Humans are strange creatures. We are prone to focusing on our own condition to the exclusion of any others. We often ask, “Why me?” when faced with difficulty. But we do not ask, “Why them?” when we see others suffer. Mind you, I am not saying that asking, “Why me?” is bad. Rather such questions reveal that we anticipate a better place.
However, this narrow focus on ourselves blinds us often to what scripture has to say. We focus on the trees and lose sight of the forest. As an example, consider John 3.16. Almost any evangelical Christian would be able to quote this verse from memory. And often when we witness to non-believers we may use this verse. We proclaim individual salvation because it says, “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
But perhaps we forget the big picture, which is at the start of the verse. “God loved the world in this manner.” Somehow eternal life to the one who believes is a result of God’s love for the world. And we easily ignore this because it does not directly concern us.
As many of you already know, we are studying the last book of the bible in our weekly Wednesday bible studies. Quite naturally, as I prepare for these studies, I encounter people writing about how things will end. Phrases like ‘the last days’ or ‘the great tribulation’ or ‘the battle of Armageddon’ appear from time to time. And one finds oneself drawn willy-nilly into speculations about how things will end.
The movie industry mints millions by fanning the paranoia and fear that lives in the hearts of humans. All they need to do is present a larger than life source of evil and odds that would make a hardened war veteran cry.
I think of movies like Star Wars for one cannot get more evil than a Sith Lord such as Senator Palpatine. I think of The Matrix for to fight against the illusions one was brought up with is certainly a tougher battle than any.
But movies aren’t the only medium to strike this chord with people. You can think of books like The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series. Immense evil, unthinkable odds and only a handful on the side of good. That just plucks at the heartstrings!
So what is it really that these movies or books are getting at? In my opinion, strange though it may seem, these stories are simply a symptom of what Paul writes about in our passage for today. So let us turn to our text.
Paul opens with a statement about suffering. Neither were the Christians at Rome who first heard this letter nor are we today unaware of suffering. It is something that pervades our lives. Loved ones are taken from us through illness or violence. Colleagues go behind our backs and make the workplace a tedious one to put up with. We read of murder and suicide, natural disasters and disasters created by humans. And students targeting exams in 2013 are aware of the suffering inflicted on them by Kapil Sibal.
And Paul encompasses all of this with his words ‘our present sufferings.’ But these, according to him, no matter how severe they may be, are insignificant compared to the glory we await, the glory that will be put on display in us when we ourselves are put on display as children of God.
But, lest we run amuck with this vision, he abruptly brings us back to the reality of the big picture. This glory that we await is something for which creation itself awaits. It is a strange thing for him to say. Why should creation wait for the glory to be revealed in us?
And Paul tells us, this is because creation itself is in a frustrating situation. Not by its own choice it finds its efforts yielding little fruit. In order to enable humans to truly obey God, God decided to place creation in this frustrating situation where everything is ruled by the sting of death.
I am reminded of the story The Little Prince. In the story we hear of the prince’s love for a flower on his little planet. But our experience is that a flower blooms and withers in a matter of days at most – not nearly long enough to love it. We may love the plant that produces the flowers and we may enjoy a particular flower when it blooms. But we do not grieve when it withers like we do when someone we love passes on.
In the current state of affairs, creation is unloved. Unloved by humans who were created to tend to it and love it. And like anything created to be loved, it is in anguish because it is not loved.
And so creation waits for our glorification because that would mean we would once again be rendered able to care for it as we ought to.
Paul is setting our sufferings in the proper perspective, not the individual one, but the cosmic one. Our sufferings are a sign that something is very wrong with the way things are. And so we are not the only creatures who groan. We are not the only creatures who suffer. All of creation groans.
In our discussion of the doctrine of salvation and redemption, we hardly spare a breath for non-human entities. And that itself is a sign of how bad things are. It would be like parents not being worried if their child were starving. We jokingly talk about dog heaven and cat heaven without bothering to ask the question of what God’s responsibility toward them is.
Paul is ridding us of our anthropocentrism. He is telling us, “Yes, we suffer. But we suffer not apart from creation, but rather as a part of creation. Do not think that God is only concerned about humans, for all creation is groaning.”
Then Paul focuses on Christians. We groan because we are waiting for the redemption of our bodies. We have this hope not because we have actually seen someone with a redeemed body, but because the Spirit unsettles us.
We should avoid merging this image that Paul uses here with the image in John’s Gospel where the Spirit is more of a comforting, reassuring, strengthening presence. Here, we are brought to a state of dissatisfaction with the way things are as a direct result of the presence of the Spirit in our lives.
Most people, even – perhaps especially – non-Christians, know that something is wrong. That is why we all, at some point or the other, say, “Why me?” Paul says, “All humans suffer.” We experience life, at many times, as though someone were playing a bizarre joke on us.
But Christians know something else as a result of the Spirit’s presence. We know that there is something far better to look forward to.
But this knowledge is unsettling for we cannot escape the present condition of creation. Knowledge does not provide an escape. Knowledge only fuels a burning desire for things to be set right. We groan because we know that God intends for things to be set right, but that things are not set right yet.
And so we pray. Paul is not talking about praying for our daily needs or for God to heal someone who is sick or for God to give a couple a healthy baby. Those are necessary and important prayers. And we do know how to pray and what to pray for in these circumstances.
But Paul is not focusing on the individual. His focus is cosmic. This is prayer for the redemption of all creation. It is prayer that would help bring about the cessation of groaning.
That is why he says that we do not know what to pray for. Our limited knowledge of God’s overarching plan is our weakness. And only God himself, by his Spirit, can lead us to those prayers that would bring about the end of groaning on the part of creation.
There have been historically two main ways of dealing with the world around us. The predominant way has been to deny that there is any intrinsic goodness in the world and to insist that our true destiny lies elsewhere. According to this view, the aim of human existence is to shake off the shackles of creation and exit to a realm of bliss and joy. Creation is seen as something that cannot be redeemed, but that must be destroyed.
And unfortunately, this is how many of us Christians view creation. We believe that God will have to utterly do away with the world and universe as we know it. We see this kind of a majority view in The Chronicles of Narnia, where, in The Final Battle, Aslan destroys Narnia and takes the children and faithful Narnians away from that world.
But have we forgotten how our scriptures begin? God, after creating various things, declares that creation is good. If God is capable of redeeming the very humans who were the cause of creation’s groaning, is he so powerless that he cannot redeem creation itself?
Is he able to redeem those who willfully rebelled against him but can do nothing about the rest of creation which is in its current state because he made it so? The logical inconsistency is mind-boggling.
We must remember that creation is not a display of God’s power. Rather it is an expression of his love. And love does not so easily part with the beloved. Love would rather die than see its beloved perish. We believe that easily about Jesus’ work as applicable to humans. But we stop there.
Paul, however, insists that creation is groaning because it waits for its own redemption. Creation waits in hope that God, who subjected it to futility, will not utterly forget and destroy it.
And so we have a second, minority way of viewing creation. This is a holistic way, not an anthropocentric way. It insists that God is God not just of humans, but also of every part of creation and that God is deeply desirous of redeeming creation as well.
This is why the Harry Potter books struck a chord with so many young people. After taking them through seven books, after Voldemort is finally vanquished, J.K. Rowling ends with the simple words, “All was well.” Things were as they should be.
And this is why The Lord of the Rings strikes a chord. The Hobbits battle the forces of evil, not so that they can escape, but so that they can go back to the Shire they love. The story tells us that it is not okay for creation to become collateral damage in the process of our redemption.
No! Rather, as Paul writes, “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”