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I wonder if you have ever listened to a song on repeat. In my earliest days, this was easy to do as long as you were listening to a 45. It became a little harder with cassettes, which made music portable but you had to find the beginning of the song rewinding and fast-forwarding as needed. It became even easier with cd’s and of course today living with digital music it’s simple. Are there any songs that you play on repeat, or has the sheer number of songs we have access to made that a thing of the past? A favourite music/cultural critic of mine writes of how listening to a song what may seem like an inordinate amount of times in a given space of time gives us an appreciation for it and all its parts that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the church needs, what we as followers of Christ need. I’m not talking about felt needs in terms of needs that are current or problems or issues you might find in any community of faith, but the deepest needs of our hearts. I read an article recently that talked about our need to hear the gospel – the good news of Christ – on repeat. Part of it went like this – “My soul needs to hear the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and future coming over and over again. I’m not sure that another self-help sermon will change my life. I am not convinced that a preacher will provide five steps to resolve my anxiety, improve my self-esteem, etc. But the problems I face, and perhaps the problems you face, seem less daunting when nestled within God’s bigger story.” I read this and thought “Exactly.” This is what my soul needs and I know I’m not the only one. Today we gather around a table at which Jesus told us we proclaim his death until he comes again. It’s one way of playing the good news on repeat.
Which is what our souls need. Here is the good news. Through Christ’s death and resurrection and promised return and sending of the Holy Spirit to us, we have been made part of the family of God. Have you ever gone to visit people and said afterward “They treated us just like family?!” This is the situation that we find ourselves in as followers of Christ and if you have yet to take up the invitation to follow Christ, this is what it means. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is this very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
What in the world do we have to fear, beloved brothers and sisters? Let us not look at this passage that we heard this morning from Paul to the Christians of Rome with any anxiety at all. Let us take it rather as words of comfort and challenge.
At the same time, we are realists or want to be realists at least. We who follow Christ are not called to be Pollyannas or Chicken Littles. We recognize that we suffer and that we are surrounded by suffering. Paul is a clear-eyed realist most definitely and he wanted Christians of Rome to hear the good news on repeat too because they needed to hear it meaningfully and often, just as we do. May our hearts long to hear it, because if we are children of God, then we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ – if in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. “I consider,” writes Paul – in other words taking everything into account – “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
We want to be realists too. To be a Christian realist is to acknowledge that we are a people who are caught between ages. To be a Christian realist is to acknowledge that we live between human frailty or human failure and divine possibility. We live between human frailty and divine possibility. It is to recognize that the kingdom of God is here and it has yet to come in its fullness. That we have been glorified but not fully glorified, as my body attests to every morning. To recognize that we are adopted daughters and sons of God and that we are not yet fully adopted. Kind of like a child who is adopted and there is a period of time during which they and their adoptive parents are waiting for the official papers to come through from the court – and what joy when those papers come through and everything is complete.
I don’t need to list the various ways in which we suffer. It may be for our faith. It may be because of health, death, or loss of any kind. If you’ve lived any significant length of time it’s likely you know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t yet then you will. It might even be enough to make us groan.
Which would be entirely appropriate. We may have a negative view of groaning. We might liken it to moaning or whining even. This kind of groaning which Paul is writing about is entirely appropriate for a people who are living between ages. Paul does not get into answering questions about the “why” of suffering and I think we can go down dangerous paths when we do. He writes of sufferings of this present time – they’re not for all time. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul writes of a momentary weight of affliction which is compared to an eternal weight of glory. In 1 Peter 1:6, Peter writes of trials that will go on but only for a little while. The groaning that Paul is writing about is compared to childbirth. Birth pangs. The pain and cries and noises that accompany childbirth are but temporary, and the final cry signals new life. This is where God’s story is going. New creation. A voice calling out “Look I am making all things new.” All things. All of creation in fact. This is something that we have sometimes missed as Christians. We may reduce God’s saving/delivering/reconciling/restoring/renewing work to ourselves – as if salvation is a private matter for us individually. “Have you accepted Christ as your personal saviour?” is the question that is sometimes asked. There is an individual aspect to being saved of course, but to leave it there (or even to leave it with God’s delivering of humanity) is missing something of which Paul reminds us here.
The good news is for everything. It’s cosmic, man. Truly it’s cosmic. The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. The word here for eager longing literally means stretching the neck or straining the head. This making of all things new includes all of God’s creation, which we messed up and continue to mess up. It is not for nothing that Isaac Watts wrote of joy to the world, and heaven and nature sing, and no more let sins and sorrows grow/nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make/His blessings known/far as the curse is found. It’s a wonderful truth and we do well to hear it often. How would it affect the choices we make when it comes to looking after God’s creation, we who are adopted children of the one who will restore and renew all things? How might we be called to act as agents of restoration? The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. It’s a wonderful thing that animals possess such a sense of expectation, as anyone with a dog or cat knows. It is a wonderful thing that birds sing in anticipation of the sunrise, and may we be reminded of these lines from Paul the next time we hear pre-dawn birds (and I’ll never be annoyed at them again). The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. I always admire people who create visual art. There is a great painting by American Quaker minister/painter Edward Hicks called “The Peaceable Kingdom” from 1830-32 based on Isaiah 11:6 – The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf, and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. It’s where this story is headed.
We groan too of course. And not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. This is to be expected of course, for it is in hope we were saved and you don’t hope for what you see. You hope for what is coming. And so let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. We do this together of course. I was talking recently about the walking school bus as I saw one recently and am always glad to see it. Children out from daycare of camp going along the sidewalk all holding onto a rope. This is something we do together. Sometimes the classic images are the best images. Encouraging one another not to let go, to hold fast (to use the sailor’s term).
We’re not looking for easy answers or pious platitudes. We want to be real. Someone has written this about hope in the middle of suffering – “Even as we know the final result and the glory that awaits us, the troubles of the present are almost more than we can bear. It is one thing to realize at the deepest level of our being that it is worthwhile to wait for the eternal reality in the midst of our transitory afflictions, but it is another thing to experience the untimely death of a spouse or a child or go through a debilitating illness. It is another thing still to pass through a terrible time of persecution in which we see friends and loved ones (or we ourselves) imprisoned and martyred. But that is when the Lord is closer than ever when we can at an even deeper level “share in his sufferings” and the accompanying glory (v. 17). Thus hope triumphs over despair, for not only is the Spirit of Christ near to us in present suffering, but he also guarantees the future triumph in the midst of it.”
We live between human frailty and divine possibility. We live between ages, but we live in the age of the Spirit. We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit… Sometimes the classic images are the best images and we can once again look to the tomato plants, the first fruits of which my family is enjoying (and you can really tell that my life is not really going much beyond house, backyard, my street, and church right now – but it’s good!).
We can wait in patience because we don’t wait alone. The God whom we love is not some dispassionate far away distant figure. There is someone else making noise here in the passage, and of course, it’s the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. The Holy Spirit helps us. The Holy Spirit shares the burden with us. The idea of God’s help is sung in Psalm 89:20-21. This is God speaking and God says “I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand shall always remain with him, my arm also shall strengthen him.” (the same word in the Greek OT is used here for the Spirit helping us). The day to which we look forward – and to which the table we will gather around points forward – is a day of full communion and communication with God. In the meantime, God has given us God’s Spirit to open up a line of communication in prayer. God who searches our hearts knows our deepest needs and hears our heartfelt groanings as the Spirit intercedes (asks) on our behalf.
Part of our waiting involves gathering around a table. It is not for nothing that the bread that we eat and the cup that we share both represent harvests of grain and grapes. As we gather around the table we have the first fruit of the Spirit with us, praying for us as adopted children of God. While we wait for full adoption, we are welcomed at the family table. May this be an invitation that we all accept, and may this be true for all of us. Amen.