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“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
This week, Kacy Katanzaro did it. She’s a gymnast who wanted to prove that a woman could compete on the American Ninja Warrior show. For those of you haven’t seen the show, they set up a challenging obstacle course which requires bursts of speed, strength and tenacity. You have to swing, grasp, pull, run, leap and climb your way through it. It’s really designed for men in mind, because it has lots of upper body feats. Maybe you can say that it’s designed for average to tall size men, too. The shorter you are, the harder it is, as you have reach across gaps and grasp the next bar or rope. Kacy is a woman. Kacy is only 5 feet tall. But Kacy is determined. Man after man fell on one obstacle or another. A few made it, but in this week’s course even the ninja trainer tried it and didn’t get to the end. Where others fell, Kacy reached, grabbed and continued. Where she couldn’t reach, she leapt, grabbed and held on. When you might have said that a woman doesn’t have a prayer to make it through the course, she gave a heroic demonstration of strength and determination.
So, Christian brothers and sisters, how are your levels of strength and determination? And, do you have a prayer? Often it is exactly in the matter of our prayer life where we feel our spiritual weakness. Would-be Ninja warriors carve out hours each week to train and practice, but how are we in practicing our faith by bending our knees and offering our needs to our Father? I know this is a perennial challenge for my spiritual life. There is the obstacle of time: marking out and guarding the time for prayer. There’s the obstacle of priorities: Satan would tempt us to think that we don’t need to pray or that our prayers don’t matter as much as our doing things by ourselves. Sometimes, we just need to remember to think to pray! There’s the obstacle of what to pray. What’s really needed, what’s really called for? And then the obstacle of how to pray: we should not pray from a stance selfishness or greed but from faith and trust in the promises of God. Get through the obstacle course, and you might just become – not a Ninja warrior but a prayer warrior, someone ready to call on God for every need and rejoicing continually in how your prayers answered in the name of Jesus Christ.
Unlike Ninja Warriors facing the course by themselves, we don’t have to pray alone, do we? Often we ask a brother or sister in Christ to pray for us. We ask for prayers of intercession because we recognize that God has put us into the body of Christ. We’re not meant to face our challenges alone. We also ask because we know our own weaknesses. We’re not strong enough for our own needs. We don’t always know what’s best. We find comfort in the care that others extend by saying they’ll pray for us. In fact, our Lord, who already promised to hear our prayers, added an extra promise that God will answer those prayers which we say together: “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19). Praying for each other is part and parcel of the love, the comfort and the encouragement of our Christian life.
But what we have in our epistle reading today is a revelation which must truly humble us with the depth of God’s love for us. The Spirit of God Himself prays for us. St. Paul writes, “The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Now, who’s a saint here? Please raise your hand if you’re a saint, if you’re such a one that the Spirit prays for. Yes, that’s right every Christian is a saint, chosen to be God’s own, covered with the righteousness of Christ, holy in God’s eyes by the full forgiveness of our sins.
In the face of our own great need, the Spirit comes to help us. There is this yawning gap between what we experience and what God is giving us in Christ, and it makes us groan. St. Paul began this passage with the words, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). There are present sufferings but there is far greater glory ahead for us. And for now, we live in this tension. We are children of the light and we live in a world with lots of darkness and we even find darkness in our own souls. We are followers of the Lord of life and all about us and even looming before us is death and destruction. We are sons and daughters of God but here in this world we encounter Satan’s deceit, his tricks, and his lies. If we didn’t belong to the world to come, if we didn’t have the promise before us of what St. Paul calls the glorious liberation of the children of God, then the groaning wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe we’d be accustomed to this place. We wouldn’t know any better. We’d be much more likely to just accept things as they are. “Oh, that’s just the way of the world,” we might say. But we groan because God has given us a hope that awaits us. We’re like starving travelers who have just made it to the hotel where delicious smells – breads and stews and cakes – are wafting from the kitchen and the attendant says, “Let me first show you to your room.” We don’t want to wait. We’re eager to see the suffering and the sorrow pass and the world of light and life break in with all of God’s transforming power.
Even so, we don’t really know what to pray for. Our own awareness doesn’t fathom the depth of our own spiritual need, much less the need of the world. Our own faith doesn’t really grasp the height of all the goodness and blessing that God has in store for us and for creation. There is this gap that we perceive, but we don’t sense its full dimensions, either of our need on one side or God’s answer on the other. We face this yawning gap and sometimes all we can do is groan within ourselves. We pray for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s will to be done, His Kingdom to come; we pray to be delivered from evil – but often we don’t quite know what those things mean, particularly in specific situations. In steps the Holy Spirit to intercede. He fills the gap. He says the prayers to do what prayer does: He connects our need and our world’s need to the provision God has – salvation in Christ with its powerful, rescuing, healing, delivering effects.
And the Spirit groans, too. Rev. Dr. George Stoeckhardt was a Lutheran theologian of the 20th Century. He’s written a number of excellent commentaries about the Bible. Regarding this passage before us today, he writes: “For the Spirit, too, this present time is a time for groaning.” The Spirit of God sees our need and He overflows with compassion. He sees our suffering and He joins in the sighing, adding His own deeper sighs to ours. He knows, truly knows and far better than we do, the gap between the gory sorrow and the glorious salvation that awaits; and He prays, prays for the coming of the Kingdom, for our deliverance from all evil, for God’s will to be done. Here before us in this brief passage is revealed a mysterious conversation that goes on within the very being of God, within the unsearchable depths of Divinity, where no human language has ever entered to label or define. There Spirit’s groanings go on inexpressible, “too deep for words,” our translation says. These divine groanings reach down to the depths of our deepest needs and they reach up to the heights of God’s grace, they reach far into the very inner depths of God’s heart and to the inner workings of God’s plan to save and to deliver. The Spirit will not be silent. He yearns to bring the Father’s love for us to fruition. He strives to bring the Son’s salvation to its full implementation. He will groan until every tear is wiped away and every break is mended and every child of God who now lies suffering in sorrow is lifted up, restored and set free.
Stoeckhardt also says that we, too, become instruments of the Spirit’s groaning. And that’s right. The Spirit doesn’t pray alone either. He also prays within us and through us. All our God-pleasing prayers are moved by the Spirit, but here in particular we’re speaking of prayers for the coming of God’s salvation and glory. We pray along with the early Christians who would regularly pray, “Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus.” As we grow in the knowledge of God’s Word, our prayers will become more of what they ought to be; the Bible will teach us more of the truth about sin and its effects and more of the truth of God’s plans to deal with sin and bring His healing deliverance. We will catch the larger vision of what life with God should be. As we do, we will learn to groan more with the Spirit. And as we groan we groan in hope, knowing that great good lies just before us as God’s plans unfold. We groan in trust, finding peace in our Father’s care. We groan knowing the Spirit is groaning along with us, in His own deep love for us, longing for God’s full blessing to come to us. And we know His intercessions shall be answered, and so ours will, too. This is the will of God, manifest in Jesus Christ and soon to be shown in us. His Kingdom will come. And so, even as we groan, we have this confidence: that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. But that’s going to be the sermon next week. Come back and hear more.