18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The story told in Acts 2 says that the disciples were gathered together when they heard the sound of a great wind blowing through the city. They then saw what looked like tongues of fire, whatever that might look like, split and land upon each of the disciples and they were able to speak different languages. The people around them heard what these 120 disciples said in their own native tongue. Surely this was a significant step forward for spreading Christianity throughout the world.
This weekend we unofficially kick off the summer of 2015! Campouts, BBQ’s and road trips do abound and have already become the new norm. We have even had a couple of ladies making unrelated trips to Europe already and I want to welcome them both back to our fellowship today. I spoke with Jenifer a bit ago and she shared with me about her trip and I decided to show off my vast language skills by addressing her in the native tongue of the country from which she has just returned, and I did so flawlessly. And when I did this I realized that in that moment I too was filled with the Holy Spirit like the disciples on Pentecost. I then spoke with Lois about her trip to France and I used the one French phrase that I know to try to impress her. But she said something back to me and it all sounded like gibberish to me, so I can only assume that my gift is now gone. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that Jenifer was traveling to England.
The Holy Spirit does much more than provide the gift of language translation. Our scripture for this morning focuses on a different kind of interpretation, an interpretation that crosses over not only cultures, but from person to person, from person to creation, and from the entire created order to the divine. And today we are going to learn to listen to the groanings of the good things that God has made.
As many of you know, I took some classes in Richmond this year and finished those up about a month ago. Since completing my studies I have started two books, but I have yet to finish either of them. I’ve found a few other things to keep me busy. I’m probably not the only one here today that has started a few outdoor projects since the weather has taken a turn for the better. I tend to begin many projects and occasionally I even complete a few of them! Listen for a common theme here. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I dug an 18” deep, 60’ long trench for an electric line out to a small shed, which is now functioning well. We also determined that we would put out an additional raised bed garden this spring, so I gathered materials and built a 4×10 garden. Of course, I needed to do a fair bit of leveling to make this location suitable for a garden, otherwise all of the topsoil would wash away. Those two projects are complete!
About two weeks ago I started working on a play house for my children. I wanted to build it up off the ground so we could have a sliding board coming off the side, so I got some 6×6 posts and began digging post holes. Six of them. And all of my sources online said that I needed to dig down 36 inches to pour a footer below the frost line to keep these posts from heaving in the freeze and thawing process. But as I was digging my sixth and final 36” hole, my backyard neighbor, who is a contractor, was chatting me up over the back fence. I joking called out to him, “With global warming these days, how deep do you think the frost line is? 18” below the surface?” He thought that would be deep enough.
So this past week I finished digging my postholes, pouring my footers, and building a deck that will hopefully one day be a playhouse for the children. And there was a small work project here at the church that you may have noticed when you pulled in today. Along the south entrance to the church parking lot we had a flower bed of creeping juniper. I googled creeping juniper and found an article that opened with this phrase: “If you’re looking for a low-growing ground cover that thrives on neglect, give creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) a try.”
The author of that article was so right. Our creeping juniper had been neglected and boy did it thrive! So our church council decided that we would dig out the old juniper and replace it with something a little more manageable. So I showed up Tuesday evening with my shovel, a pickax, and the posthole digger, ready to get to work. I was very glad to see that someone else had brought a little heavier digging equipment, which made the job a lot easier.
What do all of these projects have in common? Each one involves digging. A month of digging leads to one sore pastor.
Two Fridays ago I traveled with a group of pastors from Rockingham and Augusta Counties down to Hickory, NC for a series of meetings. I rode in the back seat of a 15-passenger van with two other grown men for a little better than five hours. And when I finally got out, stumbling from the back to the door, I exited right behind a soon-to-be retired pastor who I believe is about 80 years old. After spending the previous day digging postholes, I stepped out of that cramped van and let out a huge groan. The 80-year-old said, “If you hurt that bad now, just wait until you get to be my age!”
We all know what it means to hurt; some know all too well. Maybe you hurt because in the last month you have dug your way to China and back. Maybe you hurt because your body is breaking down and arthritis is setting in. Or maybe you have some kind of illness or disorder that causes you to function at less than 100%. We all know what it is like to experience physical pain.
Or perhaps your pain isn’t of the physical kind. Maybe that person that you were counting on spending the rest of your life with just decided that they don’t love you the way you love them, and they told you so. Or maybe you look out on the world and you hear stories of natural disasters and human mistakes that cause the suffering of many people. The earthquake in Nepal continues to devastate many. There was an oil spill just this past week in California near Santa Barbara where a reported 105,000 gallons of oil were lost near a popular beach. That might change more than just a few Memorial Day vacations. Think of the people in the fishing and wildlife industries along the Gulf of Mexico that are still losing business from the BP oil spill of 2010. The loss in the fishing industry along the Gulf was in the billions of dollars, and over 310,000 people in the oil industry in Louisiana were left without work when the oil rigs were shut down. Both the economic and environmental impact of oil spills is huge.
I can only speak for myself, but when my body hurts constantly, my entire being suffers. I can’t focus, I can’t think, I can’t work, and I can’t pray. My physical suffering leads to spiritual suffering as well. And while I don’t want to speak for everyone, I don’t think that I am alone. Our physical bodies are connected to our spiritual selves. We cannot separate our physical bodies from our spiritual souls, to do so would fall into the heresy known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism says that the body and the earth are bad and that only the eternal soul is good. But even worse for me is not when my body hurts – I can handle a little pain. The worst thing for my spirit seems to be when others are suffering and I can’t do anything about it. I look out on the world and I see all of the pain and suffering of others and I just say, Why, God? Often I don’t even have the words to say. All I can do is groan.
Our scripture for this morning suggests that groaning is the appropriate response when we experience pain and suffering. Paul writes this letter to the church in Rome knowing very well that these Roman Christians are human beings and therefore going to experience pain and suffering like everyone else. So the first thing that Paul does is he just names it. He names human suffering as a problem. He doesn’t try to explain it away and he sure doesn’t blame it on a lack of faith. But even most importantly, Paul acknowledges that this is not the way God intended the world to be.
Look at verses 20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
The word we translate as “creation” is ktisis, which refers to anything that has been created. Paul could have used a different word if he was speaking specifically of the earth or another word if he was speaking of human beings, and yet another word if he was thinking about animals. But he uses ktisis for a reason. Ktisis, creation, seems to be intentionally used to contrast with the Creator. There is a Creator, and that which the Creator has made is creation. It is ktisis. Paul is acknowledging that all that God the Creator has made is now under bondage to decay. Human beings, animals, the earth itself is decaying. But this was not God’s intention. The decay of creation is a result of the fall of humanity.
Let’s move on to the next two verses: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”
Paul can’t think of any pain worse than childbirth, so he says that all of creation has been groaning as if it were giving birth. This may have also been a reference to the Fall because Genesis tells us that Eve’s punishment for disobeying God is the pain of childbirth. But notice that Paul says that “we,” a reference to Christians, are groaning. Oh, you became a Christian? That’s great news. But you will still have pain and suffering.
In this we also find a critique of Gnotsiticsm because what does Paul say we are groaning for? The redemption of our bodies. Not the escape of these wicked shells, but for these bodies to be made well again. Paul goes on to say that in our weakness, while we are suffering and in pain, when all we can do is groan, we don’t even know how to pray. Like I mentioned earlier, our physical and spiritual lives are connected. And when one suffers, often so does the other.
But here is the good news. When we suffer, when we experience pain, when we don’t even have words to speak and all we can do is groan, we are not alone. It is in this moment that the Spirit of God groans with us.
I find this to be one of the greatest mysteries of the Bible. It seems like when we are at the lowest times and in the sewers of life, this is when God is most present with us. The Beatitudes of Matthew 5 say things like blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the persecuted. How do you figure? When things don’t seem to be going my way, I’m blessed?! I’m not the sharpest guy in the world, but something doesn’t add up.
I don’t think that God causes our suffering, our pain, or our groaning. But the Bible tells us that God is there with us, groaning beside us. I don’t think God isn’t any closer to us when we suffer or when we are in pain, but it is in these situations that we see our need for God.
I think we make a mistake if we stop reading Romans 8 where the lectionary stops because Paul wraps up this chapter in a beautiful way. Beginning verse 31:
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things [suffering]? If God is for us, who can be against us? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If God is for us, who can be against us? Oh, they can be against us, but to what end? God is going to win, and I want to be on God’s team. So what does that look like?
The Mennonite Church has a very simple vision statement that says that we are called to participate in God’s ministry of healing and hope. I could not come up with a better understanding of what we are called to do and who we are called to be in this broken and groaning world filled with broken and groaning people. We are to be God’s agents of healing and hope.
The word healing can cover so much territory. Maybe we can’t heal people in the way that Jesus could, but we can reduce the suffering of others. This is why you find so many Christians in medical fields and so many hospitals named after saints. When missionaries would go into new countries, they would build two buildings: a chapel and a hospital. This is why we work in relief efforts to places like Haiti, Joplin, and Nepal. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are to bring healing to a groaning creation.
And you are welcome to disagree with me, but I think that this also means to a groaning earth and animals, not just people. Our first mandate given to us by God in the Garden of Eden, even before the Fall of humanity, is to care for God’s good creation as stewards. I get pretty frustrated when people make environmental issues political. Those crazy Democrats, they all buy into that climate change stuff! Those selfish Republicans, all they care about is money from big oil! No, this isn’t a political issue, it is a Christian issue! And my friends on the left and my friends on the right all care about the environment. Even my ultra-right winged, gun toting relatives want to preserve nature. They love to hunt and camp.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are to bring healing to a groaning creation.
But we aren’t just talking about healing of our broken bodies and broken earth. We are talking about healing broken spirits as well as bodies and spirits are connected. And this is where the idea of hope comes in. As agents of healing and hope, we believe that our responsibility as Chrisitians is the exact opposite of what many other Christians have said throughout the years.
I mentioned that Gnosticism is the separation of the body and the soul, as if one is bad and the other is good. Many Christians fall into Gnosticism and reject any kind of responsibility for the care of others or this planet. But as I’ve said, when my body suffers, my soul tends to suffer as well. We’ve heard people say things like, “What does it matter if this person dies of hunger if their soul isn’t saved?” or “Why worry about this earth if it is all going to burn anyway?” Those are Gnostic questions because they separate the body and the soul.
I believe that when you feed the body you feed the soul, and when you care for God’s creation you care for the soul. They cannot be separated. Why? Because Jesus doesn’t separate them! The Bible doesn’t separate them! Read Matthew 25 and tell me that God doesn’t care about the body.
So where does our hope come from? I don’t want you to misunderstand me this morning and hear me saying that my ultimate hope for healthy minds, bodies, and all of creation lays upon the shoulders of humanity. No, my hope comes from the Lord, almighty maker of heaven and maker of earth. I believe that one day God will make all things right and we will be given new bodies that do not hurt and a new heaven and new earth that does not decay. But I also believe that we are to be God’s agents of healing and hope here today. We bring healing to a groaning creation as best as we can, we bring hope to a groaning soul as best as we can, but we know that ultimately healing and hope comes from our Creator who groans right alongside of us. As Christians, we are called to proleptically embody the eschaton because, to paraphrase Paul, our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us. He not only count on healing and hope, we live it.