Text: Romans 8:18-30
Baghdad, July 30th 1919.
I’ve got some very sad news to tell you, last night when down at the river bathing poor old Eric was drowned. You must forgive me for putting it so blunt, but I feel too full up with it to say much about it. We were bathing as usual and poor old Eric went down. We dived with ropes round us and swam about for half an hour but nothing was seen of him. He was evidently caught in a swift current and carried away. It was all over so quickly that it is hard to realise it. They say everything works together for good but I’m blessed if I can see it. You know my saying, don’t you? “What is to be will be”. We’ve got one consolation, Walter, and that is, he is gone to a happier world than this. I don’t think there was a better living man to be found anywhere and he was liked and respected by everyone. Please forgive this short letter. I hope they will find the body and bury him with military honours.
Remembrance to all,
Your Old Pal, Sid.
Eric Gaze’s body was never found. His young widow was left to bring up three small daughters on her own. Her Christian faith, severely shaken as it must have been, grew deeper and richer over the years. She taught her daughters to put their hope in Christ, and they in turn passed it on to the next generation. Including me. Eric Gaze was my grandfather.
‘They say everything works together for good.’ This was, of course, a half-remembered quotation from Romans 8:28 – ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’
How can Paul have such unshakeble conviction in the face of everything that life can throw at us? Has he forgotten all the sadnesses, the disappointments, the bereavements, the pain, that he had met in his own life, and that we meet so often in ours? Is this not a specimen of vague optimism, a hope against all hope, that somehow everything will work out in the end? And is not such vague optimism too easily dashed, too quickly to be replaced by fatalism, or even despair?
No, Paul has not forgotten. All the way through our passage, he has two realities in mind – present suffering, and future glory. I want to try to show you how Paul gets from one to the other; from groaning to glory.
In fact, we hear three groans.
1. God’s Creation Groans, v22 – ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the preset time.’
There is both a past and a future aspect to this.
He glances back to the past – v20 – ‘the creation was subjected to frustration’. When God finished his creation, he “saw all that he had made, and it was very good”. But the man, the pinnacle of this good creation, rebelled, and brought in futility and frustration on a cosmic scale. Note the words that Paul used to describe the plight of creation: suffering, v18, vanity, v20, bondage, v21, decay, v21, and pain, v22. God’s good creation has become a groaning creation.
But he sets his sights on the future
Creation is waiting, v19 –The whole of creation is waiting with ‘eager expectation’ – standing on tiptoes, craning the neck. What is it waiting for? ‘For the sons of God to be revealed.’ At the end of a play, the final curtain is drawn back to reveal the actors as their true selves. At the end of the age, there will be an unveiling and a public display of the character those who are ‘in Christ’. They may not look much like sons of God at the moment. Certainly, they experience suffering and weakness like everyone else. But the last day will publicly manifest their real status.
The creation not only waits for the revealing of the sons of God, v19, but will share in this liberation itself. V21 ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’ Climate change, nuclear holocaust, the AIDs epidemic, these are massive threats that we dare not take lightly. But they cannot, and will not, have the last word. Look at v22. The suffering of God’s creation is not its death throes, but its birth-pangs. This is not twilight, but dawn. God has promised to deliver it from corruption and decay and to bring it to freedom and glory.
Let’s respond to this with humility. Although nature may be red in tooth and claw, it is a thousand acts of human greed and abuse that have brought us to the edge of global catastrophe. And let this remind us of our Christian duty towards our fragile environment. When we care for this groaning creation, we are not oiling the wheels of a vehicle that is about to run over the edge of a cliff. Rather, we are demonstrating respect for God’s handiwork, destined as it is not for annihilation, but for glorious renewal.
2. God’s People Groan, v23. It’s not only creation, but ‘we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’
Human life, though it has countless delights, is not what it was meant to be, nor what it will be. And so we groan, we hope, and we wait.
We groan. In so many ways, our reach exceeds our grasp. Bishop Tom Wright has written about this in his book, ‘Simply Christian’. We strive for justice, but seldom achieve it. We yearn for spiritual meaning, yet end up in idolatry. We seek intimacy in our relationships, yet so often leave a trail of heartache and loneliness. We crave beauty, but it fades from our sight like a fleeting sunset. So many half-fulfilled dreams and aspirations. No wonder we groan.
We hope. The followers of Jesus Christ have much now, and the promise of much more to come. We are the people, says Paul, who have ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’. The Holy Spirit is God’s firstfruits, the foretaste of the final harvest. Again, we groan in eager anticipation. The very presence of the Spirit (being only the firstfruits) is a constant reminder of the incompleteness of our salvation, as we share with the creation its frustration, its bondage to decay and its pain.
Please note that our hope in cludes ‘the redemption of our bodies’. We do not look forward to some ethereal, disembodied existence. The final chapter in God’s book is not burying our mortal bodies in the grave and then our souls ‘going to heaven’. No: there’s something far more solid than that. At the last day, God will give life to our mortal bodies and we shall take our place in the new heaven and new earth.
We wait. We wait, says Paul, ‘eagerly’, v23, and ‘patiently’, v25. Not so eagerly that we lose patience, and not so patiently that we lose our eagerness.
And this waiting is not idle. It’s not like standing around with our hands in our pockets waiting for a bus to turn up. It’s more like a parent who has a sick child. She is waiting for the doctor to arrive. But, in the mean time, she tends to the needs of her child. She groans with concern. She waits with eager anticipation. She does everything she can until help arrives. There is a remarkable moment near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus comes face to face with a man who has the deeply disfiguring and disabling disease of leprosy. Mk 1:41 says that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion.’ The text could equally be rendered, ‘he groaned with indignation.’ Anger, even. And he reached out his hand, touched the man, and healed him. We who are followers of Jesus Christ turn to the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings with a compassion – indignation – that compels us to act.
God’s creation groans. God’s people groan. But thirdly,
3. God’s Spirit Groans, v26. ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.’
If, as we have just seen, the Son of God groaned with compassion in the face of human suffering, we should not be surprised if the Spirit of God does the same for the people of God. He shares with us our longing for freedom. He groans with us, and for us.
The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. Maybe Paul is thinking of particular weaknesses – weakness due to sickness, or weakness due to persecution. But he is probably thinking more generally of our human condition, the weakness that part of our creatureliness in this damaged and disordered world.
The Spirit also help us in our ignorance. ‘We do not know what we ought to pray for’. We often do not know, for example, whether to pray for deliverance from some difficulty, or for patience to endure it. But the Spirit knows, and he will turn that knowledge into powerful, prevailing prayer.
I asked for strength that I might stand straight and tall;
he made me weak that I might lean on him.
I asked for health that I might do great things;
he gave me grace that I might do good things.
I asked for riches that I might be comfortable;
he gave me poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the respect of men;
he gave me weakness that I might feel a need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
he gave me life that I might enjoy all things.
I received nothing I had ever asked for;
he gave me all that I had ever needed.
Our prayers may contain all the wrong words. They may contain no words at all. ‘But the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.’ But, as John Bunyan said, ‘in prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.’ The Holy Spirit himself will make good our weakness and ignorance.
Here, then is the heart of Christian assurance. We hear the groans of God’s creation, of God’s people, and of God’s Spirit. But these are the groans eager expectation. To hope for complete deliverance from pain in this life is a pipe-dream. God has not guaranteed us immunity from tragedy. He has not promised us freedom from suffering.
But ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ We can share with the apostle Paul an unshakeable conviction in the good purposes of God, from divine foreknowledge before time began to glorification in the age to come. And we believe that since God is ‘for us’, having already given up his own Son for us, he will give us everything that we need. Nothing that life – or death – can throw at us can prevail against us; nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.