July 14, 2014
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
The “Parable of the Weeds” is part of a cluster of parables that has to do with God’s kingdom (and the Year A Lectionary is dealing with these various parables one at a time). It is also one of several that has to do with seeds and agriculture. Over and again Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God is never quite what you might expect. The Parable of the Sower made clear that although the “seed” of God’s Word is powerful enough to change the world, it is at the same time oddly vulnerable, too. It can be snatched away by birds, burned up by the sun, choked by thorns. The parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast indicate that the kingdom is far smaller and more subtle than you might guess. The kingdom is the single most powerful and important reality in the world, but it does not have the flash, glitz, or razzle-dazzle you ordinarily associate with mighty movements of history.
Much of that is shocking. Apparently God would rather work behind the scenes. Apparently changing people’s hearts is a quiet and gracious business more than a noisy and forceful affair. What’s more, the growth and spread of this kingdom is going to extend throughout the world but it may never exist in a pure state. To make that point Jesus tells a parable. A farmer carefully plants an entire field of wheat. His furrows were pin-straight, his wheat seed was of the finest quality. He did it all right and went to bed that night content that he had done everything he could to ensure a bumper crop some months down the road.
But while he took his well-earned rest, an enemy came in and, with equal care, planted weed seed in the same furrows. Worse, the weeds he planted were something called “darnel,” which looks almost identical to wheat. But if you don’t separate the darnel from the wheat before grinding, the resulting flour will be inedible. So once the wheat starts to grow, the farmer’s hired hands notice the presence of the weeds, and what’s more, they see it growing almost as uniformly as the wheat itself. This was no accident, no stray spores that drifted in on the breeze one day. This was an act of agricultural terrorism!
In a huff the servants ask the master farmer if he wants them to go and start plucking out these dastardly weeds. It was the logical thing to do. The last thing you wanted was for the darnel to go to seed because then even next season you’d still have a field full of weed seeds. But contrary to all agrarian good sense, the farmer tells the hired hands to leave it be. They’d sort it all out later at the harvest. If Jesus’ listeners knew anything about farming (and presumably a lot of Jesus’ audience did know about such things), then the shock of this story is the idea that any farmer would do nothing about such a situation.
But that’s probably a clue that this story is not about agriculture but instead it’s about theology. Overall, it is not too difficult to figure that out. Nevertheless, the disciples later come to Jesus to ask, “Could you spell things out for us a wee bit more?” Jesus obliges, but you can almost detect a little weariness in the rather dry way that Jesus connects all the dots for them in verses 37-43.
Have you ever told someone a joke that this other person just didn’t get? If so, then you know that your then trying to explain the joke pretty much takes all the fun out of it! Indeed, have you ever seen someone burst out laughing once you finished explaining a joke? Generally what happens is the other person responds to your explanation not with a laugh but by saying, “Oh, now I get it. Heh-heh. Very funny.”
But that was not the reaction you were looking for when you told your joke in the first place! So also in Matthew 13: there’s something a little dry about Jesus’ having to spell things out so simply for the disciples. The punch of the original story gets lost a bit. In fact, if you read only the parable, then in the end you are left wondering just what it might mean to let the wheat and the weeds co-exist and grow together for now. You ponder how and why pulling up the weeds would threaten also the wheat. And if you see that the wheat stands for the true members of the kingdom and the weeds for imposters, you end up wondering how you should behave when forced to grow right alongside of nettlesome folks.
That’s what happens if you read just the parable. But once you get finished reading the explanation, you are tempted to forget some of that and instead start rubbing your hands together because you feel so satisfied to know that all those annoying, “weedy” folks will get their comeuppance in the end. Suddenly you start to wonder less what it means to be wheat in the midst of weeds and start to focus more on that coming day when the roll is called up yonder and the weeds get burned at long last. After all, Jesus’ closing image of the righteous shining like the sun is stirring (all the more so when set to music in that well-known piece from the oratorio Elijah). It turns your thoughts away from the field and to the future.
But I want to suggest that although we accept and must understand our Lord’s explanation for his own parable, we need to be cautious about not missing the punch of the parable itself. Because the parable is not so much about all wrongs getting righted by and by but is more about our lives right now. At bottom this parable is about patience. This parable is not first of all about what will happen to the weeds at the last day but about how the wheat has to react during all the time that leads up to that final sorting out.
The farmer in the parable seems to believe that the weeds themselves won’t threaten the wheat–the two are capable of growing together. The weeds do not threaten the wheat but instead the threat comes from how we react to the weeds. The danger is not being in the presence of sin but trying to root out all the sin we see. But that means that the real challenge presented to the church by Matthew 13 is finding the strength to resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands and start yanking up every sinful thing we see every time we see it. As Robert Farrar Capon points out, when in verse 30 the master tells the servants just to “let” things be, the Greek word used there is the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere for “forgiveness.”
Those who have ears to hear . . .
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
Bearing with the imperfect, putting up with what is annoying and sinful, and just generally trying to deal with life’s less pleasant realities in a gracious, gospel-like way is tough. It even seems at times to be counter-intuitive, the very opposite of what you think you should do. If we are holy folks, then whenever we see something we think is less-than-holy, shouldn’t we attack it? Isn’t total purity the goal, and so if we see something that sullies purity, doesn’t being a child of the kingdom require you to hack away at it, to pour some theological Ortho Weed-B-Gone on it?
Apparently not. Yes, there are other words of Jesus, other verses in the Bible, that let us know that confronting one another in love surely has its place in the life of the church. But Matthew 13 reminds us that even so, patience sets the tone. And the fact that the word for “let it be” is related to the word for “forgive” may also hint that this is finally about grace. But if so, it’s about the way grace both forms and informs our patience.
Sometimes we think that patience is a passive thing–it’s what you do when you cannot do anything else, like waiting for an hour in the doctor’s waiting room or being stuck in a traffic jam. These things try our patience, but if we manage to be patient in such situations, it is in no small part because we have no choice. If we could do something to hurry the Doc along or clear the roadway, we would, but lacking such abilities, we try to be patient.
And so sometimes we see patience as that virtue to which we turn when we cannot, as a matter of fact, do anything else but wait anyway. At other times we think that being patient is an excuse to avoid dealing with the unpleasant. If you say to someone, “Are you ever going to confront so-and-so?” only to hear the other person reply, “I’m just waiting for the right moment,” you might conclude that this apparent patience is actually a dodge, a sign of weakness not strength; of cowardice not courage.
But patience as a kingdom virtue, patience as a fruit of the Spirit, is not passive but in its own way active. It’s not weak but strong. Patience is the power of God’s Holy Spirit to help us stick with God’s program and with God’s gospel way of doing things.
Why is it, after all, that rooting out the weeds may well damage also the wheat? Because when anger, a desire for vengeance, or an insensitive lobbing about of accusations starts to happen in the church, grace gets eclipsed. Compassion dries up. Gentleness is shouldered aside to make way for the strict and stern hand of the disciplinarian. When it seems we are more interested in purity than we are in compassionate forgiveness, forbearance, and understanding, then it feels as though our own roots are getting tugged at dangerously. As soon as we begin to turn the life of the church into an ongoing sorting-out enterprise, we risk losing the very compassion that ought properly to define us as God’s children in Christ.
The Spirit-given fruit of patience is what helps us to strike that delicate but needed balance between anger and despair. Without patience, we are tempted to lash out at sin and sinners. We get angry, frustrated, upset. We start saying things like, “Oh, such things ought not be in our midst!” and then we take steps to ensure that, indeed, such things will no longer be. We don’t want weeds in life and so we start hacking away.
That’s wrong, but so is the other extreme of despair. If it’s wrong to lash out in anger at the weeds of life, it’s equally wrong merely to wring our hands, hang our heads, and start to believe that all of life is nothing but weeds, that the weeds are stronger, and maybe also a sign that there is no hope. That’s wrong, too, because true patience has its own kind of roots, and those roots are sunk into the soil of faith. Patience is strong and focused precisely because it grows out of the strength of our convictions and faith. As such, patience makes us strong enough to hold back, to follow God’s way of grace and forgiveness instead of the world’s quick and easy solutions of vengeance, punishment, and violence.
When one day the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, the light we exude will be the light of God’s grace. As the moon in the night sky shines with the reflected light of the sun, so we will shine only because the glorious light of our God will be bouncing off us. One day we will be bathed in that merciful light. As we try to get ready for that great and glorious reality, we would do well, already now, steadily to illumine the church and the world with that same patient sunshine of grace.
Sometimes Jesus can startle us with the simplest of things. In Matthew 13:38, for instance, when Jesus spells out the parable to his befuddled disciples, he tells them that the “field” in question in this parable is ho kosmos. Most Bibles translate that as “the world,” and that’s accurate. And yet “cosmos” in both English and Greek can also stand for not just the earth but the whole of the universe, the whole of God’s creation. Apparently the scope of where the Son of Man is going to sow his good seed—and, alas, the scope of where the evil one will sow his counter-seed—is not limited but affects everyone. Maybe this is why, after the gospel began to be proclaimed, the Apostle Paul will say in Colossians 1 that the gospel has been proclaimed “to every creature under heaven.” In that same passage, Paul makes clear that Jesus and his gospel affected and applied to not just local concerns but to what Paul again and again describes as ta panta or, loosely translated, to “the whole kit-n-kaboodle”! In other words, even this simple parable is not small and local. These words are literally cosmic in their sweep!
In my neck of the Reformed woods, an English professor named Stanley Wiersma used to delight folks with his Garrison Keillor-like musings on life in Iowa and in the churches of Iowa in particular, all written under the nom de plume of Sietze Bunning. In one of his more indelible portraits in the book Purpaleanie and other Permutations, we meet a man named “Benny” in a poem titled “Excommunication.” Benny Ploegster is an alcoholic who regularly attended church. For three years Benny had been under discipline: first a silent censure, then a more public censure that initially left his name out of the matter. Later it was announced publicly that it was indeed Benny who was under scrutiny. Three years is a long time to work with someone, and so finally Benny’s persistent struggle with the bottle led the church (and God, too, apparently) to run out of patience. So a deadline was set, and when Benny was unable to meet that deadline by cleaning up his act and repenting of his wicked, boozy ways, a date was set for the public excommunication.
Benny attended his excommunication.
He even stood in the midst of the congregation while the pastor solemnly read the standard form that designated Benny a “Gentile and a publican” with whom the church was to have no further association. Benny stood there and heard it all. As Wiersma put it, “It was not in protest, although the dominie [pastor] thought so, and it was not in stupidity, although the congregation thought so, that Benny stood up for excommunication and until he died of cirrhosis he attended as regularly as before. He did not partake of communion. Like Jacob wrestling with God and saying, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ our Benny was wrestling with us and with God. Though he lacked Jacob’s talent for articulation, his standing said as explicitly as its verbal equivalent: I will not be cut off as though I do not exist. I am God’s child, all right, God’s naughty child, but still God’s child: Benny. And what of us who attended church regularly out of custom and superstition and without much desire and without any questioning that we had a right to be there? What of us who had never wrestled like Benny? Though he did not intend it, by standing up to be excommunicated, was Benny excommunicating us? The church is gone now, the lumber used for a cattle shed, but in memory the place where Benny stood is forever holy ground. Was Benny excommunicating me?”
Sietze Bunning, Purpaleanie and other Permutations. Middleburg, Iowa: The Middleburg Press, 1978, pp. 55-57.
Genesis 28: 10-19a
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
We say that we believe God is everywhere. You cannot escape the eyes of God. There is no place you can go where God cannot still find you, get at you, see you. We believe that. Or we say we do. We say that God is everywhere in general, and yet sometimes we behave as though God is nowhere in particular. We come to church anticipating some kind of encounter with the living God. Yet sometimes, whether we felt the nearness of the Almighty at church or not, we often go home, sit down to Sunday noon dinner, and proceed to complain about the music or disparage the way Mrs. Henderson raises her children (“They were all over that narthex, just running wild!”) and we do this as though we think that even if God is sitting around our dinner table, he doesn’t hear what we say.
We believe God is everywhere and yet we confess that there are times when we hope to high heaven we won’t run into our elder or anyone else from church. God himself may or may not be seeing us, but there are moments when we’d just as soon not have any of God’s more official-looking representatives spot us.
At times we are desperate to find God and at other times we’d just as soon not run into God, and it’s usually our circumstances that determine which way we feel at any given moment. For instance, if your name is Jacob and you recently hoodwinked your father and brother, necessitating your taking it on the lam so as to save your own neck, then you maybe hope you won’t run into God in whatever place ends up serving as your hideout. If you have the misfortune of bumping into the Almighty anyway, you have a pretty good idea of what you may be in for (and given your recent crimes, you suspect it won’t be pretty).
Prior to Genesis 28, there is nothing in the Bible about Jacob’s faith or piety. Until now the only time Jacob ever mentioned the holy name of Yahweh was in a story in which Jacob used God’s name to bolster a bold-faced lie. That incident, however, may serve to show how little Jacob knew about the God of Abraham and Isaac. Otherwise we have no examples of Jacob’s praying to God. In fact, at the end of Genesis 28 (in some verses the Lectionary would have us stop just short of for some reason), Jacob says that if Yahweh comes through on the promises made in that dream he’d just had, then Yahweh would become Jacob’s God.
But that last sentence surely implies that as of that particular moment, Yahweh was not yet Jacob’s God. Or at least Jacob is hedging his holy bets.
That alone ought to be a bit surprising. It’s not the only bracing truth of this famous story, though. The first surprise is the fact that once God catches up with this crook on the run, he makes no mention whatsoever of the devious deeds that brought about Jacob’s flight. Yahweh does not judge what Jacob and his mother had done but instead actually promises great blessings to Jacob. It almost like one of those old comedies where a man is terrified to see another person pointing a pistol right at his chest but then, when the trigger gets pulled, a bouquet of flowers bursts out of the gun’s barrel!
God promises Jacob the west, the east, the north, and the south (he could just as well have thrown in the moon for good measure). In return, Jacob gives God a rock! In verse 11 we were told that Jacob picked up a stone and used it for a pillow. Presumably it was not a very large stone because: A) Jacob’s head was only so big, and B) How large a stone could just one person lift in the first place? But after his dream, Jacob takes this same stone, sets it on end (in what the text somewhat grandly calls “a pillar”), drizzles some oil on it, and says, “This can be ‘God’s House’ or ‘Bethel’ for short.”
No sooner does Jacob do this, and the wheeler-dealer part of Jacob’s crafty character re-surfaces. Jacob says, “For now I’ll call this God’s special place. Eventually, if and only if God comes through on what I heard him promise in the dream, then I’ll come back here, let Yahweh be my God, and I’ll even give him some tithes.” Jacob is taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the Almighty. It’s maybe not quite the response you’d expect, but it is typical of crafty old Jacob!
The next day Jacob continues his trip to Haran. Did he think he was leaving this Yahweh God behind him? Or did he believe Yahweh was accompanying him such that he would find lots of other Bethels, lots of other places, where he would encounter God again in future days? We don’t know. The text is silent on such matters. What we do know is that this dream did not exactly mark Jacob’s decisive conversion. There is a lot more wheeling and dealing, deception and craftiness, still to come. God is going to break into Jacob’s heart eventually. But this dream was more like God’s first knock on the door of Jacob’s heart: Jacob opened the door, saw who it was, exchanged some pleasantries, but he did not yet invite Yahweh in.
Again, it’s all rather surprising. But what we have not yet thought about was the content of the dream itself. We know that in this dream, God singles Jacob out as the heir apparent to the covenant promises made first to Abraham and then again to Jacob’s father, Isaac. The language in verses 13-15 is a clear echo of the very same things God had said over and over to Abraham many years before. But what about that image of a ladder to heaven? Is there anything significant about this particular image?
At the very least, it perhaps shook up Jacob’s world a bit. Until then, he maybe thought he was mostly alone, with little more than his own wits to rely on. Now he sees a connection between this earthly life and the life of God’s heaven–in fact, heaven and earth may not be so very far apart after all. Granted the ladder went up, but the fact that Jacob was able both to see and to hear Yahweh lets us know that this ladder was not infinitely long.
Yahweh was not a small pin-prick of light way off yonder, well out of earshot. Yahweh himself did not descend the ladder but Jacob was not exaggerating when he concluded that God himself was in that place. Apparently the realm of God is closer to hand than Jacob had ever realized.
It all served to make Jacob a lot more mindful of spiritual things than had been true during the first 40-some odd years of Jacob’s life until then. True, he still hedges his bet, still puts God on hold a bit in verses 20-22, but he didn’t forget this dream or what he himself promised God. His world had changed. Maybe the old stories about Grandpa Abraham’s conversations with God were not so far-fetched after all. Suddenly it all seemed a little more possible than Jacob had previously believed. He used to think those were just bedtime stories, but now . . . well, he was leaving the door open a crack to other possibilities.
Based on everything we know from the text of Genesis itself, Jacob hardly deserved an encounter with God, much less such a gracious dream vision chock-full of promises. But maybe it’s not so surprising after all. As is so often true in Scripture, the extraordinary things of God come through the ordinary trappings of life. In this case we have a stone, a weary body laid down to sleep, a dream, some oil. Yet it is full of God.
Uncle Laban’s ranch over in Haran was a refuge, an escape from Esau’s fury, the kind of locale to which you go when you’ve got something to hide. Yet Jacob finds God. Or God finds him. Either way or both ways it was an encounter Jacob did not expect. “God is in this place and I didn’t know it!” he said as he slapped his hand to his forehead. He thought he was near a place called Luz but it turned out to have been Bethel all along.
Commentators note that the object Jacob saw in his dream is probably less like some wooden ladder with rungs on it and more like the ancient ziggurat–a pyramid-like stone ramp with chiseled steps in it every few ascending feet. That kind of stairway to heaven was common in the ancient world, and no matter which culture built it, the Tower-of-Babel-like assumption was that if we wanted to get at the realm of the gods, we’d have to climb up this ramp into the skies.
But Jacob wasn’t invited to climb, and maybe we aren’t either. In fact, the wonder of it all is not the God whose shining splendor we see at the top of the ladder but rather the God who makes us jump half out of our skin when he quietly comes up from behind and taps us on the shoulder! Because if there is a “ladder” between God’s kingdom and this world, then its grandest use was not when some Promethean mortal tried to scale those heights of glory. No, the most wondrous use of the ladder was on a starry night long ago when—to riff on a classic George Buttrick image—God himself delicately climbed down the ladder, a swaddled baby in his arms. He dropped that child into a manger and ever since, the proclamation of God’s people has been that the love and glory of God have come down to us.
First, something about what I wrote above about God’s giving Jacob the north, south, east, and west only to have Jacob in turn dedicate a rock to God reminded me of this lovely little Billy Collins poem: Billy Collins reading The Lanyard
Then second, a character sketch on Jacob from Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper San Francisco, 1979) pp. 57-58.
“[In his dream] it wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave [Jacob] but Holy Heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular. Jacob didn’t have to climb his ladder to bilk Heaven of the moon and the stars, even if that had been possible, because the moon and stars looked like jelly-beans compared to what God and the angels were using the ladder to hand down to him for free. Another part of the lesson was that, luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are but because of who he is. It’s on the house is one way of saying it and it’s by grace is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel but the many times great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.”
Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Few people would argue that Psalm 139 is deeply beloved. It’s a beautiful prayer that describes God’s incomparability. The Holy Spirit uses it to provide genuine comfort to people who struggle with various issues. Yet even biblical scholars suggest Psalm 139 is also notoriously difficult to categorize. Is it a prayer of praise? Of confession? Is Psalm 139 a prayer of confession? Of lament? Is it even a kind of wisdom psalm?
In the case of what’s appointed by the Lectionary for this Sunday, categorizing Psalm 139 is even more difficult because it’s just one portion of the psalm. That’s complicated by the argument some scholars advance that the psalm’s heart is verse 19’s prayer that God would “slay the wicked.” That prayer, however, is omitted from this Sunday’s Lectionary.
Thankfully, the portion assigned does include the verses that bracket Psalm 139. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me,” the psalmist begins by praying in verse 1. Near the end of the psalm, the poet prays something very similar: “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” So our text highlights God’s searching and knowing that’s critical to this prayer.
In emphasizing that, the poet shows he knows that God knows human beings perfectly. The Lord doesn’t just know when people get up and when they sit down. God even knows our most secret thoughts. The Lord doesn’t just know when you and I leave and when we come home, when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night. God is also “familiar” with all our “ways.” God knows absolutely everything about you and me.
God, the psalmist insists, doesn’t just hear the words we say when we say them. God also knows what we’re going to say before we even say it. The Lord knows what we’re thinking. So while people can generally hide from other people what they think of them, no one can hide that from God. God knows exactly what people think of each of each other and the Lord. The Lord perceives even thoughts. God is the divine mind reader.
So people may be able to hide things like lust and envy from others. But they can’t hide them from God. God knows our ways. The Lord completely knows human thoughts. People may be able to choke back the words of anger or gossip that creep up to but never actually cross their lips. People may never know what others are tempted to say. But God knows. Before words even move from minds to tongues, God knows them. Human beings may be able to hide feelings of pride or contempt for others from each other. They can’t, however, hide them from God. God knows peoples’ feelings completely.
Yet God doesn’t just know our ways. God also, the psalmist recognizes, knows our way, as it were. God has access to every part of what God creates. “Where can I go from your Spirit?” the psalmist rhetorically prays in verse 7. “Where can I flee from your presence?” Her questions assume a “Nowhere!” answer.
Nothing is inaccessible to God. While 21st century sophisticated travelers can soar far into space and sink deep into the oceans, there are limits to our reach. People are able to break off contact with people by travelling far away from each other. Yet those limits don’t bind God. God has access to both the farthest reaches of space and the lowest depths of the oceans. Even “Sheol,” the “depths” to which verse 8 alludes, is accessible to God. While the psalmist’s contemporaries worried that shadowy realm of the dead seemed immune to God’s blessing, the psalmist insists even it isn’t immune to God’s sovereign rule. Even the darkness, the poet adds in verses 11-12, is not darkness to God. It does not offer a hiding place from God’s sovereign presence.
It’s natural to think of such unlimited divine access as intimidating. We sometimes act as though God can’t read our thoughts, as though God can’t follow us into the secret and dark places. So when we realize nothing is inaccessible to God’s sovereign presence, we may feel stricken with guilt. This psalm may turn out, then, not to be a source of comfort, but of anxiety. We may even beg God not to examine our inner thoughts or pursue us to creation’s darkest corners.
Yet the psalmist has no such compunctions. She, in fact, welcomes God’s intense scrutiny. It’s as if she’s feels she has nothing to hide from the Lord. “Search me, O God, and know my heart,” the poet prays in verse 23. “Test me, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 139 will want to explore why the poet is able to pray these things so boldly. Some possible answers? The psalmist is a kind of moral relativist who believes her life is holier than her contemporaries’, especially her enemies. That seems highly unlikely for someone like the psalmist who seems to have such an intimate relationship with the Lord.
Is the psalmist misguided in his assessment of his life? Is, in fact, his heart darkened by evil thought? Are there actually offensive ways in him? Does his life need correction, even if he doesn’t realize it? If so, we can assume God the judge will evaluate that and point the poet to his ways’ errors.
Or does the poet somehow recognize God’s grace, even though she doesn’t explicitly refer to it? When, after all, God looks on those whom God has saved by grace, God no longer holds their offenses against them. God graciously treats God’s adopted children as though they have no anxious thoughts or offensive ways.
To illustrate the “long arm” of God’s loving reach, preachers and teachers might talk about the immensity of the observable universe that’s accessible to the Lord. Of course, no one knows exactly how large the universe is. Yet we suspect to cross the observable universe alone, one would need almost 100 billion light years. Even with our increasingly sophisticated instruments, “sight” into outer space extends only about 31.5 billion light years. Yet it’s all accessible to our loving God.
Or consider the depth of the ocean. Its average depth is 14,000 feet. However, the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, is about 36,200 feet deep. So it’s much deeper than the combined heights of Mount Everest, New York’s Empire State Building, Paris’ Eiffel Tower and the Shanghai Tower. In part because of the ocean’s immensity, oceanographers have managed to explore only about 5% of it. All of it, however, is accessible to the Lord.
Or preachers and teachers might invite worshipers to remember or imagine being in a cave when the lights were briefly extinguished. Such an absence of light is deeply eerie in part because one can’t even see the hand in front of one’s face. Yet, insists the psalmist, even such potentially terrifying darkness is like light to God.
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.
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.”