May 24, 2015
“When the Spirit Groans”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;23 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.24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise 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. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Every year when we go on the Commissioning Retreat with our 8th grade students we spend time talking about how we understand God – how our understanding of God has changed and what that says about God.
We look at two questions: What was God like when we were children and what is God like now? And everyone has to draw or write their thoughts.
And over the years I have done this there is a pretty clear pattern. Looking back, many people say they pictured God in a very solid way. God is an old man, seated or standing on clouds or somewhere above the earth. Sometimes God looks like Jesus, too. God ends up being a mix of the wisest people we know and the pictures we see in Sunday school classrooms.
But in general God is somewhere else – usually above us. To use a big churchy word, God is transcendent – big and vast and mysterious and far away from our human experience. God is the great creator who set the universe in motion and then watches. This doesn’t mean that we think God isn’t loving, but God does feel far away.
But then when we get to the pictures of what God is like to us now, there is a fundamental shift. Almost across the board, God has moved nearer. God is the invisible Spirit all around us, God is in nature, we know God through the people closest to us. Again to use a churchy word, God is immanent – indwelling, near, knowable.
This whole patterns mirrors the story we see in the Bible. God begins as creator, the great mover and shaker, but when God creates people he gets close enough to breathe life into them, and walks with them, and makes it very clear that community and nearness and relationship with God is what we were intended for.
We are the ones who push God away.
And the rest of the Biblical story shows God moving closer and closer: meeting with his people in the Tabernacle, and then in the temple, coming in Jesus Christ to walk among us, and finally in Holy Spirit, here and now and always, so near that we do not really know where we begin and the Holy Spirit ends.
And one of the hardest parts about believing in God is that God is invisible.
How can you know what you cannot see? God as an old man on a cloud – that, we can wrap our minds around – God as Jesus who was born and lived and died – it’s a little weird but still we can picture it. How can you picture Spirit?
To know the Holy Spirit, we have to have some sense of what the Holy Spirit does, how the Spirit moves – it is just like the wind which we cannot see, but we can see how it whips leaves off of trees.
So Paul tells us, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness because there are times when we do not know how to pray.
This is profound statement for many reasons. First, that we will be weak – it is not a maybe thing, but a given. Sometimes we want to believe that if we just have enough faith, God will protect us from every possible harm – we won’t ever have to feel afraid or out of control or anxious or alone – nothing will ever happen to the people we love. But that is not how faith works. We will feel weak and overwhelmed and fearful and desperate, and where is God when that happens?
I recently returned from the Festival of Homiletics, which is a huge preaching conference with the best preachers and writers from around the country, and we basically spent the day listening to sermons and lectures about sermons – and you may think that sounds like no fun at all because you barely want to hear one sermon. But there were 1800 people there who loved it.
One of the presenters, Diana Butler Bass, is a historian and sociologist who pays attention to how the religious landscape in our country and in the world is changing.
One thing that she pointed out is that the questions we ask about God are changing.
And she talked about the questions we were asking about God when the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school took place and a 20 year old gunman killed 20 children and 6 staff. And there was a national outpouring of grief. The news was covering all the shocking details, but Diana said she watched a different conversation that was taking place on social media.
And the question that was most asked was, where is God?
Diana says that 50 or 60 years ago the question would have been different – it would have been, what is God doing or what is God up to or why did God allow this to happen? Now the question is, where is God?
And the answer that she discovered most often was, God was with the children. God was with the teachers who gave their lives protecting them. God was with those who suffer.
Diana Butler Bass says that is a profound shift in our understanding of God – but it is a shift to exactly what Paul was saying – in our weakness, in our darkest moments, God is there.
And God is not only there, but active.
Hear Paul’s words again: “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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
There will be times when we do not know how to pray. And we could read that and think that means, something terrible has happened or I’m up against something that I do not know what to do about, and I don’t know exactly what words to pray – do I pray that God takes away my depression or do I pray that God walk beside me through it? Do I pray boldly for healing for my dear friend who has cancer, or do I pray that my friend will have God’s peace and comfort no matter what happens?
In our weakest moments it is not always easy to know how to pray. And in those times, the Holy Spirit prays for us – we don’t have to fear that we don’t have enough faith or the right words.
Another way to read that is, in our weakest moments we don’t even know how to relate to God, because prayer is the way we keep company with God.
Maybe there are times when the pain is so great that we can’t even turn our hearts and our minds to God – we cannot bear to pray. Sometimes we are so angry at God – and we cannot stand the thought of praying.
Here is where we hold on to God’s promises, even when we are incapable of prayer, the Spirit groans for us.
The New Revised Standard version makes the Spirit sound too polite – “the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Other versions get it better, I think, saying that the Spirit speaks for us with wordless groans. When you are desperately overwhelmed with grief or hopelessness or pain, do you sigh?
If you are like me, a wordless groan is probably a much closer description.
And Paul does not say that the Spirit gives us the power to pray. No, when we cannot bear to cry out to God, the Spirit cries out for us.
I came across a blogger who writes about two friends who are suffering. He writes: “I currently am praying for two old friends 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.’”
We celebrate this remarkable thing at Pentecost – that God has come again and again throughout history, but this time, this time it is for good. God doesn’t watch us silently from the clouds, but when we don’t even know what to say to God, God is there too.
When we groan, God groans too.
When we struggle to understand a diagnosis, when we worry about a loved one’s future, when we feel betrayed or alone, or don’t even know who we are anymore, God is there. This is the promise we celebrate at Pentecost. Amen.