Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
July 27, 2008 Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church
This passage in Acts is just packed with great stuff, isn’t it?!
There’s verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” What a comfort that can be in times of confusion—and what a confusion when it’s pretty darn hard to see just how things are working together for good.
And 29 and 30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” God has imagined us from the beginning of time, each one of us, and has called us to be God’s own—and makes us right with him and brings us into glory.
And of course the crux of verse 31: “If God is for us, who is against us?” For no one has more power than God, and with God calling and justifying and glorifying us, how could any power have power against us?
And some of the most comforting words I know: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, … For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We often hear those words at funerals and memorial services, and we will use them this morning as our statement of faith. They’re powerful words, words to inscribe on plaques to hang in our hallways, words to write on post-it notes to stick to our mirrors, words to etch on our brains: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But I’m not going to talk about those verses this morning. I’m going to go back to the very beginning of that passage and look at the first two verses, chapter 8 verses 26 and 27: “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. 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.”
The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought—and another translation of “as we ought” is “as it is necessary.” We do not know how to pray as it is necessary. I like that translation better because I don’t think Paul meant for there to be a judgment in that line. Paul wasn’t saying that we haven’t learned our lessons well, that we ought to know how to pray. Paul is saying that on our own we simply can’t pray the way it would be necessary to pray if we really were to get through to God.
That’s a bit radical, isn’t it? All the praying that goes on here in church – and in our bedrooms and at our tables and everywhere else we pray – and Paul says we can’t pray? If I were to point to you this morning and say, “You don’t know how to pray,” there’d probably be a few who’d think, “Well, geez, somebody finally figured out that I’m a fraud,” and a lot who’d think, “Excuse me, missy! What do you mean, I can’t pray! I’ve been praying for years!”
What Paul is saying is that it is humanly impossible to pray because as humans we are weaklings compared to God—how can we expect to have a one-on-one conversation with our creator?
But lest you leave this sanctuary this morning having heard only that no human can actually pray, let’s look quickly at what else Paul says here: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as it is necessary, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
When we pray, we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit within us, and the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” or in another translation, “with inexpressible groanings.”
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “It is God … who prays through us, when we pray to [God]. God … in us: that is what Spirit means. Spirit is another word for ‘God present,’ with shaking, inspiring, transforming power. Something in us, which is not we ourselves, intercedes before God for us. We cannot bridge the gap between God and ourselves even through the most intensive and frequent prayers; the gap between God and ourselves can be bridged only by God.”
There are some important things to remember in that. One of them is that the particular words we use in prayer don’t really matter. I’ve known a lot of people over the years who were never willing to pray out loud in front of a group because they couldn’t get the words right—they couldn’t get their mouths around that “church-y language,” they said, “or they just didn’t know what to say.” According to Paul, that doesn’t matter—for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
Even when we can’t find any words to pray, it’s okay. Words are, after all, a human creation, not God’s. Those times when no words come to us, those prayer droughts we get into—they’re okay, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning.
God doesn’t need our words to hear our prayers; God is in us and knows us to the depths of our souls.
I’ve been reminded, thinking through this sermon, of the way babies communicate with their parents. Many of you know that I have a grandchild on his way—sometime around the 20th of September—and so I’ve been thinking a lot about babies these days, anyway. When my grandson is born, he’s not going to be able to talk. He’s just going to be able to cry.
That’s what babies do, right? They cry. Sometimes they cry a lot. And for those of us sitting at a nearby table in a restaurant or in a pew across the sanctuary or in the next apartment, it just sounds like crying. But to the baby’s parents, it’s different. Have you ever watched a baby’s mother or father listen to the cry and say, “Oh, she’s hungry,” or “Oh, she needs her diaper changed,” or “Oh, sweetie, do you want to be held?”
By the time my grandson is a couple of weeks old, my son and his wife will have begun to figure out what his cries mean. It helps, of course, that there are a limited number of needs that an infant has: food, cleanliness, comfort, sleep. My grandson won’t know that he wants a bottle or a clean diaper; he’ll just know that something is wrong and so he’ll cry. But his parents will know the needs behind the cries, and so they’ll be able to respond appropriately.
And when he gets older, he’ll discover the magic of words. I remember my youngest niece when she was not quite two. She’d sit with a grown-up and have long, involved conversations full of her own “words.” We had no idea what she was saying, of course, but she could keep a conversation going for a long time. “Uh-huh,” we’d say occasionally, or “really?” but even though we never quite knew what the conversation was about, we knew that her need was to practice the art of conversation, to be in relationship with an adult.
I think that’s kind of like what our praying is to God. It’s full of cries, of inexpressible groaning and sighs too deep for words, but God knows what our needs are. And when our prayers are full of words, God—that heavenly parent—understands past and through our made-up language to know our needs.
Some folks interpret that as meaning that we have no need to pray. They’re sort of like the child who didn’t talk. Two years old, three years old—no speech at all. Until finally, sometime after his fourth birthday, he looked at his mother at the breakfast table and said, “Mother, the toast is burnt.”
“You can talk!” she cried. “Why haven’t you ever said anything before?”
“The toast was never burnt before,” he said.
Let’s not be like that little boy, not praying until the toast is burnt, until there’s something wrong and we want to register a complaint.
For our prayer—like our children’s babbling—is a delight to God. And our prayer opens us up to the Spirit. Recognizing that prayer is “not our work but the activity of the Spirit who prays within us ‘with sighs too deep for words,’ our prayer is our yes to the voice of the Spirit that fills us with wordless desire and yearning.”  And what are we filled with wordless desire and yearning for? For wisdom, for truth—for righteousness, for justice—for mercy and intimacy.
Prayer “gives the Spirit the freedom to blow where it wills; it unleashes within us the Divine imagination, which passes all understanding.”
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And so it is whenever we pray. We open ourselves to the Spirit—beyond and through and around our understanding. And no matter what we say or don’t say, the Spirit speaks for us … in sighs too deep for words.