Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Groaning of Creation

Romans 8.12–25 & Matthew 13.24–30,36–43

As I’m SURE you remember, last week we tackled the parable of the sower, or the seed, or the soil (depending on one’s focus).  This week, we are blessed, in the midst of our flower festival, with another agricultural parable.  It is sometimes called the parable of the wheat and the weeds, or in old English, the ‘tares’.  And, like last week, Matthew helpfully offers us an interpretation of its meaning.  We’ve just read Jesus’ reported interpretation, involving the devil, angels, the end of the age, and the furnace of fire.  All very apocalyptic, and very much a theme of Matthew’s sometimes very creative interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus.

Underneath all the apocalyptic imagery, however, is an abiding truth, which we do well to consider.  Jesus is addressing the very real problem that all people of faith encounter – namely the problem and the challenge of living in a world that also has evil people, with evil intentions within it.  You’ve heard me say, in the past, that there is a ‘now and not yet’ dimension to the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Jesus declared, at the very start of his ministry, that the Kingdom of Heaven was among us.  He proclaimed it with that wonderful reading from Isaiah, ‘“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’  (Luke 4.18-19).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went on to promise blessing on all those who are poor, downtrodden, mourning and the like.  He demonstrated the power of the coming Kingdom with supernatural acts of healing and the control of nature.

And yet, despite these proclamations and signs of hope, Jesus also warned that the Kingdom was not yet fully established.  He taught us to pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’, as a prayer of yearning.  He warned that ‘you will always have the poor with you’ (Mk.14.7) – indicating that it would take time to bring about the promise of blessing for the poor.  And in this parable of the wheat and the weeds, he envisions a time, at the end of the age, when the children of the devil will finally be conquered, and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father”.  This is what I mean by saying the Kingdom is ‘now’, but also ‘not yet’.

St Paul understood this dichotomy too.  In today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, he writes out of his suffering and imprisonment of “the glory about to be revealed to us”.  Like all New Testament writers, Paul had the impression (or at least the hope) that the end of the age was upon them – that Jesus would return imminently, to vanquish evil and establish the Kingdom.  But he, like Matthew and other writers, had clearly not absorbed Jesus warnings that “no-one will know the time of the coming of the Son of Man” (cf. Mat 24.36).  Paul may have been a bit optimistic about his timings, but he writes beautifully about the state of the world in this ‘now and not yet time’ in which we live.  He says, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rm 8.19) and “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rm 8.21).

What a glorious vision this is for us to contemplate in a church filled with flowers!  Each flower speaks to us of the beauty of creation.  Each artistic arrangement reminds us of the beauty and power of human creativity, in combination with that beauty.  And yet, it’s all just a glimpse – a fragile gaze through a glass darkly, at the promise of the Kingdom to come in all its beauty and power.  Tonight, these spectacular arrangements will taken down, before they start to rot in their vases and containers.  For, as Paul says, ‘all creation is in bondage to decay’.  And this is the nature of the time we are in.  It’s a metaphor for us and for our time.

Human beings have put all creation in bondage to decay.  From the day we stepped out of the mythical garden of Eden, from a time of living harmoniously with the land, we have begun to subjugate the world.  At first, we began to grow crops.  Then we hunted entire species to extinction.  (Did you know that only 4% of the animals in the world are wild?  96% are domestic animals now).  Then we started to dig up the many gardens of Eden, to burn their trees and exploit their fruits and soil.  We have replaced glorious, self-sustaining biodiversity with monocultures and pesticides.  We have dug out the carbon storage of past eons, and pumped that carbon into the atmosphere.  And yes, now we find in Paul’s words, that creation is groaning. We may be thankful that the random position of the jet-stream has protected the UK from the current European heatwave.  But the reality is that heat records are tumbling all over Europe, fires abound, and in other parts of the world, flood waters are rising.  Yes, creation is groaning, alright.

But, there is hope.  Paul extends his analogy of groaning to suggest that these are but ‘labour pains’.  The uncomfortable truth for a species which imagines itself to be in control is that whatever we human beings do to degrade creation, and cause it to decay, Creation itself will survive.  Humans may not.  We might well be facing our own destruction in the coming decades.  But the Earth, will adapt, heal and go on.  In that sense, the presence suffering of Creation can indeed be thought of as labour pains.

The book of Revelation, chapter 21, concludes with a promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  All humanity will be caught up to dwell in eternity, either in the presence of God, or in the furnace of fire (for evildoers) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (to return to the Gospel reading).  Is this a vision, perhaps, of a future in which God removes humanity from the physical earth altogether – a time when (in Jesus words) ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the heavenly Kingdom of their Father’?  Is that how, in Paul’s words, “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”? (Rm 8.21). Perhaps. 

But, whatever future God has planned for us, for now we live in the in-between time.  We live in the ‘now and not-yet’ time of the Kingdom.  Like wheat among the weeds, we are called to shine God’s light of truth, love, compassion and justice wherever we go, even when we feel as though the weeds of evildoers are strangling us.  We may hope for the completion of the Kingdom.  Indeed Jesus commanded us to pray for it.  In Paul’s words, “we hope for what we do not see.  We wait for it with patience” (Rm 8.25).  May God give us the strength to endure the “sufferings of this present time” for they are “not worth comparing with the glory to come”. (Rm 8.18).  Amen.

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