I only saw my dad cry a couple of times, but one of the times that always struck me was when one of our pets died. I have mentioned at times that my family had several pets when I was a kid: two dogs, quite a few fish, three or four turtles, I think, but it was hard to keep track because they kept disappearing — and we had a great big duck that for some reason we named Mike who was the king of our fenced-in yard for many years. It was his sickness and death – the sickness and death of Mike the Duck — that caused my dad to cry — most likely, I’m sure, because he had taken care of him for all those years, and he felt so bad for the suffering he was going through. It was fun having those pets, but it was not fun seeing them get sick and die, as I’m sure many of you know from your own experience, because those things can make us sad, and sometimes those things can even make us cry.
Nor it is fun to see what happens to so many trees and shrubs and lawns and other parts of God’s creation that get diseases and keep needing to be treated or cut down or removed since they get sick and eventually die as well. That may also make us sad, but it most likely also makes us very frustrated to spend so much time and money – and to so much enjoy their beauty – only to find out they don’t last forever, either, any more than any of us.
Why do bad things happen to pets and trees? Let’s think about in order to help us think about the much more important point the apostle Paul is making for us today in this lesson from Romans 8, which helps us reflect on today’s Back to the Basics Word: Longing – longing for something better later on than what we have in life right now, because what we have right now is even tough for things like pets and trees.
God’s main point in this lesson is not pets and trees – the things Paul refers to as “the creation” – but it’s interesting that four different times in these few verses he refers to “the creation.” Those expressions are underlined in the various verses in your worship folder. “The creation, the creation, the creation, the whole creation.” The whole creation, Paul says, has been groaning and wailing. The picture of the expressions in these words is that they are all doing it together; they are all groaning and crying together. It might be like seeing a Disney Movie where all the animals and jungle vegetation are all talking back and forth about how life is going, and they are commiserating with one another, because the tree keeps complaining about its aching bark, and the cheetah is humbled by the realization that he just can’t run like he used to and may have to get a hip replacement. The point that Paul is making in this comparison is that the suffering of this present world will not be over until what verse 19 says will happen happens. Verse 19: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.”
What is that talking about… the time when “the sons of God will be revealed?” The answer is given in the verse right before verse 19 – verse 18, the opening verse, which is talking about what you and I go through: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Our longing and wailing and crying and commiserating won’t be over until it’s over – until the world comes to an end and the Lord ushers his sons and daughters to glory. And this gets to the main point God is making for us today: We as God’s children are longing for something better, and God allows bad things to happen to pets and trees to help us think very seriously about a couple of things: the reason things are the way they are and the reality of the way things will be – the reason for the present sufferings and the reality of the coming glory. Whether you are struggling right now or not, but especially if you are struggling in any way great or small right now, let’s think for a moment about the reason for the thistles and the reality of the firstfruits. That is what will make our longing worthwhile.
Thistles are not enjoyable at all, of course. If you are a weed-puller, you know it can sometimes be difficult to get the full root out; you know they can really prick your hand or wrist if you’re not careful; and you know they can take over your yard if you don’t take care of them. The reason the thistles are there is because of what God said in the third chapter of the Bible after Adam and Eve fell into sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…, for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” One reason bad things happen to pets and trees is to help you and me think about the reason for those thistles. As Paul says here, it wasn’t the creation’s fault that it suffers. It was the crown of God’s creation’s fault that it suffers – your and my fault – your and my sin. It is a very humbling thing to have to realize this, but every single day of our lives there are thistles of some kind all around us to remind us of our responsibility for making it this way – and to remind us of God’s justice to keep it that way and to give us no hope for something better to happen to us at all after we return to the dust and die.
But the Lord also reminds us in these words that even as we humbly and soberly remember the reason for the thistles and repent of our sins against the Creator of all things and all people, we still have a wonderful and certain hope. In verse 24 of our lesson Paul says that we have been saved and rescued from the hopelessness of eternal punishment so we can eagerly anticipate something so wonderful it almost goes beyond words to describe. And what this is is what verse 23 is talking about – verse 23: “Not only so, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” The reason for the thistles is humbling, but the reality of the firstfruits gives us every reason to rejoice.
When you see the first tomato on the vine or the first berry on the plant, you know that that firstfruit means there are more delicious tomatoes or berries to come – unless, of course, some disaster strikes before the harvest. The firstfruit that God is talking about will not have a disaster strike before the harvest, because God guarantees that the firstfruit of the Holy Spirit in our hearts gives us a for sure and certain hope for the future. In another of his letters the apostle Paul spoke about that very confidently. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote about us as God’s children, “ Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession…”
People of God, that is another reason why bad things happen to plants and trees. That sad reality gives us every reason to rejoice in the wonderful reality that we have God’s guarantee that something better is still to come. And that guarantee is locked in and sealed. It is sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ, which was the price needed to guarantee – and which does guarantee – that all the reasons we give God to give us thistles have been forgiven and removed from his sight. Even as we are saddened by what has happened to the creation around us, we rejoice that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are a new creation – a new creation which can look forward with total confidence to the glory of the new heavens and the new earth.
So, whether anything happening in your life right now is causing you to cry or be sad or not, make the opening verse of this Lesson your theme for the day and your theme for life as we join in longing for something better later than what we presently have now: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.” The thistles will someday come to an end, but of God’s firstfruits there will always be more and more world without end. And that, as we proclaim in one of our great Christmas hymns, will make heaven and nature sing, “Joy to the World” at the final coming of the Christ:
No more let sins or sorrows grow Nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessing flow
Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as, the curse is found.
Or, as God pictures it in Psalm 96: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea resound and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth…” On that day when creation sings, for us who put our trust in Christ Jesus our Lord, there will be every reason to sing right along with them, because there will be no more reason for us to ever again be sad or to cry. And that is truly something worth longing for! Amen.