Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 23, 2021
Romans 8:22-27 Commentary
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?
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