May 17, 2021
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.
But John always downplayed his baptism in favor of the vastly more powerful baptism Jesus would bring. Hopping up and down with great verve, John said 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!”
But then a funny thing happened: in his ministry Jesus hardly ever talked about the Holy Spirit. Nor did he baptize anyone. 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? You know, somebody better?” John was looking for more Spirit, more fire.
But in this Pentecost Year B lection from John 16 we encounter what Dale Bruner calls “Jesus’ Spirit Sermon” and it is hands-down the longest single section about the Holy Spirit in all the gospels. In all the Bible! 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. 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.
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.
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!
In a scene from the comedy movie When Harry Met Sally, 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 (you know, back when we could sit packed close together!). 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 the 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!
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: Stan Mast
Arguably it is harder to write a fresh sermon on Pentecost than on Christmas or Easter. Those last two major events in redemptive history are proclaimed in multiple Biblical texts, so there are different angles to take on Christmas and Easter. Pentecost, on the other hand, is reported in only one text, our text for today. And having written on this text the last two years in a row, I couldn’t imagine finding anything new and fresh to write about for Pentecost 2021. I would have simply referred you to my Sermon Starters of June 3, 2019 and May 25, 2020.
I say, “would have,” because, as I was thinking those discouraging thoughts, I recalled something I always said to preaching students who were worried that they would eventually run out of fresh material over 30 or 40 years of preaching. Based on my own 40 plus years of preaching, I told them that they could always count on two things.
First, things will change. The world will change. (Who could have ever have imagined 2020 even one year ago?) The church will change. (A whole year of virtual church? Whoda thunk?) You will change. (Your age, health, marital status, family dynamics, spiritual maturity, knowledge of Scripture.) Though the Scripture will not change, you will bring something different to it every year.
Second, the Holy Spirit will always blow in fresh ways into your mind and heart. Our text is the quintessential example. As I noted last week, the infant church was nearly perfect. Everything was perfectly in place. It just wasn’t going anywhere. Then the wind blew and everything changed. We can count on that happening every Sunday. We just need to pray and wait, as the early church did, expectantly and hopefully, Bible in hand.
So, I did. And the Spirit used the current situation in my nation to show me something in this text that I hadn’t noticed before. I offer it to you. In this deeply divided time, note that the Pentecost story emphasizes how the Holy Spirit used the Gospel of the Risen Christ to unite a deeply divided world into “one holy Catholic church.”
Acts 2 begins where Acts 1 left. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” What place was that? The Upper Room where they went after the Ascension of Jesus (1:13)? The precincts of the Temple, where they had a ready-made congregation for the first Christian sermon? Wherever they were, they were a holy huddle doing what the church always does, marching in place, not moving into the world. “Brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod” (a parody of “Onward Christian Soldiers”). Until the Wind blew open doors of the church, the mouths of the disciples, and the hearts of a murderous mob.
Thus, the story begins with the church “all together in one place.” Then, the church, scattered by the Wind of God, encountered the world in one place. By the providence of God, “there were staying in Jerusalem God fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” That’s clearly a homiletical hyperbole, but the listing of nations (verses 9-11) represented in that crowd indicates that they came from the four corners of the known world, or at least the three contingent continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. With a map on a screen, you can show your church how Dr. Luke scans from east to west and south to north. God arranged to have the United Nations there.
And when the Wind blew, the crowd from “every nation under heaven” was swept together to hear the Gospel. “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment….” What was “this sound?” Not the roaring of the wind or the crackling of the tongues of fire, but the babbling of tongues “speaking in their own language.” The confusion and dispersion of the Tower of Babel was reversed by the preaching of the Gospel in all the languages of every nation under heaven. Heaven has come down and has begun to undo Babel.
Further, notice how the crowd that came together in bewilderment stayed together in belief. After the preaching of the Gospel of the Risen Christ, three thousand people “from every nation under heaven” repented, believed, were baptized, and joined the church. “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” The awe born of confusion over the multi-lingual preaching of the Gospel is replaced by the awe born of the multi-lingual community of disciples whose former divisions have been blown away by the wind of the Spirit (2:43).
All of which is to say that, from the very beginning, the “one holy Catholic church” of the Apostle’s Creed has been as diverse as the world. As Peter says at the very beginning of his Pentecost sermon, quoting God in the prophecy of Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” In what follows, he proclaims that the company of the saved will not be divided by age, or sex, or class, or language, or nation, or color, or political persuasion. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Everyone! Everyone! That’s the world changing conclusion of the first part of Peter’s sermon.
Then the Holy Spirit applies that conclusion to real people, people from every nation under heaven. When Peter declares that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ,” people are cut to the heart and are blown into the multi-generational, multi-national, multi-lingual, borderless, classless, colorless, genderless church in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
Of course, there are still male and female, and Jew and Gentile, and upper class and lower class, and Romans and Parthians, and so forth. The Gospel does not erase the realities of life in this world. It changes how we react to them. Because Jesus is our Lord and Savior, the former boundaries that divided us don’t matter anymore. We are bound together in him. Always have been, always will be.
Which means that the Gospel is anti-nationalism—not anti-patriotic, but anti-nationalism that looks down on and dominates other nations. And the Gospel is anti-xenophobic—not anti-loving your own, but anti-hating the other. And it is anti-prejudice—not anti-acknowledging differences, but anti-treating people differently because of those differences. The Gospel is against dividing the human race based on the differences inherent in the human race.
Does this sound like social gospel? Of course, it does. But it isn’t the social gospel that is divorced from the saving gospel. It is, instead, the social result of the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, the result that God had in mind when he sent his Son to save the world, the result that Jesus prayed about when he was about to die for the world, the result that the Holy Spirit produced on that first Pentecost and is continuing to create today.
For those who are concerned about being sucked into some leftist agenda, here’s the biblical proof of that social dimension of the Gospel. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul talks about the deep mystery of God’s will, which is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
In John 17:20 ff, Jesus prayed, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their (the apostles’) message, that all of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you…. May they be brought to complete unity….”
And in Ephesians 4:3, Paul speaks to the newly united Jews and Gentile, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all….”
Unity is what the Gospel is all about—unity with God first of all, but also unity with the rest of the human race, and within each person, and with the created world around us. God wants his fractured world whole again. Shalom is God’s desire, good pleasure, will, and plan.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon begins with words heavy with portent—“In the last days….” Pentecost is the beginning of the last days, the beginning of the end of all things. And the beginning of the end of all things is God beginning to re-unite all the things that sin has divided. The end of all things will come when Jesus repopulates the new heaven and the new earth with “a multitude that no one could count, from every nations, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9)
In these days, the events of Pentecost remind us that the key to unity is not new political leadership, not new policy priorities, not new humanitarian ventures, not new social justice initiatives (as helpful and good as those things may be), but the preaching of the crucified and risen Jesus in the power of the Spirit. And our response to that preaching ought to be the same as that original multi-national congregation. “They were cut to heart….” May we be cut to the heart, repent of our complicity in the world’s divisions, and bring our sins to Jesus for forgiveness. Then let us “all be together” in Christ by the Spirit’s power.
William Kent Krueger has recently written a wonderful novel entitled, This Tender Land. It’s billed as cross between Grapes of Wrath and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Set in the Great Depression, it follows the adventures of 4 children—two white boys, a teenaged Sioux Indian, and a little girl. The boys were residents of an abusive residential school for Indians in Minnesota, while the girl was the daughter of one of their teachers. Subject to horrible abuse, the boys are delighted when the little girl’s mother offers to take them in. Their world is about to get immeasurably better, when a giant tornado roars across the prairie and destroys the farm of that good woman, kills her in the process, and scatters the boys’ hope to the four corners of the earth. The youngest boy is devastated and angry. So, as the little band of four begins its escape from the horror of that school and that tornadic destruction, he climbs to the top of the water tower at the school and leaves his testimony. In huge black letters, he writes, “God is a tornado.”
As this tiny band floats in a small canoe down the Mid-Western rivers that empty into the Mississippi, they experience unexpected blessings and unimaginable disasters. It’s a mixture of hope and despair, of goodness and evil, but the young boy remains steadfast in his conviction. Whenever there is hope and goodness, he bitterly reminds himself that God is a tornado who always blows things apart.
That’s often the way it seems in this fractured world. But the story of Pentecost reminds us that God is actually a mighty wind that will finally blow things back together. The image of a Tornado God might be helpful in preaching this text about a “violent wind.”
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Scott Hoezee
You have to look pretty close to figure out what brings the latter portion of Psalm 104 to the fore on Pentecost Sunday. But then you read verse 30 and perhaps you are reading a translation that capitalizes the word “Spirit” there, and then you connect the Lectionary dots. That capital “S” signals that the translators want us to think of the Holy Spirit.
It goes without saying, though, that the psalmists did not have a Doctrine of the Trinity in mind in what they wrote nor any sense that there is a Person within God distinct from a Father or a Son with a formal name of Holy Spirit (capital “S”). Every translation is also something of an interpretation. It is almost unavoidable in the translation process. But one could wonder whether it is a bit of an interpretive overreach to capitalize “Spirit” in this psalm to direct one to think in Trinitarian terms.
It may be correct, theologically, to see Old Testament references to God’s spirit—including in the creation account in Genesis 1—as in retrospect an early hint of the fullness of the three Persons in God that would crystalize only after the incarnation. But it does run the risk of making us miss what this would have meant to the original authors of those passages, including the poet who composed the wonderful ode to the creation that is Psalm 104.
Literally, of course, “spirit” in these passages is the Hebrew ruach and also literally this word can mean “wind” or “vapor” or even more vitally for Psalm 104 “breath.” And that is the key to understanding the ending of Psalm 104. The psalmist is not saying God sends some personal agent in the form of the Third Person of the Trinity to every creature on earth but that God is somehow the vital life force—the very breath in the lungs—of all creatures who live. If God breathes onto a creature, it lives and has life. If God stops breathing on that creature, it dies.
We have, of course, been thinking a lot about our breath for the last 15 months of COVID. Suddenly just over a year ago we were reminded that the breath of others could kill us, and we’re definitely not talking halitosis here! Seeing all those masks on people’s faces the last year reminds us of the ubiquity of air inhaled and exhaled.
Breathing is something we all do on average 16 times per minute and unlike most of our movements, respiration is autonomic—we do not need to think about it or will ourselves to do it (good thing, too, or we’d get very little else done, never mind how sleeping might go . . .). In fact, the only time we pay attention to our breathing is when something is going wrong. In a panic we begin to hyperventilate. Or when sick our lungs don’t work right—fluid replaces at least some of the empty space in our pulmonary air sacs such that each breath nets us less results than usual. When the air sacs totally fill up with fluid, we die (of pneumonia usually—the very word containing the Greek pneuma or “spirit”, the Hebrew equivalent of ruach).
Psalm 104 claims that each breath is given by God. It makes it sound like this is a conscious action on God’s part, which of course is a little hard to take literally. The average adult takes 23,000 breaths per day and nearly 8.4 million breaths per year. In a country like the U.S. of roughly 300 million people, that might be a total of 2.5 quadrillion breaths per year to keep everyone going. One cannot quite see God breathing in and out of each person’s mouth and nostrils every single time. And let’s not even factor in what Psalm 104 includes: birds, beasts, dogs, cats, gophers. Everybody. We are talking about a lot of breaths!
Similarly with the Psalm’s claims that God personally feeds and waters every creature. That would be a lot of meals per day! Surely the Almighty God of the universe has other things to do.
But, of course, we are reminded that the psalms are poetry and so traffic in the language of hyperbole and symbolism. God no more literally breathes into each person’s nostrils 16 times a minute than another poet’s lover really looks like a red, red rose or than a given person in some literal way resembles the summer’s day to which the poet compared her. We know how to handle things like poetry and metaphor.
But that does not for a moment diminish the truth that is behind such sentiments. Nor should we miss the fact that poetry, metaphor, and simile are what we reach for when what we want to articulate or convey goes beyond the conventions of literal, mundane speech. What lies behind such poetics is often something profound.
And so also in Psalm 104: the entire poem celebrates God’s sovereignty over all creation. God made everything that exists—every creature, every species, every wild and wonderful variation of color and sound and smell and taste and texture. And God is somehow the glue that holds it all together even now and it is God—now through Christ Jesus as the New Testament reveals in places like Colossians 1—who imbues the whole creation with a hope that goes beyond whatever suffering decay, or diminishment we see now due to our fallenness.
Somehow the very spirit of God—and yes, maybe this is part of the work of the Holy Spirit as we would recognize that Spirit post-Pentecost—really does allow the whole kit-n-kaboodle to live and thrive. No, perhaps not in the most literal sense of every one of the 23,000 breaths we each take each day. But God does overarch and undergird the whole thing. For God the lyric written by the singer Sting for the group The Police is actually true: “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.”
That sense of God’s providing us with our very ruach may or may not connect as directly to the Person of the Holy Spirit as translations with a capital “S” might have us think. But God’s attending to us by the gentle (now indwelling) presence of that Spirit is right. It’s a right reason to give God all the praise Psalm 104 tries to muster for the whole glorious panoply of the entire creation. And it’s more than a good Pentecostal reason to give God the glory for our salvation in Jesus. Because through Jesus and now by his Holy Spirit we do see the truth of that well-known line from John 1: “In him was light and that light was the life of all people.”
And so we say with Psalm 104: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God for as long as I live.” But going beyond Psalm 104 we know that “as long as I live” will be forever. Because Someone once said “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will never die but live.” Thanks be to God for giving breath to all God’s creatures, now and into eternity!
[As a brief aside before turning to my Illustration Idea, I do have to engage in a wee bit of eye-rolling to see the Lectionary try to leap frog over verse 35a by asking us to read only 35b. The reason is obvious: they don’t like the sudden appearance of a request to banish the wicked and the evil from the creation. And after 34 rhapsodic verses on the majesty of God’s Creation and the splendor of the spectacle of God’s tender care for all creatures, this screed against the wicked seems to pop up like a bad burp from out of nowhere. But the psalmist obviously saw some sense in it. To this poet’s mind, wicked people who neither acknowledge God nor give praise for the glory of God’s works are a blight on the otherwise beautiful world the rest of the psalm described. We may not like this attack on the wicked and would prefer a prayer for their salvation instead but to pretend like this is not even there as the Lectionary seems to want to do does not make sense nor is it a good practice of biblical reading. Just my two cents!]
One of the greatest innovations in emergency medicine and first aid over the last century was the development of CPR, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation. Although many heart attacks prove to be too catastrophic to recover from, in a decent percentage of cases people who suffer a cardiac arrest for whatever the reason can be saved with the swift administration of CPR—it works to save a life about 45% of the time it is administered according to the American Red Cross.
Not too terribly long ago someone figured out that we can take the breath from our lungs and transfer it to another person’s lungs to save their life (along with chest compressions that keep blood pumping and the brain profused with oxygen until something might be done to jumpstart the heart). I suppose that since Genesis pictures God breathing God’s ruach / breath into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, we might have tumbled to the idea behind CPR way earlier than we actually did. In any event, CPR may turn out to be a small part of the Image of God in us: taking our own ruach and letting it bring life to another.
Author: Doug Bratt
There’s a whole lot of groaning going on not just in this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, but also in God’s world. Sometimes, in fact, that groaning’s so loud that you don’t even have to listen very carefully to hear it.
The Greek word that English Bible’s generally translate as “groan” is systenezai. It carries with it the sense of our cries of pain somehow joining together. That at least suggests the groaning about which Paul writes isn’t a “solo” act. It’s both suffering creation and humanity’s virtual chorus.
Those who proclaim Romans 8:22-27 will want to find their own examples of groaning. I encourage proclaimers to find both global and local examples of it, examples in both Christians and non-Christians.
Of course, the groans caused by both the global pandemic and efforts to mitigate it are deafening for all people. The groans caused by global hunger and war echo throughout the whole world. Yet those groans also echo in our churches, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and homes.
In fact, Paul insists that both God’s creation and God’s creatures, including people whom God creates in God’s image, are groaning “as in the pains of childbirth” (22). It’s vivid imagery on which its proclaimers may want to expound a bit. When I think of childbirth’s pains, I think of someone shouting at me to fetch a doctor to help her give birth even as she has me in a headlock. In fact, at least some of the sounds that I associate with childbirth sound more like shrieks than groans.
Biblical scholars, however, suggest that it’s notoriously difficult to pin down just Paul means when he says the whole creation is groaning. Certainly people have scarred that creation. We don’t have to look far to see climate change, as well as air, soil and water pollution that people have at least helped cause. Huge numbers of creatures have become extinct.
Yet the way God ordered creation seems to have right from its beginning included an element of decay that perhaps produces a kind of groaning. While I recognize the controversy surrounding it, some scientists suggest that creaturely death preceded our first parents’ fall into sin. For example, people would starve unless grains of wheat died and fell to the ground. Death helps nourish the ground that produces so much on which people rely.
Yet even as those who proclaim this Epistolary Lesson want to nuance our examples of creation’s suffering, we can’t forget that the apostle insists that the whole creation is somehow suffering. Douglas Moo suggests 1 John 5’s account of creation’s groaning in some ways echoes Isaiah 24:4 and Jeremiah 4:28’s account of the way the earth mourns.
In fact, insists Paul, the creation is suffering so deeply that it somehow knows that God has something better in store. God’s creation is groaning loudly as it eagerly waits for God’s sons and daughters to be revealed. Neither the creation nor creatures may know what exactly is wrong and just who caused it. Yet the whole creation seems to instinctively seem to sense that God has a better day in store for all of us!
Even Paul’s choice of the metaphor of “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” puts an expectant twist on this groaning. Most women who give birth groan not just in pain, but also in anticipation of the emergence of something wonderful: a child created in God’s image.
The creation, in a similar way, groans, as John Stott notes, expectantly. Its groans, in fact, point to something wonderful that will also soon emerge: the risen and ascended Jesus who will return to make all things, including this groaning creation, new.
Of course, it’s not just the whole creation that’s groaning in its misery. Paul notes how Jesus’ friends too groan as we await our rescue from the messes others and we have made. Yet while the apostle slightly shifts the metaphor, he continues childhood imagery. The creation groans as in the pains of giving birth. Humans groan as in the pains of children awaiting adoption.
It’s as if Paul is reminding us that we’re naturally now orphans. People have, after all, alienated ourselves from the God who created us and longs for us to be God’s children. We’ve in a real sense naturally chosen to be orphans. So we’re groaning as we await God’s adoption of us as God’s beloved sons and daughters.
Our “groaning” suggests a solidarity between the current plights of the creation and people. While people sometimes mistakenly assume we’re the masters of creation who may do with it as we please, we’re really in the “same boat” with it. God’s creations and creatures all groan because we all need God to graciously rescue us.
That, adds Paul, is our best and, frankly, only hope. It’s not just, after all, the creation that’s too busy just trying to survive to rescue itself. It’s also that people’s only hope is in God’s salvation. We don’t yet clearly see that hope any more than we can see God’s Spirit. Jesus’ friends don’t yet fully experience God’s salvation. But the Spirit testifies within us that it’s coming.
The theologian Audrey West notes that the kind of hope about which Paul writes here arises from our knowledge that the suffering we experience and groaning we hear is not the story’s end. The creation and creatures’ final but also eternally enduring sound will be not pain, but of praise to our Creator and Redeemer God.
Both creation and creatures are astheneia, effectively weak, ill or even timid. We need help. Thankfully, then, says Paul in verse 26, we have both hope and help. The Spirit whose arrival Christians celebrate on Pentecost helps us in our weakness.
In fact, while Pentecost may draw many proclaimers’ attention to the account of the first Pentecost, Romans 8 offers a wonderful alternative exploration of the Spirit’s work. Paul, after all, uses the word that we translate as “spirit” 22 times in this most famous, comprehensive and beloved chapter. Douglas Moo suggests that 20 of those references are probably to the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ friends are so weak, ill or even timid that we don’t always know how to pray about it. The creation and creatures’ needs are so very great. They’re often so overwhelming or complex that we don’t even know how to pray about them.
Thankfully, then, says Paul, the Spirit steps in. The Spirit himself intercedes for sick and timid weaklings like us with … what? “Groans that words cannot express.” So it’s not just the creation and creatures that are groaning. It’s also the Holy Spirit.
Of course, that’s a complex idea that’s more picturesque than easily comprehensible. We, after all, understand how people can intercede for each other with other people as well as God. But how does one person of the Trinity intercede with another?
Learned theologians might write lengthy treatises on that question. But perhaps this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers don’t have to say much more than this: the persons of the Trinity are so close that even when they somehow communicate with each other with “groans,” in inarticulate ways, they understand each other and are able to effectively communicate humanity’s needs.
In fact, as Paul ends this Lesson, “the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” This is especially comforting in the light of the fact that even when Jesus’ friends assume we know we what ought to pray for, it’s not always, frankly, in accordance with God’s will. So the Spirit doesn’t just intercede for God’s adopted children when we don’t know for what to pray. The Spirit even graciously intercedes when we pray for the wrong things.
Virtually all of us who have cared for and about people at the end of their earthly lives have heard what we sometimes call “the death rattle.” It can occur when a dying person is no longer able to swallow, cough or in some other way clear saliva and mucus from the back of the throat.
Doctors suggest that while the sound of the death rattle is unpleasant, the dying person emitting it usually feels little or no pain or discomfort. Yet a death rattle can be very haunting for those who witness it because it signals that death is near.
So might it make any difference if Christians thought of “death rattles” as one form of groaning for our redemption? If we thought of Christians’ death rattles as expressions of our eager expectation of our completed adoption as God’s sons and daughters?