Sunday, May 31, 2009

Praying with the Spirit

Romans 8:22-27

Charles Spurgeon wrote that "any fool can sing in the day. When the cup is full, a person draws inspiration from it." But what happens when night falls and the cup is empty? Spurgeon wrote that when he experienced the "bliss of spiritual liberty," he could climb near the throne of God and "sing as sweet as seraphs."

But confine me, fetter my spirit, clip my wings, make me exceedingly sad, so that I become like the old eagle -- ah! then it is hard to sing.

In fact, it’s unnatural to sing during times of trouble, except perhaps to sing the blues. But, as Spurgeon wrote: "songs in the night come only from God; they are not in human power."1


Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the promise, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit. It’s this Spirit who empowers us to sing even during the darkest of nights.

It was on the Day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit fell on an uncertain and powerless community. But, just as Jesus had promised, the Spirit of God transformed that body into a powerful witness to God's gracious love and healing presence. On that day God connected the church to the power of the resurrection. It’s as biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa writes: just as the resurrection is the “first fruits of God’s triumph, the Spirit is the ‘first fruits’ of the appropriation of that triumph by believers.”2 So, just as Jesus has risen from the dead, the Spirit comes to us as the sign of God’s triumph over death.


Our text this morning doesn’t speak of Pentecost, but the same Spirit that came powerfully upon the church that day is at work in our lives, empowering us and sustaining us, even in the darkest of moments. That is the message of Romans 8. As Spurgeon pointed out, prayer and song don't come naturally to us, especially when we suffer physical or emotional pain. As I hear these words of Paul, my mind and heart go to my friend, and former teaching assistant, Eric.

Eric is in his mid-30s, has a wife and kids. He’s a beloved youth pastor, and will do anything and everything for you. But now, a stage four cancer has taken hold in his abdomen and in his brain. Stricken by this cancer, he’s experiencing constant pain, and I expect that death is a likely possibility – though they’ve not yet given up hope. I am greatly saddened by this, but at the same time my faith is encouraged by the reports that I’ve been getting. Oh, he’s not getting any better, but despite all of this pain and suffering, he’s still singing praises to God and encouraging others. I wonder: How does he do this? I mean, Eric is a naturally joyful person, but at this point being joy isn’t in his own power. And that’s the point that Paul is making – we can’t sing out to God unless we allow the Spirit to pray with and for us, even when we have no words to share.

Everything we know about Paul suggests that he understood the meaning of suffering. He experienced shipwreck, imprisonment, beatings, and a thorn in the flesh. While all of this could overwhelm even the strongest person, he found strength in the midst of his suffering. In Romans 8 Paul acknowledges that "we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Yes, when we experience that dark night of the soul, when we can’t find the words to speak to God, the Spirit is there interceding for us. Indeed, the Spirit knows our hearts and hears our cries and groans, and shares them with God who is always listening for the voice of his children.

I really don't know how this works. I don't know the mechanics of this kind of prayer, so I can’t teach it to you. I would if I could, but it’s not in my power. All I can do is say that when such a prayer is needed, the Spirit will provide the means. I know that some people think that when Paul talks about groans too deep for words, he’s talking here about praying in tongues. He may. I don't know. Indeed, I don’t think this is true. What I do believe is that when the moment arises, God will hear my cries, just as God heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt and the cry of Jesus from the cross. So, even if I can't speak for myself, I know that God still hears what is in my heart. Indeed, he hears the cries of all God’s children!


One reason why I take comfort in the promise that God hears my cries, is that this promise is set in the context of other promises. Indeed, if we continue to read through Romans 8, we’ll will find some of the most powerful and hopeful promises in all of scripture. Listen to verse 28: "All things work together for good to those who love God." Then, in verse 31, Paul writes: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Again in verse 35, he writes: "who will separate us from the love of Christ?" And then in verse 37 Paul writes: "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

As I listen to these promises and draw strength from them, I also know that there’s a question that troubles so many in our world: Why do bad things happen to good people?

As I stand here today, I can't explain why some people suffer and others don't. I'm mystified by Parkinsons, AIDS, and Alzheimers. Good people lose their jobs and their homes. Tornadoes and hurricanes destroy churches. But, as I listen to these promises, I’m reminded that God is present and active in our lives, even during times of darkness; when sadness and grief, pain and suffering, threaten to overwhelm us. And so I draw strength from the promise that when words fail, the Spirit is there to intercede for us.

And when the darkness falls, and words seem absent, perhaps we can heed the example of Paul and Silas. Finding themselves beaten and jailed at Philippi, at midnight they began to sing out in praise to God. As Luke tells the story, while they sang, an earthquake shook the jail and freed them from their chains. They could have escaped, but they didn't. And because they stayed in the cell, they had an opportunity to share their faith with the jailer. Luke writes that by morning that jailer and his whole family had been baptized, all because Paul and Silas sang praises to God in the night (Acts 16:16-40).

As we ponder the message of Pentecost, I pray that we will find strength in the knowledge that if God is for us then no one and no thing can be against us and succeed. Indeed, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, let us remember that we’re more than conquerors. But, as we celebrate, may that celebration be tempered by the knowledge that Jesus found glory in the cross. Therefore, let us sing joyfully, boldly, and heartily before God, giving thanks for God's overflowing presence, keeping in mind and heart the message of the cross.

Pentecost is a reminder that the Spirit of God has fallen abundantly on the world. Walking in that Spirit, we can live lives of joy and thanksgiving, even when darkness falls, for when we can’t find the words, the Spirit will speak, bearing witness to the healing grace of God.

1. Charles Spurgeon quote in Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, eds., Westminster Collection of Christian Meditations, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), 386-87.

2. Beverly Gaventa, in Walter Brueggemann, et al., Texts for Preaching, B, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 352.

Preached by: Dr. Robert Cornwall Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church Troy, Michigan Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2009

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