Sunday, June 10, 2018

Help in Weakness: Sermon on Romans 8:26-27

The 39-year-old king was having a very, very, very bad day. Things were not at all turning out the way he had wanted. His rule started out so very well. His father Ahaz hadn't set a good example. His father worshipped idols, encouraged idolatry. His father had been a weak lackey, a puppet, a slave of brutal Assyrian power from the east. His father had neglected God's holy temple; had bartered away his religion for a pittance of so-called 'help' from the Assyrians, had personally sacrificed to demons for it. His father had been a coward. Hezekiah had decided, from the first days he took power, that he'd be no coward. He started by re-opening the temple, celebrating the Passover, cleansing the hills of their 'high places,' those perennial pagan unholy sites. Hezekiah reasserted power and influence over the Philistines. And then Hezekiah told the Assyrians they could go look somewhere else for a pawn. If Hezekiah's father Ahaz had been a coward, Hezekiah refused to follow his lead; he'd look to his further father David and stand up to the giant. Hezekiah vowed to be a David, not an Ahaz.

For a few years, the Assyrians were distracted by the Babylonian uprising in their heartland. But then they went west again. A small Egyptian force stepped in to help the armies of the towns of Judah. And things did not go well. The giant crushed them into the dirt. As the Assyrians mopped the floor with what was left of Lachish, as push came to shove, what would the bold, fearless king do? Well, as it turned out, not be quite so bold or quite so fearless. When push came to shove, he'd turned yellow. In weakness and fear, he'd groveled at his giant's feet; he'd begged for their mercy; he'd offered them tribute; and to send it, he stole from God's treasury and even stripped the gold from the walls of God's temple to appease the giant's wrath with literal tons of precious metals.

Hezekiah was forced to admit he had more of his father in him than he cared to admit. Hezekiah had to look in the mirror and see a man who robbed God to save his own skin – a traitor to his every principle. And worst of all, it had been for nothing. His personal Goliath, the Assyrian king Sennacherib, wasn't satisfied: he wanted not just Hezekiah's gold and Hezekiah's silver, but Hezekiah's heart and Hezekiah's soul. Poised in the ruins of city after city, with a massive army flooding the land, Sennacherib sent three officials to badger king and people in Jerusalem into surrender. The hero king, turned coward king, was compromised, demoralized, confronted with the worst foe of all: his own weakness. But then the prophet his father had loved to ignore, Isaiah, urged him to take heart. And so in the king's weakness, the prophet's words guided his prayers to line up with God's will again; and in the moment of king and people's most obvious weakness and even helplessness, the Assyrian army dropped dead at an angel's ruthless touch, once Hezekiah had refound his faith. You'll find it in 2 Kings 18-19.

When we left off last Sunday, we talked a lot about our present sufferings. We talked about the sufferings we experience in our own bodies – the pains, the sicknesses, the disorders and dysfunctions, the way we fall apart as we age. We talked about the sufferings that the whole creation, too, endures – our pollution, our defilement, its own enslavement to futility. And we heard Paul tell us that “the whole creation has been groaning together” in its agony and woe – every hill, every tree, every river, every plot of farmland, all the seas and valleys – and that it's because “the creation was subjected to futility” against its own will (Romans 8:20,22). And the only hope there is, is in “the revealing of the sons of God,” for which the creation looks with bated breath (Romans 8:19). We were made to be its protectors and redeemers, so that the whole creation can “be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). But our own bodies are in need of the same redemption, so just like creation groans together, we groan for freedom (Romans 8:23). Creation groans for its freedom in our freedom, and we groan for our freedom to free creation.

But there's just so much suffering, so much pain. Ourselves, our environment, our society – with everything in agony, with everything in such distress, how do we navigate that? We can say, generally, that God ultimately wants it gone – he wants to bring about the day when pain and sorrow and suffering and death will be no more, when those former things have passed away, when everything is made new (Revelation 21:4). But in the here and now, there's suffering he aims to refuse and suffering he aims to use, right? How do we know the difference between the two? How can we predict what God's plans are in any situation? How do we prioritize when faced with so many kinds of pain and anguish? How can we possibly get it right?

Paul admits, “We don't know what we ought to pray for” (Romans 8:26c). Our words are just so vulgar and so clumsy, so barbaric and so rough. More often than not, our prayers are like doing surgery with sledgehammers, and we're wanting a translation to refine them with adequate precision and scope to call on God to act. When a loved one suffers from cancer, and we want to pray, how many of us can understand even a fraction of all the cellular processes that cause the conditions for which we're praying? What exactly would it take for God to undo them? What would the consequences be? What, exactly, is it that we want, and how does that affect the rest of their bodies, their lives, their society, their world? How can we pray with precision when we're confused and clumsy and clueless like that?

When we see a polluted lake, when we see a scorched forest, how much can we ask God to do, and how much will he ask us to do? What led to all this, and where's it going? When we pray for one particular species, what would our requests mean for the overall ecosystem? How can we possibly appreciate the vast and complex network for interacting factors, whether just right now or, even harder, stretched through eons of time? It's like when Job finally heard the voice from the whirlwind, interrogating him on whether he really stood in a position and a relationship to be able to navigate this complicated network of interactions that keep the natural world running. Where were we when God defined light and dark, where were we when God numbered the clouds in wisdom, where were we when God charted out the life cycles of every living thing?

And then society, the pain of society! The church should be intimately acquainted with that, right in the middle of it. But when we pray for relief of poverty, what would that actually take? When we pray for peace in the face of war, what would it actually involve, how do we navigate the countless policy implications, the conflicted desires and aims of each party, the hidden secrets of their hearts? When faced with violence, with terrorism, with school shootings, we can see it isn't what God wants for us, but how can we even begin to understand what is happening? And there's so much of it. What do we pray for first: schools in Texas, or bombings in Iraq, or peaceful transitions of power in African countries, or rain in parched lands, or the healing of the ozone layer, or Aunt Betty's bereavement, or neighbor George's dementia, or the decisions of our elected officials and our appointed courts, or the devastation caused by hurricanes, or the war and disease in Yemen we're determined to ignore, or... or... and how can we possibly know how to pray, when to pray, what to pray? We're priests to the creation and to the world, but how do we lift up so many things to God when we're vexed by the immense whirlwind of priorities and problems, none of which we really understand?

The truth is, if we think we can see all there is for us to pray for, it's because we're not looking and not listening. If the church is where God wants it to be, if we are where God wants us to be, then we will be in the very thick of things. We will be where society and creation are yelling and crying the most frantically. If we are doing what God wants us to do, then we will hurt more than ever, we will groan more than ever, we will likely feel more overwhelmed than ever; and if that isn't our experience, maybe we aren't where God wants us to be. If we feel at home, if we're too ready to write it all off as 'normal,' we've perhaps isolated or insulated ourselves.

And so there's so much to pray for, so much pain, so many problems, and so little we really understand about what we're trying to ask God to do. After every prayer, it seems, we have to admit that we like Job are “darkening counsel with words without knowledge” (Job 38:1). How can we ever “comprehend the expanse of the earth” (Job 38:18)? After every prayer, shouldn't we, like Job, have to say, “I have uttered what I did not understand” (Job 42:3)? The deeper we get in desperation, the harder we push in prayer, the more apparent it becomes that, far from confident priests or mighty prayer-warriors, we're weak intercessors who weakly walk the world in weak bodies. The problems of our own lives and bodies, of our neighbors' lives, of society's woes, of each living creature in all creation, outnumber the stars; they haunt us like a vast Assyrian army, and we find ourselves so ill-equipped, like Hezekiah, to fight our way out. Have you ever worried that you just don't pray very well? Or that you don't see what you ought to see? Yeah, me too – on both counts. And Paul tells us that, when it comes down to it, we're actually right. We are so clumsy and clueless, so ignorant, that, when the Word of God walked among us, we thought we were actually doing God's will by piercing his hands, his feet, his side.

But here's the thing! The prophets knew in advance that we'd be that blind – so blind as to pierce the incarnate Word. So God through Zechariah, for instance, promises a day when the people would “look on me, on him whom they have pierced,” and “mourn for him … and weep bitterly over him.” A day when we'd finally see at least one thing half-clearly. And in that very same verse, God promises to pour out “the Spirit of grace and of supplication on all the house of David and all Jerusalem, on every threatened Hezekiah and all the endangered cities God loves (Zechariah 12:10). A Spirit of grace – now, I think we get that – but do we remember that God has poured out a Spirit of supplication, a Spirit of petitionary prayer?

And that's what Paul reminds us today. Paul can see that we're no stronger than Hezekiah was. Faced with the whole host of problems and priorities, struggling to even see a single one clearly and wrestle it to the ground in prayer, it's obvious we're constantly tackling the wrong target, obvious we're bringing a stick to a torpedo war. And we can see all the times our prayers have backed off, fallen short, stumbled and scraped. We don't even know how to pray for all this. Even praying for our prayer life eludes us! Paul can see how much weakness we have, how easily our groans miss the point, how earthbound and half-hearted our mongrel prayers, how blind and prejudiced and self-absorbed and hamfisted they are. We, even as praying priests, are weak. Our weakness is in dire need of help. And Paul says we have it.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” he says (Romans 8:26b). Just like God sent the prophet and the angel to Hezekiah's rescue, God sends the Spirit to the rescue of our prayers. And you should be asking, how? That's the question to ask. And Paul explains that “in the same way” the creation is groaning in pain to God, in the same way we're groaning in pain and perplexity to God, so the Spirit has chosen to join them (Romans 8:26a). The Spirit has descended to the places of our deepest disorder, to lift up our weary hands. The Spirit takes up the pains we hold for ourselves, the pains we hold for others, the pains we hold for society, the pains we hold for earth and sky and sea, all the pain we've taken on as the weak priests of a weak world – and the Spirit takes that up and comes alongside us and inside us, and himself groans it out. “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings,” with cries of pain and woe; he enters our woundedness and weakness and adds his own groans to the chorus (Romans 8:26d). That's why Zechariah calls him “a Spirit … of supplication” (Zechariah 12:10). And when there are just no words to capture the pain, the Spirit captures it perfectly without using words: he “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26e).

How does that solve things? Well, Paul tells us elsewhere that the Spirit is all-knowing. The Spirit even knows everything God is thinking. Paul says it straight-up, right-out: “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. … No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). The Spirit is no dummy. We might be clueless about how to balance school shootings and hurricanes and political strife and famines and wars, but the Spirit searches everything. We might not know what God aims to make of any given case of suffering, but the Spirit comprehends the thoughts of God. We might not understand all the mechanisms and networks and careful adjustments it would take to answer even our smallest prayers without a butterfly effect wrecking the whole world, but if the Spirit can search even the infinite abyss of light in the heart of God, the Spirit can certainly search the cellular processes at work in any disease, or the proper molecular balance of the atmosphere, or the interaction of the factions in any dispute, or whatever else.

And because the Spirit searches all that, understands all that, knows all that, it's obvious that whatever the Spirit of supplication prays, those prayers will invariably line up perfectly with whatever God is ready, willing, and eager to do. So Paul can say with confident certainty that “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27b). There is no risk of the Spirit's prayers missing the mark. The Spirit's prayers are no sledgehammer-surgery: these wordless groans are finer than the tongues of men and angels, communicating with the utmost specificity, singling out what's to be done in each and every specific brain cell, each and every particular particle, to make the whole creation flourish in freedom. The Spirit's prayers cannot possibly fall on unreceptive ears, because the Spirit knows exactly what God is thinking and tailors his prayers accordingly. No plan of God is secret from the Spirit. The Spirit misses nothing, but searches everything.

What's more, we know the Spirit is shared by all God's people. All were made to drink of one Spirit,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 12:13). We are “called to be saints” (Romans 1:7), he says, and “the Spirit intercedes for the saints (Romans 8:27b). The Spirit prays from within each saint for all the saints. Every believer, every sinner redeemed by Jesus Christ, every man or woman being made holy by the Spirit, becomes a platform, a podium, a broadcasting station, a loudspeaker blaring the Spirit's wordless groans of prayer. Each saint, each one of you, is an antenna for amplifying the Spirit's voice. And the Spirit's voice, the Spirit's supplication, is broadcast from any given one of you for all the rest of us, and through us for the creation whose lament and whose praise we're called to offer up to God as the world's priests, as “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

And here's the kicker: Just like the Spirit understands all that God is thinking, so God understands all that the Spirit is saying and thinking. Paul says that “he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:27a). When Paul describes God that way, he's looking at his Bible. David told Solomon, “Know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). And God doesn't disagree; he describes himself that way to Jeremiah: “I the LORD – 'I, Yahweh,' 'I, Jehovah' – “search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10). And it's no different in the New Testament: Jesus even applies this to himself in Revelation 2:23, saying that he is Jeremiah's Jehovah God, who “searches mind and heart, and will give to each of you according to your works.” God the Father and God the Son are a heart-searching God, who answer prayers in part according to what he finds there when he hears the prayers from the heart.

So what happens when God hears a prayer and goes to search our heart, and what he finds there is his very own Spirit doing the praying? When the Spirit is groaning from within us as his temple, his platform, his radio station, his loudspeakers, well, then the Spirit will guaranteed catch the Father and Son's attention every time, every nanosecond the Searcher of Hearts searches our hearts. And as the Spirit's groans match God's will, so God's answers are guaranteed to match the Spirit's wise prayers. And the Spirit's prayers are in solidarity with all our groaning and with all creation's groaning (cf. Romans 8:26a).

What does it all boil down to, then? Yes, we are weak. We are weak as Hezekiah was weak. We're bewildered what to do and what to say when we see this army of giant woes stalking the land, each beyond our knowledge and too numerous to number. We are weak, “we don't know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26c). In the face of it all, we cannot compute it. Our problems pile up higher than Babel, deeper than hell, broader than the expanse of earth and sea – beyond our comprehension. But it is precisely where our prayers run headfirst into bewildering armies of pain and grief too many to count that the world has a chance to see the Searcher of Hearts and his depth-searching Spirit at work in us, revealed face-to-face.

So don't be afraid when it's all just too overwhelming. Don't be afraid when you look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of your weakness. Don't be afraid when you see how lackluster and confused your prayers. You have the Spirit groaning in you, and his way of thinking needs no translation to the eyes and ears of God. So learn from him. So go ahead and “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication...; keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). Go ahead and pray, pray for all, so that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,” and for all creation (1 Timothy 2:1). But “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Yes, they will be weak; yes, they will be clumsy; yes, they will, more often than not, be clueless. But we have a Spirit who will help our cluelessness, our clumsiness, our weakness (cf. Romans 8:26b). From him we may learn, and on him we may rely. And as he “intercedes for us [and] for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26d, 27b), rest assured that we and creation “will be set free … and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The Sennacheribs of our lives will fall at exactly the time the Spirit asks God to put them down. There is hope for every Hezekiah's weakness, even if we don't yet see the fruit (Romans 8:24-25). There is help from the Spirit. So let your prayers and your actions charge at the world's need. May the Spirit's prayers in you and for you ever prevail; may all things be healed as God wills. Amen.

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