Monday, December 05, 2016

Sermon on Romans 15:4-13, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "The God of Endurance, Encouragement, and Hope"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. How is God, the 3 in 1, described for us in our reading from Romans today? What qualities or characteristics does it say God has? Today I especially want to look at these three qualities, that God is the God of endurance and encouragement and hope. But though we won’t get to all the qualities named in the reading, notice the other descriptions of God as well. Jesus became a servant, to show God’s truthfulness, and the Gentiles will praise God for His mercy.
Verses 4 and 5 show that the first three qualities of God—endurance, encouragement, and hope—are all reflected to us in the Bible, the Scriptures. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, but how would you ordinarily get to know the qualities of a person? Say you meet a new friend, the way you ordinarily get to know them is through personal interactions, time spent together (aka fellowship), and conversation. With more and more people using electronic communication, through phones and the internet, we sometimes miss out on the real face to face interactions. Something is lost from our conversation and understanding of each other. But what about knowing God?
Since God the Father is an eternal, unseen Spirit, we cannot see or interact with Him in the same way. But that certainly doesn’t mean God is unknowable, remote, or inaccessible God definitely and intentionally made Himself known to humanity, in order to save us from the folly of our sins. God has revealed or shown Himself to us in multiple ways. The two most important ways God are through His Word, the Holy Scriptures, and sending Jesus His Son, in the flesh. Many did meet Him face to face, and in personal fellowship and conversation, they got to know Jesus, the exact representation of the Father. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” So the people who lived and walked with Jesus knew Him in this way. But for the Old Testament generations before Jesus came, and for New Testament generations after, its primarily through God’s Word, the Bible, that we encounter and know Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you have a Bible that sits by your bedside. Perhaps on a coffee table, or on a shelf. The best-selling and most widely translated book in world, and yet also the least read. Or mostly. Do we ever think about His Word as the gateway through which we encounter and get to know the living God? And He tells us in Romans 15:4 that the Scriptures were “written in former days for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” The next verse says these very same qualities, endurance, encouragement, and hope, are God’s qualities. In other words, God has a very important message He wants us to read and to hear! He wants us to find His encouragement and hope in these pages!
Yet sometimes it remains an intimidating book. Sections or even whole books of the Bible, can be confusing or difficult to understand. Some may even be frightening, as we heard even in our Old Testament reading about God’s dread judgment against the wicked. But faithful Christians and teachers of the Bible who have gone before us, wisely remind us to keep on the path of learning, and pursue God’s wisdom. Hold difficult teachings with reverence and respect, so perhaps later on God may clarify them to you, but those precious jewels of comfort and instruction that you do understand, hold those dearly in your heart.
Scripture is truly a book of encouragement and hope if we are attentive to its whole message, and heed its warnings about our sin. And it is a message of endurance, encouragement and hope because it points us to Jesus, the Savior from our sin. The message of sin and grace that runs through all the Bible, reaches its climax and resolution in His death and resurrection for us. So if the Bible intimidates you, don’t worry—pick it up and read. A little each day. Use a study Bible or come to Bible class to explore your questions. Pray each time you read it, that God would give you humility and that He would open your mind and heart to hear His teaching. In these pages you will encounter the God of endurance, encouragement, and hope.
What does it mean for us that God is a God of endurance? Endurance reminds us of sports and athletic competition. A person doesn’t win a race or a sports competition if they can’t endure to the end. If you don’t finish a race, or have enough endurance to outlast the other team, you can’t win. The opposite of endurance might be quitting or giving up. “It’s too hard! I can’t go on! They’re too good; we’ll lose anyways.” These are all the voices of defeat and failure. Coaches urge, encourage, and sometimes even yell (!) at their players to endure, to keep up the fight, to overcome the obstacles and barriers, so that they get to the finish line, or compete to their fullest ability. The God of endurance gives His Scriptures to us so that we would not give up. That we would receive His strength to bear through the difficulties, obstacles, and barriers of life. That we wouldn’t give in to the voices of defeat, but hear His voice of victory.
Our struggle is to live and remain faithful to Jesus. To take up our cross and follow Him. Every one of us has their own crosses to bear—and while some of those may remain private and hidden from others, we also are not meant to suffer alone or in silence. God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ to bear one another’s burdens and to encourage each other. Just a few verses before our reading, in Romans 15:2, it says “let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” One of the key ways we care for each other in the Christian church is to build one another up. The Word of God gives us the instruction and encouragement to do it. God teaches us endurance: “we can do all things through Him who gives us strength”. We don’t race or struggle in a vain competition that can never be won or with no end in sight, but there is a finish line. God has promised eternal rewards and rest to those who finish the race by faith in Him.
And the God of encouragement speaks in special tenderness to those who are most crushed and broken in life. Jesus calls the weary and heavy laden to come and find rest for their souls. Scripture tells us that God doesn’t break the bruised reed or put out the dimly burning wick. When our faith is at its lowest ebb, God doesn’t extinguish it or crush it out, but nurtures our faith back into a lively trust. That we have a God of encouragement means that God is eager to speak to our deepest distresses and struggles; His Word brings living hope. There is no shortage of trouble and need around us. Luther wrote almost 500 years ago that everywhere we see a world that is filled to overflowing with suffering and need, and 500 years later, it’s much the same. But he goes on to describe how the Christian responds—we are to fight, work, and pray, and have heartfelt sympathy.
What does this mean? Just as God strengthens us and comforts us by His Word, He transforms us to do the same for others! 2 Corinthians also says this, that God’s comfort extends from us to others in their afflictions and sufferings. And we all share together in the sufferings of Christ. We face the troubles of the world not listening to voices of defeat and surrender, but with God’s voice of endurance, encouragement, and hope. God moves us to fight for the downtrodden and the voiceless, to work tirelessly to build others up and do good, and to pray that He would bless and expand our efforts beyond what we can see or do. God gives us endurance and resilience through the confidence that “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).
You see, knowing God and believing in Jesus, His Son, brings the God of endurance, encouragement and hope, right to us. Through His Holy Scriptures, these amazing qualities of God produce the same effects in our lives as well. And the last of those three qualities is hope. Hope is such a positive word, but one that can seem very wishy washy and weak in our everyday use. In ordinary English, hope doesn’t always mean much more to us than “wishful thinking” or “a hope and a prayer”—like hope is always some long shot possibility. But the Bible doesn’t use the word hope this way. Hope in the Bible is not wishy washy or weak, but more like the word “confidence.” Hope is not yet realized, it’s not something that we see. But it is something we wait for with confidence and certainty because God doesn’t break His promises. Romans 5 tells us that “hope does not put us to shame”. That’s because God is true to His Word—which He showed by sending Jesus (Romans 15:8), just as He promised. 
Hope rests upon this solid foundation: Jesus Christ. All other ground is sinking sand. Christian hope is a resilient, confident hope, closely linked to those other two qualities of endurance and encouragement. We can make it through the difficulties of life because Jesus has overcome the world through His cross and empty tomb. Hope needs a reason or object, and Christ is that reason. He’s the reason for the hope and joy of this Christmas season. God was sending His Son into the world to rescue us from sin and its ills. The Hope that God gives in Christ Jesus is sturdy and it is eternal. It gives us the reason to face life certain of what Jesus has done for us, certain that our sins are forgiven, certain that He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. So in the closing lines of our reading, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” His hope pours down upon us and overflows and increases! Have the joy of sharing that hope with others, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read through Romans 15:4-13. What are the qualities or characteristics of God listed in this passage? Verse 4 describes three or four things that the Scriptures or God’s Word does. What are they?
  2. What do we need endurance for? What is it? What is the opposite of endurance? Read 2 Corinthians 1:6; 6:4. What is our Christian endurance “up against?” In other words, what things do we have to endure?
  3. Why is it so comforting to know that God is the “God of endurance and encouragement”? What does this mean about His desire for us in struggles and difficulties? Does He care?
  4. How can God and His Scriptures bring us encouragement and hope? What is the good news that lifts us up through the hardships of this sin filled life? Why is Jesus central to that message of good news and hope?
  5. In everyday life, why might “hope” be treated like a weak word? How is hope understood in the Bible? Romans 5:3-5; Psalm 119:116. If hope “does not put us to shame” or “disappoint us” (NIV), what does that mean about the certainty of our hope in God’s promises?
  6. God’s work through His Word aims to produce certain qualities among us as Christians. Read Romans 15:5-7. What effect does God produce in our lives together according to these verses?
  7. How does Christ’s service to His people show God’s truthfulness and mercy? What promises had God made to the Jews, that were shown true in the servant life of Jesus?

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