Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 20, 2018
Romans 8:22-27 Commentary
Theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has pointed out that all tonal music in the Western world relies on patterns of tension and resolution. Songs begin somewhere, take us on a journey through a variety of ensuing notes and melodies, and then finally bring us back to where we started. It is a pattern of what Begbie calls “Home — Away — Home.” This pattern is universal.
Watch this YouTube clip from minute marker 4:35 until about 6:50 to see and above all to HEAR what this is.
When we feel we have been taken away from home, when we feel musical tension, we want to return home and have that tension resolved. The very music creates this desire in us. Jeremy Begbie sees in all this something that is also near the heart of theology. But in theology we don’t talk about “Home — Away — Home” but rather “promise and fulfillment,” “the already and the not yet.” We live between the times.
We are, by grace, “in Christ” and yet we are simultaneously in the world. We are living Temples of the Holy Spirit—as Pentecost celebrates—and yet remain very much in this world. There is, naturally, a glorious “up-side” to being “in Christ.” We know our sins are forgiven, we know there is power available to help us perform holy deeds, we know ultimately (as Paul will say at the climax of this chapter) that there is now nothing that can separate us from the love of God. But for the time being, our “in Christ” status is not only a glorious truth, it also creates tension. That is the main idea that this portion of Romans 8 talks about.
Given the soaring rhetoric and the faith-filled confidence that permeates Romans 8, it is arresting to find word like “sufferings” and “weakness” and “groanings” in these verses. But Paul is firmly rooted in reality. For now we do suffer. Indeed, we suffer even more precisely because of the hope that is in us.
These verses are assigned by the Lectionary for Pentecost and as just noted, that is surely the day that brought the living presence of Jesus directly into our hearts through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Because of the inner testimony of that Spirit we know Jesus has won the victory. We know what the end of the story is going to be. At the same time, however, we know that this conclusion is not yet here. And we’re not the only ones. Listen: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to this present time.” The creation groans. It groans because it longs for something. It longs for something because although subjected to decay, God has suffused the creation with something else, too: hope.
God has given even the non-human creation hope. There is liberation on the way for all creatures of our God and King. A time is coming when decay, pollution, species extinction, oil-slicks on pristine beaches, ozone depletion, and global climate change will be no more. Somehow, in ways Paul leaves tantalizingly unexplained, the creation knows this. So much so that in verse 19 (just prior to the technical start of this reading in verse 22) Paul uses a wonderfully colorful image that has been totally obscured in translation. The phrase rendered as “eager expectation” means literally “to crane one’s neck.” It’s the image of a little child at a Fourth of July parade, eager to see the next spectacle coming down the street. The kid is on tippy-toes, arching and craning his neck almost as though that physical action will draw the next float toward him more quickly. This is the posture you assume not just when you are excited but when you are certain that something wonderful is coming down the pike.
The creation’s knowledge that renewal is coming is so firm that this is its collective posture. But the fact that it is not here yet causes also a collective groaning. The creation groans for the same reason we groan, as Paul goes on to say in verse 23: our faith shows us what is true in the grander scheme of things but for now we know we are not fully home yet. We are still waiting for that final chord to play in the musical score of life.
If we really are people of faith, then we need to feel this tension. We have not heard the final chord. We carry in our hearts a sense of incompleteness. And let me suggest that we must feel this. It is not a sign of doubt to feel incomplete. It is not weak faith that pines to hear the final note but rather it is strong faith that feels this pull forward, this desire to round things out. When you want to hear that last note, you find yourself physically leaning forward, sitting on the edge of your seat, craning your neck in eager expectation of what you know must yet come. Faith like this keeps us moving forward, motivates us to work for justice, to be stewards of the creation and of our non-human cousins within that realm, to do whatever we can that gives life the shape of things to come.
But if that is so, then the second item to note in closing is that we dare not try to deal with our sense of incompleteness by attempting already now to settle for some quick way to round out the music. Years ago on the old “Muppet Show” the muppet Rowlf was the dog who always played the piano. On one show Rowlf was playing a gorgeous Beethoven sonata. He was somewhere in the middle of that piece when the stage manager whispered to him that he had only fifteen more seconds. So Rowlf played a couple more measures of the sonata before suddenly playing that familiar quickie ending “Ba-da-dum-ta-da-dum. Dum.”
There are also theological ways to try tacking on quickie endings. If we insist that all our music in church is ever and only happy-clappy; that every sermon and each worship service round out everything neatly and fully with no questions unanswered, no loose ends left dangling; when we look at even the worst events in life but just smile as we say, “I’m not upset. It’s all part of God’s good plan”–in short, when we leave no room for wrenching groanings over the state of things, then we’re trying to re-write God’s music.
If even the Spirit groans, who are we to resist the same? What’s more, the desire to avoid groaning by pretending all is well short-circuits our efforts to work toward the better things we know God desires. In addition to hope-based patience, we need also what the Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God” calls “tempered impatience” in the sense that we will not settle for how things are but keep craning our necks forward in eager expectation of that final chord that God in Christ will play when our Lord returns. And so we keep leaning forward and we keep moving until that day when the final Hallelujah will sound for every creature and every person under heaven–for that will be the day when we will know finally and fully that we are at long last Home.
[Note: A version of this sermon commentary was posted in July 2017 when the Lectionary also assigned basically this same part of Romans 8. So if you think you had seen this before . . . you might be right!]
A simple illustration of the tension-resolution or “Home—Away—Home” pattern in music is the old “Shave and a Haircut” routine. If someone knocks on a door rhythmically 5 times, your heart will cry out for the answering two knocks. Some of you may remember the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit in which cartoon characters (known as “Toons”) were supposedly real beings, co-existing with human actors in Hollywood. But sometimes Toons would try to disguise themselves. But a Toon’s Achilles’ heel was the fact that no Toon in the world can resist the old “Shave and a Haircut” routine. So if you wanted to know if any Toons were around, all you had to do was knock out the first 5 beats and every Toon in earshot would immediately shriek out “Two bits!” Here is the classic scene where a villain is attempting to see if Roger Rabbit is around. He is! Roger Rabbit holds out as long as he can but then . . .
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