I am not writing to join in the hand wringing or to chime in on the cries of "overreaction" or "not fast enough." I am not writing to comment on testing or flattening the curve or woulda-shoulda-coulda hindsight.
You don't need me to remind you that God is in control, that COVID can stand for "Christ Over Viruses and Infections Diseases." Those messages are all over the internet.
No, I want to write about living in a world of emergency. A world of disaster. A world where things do not go as we want, or as we expect, or as we have planned.
We have been here before, of course, even if it seems like this is a completely novel experience, and even if our governmental and business reactions are different this time, even if our news and social media are making this a different deal, even if whole countries are shutting down.
We have been here before, and we made it through. Do you remember the hackneyed, overused, too-often-printed-on-posters-and-bad-artwork (but still spot on) story about Footprints in the Sand?
We have seen H1N1, SARS, and threats of Ebola.
I am not writing to compare this disease to that one or to minimize this crisis. This is a big deal.
But we all live with crisis - present, past, and impending. We have been here before. And we endured.
We live with anxiety, divorce, failure, abandonment, our own choices that we cannot believe we made, choices made by others that we cannot fathom. Our world is broken. We live with worry, joblessness, threat, abuse, bill collectors, aging, loss. Those closes to us die. Our bodies don't work like they used to. Our friends disappoint us.
We all live with crisis.
The prophet called it the Year of the Locust.
We live with illness, physical and psychological. We live with death, with terminal illness. We live with a constant threat of war, of terrorism, of attack. We live with despair.
We have been here before, and we triumphed.
I have recently lived with disaster, despair, disappointment, crisis, and not knowing what comes next much more closely than I would have liked. That some of it is of my own making is no more comforting than that some of it broadsided me and could not have been avoided. It does not matter where it came from, whose fault it is, how much of it I could have dodged, or whether it was intentional. Blame is neither possible nor productive. The point is that we all have way more experience than we would like living in a COVID-19 world, even if we did not know to call it that before last month, or last week. We have been here before, even if the symptoms are different this time, even if the world has shifted into a gear we have not seen before.
We are all seeing encouragement to stick together and be good neighbors and love each other and take care of the vulnerable among us. I applaud all of that. We church members are all being reminded to rely on God's strength, to remember what we know from scripture - Psalm 91 and Matthew 11:28-30 and 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 and countless other verses. I second all of that.
All I can add is what has happened to me ... what I know.
I don't know if I will get this virus or not. I am not (at least not quite) yet classified in any of the "at risk" groups. The odds are in my favor. None of that matters much right now. My world, like yours, is vastly different than it was one week ago, when I was preparing to fly to Kansas City to watch the Big XII basketball tournament. That seems like a lot more than a week ago.
My experience over the last year teaches me that disaster is survivable, that despair is followed by joy that comes in the morning, that disappointment is met with encouragement, that crisis is not the final word. My experience teaches me that calamity - no matter whose fault it is - is met with the all-consuming love and supporting solace of our omnipotent God.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
I don't mean - at least in this blog - to preach. I am just overwhelmed during this international emergency with recent memories of the pit, of misery and catastrophe, of pain and uncertainty. But my memory is of being carried through. My experience is with that Presence we hear about. My testimony is calm, even as the thunder rolls.
The world we see out our window and on TV does not, by and large, understand. That is on us. They need - oh how they need - to hear how we are carried, to hear about the Presence, to understand about calm. But many of them will still not understand. They will urge you to worry, to fear, to live as though the world were coming to a disastrous and destructive end.
We do not live in fear. We do not live as those who have no hope. We have walked through the valley before.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
Sunday, June 23, 2019
[You may listen to the audio of this sermon here.]
If … then.
If you continue in my word… then are you my disciples indeed… and you shall know the truth… and the truth shall make you free.
If… then… and then… and then.
Jesus answered, “For this purpose, I was born, and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” [John 18:37-38]
Nobel prize-winning British playwright Harold Pinter neatly summed up what has become known as post-modernism when he wrote this in 1958:
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false. [http://www.haroldpinter.org/home/index. shtml]
As followers of Jesus Christ, we must necessarily reject that idea.
Of course, as soon as I say that, we all know that using words like “must” and “necessarily” and “reject” raises a lot of hackles in the twenty-first century church. Must we really take a united stand on an entirely human philosophy? It is necessary for all Christians to come down on the same side of this particular topic? Does Christianity require that we deny what much of the world says is the case?
Yes. Truth exists.
The people in this room know me well. You know that I am not a fundamentalist, not a literalist, not a reactionary purveyor of my own pet interpretations. At least, I hope you know that. I hope you know that I am steeped in the idea of debate, the premise that there are multiple sides to virtually every question and that the marketplace of ideas allows and indeed requires that we freely hear and evaluate a multiplicity of views. I hope that you don’t paint me as narrow-minded.
But I don’t think it makes one narrow-minded to claim and defend the proposition that there is truth, that some things are true and some things are not. And I am in good company when I proclaim to you that there is truth that can set us free.
Many would probably not intentionally choose to wear the label post-modernist or moral relativist, but in fact they should own these names. They trumpet – or at least live according to – the idea that we make and find our own truth, that what is right and wrong varies with circumstances, that the ends justify almost any means. Politics is but one example, and it is too easy a target, so let’s stay out of that. What about how we talk to each other? Again, too easy a target.
I want to focus on what we profess to know. As I have said before from this pulpit, too many Christians gravitate away from declaring knowledge of the truth, choosing instead to talk about what they prefer, how they “read it,” what “makes sense” to them.
Jesus is not shy about what we can, do, and will know, telling His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 13:11] and “If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God.” [John 7:17] Neither does Paul back away, writing to the church that we are enriched by the grace of Jesus in all knowledge [1 Corinthians 1:5] and that, “In Him we have … the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ.” [Ephesians 1:7-9] John tells us that Jesus has made God known. [John 1:18] The concept of clarity or insight or knowledge as one of the key attributes of faith is fundamental, if you will allow me to use that word.
Now, let me give a couple of obligatory caveats. Yes, we see through a glass darkly. [1 Corinthians 13:12] We do not know now what we shall know, nor do we see many things clearly. God works in mystery, and much of it is beyond our ken. I accept and believe, indeed I embrace, the mystery of God.
And yes, far too many – on both ends of the spectrum – abuse this idea of knowledge, claiming to know all the keys and bashing those who disagree with them over the head with their own interpretation. Condemnation, schism, radical fundamentalism on one side, and vicious anti-religiosity on the other arise as a result.
But just because our knowledge is not perfect does not mean that we cannot know the truth. And just because some claim to know more than they do and are rude about it does not mean that we should not seek to know the truth.
That said, there is another huge caveat here. That caveat is the “how.” How is it that we come to know the truth?
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” You have heard that verse 32 many times. It is plastered on courthouses where I practice. Those of us of a certain age sang Ragan Courtney’s lyrics in “Celebrate Life” to Buryl Red’s catchy piano and guitar riffs and may not have thought about how we know the truth that sets us free. We just understood that we were supposed to know the truth and that we were made free. And that music helped us. I am not knocking it. It was great as far as it went.
But many never take it any further. Many never go back to verse 31.
Mathematics and logic both teach us about what are called “if/then” statements, conditional hypotheses where a variable depends on the given, where the conclusion is shaped by a hypothetical. Computer languages have borrowed and capitalized on the idea, as many programs run on if/then logic. We can say, “If you get grades, you will get into a good college.” “If you get good grades” is the hypothetical, or the given. “You will get into a good college” is the conclusion, or the variable. The conclusion depends on the truth of the conditional statement’s logic. If you do not get good grades, presumably you will not get into a good college. Of course, perhaps you are a good athlete or musician, or maybe you are a legacy, or conceivably your parents give a lot of money, or (these days) possibly your family has conspired illegally to get you admitted. The point is that the hypothesis may or may not be correct. It may well be that you can get into a good college with rotten grades. That means the “if/then” statement is illogical.
Sometimes, the actual logic of the world changes. Once upon a time, Europeans would declare with all sincerity that if you sail west far enough, then you will reach the end of the world, and you might just sail right on off the edge. That conclusion was simply wrong, but it took exploration and science and simple experience to disprove it (at least for most people). One of the textbook examples used for decades in universities is this simple construct: If 50% of the population of a city are male, then the other 50% of the people are female. That logic seems impeccable to many of us, yet in today’s world, we know that this statement is routinely rejected, not because the hypothesis is wrong but rather because the conclusion is rebuffed. If you believe that there are more than two genders, then this if/then statement does not make sense.
So, an if/then statement can be wrong if the initial hypothesis is wrong or incomplete or if the logic that leads to the conclusion is faulty or counter to real-life experience. Otherwise, the conclusion depends on the condition.
So back to the big caveat on the truth shall set you free. The “how” caveat. The if/then hypothesis. God’s logic is not wrong. It is not disproved by experience, and it is not subject to changing cultural whims. So the conclusion, that we will know the truth that makes us free, is conditioned on the if statement.
If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
The hypothetical … the condition … the given here is that we continue in the Word of Christ. Please do not hear me as saying that we can lose our salvation if we do not continue, because that is not at all the point. Jesus is not giving a lesson here on how to be saved. Jesus is speaking to people who already believe; their salvation is not the issue here. Don’t get sidetracked by that.
We need to explore the idea of “continuing in the Word,” because in our vocabulary of the 21st century church, “the Word” typically means the Bible. And I believe that reading and studying the Bible are a huge part of what Jesus is saying here. God speaks to us through the Bible, and scripture is the written Word of God. When anyone – whether it is a preacher or a deacon or a long-time churchgoer or a televangelist or a charlatan – starts telling me what is allegedly spiritual truth and cannot back up the statement with scripture, I start running. And I don’t mean having a few pet prooftexts. I mean a systematic understanding of scripture, cover to cover. If you continue in the Word, you learn, and you gain an understanding. Only then do you begin to know the truth.
I hope you are involved in daily Bible study. Whether you are reading the Bible through or simply spending time with a few verses, whether you are using a devotional guide or reading on your own, I hope you are continuing in the written Word of God. I hope you have not decided either that daily Bible study is irrelevant or that you read it once a few decades ago and so you know it. My experience – and the experience of many others in this room – leads us to testify that no matter how many times you read the Bible, and no matter how well you think you have mastered it, continuing study yields multiple benefits and new understandings, and it just makes life better. Ask some others in here if you don’t believe me. Mysterious as it sounds, God speaks through His written word to those willing to listen.
There is a reason we use so much scripture in our worship services here. Believing that scripture is true and authoritative does not make you a fundamentalist; or if it does, then I guess I need to rethink the label I want to wear. All scripture is inspired, God-breathed, and useful for teaching. [2 Timothy 3:16] If you continue in the Word, then are you Jesus’s disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth.
But there is more to this condition, to this “if” statement. If you continue in my Word…
What else can it mean to continue in the Word? There was no Bible – at least as we know it – at the time Jesus said these words, so this verse has to mean more than reading and studying scripture. John tells us in His gospel that the Word became flesh [John 1:14] and in Revelation that the rider on the white horse is named “the Word of God.” [Revelation 19:13] When Jesus tells His listeners that to be disciples they must continue in His Word, He is talking about relationship with Him. While the King James and the New American Standard translations use the word continue that I have been using – “if you continue in my word,” the NIV translates verse 31 “if you hold to my teachings,” and the English Standard Version that I read earlier uses the word “abide.”
Jesus is talking about abiding and obeying, about living in Him and holding to His teachings. If you want to be set free, then you need to know the truth; and if you want to know the truth, you need to be Christ’s disciple; and if you want to be Christ’s disciple, you must continue, must hold to, must abide in the Word, who was made flesh and dwelt among us, who will ride in on the white horse at the end of time and take us home.
How are you doing with that? How is your daily relationship with the Living Word of God?
I have hundreds of people who are called my “friends” on Facebook. I speak to some of them weekly if not daily. There are some who are far away, and I may not speak to them often, but when I do, we can pick up right where we left off. And then there are some whom I might not recognize today if I met them on the street – I knew them somewhere along the way and accepted their friend request, but I have no ongoing real relationship with them.
At various times, I have met Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew, Senator John Cornyn, the late actor who played Hopalong Cassidy, and Alana de le Garza, who used to be on “Law and Order;” but I don’t know any of them, don’t have a relationship with them. They could not pick me out of a lineup or even recognize my name.
I am afraid that is what too many churchgoers mean when they say they know Jesus. They met Him once. They may or may not have had a real experience with Him back in the day, but they have spoken to Him rarely if ever since then. They click “like” on some scriptural Facebook posts and acknowledge His birthday at Christmas time… and they might not know Him if they met Him on the street.
Abiding in the Word does not mean that you met Jesus once, that you were baptized, or even that you claim Christ as Savior. Abiding, continuing in the Word, comes after salvation. There are many baby Christians – Paul calls them “carnal Christians” or “people of the flesh” or “worldly Christians” or “infants” [1 Corinthians 3:1-2] – who have been converted but have never matured. They are not truly disciples, and they do not have much of a taste of the truth. I am not judging anyone’s salvation here; I am talking about what there is beyond salvation that is offered to those who would become disciples indeed.
I don’t think we all want to become disciples, and I think that is a tragedy. I think too many of us are satisfied with being labeled as “those who believe.” Take another look at verse 31 – Jesus is speaking to believers. This passage about what is possible ahead for those willing to continue further is for “those who believed.” They are already going to heaven. When He says, “The truth shall set you free,” He is offering something more, something in addition, something conditioned by an if/then statement in which the hypothetical is whether or not they will continue in His Word. This is beyond freedom from hell; this is freedom from their traditions that keep them enslaved, relying on their heritage and the dictates of their political leaders rather than on the grace of God. When Jesus says four verses later that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” [John 8:36], He is offering release to those who are resting on claiming someone or something other than God as their Father. In fact, He tells them that they are acting as if the devil is their father. [John 8:44] He is walking and ministering in a world of legalism and judgmentalism. He has just saved the woman caught in adultery. His audience is not made up of bad people; still, He tells them that they are not yet of God, that they are influenced by evil, that they do not yet hear the words of God.
Do you get it? Great as it is, being saved is not the end. Believing in Jesus is the beginning. Jesus turns to believers and says, “Here is what’s next. Continue in my Word. Be my disciples.” Jesus offers us so much more. I stand in this pulpit and preach to Christians, to those whose eternal destiny is secure but whose tomorrow is in turmoil. The gospel is about more than just the sweet by and by. Jesus offers to them and to us freedom from what enslaves us, from what terrorizes us, from what burdens us. And this audience does not want to hear it. This chapter ends with them picking up the very rocks they had moments before intended for the adulteress and throwing them at Jesus. [John 8:59]
How are you doing with abiding? Jim preached a series of sermons about the fruit we bear that evidences our abiding. Do we hear the words of Jesus? Do we seek to be His disciples indeed, to know the truth? Or are we satisfied with our initial label as “those who believe?”
How are you doing with obedience, with holding to the teachings of Jesus?
If you are convinced you know the truth but it is not setting you free, perhaps you need to examine your if/then logic. Is what you believe to be the truth a result of your discipleship, which in turn flows from continuing in the Word of Christ?
If you continue in my Word, if you hold to my teaching, if you abide in my Word, then are you truly my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Today, I am to be ordained as a minister of the gospel. You know that my call is not as a full-time pastor. It is as a visible Christian in the world who takes the opportunity to preach and speak publicly as it becomes available. My call is about abiding, about obeying, and about preaching the truth.
And I cannot preach truth if I start with what I think is the truth. I have to start with the Word of Christ, the Word of God. That means I have to know what this book says — all of it, not just the verses I learned in BSU or Vacation Bible School or mission trips—and what it means. I have to spend time in it. And when I stand to speak to you or to any congregation, any truth I choose to share must spring from the Word in which I have continued.
It also means that I have to continue in His Word in other ways. In relationship. In obedience.
You are wasting your time if you come to hear an important, relevant, life-changing spiritual word from someone who is not truly a disciple of Jesus. You can hear a better oration by pulling up a TED Talk on the internet, and you don’t even have to leave your den. You can be more entertained from the stage or screen, more enthralled by a magic show or a concert, more educated by a lecture. No, you are looking for the truth, because you want to be set free, because you have read somewhere that when Jesus sets you free, then you are free indeed. And you cannot know the truth if it is not based on the Word, if it does not come from a disciple. And I cannot preach it if I am not one of those disciples, if I am not continuing in His Word. For only then will I help others continue in His Word.
Jesus said to those who had believed Him, “If you continue in my Word, then are you my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
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.
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I am not writing to join in the hand wringing or to chime in on the cries of "overreaction" or "not fast enough." I am n...
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