A sermon for July 22 on Romans 8:12-25
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” Paul writes. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.” The very creation waits, longs, groans. That might strike some as being startling language, particularly if you’ve been conditioned to imagine that Christianity teaches that the created world—the world of matter and bodies—is somehow secondary to the heavenly, the spiritual; that humanity’s future lies in being swept away from the created world and carried off to some distant heaven.
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But no, Paul insists. It isn’t just humans who wait and long for redemption, for “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The whole of creation is part of the story of redemption, he’s saying. It isn’t just an empty husk that will be cast aside, but instead is freighted with hope, with a future. And in the here and now, it isn’t just we who know what it is to suffer and ache for healing. “[T]he whole creation has been groaning in labour pains.”
To really grapple with what he is saying here, we need to recognize the essential Jewish-ness of Paul’s world-view and theological framework, which is rooted in the two creation stories from the beginning of Genesis. From its opening line, “In the beginning,” the first story reads almost like an act of liturgical praise. That repeated phrase, “God saw that it was good,” “God saw that it was good,” “God saw that it was good” culminates on the eve of the seventh day—the Sabbath day—with the proclamation “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” It is a picture of creation utterly at unity within itself; harmonious, wondrous, and very good.
There is, too, that moment where the Creator says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion” over the fish, the birds, the cattle, the wild animals, and the creeping things.” Dominion; that is powerful word, and one that has often been badly misused to justify a sort of human triumphalism; we can do what we want with—and in—this created word, it is sometimes claimed. But no, not if our dominion is meant to be like God’s dominion. God’s rule is like that of a steward, a gardener. Even the language of Kingship for God has nothing in common with a tyrant, a dictator, or an emperor. This is not meant to be that kind of dominion.
And then the second creation story opens; a more ancient and in many ways more enigmatic story, that tells of the breach in the unity and harmony of the creation. The figure of the serpent appears in the garden, to deceive the first humans. Go ahead, eat the fruit of that tree. No, we’ve been forbidden to do that. It is the only thing we’re not to do. Ah, that’s because God wants to keep you small, the serpent lies, eat, and “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”
This is the moment where you can almost imagine the whole of creation holding its breath, trembling. Resist, resist… but no. Just like that, the unity and harmony and pure goodness and sheer wonder are thrown out of balance. And by what? Presumption. Pride. The need to have it all.
Paul would have understood that the first creation story tells of how things should be—were intended to be—and how the second speaks to just how risky it is for God to entrust humanity with dominion and with freedom. Not just risky for humanity, either, but for the whole of the creation.
Yet is it too fanciful or primitive to think in terms of creation’s longing, creation’s groaning, creation’s labour pains?
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains. I stood on a beach on the island of Naxos in Greece, the skies grey and drizzling rain, the waves washing hard against the shore. And each wave brought in more bits of plastic. Bottle tops, broken flip-flops, bags, and packaging. I’d gone to the beach to marvel at the power of the sea, and saw instead signs of its wounds.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains. The wild fires in BC have displaced people by the tens of thousands, and many have lost everything other than what they could cram into the trunks of their cars. One of the reasons that such fires rage so badly is that we have become too effective at preventing forest fires, which are actually a necessary part of the eco-system. Some seeds and cones will only do their work if scorched by fire. If you’ve ever gone blueberry picking in the Interlake or the Whiteshell, you will know that the best place to find berries is on a site that had been burned out in the past year or two. Forest fires clear out the deadfall and open the way for new growth, but if for decade after decade you keep suppressing them, when they finally do catch hold they are quickly out of control; too hot, too wild. All you can do is flee.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains. You’ve probably heard the recent stories of the deaths of right whales in the St Lawrence. They are one of the most endangered species in the world, and it now appears that water contaminants, high levels of noise from ships, decline in prey availability, and global warming are conspiring to put them even more at risk. Psalm 104 praises God for the seas, and specifically mentions the whales—Leviathan—“that you [Lord] formed to sport in it.” The other way of translating the Hebrew is “that you, Lord, formed for the sport of it”; for the joy and delight of it. And they’re dying. And it is because of us.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains. There is increasing evidence that fracking for oil not only pollutes almost unthinkable amounts of water, but can so destabilize the bedrock that it actually causes earthquakes. The creation quite literally groans.
Were Paul to see all of this, he’d not be at all surprised. In his own time he would have been aware of how the Roman Empire poured massive amounts of salt on fertile land as a kind of ancient version of chemical warfare, permanently ruining the land. He might well have known that across the Mediterranean islands natural forests had been torn up and replaced with olive trees; trees that don’t root deeply enough to hold the soil, leaving those islands with huge swaths of rocky, barren hills that can only support olive trees, and sometimes not even those. He would know of that human presumption to see “dominion” as something more akin to tyranny.
And he would say to us the same thing he said to those beleaguered Christians in Rome, namely that it is not only the creation that groans, “but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption [as sons and daughters of God], [and for] the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” He is writing here of a deep and rather stubborn hope, and not of naïveté or self-imposed blindness. That day on the beach in Greece, I wanted to turn away, flee from the shore, and wipe my eyes clean of that picture of all of that plastic garbage. But I can’t; it is still there. And so I believe that Paul would advise me—advise us—to not get hopeless when we look at the state of the world; to not just throw in the towel as if the challenges are simply too big. No, for all through his epistles he’s steadily insistent that our choices matter. I believe he would tell us to listen and to hear the creation’s deep groans and to sorrow over its labour pains, and then in whatever ways we can—small and big—and in every choice we make, to live into that status as being created in the image and likeness of God, and into the deep promise—and responsibility—of being claimed as God’s adopted children.