Hunger Games. Divergent. The Matrix. The Road. 28 Days Later. The Book of Eli. The Walking Dead. These blockbuster films and television shows have dominated our entertainment world for over a decade now. In these and more, we are introduced to a future in which “the end” has already happened, in which nuclear and environmental disasters have already removed any semblance of the world we know, and in which humanity has either been decimated or consumed with zombie-viruses that turn us all into walking corpses. Other shows, on the other hand, keep us firmly rooted in our own world but partner us with a diverse cast of antiheroes like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Frank Underwood, and Vic Mackey (you can figure out the shows yourself!).
What do the successes of films, shows, and characters like these say about the spirit of modern culture? First, it shows a declining confidence about what the future might hold. Second, it shows a certain resignation to the complexities of life and the ability of the human spirit to withstand all its pressures without some degree of moral compromise. In other words, the future is bleak and no one makes it through life squeaky clean (so don’t even try). Regardless of how you analyze it, this points to a general loss of hope for the world and ourselves. More seriously, this is confirmed by the rising rates of depression and suicide, especially among the young. What, then, should we be hoping for? Where are we going? What are our lives building towards? This is our topic today. Listen up!
“Christianity…comprises more than involvement in human rights struggles, environmental causes, or peace programs. Fullness of life in the Spirit is more than finding Christ in others and serving him there. It is a summons to personal holiness, ongoing conversion, and new creation through union with Christ Jesus” (Brennan Manning, The Importance of Being Foolish [New York: HarperCollins, 2005], 53).
What is this business of new creation? What is the task of ongoing conversion? Typically, we think of conversion as a static event, a moment in time that marks a change in our eternal destiny, a single instant in which we pass from “unsaved” to “saved.” But conversion is far more radical than this, and, in a sense, it’s something that must keep happening to us. Conversion is a total change in how we see the world, the progressive melting of our wills into Christ’s, and the ever-expanding formation of Christ in us. It requires a steady practice, day by day, of Christian virtues. It requires a constant renewal, a continuing transformation that edges us further and further away from the persistent pull of our fleshly nature. Just when I begin to filter my decisions through financial gain, social prestige, security and comfort, or sheer pleasure, I must renew my mind again. I must be converted again to the mind of Christ. In all things, I must prioritize and re-prioritize the Gospel.
Today, Josh will be talking about the Gospel over all things. This is where the Gospel belongs in our lives. But just as we allow a new priority to dislodge its position of primacy in our hearts, we must be converted again. So, listen intently as Josh speaks of the priority of the Gospel.
“When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace…” These are the words of a frequently sung Christian hymn that speak of confidence in the midst of despair. Christianity, and the Bible generally, is littered with spiritual resources for grappling with the heavy clouds of darkness that inevitably settle over our lives. Life with God does not exempt anyone from suffering and adversity. If this were so, God would have to exempt us from life! Jesus himself taught his followers, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
Admittedly, Christianity has sometimes been presented as if God will solve your problems and preserve you from hardship so long as you have faith in Him. This is simply untrue. In the words of that great piece of moviemaking (*sarcasm*), The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” But what do you do when the darkness doesn’t lift? How do you make sense of a God who claims for himself goodness, love, mercy, and faithfulness while he lets those he loves endure prolonged periods of hurt and sorrow?
This is a question that never goes away, which is why this will be the subject of today’s message. I’ve chosen it specifically as a message to our friends, family, and neighbors who are with us today. Welcome! We’re glad you’re here and that you took the time to be our guests on this first Friends, Family, & Neighbor Day of 2019. Please hang out with us afterward during lunch to give us a chance to know you better!
How should we live? A Barna Group survey revealed that 86% of American adults believe that “To be fulfilled in life, you should pursue the things you desire most” (Barna OmniPoll, 2015). Surprisingly, 76% of practicing Christians agreed. A different question on a different poll showed that when it comes to moral truth, that is, those truths that tell us what is right or wrong, two-thirds of Americans either believe that moral truth is relative to circumstances (44%) or haven’t given it much thought (21%) [https://www.barna.com/research/the-end-ofabsolutes-americas-new-moral-code/]. In other words, either the values by which one lives change by the situation or you don’t really know what you value or why.
As Christians, we take our cues from Jesus the Christ. This seems an obvious fact, but clearly the statistics show that this isn’t nearly as obvious to many Christians! What, then, governs how we should live? Is there a reliable, unchanging set of truths that gives direction to our lives? Philosopher of science and atheist Michael Ruse once wrote that our morality, our values and ethics, have “biological worth” and that’s all. They’re nothing more than survival aids that keep us from tearing each other apart. But what does Jesus say? He says that we live the way we do because we love God with all our being, which then compels us to love what God loves, namely, other people. So, what do you think, Christian? Live the way we do out of self-interest and to preserve our society? Or, live from a posture of love that stretches from the God of love Himself to the neighbors outside our doors, known and unknown? This is what we’re talking about today.
What is our purpose for being alive? Why are we here? The problem of human purpose has long haunted atheistic philosophers and scientists. One such atheist, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, noted that there is hardly any comfort in the answers of science for how our universe came to be or any model that might explain the origin of human life. This is because “It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes [of the beginning of the universe−MC], but that somehow we were built in from the beginning …” (Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes [London: Andre Deutsch, 1977], 154-55). So, he encourages his fellow nonbelievers to find consolation in the process of discovery itself. Keep inventing, keep studying, keep solving problems, and this will give you sufficient purpose for your life. But he concludes with this: “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”
Without true and meaningful purpose, human life takes on the “grace of tragedy,” a life that knows deep down that regardless of how we spend our day, who we’re able to love, the good we’re able to do, the problems we’re able to solve, everything is finally meaningless. But if God exists, true and genuine purpose exists. It is the purpose that He tells us we have by virtue of His having designed it. God takes the grace of tragedy and turns it into the grace of possibility, the grace of new starts, the grace of redemption, and the grace of immortality. God gives grace and thereby gives purpose. We’ll be tracking along these lines today with the message from Romans 8.