David A. Davis
July 19, 2020
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Romans 8:18-39. A familiar passage. Perhaps better said, a passage with lots of familiar verses. Verses that pop in the church’s ear when someone stands up to read parts of Romans 8. “For in hope we were saved….hope that is seen is not hope….the Spirit helps in our weakness….all things work together for good for those who love God…those whom God predestined, God also called, and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified…. God who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all us, will God not with him also give us everything else…..we are more than conquerors…neither death nor life….nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Yes, lots of verses. I am sure some of them, maybe all of them, struck you. Sounded a familiar tune. Landed like a favorite line from a song, a hymn, a poem. Here’s the one I kept coming back to this week as I sat with Romans 8. “The sufferings of this present time…The sufferings of this present time” It’s not that it sounds so familiar or I memorized it as a kid or I learned a song with this snippet at church camp. “The sufferings of this present time”. I keep coming back to it because I sat with Romans 8 this week in the summer of 2020. “The sufferings of this present time”.
During my time with family over the last two weeks, a dinner table conversation turned to the topic of comfort food. It started with the making of a list of mid-pandemic, staying at home, comfort foods. The table talk then morphed a bit into sharing memories of go to comfort foods from childhood. Mac and cheese made the list. Chicken fingers too. Pot roast, noodles and mashed potatoes. Welsh rarebit. London Broil. Beef stew. Notice I am not providing the names paired with each comfort food. Someone asked about any fish. My siblings and I agreed that in our childhood home in Pittsburgh, fish was pretty much defined as Mrs Paul’s fish sticks. Mrs Paul’s didn’t make the list. But it was a full list. The comfort food list.
As we drove into our neighborhood on Sunday afternoon, we noticed chalk art in a neighbor’s driveway a few doors down the street. I slowed down so we could take a looked. There were some drawings and some writing. The writing said, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We knew right away what the chalk art meant. Our neighbor who was in her last days with cancer had died. Someone in the family, maybe a grandchild or a great grandchild, turned the driveway into a setting of the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 is the comfort food for the soul, the balm for a grieving heart. A biblical text that rests somewhere far beyond words in the collective imagination of the people of God. I read Psalm 23 today in the King James because I have come to believe that long before any pastor reads it aloud, that it is the translation that most often comes into the ear, the mind, the soul of the broken-hearted.
Psalm 23. Psalm 121 “I lift mine eyes to the hills” Isaiah: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. Revelation; “A great multitude that no could count” and “God will wipe away ever tear”. “Behold I tell you a mystery, we will not all die, but we will all be changed.” I Corinthians. John 14: “Many dwelling places”. So many verses, texts, images, metaphors, affirmations. A feast of the living word that comforts the soul. So many…including Romans 8. I invite you to join me in sitting with Romans 8 this morning. Romans 8 and the comfort food for the soul. Romans 8 and “the sufferings of this present time.”
Like most of you, I imagine, my eye, my heart, my faith has always been drawn to the comfort that the Apostle Paul offers at the end of the chapter. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from the love God. How many times have you heard me preach, proclaim, pray, say some version of Paul’s comforting affirmation? To a brother or sister of a baby being baptized. Nothing will ever take God’s love away from you. In probably every other Time with the Children I do: God will always, always love you. Over and over again. It has become something of a refrain that identifies me as a pastor, me as preacher, me as a follower of Jesus, me as a child of God.
But I am reading Romans 8 differently this week. The comfort of Romans 8 in the “sufferings of this present time.” The comfort comes way before the end. The comfort comes in all the groaning that comes here in the middle of the 8th chapter. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, 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” Creation groaning. We ourselves groaning inwardly. The groans.
Several years ago, Shannon Daley Harris invited me to preach at the Samuel Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy that she is in charge of every year and is hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund. That week the morning bible study was taught each day by Professor of New Testament and Preaching, Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock, now gone on to glory, pointed out that here in Romans 8 there is a third distinct groan. A third groan in addition creation’s groan and the inward grown of we ourselves. There is a groan that has been lost in the English translation of the New Revised Standard Version. “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 professor pointed out that the word for sighs is the same Greek root word Paul uses for the other two groans. “That very spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words.” It is creation groaning, we ourselves groaning inwardly, and the Spirit not sighing but groaning. As the King James puts it: Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities” for we know not what we should pray for as ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
The Spirit’s sigh. It not just a sigh that comes when you plop yourself down in a chair at the end of the day, not just a sigh that comes at the poignant, tear-jerking point of a romantic movie, not just a sigh that comes as you try some deep breathing to calm and center yourself before recording a solo for your virtual graduation. No the Spirit’s groan, it is a guttural, unrecognizable, deep down, not very pleasant sounding, way more than sweet and nice….groan. Creation. We ourselves. And the very Spirit of God. Groaning. Groaning. Groaning.
Creation itself groaning, yearning to be set free from the bondage of decay. We ourselves groaning as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies, the hope of our salvation which we cannot see. And the Spirit groaning, interceding for us because we do not know how to pray, we cannot pray, we do not pray as we ought. The Spirit’s intercession, according to Paul, it’s more than a divine sigh that lifts your piety.
All through Romans 8, Paul is going way beyond your own prayer life. In this seminal biblical chapter for faith, Paul plunges the depths of what it means to walk according to the Spirit, with a call to comprehending the suffering of Christ. Paul wrestles with the weight of salvation and its unfolding before us, among us, for us. And Paul introduces the concept of a cosmic/human/divine growning. “In the sufferings of this present time” , according to Paul there is this groaning going on. Because creation being set free from its bondage to decay and destruction at the hands of humankind, and the way of the Spirit that leads to abundant life now, and the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and the Lion and the Lamb lying down, and the doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God, and the learning war no more, and the little child leading them, and the rough places being mad plain, and as much as you have done it to the least of these, and loving your neighbor as yourself, and the forgive 70 times 7, and the one without sin casting the first stone, and the loving your enemies, and there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, and I by my works will show you my faith, and let us love not just in word or speech but in truth and action….yeah, all of that. We’re not there yet. We are not nearly there yet. And frankly, in the summer of 2020, in “the sufferings of this present time”, it’s not going so well. So there is this groan!
I am thankful to God, we should all be thankful to God, for the Spirit’s help in prayer. Thankful for any way that the Spirit can shape us, lead us to a more disciplined and focused life of prayer. God knows we need it. We will take all the Spirit’s sighing we can get. But there’s this groaning too. The Spirit’s groan. The groan of God. When a pandemic rages with more then 135,00 deaths in this country alone. When video emerges of a police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck in Allentown, PA weeks after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and the legion of protests held in the land. When retail workers are attacked, even killed for trying to get people to wear a mask in the store. Well, there is this groan. The groan of God. When the wear and tear of social isolation starts to wear on seniors living alone with family members left feeling helpless. When being able to watch football games becomes more important than loving your neighbor by wearing a mask. When a 12 year old in North Carolina and a 20 month old in Chicago are shot in drive by shootings in the last week. There is this groan. When people turn to wild conspiracy theories to justify their own hatred and bigotry while others believe science and medicine are the tools of some kind of devil-like enemy. When your love of 65 years is told there is nothing more we can do. When you find out the word “furlough” applies to you. When you come to realize your boss really doesn’t think Black Lives Matter. When a diagnosis or a positive test or a missed AA meeting, or the end of a marriage announcement turns everything upside down in a family in the blink of an eye. Well, there is this groaning. The very groaning of God. Creation, and we ourselves, and the Spirit of God. Groaning…because it is not supposed to be this way. God knows it is not supposed to be this way. The comforting groan of God.
There is this guttural, unrecognizable, deep down, not very pleasant sounding…groan. God who searches the heart, God whose Spirit intercedes, God whose love will never let you go, God who has crafted the glory about to be revealed to us in Christ Jesus. God knows. God groans. The comforting groan of God. And all the while, God calls folks like you and me to serve, to live, to praise, to love, and to point to, to work for, and to pray for the kingdom that is coming. The kingdom that is the way God knows it is supposed to be! Yes that God hears, God knows, God groans. The comforting groan of God. Comfort food for the soul of God’s people.
But Paul reminds us with the glory of our salvation about to be revealed, and the affirmation that in every generation God calls, justifies, glorifies, and with lasting assurance that nothing, nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is more than comfort. It is hope. It is our hope. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” Hope that groans….creation, we ourselves, God’s Spirit….sighing, groaning, longing for, reaching for our salvation in Christ Jesus.
Take comfort, have hope. Children of God, God groans with and for you and nothing, nothing, nothing will ever take God’s love away from you.