Sunday, June 24, 2018

All Things Work Together: Sermon on Romans 8:28-30

“I have gone about as a beggar, showing against my will the wound of fortune. … I have been as a ship without sails and without rudder, driven to various harbors and shores by the parching wind which blows from pinching poverty. And I have appeared vile in the eyes of many....” It all but goes without saying that the man who said that was not having a very pleasant day. Once again, he packed up what little belongings he had, the papers he could carry with him, the clothes on his back, and fled for his life and liberty. Nothing in life seemed to be going his way in the slightest.

He used to have almost everything he wanted. The man had dreams once. Born and raised in the Tuscan city of Fiorenza, he'd lost his parents young – by eighteen, he was left to carry his family through life. Two years later, he accepted the marriage his late father had arranged for him to a kind and tolerant young woman, Gemma, a daughter of a powerful and well-connected family, the Donatis. He himself was of noble breeding. Four years later, he went to battle, fought in the cavalry at Campaldino to settle the political strife that had shredded Fiorenza since before he was born. For years, two factions – political parties, if you will – had mistreated and abused each other constantly: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. But, of course, we wouldn't know anything about two political parties ravaging each other, would we?

Well, this young man – twenty-four at the time – was a loyal Guelph, just like his parents. The Guelphs stood against more encroachment by the emperor over life in the city-states of northern and central Italy. And with this battle to defend Fiorenza, the Guelphs had won. He returned home in victory to his family. And six years later, the ambitious young man joined a guild and entered the political arena himself. And he was good at it, too – so good, so persuasive every time he spoke, it made some people uncomfortable. He rose to superintendent of road repair; more than that, had a seat on the main city council; more than that, served a brief term as one of the six priors of the city. He had wealth. He had power. He had influence. He lived the good life, and provided for his family, and attended his church on the regular – after all, it was only three minutes' walk from his house.

In the meanwhile, as can happen to any political party, a fault-line cracked open within the world of the Guelphs. Some families began identifying themselves as Black Guelphs; others as White. The Black Guelphs wanted to expand the political influence of Pope Boniface VIII, who ruled the Papal States to the south. In Fiorenza, their faction was headed by Corso Donati, a relative of Gemma's. But Gemma and her husband, despite family ties, were White Guelphs – they didn't want that at all. But surely we can't relate to a political movement collapsing into petty infighting, can we?

Well, as the feud escalated into local political violence, the White Guelphs sent several ambassadors to the pope, whose thug Charles of Valois was on his way to come be a 'peacekeeper' in the city. Our man was one of them. Pope Boniface didn't much care for him; he detained him at Rome 'til the dirty work was done. Charles was some peacekeeper – if by 'peacekeeper,' you mean a partisan hack who turned Fiorenza over to the Black Guelphs, let them riot, let them destroy property, let them kill and banish their enemies, let them take over the city government. Once in charge, the new government levied false charges of financial misconduct against our man, confiscated his assets, and threatened to burn him at the stake if he came back without paying a steep fine and groveling for mercy. Just like that, he was homeless and penniless, separated from his family, and on the losing side of history, it looked.

Fleeing northward to Verona, he tried to take part in a conspiracy to regain power over Fiorenza for the White Guelphs, but it fell apart and was crushed; disgusted and disillusioned with the movement, he became an independent, a party all to himself. Forced out of Verona, he went to Bologna and tried to reestablish himself. For a few years, he had hope – until the fragile political truce there collapsed to Black Guelph influence, and once again, he had to flee the city, alone and friendless. He lamented his “exile and poverty,” “all my woes and all my misfortunes,” he called them. And he finally had to admit: he'd lost it all; his dreams were dead.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever found yourself feeling all alone, or opposed at every turn? Have you ever felt detached from the world, homeless, unmoored, set adrift? Have you ever had it all taken away from you, or felt like you'd lost just about everything that mattered? Have you ever been in a situation where you just can't see how things can possibly turn out right? Have you ever been able to identify with “woes” and “misfortunes”? With “pinching poverty,” with being like “a ship without sails and without rudder,” with feeling like you appear “vile in the eyes of many”? Have you ever wondered why all this could be happening to you? I know plenty of you have. I know there are some in this church who may have felt that way in the past year. I know there are some of you who may feel that way right now. Bad things are happening to you, you're losing all you dreamt of, things are just falling apart. And for you, I'd like to fast-forward fourteen years and show you one more scene.

Fourteen years after leaving Bologna, the man exiled from Fiorenza – well, I'll be honest, he never returned to his hometown. He settled for a while in Verona as a sad and serious man, and rediscovered his intellectual pursuits that his political career had begun eclipsing. Before, he'd been a minor poet in the big city. But while on the run from place to place, he'd written a few books – not all got finished – and then turned his attention to the magnum opus that occurred to him. He wrote it in thirds. The first third came out, and it was like wildfire. In Verona, he finished and published the second part of his trilogy and started work on the third.

Already, his fame and influence were growing; not limited to one city, he was becoming beloved throughout the known world. The lord of the town of Ravenna was a big fan – thought this man had become the greatest poet in the world, his favorite writer – and invited him to leave Verona and move there. He did, and brought two of his sons there. Finally, his wife and daughter fled Fiorenza and joined him in Ravenna – the first time he'd seen either in nearly seventeen years. Within the next two years, he finished the last third of his work. And with that, Dante Alighieri, in the final year of his life, had secured his lasting fame.

To this day, he's considered one of the greatest authors to ever live – equal to Shakespeare, if not greater. His three-part epic poem, La Commedia – “The Comedy,” since it dared to sing of a happy ending – took an imaginative journey from the dark woods of despair and lostness through the pains of hell, the mountain of purgatory, and the blissful light of heaven, closing with a face-to-face encounter with God, in the form of a bright and infinite circle in whose depth “it conceives / all things in a single volume bound by Love, / of which the universe is the scattered leaves” (Paradiso 33.85-87). Dante concluded his masterpiece by describing God as “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.145).

The Comedy was eventually upgraded in title to The Divine Comedy. It shaped the art of Michelangelo, the writings of Milton and Chaucer and C. S. Lewis, and the lives of millions. To this very day, over 700 years later, there are people who publicly credit Dante's vision for saving their lives. It left Dante himself international acclaim and enduring praise, gave him and his family their reunion in peace, and offered Dante influence he never could have dreamt of. Pope Benedict XV called Dante “the most eloquent singer of the Christian idea”; the current pope called Dante “an artist of the greatest universal esteem” and “a prophet of hope”; the noted poet Thomas Carlyle said, “I know nothing so intense as Dante”; the famed author James Joyce said he loved Dante second only to the Bible; Napoleon said his great regret was that his France never could produce a match for Dante's “sublime mind.” A few years ago, an Italian astronaut broadcast herself reading from The Divine Comedy from the International Space Station.

Dante could never have gotten there without his dreams being crushed, without his career being ended, without being sent on the run to rediscover his greater passion. Without losing everything, Dante never could have found his true life. His disillusionment was, in the end, dispelled; he saw a glimpse, ever so fleeting, of how all these bad things – his exile, his poverty, his woes, his misfortunes – somehow teamed up, not against him, but in his favor. Glory to God for a story with a happy ending – for a divine comedy.

His exile was not itself good. His loss and devastation were not themselves good. And we can relate. Because there are so many times in life when things are just not working out. Disasters happen. We lose our homes. We suffer strokes and heart attacks. We get diagnosed with illnesses beyond curing. Careers and plans fall through. Loved ones die – husbands, wives, parents, children. We labor beneath chronic pain and difficulty, tremble with the onslaught of wounds beyond our control. And we cry out to God, and things just seem to get worse and worse, and we don't understand what this could possibly be for. Is it just senseless, meaningless? Is it penalty? Is it a lesson? Is it an exposure of the dark void at the heart of the world? And sometimes, to cope with it, we're tempted to brush it all aside, put on a happy face, and proclaim that it's all good. We give our stoic stamp of approval. But these are not good things. And the first step is to be honest like Dante was honest.

In today's passage, Paul makes mention of “those who love God” (Romans 8:28). That was the commandment given to Israel long ago: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). That was the key to the spirituality of God's ancient people, the words they came to recite in prayer several times every day. But Israel just couldn't do it, this greatest commandment. But Paul reminds us that we trust Jesus. In trusting Jesus, we're spiritually fused to him, embedded in him, melded with him closer than any conjoined twin – that's what faith is all about. His love flows into us. His Spirit flies in, fulfilling the law in us, letting us honestly address God as a closely beloved father, 'Abba.' And although our love is like a drippy spigot weak in pressure, what counts is that it's installed and connected to the water main of Jesus.

And for people connected to the main, people fused to Jesus and declared heirs of the whole universe through him, all the junk we have to deal with just doesn't seem fair. It doesn't seem like anyone should deserve it, but least of all us. Is this the thanks we get for trying to live our lives right? For making an effort to clear out the pipes of love and let it flow? Are we thereby emptied of all our dreams, broken and fractured? Is it all just a big cosmic joke with a punchline falling flat? What are we to make of it when things shatter and we lose it all? Or when we just seem to be stuck in exile, when we're driven from home and family and health and love? Or when we can't make ends meet, or when we're cordially invited to the funeral of all our dreams?

Dante can relate. But Dante was called to something bigger than his dreams. And so are we. Paul defines us, not just as “those who love God,” but as people who are “called according to purpose” (Romans 8:28). He describes us as “those whom [God] foreknew,” people he engaged a relationship with before we ever emerged on the world's scene, just like Jeremiah the prophet was: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you: I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). And Paul says that's for us, too. All those connected and fused to Jesus are the people God knew before he formed us, and whom God consecrated from the start. That's what he means when he says were were “predestined” – it means 'set apart in advance,' consecrated before birth like Jeremiah.

And just the same, we have an appointment: Paul tells us that “those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). Our purpose, our advance consecration, involves being set right and made big – bigger than all the sum of our dreams. But it happens, Paul says, through ultimately being “conformed to the image of [God's] Son, that he might be the firstborn of many brothers” (Romans 8:29). Our purpose reaches its climax in being made like Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, the Man on the Mission.

So just like Dante had a purpose he was called to, we too are “called according to purpose” (Romans 8:28). And here's the thing about how God works when he has a calling and a purpose for somebody. See, it was not a good thing that the Black Guelphs exiled Dante. It was not good that they confiscated his property. It was not good that they separated him from his family. It was not good that his career got ruined, that he had to travel around begging, that he had to live on the run, that failure dogged him every way he turned. None of those things were, in themselves, good. But God rearranged those deadly shards and made them his jigsaw puzzle. Few individual pieces were good, but God worked them together for good. God worked them together for the good of Dante himself, and what's more, good to all Western civilization through him.

It's just like how it wasn't good that Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, wasn't good that Potiphar's wife falsely accused him, wasn't good that he went to prison, wasn't good that he was forgotten there for years; but God worked it all together for good – good to Joseph, and good to Egypt, and good to the family of Jacob, and through them, good to the world. And it's just like how it was not good for Judas to betray Jesus, or for the high priest to condemn him, or for Pilate to turn him over to the executioners – but God worked it all together for good – good to Jesus in resurrection to glory, and absolutely good to us sinners he was sent to seek and save.

See how this goes? Fitting together for good is not what things naturally tend to do on their own. Dump the ugly pieces out of the box, see if they line up all pretty. They don't. They're just a pile of ugly sharp little bits. But God designed them to fit together; and, what's more, to fit into a picture that turns out beautiful in the end. It's God who takes the initiative, and reveals the intention he had for them all along, which explains his allowing them in the first place. It's just like Joseph told his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). So much so, that Joseph can describe God at work through the disastrous actions of the wicked brothers: through them selling him into slavery, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (Genesis 45:7; cf. Psalm 105:17).

God takes the initiative in designing the pieces so that, ugly as they are on their own, he can fit them together into a beautiful picture, to which each offers its own curious contribution we seldom could have guessed. And that's because we have so little idea what the 'good' looks like. It's God's initiative, so it's God's definition. We just don't know what all this 'good' is going to include. It's like Dante wrote:

Predestination! O how deep your source
   is rooted past the reach of every vision
   that cannot plumb the whole of the First Cause!
Mortals, be slow to judge! Not even we
   who look on God in Heaven know, as yet,
   how many He will choose for ecstasy.
And sweet it is to lack this knowledge still,
   for in this good is our own good refined,
   willing whatever God Himself may will.           (Paradiso 20.130-138).

Plenty of painful and distressing things may befall us. We have little in the way of promise that they won't. But we do have this promise: that God has designed the ugly and misshapen pieces for the sake of a bigger design we don't see, and he will allow nothing to enter our lives that cannot be fitted into and indeed contribute to this larger purpose. Or, as Paul says it, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to purpose” (Romans 8:28). That is God's promise to us: that every piece, however sharp, will find its fit for you if you are among the lovers of God with a mission and calling to answer in your life. And that holds true whether or not you can start to see the pieces fit together now, or whether or not you'll begin to see the connection next month, or even if it will look like just a heap of disconnected chaos and miscellaneous nonsense until you stand at eternity's threshold and the puzzle is done.

I can't tell you what that puzzle looks like. I can't tell you exactly how the sharp and jagged piece you're dealing with now fits with the one next to it, or what that connection is. I can't tell you how or when those local pieces will, once fitted together, start looking pretty, start producing a good outcome for you. I can't tell you whether it's this side of eternity or not that you'll begin seeing that. Answering those questions, Dante would say, is beyond the purview of even the saints in heaven, let alone the saints on earth. And the questions whose answers are hid from us are certainly annoying, I won't deny that. But maybe it can be “sweet” for us to “lack this knowledge still,” and deepen our faith to “will whatever God himself may will.”

Is that consolation if you're facing chronic pain? Yes – your pain and its results will somehow, some way, have a place in a bigger and beautiful picture; just keep the spigot of love turned on, keep loving God, keep seeking and serving God's call according to purpose. Is this consolation if you're caring for a loved one with dementia? Yes – even that will fit into the puzzle. What about if you lose your home, like Dante? He's proof that God can work even that, combined with all the rest of your experiences, together for good. What about in the case of grief and separation? Yes – if that enters your life, that take that as God's declaration that he can somehow work it together with the rest for a good outcome; just keep loving God, keep answering his call, keep going deeper in this mission that will bless and save the world. Because that is the core of our call in Christ.

This is the guarantee: For all our little tragedies, and indeed through them, by means of them, we have this God-given promise that they will turn out to make up a divine comedy indeed – a story with the happiest ending of all. So all our journey through, may we trust, as Dante would advise us, in a “grace abounding that shall make us fit / to fix our eyes on the Eternal Light / until our vision is consumed in it!” (cf. Paradiso 33.82-84). May we fix our eyes on the Eternal Light of Grace who will work all our tragedies together into a good and divine comedy that knows no end.  Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father of the Heirs: Sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 for Father's Day

As the story would have it, the pair met in a pig farmer's dim hut. The younger man, Telemachus, could scarce believe who was before his eyes. When the tale began, he had assumed his father was simply dead – lost to the Trojan War, perhaps, or lost at sea on the decade-long journey home. Too much time had elapsed to think other thoughts. But Telemachus had gotten divine word that the great Odysseus was alive and was coming home. Even before that, even when he thought his father dead, he'd sat in their besieged house, “sad at heart, seeing in thought his noble father.” Catching the news, Telemachus had journeyed to Sparta to hear stories from his father's old comrades-in-arms, who'd made it home years earlier. And now, unexpectedly, amidst the pig slop, an elderly beggar proved to be the long-lost father Prince Telemachus had loved in absence.

Odysseus, for his part, had been in mental agony for his years away – yearning just to be home with his wife and only son, but stymied at every turn. Finally in reach of his palace, he couldn't declare himself openly – his rivals were too many, they were in his very house with his wife and son, he had to catch them unaware and unsuspecting. Everything depended on secrecy. But on first sight, he was willing to open the secret, to trust himself, his whole plan, to the son he'd never met, but who turned out to be a chip off the old block indeed. At the revelation, Telemachus hurled his arms around Odysseus' neck, weeping and wailing; and Odysseus' face burned with hot emotion, and they wailed like the birds of the sea, and irrigated the earthen floor with their tears. By the end of the tale, they'd fight side by side, father and son, men, comrades, warriors, to reclaim Odysseus' home and Odysseus' kingdom.

In spite of his unwilling twenty-year absence, Odysseus – hero of the ancient Greek poem called The Odyssey – was a good father. Caring, devoted, a strong protector, inspiring courage and faithfulness even while away. The stories of the Greeks included a few good fathers. There was Odysseus, just mentioned. There was Daedalus – he was a decent dad; imprisoned against their will, he devised a cunning plan of escape, gave his son gentle care and diligent instruction. It wasn't his fault Icarus didn't listen, fell to temptation, flew too close to the sun, and plummeted to the briny deep. Daedalus did his best. He was a good father.

The myths of the Greeks reckoned with good fathers. They reckoned also with fathers less worthy of applause. Theseus, the man who outfoxed the Minotaur, the legendary founder of Athens, was given three wishes by the sea god Poseidon. But when his second wife came to him with a fraudulent tale of his own son Hippolytus and sexual misconduct, Theseus bought it hook, line, and sinker – so much so, he used a wish to bring down a curse on Hippolytus, leading to his own son's death. And then Agamemnon, the great king under whom Odysseus had fought at Troy – when harsh winds from Artemis stood in the way of their voyage, the only way to lift it had been for him to sacrifice his very own daughter Iphigenia – and he had. Neither a great example of fatherhood.

Surely, we'd think, things would be better in the histories of the Hebrews than in the myths of the Greeks. After all, God's people have the opportunity to learn so much about how to parent. And the Old Testament shares the stories of some dads worth admiring. There's Joseph, for one, son of Jacob – at first, like the Greek Hippolytus, he's suspected wrongly by Potiphar under the latter's wife's false accusation. But Joseph, living to tell the tale, grows to a man, marries Asenath, raises his two boys Manasseh and Ephraim – and there's no record of anything but caring parenting, and Joseph lives to see their children and their children's children. And Job is perhaps the best father walking the earth in the Old Testament – a phenomenal provider, devoted, caring, fair, a sterling role model, a spiritual guide, extending his parenting beyond his own large natural family to serve the needy.

But even among God's people, things didn't always pan out that way. Last week, we talked about Hezekiah and his father Ahaz – how Ahaz was a cowardly man, whose example Hezekiah detested, and how perhaps the great wound of Hezekiah's life was discovering too much of his father in himself. Hezekiah would have preferred to act more like his famed father David – but David's record as a dad may have been a weak spot, considering how after one son dies as a consequence of David's crimes, a second son wreaks horrific abuse on David's daughter, but the second son is killed for it by a third son, who is the first of two sons to wage war against their father David; and in the end, David says to a fifth son, Solomon, that he should start his rule by murdering whatever enemies David has left. Maybe David could have done better on the home front, is what I'm thinking. The priests didn't have it much better: Eli and Samuel both raised wicked, uncontrollable families – the Bible outright calls them “worthless” – and that just repeats the saga of two of Aaron's own boys, whose uncle Moses also nearly got killed for being an uninvolved parent. And between those bookends, the judges include the likes of Jephthah, who pulls a trick from Agamemnon's hat when it comes to daughters and sacrifice.

You'd think that the legends of the pagans and the histories of the chosen people would highlight good fathers, worthy fathers. And they do. But whether Gentile or Jew, they have to admit that fatherhood ain't easy – and sometimes it makes for rough going. That's the thing: fatherhood can be a hard and laborious calling, and a father who pursues it well and sticks the landing consistently is a rare and precious phenomenon, not to be taken lightly.  And it makes you wonder, what is going on, that these problems – in some cases, the very same tropes – are popping up among such seemingly different peoples. Why is it so rough? Is there any way to handle it?

And with that, we turn to Paul's words for us today. And naturally, what he has to tell us is confusing, but on the upside, it'll prove, I think, twice as rewarding as it is confusing. What he tells us is that “we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). One of those notorious apostolic head-scratchers. He's talking, of course, of the immaturity of the human race, in both its Jewish and Gentile faces. In that condition, we weren't free; we had to follow the rules laid down by... the elements of the world. Your English Bible might try to do some legwork for you: the ESV says “elementary principles,” the NRSV says “elemental spirits,” the NIV says “elementary spiritual forces” – those translations all interpret it before it even gets to you. Here, the King James just leaves it as is: “elements of the world.”  Okay... but what's that mean?

What Paul might be getting at here is that, among all the pagan peoples of the ancient world, there were basic ways of organizing the world they lived in – “the basics of religious and social life,” one scholar calls them. Pagans divided pure things from impure things, clean things from unclean things; pagans had lists of taboos, like things they couldn't eat, words they couldn't say; they had places they called good and places they called bad; they had people they called priests and people they said weren't; they modified the flesh on their bodies; they observed their festivals and holidays; they made sacrifices to their gods to keep the world in motion; they feared their gods, but knew that the world could keep running if they just kept it orderly by organizing space, organizing time, organizing matter, putting things in their place. Oh, sure, the Egyptians did it differently than the Babylonians, the Babylonians did it differently than the Greeks, and then there were the Romans, and unbeknownst to Paul there were even different ways in northern Europe or across the sea in a new world – but he boils it down to “the elements of the world.” These are the building blocks, the basic elements, that made up an orderly world, where the Gentiles of old were concerned. Everything had its place – and the same building blocks would make up how fatherhood functioned among them, whether for Odysseus and Daedalus or Theseus and Agamemnon.

But when Paul looks back at the history of his own people, he sees the same elements at work. God hadn't done away with the building blocks the childish pagans played with; he'd just offered a healthier arrangement. The Jews, too, had guidelines for pure and impure, clean and unclean; the Jews had their taboos of food and speech; they had holy space and unholy space, priests and non-priests; they modified their flesh with circumcision; they had their own special festivals; they offered up sacrifices of meat and blood; they rearranged space and time and matter in ways they deemed orderly and helpful, to keep the world in motion. Everything had its place – and those very same building blocks would make up how fatherhood functioned, whether for Job and Joseph or David and Jephthah.

And Paul says that, in both cases, they were “enslaved under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). They had to be – they were like children, immature, needing those neat and tidy structures to get by. It's like, he says, how any child in his world would have a slave-like status, be bossed around by guardians and managers, until it was time to grow up and receive what's his (Galatians 4:1-2). Until that time, they all just played around, like pre-Kindergartners with their alphabet building-blocks.  (When you were little, did you have those?  Did your kids play with those?  Can you picture this?  I worked for several years in a daycare; I remember these.)  That's what they'd do: play with those alphabet building blocks, arranging them in rows, stacking high – same blocks for all the kids, just different arrangements. Paul says that's what we were always about. And that's how fatherhood so often works – just putting the blocks this way or that, trying to fit ourselves or our kids within these simple rows, laying down time and space and matter in orderly ways and enforcing it, and trying to see where our kids fit in the world or how we can build them something that lasts... out of these blocks in our hands.  And Paul would point out that our approach has been, too often, fundamentally childish.

But then, Paul tells us, something magnificent happened. God had set a time in advance when he decided it was high time we learned how to grow up and put away childish things. So “at the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son.” He sent his very own Son into our world, so that we could see real fatherhood and real sonship in action. At that appointed time, God sent his very own Son into our experiences of family life – that's why Paul stresses here that God's Son came into the world by being “born of a woman,” born into the messy and rough and complicated places we call families (which at their best can also be quite rewarding and nourishing and life-affirming places, but certainly always messy!). And not only that, God sent his very own Son into those messy and rough arrangements and rearrangements of the world's building blocks – that's why Paul adds the line about him having been “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).

The Law was God's way of helping his childish people, in the days of their infant praise, to arrange the blocks to spell out healthy messages instead of mean ones. It was good, for its time. But doesn't the time inevitably come to put the baby toys back in the box and find something else to do? And so Paul adds that Jesus didn't just come to help us find new ways of arranging and rearranging the building blocks of the world; he came to teach us to read the message written on them, and then to put them away and leave the sad playtime of our childhood to join him on far bigger adventures in the open wild.  It's those kind of family outings Jesus and his Father aim to take us on!  Or, as Paul puts it, God's Son came “to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:5), those who were “enslaved under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3).

And in sending his Son into the world, into our hazardous and unsafe playground, God opened up real fatherhood, his fatherhood, for all to see what it looks like outside the confines of the building blocks. So when a perfect Father-Son relationship stepped into the open, stepped up to the spotlight, what exactly did we get to see? What kind of relationship does this Son, this Jesus, have with his Father? What kind of Father does God turn out to be to his Son?

First of all, he's a totally present Father. He's no absentee. However much a little child may look around and not notice where his dad is, his dad may still be in the room, right by the kid's side. And that's where this Father is. Jesus can say things like, “I am in my Father” (John 14:20), or “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (John 10:38). And because his Father is a present Father, because he's so close to Jesus, the Son can tell people, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19). Wherever the Son goes, his Father can be seen. The two have a close relationship, emotionally and spiritually and relationally intimate. They communicate all the time – Jesus is always wandering off to his Father's house (Luke 2:49), or into the mountains and deserts and gardens for one-on-one Father-Son bonding time called prayer (Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32). And because his Father was his constant companion, Jesus could honestly say, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). His was a totally present Father.

In that vein, his is a totally interested Father. Jesus can say, “The Father knows me, and I know the Father” (John 10:15). So many times, kids growing up may not feel like their father really knows them, really gets and understands them, who they are, what they're going through. Maybe they don't feel their father values their hobbies or interests, their stories and concerns. Maybe they do, but have trouble reciprocating. But Jesus and his Father had a different sort of relationship. The Father took a full interest in his Son, in everything, every interest, every hobby, every personality quirk, delights in knowing all about his Son's day and the deep things of his Son's heart; and the Son returns the favor.

Jesus also has a totally approving Father. That's the kind of Father that God is to him. So Jesus can say things like, “The Father who sent me bears witness about me” (John 8:18). And you know, of course, the sorts of stuff God says in that witness: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). The Father gives the Son his approval. In this case, the Son more than earns that approval. But you get the sense that this kind of Father is the kind who just at heart approves and affirms of who his Son fundamentally is – and that's a special kind of father, who can communicate that at all times, whether or not a child's behavior is praiseworthy like Jesus'.

As we keep looking, we can see that Jesus has a totally capable Father. This is not a Father who's out of his depth. This is not a Father who needs to read a few more parenting books by the latest expert. He's already got the inside scoop. As Paul puts it, this Father is “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27). The old adage 'Father knows best' – maybe you heard that show in its radio days or watched it on TV growing up (show of hands, who here watched Father Knows Best?) – well, you'll doubtless recall Jim Anderson didn't always actually know best, but Jesus' Father, you bet he knows best, at all times, in all things! He knows how to fix it, knows how to teach it, knows what to do and how to guide. And he's not just wise; he's strong, too, able to protect his Son. He could send twelve legions of avenging angels, if it came to it (Matthew 26:53). But more than that, there's nothing beyond his power: “My Father … is greater than all,” Jesus says, and ain't nobody pulling anything out of his Father's hand (John 10:29).

This Father can fix it, this Father can get it done – but when this Father is working, he doesn't tell his Son to go away and leave him alone to work. No, Jesus' Father is a totally including Father. Jesus mentions, “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:20). The Son is never shut out of his Father's workshop, never excluded from seeing how it's done, and as he receives strength, always invited to pick up the tools and join in. As a result, Jesus can say, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Jesus, the perfect Son, describes himself as “doing the works of my Father” (John 10:37). Because that's what his Father has invited him to do – to come alongside and be included in the work. It's not forced, not a you'll do this because that's my plan for you kind of thing; but because this Son trusts his Father's wisdom and because the Father knows him so well, he's willing to do what he calls “the works that the Father has given me to accomplish” (John 5:36).

And just like he trusts his Father, his Father trusts him and shares things with him. Jesus has a totally trusting, totally sharing Father. His Father gave him works to accomplish because his Father trusts him. “This charge I have received from my Father,” Jesus said (John 10:18). And Jesus' Father is a giver of great gifts: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35). “All that the Father has is mine,” Jesus tells us (John 16:15). How'd the Son get hold of it?  Is it a story like a little boy waiting 'til his dad's back is turned to sneak over, swipe stuff off the shelf, and stockpile it in his room?  Far from it: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father,” Jesus answers (Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22). This Father isn't stingy. He doesn't hold back. He isn't jealous over or overly protective of his stuff. He trusts his Son with it, and shares it with him – all of it.

And so the Father takes good care of the Son, provides for the Son. That's the kind of Father this is – a totally providing Father. He's the sort who'll even feed the birds of the air and clothe the flowers in the fields (Matthew 6:26, 30). And compared with all the fathers who play around with blocks, “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). This Father will do whatever it takes to provide for a kid of his.

Not to say things are always easy for his Son. Jesus has a Father who is a disciplining Father. For “what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). God the Father made his Son “perfect through suffering,” we read (Hebrews 2:10), so that the Son “has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28). And that wasn't always easy – just look at this Son talking to his Father in a dark garden (Luke 22:42), in the days when the Son “offered up” to his Father “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). We read that “although he was a son” – nay, because of it – “he learned obedience through what he suffered,” in order to attain full and perfect maturity (Hebrews 5:8-9).

But the Father was not abusive, not harsh. His Son never had cause to shy away from him, avoid him, withdraw from him. True, “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant” (Hebrews 12:11), but this Father made perfectly clear that it was nothing other than exactly what was needed for growth and health and a better life on the other side. And what drove that point home, what shines through all these characteristics, is that Jesus' Father proved to be a totally loving Father. Jesus says it outright: “The Father loves the Son” (John 3:35; 5:20). He makes it perfectly clear: “The Father loves me” (John 10:17). At no point does Jesus have cause to doubt that; there is no stage where Jesus has to wonder, Does my Father actually love me or not?  

And this because his Father doesn't assume it's just a given, doesn't say, It just goes without saying; the Father vocalizes it, he verbally calls him 'Beloved Son,' tells Jesus to his face that he's loved, and backs it up in action. In that way, Jesus is equipped, as a Son, to imitate his Father's love: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” he tells us (John 15:9). And he knows that his Father's love for him will extend to his friends: “If anyone loves me..., my Father will love him” (John 14:23). “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me” (John 16:27). 

What we see on display are strong bonds of devotion and of communication, expressing an intimate love this Father has for the Son – that's why the Son calls him 'Abba,' such a dear and tender word, the first way a Jewish child of the time learned to address his or her daddy, and often would throughout the rest of life's journey as the relationship held strong.

That's the kind of perfect Father Jesus has. If only our experiences with fatherhood could be that pure, perfect! Paul says we can have that kind of Father – in fact, we can have the very same Father, be his children. And in their own way, Paul's opponents in Galatia agree. But they put extra conditions on it. How do they, the false teachers Paul calls 'Judaizers,' say to reach God? Theirs is an exhausting tale: First get a leg up on Jesus, and then make sure to bring the world's building blocks and stack them atop Jesus, just the way the Law organized them, and keep climbing, and eventually, they said, you'll reach the Father that way: by stacking blocks on Jesus and climbing higher. But Paul says Jesus is plenty tall enough!: he's the perfect Son who looks his Father square in the eye, so be lifted on Jesus' shoulders and there's nowhere left to climb! No building blocks needed. The gospel Paul preaches isn't about the rearrangement of what's old; it's about the eruption of what's new.

And what Paul wants us to see is that to us is open the exact same relationship with the exact same Father that we see Jesus living out in the Gospels. God offers himself to us as a Father – and not just going through the motions while his attention is elsewhere, but the very same kind of fatherhood he showed Jesus, he wants to have that very same relationship with us as we become identified with Jesus the Son and included in Jesus the Son. How do we know that? Paul tells us: “God” the Father “has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). Into each believing heart, the Spirit of Jesus' own Sonship comes, and inspires within us a recognition that we enjoy the same relationship with God that he did. We, too, have God for our Abba. We are no longer under management. We are no longer stuck among the blocks. We are no longer enrolled in daycare. You have been brought in as heirs of the same Father: “no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7), and it's his hunting and fishing trips in the open wild that we're on now.  That is how you know you don't have to keep building, keep climbing, keeping trying to force everything into orderincluding your families, your legacies, or your memories.

This Father's Day, I urge you to be truly thankful for whatever reflections of good shone through in what your fathers did for you. Fatherhood is a hard calling. The Bible says, perhaps optimistically, that “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us … for a short time as it seemed best to them” (Hebrews 12:9-10). Be thankful for any of that, whether they (or you) were more like Odysseus or Agamemnon, Job or Jephthah. But this Father's Day, turn your greatest thanks and attention and imitation to an Abba so near, so dear, so very beyond all this earth has known. “For from him and through him and to him are all things; to him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Help in Weakness: Sermon on Romans 8:26-27

The 39-year-old king was having a very, very, very bad day. Things were not at all turning out the way he had wanted. His rule started out so very well. His father Ahaz hadn't set a good example. His father worshipped idols, encouraged idolatry. His father had been a weak lackey, a puppet, a slave of brutal Assyrian power from the east. His father had neglected God's holy temple; had bartered away his religion for a pittance of so-called 'help' from the Assyrians, had personally sacrificed to demons for it. His father had been a coward. Hezekiah had decided, from the first days he took power, that he'd be no coward. He started by re-opening the temple, celebrating the Passover, cleansing the hills of their 'high places,' those perennial pagan unholy sites. Hezekiah reasserted power and influence over the Philistines. And then Hezekiah told the Assyrians they could go look somewhere else for a pawn. If Hezekiah's father Ahaz had been a coward, Hezekiah refused to follow his lead; he'd look to his further father David and stand up to the giant. Hezekiah vowed to be a David, not an Ahaz.

For a few years, the Assyrians were distracted by the Babylonian uprising in their heartland. But then they went west again. A small Egyptian force stepped in to help the armies of the towns of Judah. And things did not go well. The giant crushed them into the dirt. As the Assyrians mopped the floor with what was left of Lachish, as push came to shove, what would the bold, fearless king do? Well, as it turned out, not be quite so bold or quite so fearless. When push came to shove, he'd turned yellow. In weakness and fear, he'd groveled at his giant's feet; he'd begged for their mercy; he'd offered them tribute; and to send it, he stole from God's treasury and even stripped the gold from the walls of God's temple to appease the giant's wrath with literal tons of precious metals.

Hezekiah was forced to admit he had more of his father in him than he cared to admit. Hezekiah had to look in the mirror and see a man who robbed God to save his own skin – a traitor to his every principle. And worst of all, it had been for nothing. His personal Goliath, the Assyrian king Sennacherib, wasn't satisfied: he wanted not just Hezekiah's gold and Hezekiah's silver, but Hezekiah's heart and Hezekiah's soul. Poised in the ruins of city after city, with a massive army flooding the land, Sennacherib sent three officials to badger king and people in Jerusalem into surrender. The hero king, turned coward king, was compromised, demoralized, confronted with the worst foe of all: his own weakness. But then the prophet his father had loved to ignore, Isaiah, urged him to take heart. And so in the king's weakness, the prophet's words guided his prayers to line up with God's will again; and in the moment of king and people's most obvious weakness and even helplessness, the Assyrian army dropped dead at an angel's ruthless touch, once Hezekiah had refound his faith. You'll find it in 2 Kings 18-19.

When we left off last Sunday, we talked a lot about our present sufferings. We talked about the sufferings we experience in our own bodies – the pains, the sicknesses, the disorders and dysfunctions, the way we fall apart as we age. We talked about the sufferings that the whole creation, too, endures – our pollution, our defilement, its own enslavement to futility. And we heard Paul tell us that “the whole creation has been groaning together” in its agony and woe – every hill, every tree, every river, every plot of farmland, all the seas and valleys – and that it's because “the creation was subjected to futility” against its own will (Romans 8:20,22). And the only hope there is, is in “the revealing of the sons of God,” for which the creation looks with bated breath (Romans 8:19). We were made to be its protectors and redeemers, so that the whole creation can “be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). But our own bodies are in need of the same redemption, so just like creation groans together, we groan for freedom (Romans 8:23). Creation groans for its freedom in our freedom, and we groan for our freedom to free creation.

But there's just so much suffering, so much pain. Ourselves, our environment, our society – with everything in agony, with everything in such distress, how do we navigate that? We can say, generally, that God ultimately wants it gone – he wants to bring about the day when pain and sorrow and suffering and death will be no more, when those former things have passed away, when everything is made new (Revelation 21:4). But in the here and now, there's suffering he aims to refuse and suffering he aims to use, right? How do we know the difference between the two? How can we predict what God's plans are in any situation? How do we prioritize when faced with so many kinds of pain and anguish? How can we possibly get it right?

Paul admits, “We don't know what we ought to pray for” (Romans 8:26c). Our words are just so vulgar and so clumsy, so barbaric and so rough. More often than not, our prayers are like doing surgery with sledgehammers, and we're wanting a translation to refine them with adequate precision and scope to call on God to act. When a loved one suffers from cancer, and we want to pray, how many of us can understand even a fraction of all the cellular processes that cause the conditions for which we're praying? What exactly would it take for God to undo them? What would the consequences be? What, exactly, is it that we want, and how does that affect the rest of their bodies, their lives, their society, their world? How can we pray with precision when we're confused and clumsy and clueless like that?

When we see a polluted lake, when we see a scorched forest, how much can we ask God to do, and how much will he ask us to do? What led to all this, and where's it going? When we pray for one particular species, what would our requests mean for the overall ecosystem? How can we possibly appreciate the vast and complex network for interacting factors, whether just right now or, even harder, stretched through eons of time? It's like when Job finally heard the voice from the whirlwind, interrogating him on whether he really stood in a position and a relationship to be able to navigate this complicated network of interactions that keep the natural world running. Where were we when God defined light and dark, where were we when God numbered the clouds in wisdom, where were we when God charted out the life cycles of every living thing?

And then society, the pain of society! The church should be intimately acquainted with that, right in the middle of it. But when we pray for relief of poverty, what would that actually take? When we pray for peace in the face of war, what would it actually involve, how do we navigate the countless policy implications, the conflicted desires and aims of each party, the hidden secrets of their hearts? When faced with violence, with terrorism, with school shootings, we can see it isn't what God wants for us, but how can we even begin to understand what is happening? And there's so much of it. What do we pray for first: schools in Texas, or bombings in Iraq, or peaceful transitions of power in African countries, or rain in parched lands, or the healing of the ozone layer, or Aunt Betty's bereavement, or neighbor George's dementia, or the decisions of our elected officials and our appointed courts, or the devastation caused by hurricanes, or the war and disease in Yemen we're determined to ignore, or... or... and how can we possibly know how to pray, when to pray, what to pray? We're priests to the creation and to the world, but how do we lift up so many things to God when we're vexed by the immense whirlwind of priorities and problems, none of which we really understand?

The truth is, if we think we can see all there is for us to pray for, it's because we're not looking and not listening. If the church is where God wants it to be, if we are where God wants us to be, then we will be in the very thick of things. We will be where society and creation are yelling and crying the most frantically. If we are doing what God wants us to do, then we will hurt more than ever, we will groan more than ever, we will likely feel more overwhelmed than ever; and if that isn't our experience, maybe we aren't where God wants us to be. If we feel at home, if we're too ready to write it all off as 'normal,' we've perhaps isolated or insulated ourselves.

And so there's so much to pray for, so much pain, so many problems, and so little we really understand about what we're trying to ask God to do. After every prayer, it seems, we have to admit that we like Job are “darkening counsel with words without knowledge” (Job 38:1). How can we ever “comprehend the expanse of the earth” (Job 38:18)? After every prayer, shouldn't we, like Job, have to say, “I have uttered what I did not understand” (Job 42:3)? The deeper we get in desperation, the harder we push in prayer, the more apparent it becomes that, far from confident priests or mighty prayer-warriors, we're weak intercessors who weakly walk the world in weak bodies. The problems of our own lives and bodies, of our neighbors' lives, of society's woes, of each living creature in all creation, outnumber the stars; they haunt us like a vast Assyrian army, and we find ourselves so ill-equipped, like Hezekiah, to fight our way out. Have you ever worried that you just don't pray very well? Or that you don't see what you ought to see? Yeah, me too – on both counts. And Paul tells us that, when it comes down to it, we're actually right. We are so clumsy and clueless, so ignorant, that, when the Word of God walked among us, we thought we were actually doing God's will by piercing his hands, his feet, his side.

But here's the thing! The prophets knew in advance that we'd be that blind – so blind as to pierce the incarnate Word. So God through Zechariah, for instance, promises a day when the people would “look on me, on him whom they have pierced,” and “mourn for him … and weep bitterly over him.” A day when we'd finally see at least one thing half-clearly. And in that very same verse, God promises to pour out “the Spirit of grace and of supplication on all the house of David and all Jerusalem, on every threatened Hezekiah and all the endangered cities God loves (Zechariah 12:10). A Spirit of grace – now, I think we get that – but do we remember that God has poured out a Spirit of supplication, a Spirit of petitionary prayer?

And that's what Paul reminds us today. Paul can see that we're no stronger than Hezekiah was. Faced with the whole host of problems and priorities, struggling to even see a single one clearly and wrestle it to the ground in prayer, it's obvious we're constantly tackling the wrong target, obvious we're bringing a stick to a torpedo war. And we can see all the times our prayers have backed off, fallen short, stumbled and scraped. We don't even know how to pray for all this. Even praying for our prayer life eludes us! Paul can see how much weakness we have, how easily our groans miss the point, how earthbound and half-hearted our mongrel prayers, how blind and prejudiced and self-absorbed and hamfisted they are. We, even as praying priests, are weak. Our weakness is in dire need of help. And Paul says we have it.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” he says (Romans 8:26b). Just like God sent the prophet and the angel to Hezekiah's rescue, God sends the Spirit to the rescue of our prayers. And you should be asking, how? That's the question to ask. And Paul explains that “in the same way” the creation is groaning in pain to God, in the same way we're groaning in pain and perplexity to God, so the Spirit has chosen to join them (Romans 8:26a). The Spirit has descended to the places of our deepest disorder, to lift up our weary hands. The Spirit takes up the pains we hold for ourselves, the pains we hold for others, the pains we hold for society, the pains we hold for earth and sky and sea, all the pain we've taken on as the weak priests of a weak world – and the Spirit takes that up and comes alongside us and inside us, and himself groans it out. “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings,” with cries of pain and woe; he enters our woundedness and weakness and adds his own groans to the chorus (Romans 8:26d). That's why Zechariah calls him “a Spirit … of supplication” (Zechariah 12:10). And when there are just no words to capture the pain, the Spirit captures it perfectly without using words: he “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26e).

How does that solve things? Well, Paul tells us elsewhere that the Spirit is all-knowing. The Spirit even knows everything God is thinking. Paul says it straight-up, right-out: “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. … No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). The Spirit is no dummy. We might be clueless about how to balance school shootings and hurricanes and political strife and famines and wars, but the Spirit searches everything. We might not know what God aims to make of any given case of suffering, but the Spirit comprehends the thoughts of God. We might not understand all the mechanisms and networks and careful adjustments it would take to answer even our smallest prayers without a butterfly effect wrecking the whole world, but if the Spirit can search even the infinite abyss of light in the heart of God, the Spirit can certainly search the cellular processes at work in any disease, or the proper molecular balance of the atmosphere, or the interaction of the factions in any dispute, or whatever else.

And because the Spirit searches all that, understands all that, knows all that, it's obvious that whatever the Spirit of supplication prays, those prayers will invariably line up perfectly with whatever God is ready, willing, and eager to do. So Paul can say with confident certainty that “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27b). There is no risk of the Spirit's prayers missing the mark. The Spirit's prayers are no sledgehammer-surgery: these wordless groans are finer than the tongues of men and angels, communicating with the utmost specificity, singling out what's to be done in each and every specific brain cell, each and every particular particle, to make the whole creation flourish in freedom. The Spirit's prayers cannot possibly fall on unreceptive ears, because the Spirit knows exactly what God is thinking and tailors his prayers accordingly. No plan of God is secret from the Spirit. The Spirit misses nothing, but searches everything.

What's more, we know the Spirit is shared by all God's people. All were made to drink of one Spirit,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 12:13). We are “called to be saints” (Romans 1:7), he says, and “the Spirit intercedes for the saints (Romans 8:27b). The Spirit prays from within each saint for all the saints. Every believer, every sinner redeemed by Jesus Christ, every man or woman being made holy by the Spirit, becomes a platform, a podium, a broadcasting station, a loudspeaker blaring the Spirit's wordless groans of prayer. Each saint, each one of you, is an antenna for amplifying the Spirit's voice. And the Spirit's voice, the Spirit's supplication, is broadcast from any given one of you for all the rest of us, and through us for the creation whose lament and whose praise we're called to offer up to God as the world's priests, as “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

And here's the kicker: Just like the Spirit understands all that God is thinking, so God understands all that the Spirit is saying and thinking. Paul says that “he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:27a). When Paul describes God that way, he's looking at his Bible. David told Solomon, “Know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). And God doesn't disagree; he describes himself that way to Jeremiah: “I the LORD – 'I, Yahweh,' 'I, Jehovah' – “search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10). And it's no different in the New Testament: Jesus even applies this to himself in Revelation 2:23, saying that he is Jeremiah's Jehovah God, who “searches mind and heart, and will give to each of you according to your works.” God the Father and God the Son are a heart-searching God, who answer prayers in part according to what he finds there when he hears the prayers from the heart.

So what happens when God hears a prayer and goes to search our heart, and what he finds there is his very own Spirit doing the praying? When the Spirit is groaning from within us as his temple, his platform, his radio station, his loudspeakers, well, then the Spirit will guaranteed catch the Father and Son's attention every time, every nanosecond the Searcher of Hearts searches our hearts. And as the Spirit's groans match God's will, so God's answers are guaranteed to match the Spirit's wise prayers. And the Spirit's prayers are in solidarity with all our groaning and with all creation's groaning (cf. Romans 8:26a).

What does it all boil down to, then? Yes, we are weak. We are weak as Hezekiah was weak. We're bewildered what to do and what to say when we see this army of giant woes stalking the land, each beyond our knowledge and too numerous to number. We are weak, “we don't know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26c). In the face of it all, we cannot compute it. Our problems pile up higher than Babel, deeper than hell, broader than the expanse of earth and sea – beyond our comprehension. But it is precisely where our prayers run headfirst into bewildering armies of pain and grief too many to count that the world has a chance to see the Searcher of Hearts and his depth-searching Spirit at work in us, revealed face-to-face.

So don't be afraid when it's all just too overwhelming. Don't be afraid when you look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of your weakness. Don't be afraid when you see how lackluster and confused your prayers. You have the Spirit groaning in you, and his way of thinking needs no translation to the eyes and ears of God. So learn from him. So go ahead and “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication...; keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). Go ahead and pray, pray for all, so that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,” and for all creation (1 Timothy 2:1). But “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Yes, they will be weak; yes, they will be clumsy; yes, they will, more often than not, be clueless. But we have a Spirit who will help our cluelessness, our clumsiness, our weakness (cf. Romans 8:26b). From him we may learn, and on him we may rely. And as he “intercedes for us [and] for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26d, 27b), rest assured that we and creation “will be set free … and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The Sennacheribs of our lives will fall at exactly the time the Spirit asks God to put them down. There is hope for every Hezekiah's weakness, even if we don't yet see the fruit (Romans 8:24-25). There is help from the Spirit. So let your prayers and your actions charge at the world's need. May the Spirit's prayers in you and for you ever prevail; may all things be healed as God wills. Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Creation Awaits: Sermon on Romans 8:18-25

You may or may not remember when this story hit the news. It's been a while. Sometime around the year 1930 – and nobody is precisely sure when – in a small Spanish village – there was a church, the Santuario de Misericordia. And in that church, a noted art professor offered up two hours of his time to render a quick gift in God's name. But his skill crafted a fresco on the church wall – nothing large, less than two feet high; nothing too extravagant, but an intensely life-like rendering of Jesus crowned with thorns – the infamous scene where Christ, treated mockingly as the king he really was, is offered by Pilate for public view with the cry, “Behold the man!” 

For years, for generations, the fresco was an object of some local appreciation; it had local spiritual and sentimental value. In time, it came to be neglected. In time, the pervasive effects of humidity in the Spanish summers began peeling the paint in flecks off so much of the work. And it was time to send in professional art restorers to make the fresco shine full and clear and good as new, just as it was when Elías García Martínez first painted it on the wall. The funds were provided by the original artist's granddaughter.

Only, they found as they examined it in 2012, someone had beaten them to it. Someone had come in and taken it upon him- or herself to restore the painting. That someone was a churchwoman in her early eighties, Cecilia Giménez. Cecilia claimed, after the fact, that the local parish priest had given her permission. Be that as it may, Cecilia was no professional art restorer. She was an enthusiast. But the work she produced was remarkable! It gained worldwide fame! 

Or, should I say, infamy. Oh, it was remarkable, all right. But not remarkably good, nor remarkably similar to what it was meant to be from the beginning. This once simple, elegant, life-like fresco of Jesus had been transformed, through Cecilia's ineptitude, into what one journalist described as “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.” You have to see it for yourself to appreciate how drastic the ruin of whatever artistic merit the original could be said to have had, and the potential for its use in spiritual devotion of any sort. Cecilia Gimenez, in her very effort to fix what was falling apart, broke it forever. You see, it's a great shame when a worthwhile piece of art falls into corruption and begins to fade away in bits and pieces; but so much worse is it when marred by foolish caretakers!

And such it is with the world we live in, Paul tells us this morning. In the beginning, God unrolled the canvas of existence, woven by him from scratch, and began to paint in living colors. He painted broad expanses of black, dotted with stars and pulsars and quasars, littered with speckles of beauty. He painted a world beneath a fine yellow sun and blue sky – a world of green trees, of verdant bushes and grasses, of multi-hued flowers to put wealthy kings to shame; a world of mighty mountains and slicing valleys, of murky oceans and cerulean lakes and rivers, of the beige of the desert and the white of the tundra; a world full of creatures unfathomable, illimitable, great and small, and the Lord our God hath made them all. A masterpiece of beauty. 

And he himself, not just the first Master Artist but also the first Art Critic, approved it. A quadrillion stars out of five. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Intricately crafted, with brushstrokes so fine as to paint each and every subatomic particle just so as to beautify the whole. And, no static portrait like a fresco or a wall hanging or one of our stained-glass windows, this grand creation was a dynamic masterpiece, to which he invited a new breed of art enthusiast, the painters called Adam, to appreciate and savor and be enraptured and then to add brushstrokes of their own to continue the theme by the Artist's Spirit.

And it was made to thrive, to shout, to sing praise, to overflow with beauty, as it is written: “The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness; the meadows are covered with flocks, and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing” (Psalm 65:12-13). “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. … Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy” (Psalm 98:4,7-8). Creation – all the universe – was made good, so good, so very good, so wonderful, made to be maintained and completed in joy by an artful team full of the Artist's Spirit.

And yet that's not what we see around us. This masterpiece is flaking and crumbling. It ain't what it used to be, and it ain't what it ought to be. Does it seem that way to you? Paul calls it “subjected to frustration” (Romans 8:20). It was made to be subjected to an artful team – “You have made [the human] ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and all the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:6-8) – but instead fell beneath the feet of another master. Frustration. Futility. It's the word used in the Greek translation of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) – “Smoke and mirrors, everything is just smoke and mirrors!” It's mist, it's vapor, it's choked in shadow and fog. Creation, the universe, is frustrated because it's subject to smoke and mirrors. No beauty lasts. All things fall apart.

What's more, Paul says, the creation is in “bondage to decay,” or “enslaved to corruption” (Romans 8:21). The world we see around us isn't the world the world itself wants. It wasn't subjected to frustration by its own choice. It doesn't want all the destruction, all the disaster, all the decay, all the debris. The universe is a slave, the earth is a slave, to forces big and bad that want to weaponize it for our destruction. Which is not what God's creation wants.

How'd this happen? Paul looks back, and sees so much in his Bible to explain it. To Adam, that failed artist who had his own vision and scribbled all over everything, God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). The prophets cried out, “The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, … the earth is defiled by its people” (Isaiah 24:4). “How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and the birds have perished” (Jeremiah 12:4). “He turned the rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there” (Psalm 107:33-34). “The whole land will be ruined..., therefore the earth will mourn” (Jeremiah 4:27-28). So “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” (Romans 8:20).

We've seen desolate scenes like that. Our wickedness pollutes the earth – spiritually, we can imagine, but physically as well.  Really, how have we treated this planet handed into our stewardship?  How have we treated the forests and fields God has made?  What have we done with the rivers and the seas and the oceans?  What have we done with the atmosphere, from the troposphere through the ozone layer and beyond?  How have we treated the vulnerable creatures placed in our charge?  What have we done?  Oh, what have we done?  Wickedness!

Our wickedness kills off the animals and the birds; our wickedness has universal consequences, defiling the masterpiece of life God made. We have botched the upkeep and completion of this masterpiece far worse than Cecilia Giménez ruined the fresco in her village church. And so, Paul tells us, creation has been “groaning” in pain (Romans 8:22). The earth, the sea, the sky – they're in agony, they're hurting, they're lifting their pain up vocally to God! The Susquehanna River is groaning; the Welsh Mountain is groaning; the Pequea Valley and the state game lands are groaning; all the earth, from the Gulf of Mexico to the coal regions, from Mount Everest to the Marianas Trench, are groaning, moaning, agonizing. The deer and the antelope, the wolf and the walrus, the parrot and the platypus – groaning, saying, “Please, God, please, let our freedom come!” And the whole creation is craning its neck forward, trying to see what's to come (Romans 8:19).

And just the same, Paul tells us, our bodies are groaning. He says that “we ourselves … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for … the redemption of our body; for in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:23-24). Brothers and sisters, who knows more than you what it means for your body to be groaning? I hardly have to tell you what that means! You know how it feels to be sick. You know how it feels to shake and ache. You know how it feels to have your strength and vigor be like vapor – you reach out and try to grab onto it, and it puffs through your fingers and leaves you empty, so empty. You know how you groan when you sit and when you stand, if you can do either. You know how your heart groans in irregular rhythm, how your lungs groan from inadequate oxygen, how your ligaments groan from sprains, how your muscles groan from strains, how your joints groan from arthritis, how your bones groan, your skin groans, your kidneys and spleens groan, your whole body groans, saying, “Please, God, please, let my freedom come!” 

You know how we groan outwardly, and how we even groan inwardly, crying out for our bodies to be redeemed, to be set free from all this corruption and all this decay. Part and parcel of the created order, our bodies suffer with ailments never made for us, suffer with cancers and diseases and dysfunctions aplenty, and they groan, they groan, so loud they groan, and you know it's true, you've felt it yourself, and you pray to God to just give you steady health, but all things fall apart, don't they?

And God will answer that prayer. Creation will be redeemed. Your body will be redeemed. Paul says that the creation wasn't subjected to frustration, to futility, to anguish and smoke and mirrors, without a purpose in mind. And that purpose was hope. “For the creation was subjected to frustration … in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20-21). That's just like “the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). What's more, the creation is longing, is groaning, to be “brought into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). And “the earnest expectation of the creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19).

See, creation is groaning with us, just like we groan with it. And the whole creation is longing with craned neck and focused eyes to see what we really are. We're already God's children, but just what that means isn't yet on display. The curtains haven't been lifted; the smoke hasn't been dispelled. Our bodies don't yet match what God is doing on the inside. But they will. One day, we will be free. And every deer and every antelope, every wolf and every walrus, every parrot and every platypus, is part of creation's excitement to see us in our glory, to see us free. Because only in our freedom can they be free. Only in the restoration of us, body and soul, can there be restoration of the meadows and mountains, the skies and seas. The only final solution to pollution is resurrection and restoration! And it isn't for us alone, but for the whole earth and beyond to taste and savor.

That's what we're all groaning for! Whether we know it or not, we're groaning for that day. The redemption of our bodies and of the whole earth. The redemption of the Susquehanna River and Cocalico Creek; the Welsh Mountain and Pequea Valley and state game lands; the redemption of every farm and every lawn. Hope set in store for squirrels and sparrows, moose and minnows, foxes and felines. In the Holy Spirit, we have just the first taste, the opening sample, the appetizer of what all creation is groaning for (cf. Romans 8:23).

When we see the patchiness and paleness of our yards, we groan with them. When we see dying flowers and wounded deer and roadkill, we groan with them. When we see polluted streams and desecrated fields, we groan with them. And when our bodies ache, when our lungs struggle to breathe and hearts struggle to beat and organs bleed and malfunction, we groan with outcries to God, “Please, God, freedom, freedom!” But the only freedom is the glory of full redemption, the glory of God's family, the glory that comes to creation only through us and to us only through Jesus' Spirit.

Amidst our frustrations and our cries, Paul tells us to crane our necks forward, to fix our eyes on what's coming when the vapor dissipates and the curtains lift. “For in this hope we were saved” – already saved, but hardly done with! See, “hope that is seen is no hope at all.” What we already have is not the limit of what God aims to do. The brushstrokes painted around us and in every cell of our bodies is not the finished work. “Who hopes for what they already have?” Nobody! There is so much more in store. “But if we hope for what we don't yet have, we wait for it patiently,” Paul writes (Romans 8:24-25). We endure the suffering. We endure the pain. We endure the grief. We put up with the obvious flaws and imperfections of our bodies and our world as we now see them.

We don't whimper in hopeless resignation. Nor do we scream in senseless rage. We groan in hopeful prayer. We cry out with groaning words and groaning deeds for all to be restored, and restored well. We groan, in our acts of medical care, for God to redeem our bodies. We groan, in our acts of environmental care, for God to redeem our habitat, his masterpiece. We groan with pain and suffering, we suffer at the earth's side, we enter in and share its woes and frustrations, we cry out to God. We groan in frustration in a way that only those with hope can do, only those who are waiting for a God who hears to be a God who moves, a God who blows away the smoke, who smashes and sweeps up the funhouse mirrors, who tears the veil and unveils what we already are by making glory radiate through our bodies and our world.

And here's the promise, here's what Paul has figured out, his settled conviction and conclusion: “Our present sufferingsall our present sufferings, all our anemia, all our arthritis, all our cancers, all our collapsed lungs, all our congestive heart failure, all our diabetes, all our disability, all our inflammation, all our ischemia, all our macular degeneration, all our nephropathy, all our osteoporosis, all our pulmonary diseases, all our rheumatism; all our deforestation, all our pollution, all our ruination; all our you-fill-in-the-blank-here that you're suffering from right nowall our present sufferings are not worth comparing with” – not even worth measuring on the same scales as the glory that will be revealed in us,” revealed to redeem creation as we become the truly artful team of God's Spirit-born, Spirit-filled children for all the earth to see and to feel and to taste (Romans 8:18). The weight of glory yet to be seen is great, “for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). 

 As you feel the frustration of your bodies, as you behold the frustration of the earth, go ahead and groan – but groan in hope and eager expectation. Revelation, redemption, restoration are in the offing. And know that whatever you're suffering, whatever your world is suffering, there's eternal glory ahead for the world to share – in and through us.