Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Spirit Groans

We’re back to Romans 8 and back to learning about the ministry of the Holy Spirit among us. We’re going to work our way through a few more sentences of what Paul is teaching on His ministry, but we’ll do that just a bit at a time.

Let’s start with this.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Romans 8:26

It’s important to spend a little time on this notion of weakness. And I want to do that because we have all been taught not to be weak. One persistent message of the world in which we live is that we don’t have to be weak. If we try hard enough, we can accomplish anything. And if we are honest with ourselves, even when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus we believe that we will be able to do a good job of it if we try hard enough. But the fact of the matter is that, try as we may, we really can’t do a good job of it. We really are weak.

This is something that Paul, himself, had to learn and did learn.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Ironically, what too many Christians tell themselves when they hear these words is that this is something that they need to work on. All they need to do is try harder.

What we actually need is to be shown that it is Jesus who is strong and not us. We are weak. After all, that’s the kind of people that Jesus uses: people who know the truth, who know that they are weak. People like Paul and, hopefully, people like us.

Now, a good response to a growing awareness of one’s weakness is prayer, calling out to God in our weakness. But Paul has something to say about that.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought… Romans 8:26

Now, this is a curious thing to say. I’m quite sure that most of you know exactly what to pray for. I can say that because you have a prayer list, a bunch of things that you’re praying about. So, what is Paul talking about here?

This is where it is important to remember the context. Paul didn’t write in chapters and verses. He wrote just like we do. He wrote in sentences joined together into paragraphs all of which was expressing thoughts that were explaining one idea. Remember those lessons about topic sentences and all of that? So, what has Paul been writing about? What’s the one idea? Let’s go back to the beginning of this section of his letter.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18

He’s been writing about suffering. And in that context, he wrote this.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:22-23

We Christians groan. This isn’t about being frustrated. You had a list of things that you wanted to accomplish yesterday. But you didn’t get to finish your list. Important things were left undone. That’s frustrating. But it’s not what Paul is referring to. Groaning is different. We groan because we can see that life isn’t the way that it is supposed to be.

Let me illustrate that with something from my own life. As most of you know, my daughter, Gabrielle, and her husband, Jonathan, are providing foster care for two girls. The one will soon be thirteen and the other five. They’ve had these two girls for a bit over two years. Each week Gabrielle and I talk. And each week she brings me up to date on what is going on with these two girls. It has been eye opening to me to say the least. These are two deeply damaged kids. And what is so alarming is that they represent many, many deeply damaged kids.

Understand that it’s not just the trauma of these many kids being separated from their families. It’s worse than that. Something awful was going on in some family so the state stepped in and removed the children. And what might lead the state to do that? Things like neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse… wait. Let’s use real words. Things like parents refusing to take care of basic things like feeding you or changing your diapers. Parents hitting you, sometimes to the point of breaking bones. Parents yelling at you, that you’re stupid or such a pain. In so many cases there is no father who cares like a father should. Oh, there is some man who causes your conception, but he’s no father to you. And there are mothers who are more committed to their own comfort than to the welfare of the unborn child they are carrying. And that means babies born as addicts to some drug or with brains that don’t work quite right because of something called fetal alcohol syndrome or other things. Then, there are the ways in which babies learn about the world by how they are picked up when they cry - or how they aren’t picked up when they cry. When that happens, they learn not to cry; they learn that there isn’t going to be any comfort coming when they need it.

And then, all too often, kids like this are placed in a foster care family that isn’t actually all that much better than the family they were pulled from. It’s not uncommon for a child to be in several foster care families in just a few years.

Where does any stability come from? How can there be any sense of security? For so many children, the ability to navigate life well is just about ruined before they are much more than toddlers. Learning about these things has been quite an education for me.

There is a part of me that looks at this, that gets the latest update each week, or the latest syndrome label, or another awful story about some foster care kid - that sees the evil and reacts. This is not the way that it’s supposed to be.

Adam and Eve were supposed to have children whom they would love and nurture and cherish, children who, as a result, would flourish, children who would grow up and have their own children and do the same with them. But this is not what we have. What we have are lives that are being ruined. This isn’t the way that it’s supposed to be.

I have found myself thinking about all of this, not to mention all the other evil that I see, and feeling overwhelmed. I’ve asked myself, ‘Will anything that I do even make a dent?’ So, what am I to do? What can I do? How can I fight against so much evil?

This is where Paul’s language about groaning fits.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly. Romans 8:22-23

It’s when you really get what those words are about that you can understand these words.

…we do not know what to pray for as we ought… Romans 8:26

It is as we see the evil more and more clearly, as our awareness of the needs all around us overwhelm - that’s when Paul’s comment makes sense. We don’t even know how to pray in these situations.

But that’s not where Paul stops. Listen to his note of hope.

…but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26

A couple of weeks ago, on Ascension Sunday, I talked to you about how Jesus intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. Paul is teaching that the Spirit also intercedes for us. But He doesn’t intercede for us in heaven. He intercedes from within us. He takes the groanings of our hearts, groanings about the evil that is all around us, and He makes them His own. He takes our groanings and offers them to the Father. And what comes from this?

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. Romans 8:27

The Spirit intercedes for us. He prays what we would pray if we knew what to pray for. And He does that according to the will of God. His prayers, our prayers, are heard by the Father.

Now, what would you expect Paul to write next? I think that it would be fair for us to expect him to write something about how our problem is solved. Our groaning can stop now. Our prayers will be answered. But that isn’t what he writes. This is what he writes next.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

Why does Paul write this? Well, it goes back to something that he wrote earlier in this section.

For in this hope [he’s writing about our hope of final, complete redemption] we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:23-25

Our groaning does not end now. The day when our groaning comes to an end is the day when Jesus returns to usher in the new heavens and the new earth. Our groaning will stop then because that’s when things will be the way that they are supposed to be. That is our hope.

Here’s what Paul is getting at in his words about all things working together for good. All the evil that we see and groan over, even those things are part of God’s massive plan that will result in good, His plan to bring about the day when evil will be gone and everything will be right. And it is for that hope that we patiently wait. We still groan. The evil is still here. But as we are groaning we patiently wait for our God to keep His promise. A new heavens and a new earth where all things work the way that they are supposed to.

I’ve explained the text. What we need to do now is step back from what I’ve told you and ask, ‘So, what’s the point?’

I’ve explained a bit more of the ministry of the Spirit, a ministry that we need to get to know better. Today, I talked about how the Spirit intercedes with our groans.

But it’s too easy for that only to be some fact about the Gospel that you’re supposed to believe. What it needs to be is a fact of the Gospel that you feel and live. What makes that happen? It’s this. Your groaning. If there is no groaning then this is just some stuff written in a book. But if there is groaning, then this becomes another precious part of the Gospel.

Some of you groan. You may not use that word to describe what you feel, but it is what you feel. You have a sense of the way that things are supposed to be. And that’s not about a return to the 1950’s. It’s about a return to the Garden of Eden. You have a sense of that, but what you see is nothing like that. And you feel how wrong that is.

And whatever word you use to label that feeling, you’re groaning. And hearing about how the Spirit takes your groans and brings them to the Father as prayer - that encourages you. And you can know that even the evil that is so ugly and so rife will ultimately result in good. That helps you to deal with the groaning.

But I think that I can also say that some of you don’t groan. Oh, you do get frustrated and annoyed with parts of life. But that’s more a matter of your own desires not being met. You need to groan.

Based on what Paul wrote in Romans 8, the normal Christian life includes groaning. It includes seeing what is and hating it because it’s just wrong. We all need to groan. But how does that happen? We will groan when we understand better God’s ways, His original intentions for His creation. We will groan as we understand God’s own groaning. Listen.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Genesis 6:5-6

We will grieve and groan more as we do better at understanding those sentences, understanding God’s own grief.

The goal in this is not for you to feel bad. No, the goal is much greater. To use what Paul wrote, the goal is to

wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

The goal is to have a lively hope in the age to come where everything will be the way that it’s supposed to be. It is when you have hope in that age that you will be able to live well in this age. You will not be distracted by the wicked lures and foolish enticements that are all around us. You will see them for the evils that they are. You will also understand how temporary this life is. And as a result, you will invest who you are and what you have to making a dent in the evil. And your groans brought to the Father by the Spirit is a part of making a dent in the evil.
It is as we become a church of saints who see these things more and more clearly that we will display and proclaim the Gospel to a dying world and in this way do our part to usher in the new heavens and new earth.