As many of you know, I play tennis with some of our church members on Monday morning. Last Monday, my body was so heavy and was not hitting the ball as I hoped I would. My body was not just responding. Although I can still run faster than all of my lovely Monday tennis friends, I know I will be getting slower. I still want to improve my second serve and backhand, but my body will be ageing and improving my game will even harder. And the more I age, the more I groan. Paul talks a lot about this groaning in his letter to the Romans in chapter 8 this morning.
Then my groans are mostly self-inflicted. Tim groans because his wife is dying of cancer. Abdul groans as his homeland is torn apart by civil war. Jessi quietly groans the loss of her miscarried child. What communion with God do we enjoy in the midst of our groaning?
This book, “Enjoying God” by Time Chester, a pastor at Grace Church in UK is one of the best sellers in the Koorong bookstore. As some of you know, my dad buys me books and he bought this book a few months ago – I did read some chapters, dad.
This book talks about what is the key to actually enjoying God? We Christians talk a lot about having a relationship with God – but what exactly does it mean to have a relationship with someone we cannot see?
One of the chapters in this book talks about today’s Romans’ reading – ‘In Every Groan we can enjoy the Spirit’s Hope’.
Romans 8 is known as the pinnacle of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Throughout Romans, the Greek word Pneuma (either God’s Spirit) appears 34 times, and 20 out of the 34 occurrences are in Romans 8.
Paul talks about a deep theology in this chapter once again. The reading in chapter 8 can be divided into three parts – ‘Present sufferings and the down-payment of future glory (Romans 8:18-25), our weakness and the Spirit’s Prayer (v 26-30) & what then shall we say (v 31-39). This morning I would like to explore mainly first part – present sufferings and future glory with Tim Chester’s book, “Enjoying God” in order to see what the Holy Spirit helps us in our suffering and groaning to achieve a promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Paul says in Romans 8 v 17, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we many also share in his glory”. We will share the Son’s experience of glory, but we also share his experience of suffering.
Yet something astonishing is happening every time we groan. Tim points out three aspects of “groaning” – Creation, we and the Spirit.
First, Paul says all creation groans with us. “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8 v 22). Creation has been subjected to frustration “in hope” (v 20). A day is coming when it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (v 21) Paul imagines the natural world as a woman in labour, groaning in pain bur joyfully anticipating the delivery of her child. Creation groans, but it groans in eager expectation.
We feel the brokenness of the world, often in our own bodies, and we groan. We are broken people living in a broken world. But here is the difference the Spirit makes. For most people groaning is a backwards look. Things are not the way they were. They are not the way they should be.
But for Christians, groaning is also a forwards look. We know that things are not the way they will be. And this is the Spirit’s work. “We … who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” who groan (v 23). Everyone groans. But only Christians groan because we are looking forward, eagerly waiting to be brought into our new, adopted home. We groan because we have the Holy Spirit, the firstfruits of that redeemed creation.
The Spirit makes us long for the new creation in two ways. First, because the spirit gives us an experience of new creation. The Spirit has described as the “firstfruits”. The Spirit is the taster or trial sample. It is like a cook preparing a grand meal who offers you a spoonful of casserole. And the beautiful taster of that spoonful fills you with longing for the full banquet.
Second, the Spirit makes us long for the new creation because he makes us think of it as home. When I travel, I always look forward to coming home again. Why? Because it is where my family is. Think what happens as the Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s children? Our home changes. Home for us is no longer this passing world. But one day heaven and earth will be united in a new creation in which God makes his dwelling (Revelation 21 v 1-5).
The Spirit testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children (v 16). But that experience of adoption is still partial. Creation is not yet liberated; our bodies are not yet redeemed. We know there is more to come.
People often assume experiencing the Spirit is like spine-tingling moments of ecstasy. And indeed such experiences can be the work of the Spirit. But Paul goes on in Romans v 26 to say “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” If you have ever gone through a dark time and come out the other side – that was an experience of the Spirit. If you have ever doubted everything you ever knew about the Christian faith, but somehow kept praying – that was an experience of the Spirit.
But then Paul goes one astonishing step further. He says the Spirit himself “groans” (v 26). Creation groans; we groan; the Spirit groans. Creation groans because it’s subject to the frustration. We groan because we feel the brokenness of the world in our lives, often in our own bodies. God is not frustrated, nor is he broken; but thorough the Spirit, he feels our pain with us. Every groan we utter is echoed by the Spirit.
And when the pain seems too much and our words run out, the Spirit continues on our behalf.
“We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (v26)
When you feel as if you’re rowing through life with much energy like an Olympic athlete, hurtling towards the finishing line, it’s the Spirit who is sitting next to you.
But also when you are too weak to row and you feel that you’re just drifting, it’s the Spirit who comes as a gentle breeze to push you home.
God will answer the Spirit’s prayer because by this point we are in a wonderfully circular process. The Spirit’s groans may be wordless, but the Father knows what the Spirit has in mind, and what the Spirit has in mind perfectly matches with the will of the Father. “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (v 27).
Your groan is taken up by the Spirit and presented to the Father in a form that matches the Father’s purpose of making you like his Son. As a result, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (v 28)
Therefore, the Spirit transforms and transfigures our groans, so they become part of the means by which God achieves his purposes in our lives.
Every groan you utter from the sigh you make getting out of a chair to the intense pain and loss is an invitation to enjoy the hope of the Spirit – many opportunities to look forward with eager expectation.
The Tour de France is an annual bicycle race held in France and nearby countries.
There is the interesting position called, lanterne rouge. The lanterne rouge is the guy who finishes last. He is the guy who always manages to finish within the time limit, and does not give up the race. Usually when he gets at the finish line of each stage, he will be worn out. He will have spent his day in the peloton, helping the possible winners: Carrying messages from the team directors to the team leaders, carrying drink bottles for others on the team, doing his best to try to get his team into the best position. He has no chance of winning. In fact, when the race is all over, though he will have given his absolute best, he will be the very last man in the race.
For many of us following in the footsteps of Jesus can be like be the lanterne rouge. We will be doing our best for the mission without seeing many signs of success. We will be trying to live decent compassion filled lives. We will be doing our best, but despite our best efforts we will feel like we are going backwards. That the world is getting worse not better. We see signs of goodness, but alongside them we see even more signs of evil.
Living a Christian life is not always easy. In our mixed up world, it can be hard sometimes to separate the wheat from the weeds. It is not easy to wait until the net is full in order to get good fish out of bad ones. But that is no reason to give up. Any hardship and suffering cannot stop us. As nothing can separate us from God’s love, we still try even without immediate fruits or outcome.
When sun of righteousness finally shines through, and the peloton of the Kingdom of Heaven travels that one last time along the Champs Elysée, there is no shame crossing the finish line as an honest toiler wearing the mantle of the lanterne rouge.
Whenever we experience suffering and when we groan for God’s name, that is an invitation to enjoy the hope of the Spirit. Then let’s pray that God of new life will lead us into the world so that we may share the good news of his son with all the world. Amen.