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Groaning forward

November 11, 2018

Romans 8.18–25


I like science fiction.  Actually, I love science fiction.  And fantasy.  My reading as a young person really took off when I discovered science fiction books.  There is excitement in both kinds.  And just maybe I was escaping from the reality of this world.  I am not alone in this: in the challenging times we live in, look how many of the films today are about science fiction and fantasy.


Some people say religion is an escape, for people who want to leave this world and go to a better place.  How as Christians do we live in a world that seems to be on a collision course with itself?  It is said that the human race may be the first species of life that destroys itself.  How are we to live within this world?  Should we not want to go to a better place?  Our faith is an escape into a place that offers healing and hope for this world, but it sends us back into the world to make a difference.  


St Paul, maybe the greatest evangelist of all time, was not just concerned about the relationship between God and the individual Christian.  He was very much concerned with our relationships with each other and with the earth.  In the book of Romans he stresses that responsibility for the world is very much part of our relationship with God, because the well-being of the world is tied up with our well-being.


St Paul in his letter gives us a way to manage our fears and hopes.  He gives us a spirituality for our time, how we can relate to the earth through our faith in God.  This is far more wholesome than wanting to leave it and go to another place with a select few.


Paul begins in our reading by saying: ‘What we are suffering now is nothing compared with our future glory.  Everything God created looks forward to the future.’


There is a view that says God started the creation in the beginning, and then he left it to run by itself.  This is the watchmaker idea of creation.  The watchmaker makes a watch, and then he leaves it to run by itself.  Every now and then the watch comes back in for a repair.  These are the odd times when God intervenes with a miracle.  


But that is a small understanding of God’s relationship with the world.  We heard some of this in the last chapter of the story of Job.  Who awakened the spring this year, who told the trees it was time to produce buds that would open and flower?  Who told the birds it was time for nesting?  It all happened without us doing anything. 


Here is a story I found about the incredible wonder of creation.  Imagine you have a library of 30 books about the history of the universe.  Each book is 450 pages long.  Each page of the 30 books stands for 1 million years.  


The Big Bang happens on the first page in book 1.  But earth does not appear until book 21 of the 30.  And life doesn’t appear on earth until book 22 of the 30.  Complex life, like worms, does not appear until book 29 of the 30.  Dinosaurs appear in the middle of book 30, the last book of the history of the universe.  But they are wiped out on page 385 - remember each of the 30 books has 450 pages.  


Mammals, warm-blooded animals that give birth to live young, appear only during the last 65 pages of book 30.  Our human-like ancestors show up only a few pages before the end.  Modern humans don’t appear until the last page in the last book.  The entire history of human intelligence, religious thought and scientific discovery takes up only the last few lines on the last page of book 30.


If the bible story of creation were told today, it would look just like this.  As St Paul says in our reading, ‘Everything God created looks forward to the future.’  Everything has been moving towards a wonderful conclusion.  And if we feel the pain of our lives and the suffering of our earth now, Paul says ‘all that God created has been groaning. It is in pain as if it were giving birth to a child.’


Childbirth is used often throughout the bible to describe something painful.  This is surprising, because all the bible writers were men.  What do we men know about the pain of giving birth?  It is intense - so intense that the book of Genesis says it is one of the consequences of the original sin of disobedience.  In labour a woman is helpless, and there appears to be no end of the pain.  But there is also the hope that everything is moving towards a healthy delivery.


Paul is saying that the universe has been growing, and groaning, like a woman in labour.  The earth groans today with landscapes that are devastated by war; fertile areas reduced to desert by over-grazing, cities made unhealthy places by toxic pollution, irreplaceable forests cut down, the oceans full of plastic, and animal species disappearing.  When the baby is most near, at the fullness of time, the pain is greatest.  This is the same with our world, our universe.  The whole of it, says Paul, is looking for the revealing of God’s children.  Our healing from sin affects the healing of our world.


The universe saw its growth and development over billions of years.  Science can explain this.  It can also explain the arrival of spring and the development of a human baby.  But there is something more that science cannot explain.  That ‘More’ is God.  In the bible creation story it says that when the earth had no shape and was empty, ‘God was hovering over the waters.’  [Genesis 1.1-2]  It sounds like the description of a womb.  It is the promise that accompanies the earth’s history: as all life has become complex, the same God, says Paul, is the ‘Spirit who helps us in our weakness.’  


We have this Spirit, says Paul, as a promise of future blessing.  The same God who has been ever-present since the beginning of time and hovered over the labour pains of creation is the same God who knows that we do not know how to pray as we ought to.  That same Spirit of God prays from within us with sighs too deep for words.


Where is all this all of this leading us? Towards a care for our world, as well as the people within it.  We are called to be living the life of the resurrection in the conditions of a world in pain, a world that groans for the return of Jesus and the completion of everything in him.  How do we live in these times?  With love, for each other and for the planet.  We must be green, we must support all green projects, we must stand against everything that stresses the natural environment.  We must also promote what draws people together, and all that provides health and healing.  With God’s help we will have eyes to see where the Spirit leading, to bring all things to completion in Christ.

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