This is the written Word of the Lord for the living Body of Christ. Thanks be to God.
Our scripture today uses forms of the word groan three times. That has jumped out to me to form the outline for this sermon. Paul has very helpfully given me my three points.
I have learned since I was a small child about the preferred preacher outline of “three points and a poem,” so I set out to find just the right poem about groaning. Listen to the final stanza of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” written shortly after the death of his wife Virginia at the age of twenty-five, and hear the groans:
Hear the tolling of the bells—
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people—ah, the people—
They that dwell up in the steeple,
And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone—
They are neither man nor woman—
They are neither brute nor human—
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells—
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells—
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells—
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells—
Bells, bells, bells—
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.
[Poe, “The Bells,” (1849),https://poets.org/poem/bells]
A groan, when it is a noun, is “a low, mournful sound uttered in pain or grief” or “a deep, inarticulate sound uttered in derision or disapproval….” [https://www.dictionary.com/browse/groan] When groan is a verb, Merriam Webster says it means “to utter a deep moan indicative of pain, grief, or annoyance” or “to make a harsh sound under sudden or prolonged strain.” [https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/groan?utm_ campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld]
We really don’t need the dictionary definitions; we all know what it is to groan. Scottish Baron John Buchan said, “The best prayers have often more groanings than words.” [https: //writerswrite.co.za/literary-birthday-26-august-john-buchan/] And so, when we read what Paul says in Romans 8 about groaning, and we see it is in the context of hope, that causes a double take. How can groaning be related to hope? How can we utter low mournful sounds of pain or grief or disapproval or strain and yet be hopeful?
Paul sets it up for us well. Look with me at the beginning of our passage, at verse 18. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” In verses 20 and 21, we are told of waiting “in hope that the creation itself will be set free.” And then, of course, we have verses 24 and 25: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
So, as we look at these three groans… these three groaners… these three groanings… keep in mind that they groan in hope, that what causes their groans is not even worth comparing to the future glory that is to be revealed in us.
1. The Groaning of Creation. Read again verses 19-22: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
The image of the communication of creation is not original with Paul. We hear in Job of the morning stars’ singing [Job 38:7], and the Psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, that their voice goes out through all the earth. [Psalm 19:1,4] Isaiah announces that the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing. [Isaiah 55:12] It is Matthew who tells us that, at the crucifixion, the earth shook, and the rocks split open. [Matthew 27:51] It was Jesus who said that if His disciples were silent, the stones themselves would cry out. [Luke 19:40]
I am not a literalist… certainly not with these verses. Paul’s point – like that of David and Isaiah and Jesus – is that the creation of God displays the plan of God. I don’t believe we are to interpret these passages to mean that rocks and mountains “know” things or that they will actually start to articulate; but these poetic passages tell us that creation was intended for something greater than what we see now and that the plan of God is inherent in all that He has made, for God looked on all that He had made, and it was very good.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, “Mountains are nature's testimonials of anguish. They are the sharp cry of a groaning and travailing creation.” [Stowe, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, 1854, p. 300.]
Why is creation groaning? Paul says that creation is in bondage, subject to the freedom-hindering sins of us children of God. Remember, creation saw Eden. Creation heard the morning stars shouting for joy. Creation knows perfection. Creation knows the unsullied plan of our living God.
And therein lies a great key. Creation has hope because, no matter the groaning it issues now, it knows how the story is supposed to end because it saw how the story began. Creation has seen the full picture, the right panorama of the world, the ultimate provision. Creation remembers Paradise. Our view is so limited, so narrow because of our selfishness and our humanity, so drawn to our own pains, so imprisoned by that which makes us groan. Creation groans too, not out of futility but rather straining against that which has for the moment captured the world. Theologian N.T. Wright says:
In God's new creation, of which Jesus's resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it… will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption. [Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, 2009, p.223]
Paul describes three causes for the groaning of creation.
First, Paul tells us that creation groans with longing. Creation remembers and itches to return. Creation yearns for the revealing of the sons of God. So much is hidden now, but creation, which witnessed Eden, pines for what is to come. Once you have tasted Paradise, you cannot help but long for its homecoming. The heavens are telling the glory of God. We shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace, and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before us with glorious singing. It will be a party.
Then, we are told that creation’s groans are groans of hope. Not wishes. Hope. Not fingers-crossed predictions but hope in the knowledge of the creator. Hope in the freedom that is to come. For when Christ sets us free, we are free indeed. All will be restored. God will make all things new, as they were intended to be in the beginning.
And then, in verse 22, we are told that creation groans in pain. Not the pain caused by our abuse, not the pain of disappointment, though our abuse of creation and creation’s disappointment is us are both very real. No, creation groans with the pain of childbirth. As hard as that pain is, it is in the service and anticipation of something wonderful that is to come. Creation, like us, is going through something laborious and excruciating, but something better is on the other side. Something is coming that makes the groans worth it. Our suffering now is not worth comparing to the future glory.
This image of the groaning of creation speaks deeply. Whether or not you understand what Dickinson means about the “thing with feathers,” you need not be a poet, I think, to get what Paul is saying; for your soul, your inner self, your being has also strained amidst the world around you. You can relate to the idea of creation’s groaning and straining against the corruption of our current age in an effort to reveal what God has in store, to give birth to an eternity of joy, to end the futility of our weak human effort in favor of the holy, perfect plan of God. It is the groan of the one who has seen Paradise and is ready to see it again.
2. The Groaning of Believers. Look at verse 23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Yes, we have the Spirit of God. So, what do we have to groan about?
We groan with a groaning world, crying out in hunger and need and civil war and misery. A world where worshipers of all stripes are gunned down in their churches and synagogues and mosques. A world that needs Jesus.
We groan about money. We groan about our aching bodies. We groan about aging. We groan about those kids today, with their awful clothes and their long hair and their rock and roll. We groan about what happens to us, from the lines at the DMV to the betrayal and disappointment we feel from our relationships. We groan about our own failures, about broken dreams, about drunk drivers and telephone scammers, about politicians and Democrats and Republicans, about sexual exploitation, about the lack of civility in our culture, about social media and cable news. We groan about how things just aren’t like they used to be, like they should be. We groan when people do not understand us, when they say things that are harmful to us and untrue about us. We groan because we hurt, physically and emotionally and spiritually and psychologically, because people we love die. We groan because we don’t understand what has happened to us and to the world around us.
And then there is a whole different level of groaning. There are, as Paul says, our groans as we wait for adoption, our redemption. Even when we are contributing to the corruption and sin that this world draws from us, we know that we are aliens, that this world is not our home. We have a hope for something better, something still to come, the city with sure foundations prepared for us.
Have you ever brought a horse home from a long ride? You know immediately when the horse senses that it is close to the barn, to feed and rest and getting that saddle off and being back in its comfortable stall. Straining against the bit and groaning in anticipation, the horse almost involuntarily quickens. As this world becomes less and less familiar, less and less comfortable, we groan more. Perhaps … think about this … perhaps the world is less familiar and less comfortable not because everything was so much better in the fifties or because our joints throb or because of another political nightmare but rather because we are now so much nearer to home. Perhaps, as we edge ever closer to what God has for us, to the redemption of our bodies from those aches and pains and the redemption of our minds from the fears and failures that plague us… perhaps as our souls sense Paradise beckoning the way a good horse knows it is close to the homestead and starts that familiar whinny of joy as it picks up the pace … perhaps we groan as we strain to attain that ineffable, that indescribable destiny that awaits us but is yet just out of reach, though growing closer by the moment.
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” [1 John 3:1-2, NIV]
This world is not my home. I'm just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
I have a loving mother just over in Gloryland.
And I don't expect to stop until I shake her hand.
She's waiting now for me in heaven's open door.
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
Just over in Gloryland, we'll live eternally.
The saints on every hand are shouting victory.
Their songs of sweetest praise
Drift back from heaven's shore
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh lord, you know I have no friend like you.
If heaven's not my home, then lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. [Mary Reeves Davis, “This World is Not My Home”]
There is a theological, ontological debate here that I am not trying to stir up. I am not taking sides on where heaven will be, nor am I suggesting that this wonderful world that God has given us is something to be disdained. Instead, I am reaching deeper, to the meaning of why we groan as we wait for what is to come. Wherever it is, whatever it looks like, however it relates to our present life and place and time, the future glory to be revealed is what Paul is talking about when he tells us that we are groaning as we move ever closer to that hope that we cannot yet see but in which we were saved. Hebrews 13:14 says that here, we have no permanent city. Peter calls us “sojourners and exiles,” and the Message’s rendering of 1 Peter 2:11 is, “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it.” Creation has seen Eden; we have not yet seen Paradise. But like creation, we know it is coming, and like creation, we groan with expectancy, straining against the bondage of this world. When the roll is called up yonder, we’ll be there; we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord, and we groan. [2 Corinthians 5:8]
3. The Groaning of the Holy Spirit. Verse 26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
The most common explanation for this verse is to discuss how we are ignorant and don’t know what we need. Many compare us in our prayers to four-year-olds asking our parents for too much cotton candy or to play in the street or to steer the fishing boat by ourselves. Sermons and lessons about Romans 8:26 tend to describe the Holy Spirit as swooping in to intercept these immature prayers just in time and tell God the Father what we really need.
I don’t buy that. Yes, we are too often childlike and self-serving in our dealings with God. Yes, we can get caught up in the “gimme-gimme-gimme” prayer and ask for things that in truth are not what we need. But where that interpretation goes wrong is in its depiction of God the Father as the gullible one who is on the verge of unwisely answering those childish prayers and giving us those bad things until the Holy Spirit intervenes at the last minute and saves the day. I don’t think that is at all what Paul is describing here.
That said, I nonetheless also went too much of my life misunderstanding this verse. I spent too long thinking that all this verse means is that when we are praying and cannot come up with just the right three-dollar seminary word to express what we are trying to say, the Holy Spirit fills in the blank to make sure our prayer passes muster. That view, too, is so limited, so unformed.
The Holy Spirit is not so much persuading God the Father as He is groaning with us, recognizing our need and our weakness, understanding that we are at sea when we pray from the depths of despair. It is not simply that we do not know how to pray, it is that we are so lost and overwhelmed that we cannot fathom, much less explain, what to pray for. Most often, I believe that is because we are so far into whatever problem has enslaved us that we cannot imagine a way out. When we do not see or even believe in the existence of the exit, it becomes impossible for us to ask God to lead us there.
You have had those times. Those times when you are convinced that there is no solution, nothing that can be done. Whether it has been done to you or you have done it to yourself… whether it is the incurable disease or the unsalvageable situation… whether it is the destroyed relationship or the vanished opportunity … whether it is the one who will never return or the thing that will never go away… whether it is the shattered dream or the broken heart … you know. I mean, you know. You are not stupid. You are experienced. You have been around the block a time or two. This is not your first rodeo. You know the score. You have made your bed and you have to lie in it. If anyone were naïve enough even to suggest that you could have a different tomorrow, you would have no idea what to ask for or how to ask, because you are smart enough to know that this situation is just the way it goes. In today’s pithy parlance, “it is what it is.”
Our God of second chances, our God of renewal and restoration, our God of salvation also knows the score and is neither impressed nor overwhelmed. Just because we are too weak, too human, too short-sighted to see the answer does not mean that God is stymied. When we do not know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. The Holy Spirit knows the Father who knows the Son, who of course knows the Spirit. The Holy Spirit knows the resources that we need, that we have, that we too often fail to call on because we do not know what to pray for. In the words of Greg Nelson and Scott Wesley Brown:
You have faced the mountains of desperation.
You have climbed, you have fought, you have won.
But this valley that lies coldly before you
Casts a shadow you cannot overcome.
When answers aren't enough, there is Jesus.
[Nelson/Brown, “When Answers Aren’t Enough”]
This promise is more than even that our unfaceable crises can be addressed. Not only does the Holy Spirit intercede for us, He prays for us with groanings that are too deep for words. All of the pain, the confusion, the despair, the derision, the annoyance, the prolonged strain that characterize groaning are there in His expressions, in His experience. Too deep for our words, the groans of God embody the discord we feel as we walk through the deep waters, often where He is leading us. The Holy Spirit not only knows our trials, He feels them more deeply than we can ever imagine. And the God who answers prayers knows the mind of the Spirit, and those intercessions have a direct line to the throne.
I think that when God looks across this world and sees the hurt and the need and the disappointment inherent in billions of lives on the planet, He feels a torment that we cannot begin to comprehend.
And yet, even those sufferings, even that anguish of the omniscient and all-loving God is not worth comparing to the future glory yet to be revealed. For we know that all things work together for good for them who love God, for those of us called according to His purpose.
Yet again, groaning means hope. Not that the groans of the Holy Spirit mean that all of our problems magically disappear and all of our aches and pains go away, but rather that whatever we are undergoing now pales in comparison … yea it evaporates in the face of what is to come.
Can it be that there is something to be gained from our groans, from what makes us suffer? Can it be that our suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope? [Romans 5:3-4] Can it be those days when toil and trouble meet are built into our lives by the Father? Can it be that the alternative – which means that God would reach into our world and end all that hurt and disappointment and thus force us to follow Him not out of love but instead out of obligation the way a dog comes back to the master who feeds it – could that be worse? Wendell Berry’s character Jayber Crow tells us that the moment Jesus steps off the cross, the moment He calls 10,000 angels to the rescue, the moment He chooses not to groan and instead displays His unvarnished power and glory to the world, is the moment that we are compelled to follow and no longer have the choice to accept Him in love. Jayber says:
Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t He do it? Why hasn’t He done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now? I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended. And so, I thought, He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and He must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world. [Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 2001]
So, yes, our groanings will continue until that day comes when Jesus chooses to reveal Himself, when our redemption is complete and Eden is once more. Between now and then, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness, and He keeps us singing as we go. When darkness hides His face, when we find ourselves in dark and stormy gales, we rest on His unchanging grace.
When the melancholy menace of the great iron bells rolls, rolls, rolls – keeping time with each hammerfall as yet another nail of suffering is struck – there is Jesus. In the morning when we rise, when dark midnight makes us cry, yes even when we come to die, give us Jesus. Every day, the Lord Himself is with us. And we know that all things work together for good to us who love God, who are called according to His purpose.
You will groan. I will groan. But our sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed. So, rest in your hope. Wait eagerly with longing. We will be set free. Souls in danger, look above. Jesus completely saves. Our pain is real, and it is severe, but it not the pain of death. It is the pain of birth. Paradise is coming.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.