COS Lecture 1.2: The God Who Hears the Groan
Throughout the month of July I am teaching in the Course of Study for Ordained Ministry here at Duke. Twenty-one United Methodist local pastors (nearly all of them rural clergy) are taking part with me in "Course of Study 513 - Our Mission from God: Transforming Agent." The purpose of the course is to gain theological understanding for leading congregations to carry out the mission of the church as God’s agent of redemption and transformation in the world. Periodically I will be posting my lectures and lecture notes from the course on this blog. I hope that this will benefit my students: and perhaps a few other readers as well.
Who is this God Whose Heart is the Church’s Mission?
The church doesn’t have a mission. Instead, it is an expression of another mission: God’s mission. So in understanding the transforming, redemptive mission of the church, we must begin with God, with who this God is who has been revealed to us in Jesus, and with what it is that this God does to redeem.
I’d like to suggest some characteristics of the God of Jesus Christ as a framework for what it means for us to live for God’s mission as a fire exists for burning.
The God Who Hears the Groan
1. First, the God of the Bible is the God Who Hears the Groans of God’s creation.
In the 3rd Chapter of Exodus, God speaks out of the burning bush to Moses and says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on the account of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings.” God is the God who hears the cry of the oppressed, who doesn’t just sit stone deaf distracted and oblivious on a throne high in the heavens, but who hears the suffering groans of a fallen creation. Rob Bell says that the Hebrew word used for the cry of the Hebrew people in Exodus 3 is sa’aq, a word used all throughout the Bible as an expression of pain, the ouch, the sound we utter when we are wounded. He goes onto to say that Sa’aq is one of the most powerful words of the Hebrew language, the anguished cry of the oppressed and poor, the agonized pleas of the helpless victim. Walter Brueggeman calls this Exodus cry of sa’aq “the primal scream.”
At our parsonage, we used to live beside a cow pasture. At a certain time of year, the mother cows would be separated from the calves, and the cows would moan and cry out all night long for the ones that were missing, this plaintive, low wail. It was the cry. The groan.
If you listen closely enough, you can hear the cries, the groans that go up from the center of creation: the groaning of a hungry stomach, the sigh of a lonely soul, the cry of a patient on their hospital bed. Romans 8 even says that all creation is groaning, subjected to bondage and futility, sighing for redemption.
The God of the church is the God who hears these groans.
And this God not only hears these groans, but feels them.
Fred Craddock once preached a sermon where he imagined spending the night at God’s house.
At breakfast the next day, one of the angels asked how he slept.
“Terrible,” he said. “I just tossed and turned all night, because upstairs I just heard someone groaning and sighing and tossing and turning on their bed until the wee hours of the morning.”
“Who was that?,” Fred asked.
“That was God,” the angel said.
The God of the Bible is the God who hears the groan. A God who feels the groan. Even a God who groans with us. In the words of Romans 8, even as we “groan inwardly, while we wait for the redemption of our bodies,” the Spirit is interceding for us with its own groans, “sighs too deep for words.”
This is God: the God who, in Jesus, will come in response to a groaning world, and who will then groan and cry out from a cross at the heart of creation: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabach-thani.”
The entire mission of the church can be found deep within that groan.