“First Fruits”

“First Fruits”
Rev. Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
May 23, 2021

Last Sunday as the 11am service was ending, just as I was giving the benediction, I got a text. I didn’t know it at the time. But a few minutes later I notice my watch alerting me to this recent text – from Michelle. She had been worshipping over livestream, and who was eagerly wanting to communicate something the second that that service was over:

“Hey, we’ve got some super bad water leaks in the office as soon as you’re able to get home. Love you.”

Do you all remember the rain last weekend? Well, we had been having some work done on our roof, and well, the deluge of rain found that particular moment to be a convenient one to test the work while it remained incomplete.

I arrived home severely underestimating what “super bad water leaks” might be. Michelle and Leo have no fewer than six buckets and bowls out catching water from the ceiling, three of them overflowing because it’s impossible to keep up.

They are using every single towel, hand towel, baby burp cloth – you name it – to soak up water that is just flowing along the ground out of the office to the front foyer area, into the kitchen.

Thanks be to God for longtime FPC member Ron Weaver. I texted him fairly soon after seeing all of this because he lives quite nearby and I knew him to be the kind of person who likely has a shop vac for the water. Lo and behold – he did.

As I arrived at his house to pick it up, he explained: “We got this just after we were married. It is 40 years old and has vacuumed up a whole lot of water over the years. It should work great, but also if it just blows a fuse – don’t be surprised.”

I get back home, turn on the shop vac (no fuse blows), and I proceed to spend the next 30 or so minutes vacuuming.

And the whole time I keep saying, “Oh my…”

“Oh boy…”

And occasionally Michelle would say, “Did you say something?”

“No…no. Sorry.”

I had no idea words were coming out of my mouth. I was just in this place where everywhere I turned it was more water or a new area I hadn’t noticed was affected or just by my own body feeling tired.

Do you know these moments?

  • Sometimes its as simple as standing back up and feeling an old ache or a new ache – “oh”
  • Sometimes it’s turning on or scrolling through the news and it’s another one of those stories that catch the heart with anger or sadness or tiredness, and almost involuntarily, ”Oh no. Not again.”
  • Sometimes it’s when there is little clarity about direction or what decision is best amid competing demands and implications…
  • Sometimes it’s hearing the diagnosis for the first time or realizing the job really is over or hearing a friend verbalize the pain seeing first-hand the devastation after a tragedy…and you sit there and there are just no words. The most honest response is this ‘oh.’

Paul characterizes the Christian life this side of our full redemption, this side of God’s kingdom fully on earth as it is in heaven, this side of how things should be…Paul characterizes the Christian life as one of groaning (“we,  who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly”).

In fact, Paul says, “the whole creation has been groaning.”

And Paul is clear: Groaning is not the exception. Groaning is not a ‘sometimes thing’ when life isn’t going your way.

All of creation and all of those who know the gift of the Holy Spirit groan because at all times life – even at its best – we recognize the ways and places things are not as it should be.

Somewhere within us, among us, out there…always there are ways and spaces where the water is pouring in…and so there is this ache.

This inward groan.

  • When is the last time the groan was audible for you? For us?
  • When has that deep sigh been most acute this past year?
  • How do we name the places where we have ached that it would be far more on earth than it is in heaven?

We are often tempted, I think, to avoid thinking about the aches and groans. Tempted to push them down or aside. Medicate them. Keep ourselves too busy to notice. Put on a good face, and fake it till you make it.

But Paul names the deep sighs as not as occasional things but a continual reality for us and all of creation…and this passage invites our awareness of those groans to come right to the fore because Paul wants to make clear the profoundly good news to be known about those groans, the sighs, the aches.

“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.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have leaned on this promise.

That when I do not have the words to pray for this or that…when I cannot find what I want to say or should say…when all I have are sighs or groans…Scripture just names it:

“We do not know how to pray as we ought but you know…the Spirit is right in the midst of that wordless groan or sigh or uncertainty…and praying with sighs too deep for words.”

The Spirit is praying with sighs – in those sighs.

On top of that, get this: “(when the Spirit prays) the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” In other words, Spirit is not randomly praying or generally praying or praying without direction but praying for us and on our behalf according to God’s goodwill.

No wonder the very next verse after our passage in Romans 8 is this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

“All things work for good” not because we eventually find our way or figure it out. No, “all things work for good” because the Holy Spirit meets us and prays for us precisely in that space of ongoing ache…and prays us further into God’s good and perfect will.

And so again, where do we name the spaces and places of sighs in these recent days?

  • What if we knew that when we offered up those groans, those sighs, that wordless speech…what if we knew that we were not the only voice speaking at that moment?
  • What if we know that sigh was also the Spirit praying in complete symbiosis with us?
  • What if we knew right there in that sigh was the Spirit’s prayer on our behalf, according to the will of God?

Paul is clear that because the Spirit is praying in us and for us in precisely that space – then the deepest truth about those groans is that they are the space from which God’s birthing something new.

Listen again to how Paul talks about the ‘groaning’ in our passage:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor 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.”

The groans are labor pains.

Which is to say…

  • the groans we offer are not futile.
  • they are not just empty cynicism.
  • they are not a dead-end exasperation.

But because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the groans are the space from which new birth is unfolding.

Now…we may not feel that in the least. We may not see anything like ‘new birth’ on the horizon. And Paul is quite realistic about that: “hope that is seen is not hope.”

And yet, he is adamant: because of the gift of the Holy Spirit praying for us in those groans, those groans are birth pains. That is the particular space from which God is doing a new thing.

Do we believe it?

Does it not go to the heart of what we believe – that from the depths of Christ’s deepest sigh, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” that from there – that resurrection would be known?

If we trust that that the Holy Spirit is faithfully bringing about the new birth in those spaces…then Paul is clear on what we are to do: “but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

“Wait eagerly.”

Last Sunday night Michelle, Leo, and I were in our kitchen area just outside of the area that took all the water damage.

In the background, there was a low-level droning-hum of two air-drying vents for the water. In the air was the slight but definite mildew.

Michelle had Google maps open on her phone and was showing Leo the earth. It was zoomed way out and so he goes, “What is the brown?”

“Land. Desert, actually.” It was just a barren portion of earth somewhere.

And then Leo starts moving his neck around, peering around the screen, and goes very matter-of-factly: “Well where are the playgrounds?”

The Greek for “wait eagerly” is a word that suggests stretching out one’s neck to look for what is coming. Craning one’s neck.

Certain that even though all five senses are declaring there is nothing there and nothing coming, we need to crane our necks. The Spirit will be faithful. The first fruits of the Spirit, in fact, may already be breaking ground, may already be at hand.

Michelle looks over at Leo and says, “Well, you have to Zoom in really far to find the playgrounds.” And sure enough, a few zooms later…

Where are the groans most acute these recent days?

Know that because the Holy Spirit is with us and for us and cannot help but be faithful – the deepest truth about those groans is that the Spirit is praying in them, and they are labor pains.

And so we crane our necks and our hearts looking and searching and seeking…

And sometimes – if we are willing to crane our necks all the way into the heart of the ache itself – we can see the presence of new life already at hand. The promised Good Shepherd himself walking in the Deepest Valley.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert