If you go into any gym and find the section where people are pumping iron, you will hear a lot of grunting and groaning. Weightlifters often groan. They groan as they strain to push weights off of their chests, or over their heads, or pull and heave them off the floor.
Engines straining also groan. If you strap a heavy trailer to a pickup truck and point it uphill, you will hear the engine groan. Gears push against gears, the engine revs, and the truck groans as it strains forward.
This is the sound of creation. Groaning is the sound of creation. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”
This is a vivid image. Perhaps it isn’t such a fantastic metaphor for women who have actually experienced labor pains, but it reminds us of the difficult work of creation. That work can be hard. That work can be groan-inducing.
Groaning happens in a gap – a gap between what we are trying to do and what we hope to do. Groaning reminds us that the time spent in the gap between what is and what could be is a place of hard work.
Our readings from the New Testament today are about living in this gap. We hear about the gap between creation as God intends and wills it, and where we are now. Paul describes how to, somehow, live in optimism and hope in a world that so often doesn’t fulfill what God has promised to us. He calls this life in the Spirit. Paul’s whole ministry, in a way, was driven to close this gap.
Paul felt that he had seen the fulfillment of creation in Jesus, he knew that fulfillment was within reach. He also knew the communities he preached to still lived with injustice, war, poverty and suffering. He knows both the glory that is to come and the very present sufferings of the present time.
He exhorts the Christians in Rome to live in the Spirit, because he also sees the glory that is just beyond the gap. A life in the Spirit is a life characterized by the confidence that through Christ we have been freed from all the things that can increase our suffering. A life in the Spirit is a life lived free of hatred and violence, and instead filled with joy and reconciliation. A life in the Spirit is a way to live in the gap between what is and what shall be, in joyful exertion, not in desperation.
The gospel parable also speaks to life in the gap. The Reign of God – a reign that Jesus preached was here and now – is described as glorious. Jesus compares it to a grain field. A field of grain is the source of not just one loaf of bread, but an abundance of bread. This is an image of an abundance of what was, and for many still is, the basic food, the basic source of life. Yet, in the midst of this vision of an abundant life, there are weeds. The weeds gum up the works. They cannot be removed easily. The parable today is about having to wait in the gap – in a world of both abundance and weeds. The parable is there to comfort those who live in the gap with the assurance that at the end, the weeds will not ruin the harvest.
It is extremely difficult to live in a gap. It is difficult to see the glory beyond the horizon and still live in a place that is not yet fully glorified. The first Christians must have felt this very strongly. Those who actually knew Jesus had known in their minds and felt in their souls the goodness and love of God in creation, the Reign of God in the here and now. Paul had seen the glory of the risen Christ, and his conviction, faith and excitement must have filled the minds and souls of the people in the churches he planted. Yet, just outside the door of each house church, every time the communion meal ended and people returned to their lives, they were confronted by the realities of a world that did not meet that vision.
The parables Jesus told about the end of time, the words Paul gave to his communities, were written to help those communities understand and overcome the gap between what is and what ought to be.
They are also words written for today. Christians still live in the gap. Many know the feeling of God’s love and have experienced it in their lives. Many have seen it in grand acts of compassion and small daily acts of kindness. Christians rejoice when justice triumphs and celebrate when sickness turns to health. These are signs of the Reign of God come near. Yet, people everywhere also wake daily to news of war and rumors of war, of violence in homes and communities, of soul-crushing poverty in every country, of injustice, and all the many ways the dignity inherent in every person is neglected.
As Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, Christians are reminded now – we do not hope based on what we see. Christian hope is based on the confidence and assurance that the risen Christ is present in the world, bringing all things to what they are meant to be, closing the gap. God’s focus is on closing the gap between what is and what ought to be. This is the work of God from the beginning of creation. To be Christian is to join in this work, for all people are children of God, part of that creation coming into being.
The way to join in this work is to live a life in the Spirit. This isn’t a life that tries to ignore the gap. It is a life that can stride confidently into the gap – angered at injustice, grieving at suffering, striving and straining and groaning.
Groaning is the soundtrack of creation. It is the sound of the gap closing, of the Spirit overcoming resistance. Life in the Spirit strains and groans to close the gap. It is a good, honest groaning, the soundtrack of what will be coming into being.
Life in the Spirit is a life that closes the gap between the weight on the chest and the weight lifted high and triumphantly overhead. Life in the Spirit closes the gap between the engine straining against the gears and finally reaching full speed, running like a well-oiled machine.
Christians are to be gap closers. Christians are to see the distance between what should be and what is, and strain, and heave, and work, and lift to close that gap. It may be necessary to groan, but the groans sing the soundtrack of creation.
May we stay true in the struggle, groaning if need be, laughing at our groaning when we can. The gap is closing, let us hear the soundtrack of creation as we raise our voices in work and strain and joy.