Sermon by Canon Henry Whyte
Advent Sunday 29 November 2020
The Pandemic, Groaning and Advent Hope
Romans 8. 18-27
Good morning everyone. I hope you have all had a restful night and that your mind is now fully awake. I say this because this morning we are looking together at a huge subject. It is the subject of “God and the Pandemic”. In other words, how can we, as Christians, make any sense of it all and what is God doing at this time of Covid 19? It’s a matter that is almost as big as the mystery of life itself.
Now I need to acknowledge my debt to Bishop Tom Wright who is a leading Bible scholar and the author of a book called “God and the Pandemic”. I commend it to you. I listened recently to Bishop Tom speaking about his book and I am grateful to him for pointing me to our Epistle reading for today from Romans Chapter 8. In particular he highlighted one word in this Chapter which is a key word for this sermon. It is the word “groaning” which is used in three different ways in the verses that were read to us.
The first way in which this word is used in our reading is to tell us that the whole world is groaning at this time. In the words of St. Paul, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to this present time”.
These words are so relevant as the pandemic continues. Thank God that effective vaccines are on the way but millions continue to be infected and many thousands are still dying of this terrible disease. Bishop Tom points out that there have been similar plagues in the past. There was the Black Death, The Great Plague and the Spanish flu at the end of the First World War. There have been many other cataclysmic events and the world has audibly groaned with earthquakes, avalanches and tsunamis. There have been countless wars, famines and other disasters. So it is no exaggeration to say that the world in which we live is a world that groans in many ways. We are more and more aware of the groanings of dangerous and destructive climate change and all that this means for the future of the planet.
Yes, there is another side to this coin in that beautiful and wonderful things are happening in the world of nature and in the world of human activity but we have only to look around to see that in numerous ways the world is struggling and that it has a continual sense of ongoing frustration and pain about it.
The whole world is groaning at this time, says our Epistle and so also are we. Its not only the world that is groaning, says Paul but we ourselves, as Christian believers are those who groan inwardly as we wait for our adoption as sons and daughters and for the redemption of our bodies.
We all have, do we not, some sense of frustration about the many imperfections in our lives, in our bodies, in our relationships and in numerous other ways. None of us have immunity against the process of ageing and against all accidents and diseases. Like the rest of mankind we face the dangers of Covid 19 and we know that the fight for life with this disease may involve desperate physical groaning. We ourselves may not have been infected but many of us have surely let out audible groans when we have heard of further restrictions. At the start of this second major lockdown there must have been many of us who said “Oh not again”. “Surely not again”. And there has been much further frustration and suffering as more and more have seen their businesses shutting down never to reopen, more and more have deepening financial worries and an increasing sense of loneliness.
I suppose that when we were young, we big had hopes and dreams of a golden future and thank God if some of those dreams have been fulfilled. But I think, that as the years go by there can a growing sense for many people that life has not been all that it might have been, relationships have been by no means perfect and that many things could have been far better in thought, in word and in deed. If we are Christian believers, and even if we are not, there can be a deep longing within us for a better world in which we are released from the imperfections and frustrations of this life.
The whole world is groaning, we as individuals are groaning and then thirdly, our Epistle reading tells us that God Himself is groaning with us and within us. To use the words of St. Paul he says, in verse 26, that “we do not know how to pray as we ought but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans, with sighs, too deep for words.”
God Himself is groaning and sighing within us by His Spirit. He is not standing apart, just watching our struggles from a distance. He is the God who comes to help us in all our weakness. He came in the person of Jesus Christ to live among us, to take the griefs, sorrows and evils of the world upon Himself as He was brutally murdered on the First Good Friday. He also came to conquer death on the First Easter Day. And He comes to us now in the person of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our groanings. He groans along with us in our prayers and He can strengthen us to keep going in a painful and suffering world.
Do you know the origin of the word “sympathy”. It comes from a Greek word and it literally means “suffering with”. To sympathize is to suffer with. This is our God, the God who suffers with us, struggles with us. But that’s not all because our God is also the God of hope and His promise is that at the last Jesus Christ will come again to end all our struggles and to bring us into an eternal and perfect existence.
This is Advent hope. It is the Advent promise of a world in which, as we read in the last book of the Bible, there will be no more death, no more dying, no more crying and no more pain. It is a hope to sustain and strengthen us in all the frustrations and pains and imperfections of our life.
The whole world is groaning, we are groaning and God is groaning with us as we wait for the fullfilment of our Advent hope. It is the hope that assures us that Covid 19 and all other terrible things will not have the last word. God will have the last Word and so as Christian believers we can join with Julian of Norwich in her famous words “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”. Amen.