Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 8, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Romans 8:18-39
When Greg saw it, it's an old, battered violin, deep-toned spruce wood top plate, chipped but sturdy bridge. He said, "Yes, I'll take it." See, Greg's into restoration, and so holding that out-of-tune tarnished, mistreated violin, he said, "Yes." Something deep in his soul said, "Yes."
It's the same yes that my lovely wife says when she sees a scratched up, wobbly, wood dresser setting out in the alley that somebody discarded, just waiting to be sanded down, patched up, and refinished. It's the yes of the person who looks at an abandoned building and sees a restoration project, looks at an empty city lot and sees a community garden. It's a purposeful, powerful, hopeful yes.
It's the yes of the group of volunteers that gives up a weekend to pick up trash from the local waterway. It's the yes of the group that plants flowers in the common area. It's the yes of a private school that offers scholarships to a family that otherwise couldn't afford it. It's the yes of the community that reinvests in its struggling public school. It's the yes of friends who take time off work to retreat together. It's the yes of a newly married couple that wants to have a baby, even though there is so much pain and suffering in this world. It's the yes of the couple who decided to adopt, even though it will be difficult. It's the yes of a distracted father whose children ask him, "Dad, would you play with us?" It's the yes of a recently widowed woman who moves into her new home alone, yet opens herself up to new people, new places, new possibilities. It is the yes of restoration.
An early Christian teacher named Paul, about 2,000 years ago, wrote a letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. Paul wrote about God's purpose—His purpose for His creation, His yes to His creation. A son once asked his father, "Dad, did God make everything, everything in the whole wide world?"
"Did he make the trees?"
"Did he make the sun?"
"He sure did."
"Did he make clouds?"
"Did he make dragonflies?"
"Did he make spiders and stomach-aches and chicken pox and cancer and earthquakes and floods and tornadoes and wars?"
God has a purpose for His creation, but it's not immediately obvious what God is up to. And that's what the boy wants to know. What is God up to? What's His purpose? It's not a maybe. It's not a no. It's a yes. God says, "Yes" to His creation. Some people say, "Maybe" to God's creation. "Maybe," they say, "if we keep making progress."
Progress is a powerful idea. President John F. Kennedy once said in a speech that man in his quest for knowledge and progress cannot be deterred. He said that in a famous speech from 1962. It was his go-to-the-moon speech. Kennedy observed that humanity had made great strides in technology—from steam engines to electric lights to telephones, automobiles, nuclear power, aircraft, spacecraft—progress at a breakneck speed! But for all of Kennedy's shoot-for-the-moon optimism, he recognized the maybe that overshadows all human progress.
There are threats on every side: threats of enemies out there in the world, threats from the enemy in every human heart. Maybe you put a man on the moon, but leave the great mass of humanity in the gutter. Maybe you rally for social justice, yet become bitter, resentful, and self-righteous in the process. Maybe you climb the highest mountain, but when you get there, you find yourself empty and alone.
At its best, that's all we can say about human progress: maybe or maybe not. God's purpose is not left to the maybe of human progress. What is God's purpose? Some people say that God's purpose is to take us to heaven when we die. That's what I learned growing up in the church, but someone pointed out to me that this isn't always the way that Christians talked about God's purpose. For example, the two oldest Creeds of the Christian faith—the Apostles' and Nicene Creed—they don't say anything about us going to heaven. What do they say?
Well, one says, "I believe in the resurrection of the body." And the other says, "I look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come" or, in other translations, "in the life of the age to come." Or consider the prayer that Jesus taught His followers to say. What do we pray for? "Father, let Your kingdom come. Let Your will be done." Where? "On earth as it is in heaven."
And then there's the words of the apostle Paul in that Scripture passage that I mentioned, Romans 8. He says, "The creation, the whole creation," that's everything that God created from heaven to earth and everything in between. "The creation," he says, "will be set free from its bondage to decay, from its slavery to corruption, and be brought into the freedom of the glory of God's children."
When I first learned that verse by heart, Romans 8:21, it took a while for the words to sink in. This is God's yes to everything, to the whole creation. If we say that God's purpose is simply to take our souls to heaven when we die, we might miss God's bigger yes.
Now, please don't hear what I'm not saying. I'm not trying to take the comfort of heaven away from anyone. If you trust Jesus, but you die before He returns to raise the dead and make all things new, then yes, yes, you have His promise that your soul will rest with Him in heaven, even as your body sleeps in the earth. But this is part of a bigger yes—God's yes to putting bodies and souls back together again in the resurrection: God's yes to the creation as He intended it to be.
God's purpose is the yes of restoration, not the no of escape. Somewhere along the way, this escape story got mixed in with the story of the Bible. You've heard the escape story. It's the brave knight who goes into the abandoned castle, guarded by the ferocious dragon, to rescue the princess, the damsel in distress. And sometimes people tell the story of the Bible on those terms. They say Jesus is the brave knight, and the creation is the abandoned castle, and the devil and death and sin is the dragon, and Jesus breaks in, and He breaks the church, the imprisoned princess, out, out of the prison house of the body, away from the creation, and takes us back home to heaven.
That's not the way the Bible speaks about God's purpose. As my friend Jeff Cloeter summarizes in his book, Loved and Sent, God makes what is good, God wins back what He made, and God transforms what He won.
I think a better picture of the Bible's big story is the end of the movie, The Lion King. You remember The Lion King? Remember the state of the Pride Land when Scar and his evil hyena minions had taken over. It was all death, all destruction, all darkness. And then Simba, the rightful king, comes back. And what does Simba do? He doesn't lead the citizens out in a great escape. He wins back what is rightfully his. He transforms it to become what it was meant to be. He says no to evil, and he says yes to the land. And so also God says yes to His creation.
A wise person once observed, "You must say a thousand nos to guard a single yes." Likewise, God defends His yes to creation with the no of His Law. God says, "Thou shalt not" in His Commandments to protect His creation, to protect what He loves, to protect us. And when our first parents said no to God's command, they said no to being God's children. They said no to God's creation, but God countered them. He spoke against them. He said, "No, I will not let you be lost in your self-chosen hell. I will let you suffer some of the consequences of your decision to turn you around, and I will send My Son to win you back."
Jesus is God's yes to His creation. God sent His Son to be born of Mary, to share our flesh, this flesh, to endure our death, and His resurrection is God's yes to the body and the soul, to individuals and communities, to heaven and earth joined together in the new creation. Jesus is God's yes!
What do you say in response? My friend Greg, he's into restoration of violins and of bigger projects. Once I was in the church building late at night, and I heard something, and I go and check it out, and it's Greg. He's there in the middle of the night tuning an old piano that hadn't been tuned in years. Nobody asked him to do this, but he said yes.
Greg's a professional musician and a choir director. Our church choir wasn't much. It's just a handful of older, amateur singers. And when we were in need of an interim choir director, Greg said yes. And for six years, he and his wife Jenny poured their hearts and souls into that choir, and they made them sing like angels. That's just the kind of people that they are. They get it from Jesus.
Greg also happens to be the director of this choir that you'll hear after the message. And listen for the violin. That's Greg, too. Like Greg, God is into restoration. You can hear God's resounding yes in these selections of that Scripture passage I mentioned from Romans 8.
Paul says, "I consider that the sufferings we go through in this present time, they're not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us. You see, the creation strains its head forward in eager anticipation, waiting, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed because the creation was subjected to this pointless futility, not by its own choice, but by the choice of the One who subjected it by God, who subjected it in hope, in hope that the creation itself would be set free from its slavery to corruption and be brought into the freedom of the glory of God's children.
"You see, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together and suffering in the pains of childbirth right up until the present moment and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit. We groan as we eagerly anticipate our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. You see, we were saved in hope, but hope isn't hope if you can see it, for who hopes for what they can see? But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it with patient endurance. And in the same way, the Spirit comes alongside us, helping us in our weakness, since we don't know what we ought to pray for. But the Spirit, He pleads for us, pleads on our behalf with groanings too deep for words.
"And the Searcher of hearts knows, God knows what the Spirit is thinking, because the Spirit intercedes for God's holy ones in harmony with God. And we know that God works all things for good, for those who love God, for those who are called according to His purpose because those God knew in advance, He also chose in advance for them to be formed into the image of His Son, so that His on Jesus might be the first born of many brothers of a large family.
"What then do we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all. How will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge, an accusation against God's chosen ones? It is God who declares them in the right. Who is it that condemns? Christ Jesus who died, more than that, who was raised to life. He is at God's right hand, and He is interceding. He is praying for us.
"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship, persecution or famine, nakedness, danger, or sword? No. In all these things, we are more than conquerors. We are completely victorious through Him who loved us. You see, 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, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord."
Amen. Yes, it is so.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for December 8, 2019
Title: God's Yes
Michael Zeigler: Joining me in the studio again is Pastor Jeff Cloeter Welcome back, Pastor Jeff.
Jeff Cloeter: Good to be back again.
Michael Zeigler: Pastor Jeff is senior pastor at Christ Memorial Lutheran Church in the city of St. Louis. He's the author of the book Loved And Sent. We're letting it be a guide for us in these messages during the season of Advent. So Jeff, in the book, you repeat this phrase, "We are worse than we thought, and God is greater than we imagine."
Jeff Cloeter: That phrase was borne out of an appreciation over time of my Lutheran- Christian tradition, that I think allows me to wrestle with two truths at the same time. We might call it Law and Gospel, to say it's worse than I thought, kind of like a diagnosis. I want to know the depth of the diagnosis. I don't want to be lied to by the doctor. But at the same time without negating that, we can say God is far better. His grace is better than I imagined. My hands aren't big enough to accept the gifts that He's giving me. What gift could I give back as a thank you—not as an obligation, or duty, but as a life of freedom? So I just love the being able to speak those two truths at the same time and to speak them with great conviction.
Michael Zeigler: In the third part of your book, you're dealing with this question—what is God up to? Sometimes the Christian message gets truncated down into God's purpose is to snatch sinners from the fires of hell and bring them to heaven instead. Without taking anything away from that truth, there's more to it. And you start with not sin but the goodness of God's creation when you talk about God's purpose. Why was that important for you to start there?
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah, as you mentioned, sometimes we hear the Gospel is distilled to something like, Jesus came to die for my sins so that I can get out of hell, or I can go to heaven. Is that inherently a wrong statement? No, but it appears to be incredibly selfish. In some ways, it has the air of "I'm using Jesus just so I don't have to get punished."
Michael Zeigler: Yeah, like after-life insurance or something.
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah, the get-out-of-hell free card. It's very individual; it's about me. I think the biblical narrative is so much bigger than that. And so it starts, where does it start, it starts with goodness. God made it, and it was good, and it was good, and it was very good. Then of course, there is—sin enters and now it's not so good. All of Scripture is God returning back and recreating back to that good again. I think it's just a much bigger narrative. It's also very relational. And redemption is relational—that you pay a price to get someone back, and God wants to get us back. God wants to get us back to good. He wants to return to Eden, and the new heavens and the new earth illustrate that. So I just wanted to speak a much broader Christian story.
Michael Zeigler: When you start with that bigger picture of God's work to make good, to win back, to transform what had fallen, how does that shape your ministry at your local church?
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah, that's a good question. We are in a metropolitan area. We're kind of in an urban-suburban context. I heard a gentleman speak recently named Justin Beene. He works in urban ministry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he reminded me, he said, "God loves cities. Nineveh, Rome, Jerusalem"
Michael Zeigler: Jerusalem.
Jeff Cloeter: "Ephesus, Corinth. The whole mission goes to cities where people live."
Michael Zeigler: That's where the people are.
Jeff Cloeter: That's where people are. So God loves cities and we have ... and I would say, even Christians, we can kind of, "Oh, that's the city. Look at all the problems."
Michael Zeigler: Dirty.
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah.
Michael Zeigler: Crime.
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah, it's just that's where the issues are.
Michael Zeigler: Let's just move out. Let's go further out.
Jeff Cloeter: Yep, and to me, and this is a bit convicting. This is a generality, but if you look at some of the biggest ministries, the biggest churches, the biggest church buildings around the country, they're generally in suburban areas. And that's convicting because it makes you wonder, is the Gospel really for affluence? Is that the correlation? Now, certainly God is active even where we don't see Him, but it's convicting to me to say the church needs to be where the people ... the church needs to see the beauty of cities, to see not the problems but the opportunities. And not just cities, but I would say rural areas, too. Rural America is struggling in many parts of our country. Can we go to the beat up and the beat down, not just—well, suburbs have their issues, too—they might just be hidden better. But can we go to the people that we often overlook?
Michael Zeigler: Who seem irredeemable.
Jeff Cloeter: Yeah, irredeemable, because that's who Jesus was after. So we need to be there, too. So it animates my ministry in my church because we want to go, and we aspire to go—do we always do it well, but we aspire to go to places where no one else is. That becomes kind of a conviction, but it also becomes an inspiration for us.
Michael Zeigler: If you want to learn more about this, check out the book, Loved And Sent, by Jeff Cloeter, and see how these two words can help you see who you are and why you matter.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" Public domain.
"Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)