May 14, 2018
The Pentecost B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 2:2-21 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 8:22-27 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 94 (Lord’s Day 34)
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
Well before Jesus ever preached his first sermon, there was John the Baptist. Long before Jesus ever uttered a parable or healed a blind person, there was John. John had come to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus. And when John preached about this great and coming One, he talked a lot about the Holy Spirit. Everybody who came out to see John knew that chief among the spectacles they would witness would be baptisms. They hadn’t nicknamed John “the Baptist” for nothing, after all. Baptizing was to John what making bread is to a baker: it was the most common thing he did each day when he went to work.
But John always downplayed his baptisms in favor of the vastly more powerful baptism Jesus would do. Hopping up and down with great verve, John said over and again that the real fireworks would start as soon as Jesus showed up to baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit. For all the publicity he had garnered, John’s self-assessment of his own ministry boiled down to “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” And indeed, when one day Jesus showed up to be baptized, John saw the heavenly dove of the Holy Spirit land squarely on Jesus’ head. Clearly, everything John had predicted about Jesus would come true.
But then a funny thing happened: in his ministry Jesus hardly ever talked about the Holy Spirit. Nor did he baptize anyone. Go through any one of the four gospels and you can count on one hand the number of times Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t what John had anticipated at all, and so in a startling passage (cf. Matthew 11 and Luke 7), John at one point sends Jesus a message to ask, “Are you the One who was to come, or should we be on the lookout for somebody else?” John was looking for more Spirit, more fire.
But in this Pentecost Year B lection from John 16 we encounter what is hands-down the longest single section about the Holy Spirit in all the gospels. Here we discover that John the Baptist had been right, except for the timing of it all. Jesus was going to send forth a powerful Holy Spirit. But the surprise comes from the fact that before he would do this, Jesus himself would go away. Call it a kind of Trinitarian tag-team approach. The Father dispatched the Son to this world to teach, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Then the Son returned to the Father so that he could send the Holy Spirit to his followers on this earth.
Jesus makes clear that the Holy Spirit would become the conduit through which would flow all the energy and riches of God. The Spirit would become the jumper cables to re-infuse us with the Father’s energy whenever the Church’s batteries ran down. The Spirit would become the cosmic water main through which the cleansing tide of baptism would flow to wash away sin. The Spirit would become the ultimate radio beacon who would broadcast the truths of Jesus, letting all of us who have been fitted with the right antennae learn on a constant basis the implications of the gospel for our lives. Use whatever image you want, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been the Church’s living connection to God ever since the great day of Pentecost.
But this tends to be the limit of our thinking about the role of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, we quietly restrict the Spirit’s primary work to the interior life of the Church and of its members. That’s why John 16 is so arresting. Because here when Jesus talked about the Spirit’s work, he focused as much on the Spirit’s work in the wider world as he did on the Spirit’s work in the church. In fact, in verse 8 the very first thing Jesus says has to do with what the Spirit would reveal not to the church but to the world.
As Dale Bruner has noted, the Spirit, according to Jesus, would tell the world three related things:
And please notice that any one of those teachings without the other two would be not just incomplete, it would be wrong. Take away or forget about any one, and the other two dissolve into confusion.
First, the Spirit reveals what’s wrong. The Spirit needs to convict the world of guilt with regard to sin, Jesus says. Just talking about the fact that this world has problems is not enough. In fact, it has never been too difficult to convince the world that something is fundamentally amiss. The key is to underscore not just that something is awry with life but why that is so. After all, it is sickeningly easy simply to note the horrors of this world. The underlying message that needs to be revealed by God’s Spirit is that the source of all that wrongness is sin. There’s a cause behind hunger and terrorism, behind corporate greed and pornography, behind drive-by shootings and cynicism, and that cause stems from the fact that this world has fallen away from what God wanted. There’s something wrong with this world all right, and the reason is sin. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost reminds us of this.
But secondly Jesus says the Spirit comes to convict the world of something else: what’s right or righteousness. At first glance, that seems like an odd thing to say. These verses are a bit difficult to translate or understand, but it seems that Jesus is saying that he himself is the Righteous One, the source of all that is good and beautiful and proper. The Spirit reveals this Christ to the world. Jesus is going to return to the Father and so will not be on display, will not be visible, in the usual way a person can be seen. He’s not going to be available for any interviews with Anderson Cooper and won’t be making any guest appearances on cable TV religious channels, either. But despite that physical unavailability, this Jesus must be taught to the world and also brought to the world through us. We are the Body of Christ. When filled with the Holy Spirit, we are the ongoing presence of Jesus on this earth.
That much we know, but here’s what I take away from Jesus’ close linking up of the Spirit’s message about sin and the Spirit’s subsequent message about righteousness: what I take away from this is that we dare never talk about what’s wrong in this world unless we do so in a hope-filled context. It’s altogether too easy to talk about what’s wrong. Op-Ed writers in the newspapers and the talking heads on all those 24-hour cable TV news channels do this every single day. In fact, bad news is better for ratings than good news could ever be. In the television industry a so-called “slow news day” is any day when no disaster happens. Most of us don’t watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox News on those days, but if you ever have turned to those channels on a quiet day, you soon realize they are crashingly boring. The news anchors cast about for things to say but they mostly dissolve into an inane blather that can make your skin crawl.
Anybody can talk about what’s wrong with the world. Christians are good at it, too, and we do it a lot. But the key item to check is whether or not we do this with hope ever and always lurking behind even the worst and most difficult things we must say to the world. Are we just lamenting what’s bad for the sake of lamenting it? Are we merely wringing our hands and shaking our heads and wagging our fingers in order, by contrast, to highlight our own moral integrity? Or are we letting the Holy Spirit inject even our critical words with a strong dose of the hope that comes through Jesus the Christ?
It’s the difference between screaming at someone “That’s wrong!” and then walking away in disgust as opposed to saying instead, “That’s wrong but now let me come along side you to spend however much time it takes to introduce you to the Righteous Jesus who right this very minute loves you despite the mess you’ve made.” It’s the difference between saying only “You’re a sinner!” and saying “You’re a sinner, but it was while we were all still sinners that God in Christ loved us, so let’s talk about that, too!” Sometimes convincing people of this may take a very long time indeed. But if we cannot find a way to present the gospel even at the same moment when we confront the world with its faults, then we’re missing not just one piece of the Spirit’s work in the world, we’re missing the whole thing.
But that’s not to say that we never arrive at a conclusion of judgment, because that is the third thing Jesus says the Spirit must do: tell the world who won. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is here also to reveal to the world that the prince of darkness is done for. It will be the goodness, grace, and beauty of the Righteous One that will rule the cosmic day in the end. That’s the good news of the gospel. The bad news, however, is that if any person refuses to be on the side of that Holy One named Jesus, then that person will forever be on the wrong side of history.
So as people of Pentecost, we need to let the Spirit use us to tell the world what’s wrong but we do this ever and only with hope in our voices. There is much that is wrong but because it is not random wrong but a systemic problem that can be traced back to sin, it is possible for a powerful God to fix that systemic wrongness, and in Christ Jesus the Lord God has already done so!
The NIV of John 16:11 translates the Greek to say “prince of this world.” I’m not certain why they used “prince” here because the Greek is archon, which quite straightforwardly means “ruler,” which is the translation in the NRSV. But maybe for some people calling the devil the “ruler of the world” sounded too scary and so they made him a prince, which seems less threatening. But John has Jesus saying that the evil one has been a ruler of this world, and the long, sordid run of history certainly lends credence to the idea that someone pretty awful has been calling some shots in this world. But the really good news is that even if there is some sense in which the devil really has been a “ruler” of this world, he has even so gone down to defeat at the hands of God’s Christ!
Some years back I watched the movie, When Harry Met Sally. In one scene we witness something that is at once somber and yet funny. In the scene Harry and his best friend are seated in the stands at a New York Giants NFL football game. But they are not really watching the game because Harry is deeply sad since his wife had left him the day before. With a crestfallen expression on his face, he tells his friend all about the events that had led up to this tragedy in his life. It is a very serious, unhappy conversation.
The funny part of this otherwise somber scene is that while these two men are talking, “the wave” is sweeping through the stadium–this is that phenomenon that cropped up about twenty or so years ago whereby all the people in a stadium sequentially stand up, raise their arms, and give a yell, and then quickly sit back down so that as you look across the stadium, it looks like a human wave is rippling through the stands. So in this scene, although the conversation between these two friends is so dark that they really are paying no attention to the people around them, nevertheless each time the wave reached their part of the stadium, both men stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, never missing a beat in their conversation about the one man’s sorrows!
[You can view the clip here but don’t play it in church—there are language issues!]
Being in a crowd can make you do funny things–stuff you would not do or say otherwise. Have you ever been to a basketball game only to find yourself screaming like a banshee? (Or have you ever been to a game where you saw someone you know—someone who is ordinarily rather shy and retiring in nature—screaming like a banshee!!?) There seems to be a certain spirit or power in many situations in life–an influence in which you can get “caught up” and so motivated to do things which are not called for in other situations. On a darker note, some of the same dynamics that can make us jump up and down like everyone else at an exciting basketball game can also lead people to get carried away at post-game parties which turn into out-of-control riots.
There are influences on all of us which are not visible but which are very powerful nonetheless. Parents have strong reasons for warning their children to stay away from “the wrong crowd.” Most of us at one time or another have experienced what can happen when we get caught up in peer pressure. On the other hand, there are good community spirits which can mold people in positive ways. Just think of how the spirit of neighborliness draws the Amish together. There are few spectacles as startling or as moving as an Amish “barn raising” when neighbors from a region come together to build a barn in just one day.
There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something. Interestingly, the New Testament tells us in many places that the Holy Spirit of God–the living fire that just is Pentecost–is also something in which believers need to get caught up. The Spirit carries us away and so leads us to say things and to do things that we would not do were we not in the zone of the Spirit’s influence.
Author: Doug Bratt
Throughout nearly all of recorded human history, people’s inability to communicate with each other has divided us. So for people to somehow come (and stay) together, something dramatic must happen. In fact, since human efforts to fully unify people have proved largely futile or temporary, we might add that something dramatic must happen to us.
Acts 2 begins its account of the first Pentecost by reporting that Jesus’ disciples are united, “all together in one place” (1). Yet that sounds a lot like Luke’s description of them forty days earlier. Luke 24:33, after all, describes Jesus’ frightened disciples as “assembled together.”
So we almost get the sense that Jesus’ disciples have just moved in a clump, first to the site of Jesus’ ascension, then to the temple and then to a room in Jerusalem. Now, on the day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers are again (or perhaps still) “all together in one place” (1).
Their unity physically separates them from the other Jews who have come to celebrate Pentecost. It isn’t just the walls of a place, however, that separate these Jews from each other. After all, they’ve come from what Luke calls “every nation under heaven.” So though they’ve gathered to thank God for the spring harvest, they can’t understand each other. Though these Jews have assembled to remember God’s gift of the law at Sinai, they can’t even talk to each other about it.
While the Romans have dispersed these Jews throughout the known world, their faith in God has temporarily drawn them back to Jerusalem. Yet Luke reports that they now speak a startling variety of languages. So these people who share a common faith in God don’t share a common language. While they can babble at each other, they can’t understand each other.
This, however, wasn’t always the case. While Genesis 10:5 says Noah’s descendants spoke a variety of languages, Genesis 11 also suggests that they also somehow spoke some common language. At Babel, however, God confuses proud people’s language. As a result, people can no longer understand each other. They eventually speak the languages of the Parthians, Egyptians, Libyans and others.
So we can imagine the cacophony that filled Jerusalem’s rooms, streets and alleys on that first Pentecost. We can almost hear and see the chaos of people who speak at least fifteen different languages trying to communicate with each other. It reminds us of the chaos that reigned before God’s Spirit blew order into the creation.
It isn’t, however, just language that separates people from each other. Sometimes even religion divides us. Some scholars suggest there were as many as ten or fifteen strains of Judaism already in Jesus’ day. So it’s certainly possible that some of those strains were represented in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost.
What’s more, at least some of the denominations or churches to which those who proclaim Acts 2 belong are the results of schisms. The Christian Reformed Church in North America to which I belong is the daughter of a schism. Our ancestors ignored the 95% of the things on which they agreed to break away from the Reformed Church in America over issues like worship style and membership in fraternal orders.
Christians, however, isn’t the only religious people that divide from each other. A few years ago the New York Times featured an article entitled, “In Jihadist Haven, a Goal: To Kill and Die in Iraq.” It described the longing of some Jordanians to go to Iraq to kill Americans, Brits and other westerners.
However, the article reported that Sunni militants had become just as angry with Shiite Muslims as they were at westerners. One imam said, “They have traditions that are un-Islamic and they hate the Sunnis.” He said his targets are, “First, the Shiites. Second, the Americans. Third, anywhere in the world where Islam is threatened.” The Shiites, the imam added, “hate our caliphs [leaders of the ancient Islamic world] and they hate Sunnis.”
On the first Pentecost God graciously and miraculously both audibly and visibly responds to such brokenness. First God sends the sound of a tornado-force wind to fill the whole building where Jesus’ followers are gathered. Then witnesses then see what looks like a wildfire of tongues spread onto each of those followers. Finally, they hear each of those disciples speak their own diverse languages.
Luke reports that these sounds and sights draw people together. They’re, after all, what one paraphrase calls “thunderstruck” to hear untutored Galileans speak their mother tongue. After all, ex-fishermen and tax collectors who never spent a moment in Parthian 100 or listened to a second of the Egyptian Rosetta Stone program speak their languages and more.
“What does this mean?” the shocked Jews, perhaps including Jesus’ disciples, ask themselves and each other. Clearly no one can make what one paraphrase calls “heads or tails of any of this.” So some people even ask, “Are these guys drunk on cheap wine?”
Now watch the Holy Spirit draw together these Jews whose confusion also divides them. Watch them try to crowd close enough to Peter to try to hear him explain just what all of this means. “We aren’t drunk,” he begins by telling people. “God is just keeping God’s promises.” One of the Old Testament’s prophets had, after all, promised that God would send God’s Spirit on all God’s people in such a way that it would shake the whole creation.
Once upon a time, Peter says, people, including perhaps some who are listening to him, had handed Jesus over to die. They’d demanded the Romans crucify Jesus even though he’d done amazing miracles right in front of them. Peter goes on to insist that God raised this same Jesus from the dead. God, this disciple concludes, has made this Jesus the very Lord and Messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting for centuries.
Though the text the Lectionary assigns for this Sunday doesn’t include it, Peter’s speech draws these Jews, divided by language, confusion and guilt even closer together as they press Peter for how they should respond. “What do we do now?” (37) we can almost hear them beg the denier-turned-articulate spokesman.
“Change your life!” Peter boldly answers (38). “Turn to God and be baptized. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. After all, God longs to forgive the sins of you, your children and even people who are still far away from the Lord.”
Now watch that crowd that so many things have scattered draw even closer together. How, after all, do people respond to Peter’s invitation? Three thousand of them come together to receive God’s grace with their faith on that first Pentecost.
Yet their shocking new unity doesn’t end even there. After all, these converts don’t just return to their normal lives once they become Christians. In fact, the end of Acts 2 describes perhaps the most dramatic form of unity that the Holy Spirit has ever created. After all, one paraphrase says that this new Christian community commits itself to the apostles’ teaching, its life together, common meals and prayer. These new Christians even unite to pool their resources so that no one goes hungry.
So Acts 2 shows how the Holy Spirit graciously unites a huge crowd in its commitment to its new Savior and each other.
Yet once the Holy Spirit draws these new Christians together, that same Spirit sends them back out into the world. Jesus had promised his disciples they’d be his missionaries in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, in fact, to the ends of the world.
The rest of the book of Acts describes the Spirit’s fulfillment of that promise, in part by using Stephen’s murder to spread Christians throughout Judea and Samaria. It also describes the missionary journeys of apostles like Paul to the ends of the known world.
Those who preach and teach Acts 2 may want to invite hearers to consider how that same Spirit continues to draw diverse people into their own congregations and denominations. They may even want to add concrete examples of how the Spirit is uniting God’s naturally scattered people to do God’s work throughout God’s world.
However, the history of too many denominations and local churches shows the fragility of such unity inspired by the Spirit. So the Holy Spirit of Pentecost constantly invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to deepen our unity, to even simply agree to disagree sometimes. It also invites us to reach across even religious barriers to work for the common good with people of other faiths or even no faith.
If you’ve ever tried to communicate with someone whose language you didn’t speak or understand, you know how hard it is to converse with that person. When my family visited Europe when I was growing up, we managed to communicate with most people by speaking either English or German with which at least some of us were familiar.
Most Belgians, however, wanted to speak only French. Since my grandfather was the only person who claimed to know some French, we let him do our speaking in Belgium. However, it was all quite comical because his French was pretty elementary.
After all, what almost naturally happens when people can’t understand each other? We tend to just speak louder and louder, hoping our sheer volume will somehow shatter the language barrier. So it was with my dear grandfather and the Belgians with whom he tried to communicate.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 104 is the perennial choice for Pentecost Sunday in the Lectionary, because of verse 30, which mentions “your Spirit.” Though there is much plausible controversy about whether that should be translated with a capital “S” as a reference to the third Person of the Trinity, the church has taken it that way for centuries now. Yes, the word is ruach in Hebrew, which means literally “breath.” But the breath of God is often spoken of in a personal way, most notably by our Lord in the Johannine Pentecost. “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:19) That way of talking about the Spirit goes all the way back to the Bible’s opening words, where the Spirit (wind, breath) of God hovered over the waters just waiting to bring life to an unshaped, inanimate world. That is exactly the role assigned to the Spirit here in Psalm 104.
The Spirit’s role in creation is a good reason to select Psalm 104 for your Pentecost sermon, as opposed to the other readings for today. All of them emphasize the Spirit’s role in redemption, in God’s work of recreating a fallen world. Psalm 104 focuses on the Spirit’s work in creating the world and in sustaining it even though it is now fallen. Before redemption was necessary and as redemption is going on, the Spirit of God was active and remains active in creation. When I read all four lections for today, I know why my old Seminary professor said, “We would be as lost without the Spirit as we would be without Christ.”
Certainly, there would be no world to save, because, says verse 30, the Spirit creates and renews, breathes all life into existence and then continues to provide breath each moment of each day. Without the Spirit’s work, death would be instantaneous. So, in effect, the Spirit renews us with every successive breath.
We depend on the Spirit completely for our life as creatures. The previous verses communicate that in a breathtaking duality. “When you give it (food) to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.” “We would be as lost without the Spirit as we would be without Christ.” Indeed, we wouldn’t even need Christ, because we wouldn’t exist.
The point of Psalm 104 is that all life comes from God through his Spirit. In some of the most exquisite poetry ever written, Psalm 104 gives us an exuberant and masterful survey of God’s good earth. It’s a wonderful world. In fact, when I read Psalm 104, I hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice singing, “What a Wonderful World.” But there’s huge difference between that contemporary song and this ancient song. Armstrong stops with the world’s beauty, while the Psalm is designed to sing about God’s role in that beauty. In that sense, it is not a nature hymn. It is a hymn of praise to the God who created nature.
Some scholars insist that God is barely mentioned in Psalm 104, but that misses the importance of the framing words, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” And it ignores the Psalmist’s explicit statement of his intention in writing about such a beautiful world. “I will sing to the Lord all my life….” Further, his concluding prayer is clearly theological. “May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.”
Even before that ending, it is very clear that the Psalmist is using the beauty of the creation to point to the greatness of God. After his breathless survey of the multiplicity and diversity of the created order (“how many are your works, O God”), the Psalmist says a mysterious thing. “In wisdom, you made them all (verse 24).” Quite apart from any sophisticated discussion about the relationship between Sophia and Logos, that word “wisdom” at the very least suggests that there is a mind behind this creation.
Is it helpful here to make a distinction between intellectual brilliance and practical wisdom? We’ve all met people who are incredibly smart in a chosen field, but who are hopelessly foolish in their life choices. They know a great deal, but they can’t make their lives work. Can we move this distinction to God and say that God thought about what he would create, using both his brilliance and his wisdom. He used his omniscience to plan a world that would work harmoniously and fruitfully for all his creatures.
Or to put it a bit differently, the fact that God created in his wisdom means that there is a good reason for every aspect of creation. Of course, we can’t ever forget that sin has re-introduced chaos into God’s good creation, so that we can’t make sense of much that happens. But God originally had a good reason for creating, say, the platypus, and the mosquito, and the viruses. There is an answer to our “why’s.” We may not be able to understand God’s reasons, since “his thoughts are not our thoughts,” but the world is not absurd. It was created in wisdom by a personal God. Or to hark back to Pentecost, the Spirit of creation is the Spirit of Jesus, so we can be sure that the wise love of God is still at work in the renewing of the earth.
All of that is a round-about way of saying that this whole Psalm is about God, not God’s creation. It is about his wisdom. Here’s another indication of its God centeredness. After his gorgeous description of the glories of the world, the Psalmist says all this glory is for the glory of God. “May the glory of the Lord endure forever (verse 31a).” How did Calvin say it? “Creation is the theater of his glory.” Even if we can’t explain how, for example, the common slug glorifies God, the Psalmist assures us that it’s all here for God’s glory.
Of course, sin has turned things on their head, so that sinners glorify the creation rather than the Creator, calling creation sacred and worshiping it, rather than the God who made it all in his wisdom, by his Spirit. Indeed, says Paul in Romans 1:8-25, the reversal of fundamental truths about creation and the Creator is at the root of the chaos in our world. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.” That last line harks back to Psalm 104:31. This beautiful world will end one day; scientists predict it as does Scripture. But “the glory of the Lord [will] endure forever.”
So, this beautiful world was created in God’s wisdom and it is here for his glory. There is one more theocentric note in Psalm 104 that we must highlight. God created for the sheer joy of it. Even though his perfect creation has been marred by sin, God still takes great joy in his world. Thus, the Psalmist prays/wishes/blesses, “may the Lord rejoice in his works.” What wonderful pictures those words conjure up! God as a parent rejoicing over his children, even when they are naughty. God as a friend rejoicing over his lifelong companions even when they disappoint. God as an artist rejoicing over his handiwork, even when someone else defaces it.
Yes, there are terrifying words about God’s wrath against sin in the Bible and we can’t wish them away. But maybe this idea of God rejoicing in all his works tells us something important about his anger. Maybe he gets angry because he takes such joy in what he has made. Sin brings death to the creation. Death brings sorrow to the Creator, and with sorrow comes anger at the loss of life given by the Spirit.
In the hymnal from which I sang as a child, there’s a bouncy version of this Psalm that concludes with this stanza. “Thy Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound, The earth is renewed, and fruitful the ground; to God ascribe glory and wisdom and might, Let God in his creatures forever delight.”
That is exactly right, and I think these thoughts about God’s wisdom and glory and delight help us understand the part of Psalm 104 that the Lectionary doesn’t want us to read. Verse 35a says, “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” Ugh! What a terrible way to end a beautiful song! No wonder the Lectionary omits that half verse from our reading. It ruins everything that has gone before.
Unless everything that has gone before explains that concluding curse/wish. When we think of the work of the Spirit in creating and sustaining such a wonderful world, who wouldn’t be just a bit angry at what sin has done to the Spirit’s work? Sin has introduced chaos and absurdity and folly into a world created in wisdom to run harmoniously and fruitfully. Sin has turned the creation on its head by moving people to worship the creation rather than the Creator, which in turn has led to moral confusion. And sin has introduced death into a vibrant world, thus robbing both God and his creatures of the joy God intended when the Spirit breathed life into dust. Who wouldn’t wish that sin were banished from the earth? Who wouldn’t want the wicked despoilers of the world to vanish from the scene? Sounds like a model prayer for a meeting of the Sierra Club!
But it’s not. It is the prayer of someone who loves God and the good world he created by his Spirit. And it doesn’t necessarily mean, “Damn them all.” Given the Pentecost setting of Psalm 104, it might mean, “Save them all. May the same Spirit who renews the ground also renew their hearts so they come to Christ. May the wickedness that ruined the world vanish forever. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and bring the new heaven and the new earth where only righteousness dwells.” “Praise the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has pointed out that all tonal music in the Western world relies on patterns of tension and resolution. Songs begin somewhere, take us on a journey through a variety of ensuing notes and melodies, and then finally bring us back to where we started. It is a pattern of what Begbie calls “Home — Away — Home.” This pattern is universal.
Watch this YouTube clip from minute marker 4:35 until about 6:50 to see and above all to HEAR what this is.
When we feel we have been taken away from home, when we feel musical tension, we want to return home and have that tension resolved. The very music creates this desire in us. Jeremy Begbie sees in all this something that is also near the heart of theology. But in theology we don’t talk about “Home — Away — Home” but rather “promise and fulfillment,” “the already and the not yet.” We live between the times.
We are, by grace, “in Christ” and yet we are simultaneously in the world. We are living Temples of the Holy Spirit—as Pentecost celebrates—and yet remain very much in this world. There is, naturally, a glorious “up-side” to being “in Christ.” We know our sins are forgiven, we know there is power available to help us perform holy deeds, we know ultimately (as Paul will say at the climax of this chapter) that there is now nothing that can separate us from the love of God. But for the time being, our “in Christ” status is not only a glorious truth, it also creates tension. That is the main idea that this portion of Romans 8 talks about.
Given the soaring rhetoric and the faith-filled confidence that permeates Romans 8, it is arresting to find word like “sufferings” and “weakness” and “groanings” in these verses. But Paul is firmly rooted in reality. For now we do suffer. Indeed, we suffer even more precisely because of the hope that is in us.
These verses are assigned by the Lectionary for Pentecost and as just noted, that is surely the day that brought the living presence of Jesus directly into our hearts through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Because of the inner testimony of that Spirit we know Jesus has won the victory. We know what the end of the story is going to be. At the same time, however, we know that this conclusion is not yet here. And we’re not the only ones. Listen: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to this present time.” The creation groans. It groans because it longs for something. It longs for something because although subjected to decay, God has suffused the creation with something else, too: hope.
God has given even the non-human creation hope. There is liberation on the way for all creatures of our God and King. A time is coming when decay, pollution, species extinction, oil-slicks on pristine beaches, ozone depletion, and global climate change will be no more. Somehow, in ways Paul leaves tantalizingly unexplained, the creation knows this. So much so that in verse 19 (just prior to the technical start of this reading in verse 22) Paul uses a wonderfully colorful image that has been totally obscured in translation. The phrase rendered as “eager expectation” means literally “to crane one’s neck.” It’s the image of a little child at a Fourth of July parade, eager to see the next spectacle coming down the street. The kid is on tippy-toes, arching and craning his neck almost as though that physical action will draw the next float toward him more quickly. This is the posture you assume not just when you are excited but when you are certain that something wonderful is coming down the pike.
The creation’s knowledge that renewal is coming is so firm that this is its collective posture. But the fact that it is not here yet causes also a collective groaning. The creation groans for the same reason we groan, as Paul goes on to say in verse 23: our faith shows us what is true in the grander scheme of things but for now we know we are not fully home yet. We are still waiting for that final chord to play in the musical score of life.
If we really are people of faith, then we need to feel this tension. We have not heard the final chord. We carry in our hearts a sense of incompleteness. And let me suggest that we must feel this. It is not a sign of doubt to feel incomplete. It is not weak faith that pines to hear the final note but rather it is strong faith that feels this pull forward, this desire to round things out. When you want to hear that last note, you find yourself physically leaning forward, sitting on the edge of your seat, craning your neck in eager expectation of what you know must yet come. Faith like this keeps us moving forward, motivates us to work for justice, to be stewards of the creation and of our non-human cousins within that realm, to do whatever we can that gives life the shape of things to come.
But if that is so, then the second item to note in closing is that we dare not try to deal with our sense of incompleteness by attempting already now to settle for some quick way to round out the music. Years ago on the old “Muppet Show” the muppet Rowlf was the dog who always played the piano. On one show Rowlf was playing a gorgeous Beethoven sonata. He was somewhere in the middle of that piece when the stage manager whispered to him that he had only fifteen more seconds. So Rowlf played a couple more measures of the sonata before suddenly playing that familiar quickie ending “Ba-da-dum-ta-da-dum. Dum.”
There are also theological ways to try tacking on quickie endings. If we insist that all our music in church is ever and only happy-clappy; that every sermon and each worship service round out everything neatly and fully with no questions unanswered, no loose ends left dangling; when we look at even the worst events in life but just smile as we say, “I’m not upset. It’s all part of God’s good plan”–in short, when we leave no room for wrenching groanings over the state of things, then we’re trying to re-write God’s music.
If even the Spirit groans, who are we to resist the same? What’s more, the desire to avoid groaning by pretending all is well short-circuits our efforts to work toward the better things we know God desires. In addition to hope-based patience, we need also what the Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God” calls “tempered impatience” in the sense that we will not settle for how things are but keep craning our necks forward in eager expectation of that final chord that God in Christ will play when our Lord returns. And so we keep leaning forward and we keep moving until that day when the final Hallelujah will sound for every creature and every person under heaven–for that will be the day when we will know finally and fully that we are at long last Home.
[Note: A version of this sermon starter was posted in July 2017 when the Lectionary also assigned basically this same part of Romans 8. So if you think you had seen this before . . . you might be right!]
A simple illustration of the tension-resolution or “Home—Away—Home” pattern in music is the old “Shave and a Haircut” routine. If someone knocks on a door rhythmically 5 times, your heart will cry out for the answering two knocks. Some of you may remember the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit in which cartoon characters (known as “Toons”) were supposedly real beings, co-existing with human actors in Hollywood. But sometimes Toons would try to disguise themselves. But a Toon’s Achilles’ heel was the fact that no Toon in the world can resist the old “Shave and a Haircut” routine. So if you wanted to know if any Toons were around, all you had to do was knock out the first 5 beats and every Toon in earshot would immediately shriek out “Two bits!” Here is the classic scene where a villain is attempting to see if Roger Rabbit is around. He is! Roger Rabbit holds out as long as he can but then . . .