Seward United Methodist Church
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In the Wilderness July 19, 2020

Romans 8:12-25

The book of Deuteronomy ends with Moses climbing to the top of Mt. Nebo at the end of the wilderness journey. From there, he sees the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, the land God promised to give to Abraham centuries earlier. For more than 400 years, Israel has lived in Egypt. Moses has never seen the Promised Land. And finally, at the end of his 120 years of life, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, he sees it.

But that’s all. He doesn’t go into the Promised Land. He dies on Mt. Nebo.

I think that’s a pretty frustrating story. I guess I’m too used to the American way: Instant gratification. We expect the story to have an ending, and it had better be a happy one, too! After all, Disney told us that’s how stories should end!

A few months back, Sharon and I were bored in the middle of pandemic life, so we went trolling around Disney+ for something neither of us had ever seen. We found The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Sharon had read the book, but neither of us had ever seen the movie. So we watched it. It was pretty good. It had some really obvious Christian themes for a Disney movie, we thought. And then it had a happy ending. Yay!

Sharon, of course, having read the book, said, “That’s not how the story goes! They all die! The good guys die! The bad guy dies! The girl dies! They all die!” But she did admit she liked the Disney ending a lot more than the book.

We’re frustrated by stories that don’t end. And especially by stories that don’t end well. But that’s not how all stories go.

Well, fortunately, the good news is that there will be a happy ending. But we’d better not get hung up on instant gratification, as we’ll see from what Paul has to say to the Romans.

“You have no obligation to the flesh”, or some translate that as, “sinful nature.” We are freed from the power of sin by the atoning death of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit we receive through him. Sin no longer has dominion over us. But we still live with the presence and influence of sin in our lives. We can still turn away from Christ and live by self, but to do so is death. And we have no obligation to sin, no debt to sin. We are freed by the Spirit to turn away from sin and put the deeds of sin to death in our lives.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Literally it reads, “sons of God.” We are adopted into the family of God. Now, why does Paul say “sons”

instead of “children?” Why so sexist, Paul!? Well, there’s a good reason, and we need to understand the culture and custom Paul is talking about here.

In Roman culture, sons never came of age. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you’re 18 now? Well, then you can make your own decisions.” No, as long as your father was alive, you were under his authority. If you were 50, and your father was alive, you still had to do what he said. And in Roman culture, only sons were adopted. Because a son was always under his father’s authority, he could be adopted at any age, but only if his biological father agreed to the adoption and surrendered his power over his son.

On the other hand, a male slave could be adopted at any time. And some were. Sometimes men with no sons would adopt a favorite slave to receive their inheritance. Oh, yeah, daughters didn’t receive an inheritance, either. If you’ve seen the movie, Ben Hur, this is part of the plot. Ben Hur is a Jewish man condemned to slavery. In battle, he saves the life of a Roman general and is adopted as the general’s son.

Something interesting happened when a son was adopted. He became a completely new person, legally. He lost all his rights in his former family. If he had any debts or if there were criminal charges against him, they were dropped. And he was guaranteed an inheritance in his adopted family.

Paul applies that image to the Christian life. The power that sin and death had over us in our former life is broken. The charges against us are dropped. Our debt of sin is forgiven. And we are guaranteed an inheritance. This is why Paul calls all us, both male and female, “sons of God.” He’s not being sexist; he’s just using an image from the culture to relate the truth of the gospel. We can update it with modern language and say children of God, since our culture is different. But it deepens our understanding if we know the culture Paul was using in his image.

Now we have confidence before God. We call him, Abba. Abba was an Aramaic term of intimacy, “Daddy,” basically. Jesus used it of God the Father, and the early Church continued in that practice. We come before him as children of a loving father, not slaves cowering in fear before a terrible master.

The Holy Spirit is our witness in this relationship. Roman adoption required witnesses. And the Spirit is also the deposit, the “down payment,” that we will receive the rest of our inheritance. What Christ received, we will receive: Glory in the life to come, but trouble and suffering in this life.

We have hope because the glory to come is greater than the present suffering. In this world, all creation is groaning. Paul is referring here to the Exodus event. The

Hebrew people said that God heard their groans as slaves in Egypt as prayers for deliverance. Now all creation is groaning.

In a sense, the world is in a worse place than we are. The world is fallen away from its original goodness because of our sin. We chose our sin, but the creation suffers the consequences. God said to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, “The ground, that is the earth, is cursed because of you.”

But this condition will not continue forever. Paul compares it to childbirth: Difficult to bear but endured for the joy of new life to come.

We groan, too, as we suffer the consequences of living in a fallen world, a world that so often despises the children of God. But the Holy Spirit in our lives is God’s guarantee that he will also give us every other good gift, in due time. The end of the story is certain: The glory of the new creation, not the horror of death and judgment.

But we haven’t received it yet! We are Moses on Mt. Nebo. We can see the promises of God on the horizon, but we’re still in the wilderness. In Scripture, wilderness is a place of preparation and testing. The challenge of the Christian life is to live in the wilderness; to hear the promise, and yet not to receive it.

Living in the wilderness is hard. But you know what: It’s better than living in slavery! Whether that is the slavery of Egypt or the slavery to sin and death. And we are not alone. God’s Spirit is with us in the wilderness, leading us on to the promise.

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