Strength for the Ages
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
July 24, 2011
Romans 8: 26-39 (NIV)
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” That is the opening to Psalm 139, which we reflected on last week. If you remember, we thought about how scary it is to be known inside and out. And then we reflected on how with God, being fully and completely known is not a scary thing, but really a wonderful blessing because God loves us despite all the messiness. And God is always ready to forgive our mistakes and to help us grow more and more into the people he created us to be.
Today, Paul continues that thought for us in a way as he writes to the Romans. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” he says. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” So, not only does God know us inside and out, but through his Spirit, God takes action for us.
[I have a confession to make. I am addicted to the Tour de France. I love cycling myself, and ever since Lance Armstrong had his amazing post-cancer comeback, I have been hooked. Even as I speak this morning, the riders are making their way into Paris in the final stage of the 2011 Tour de France. Needless to say, I’ve been following the events of the last two weeks quite closely. For those of you who follow professional cycling, you probably know that it is a fascinating sport that is neither an individual sport, nor a team sport. Why is it that we only hear 10 or 15 names in cycling when there are 200 guys riding in the Peloton, the main group of riders? Why do those other 190 people even try? There is a strategy to cycling that I am still trying to discern; it’s like an intense game of chess, which requires always thinking one step ahead, with so many factors, so many possible moves coming into play. As I have watched the Tour de France over the past few years, I have learned that success in a professional cycling tour involves a delicate balance of individual drive, and team reliance.
There could be any number of those men in the race that want to win the Tour de France, and as we know, there are several who do. But what every single one of those riders knows is that they absolutely, without question, cannot win on their own. The team riders know that their shared responsibility is to reduce the burden on the team’s lead rider, and so they take turns leading that rider and making sure he stays near the front. As a Peloton, they all share the burden of carving through the wind, and they all enjoy the benefit of saving energy as they ride in another’s wake. As a unit, the Peloton can close a five-minute time gap with no difficulty because their corporate, shared strength is greater than the strength of one individual. Then, when each of the team riders has exhausted all their strength, hopefully near the end of the race, the lead riders emerge and race for the finish, for the glory. But even as the winner of a stage or of the Tour basks in that glory, he recognizes that the only way he got that win was because his team was helping him. The team worked together for good. The team gave strength to the lead rider. This, says Paul, is what the Spirit does for us!]
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” This is one of the key statements in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Throughout this letter, Paul is seeking to reveal the righteousness of God, and here in the middle portion of his letter, Paul is describing the new journey of the people of God. Jesus Christ, of course, inaugurated this new journey. And following in Christ’s footsteps the Holy Spirit leads us on this journey through the present life, even as we look forward to that great inheritance, the life to come, which will include the whole of creation. God’s righteousness is shown throughout this journey in the presence of the Holy Spirit, which intercedes on our behalf. With the Spirit in us, God can work in accordance with his will, even when we do not know what that is or what to pray for! And it is because of that intercession of the Holy Spirit that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
But there are so many horrible things that happen in the world, how does God work for good? In this passage, Paul speaks of the one who “searches our hearts.” God is the “Searcher of our hearts.” The word “searcher” comes from a root word which suggests someone lighting a torch and going slowly around a large, dark room full of all sorts of things, but looking for something in particular. But what is it, exactly, that this Searcher wants to find?
Certainly, in searching the dark spaces of our hearts, God comes across all sorts of things which we would prefer remain hidden; as we were reminded last week. But in searching our hearts, God is not really looking for (or even at) all that junk inside us. Rather, the thing God is wanting to find above all else, and which according to Paul he ought to find in all Christians, is the sound of the Spirit’s groaning; “a sigh too deep for words.”
The interesting thing about this groaning, though, is that it is not a groaning on our behalf, but on behalf of God’s will. I believe it is fair to say that a characteristic trait of our society is selfishness. As a general rule, we are always looking out for number one, and number one is us. The spillover in matters of faith is that we see our relationship with God only in terms of how it fills our individual needs. Our common modern interpretation of this particular passage from Romans is a classic example. We like this text because to us, it seems to offer assurance that God is going to make our life “good.” This is certainly true, but we look at that “good” on our terms, rather than on God’s terms. And it is precisely in this misinterpretation that we overlook Paul’s very message of God’s righteousness.
When we read Paul’s words, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” what we hear is “we’re gonna get what we want.” But that is not a message of God’s righteousness at all, that is a message of self-righteousness. What Paul is expressing to the Romans in this passage is that God is looking out for the well-being and the continual upbuilding of his whole kingdom, the entire creation. The groan of the Holy Spirit within us gives voice not only to our need, but more importantly to the needs of the world.
Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul spoke of a world in pain, groaning in the birth pangs of a new creation. He spoke, too, of the church sharing that pain, groaning in our longing for the redemption of all people. The church is not to be apart from the pain of the world, nor are the people in the church. Here Paul shows that God himself does not stand apart from the pain of the world or the church, but instead comes to dwell in the middle of it in the person and power of the Spirit. And we are called to be a part of that work; even in our weakness, we are to open ourselves so that the Spirit can work in and through us.
This is a rather new and interesting idea presented by Paul; that at the very moment when we are struggling to pray and have no idea even what to pray for, just at that point, the Spirit is most obviously at work. The Spirit calls out of us not any particular words or coherent sentences, but just a groaning. It is a prayer beyond prayer reaching into the cold, dark depths that are beyond even human knowing. And God, the Searcher of Hearts, is listening for that prayer, that groaning. God understands what the Spirit is saying, even though we do not. God hears and answers the prayer, which we only know as deep groanings; the tossings and turnings of the Spirit standing before the Searcher of Hearts with the pains of the world heavy on its heart.
It is easy to pray for health and safety; to pray for guidance and strength. But it is a different matter entirely to pray such that the Spirit groans within us, echoing the cries of the world. And yet, when we open ourselves to God the Father and the work of the Spirit in such a way, imagine what can happen! Christ himself did just that as he hung on the cross and cried out with the pain of the world upon his shoulders. And this is why Paul goes on to say, “in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” When we can submit to God as Christ did, when we can suffer for the sake of the world as Christ did, when we are marked out as God’s people not outwardly but in the secret prayers and loves of our innermost being, then we can be completely sure that God is in charge, that he can bring good out of whatever happens. And amazing things will happen! The world is still groaning, and we with it; but God is with us in this groaning, and will bring it out for good. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” not by turning us inward in selfishness, but outward, interceding for us and for the world with “sighs too deep for words.”
It seems strange that we would receive help in our weakness when the Spirit is groaning within us for the sake of the whole world. But Christ’s suffering and death on the cross was for the sake of the whole world, and his death was overcome in his resurrection three days later. The new life that Jesus received through his death was the beginning of God’s new creation. On the cross, Jesus showed us that suffering is no longer meaningless but can serve God’s purposes. And even in our weaknesses, strength can be found for the whole world, strength that can stand the test of time and all forces with it.
[A few weeks ago, I watched a NOVA special on PBS about the Parthenon. As you are probably aware, the Parthenon is the pinnacle of ancient Greek architecture, and though it has been pummeled in war, shaken by earthquakes, and burned, a good deal of it still stands today. There is a restoration project in the works at the Parthenon, it has been going on for 30 years and will probably go on for another 30 at least; an ironic truth, considering the fact that the Parthenon was originally built in a span of only nine years. As I watched the show, I was fascinated by the techniques and methods used to design and build the Parthenon, methods beyond the abilities of even our most modern technology. But what amazed me most is that the Greeks designed and built a building of incredible beauty that has stood for nearly 2500 years. Their design, materials, and construction were all carefully considered; not only to create a beautiful Temple, but also to last through the ages. And that’s exactly what happens with the Spirit at work in our lives; it is the perfect combination of God’s righteousness. All those hardships that come at us are matched by the groan of the Spirit within us, and we are given the strength we need to overcome every weakness.]
“If God is for us, who can be against us?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we let the Spirit work in our lives groaning for the sake of the world, and when we open ourselves to God’s righteousness as he searches our hearts, then even in our weakness, there will be strength; strength for us, strength for the world, strength for the ages.
Praise be to God. Amen.