First United Methodist Church — Omaha
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence
December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Romans 8:19-22, 25
Sermon: “Earth Advent”
The Advent season continues. The waiting continues. In this text for today, we hear the Apostle Paul writing to the Roman followers speaking of waiting as an “eager longing.” It’s not “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow” that are having a hard time waiting in Paul’s letter. It is the whole creation that is waiting. The waiting is not as cozy as chestnuts roasting on an open fire with Yuletide carols being sung while we are all wrapped in cuddl duds. It is not trying to be good while idly waiting for an intruder to shimmy down our chimney. Paul connects waiting with the groaning sounds of labor pains.
Labor pains? Perhaps we may be surprised to even include the groaning of labor pains on Christmas Eve, we usually leave that part of groaning out before the bands of swaddling clothes are sweetly lying in a manger. We will get to those labor pains on Christmas Eve, but we have another week before those birthing pains begin. For today, Paul uses this image of labor pains- not in reference to a baby born in a manger- but the whole creation birthing out of that which is killing it.
The Apostle Paul may well have been a Jewish mystic, a man ahead of his time, an ecological spiritualist of the first century, for his imagery is not his alone. He will not get a Nobel prize of literature for original work on this new birth language; he recalls the imagery from his faith tradition. Millenniums before carbon monoxide measurements, rising oceans and melting ice caps, strip mining, fracking, deforestation, and toxic waste dumps…. before science told us we are destroying God’s creation, the ancient Hebrews imagined a Savior who would not only save them politically from centuries of oppression, but who would bring such dramatic transformation that the very earth would be different. While these ancient peoples were not focused on a global ecological crisis, their deep appreciation for the beauty of nature as an expression of the Divine Creator included imagery of all the earth creation’s awaiting salvation as true liberty from the violence of humanity.
Their theology said, if humans were captive to oppression and injustice and in need of liberation, those prophetic voices proclaim that we had transferred our captivity onto the earth. All were in need of re-visioning a new order of being. The very earth and all her creatures awaited to be set free from human bondage of decay. If this did not arise from the scientific community, where did this notion come from? The world as the Israelites experienced it was evidence of God in Creation. The world as the Israelites experienced it was also evidence of brokenness. According to their understanding, Yahweh God brought order out of Chaos. It was good. Creation’s beauty and order point to the Creator God, and the earth is a gift of blessing. A crucial claim of Israel’s faith in exile reaffirms that creation is ordered. Creation is a reliable, generous, life-giving aspect of God. However, God bringing order out of creation does not mean that dis-order ceased to exist. In other words, Chaos is the counter creation force lose in the universe, in our lives, in our relationships, in all systems. Israel bears witness to an enduring force of chaos in its life and in the world, and they tell that humans returned to chaos when they move away from Creator God.
As the Israelites sit in exile writing their sacred text, they are away from their foci of God. They have been stripped away from Jerusalem while held captive in Babylon. They are sitting in the middle of a hurricane force of political chaos in their nation’s history. I think we can relate to that. If we doubt the conviction of this universal state of brokenness, we only need read our news headlines or open our eyes and look around us. We more divided from one another. We are more ready to benefit the powerful at a cost to the vulnerable. We have lost human decency and are more abusive of one another as human beings and destructive of the earth as our Mother. We are feeding the forces of chaos holding power around us.
The psalms and poets and prophets reminded the Israelites of the Creator God who once brought order out of chaos and who they promised would do so again. Their story was one of hope in the midst of living chaos. It is good for us to hear it and remember it these days.
Over and over they heard that when and if God’s people return to Yahweh’s Way, when and if they returned to right relationship with Creator God, then restoration and healing will return too. Over and over their leaders used creation imagery to depict a long awaited salvation. Isaiah’s image of God’s coming salvation envisioned new order altogether. Isaiah proclaimed God’s promise:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
That is an extravagant promise of Salvation and New life connected with a vision of a new order of Creation. The coming salvation (Messiah) for which we wait is not just for Israel, and not just for the human community, it is for All of creation. It is tender care for this lush green earth so that “All Shall be Well. All shall be well.” This new creation reverses the chaos and expresses a new reality that is possible when humans partner with Yahweh Creator God.
Paul carries this Jewish foundation forward centuries later and he applies this image to Jesus the Messiah – the Christ we await in Advent. Paul reminds the Jesus followers that creation waits our partnership and participation. The labor pains, the sacrifices necessary to restore order and care for the earth and all her creatures, are our labor pains. Our faith teaches that we participate with God in this new vision. When we do so, we are liberated from the decay of Spirit, dishonor of humanity and destruction of Creation. Our Advent waiting is in patience, but it is not idle thumb-twiddling. Our waiting is laboring with and restoring, guarding, and tending Creation, and healing the chaotic divisions and injustices, and ceasing to participate in the forces of chaos wreaking havoc on this planet.
Our labor pains cause us to examine our consumption of the earth’s resources and rest our national politics to once again honor sacred land. Our labor pains are reshaping our daily habits to care for the earth as part of who we are as God’s people. We need this time of waiting to give birth to God’s love child in the world. May we be the blessing the earth awaits this Advent. Amen.