Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Romans 8:22-27 Commentary
Comments and Observations
How should we celebrate Pentecost? What should our mood be, given the very different emphases of the four lectionary readings for Pentecost, 2015? As I pondered that, I recalled some wry comments made by Orthodox theologian Frederica Mathewes Green on the very different ways we celebrate Christmas and Easter. “It’s that time of year again, when school children are coloring pictures of Jesus hanging from a cross, and shop owners fill their windows with gaily colored cutouts of Jesus Flogging at the Pillar. In the malls everyone is humming along with seasonal hits on the sound system, like ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded.’ Car dealers are promoting Great Big Empty Tomb Size discounts on Toyotas. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter.”
Well, if Easter takes second place in our celebrations of important days in the Christian calendar, Pentecost comes in a very distant third. And that’s too bad, given all the life changing benefits that flow to us from the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as evidenced by the four lectionary readings for today, those benefits are so vast that it’s more than a little difficult to decide which one(s) to focus on. Our choice of text will determine what mood our Pentecost celebration will take today.
The reading from Acts 2 is a reminder of the redemptive historical event of Pentecost with its mighty wind, speaking in other languages, powerful sermon, and conversion of 3,000 new believers. The reading from Psalm 104 emphasizes the Spirit’s everyday work in creation. After running his gaze over the wondrous diversity of life in the world, the Psalmist gushes, “When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.” The reading from Ezekiel 37 speaks of the recreating power of the Spirit, bringing life to the dry bones of Israel. That’s an Old Testament foreshadowing of the Gospel’s emphasis on the Spirit’s work in regeneration, renewal, and sanctification. And verse 23 of our reading from Romans 8 reminds us of the eschatological role of the Spirit. The Spirit is the first fruit of the new world or, as Paul put it in Ephesians 1:14, the Spirit is the deposit or down payment guaranteeing our inheritance. All of those themes are positive and upbeat, inviting us to whoop it up on Pentecost the way we do at Christmas and Easter.
As I indicated just above, our reading from Romans 8 does have that celebrative air about it, what with all its talk about waiting eagerly for our adoption as children and the redemption of our bodies. If we focus on that part of this text, we could have a “holly jolly Pentecost.” Our mood today would be one of joyful hope. Hope is, in fact, the dominant theme of this text.
But I want to suggest a very different mood, a more somber approach to Pentecost, almost a lament for those who have nearly lost their hope. The last two verses focus on a quieter work of the Spirit—not the mighty wind and the anti-Babel of tongues, not the daily whoosh of creative activity, not the eerie sound of God’s breath causing dead bones to rattle together, not the blast of the trumpet as the Spirit brings our recreation to its completion, but the soft sighing or the painful groaning of the Spirit with our spirits. Romans 8 is filled with the various facets of the ministry of the Spirit, but these last two verses assure us of what is arguably the Spirit’s most tender and Christ-like work. Here is Immanuel, God with us, in the most visceral, primal, dare I say, animal way. The Spirit groans with us.
As I’ve already said, the preceding words are full of hope and promise—the liberation of creation, the glorious freedom of the children of God, our adoption as God’s children, the redemption of our bodies. No wonder Paul fairly sings of hope; “for in this hope we are saved.” No wonder he can say with deep conviction (verse 18), “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”
But there are times in life when we are hurting so badly that we can’t focus on the hope of our salvation. Songs are turned to sighing. Shouts of joy are lost in our groans of agony. Now I must say here that some scholars think that Paul is talking here about groans of anticipation, groans of hope, like the groaning of a woman in childbirth. That is entirely possible, given the way Paul uses that very image in verse 22 when he talks about creation groaning. So then Paul is talking about a kind of eschatological groaning, a sighing that looks ahead to all the glory that will come with Christ’s return. We don’t quite know how to pray for that return (except perhaps, “Come, Lord Jesus”), so we need the Spirit’s intercession as we “wait eagerly” for the Day. That interpretation makes textual sense.
Another interpretation makes even more existential sense, and I think it is in the text. Paul begins this whole section in verse 18 with talk about suffering and frustration and decay and bondage. Yes, we eagerly wait and even groan in our longing for the glory to come, but sometimes the existential reality of suffering is so overwhelming that all we can do is groan in pain and despair. And in our weakness, we don’t know what or how to pray.
I currently am praying for two old friends (my age) who are suffering terribly and anticipating that things will get much worse. One has a tumor just in front of her ear. The cancer has wrapped itself around the nerve that controls her cheek, tongue, and eye. The necessary surgery could result in a numb face, a drooping eye, loss of taste, and worse. Every time she sees a doctor, something else is discovered. She is very good at asking for prayer, specific prayer for a new doctor, for a surgery date, for the surgery itself, for patience. She is groaning, but she can still put her groans into words.
Another friend has suffered severe eye damage as a result of a freak accident with a rope on a fishing boat. Her iris, her retina, cones and rods, cheekbones, and more have been so severely injured that she may never see again. That would be a tragedy for anyone, but she lives to read, watch movies, gaze on her beloved grandchild, put together puzzles—her eyes are her life. The saga of her injury and the consequent medical treatment drags on and on, with ever increasing bad news. At one point her loyal husband said, “I can’t pray anymore. I don’t even know what to pray.”
Here’s the good news of Pentecost for my friends; “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” The word “weakness” in the Greek is a general word, but Paul has a particular form of weakness in mind here, namely, when you don’t know what to pray for in a time of trouble. Not only do we groan in pain, but we also don’t know what to pray about that. We’re speechless, either because we can’t put our thoughts into words or we don’t have any thought to put into words. Or we have multiple thoughts, but we don’t what to pray for, because we don’t know what God’s will is. For example, how do you pray for a beloved 93 year old mother whose health is failing and who wants to die? What is God’s will for her?
The Spirit helps us in our weakness by interceding for us. Actually, Paul puts it in a more remarkable way—“the Spirit himself (auto in Greek)” intercedes.” What a remarkable statement! God is not the unmoved Mover, but the Tri-personal God who is moved by our weakness. Yes, I am aware of the philosophical and theological difficulties we get into when we begin to posit movement in God, but I am also aware of the pastoral and personal difficulties we get into if we don’t listen carefully to the Word of God. It says that the Spirit himself, God himself, doesn’t sit in isolated splendor when we are hurting. Rather, he comes alongside us, which, of course, is the literal meaning of what Jesus called the Spirit (the Paraklete).
When he comes alongside us, he doesn’t, as the friends of Job did at first, just sit in silence commiserating with us. Rather, in his sympathy, he intercedes for us. And not just with words, with carefully considered and beautifully expressed prayers, but “with groans that words cannot express.” It says stenagmois alaletois in the Greek, and it is hard to know exactly what those words mean. Does Paul mean that the Spirit groans his own groans? Does the Spirit give voice to our groans? Or does Paul mean that the Spirit takes up our groans and makes them his own, turning them into prayer? Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end. Paul’s point is the Holy Spirit ministers to us in our weakest times by entering into our pain and using our groans to intercede for us to the Father.
What’s more, the Spirit’s sympathetic intercession is completely effective. When we don’t know what or how to pray, we can be the most certain of an answer, because of the Spirit’s work. Here’s how Paul puts it. “And he who searches our hearts [which, of course, is where the Spirit lives], knows the mind of the Spirit.” Even if the groans are incoherent, even if the Spirit never turns our inchoate groans into words, God knows exactly what the Spirit is saying, because God knows the mind of the Spirit. Of course, he would, given the perichoresis of the Triune God. So the Spirit’s intercessory prayers/groans are always answered, because “he intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” I John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” In this lovely Pentecost text, we are assured that even though we may not know the will of God for our mothers or our injuries or our tumors, and thus aren’t sure that we are praying “according to his will,” we can be sure that the Spirit’s intercession will be completely effective.
So, there’s another mood for Pentecost. Even as we lament in our suffering, even as we struggle with hope, even as we groan, we can quietly rejoice because of the Pentecostal blessing of the Spirit’s deep, groaning prayers for us.
Long before feminism urged us to think of God as our Mother, Abraham Kuyper, premier Dutch Reformed theologian and Prime Minister of the Netherlands, pointed out that Romans 8 talks about two different intercessions. Here in verses 26 and 27 it is the Spirit who intercedes for us, while in verse 34 it is Jesus who intercedes. Kuyper suggests that Christ’s intercession is “like a Father, the head of the family, for all the family members. The Holy Spirit’s intercession is like a mother kneeling at the bedside of a sick child, and presenting that child’s needs to the heavenly Father.”
Kuyper’s analogy reminded me of “God’s Garden,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem about the Spirit’s work in creation. Note especially the maternal image at the end.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.
Speaking of poetry, as a child I learned this hymn by James Montgomery that talks about prayer in terms very like Romans 8:26, 27.
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Unuttered or expressed
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.
Prayer is not made by us alone,
The Holy Spirit pleads.
And Jesus, on the eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.
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