May 23, 2021

Romans 8:22-27

“The Spirit Groans”

A couple of weeks ago in our online Sunday School, the children were invited to write a poem about the Holy Spirit. The lesson gave us a simple format for doing that. The first line would be the title: “Spirit.” The second line would be two words that describe the Spirit like “invisible” and “powerful.”

For the third line, we had to think of three action words (verbs) that tell what the Spirit does. I would choose “blessing,” “teaching,” and “sending.”

The instruction for the fourth line was “four words that describe your feelings about the Spirit.” That was a tough one. For me, they’d be “nervous,” “encouraged,” “thankful,” and “hopeful.”

And finally, one word that is another name or word for the Spirit. There are several other names offered in the Bible. And as I think about it today, in the context of my reflection on today’s readings, I choose “Intercessor,” which means someone who prays for us.

You might want to write your own poem about the Holy Spirit today, either following the same template or making up your own. On this Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the gathered disciples, giving them the ability to proclaim the Gospel to all the people in all the languages of the world, a whole bunch of Spirit poems being pondered and created seems very fitting.

Most years on Pentecost, that main story from Acts 2 is the focus. We meet the Spirit who comes in powerful wind and fire, who gives the followers of Jesus new abilities and the courage they need to preach the good news to all the world. But if we pay attention to all the readings today, we’ll notice three very different pictures of the Holy Spirit.

I like the way commentator Audrey West describes the diversity and complexity of the Spirit’s role in our lives as shown in these texts: Yes, “The Spirit blows through the house like a violent wind and dances on heads like tongues of fire, empowering people to speak in other languages so that all might hear what God has done in Jesus Christ. (Acts)

“[The Spirit also] stands beside us as the Advocate who speaks from God in order to guide us into the truth. (John)

“And when all those words are inadequate, when all that speaking cannot express what is deepest within us, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with wordless, inexpressible groans. (Romans)

“It was true in the time of Paul and the Gospel writers, and it remains true today: the Spirit is as close as wind and words and no words.”

One of the things that Christian preachers do (perhaps especially, Presbyterians) is to try to solve the problems of life with our words. Sermons are all about words – proclaiming and explaining the words of Scripture, unpacking those texts by adding more words, using words to express God’s love, using words to give voice to God’s call, using words to comfort, encourage, and empower God’s people for mission in the world.

We love words, and we appreciate their power to bless or to curse. And we have accepted the call to be Ministers of Word (and Sacrament too, we sometimes forget), and to use words week-by-week to express God’s love and goodness and grace and call.

When it comes to prayer, many Christian communities expect their pastors to come up with the right words then too. You call on us as the “word experts” to pray in all circumstances, and trust that we’ll know what to say.

It reminds me of a funny little assignment that we had back in my first year in seminary. We had to make an appointment to visit our professor, Stephen Farris, in his office. And when we got there, he would tell us about a pastoral context in which a prayer was needed. We would imagine ourselves in that situation, and then offer a prayer. Just like in real life, there was no time to prepare, to look up a nice prayer in a book, or to jot down some helpful words or phrases.

I still remember the pastoral situation that I had to pray about. It was a couple’s 50th anniversary, and I was asked to say grace before a celebratory meal. No big deal. Thank God for the blessing of their life together and for the opportunity to gather and celebrate with good friends and family. Pray for the couple, and for all married couples that their love and faithfulness would grow, and that they would be a blessing to the world. Give thanks for the food, for the people who prepared it, and ask God to bless it.

I remember the sense of relief when I left the office with my prayer complete. I was thankful that he didn’t give me something complicated to pray about… some situation of crisis or grief or tragedy… I was thankful that he didn’t describe one of those pastoral situations in which it’s hard to know what to say to the people, let alone what to pray to God for them and with them.

Of course, I’ve been in many of those more difficult situations in the years since that nerve-wracking little prayer assignment. And what I have discovered over and over again, in hospital rooms and waiting rooms, in crisis and in grief and in anxiety, is that my ability to string a bunch of prayer-type words together is not really what it’s all about. But it’s about being present, and being surrounded by the Spirit, and asking for God’s help, and letting the Spirit guide the words and the silences, the tears and the touch.

This is the Holy Spirit that we need when we can find no explanation for the suffering that we see around us, and when we feel helpless to alleviate it. This Spirit prays for us (even groans for us with sighs too deep for words) when our loved ones suddenly get sick and when they die, when we cannot make sense of why so many people have died in this pandemic, when we struggle to know what to do or even how to pray for the desperate people in places like India where there is severe crisis happening, or when we felt helpless this week at the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza where the children of Abraham were shooting missiles and killing one another with little hope for peace, and even less for peace with justice.

This morning’s reading from the eighth chapter of Romans assures us of the activity of the Spirit in the lives of believers. It offers concrete hope to those who are 2000 years removed from the vibrant activities of the second chapter of Acts. The Holy Spirit of God is still present and still active in our lives, and very specifically in our prayers.

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.” When words escape us, or our prayers become a repetitive rambling, when we do not know what to pray for, or when our weeping leaves no space for words or even coherent thought, it is the Spirit that helps us in our weakness. It is the Spirit who intercedes, who prays for us with sighs too deep for words.

Paul names the world’s suffering by comparing it to the groans of a woman in labour, painful cries from the depth of her being during that time between times when she does not yet know whether the outcome will be life or death. But in the midst of that agony, there is hope – hope for new life, hope for a joyful future.

“For Paul, hope is not pie-in-the-sky optimism that disavows the reality of sin and suffering, as if one simply needed to stop worrying and be happy. True hope is born out of the assurance that what we see and experience – the groaning reality all around us – is not the end of the story. This is hope as a woman in labour hopes: breathing through the pain, holding tight to a companion, looking ahead to what cannot yet be seen, trusting that a time will come when this pain is but a memory.”

At Pentecost, we do celebrate that the Holy Spirit gives us words – words of love and hope and joy that can make the church into a blessing to the world and all its people. But when words do not come, or when words are simply not enough, the Holy Spirit groans with us and with our suffering world. And when we cannot hope for ourselves, the Spirit hopes on our behalf, the church endures with us, and the whole creation groans in solidarity. We are not alone.

So, here’s my poem:


Invisible – Powerful

Blessing – Teaching – Sending

Nervous – Encouraged – Thankful – Hopeful