Proper 11A

July 14, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 28: 10-19a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 8:12-25

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                Because I have commented on verses 12-17 of this text in previous sermon starters (cf. the Sermon Starter Archive for May 13, 2013 and March 31, 2014 on this website), I will limit my comments and observations to verses 18-25.  In fact, I will include verses 26 and 27 because I think they are the conclusion of the thoughts of verses 18-25 (although the RCL includes them with verses 28-39, the reading for next week).

                As I meditated on Romans 8:18-27, it occurred to me that I would not want to read verse 18 to the parents of the 8-year-old member of my church who was killed by a distracted teenage driver or to the relatives of passengers lost on Malaysian Airlines flight 370 or to my wife who has just endured two months of excruciating pain from shingles.  The present suffering of some people is so terrible that any mention of an incomparably greater glory feels like an insult.  I would never want to add insult to injury, so I’d want to be very careful where and when and to whom I read verse 18.

    But insult is not what Paul is about here.  He is trying to give us hope in the midst of the suffering that makes us groan with pain and confusion.  Indeed, he takes suffering so seriously that he pulls out all the stops to help us with it.  The most powerful thing he can say is this: as terrible as our suffering is, it is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.

    Knowing that such a message would be very hard for suffering people to believe, Paul (who was himself no stranger to suffering) proclaims a part of the Christian gospel that many Christians have never heard or understood, namely, the Good News for creation, the Easter message for the earth.  Verse 19 introduces it with these words, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.”

    The whole world of sub-human creation, animals and plants, animate and inanimate, is gazing at the horizon of history, standing on tiptoe with its nose hanging over the edge, eagerly looking for what will happen to the redeemed children of God.  Verse 21 describes what is coming as “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”  And in verse 23 Paul gives a tantalizing hint of what that “glorious freedom” is when he speaks of “our adoption as children” and “the redemption of our bodies.”

    The whole creation waits in eager expectation for that to happen.  Why?  What on earth is this about?  Well, Paul is undoubtedly harking back to the great biblical teaching about the fall of humanity described in Genesis 3.  He is remembering that part of the story that might be called the fall of the earth or, better, God’s cursing of the earth as part of his judgment on human sin.  According to Gen. 3:17, the last words God spoke to Adam and Eve before he banished them from the perfection of paradise were these: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

    Genesis 3 seems to make a claim that apparently flies in the face of a widely held scientific assumption: indeed, science is founded on this assumption.  The world is governed by certain unchangeable laws.  They have always been in force.  If that isn’t true, then you can’t predict anything.  You can’t extrapolate backwards from current conditions to conditions at the beginning of the universe.  If there has been some fundamental change in the nature of reality since the beginning of things, then all of our scientific conclusions about origins are thrown into a cocked hat.  At least that’s how I’ve understood my scientific friends.

    Yet Genesis seems to claim that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of reality.  Long ago, sometime after the origin of all things, something happened to the earth, and it is not now what it was then.  It is not now what it is supposed to be.  Not only human life, but all of nature has been dramatically and tragically affected by the sin of humanity.  Here in Romans 8 Paul summarizes that change in two powerful words—frustration and decay.

    Verse 20 says, “For the creation was subjected to frustration….”  Because creation is now under a divine curse, nothing works the way it is supposed to.  Things can’t achieve their God-given goal and purpose, and so the world is filled with frustration. Indeed, that word “frustration” means emptiness, futility, purposelessness, and transitoriness.  It’s no wonder philosophers and poets and play writes and ordinary people experience life as meaningless and chaotic and terribly uncertain.  That’s the way life is apart from the redeeming work of God in Christ.  The whole creation is subjected to frustration.

    Perhaps worse yet, creation is in bondage to decay, to ruin, destruction, dissolution, deterioration, corruption.  As William Butler Yeats put it in his famous poem on the Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; and mere anarchy is loosed upon the earth.”  Everything falls apart—from skyscrapers to shacks, mountains to molehills, societies to marriages, artistic creations to our frail bodies.  From the entire ecological system to the basic elements of the earth, the law of entropy is fully in force.  The entire creation is in bondage to decay, and everything, including these bodies of ours, returns to the dust of death and decay.

    But that is not how God intended life on this lovely planet to be, and the planet knows it.  So, says Paul in verse 22, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”  What a picture!  All of this frustration and decay is a passing condition, like pregnancy.  All of the groaning of creation is like a woman in the pains of childbirth. One day the creation will give birth.

    To what?  Well, Paul describes that by referring to what he calls “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”  What does that mean?  He captures the meaning in two pregnant phrases—“our adoption as sons/children” and “the redemption of our bodies.”  This talk about waiting for our adoption is a bit mysterious, given the fact that Paul has just said in verses 15 and 16 that we have “received the Spirit of sonship or adoption.  And by that Spirit we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.”

    What can this mean then?  Well, think of it this way.  We are legally God’s adopted children, and we already enjoy some of the benefits of that legal status.  But our adoption hasn’t yet been made public.  We haven’t yet been received into the Father’s house.  Most of all, we haven’t yet received the full inheritance that is coming to us.  We still live among the children of men, subjected to the same frustration and decay as them.  We feel separated from our Father a good deal of the time.  And life is often a poor and miserable thing as we suffer away from home.  But the day of our full adoption is coming, and the creation waits for that because of what that will mean for creation.

    “The redemption of our bodies” is easier to understand, I think.  Paul is obviously thinking about the resurrection of our bodies, that glorious moment when we shall have bodies that are not subject to decay, and sickness, and suffering, and separation, and death.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ assures us that our resurrection bodies will be as mysteriously glorious as Christ’s resurrection body.  ‘Til then, says Paul, we groan inwardly as we await the redemption of our bodies.  And so does the creation because of what our resurrection will mean for it.

    What will our glorious freedom from frustration and decay mean for creation?  Nothing less than a reborn, redeemed creation, the new heavens and the new earth in which nothing but righteousness dwells.  In The Banner, the monthly publication of my Christian Reformed denomination, Dr. John Timmer put it this way:  “The central vision of the Bible is not that one day when we die we go to heaven, but that the earth will one day be transformed.  Biblical hope always has its eyes on this world, for it is the world God made; this is the world to which God sent his Son, not to condemn it but to save it, not to destroy it in a cosmic meltdown but to renew it.  Biblical hope is hope not only for the soul, but also for the body, not only for the individual but also for the community, not only for human beings but also for the earth.  God’s promise to renew the earth is the centerpiece of biblical hope.  Jesus never said that the meek will inherit heaven. He said they will inherit the earth.”

    That renewed earth is what Isaiah pictures for us so beautifully in these moving words of Isaiah 11.  “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat.  They shall not harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”   Isaiah 65 adds this:  “Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth… the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more.  Never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days…. “  On and on the biblical writers go, ransacking their vocabulary to describe the indescribable.

    In this hope, says Paul in verse 24, we are saved—saved from despair in the midst of our suffering, saved from our suffering for a glory that is beyond all words.  We don’t have it yet.  Indeed, says Paul, if we had it, we wouldn’t have to hope.  But if we have this hope, we can wait patiently in our suffering.

    But we can’t wait patiently without help.  Here Paul returns to the main subject of his previous words, namely, the Holy Spirit.  He shows how the Spirit makes abundant provision for us in our suffering, in two ways.  First, says Paul in verse 23, we must remember that we have the Spirit as a “first fruits of what is to come.”  The presence of the Spirit in our lives is a foretaste of glory or, better, a down payment, a first installment on all the glory to come.  The little bit of heaven we experience whenever we live “according to the Spirit,” that spurt of joy, that surge of hope, that satisfaction that comes when we serve God well, that spreading warmth of God’s love in our hearts—all of that is a hint and a promise of the glory of the children of God.

    And in those desolate moments when we don’t experience the first fruits of the Spirit, when life is so difficult and complicated that we don’t even know what to pray and all we can do is groan inwardly, the Holy Spirit will help us in our weakness.  He will pray for us in a very special way—with groaning that words cannot express, with his own groaning that resonates with our groaning and with the mind of the Father.  In that way, the Spirit perfectly represents us in a way that accords with God’s will.

    In those moments when we absolutely cannot believe that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us,” the Holy Spirit is most active in helping us.  That, of course, is how we keep making it through times we never thought we could survive.  And that is how we will finally get to the glory.

    Illustration Idea

                In the science fiction movie, “Contact,” a scientist played by Jodie Foster is given the opportunity to travel in a special spacecraft to make contact with another world.  As her spacecraft arrives at that other world, she is transfixed by its beauty. First awed and then dazzled and then completely enveloped by it all, she repeats in rapt adoration, “So beautiful,” and “I had no idea.”  That’s exactly what we shall say when we finally see the glory of the new heaven and the new earth and the new humanity that awaits our final salvation.  “So beautiful!  I had no idea.”