"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
Watching the news, looking at all the war and destruction that seems to be going on in several places in the world at the moment, it is this sentence that came to my mind when considering a biblical passage to preach on this Sunday.
It puts, just about, into words the feeling that has been creeping up on me reading the papers and watching the news in the last couple of months. A feeling of helpless powerlessness in the face of so much hatred and strife, a feeling of tiredness at the difficulty the world seems to have at being a good place where people can live in harmony, a desire to groan and sigh and a temptation to give up on the world altogether. Will it ever be different? The Middle East especially seems to have been torn apart by war after war and where does it lead? Nowhere!
I think I might not be the only one feeling like that. Why can there never be peace? Why do disasters keep happening? Why oh why is there always something somewhere that is bad or sad? Arent people of all faiths praying incessantly for peace, for justice, for change? Why do we then seem to be spinning around forever renewing cycles of violence, injustice, war and pain?
Why doesnt God do something?
They are questions that can pull us down. But also questions that are part of our existence. They are part of living in a world that is on its way but not yet there, of a creation that is yearning and longing and reaching out to wholeness, happiness and peace for everyone but not getting any closer to the harmony we all so very deeply crave.
Questions that were raised by the Christians of Rome in the times of Paul, Christians who suffered under emperor after emperor: thrown out of town by one, thrown to the lions by another, persecuted again and again, accused of all sorts of things, used as scapegoats whenever things werent going well in the Roman empire.
And it was no different at the time of Isaiah, the time at the end of the exile in Babylon where the power of the Babylonians was starting to crumble and new powers were arising to take over and visit new trials on the people of Israel: Why does God not intervene? Why doesnt he topple the tyrants and push history a little bit our way? Cant he bring us just a little bit of peace? Doesnt he hear our prayers?
As an answer Isaiah puts the ball firmly back in the court of his people: It is not the Lord he says, its your injustice and lack of righteous behaviour that has come between you and God and has hidden Gods face.
And he tallies up what is ailing the world in his view:
Injustice, inequity, lies, wickedness, unjust suits brought in against others, empty pleas, the hatching of evil plans, the weaving of devious webs, all kinds of violence, including the shedding of innocent blood, and all forms of desolation and destruction. Thats where things go wrong, thats where the road becomes crooked and people get hurt and a world of peace and justice comes up against a wall that is impossible to tear down. Says Isaiah. And with a sigh we have to admit that nothing much has changed since the day he preached. In the Middle East a nest full of deadly adders has been hatched, over years and years of inequity, violence and the shedding of a lot of innocent blood. It has started centuries back and by now so much has happened that it is difficult to ascertain who is doing what why, and how we, as a world, can ever put a stop to it and get out of this mess.
A lot of what happens in our world is like that, people travelling along murky paths and crooked roads causing harm and violence wherever they go. Situations getting out of hand and nobody really a clue where and how to start the mending and regenerating of peace and understanding.
What then is there to pray? There are no words! Is there any point in praying for peace if it is people that go to war? If the masses are baying for blood? Is there any point in praying for justice if we know that a lot of our wealth is built on the poverty of others and is depleting natural resources, while nothing much is done to change it? Is there any point in praying if we all know that much of what is going on is going to continue regardless? Because the powers that are at work are much bigger than we are and out of control? Is there any point in praying after so many centuries of continuing sadness and difficulty?
What difference will it make? The powers at work seem so much bigger than we can ever be!
Yes says Paul, pray, groan and sigh with creation, because in the middle of all that groaning and sighing the Spirit will take up our prayer and bring it before God.
Keep longing and hoping for redemption, for salvation, for change, for people who will be children of God in the way they live, act and think.
And then Paul turns the whole thing on its head in an image that can give us courage and strength, he says: The world groans and sighs, but it is not in despair, they are the groans and sighs of a world in labour.
There is a birth happening, in the womb of this groaning world hope lives like a child in the womb of the mother. Creation is like a woman in the final days of pregnancy says Paul, the sufferings of this present day will not compare to the glory it is pregnant with. We have to believe that in all this pain a new world is born. In children of peace who do justice and bring wholeness and healing a new creation will come about.
The Lord is coming says Isaiah, wherever people repent and change there way, wherever a limit is put to evil and people decide that it has been enough.
He will come, clothed in righteousness, bringing vengeance to those who do evil. He will flush out all evil like a river forcing its way through canyons and He will cover the earth with righteousness. Redemption will come to the people who walk in Gods ways and his words will not depart from them.
The world is pregnant with hope, with new life that will break the chains of death and destruction eventually. We know that through the story of Jesus Christ. It may still be a hidden history but it is a history that is taking shape right now, right here, where people follow in his footsteps. The hold the fruitless cycles of violence seem to have on our world will not have the final word. God is working on the birth of another world, a new heaven and a new earth and it is getting closer.
For us that means a constant feeling of dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction with the world the way she is, because we know of another world, of another way of interacting and relating to one another and to God through Jesus Christ.
Through faith, through the trust that God is at work in this world and that he is stronger than any death that seems to keep us captive we can keep our prayers and hope alive. Will we be able to shed our despair and start living the life of the Kingdom in expectation of its coming. May we know ourselves to be, as a congregation, as people who are determined to be guided by Christ and live their life accordingly, children of God through whom this new world will come to birth, even where we know it is our own inequities that prevent the world from changing, even where we cant see any light in the darkness that surrounds us. God hears the sighing and groaning of creation, and he comes to it with justice and peace, pulling at the walls of violence that have been erected, eroding the mountains of injustice that have sprung up.
His Spirit is upon us, pleads with us, lives in us. His word has been put on our lips to testify and witness to hope and expectation of another future.
Is there any point? Yes, there is, and Id like to tell you a little story to support that conviction:
"Whats the weight of a snowflake" asked the sparrow the wild dove. "Less than nothing" answered the dove.
"Then I need to tell you a peculiar story" said the sparrow, "I was sitting on a branch of a pinetree just now, really close to the trunk when it started to snow. It wasnt a snow storm, it was just like a dream, without sound or weight. Because I didnt have anything better to do I started to count the snowflakes that fell on the twigs of my branch and clung to them. When I got to the three million sevenhundred fortyone thousand and nine hundred and twentyfifth snowflake, less than nothing as you say, the branch broke off.
After that the sparrow flew away. The dove, specialised in questions like this from the days of Noah, said, after hed done some thinking: "Maybe we are missing the voice of just one more human being before we get to world peace."
Our voice is less than nothing in the scheme of things, our actions dont amount to much either if you look at the scale of violence and inequity in our world, our praying may seem pointless and futile. But it matters, we can make the difference between light and dark, between heaven and hell, by speaking up. By being faithful to what the Bible teaches us and what Jesus has shown us. By resisting evil, by rising up from the paralysing power of death and pain and arm ourselves with light and peace. The difference we make may not be any more than the difference that one snowflake made, but if we work together we can make the power of resurrection and the birth of new life through the powers of death happen.
We have to believe that, and if we do we can trust that somehow the strangle hold of evil will break, with Gods help, through our actions and prayers.