This sermon is on Romans 8:26-39.
When I first began reading (and trying to understand) scripture, this particular part of Romans 8 was very significant for me. It was confusing, annoying, and helpful. The confusing part first. Paul writes:
“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.” (8:26)
How can we possibly not know how to pray as we ought? Prayer is our communication with…or communing with God. We just do it. Right? I discovered some people develop formulas to that others can pray as they ought! This idea of praying as we ought, turns prayer into an activity that intimidates (lots of books are sold to help us pray as we ought). This intimidation leads many of us to be nervous about praying aloud within the confines of a group. For what if we don’t pray as they ought? I’ve discovered that many of us Lutherans are intimidated here. Although I’ve sneakily got most of you to verbally share your prayer concerns…which I believe is sacred…and thus a part of our prayer. But I digress.
How can we not know how to pray as we ought? Even if our prayer is silent, we know that God hears us. Maybe Paul was referring to a self-centered kind of prayer that focused on me…me…me. I don’t get that sense from this passage. So I struggled to understand just what Paul was getting at. Is there a special kind of prayer that we must do? Or, maybe we are supposed to pray for certain things? This was confusing.
Then my dad had a battle with colon cancer, and another, and another. And each time they thought they got it all, only for the cancer to return more aggressively than before. I watched his body waste away in his last year of life. We continued to pray for healing.
When hospice came and set up a hospital bed in the living room I was thankful that he could be home with family. I have precious memories of those last two weeks of his life…memories that I would not trade for anything. Alongside those precious memories are memories of pain and suffering that was beyond description. One day I was sitting there watching TV with him (probably sports of some type). Together we watched a commercial advocating routine colonoscopy screenings, because “colon cancer is curable when caught early.” My dad’s cancer was caught early… during a routine colonoscopy. It was minor they said. But cruelly it would not stay away.
As my dad’s suffering increased I wanted to pray. But I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. Do I pray for a cure? That seemed unrealistic given conditions. Do I pray for his death? That didn’t seem right either. Do I scream at God for the unfairness of life, and the taking away of Cecil, my stepdad who over the years truly became my dad?
And then I saw these words as if for the first time. And I understood.
“…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.” (8:26)
The words or the how of my prayer didn’t matter at that point. Not because God didn’t care but because the Spirit was already interceding for me, for Cecil, for my mom, for the rest of the family, for you, for all of us. The Spirit was there, in that suffering.
This entire chapter of Romans is about God’s care for us in our suffering. Unfortunately some passages are used out of context, twisted in their meaning, and thus become annoying. So that verse 28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Becomes distorted to mean that God won’t allow bad things to happen to those who truly love Jesus. But this is not the meaning of a verse that is in the middle of a passage about suffering. In the context of suffering, Paul is telling his audience, including us, that this present suffering…this present difficulty is not the end. But just as Jesus suffered and died and rose again, we too have that promise of new life. Sometimes that promise is most profound and understandable when we are in the presence of death. It is this promise that can free us to truly live for today.
And this takes me to what has always been the most helpful passage in all of scripture…for me. I call this section the “there is no worse thing that can happen clause.”
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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.”
The no worse thing that can happen clause… Paul is convinced, and through his words we too can be convinced, that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. That means that in the midst of struggle… of turmoil… of frustration… of suffering… of not knowing what tomorrow will bring… In all this we are guaranteed the love of God, the love of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not because we deserve this love and presence, but because that very love guarantees it.
Maybe you too struggle in prayer… that’s ok because the Spirit intercedes for you.
Maybe you’ve been hurt by words that imply your present struggle (or our present struggle) is what God wants to have happen. No, our struggles are human made…but mysteriously, in the midst of the struggle we can become stronger… which means something good can come out of that struggle.
Maybe you’ve felt alone or unworthy of God’s love. Maybe someone has told you that you must change something about yourself to receive this love. Know this. God loves you! And there is absolutely no way you will ever be separated from this love.
I think we are living in hard times. We are living in a time where we are told to fear our neighbor and to only take care of ourselves. We see suffering around us. Some of us are suffering now. This is the reality of life. But this is not the only reality.
The other, more powerful reality is that God loves each of us… and there is absolutely nothing that can ever separate us from that love. May that love empower us to boldly live, loving God and loving our neighbor.