I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that 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. 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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8: 18-27
It is either grief, or glory. We can’t seem to find a middle ground. Paul, in this effort to help the people of his time understand the complicated business of salvation, offers the idea that the best is still to come, and how many times have you heard that – or hoped that it was true? Surely there is a short season on misery, and soon we will find our joy again – isn’t that the hope? But Paul never suggests that it must be either one or the other; that is our assumption – and not without cause.
When we suffer we can only see that others seem go on with their ordinary, joy-filled lives. It can be difficult to find people who will allow us to express our uncertainty or our fear – and this never seems more true than in December.
As Christmas approaches, and the crowds seem to nearly burst with the promise of joy, abundant joy, there are always some who wait in the shadows, who cannot find hope or peace – for all kinds of reasons.
We grow uncomfortable because there is such a gap between grief and glory – between our reality and the promise of God made known in Jesus. Because grief and glory are at opposite ends of our emotional range, we imagine that there is no middle ground, or that the middle ground must be emotionally neutral – and thus undesirable.
But Paul doesn’t compare the two; he says that they aren’t worth comparing (they cannot be compared) – ours is not an existence of either grief (in this life) or glory (in the life to come)… Paul describes a world that is surrounded – encompassed – by God’s glory even while we work our way through the often difficult business of living. The struggle – the futility – the frustration that comes with grief or anxiety, or the very real pain of loss – all of these are necessary, not because God would test us, or challenge us, but because we have, since the beginning, challenged God.
To imagine that our pain comes from God as a test is to imagine that God is like us – using punishment to teach proper behaviour – and God does not work like that. Instead, God walks with us, like a parent teaching a child how to ride a bike – brushing off the gravel; one hand on the bike; running along side until balance and momentum take us out on our own. The child that doesn’t stop; who just keeps riding, might well forget that they had any help in finding their freedom. But most children stop at the end of the block, or turn and race back to their Helper, and rejoice in the freedom that they discovered together. This is an image we understand – and mirrors the image Paul uses of the Spirit who urges us on and prays for us with sighs too deep for words – sighs that come from the very heart of God.
The beauty – the real gift – of this season is that in this one child, God did more that just whisper promises into the wind. God chose to get on the bike – to bump along the road with us; to know the struggle that we find so difficult; the struggle to find glory in this confusing and often troubling life.
So Jesus s born into an ordinary family; in a dark, lonely place. Jesus looses friends and arguments and runs afoul of those in power, but Jesus seems never to lose his confidence in God.
This is why Paul is able to say that the suffering that we will encounter is not worth comparing to the glory waiting to be revealed. Paul offers a beautiful image; – a wonderful promise, full of love – that describes God as one who waits with us and grieves with us before gently urging us forward to something unknown, yet beautiful. Let this be our prayer as we venture together into a season that does not ignore our sorrow, but invests it with hope.
That we might find hope and meaning and purpose in the challenges of life, God gave us a Saviour – born into poverty; raised in obscurity; betrayed to powerful people, and killed out of fear – yet God raised him to life, a sign that the glory can (ad will) overcome even the darkest of our struggles. No artificial glory, this – not the electric lights and cardboard cut-outs of a corporately sponsored Christmas; it is the glory of God that meets us, and encourages us and waits for us a the edge of every darkness.
Thanks be to God that the Christ child has come. Praise God for that true Christmas glory. Let that glory be our joy and our hope; this night, and always. Amen