Canon Barry Pyke’s sermon Creation groaning in travail
Today we come to the end of our Lenten preaching series entitled ‘The Kingdom of God Has Come Near’ and, as we enter Passiontide, our thoughts turn to how God’s Kingdom has drawn near to us in suffering. I always get the best themes! When I was initially asked for a title for today’s sermon I immediately, probably out of a sense panic, came up with the title ‘Creation Groaning in Travail’ which comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s a quote that has always stuck in my mind because, as Paul says, it is meant to remind us of a woman giving birth. It has taken nine months for the child to be ready for this day – it’s what the unborn child has been waiting for and what the parents have been waiting for. The time arrives and the travail of labour begins – that which is long waited for arrives, but not easily, but when the baby is born the joy and emotion is overwhelming. A new life, a new beginning, but this new life has come at a cost of pain, and the future nurture of this precious life will continue to be costly in terms of emotional energy. Romans 8:18-21.
However, I don’t want ignore the readings for this Passion Sunday and I want to look at the Gospel. In the Gospel reading some Greeks ask Philip if they can see Jesus. They probably ask Philip because, as his name suggests, he may have Greek heritage. We are not told if the Greeks are led to Jesus and listen to what he says. But let’s suppose they are. Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “Come on lads let’s have a chat”. Rather he goes off in rather strange direction talking about how he must suffer and die in order to draw all to himself. Then, when he poses the question to those who listen as to whether his Father could spare him from this hour, he continues that his suffering and dying God would be glorified. Next, there comes a voice from heaven that says ‘I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again’. We are not told what the bewildered Greeks are thinking. But what did the Greeks expect to find when they met and saw Jesus? We may get a clue what the Greeks expected to see, from St. Paul, who in I Corinthians 1:22 says that the Greeks look for wisdom. So maybe the Greeks looked for a man of wise philosophical words. They, of course, do not find this. Instead they found a man speaking about how he must die on the cross to glorify God. And what about this voice like thunder that comes from heaven? Jesus says that the voice had spoken as a sign for those who were with him. The voice was a sign that he had God’s authority – and who was that sign for? The Greeks, perhaps, but more probably the Jews for again St. Paul states in the same passage from I Corinthians as he mentions the Greeks, that the Jews demand miraculous signs.
It is clear from both the Gospels and St. Paul that those who sought Jesus had some preconceived idea of who Jesus was and what he was about. It’s a thing we all do – build images in our own minds of what people will be like, how they might look and so on – and are then a little taken aback when we meet them and see what they really look like. Both the Jews and the Greeks had built up images of what Jesus, the Messiah, would look like. They were images based upon centuries of tradition and experience. The Jews, in particular, were expecting a Messiah who would be a kind of ‘superman’ who would lead them, defeat their enemies and save them from the hands of the oppressor. He would give Israel glory, power and dominion. So the Jews and the disciples expected this – a military saviour who brought liberation through supernatural power.
What no one expected was who Jesus was and what God’s glory and power looked like. They did get a man who performed miracles and signs but they didn’t expect a Messiah whose life and mission would, in human terms, end in failure and death upon a cross. Again St. Paul, as he continues in that same passage when he talks about the Jews and Greeks, goes on: ‘We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, Christ the power and wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’
God’s glory is shown in a suffering Messiah and God’s throne is the Cross. This isn’t the God we were expecting. So you may ask, as I do, ‘Why does the coming of God’s Kingdom entail suffering for Jesus and those who follow him?’ Part of the answer lies in what we heard the other week from Canon Ailsa – which is that the coming of the Kingdom of God will lead to conflict. Jesus tells us in Luke 12:54 how the message of God’s Kingdom will lead to divisions within families and that would lead to conflict. Any conflict will bring suffering, be it emotional or physical, as each side attempts to be victorious. But why this conflict? Why this suffering? You would think that bringing God’s Kingdom would be a good thing – would be good news. But not everyone will think that God’s Kingdom is good news. Rowan Williams in his book meeting “God in Mark”, which we have been following in our Lent groups, describes the good news of Jesus and the bringing in of God’s Kingdom as ‘regime’ change. As we know from history, regime change is never smooth and straightforward. Rather regime change brings conflict and suffering. For there are those who do not want regime change, who are happy with the status quo, because it reinforces their position and their power over others. Any challenge to that status quo will be met with hostility to the point of destroying it. We see throughout the gospels this dynamic between concepts of human of power and God’s idea of power. The two seem diametrically opposed and on a collison course – and so they are and they play out in the life of Jesus. All those around Jesus, including the disciples, had the Messiah firmly categorised within concepts of human power which relied on force and destruction, combined with an idea of a God who swept down from heaven and changed things in the blink of an eye. Never did they expect the reality of God in Jesus whose life ended in apparent failure on the cross. In the Passion Narratives, we see Jesus become increasingly isolated and powerless against human power. The crucified God is the ultimate symbol, it would seem, of the defeat of God’s power. The resurrection, of course, changes all of that – but that’s for a few weeks’ time.
So let me ask you, as Bishop Nick asked you at Christmas when he posed to us the question, ‘When you come to the crib what kind of God do you expect to find?’ It’s the same question we could pose to the disciples, the Jews and the Greeks. And when you find him are you perplexed at what you find – does he confound you – even look foolish? And when you pray what sort of God do you pray to and what do you hope for? Do you look to a God up there who will swoop down and solve all your and the world’s problems? It’s certainly that type of God that many think exists when they ask me why God doesn’t do anything or sweep down click his fingers and make things right. God well might be up there in what we call heaven. But our God is Emmanuel – God with us. He’s not necessarily up there he’s amongst us. As Christians, we represent the reality that God is with us – living through us, continuing his work and mission of bringing God’s Kingdom. If God were remote and up in heaven and moving us about like pieces in a game of chess and clicking his fingers and doing things, he would be like a capricious tyrant. A God, in fact, that conforms to human expectation of what God is like. That is not our God. Our God is with us and by being with us, works with us and we with him. God with us is empowering rather than leaving us powerless and victims of a tyrant God.
So let us never forget that we the church, the body of Christ, are the ones who bring regime change to the world – not a god of some fantasy magazine – but a God who walks with us and shares our suffering as we struggle to bring in God’s Kingdom.
So creation groans in travail in the pain and the struggle of bringing this new life, this new direction, this Kingdom to a world that is challenged and disturbed by God. And in an attempt to preserve a world constructed on human concepts of power in which suffering is a tool of suppression, it daily seeks to marginalise and supress the message of God’s Kingdom proclaimed by the Church. Our blessing at the end of this service says ‘Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourself, to take up your cross and follow him’. Pray that we may bear our cross and the suffering and ridicule that it entails to bring the Kingdom of God close.