Our Bible Study lessons this month have illustrated the power of Christ to transform our lives from an inward, shackled, dead-end existence to a life of purpose. We find in Christ’s work the freedom to give up things that have held us back (January 1), the knowledge that God has a plan and purpose in mind for those he loves (January 8), the desire to embrace others as brothers and sisters in Christ (January 15) and the assurance that even in difficult times, God will always be very near (this Sunday).
In Romans 8, Paul echos the Old Testament prophets when he says God doesn’t break his promises or abandon his people. In fact, through Jesus, we are absolutely integral to his plan for all of creation! But the old adage holds true in the life of faith: anything worthwhile will also include challenges and even a little pain. Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out how, through Jesus, God has created a way forward for people who are otherwise defeated by the law – people like you and me. Through Christ, we are gifted a brand new life in order to participate in God’s making all things new!
Understanding what comes before our focal scripture will be helpful in teaching what God has in store for our classes to hear this Sunday.
In chapter 7, Paul has become very honest as he describes how he struggles with sin – sin the law has made so evident that it feels like a death sentence. The law helps him understand that sin is wrong but his “earthly flesh” can’t resist it – can’t help but to sin again and it leaves him in a state of helplessness; ready to give up.
However, chapter 8 offers a big corrective to this helplessness we all experience. The law is correct – we are never going to be right before God. Sin is too much a part of our lives and in our world. Those who think they can be “good” and keep the law end up being self-focused, concerned about themselves and unable to carry out their critical role that God has for them in the redemption of the world. Self-righteous people are a turn-off to others who recognize their helplessness before the law. They are not a living picture of the gospel at work!
For those who are able to admit their helplessness, who are at the end of their rope, the life saving and life altering gift of Jesus is their breath of new life into dry bones. People who admit they are broken are a living picture of the gospel at work!
Attention to God gets us outside ourselves; living for others. The Message version says “Focus on self is the opposite of focus on God.”
When the gospel is embraced, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives which help us interpret everything through the lens of Jesus’ life. We become God focused. Sin will still happen but when the limitations of sin rear its ugly head, the life-giving work of God in Jesus is there to off-set and give us reassurance.
We are not going back to our old way of life. Our new life does have purpose. “We experience life on God’s terms” – we are no longer slaves to the law that reminded us how defeated we were. “We are more than conquerors.” (Romans 8:37) We are forgiven. So don’t wallow in self-pity. Romans 8 :12-14 in the Message reads:
“God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!”
Through Jesus, God is birthing a new thing through those he has called. Everything in creation is sensing this, Paul says, like a pregnant mother, who knows she has to go through the pain of childbirth in order to experience the joy of a new life she helped create.
These “birth pangs” or “labor pains” bring us to our focal scripture. Paul wants us to remember that the birth of something new also means the death of what has been. The old way will not go quietly. Whether it is our old, sinful nature or the communal sin that favors some and excludes others, change for something better is painful. Giving up control in order to embrace the freedom of God’s “something new” isn’t always easily embraced. As Martin Luther King pointed out, sometimes Christ followers are called to “trouble the waters” so that what once held dominion in our world can make room for a new way. Hopefully that new way is the Kingdom of God that fully gives authority to God and freedom to all of his creation.
So, what are the labor pains that we endure as Christ followers? What are the labor pains that our world endures when the tension of what is (our sinful nature) and what should be (a time of peace with Christ as King) are realized?
Do these labor pains embolden us or do they make us doubt God’s promise? Likely, these pains bring about both reactions in our life. Life is not guaranteed to be easy for anyone. Doubt is a normal part of life and does not indicate a lack of faith. Often, it indicates a robust faith. A resigned life that gives up on God and on hope is the absence of faith.
So, Paul, knowing that God’s people will endure trials, concludes with a grand message of hope for we who “trouble the waters” on behalf of the redemptive purposes of God. Truly, Paul says, nothing will separate us from God’s love. Nothing!
Here are two video possibilities to use in conjunction with your lesson:
False Narratives about God’s Love, with James Bryan Smith
First six minutes, in particular. The author of The Good and Beautiful God series describes his struggles of believing false narratives of a God.
Blessed is the poor in spirit. (9 minutes long)
Blessings as you facilitate your class in experiencing God’s love and moving them to trouble the waters in Christ’s name!