SCRIPTURE – Romans 8:18-25
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 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. 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. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Groaning Toward the Future
June 10, 2012
I remember when I was a kid living in Indiana, each summer my town would have a parade. It wasn’t a big town, so the parade was usually a string of fire trucks, a few Shriner cars, a clown or two, and then a line of cars that didn’t realize there was a parade that day and got stuck behind it. We always waved to them anyway.
One of my favorite moments was actually right before the parade started. We would take our seats on the curb in front of Wolpert’s Barbershop and turn toward the direction from which the parade was coming. As it approached, we couldn’t see anything but we could hear the sirens blaring and the local high school band playing. We would crane our necks, jump up and down, stand on our chairs, say to our parents, “Do you see it yet? How about now? What about now?” We could hear the sirens; we knew it was close. But we just couldn’t quite see it yet.
That sense of anticipation is what Paul is talking about in today’s passage from Romans. He says, “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” I don’t know if my parents would say I was waiting very patiently for the parade, but we certainly had a lot of hope. And what clued us into the parade’s imminent arrival were the sounds, the sirens and trumpets that announced its approach.
Paul references a sound in this Romans passage, but it’s not the siren of a fire truck; it’s the groan of creation. “We know the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” Scholars believe Paul is alluding here to the Creation story in Genesis, when God curses Adam and Eve for their disobedience. He says to Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to your children.” And to Adam he says, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” So in a way, the earth, the creation bore the weight of Adam and Eve’s sin.
The way we have treated the earth hasn’t helped matters. I heard a speaker recently who has done a lot of work in the theology of ecology, or the spiritual understanding of how we care for the earth. His point was that when it comes to our stewardship of creation, we don’t need a change in behavior, like throwing a few more plastic bottles in the recycling bin. Instead, we need a change of ethos. An ethos is an underlying sentiment that informs our behaviors and beliefs. For example, the ethos of the 80s in America was, “Greed is good.” The ethos of Kentucky drivers is, “Turn signals are optional.”
So what is our ethos when it comes to care for the earth? For too long, the ethos has been, “We’re humans, we’re awesome, and we can do whatever we want.” But now we’re starting to see some of the consequences of that ethos. Author Bill McKibben writes, “The story of the twentieth century was finding out just have big and powerful we were. And it turns out that we’re big and powerful as all get-out. The story of the twenty-first century is going to be finding out if we can figure out ways to get smaller, to try and fit back into this planet.”
So how do we change our ethos? How do we fit back into this planet? As Christians, we turn to scripture to see what it has to say to us about this. That’s where Paul’s words are instructive. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.” The first thing we are called to do is to listen. What is creation telling us? What are climate changes and decreasing natural resources and rising landfills telling us? So much of the world is desperately trying to make a sound, but sometimes it seems as if no one is listening.
Paul says if we listen closely, we’ll realize these groans aren’t an end, but are a means to a new birth. Nothing new is born without a struggle. Scripture references numerous times God’s promise of renewal for the earth. Listen to this vision given by the prophet Isaiah, and judge for yourself how close we are to fulfilling it. He says, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them,” says the LORD.
How far we are from that vision! Weeping and crying are heard constantly. Infants die; children are doomed to misfortune. Harm and destruction are everywhere. These are the groans of creation. But they point to something greater, something new being born. These sounds are the sirens that herald the coming of the parade. This is not how it was meant to be. God has promised something better, something more life-giving than what we have created here on earth.
Those promises are not just for creation, but for us. We are also groaning inwardly as we await the fulfilling of God’s promises in this world. And based on those promises, Paul calls us to have hope. This is not worldly hope, which is more like wishful thinking. “I hope I win the lottery.” Real hope, God-based hope, is a lot harder to sustain. Patrick Henry said, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love – and the toughest of these is hope.” It’s tough because we are putting all our chips on something we can’t know for sure is going to happen. If we knew for sure, Paul says, we’d have no reason to hope. This kind of hope is deeply grounded in God’s promises, in God’s work in this world. And our job, all we have to do, is to wait with patience.
That may seem passive to us. “God is gonna fix the earth, my life, everything; all I have to do is sit back and wait.” I heard a story once about a woman who was on a spiritual retreat but was having a difficult time quieting herself and getting into her prayer time. She saw a monk across the way who seemed deeply still, completely at peace in the moment. Later, at dinner, she said to the monk, “I really admire the way you were able just to sit and wait and do nothing.” And the monk replied, “You assume by waiting I was doing nothing.”
The waiting Paul calls us to do in this passage is not passive waiting. It is waiting with a sense of hope, which stirs us to action to work toward that for which we hope. The word Paul uses for “patience” here can also be translated “with endurance,” meaning that we wait with a sense of tenacity and perseverance. Being driven by this kind of hope kindles in us an ethos of active participation in making our hopes a reality. Actively waiting and living hopefully means constantly listening for and looking for what we have been promised is coming, and then living as if that is a reality. What do we hope for in our lives? What are we doing to help make that a reality?
I love the way Eugene Peterson translate this passage in The Message. It says, “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting.”
I love that! “We are enlarged in the waiting.” Now, I would necessarily say that to a pregnant woman – “You’re looking very enlarged today!” – but theologically it’s pretty cool. As we wait for God’s promises to be fulfilled, we ourselves are enlarged by the hope and the joy God has given us, and our own capacity for hope is expanded. And that growing sense of expectancy is what motivates us to help make God’s promises a reality.
I believe that’s part of the message Christ brought to us: we have a role to play in ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth. So many times when the disciples ask Jesus for help he says, “You have the means. You have the power. You do it. Feed my sheep. Go and make disciples of all nations. You do it.” We are called to intercede by helping bring signs and foretastes of God’s eventual healing of creation. We are called to give people glimpses of God.
So, Paul says to us, we wait because we hope in God’s promises, and while we wait, we live as if those promises are true. If God has promised we are stewards of this earth, we live like we are stewards. If God has promised that we are forgiven, we live as if we are forgiven. If God has promised to redeem creation, we live as if God will do that, treating this earth and each other with the reverence deserved of God’s creations. We live with hope.
The truth of this scripture and all scripture is that the human situation is not hopeless, despite how it sometimes feels. The crises in our lives, both personal and global, are not hopeless. Life is not a despairing wait for an inevitable end. Life is the eager anticipation of the realization of God’s promises, a groaning toward the future. A life lived hopefully means straining to see the start of the parade. It is the perseverance through the struggle of childbirth in order to experience new life. Life is not simply hoping for something; it is hoping in Someone, the One who promised us redemption and called us to work for the redemption of all of God’s creation. “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” Do you hear it? Can you see it? I’ve seen glimpses. A kind word. An answered prayer. An outstretched hand. A reconciliation. A hope realized. Do you hear it? Can you see it? Let’s live it.