sin and grace, for the people of God keep turning away from Him, doing evil in His eyes,…
and so, they are punished by God. They then cry out for mercy, so God sends a ruler, a judge, to lead them back under the rule of God, enabling them to enjoy God’s blessing and peace once more. This cycle of sin and grace repeats, again and again and again throughout the book, until we get to the very last line of the book of Judges, where we reed: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.’ (Judges 21:25)

There is here a hint of what the solution might be, that the people need a king. But this is not a new idea, for a king and ruler had been mentioned back in Genesis 49, where the line of Judah was said to hold a ‘sceptre’ and the ‘ruler’s staff’, and that ‘the obedience of the nations shall be his’. The idea of a king is also mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy, where the king is commanded: ‘ write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law…It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not…turn from the law to the right or to the left.’
(Deut. 17:18-20)

God’s appointed king was to be the means by which the rule of God came upon and through God’s people so that they could then enjoy God’s blessing. God would rule His kingdom through His king.

And so, at the end of Judges, this idea is raised once more, enabling us to enter into the books of Ruth, 1st Samuel, 2nd Samuel and 1st Kings, where we see how God raises up for Himself a king to rule over His people…

Eventually, David, that famous shepherd boy, becomes king. His journey is one of suffering and rejection, he faces many struggles to reach a position of peace, of rest, and that is where we find ourselves as we come into 2nd Samuel chapter 7. All this is the back story leading to this very chapter, 900 years of God forming a people, of giving them His Law, His rule, of taking them to the promised land, and then establishing a king, through whom God’s rule and blessing could come to God’s people within God’s place.

Chapter seven opens with these words: “After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.’ Nathan replied to the king, ‘Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.’” (2 Sam. 7:1-3)

The king is at rest, at last, but he recognises it has come from God’s hand, and yet the ark of God, the symbol of God’s presence amongst His people, remains in a tent, whilst the king lives in a house of expensive cedar. And so, there is a burden upon David’s heart to do something, which receives the support of the prophet Nathan.

But that night the Lord spoke to His prophet, relaying to Nathan, and then on to David, that the Lord was going to turn David’s offer upon its head, for the Lord now promised to build a flesh and blood house, a lineage for David. We read:
“‘Now then, tell my servant David, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great…The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: when your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son…’” (2 Sam. 7:8-9, 11b-14a)

In this passage, God refers to the covenant promises made to Abraham: of a people, of a land, of blessing… But these are now tied to the king and so Israel’s future is identified with the king’s future. Concerning this king, God promises:
• That he will be a descendant of David (v12)
• That His kingdom will be established by God (v12)
• That this future king will build a house for God (v13)
• Will reign for ever (v13, 15-16)
• And will be a son of God (v14)

So, a future king, one greater than David, is to come, and through this king, God’s kingdom will be established, His rule over His people, in His place, will become reality, and all will know and live in God’s blessing.

With the coming of David’s son, Solomon, as king, in the book of 1st Kings, we see the building up of the kingdom, such that by chapter 10 of 1st Kings the nation of Israel experiences a Golden Age, and we’re left asking: is Solomon the king who was promised? Is he this son of God?

Well, chapter 11 of 1st Kings reveals that Solomon is led astray from God, he does evil in the eyes of the Lord, and despite the intervention of the Lord, Solomon does not turn from his ways. As such, it’s not long before this partial rebuilding of the kingdom begins to disintegrate.

This is Israel’s highpoint as a kingdom under a human king, and so the promise and the hope of 2nd Samuel 7 still awaits fulfilment, we still await to see how God will restore His kingdom, through a human king, who will also be a son of God, such that the people of God live under the rule of God, in God’s place, and enjoying God’s blessing.

It’s been a long story, and there’s still more to come, but what might we glean from Genesis 12 to 1st Kings 11?

One of the most striking things about this period of the biblical story is how so many parts of it leave us hanging, leave us wanting more, and leave the people of God wanting more. In the book of Leviticus, God lay down the means by which He, as a holy God, could continue to presence Himself amongst His imperfect people. They are given instructions on how to construct the tabernacle, the tent where the ark of God would dwell, which was a symbol of God’s holy presence. They were also given the sacrificial system. But there are limitations – only one person, once a year, could come into most holy place within the tabernacle. There is then a limitation of relationship, it’s only a partial restoration of what was in the garden of Eden,… and so a greater peace between God and humanity must come, and so the people of God are left wanting.

In the books of Numbers to Judges, we see a limitation of obedience by God’s people, we see God’s people displaying unbelief and wilful disobedience, again and again. They so often have a hard heart towards God and His ways and so there is only a partial restoration of God’s people: they are numerically there, but their hearts are still so often wayward. The people of God are left wanting.

And then in 1 Samuel to 1st Kings 11, we see a series of imperfect human kings, through whom only a partial restoration of God’s rule and blessing comes about, and then only for a short time in the reign of Solomon,… before quickly crumbling away. Once more, the people of God are left wanting and hopes are dashed.

And I wonder if you resonate with that lack, with that hunger for something greater: of greater intimacy with God, or of greater obedience to God’s ways, or for a greater king who offers true hope?

Now these may not have been the first things to jump to mind when you thought about what you lack, but if we’re honest, all of us have some degree of discontentment, some degree of awareness that something is lacking in our lives.

It may be that you lack peace in your soul. It may be that you have discontentment with your life,…
maybe especially in the relationships you have with others, or with infirmity. It may be that you lack hope and encouragement amidst the greatest challenges of life.

Friends, the discontentment, the hunger in our lives, is a sign of the brokenness of our world, and of our God-given sense that there is meant to be something more, something better, of a kingdom that has been lost.

That lack we feel also highlights that our man-made solutions are insufficient, they don’t truly meet our need.
We try to anaesthetise our lack of peace and contentment with stuff, with pleasure, with popularity. Similarly, we try to fix our broken relationships through guilt, through nagging, through manipulation and trying to get our own way.
But the discontentment of our souls has at its root a deep spiritual need and problem, and no man-made solution can address that, just as no mere human king could be the solution to restoring God’s kingdom, nor could an external Law change the heart of broken humanity, just as no animal sacrifice could cleanse the human conscience and restore full intimacy with God.

The discontentment we feel, as the discontentment the people of old felt, is a pointer beyond ourselves and our solutions, to something else, indeed to someone else.

And that someone else, as we’ll see in future weeks, is Jesus – for in Him, as we read in Romans, we find a descendant of David, but also the Son of God. In Jesus, as the apostle Paul outlines, we find someone who:
• Is the Christ, the promised King (v1)
• He has conquered death (v4)
• He rules in power as Lord (v4)
• This Jesus calls us and equips us by His ‘grace’ to ‘obedience’ – to live under God’s rule (v5)
• And He calls us into relationship with Himself – that we might be a people who ‘belong to Jesus Christ’ (v6)

Friends, in the midst of our discontentment, God is calling, calling us into deeper relationship with Himself through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Just as there was more for the people of God long ago, there is also more for us as well – there can be greater peace, greater contentment, greater depth of intimacy with God and greater hope for tomorrow.
Friends, where do you lack that discontentment? Where is the lack in your life? Too often I have allowed my discontentment to lead me into unhealthy choices and actions, and I encourage you not to do that, but to seek Jesus in the midst of your discontentment.

Yesterday, I heard a song that sums this idea up well. As we listen to it, bring the deep ache of your soul to Jesus. PLAY: “Falling Into You” – Sam Hibbard

Friends, may today be more than a history lesson, may we hear the call of God to turn our eyes to our heavenly King so that in Jesus we see the One who can meet the deep ache of our souls, for He is the One through whom the kingdom of God will come. To Him, be all glory, now and forever. Amen.

The Father: compassionate and running

Preached on: Sunday 19th May 2019
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. There is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Luke 15:11-20 and Romans 5:6-11
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 15:11-20 and Romans 5:6-11
Sunday 19th May 2019
Brightons Parish Church
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

We are now part way through our sermon series on Luke chapter 15, and we have been slowing down to really explore what these three parables of Jesus reveal to us of our heavenly Father.

We’ve seen that Father God loves with a seeking and prodigal love, that we are so precious to God that He seeks us out like a lost coin or sheep, and then in the example of the father and his lost son, we see a God who is extravagantly patient and recklessly generous in love.
We’ve also asked whether it is possible to hold onto belief in such a good God in light of the brokenness of our world.

To get us into this week’s focus, I wonder if you would turn to your neighbour, and try to come up with a working definition for compassion. I’ll give you one minute. Go!

Compassion has been defined as suffering with someone in their pain and distress. It means to come alongside someone in their suffering and to feel what they feel. It means far more than just pity – it is empathetic love. It involves the engagement of both the heart and the hand
– the heart in sharing in another’s pain,…
the hand in reaching out to help. Compassion, in short, is about participation, not detachment. It is about actions more than words. It is about ‘suffering love.’

It can be hard to picture compassion sometimes but when we see it, it is so very powerful. During the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, British athlete Derek Redmond ran in the 400 metres semi-final, which was the fulfilment of a dream for him. But 100 metres into the race he fell on the track, having torn a hamstring. Here is a video of what happened – look out for the moment of compassion.

What was unknown to most folks at the time, was that the man who helped Derek reach the finish line was his dad, Jim…
His father, seeing his son’s distress, came alongside him – Jim refused to let guards deter him, he even pushed one over, because he was driven by compassion, by suffering love, to help his child finish that race.

We read today these words: ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.’ (v20) The father saw the younger son and was filled with compassion for him.

This father had watched his precious child rebel and go off the rails, shaming the father and disappearing off into the sunset, with no intention of ever returning. But every day the father had been looking. Whenever a merchant came into the village, the father would ask,…
‘Have you seen him? Have you seen my son? Have you seen him on your travels, especially in the far country?’

And every time he would see that blank stare, that look which signalled ‘no’. Every day the father lived with the gossip and the rumour-mongering in the village. Every night the father stayed awake and no one ever saw the tears that streamed down his face as he relived the agonising day of his son’s departure. No one saw the heaving of his shoulders as he gave way to quiet grief.

Yet, every day he patiently waited, he kept up hope, sitting on the flat roof of his house, looking towards the horizon. Then, one day, he caught sight of a familiar outline. He rubbed his eyes, blinked several time, and peered again. Could it be? Is it he?
At first the father feels shock, then momentary hesitation, but finally, certainty sets in, as he becomes sure it is his precious child, and with gut-wrenching emotion filling his entire being, the father can’t help himself anymore and he runs towards his son.

When we read that one little verse, we almost skip over it – we might be tempted to think, “well of course he did that, that’s obvious, who wouldn’t run to their child?”

But we need to remember the cultural dynamics at the time when this parable was told. As a general rule, distinguished Middle Eastern patriarchs did not run. There was a proverb around at the time: ‘A man’s manner of walking tells you what he is.’ Children might run; women might run; young men might run…
But not the father of the family, the dignified pillar of the community, the owner of the great estate. He would not pick up his robes and bare his legs like some boy. It was shameful and dishonourable for a man over 30 to be seen running in public, because quite literally you would be revealing your undergarments. No man who held honour highly enough would ever do that.

But this father does. He runs to his son – his feet move in response to his heart, to the deep well of compassion in the bowels of his very being; his love for his child is so deep that he will overcome all embarrassment and social conventions to reach his child.

So, what does Jesus hope to reveal of our heavenly Father in this parable? Well, we are clearly meant to see that our heavenly Father is filled with compassion towards us.

A few weeks ago, we saw that we each are like the younger son, we each have told God that He is as good as dead to us, that we want no part of Him, even though we want all the good stuff He has given us. We considered the agony that God would feel in response to such a rejection, a rejection, which if we suffered it, would result in a temper tantrum and the end of the relationship.

But Jesus is revealing something else entirely – Father God feels such compassion for us that He will pay a price to be reconciled to us. And that very price is summed up for us by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5:8)

While we were still far off rebels, telling God to drop dead, He literally did – He laid down His life to make it possible for us to be forgiven. At the very moment when we were furthest away, the Father took the initiative. Even though we have sinned by rejecting Him, the Father decided to act. The justice of God said that human beings must experience the consequences of their rejection of God, and so experience separation from Him eternally. But the love of God said that this could not be the end of the story. So, out of this tension in the heart of God, the Father acted in history – He showed His great compassion for us by sending His one and only Son to die the death that we deserved…

Our heavenly Father, is a God who runs to rescue us, He is truly the God who saves, for at the Cross we see God’s love come running towards us, with outstretched arms, defusing the power of guilt and shame in any son or daughter who will return home.

If you feel far away from God, then remember the Father whom Jesus reveals in this parable – the Father who is waiting for you to come home. God’s heart is not filled with anger and hatred towards you, He loves you with a suffering love, with such compassion that He died in the person of His Son to bring you home, He is for you and His arms are opened wide. I asked a few weeks ago, friends, but just in case anyone was not here to hear it, I’ll ask it again – do you need to come home to God?

To be a Christian, is to come home to God – where God becomes the centre of your life, such that you build your life upon Him and He shapes your choices, your values, your priorities – that’s when you know you live for God, that’s when you know you’ve come home. That’s true repentance.

And God is lovingly waiting for us, my friends – if you haven’t returned to God, will you come home to God? If you’re unsure how to begin that journey home, then come speak with me after the service, and you can come home to God today.

But for those of us who have returned home, then there is the call of God upon our lives to grow up in the family likeness and take up the family business: we are to grow in the compassion of God and take up the reconciling work of God.
I know that you are a socially compassionate church – I have seen and felt it personally. I have seen you give of your time and of your money and of your love to help folks in desperate need and real sadness and brokenness. I am not speaking into these aspects of our congregational life, for there you do reflect the love of God.

But Jesus did not tell this parable to challenge us to be more loving in practical ways – that’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. No, Jesus told this parable in the context of helping His listeners understand the Father’s desire to be reconciled to us. In this instance, to reflect the compassion of God, is to take up the family business and help people come back into relationship with God, to come back home to God; that’s what Jesus was about here, that’s how the compassion of God was being displayed.
So, let me ask you, brothers and sisters in Christ: will we get out of the stands and get alongside others to help them finish the race? Like Derek Redmond’s father, will we get out of the comfort of the pew, or our homes, or our church groups, and will we break with convention, expectation, or even political correctness so as to come alongside others in compassion with the Good News of Jesus Christ? Will we wave off embarrassment, excuses of age or ability, or the apathy within our hearts and get out into our parish with the Good News of these very parables?

I realise it’s not easy; I am not a natural evangelist either.
Every time I stand up here and ask you to come home to God, I don’t do it well and every fibre of my being cringes.
But I know I’ve to do it because I know God wants as many as possible to come home to Him.

So, today I want to share with you in these closing moments, two initiatives to help us grow and show the compassion of God in this particular way.

The first is the prayer initiative you will have found in your news sheet. (READ SHEET) (WATCH VIDEO)

So, that’s the first initiative. As it happens, the time for Thy Kingdom Come, comes right before we are seeking to have our weekend of invitation here at Brightons Church on Sunday 9th June…

The idea with this initiative is for us to invite someone to church that weekend. To help with this, we’ve produced a simple invitation that will go out with the next copy of the Bright Lights magazine. The elders’ hope is that those who don’t regularly attend might be encouraged to come back. But also, that those of us who do come regularly, might take the invitation and use it to invite someone else along on the 9th June. This might be a neighbour, family member, colleague at work.

I realise that this is a big step for a lot of us – it’s a big step for me. So, that’s why we are coupling it with prayer – because we will never invite someone without deep compassion and conviction, and really, that only comes about as the Holy Spirit works in us and we talk with God in prayer about our fears, our hopes, our need for help.
So, please consider joining in prayer and using your invitation to share the compassion of our heavenly Father with those who are in your life, and invite them to not only to come to church, but to come home to God.

Can God really be this good?

Preached on: Sunday 12th May 2019
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-05-12-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning-website.
Bible references: Luke 15:1-10 and Romans 8:18-39
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 15:1-10 and Romans 8:18-39
Sunday 12th May 2019
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Over the last few weeks we’ve begun our sermon series on Luke chapter 15, exploring what these three parables of Jesus reveal to us of our heavenly Father.

We’ve seen that Father God loves with a seeking and prodigal love, for in the example of the shepherd and the woman we see a God who seeks us out, so as to rescue us from our lostness, because we are that precious to God. And then in the example of the father and his lost son, we see a God who loves with such extravagance patience and such reckless generosity that He is truly the one that is prodigal in His love and in His waiting.
This week I want to attempt to respond to one question that can arise in our minds in response to these parables. It is a question that can arise in response to many passages or come to us amidst the varied events of life. And the question is this: can God really be this good? You may even want to shorten it to: is God good?

After seeing and hearing about a good heavenly Father who loves with a seeking and prodigal love, such that He patiently waits for us, is it truly possible to hold on to such a view of our heavenly Father when all around us we see a terribly broken world with so much pain and hardship? Is it possible to hold the tension between the goodness of God and the suffering in the world?

It is a question that people have asked across the ages, and indeed one that Christians have asked across the centuries, for many of our New Testament letters and gospels were written amidst periods of great suffering, particularly persecution. It can be helpful to remember, that the authors of the New Testament were not only seeking to share the Good News of the Christian faith or how to live godly lives; those very same authors were often seeking to help the Church at large understand how to hold the tension between a belief in a good heavenly Father who loves with a seeking, prodigal love, whilst at the same time experiencing brutal treatment and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ.

And likely, this question, this tension, is one which many, if not all of us, have wrestled with, or are still wrestling with.
Indeed, I suspect that few of us ever really settle the issue fully, and instead, we are forced by the repeated hardships of life to re-evaluate where we have got to in our handling of the tension. And I phrase it that way quite deliberately – “where we have got to in our handling of the tension” – because to say we should or can reach an answer, or a conclusion on the issue seems, to me, to be unlikely and maybe even unhelpful.

Four years ago, my family went through some really hard times, which I won’t share today, because I don’t want those times to become the focus of our attention. But shortly after those difficult experiences, we met someone who knew what had happened, but we hadn’t seen this person in a while. In the brief conversation they had with us,
I think they sought to give us a measure of support and encouragement.
However, what they shared with us was anything but that, because to try and tell us that “God only lets these things happen to people whom He knows can handle them” is not pastorally sensitive and I wouldn’t recommend saying it any time soon.

To claim to have answers to these questions is, in my experience, very unhelpful. Sure, we all want answers, but I’m just not certain God gives that many on these particular issues. Yet what that person shared, was probably shared out of where they were at in their own handling of the tension between belief in a good Father and the very apparent hardships of life. And likewise, what you’ll get from me today is borne out of my four years of wrestling with the issues, in light of the Scriptures, and represents some of where I have got to in my own thinking… But most likely, my own thinking will continue to adapt, and hopefully mature, with the passing of time and the gaining of experience in pastoral ministry.

So, all that was introduction and setting the scene, but is it possible to hold the tension between the goodness of God and the suffering in the world? For myself, I think I have managed to reach a point where I can live with that tension, and I can do so because of what the Scriptures teach about the Christian faith.

Firstly, the Scriptures clearly face up to the reality of suffering in our world, and the Christian faith has always done so. Indeed, the Apostle Paul never tries to hide the fact of suffering and often he goes as far as to highlight it.
We read today: ‘For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…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 to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’ (Romans 8:19-23)

Here Paul highlights that all of creation groans in its current state, that it yearns to be liberated from its bondage to decay. When Greek speakers talked about things decaying, they were referring to the tendency of living things to become sick, tired, or die…
and it included the inevitable process by which material objects collapsed and food spoiled. So, the biblical tradition affirms the perspective that our world is broken, that it is not what it once was or should be, that it is not what God intended it to be.

But Paul is also aware that it is not only the wider creation which groans – we, human beings, also groan for something more, we groan to be free of the degeneration, sickness and death we see around us or experience. And this groaning is there just as much for Christian folk – for Paul affirms that we Christians continue to groan ourselves, that we are not exempt from problems, and sadness, and disappointment.

So, the Scriptures clearly face up to the reality of suffering and of our innate yearning for liberation from such circumstances; there is then no belittling of our experiences, there is no exhortation to a stiff upper lip, there is no encouragement towards a faith that either ignores these hardships by sticking one’s head in the sand, nor towards a faith that is so spiritually minded that it glosses over the difficult times. The Christian faith is not scared to admit that the world is a mess – yet it also affirms the continued validity of faith and of being able to hold the tension between the goodness of God and the suffering we see around us.

The ability to hold that tension is possible, I think, because of two incredible facets of the Christian faith.

Firstly, we have hope. Paul writes: ‘I consider that our present sufferings [do not compare] with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God…we ourselves…groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.’

In the Christian faith we have hope, specifically, we have hope that this is not the end, that God hasn’t given up, that God Himself hasn’t been defeated, but that more is in store. And what is in store, is that there is a ‘glory that will be revealed in us’ (v18), there is a ‘freedom and glory’ for us the children of God (v21), and there will be a future ‘adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies’ (v23). These are phrases worth unpacking a little.

When Paul speaks here of ‘glory’ we need to remind ourselves of what else he has associated ‘glory’ with in the letter to the Romans: God’s immortality (1:23), the immortality of those to whom God gives eternal life (2:7), the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead (6:4). So, in all these instances Paul associates ‘glory’ with the expectation of sharing in the resurrection life of Jesus and His immortality. Elsewhere, Paul writes in Philippians: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who…will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.’ (Philippians 3:20-21)
When Paul speaks of ‘glory’ in Romans 8 this is what he has in mind – of a glory that will come to us from outside and transform us personally, such that it is ‘revealed in us’, in our physical, resurrected bodies.

Paul also writes, in the 3rd bullet point, that ‘we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’ (v23) This is not to say that we aren’t children of God already, because we are, and Paul has affirmed that very reality in v16-17. But there is a sense in which our adoption is also in the future because we don’t experience now the fullness of what has been won for us by God in that we still have bodies which decay. In that sense, our salvation and redemption are still something we are waiting for, even if we have the firstfruits of it now.
So, in all this, Paul affirms the hope the Christian has, the hope they received when they placed their faith in Jesus: that the suffering and injustice which we experience will one day give way to God’s re-created world, and in that “new creation” we will no longer grow weak, fall apart, or die but will live in immortality. Moreover, God will also release the world around us from the effects of sin, and so both we and the world will be free from all suffering. In that new creation our existence will be like that of Jesus Himself, who presently lives in immortality and in a loving relationship with Father God.

So, whilst the suffering in the world currently obscures the glory which is ours, that glory will one day be revealed in full, but in the meantime, we hope – we hope for what we do not yet have; we hope, we wait with expectation… for a future in which every tear will be wiped away, and then there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the present order of things will have passed away.

This hope is part of what helps me hold the tension, when faced with the realities of life, that our God is truly good, because He hasn’t left us or deserted us, He hasn’t been defeated, instead, He has secured for us a future beyond our present comprehension, a future that is good.

And God has secured that future through His works and especially the person and work of His Son. Let’s begin with the works of God. Paul writes: ‘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 image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (Romans 8:28-30)

Many of us will know that first line and may have found comfort in its words for our own lives. But I must admit, until this week I struggled to find much comfort in them, probably because I read more into those words than may actually be there. So often, I think we understand these words to say that God orchestrates the suffering of life or that God brings good out of the sufferings of life, that He is working all things together for good.
But renowned biblical scholar John Stott admits himself that this rendering of the words is ‘to be rejected, since all things do not automatically work themselves together into a pattern of good.’ And so, I think it might be helpful to review what Paul could be saying here.

Let’s unpack a few key words. ‘God works for the good…’- what is ‘the good’ here? Well, in the context of the passage, ‘the good’ is the glory which God has prepared for us, the glory in which we hope. That final future, that the new creation, where we shall share in the resurrection life of Jesus, with glorified bodies in a perfect new heaven and new earth – that is the good which Paul means, that is the purpose which God has for those who love Him, who are part of the people of God.

And if that is the good, then the ‘works’ which God does, are the actions of God which create, sustain and bring His people into the glory He has provided. And so, we read, ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (v29-30)

These are the ‘works’ of God, coupled with what Paul said in v26-27, that God has given us His Spirit to ‘help us in our weakness’ – He has given the Spirit to sustain us through the times of suffering and ensure that one day we will reach the glory in which we currently hope.

And so, if that is the ‘works’ of God, which bring about ‘the good’ He has planned and provided, then to say that God works ‘in all things’, is to say that in the midst of all things, in the midst of all circumstances and times of difficulty, God is at work, but His works are to help and sustain, to comfort and see us through into the glory He has purposed for us. That is how God works in all things.

So, it need not mean, and may not mean, that God orchestrates your suffering or that He will work all things together for good. Because, to be honest, I think we end up minimalizing so much suffering by our over-reaching with this verse, and we possibly over-reach because we want an answer to the “why?”, because we don’t like the tension and the unresolved questions.
But in our seeking to resolve it, we may go too far, and unnecessarily too far, because our hope is not undermined and God’s purpose is not defeated, His works are not thwarted, and His love remains strong and sure, despite the tensions, despite the questions – and all because of what we read next in Paul’s writings:

‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things? 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?…we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced…[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:31-32, 37-39)

In the four years of my wrestling with the tension of believing in a good heavenly Father, yet experiencing the reality of our world, the Cross is what has got me through – that on the Cross, God died, in the person of His Son, for love of me, to secure a glory beyond anything that I can imagine and so guarantee reunion with those I have lost.

That foundational truth has got me through, has allowed me to hold the tension, because in the Cross I know that God is “for me”, and in the Cross and resurrection of Jesus, I know with certainty that God was won a sweeping victory, such that we are more than mere conquerors over the enemies of sin, flesh, decay, death or shame; none of these will prevail against the purposes of God because of our Saviour.

In the Cross of Jesus, I see a God who is concerned with our suffering, is concerned with our plight, such that He did something about it – He sought us out, as the parables of Jesus affirm; He died to reconcile us to Himself through the forgiveness of our sin, securing for us a place in God’s family, and thus one day full conformity to the image, to the likeness, of His glorified, His immortal Son.

Is it possible to hold the tension between the goodness of God and the suffering in life? Is God truly as good as the parables of Jesus portray? I’ve managed to reach a point where I can live with that tension, because I see in our faith, a God who knows our suffering, who cares about our suffering, who never minimises our suffering, and so
He did something about it in Jesus,…
He entered into our suffering and so in Jesus, I see the love of God and I find hope, a God-given hope, of a future glory.

To Him be the praise and honour, this day and for ever.