July 17, 2017
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Author: Scott Hoezee
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 . . .
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-caboodle”! 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 Buning. 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 Buning, Purpaleanie and other Permutations. Middleburg, Iowa: The Middleburg Press, 1978, pp. 55-57.
Genesis 28: 10-19a
Author: Doug Bratt
While Christians profess that God is graciously present to everything everywhere, we also have to admit that it’s sometimes hard to recognize that presence. Especially when God’s adopted sons and daughters are busy running from some kind of pursuer.
Genesis 28’s Jacob is at least figuratively on the dead run. He has, after all, swindled both his brother out of his birthright and his brother’s blessing out of their doddering dad. His livid twin brother Esau’s resulting promise to kill him as soon as their dad dies fuels this cheater’s mad dash for safety.
But notice what this text’s Jacob has given up. First, he has surrendered the very inheritance his mom and he hustled out of their family. Jacob has had to abandon the land on which God has promised to bless him with an abundance of grain and new wine.
However, our text’s fugitive Jacob has also surrendered his personal safety in order to run for his life. Of course, not everything is as safe as it seems. The safety that is Jacob’s family home is where Esau now waits to kill him. His “safe” destination is, we know, where his Uncle Laban waits to swindle the swindler. It’s why Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001) says our text’s Jacob is “situated between a death camp and a hard-labor camp.”
But as Jacob gives up whatever safety he has at home to head for whatever safety lies with ahead of him with his Uncle Laban, Jacob must also travel through dangerous territory. Sure, he retraces the route his grandpa Abraham had followed 125 years earlier. However, it was risky for his contemporaries to travel outside of the protection afforded by their relatives and home country. That’s one reason why my colleague John Buchanan says banishment from one’s tribe or clan was about the worst thing that could happen to someone. It was what he calls “a virtual death sentence.”
On top of all that, the sun sets on the cheating fugitive’s flight. So Genesis 28’s Jacob has traded the safety of daylight’s exposure for the danger of dusk’s shadows and night’s darkness. That makes it something of a wonder that he falls asleep on the ground in utter exhaustion with nothing but a stone for a pillow. Sleep, after all, lowers his guard against any kind of predator that can sneak up on him.
It’s unlikely that anyone who preaches or teaches Genesis 28 or those who hear us are literally on the dead run. But that doesn’t mean God’s children aren’t figuratively on the run.
Maybe it’s bad memories they’re fleeing, memories of past abuse or neglect, of failure or disappointment. Or perhaps they’re fleeing a reputation for coldness or callousness, of bad behavior or worse language.
Or maybe it’s a person or thing Genesis 28’s preachers, teachers and hearers are fleeing, a faithless friend or a scorned lover, an angry boss or co-worker. Or perhaps they’re on the dead run from bad credit, worse job performance or even worse health. Or maybe they’re just trying to run away from God, God’s holiness and forgiveness.
Anyone on the even figurative run can probably relate to Jacob’s collapse to the ground. Because running and fleeing anything or anyone is exhausting. Your fear of being caught by someone or something drives you like a jockey’s merciless whip hand. You pour so much of your time, energy and attention into your flight that you have nothing left over.
God’s people who have experienced that or are experiencing something like it can understand why Jacob finally collapses in an exhausted heap. He doesn’t even bother to look for a place to stay. Jacob’s, in fact, so exhausted that a stone is a comfortable enough pillow for him.
While he’s awake, says Walter Brueggemann (Genesis, John Knox, 1982), Jacob’s world is one of fear, terror, loneliness and, we’d at least hope, a bit of guilt. Sleep, however, allows another reality to slip into his life. It’s a reality that points forward rather than backward. This new reality blesses Jacob instead of punishing or cursing him, as Esau has promised to do, or cheating him, as his Uncle Laban will soon do.
God introduces that gracious new reality into Jacob’s life via a dream that he has while he’s sleeping. Perhaps, in fact, suggests Brueggemann, it’s the only way God can inject it into a Jacob who assumes he must live by the reality that is his own wits.
In his dream Jacob sees what translations call a “ladder” that’s probably more like a ramp or stairway that connects heaven to earth. On it angels are ascending and descending. It’s God’s startling and clear reminder that earth is not left on its own and that heaven isn’t closed off for the gods. Heaven is not just connected to, but also very interested in the earth. Jacob has assumed that he’s running for his life away from his brother and toward his uncle. His dream reminds him that because God and God’s angels have access to the earth, God can and wants to be involved with both his plight and him.
In fact, while most biblical translations indicate God is “above” the ladder to heaven, at least some biblical scholars strongly suspect that God is, in fact, right next to Jacob the dreamer. After all, eventually Jacob celebrates the fact that “the Lord is in [not above] this place.”
God’s message to the dreamer sounds a lot like God’s message to his Grandpa Abraham. After, while Jacob may be fleeing from the land, God promises to still give it to him anyway. God also promises to give Jacob a nearly countless number of descendants with whom Jacob will bless the whole world.
Jacob’s actions have shown that he has always assumed that he must make his own way, must climb the ladder in the world, by cheating and swindling people if necessary. However, by both sending God’s angels and perhaps standing next to Jacob, God promises to make that way in the world for him.
Even God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally assume we too have to clamber up various ladders to make ourselves successful. Such frantic ascents are, however, always both exhausting and, ultimately, futile. Thank God, then, that God graciously promises to make us a blessing. We don’t have to make our own way. God promises to make it for us.
Yet that’s not all God promises Jacob. God also promises to accompany him on his flight from his brother. On top of that, God promises to protect Jacob so that he will eventually return to the very place from which he’s now fleeing for his life. God’s presence and protection is never, after all, limited to just one time and place. God graciously goes with God’s adopted cheaters and swindlers wherever they go.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jacob seems to only slowly awaken from this dream. At first he perhaps merely groggily feels awed by what he has seen and experienced. Jacob recognizes that his campsite is nothing less than the house of God. His grandpa and dad’s God doesn’t live at the top of some temple people build. Their God is present even in the very place where someone sleeps in the world that God created.
Of course, Jacob wasn’t aware of that presence at first. He had thought of his campsite as just a place where he could bed down for the night on his sprint toward safety. Jacob had thought of himself as alone in his flight to save his cheating skin.
That makes Jacob’s campsite like a lot of places that God’s people find ourselves. We naturally think of our homes as just places we live, worksites as places we work, parks as places we play and churches as places we worship. God’s encounter with Jacob reminds both him and us that God is present to all of those places — even when we don’t recognize that presence.
God’s people typically assume that we somehow must make our own way in the world, with perhaps a little help from our family members, friends and allies. God’s encounter with Jacob reminds us that we’re never alone, that we never have to make it on our own.
At the Lord’s Table God’s people gather to eat what looks like very common bread as well as drink what seems like quite ordinary wine or juice. None of it actually looks all that different from what we buy at a store or bakery and then eat and drink at home. And yet we profess that God makes himself present to and in these common elements. That the Holy Spirit somehow makes wine, juice and bread for those who believe the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Of course, those elements look so ordinary and we struggle so hard to know how Christ is present in them that Christians sometimes endlessly argue about that presence. Perhaps, then, God’s children are best off when we just profess the Lord is somehow among both God’s people and the bread and the wine – even though we aren’t always aware of or understand it.
In his own inimitable and memorable style, Frederick Beuchner (Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, Harper & Row, 1979) describes Jacob’s dream. He notes, “the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different … It wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave him … 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 that you can’t get but only can be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.”
Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 139 is a doctrinal and devotional classic. It bristles with theologically rich ideas and it hums a lullaby of divine care. Oh yes, it also shocks with its infamous ending; “if only you would slay the wicked, O God!” But for all its familiarity, Psalm 139 is hard to describe. Is it a hymn of praise, or a prayer of contrition, or an individual lament/complaint, or a wisdom psalm? Various scholars posit each of these, but none of those categories seem to fit exactly.
Perhaps the problem is that nearly all scholars, indeed, nearly all Christians, are so uncomfortable with verses 19-22 that they avoid them when trying to understand the Psalm. But could it be that those verses are, in fact, the hermeneutical key that unlocks the entire Psalm? If that is true, then Psalm 139 is a prayer for the vindication of an innocent person, identified in the superscription as David. My enemies say I’m guilty of terrible sins, but I’m not. So, O God, search me and know me and see if there is any wicked way in me. Clear my name and lead me in the way everlasting. Let’s see if this reading of Psalm 139 stands up to close investigation.
The Psalm consists of four poetic paragraphs of 6 verses each, and each section is concluded with a couplet that elaborates on the theme of that unit. It’s almost like a carefully argued brief that steadily and increasingly builds a case for innocence. Verses 1-6 introduce the theme: God knows me completely. “You have searched me and you know me.” But the Psalmist isn’t content to say that just once; indeed, he uses 6 different words for knowledge here. And he uses the literary device of antitheses to describe the extent of God’s knowledge: sit and rise, going out and lying down, conscious and unconscious, spoken words and unspoken words.
God knows me so thoroughly that I can’t comprehend his knowledge; it is “wonderful.” The Hebrew there is a word often used to describe God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel, the miracles he performed in redeeming them. God’s comprehensive knowledge is in that category of miracle. If there were any sin worthy of condemnation in me, God would know it.
But God doesn’t just know me from afar, like some giant mind in the sky. In verses 7-12, the Psalmist goes on to describe how close God is. Surveying all of space, the Psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Again using the literary device of antitheses, the Psalmist goes to the perimeters of life to explore God’s omnipresence, not as an abstract doctrine, but as a comforting truth. He considers the vertical dimension of existence; “if I go up to the heavens or make my bed in the depths, you are there.” And then he goes horizontally to the ends of the earth: “if I rise on the wings of the dawn (the east) or settle on the far side of the sea (the west), your right hand will hold me.”
God is everywhere, so there is nowhere for me to hid in my sin. Indeed, says the Psalmist in a surprising twist, God is even in Sheol (that is the Hebrew word in verse 8b translated “depths”). Sheol was the realm of the dead, where according to most Psalms God was not present. God is not only in the heavens where he has his house and his throne, but even in Sheol, where there is no existence at all. The words of Jacob in the Old Testament reading for today capture the unlikeliness of this thought. At Peniel, Jacob has a vision of that ladder stretching from earth to heaven and he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and was not aware of it (Genesis 28:16).” There is no place where God is not. So I cannot hide my sin from him.
In verses 13-18, the Psalmist moves from space to time. The Lectionary omits these verses, as well as 19-22. That is most unfortunate, since verses 13-18 are the culmination of the Psalmist’s plea of innocence, and verses 19-22 reveal the reason for that plea. In verses 13-18 the Psalmist goes beyond the borders of our earthly lives. Even before we were and even after we are not, God was, and is, and will be there. Our entire existence is encompassed within the reality of God.
Using language that tugs at the heartstrings, David says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb… when I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed substance.” Then David boggles the mind as he soars to the heights of theological mystery. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” He acknowledges the incomprehensibility of such thoughts. When he tries to think about the majesty of God’s mind and the mystery of God’s plan, he grows weary and falls asleep. But when he wakes up, there is God again in all God’s inscrutability.
At least that’s how the NIV translates the last part of verse 18. But the Hebrew of that verse suggests a different thought, a thought more in keeping with the gist of this part of David’s innocent plea. “When I come to the end of my life, you are there.” You were there before my life began and you will be with me when my life ends and you are with me in every intervening moment. All the days of my life have been authored by you, O God. You know absolutely everything about me. So you know that I am not guilty of the things my enemies accuse me of.
To this point the Psalmist has carefully argued his case about his innocence, based on God’s encyclopedic knowledge of him. Now he turns to his accusers and snarls out his bitter feelings against them. We could argue that David identifies so closely with God that he sees their opposition to him as opposition to God. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord.” This isn’t petty personal hatred based on his own pain. This is holy anger against those who rebel against the covenant Lord of Israel by rejecting his chosen King.
The Lectionary leaves out this part of Psalm 139 in our reading for today, probably because it doesn’t seem very Christian. Didn’t Jesus specifically say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. (Mt. 5:44).” And didn’t Jesus’ brother say, “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires (James 1:20).” Those verses and many others like them suggest that we should not take the words of Psalm 139:19-22 as a model for Christian prayer or behavior. But to omit them entirely from our consideration both denies the reality of such feelings in even the godliest of God’s people and leaves the prayer of Psalm 139 unexplained.
It is simply a fact that we sometimes find ourselves in the very situation that led to the writing of Psalm 139. We are falsely accused and it hurts terribly. And while the Psalm gives voice to our bitterness, it also, and primarily, shows us what to do with our wounded innocence. We should go to God and ask him to vindicate us. In effect, Psalm 139 says to both accused and accusers, “As God is my witness, I am innocent of the crimes of which you accuse me.” That is what the Psalmist is asking God to do. Be a witness for me. Search me. Examine me. Test me. And in your complete knowledge of me, vindicate me.
As I wrestled with this interpretation of Psalm 139, I wondered how many Christians would be able to relate to it. You can help your people get into the Psalm by imagining David running for his life from the mad King Saul. He had been nothing but loyal to Saul, but Saul harbored demented suspicions of David. Saul’s persecution may have been the Sitz im Leben for Psalm 139.
Or remind your folks about poor Job, whose friends were absolutely sure that anyone who suffered that much must have committed some terrible sin. His comforters became his accusers, and he bitterly protested his innocence to God. Here was a man who had done nothing wrong. Even God says so. And the accusations of his friends made Job plead with God, as David does here. Indeed, many scholars see parallels between Job’s speeches and David’s poem.
Or think about Paul’s persecution by the Judaizers and the super apostles. They were sure he was guilty of blasphemy and heresy, while he knew he was simply preaching what God had revealed to him. In letter after letter, he protests his innocence, defending his gospel, and appealing to God for help. I Corinthians 4:3-4 have the same tone as Psalm 139. “I care very little if I am judged by you or any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”
And most of all, consider Jesus and his unjust condemnation by people who did not know what they were doing. He was completely innocent of all sin, but his accusers, prodded into action by the Accuser, nailed him to the tree as a damnable sinner. But rather than snarl at them as David does here in Psalm 139, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them….”
The kind of knowledge and presence of God described in Psalm 139 can be either a comfort or a threat to people, depending on where they are with God. If we are trying to flee from God’s presence (verse 7), God’s omniscience and omnipresence will seem oppressive. If we are resting in the hollow of God’s hand (verse 5), we can take deep comfort from the words of this Psalm.
We can preach Good News from Psalm 139. The God who knows us this completely is not the Unknown God of today’s Athenian philosophers (Acts 17). The Lord to whom David appeals has made himself known in Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18).” The God to whom David prays for vindication is the God who sent his own Son “to be sin, so that in him we might become righteous of God (II Cor. 5:21).”
Knowing God this way gives new meaning to the end of Psalm 139. David is sure of his innocence, so sure that he calls God as his witness. But then he ends with a hint of vulnerability in his protestations of innocence. “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I might not be correct in my sense of innocence. And indeed, I’m not. So, Lord, lead me in the right way, the way that leads to Christ, the way that brings everlasting life to those who find their righteousness in him and him alone.
The words of Jesus in John 10:27 and 28 collect all these thoughts into one place and one person. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
There is an ambivalence in our society about being known. On the one hand, 94% of respondents to a recent poll said, “Nobody really knows me.” While that might be a comfort to some, I’m guessing that most of those who answered that way were speaking from a place of deep loneliness and longing. On the other hand, most of us are very uncomfortable with the fact that our computer use makes us vulnerable to being known by absolute strangers, even sinister predators. With a few clicks of a mouse, a clever criminal can know embarrassing and dangerous things about you. The thought of being searched and known through your computer is deeply unsettling. What a comfort to know that Somebody really knows me and that this Somebody is the Savior who entered my space and time in a body to save me from my sins.
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.
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. 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 the word “sufferings” occupying so prominent a place in verse 18. 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. 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 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.
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!