Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 20, 2008

Sermon on Romans 8:26-27

FYI, this sermon format follows the “homiletical plot” outline that I described in an earlier sermon post.

WHEN LIFE LEAVES YOU SPEECHLESS…

I.

There are two kinds of speechlessness. There is the “Wow!” kind of speechlessness. It’s the speechlessness you see at the end of every episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” It’s the speechlessness that the high school junior girl feels when the captain of the football team asks her to be his homecoming date. It’s the speechlessness that the college graduate feels when he learns that his parents’ graduation gift to him is a brand new sports car. It’s the speechlessness that the faithful employee feels when he learns that his company did so well this year that he’s getting an unexpected and unexpectedly large Christmas bonus. It’s the speechlessness that someone experiences when she walks into the restaurant to discover that she just walked into her surprise birthday, where all of her children and grandchildren are present. It’s the speechlessness that someone experiences when he has just won the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

Then there is the “Oh, no!” kind of speechlessness. It’s the speechlessness you see on the evening news from the family of the innocent bystander who was shot and killed. It’s the speechlessness that the little kindergartener feels when she waves good-bye to her best friend for the last time because her friend’s family is moving out of state. It’s the speechlessness that the high school senior feels when she was turned down by the three colleges she wanted to attend. It’s the speechlessness the faithful employee feels when he learns that his company isn’t doing so well this year, and his job is one of the positions being eliminated. It’s the speechlessness that the patient feels when the doctor sits down behind his desk and soberly says, “It’s cancer.” It’s the speechlessness you feel when the committal service is finished and you place your flower on the casket with everyone else, and then watch the flower-covered casket lowered into the ground.

II.

What do you do when you’re going through one of those events that produce the second kind of speechlessness in you, the “Oh, no!” speechlessness? As a Christian, certainly those kinds of events drive us to our knees in prayer. Life may turn against you, and troubles may come your way, but you know that God always listens to you, and especially at a time like this. And so maybe right after your family’s memorized mealtime prayer, you try to add one more prayer from the heart. You are mentally, physically, and spiritually drained by the situation. You know you that need to take it to the Lord in prayer. And that’s exactly what you try to do. But then you realize just how hard it is to put your thoughts and concerns into prayer. Once again, you are left speechless, but this time it is in the prayer throne room of God.

This is the kind of scenario that the apostle Paul has in mind in today’s Second Lesson. Paul talks about situations when “we do not know what we ought to pray for.” Luther thought that these words referred to those whose faith is weak because they haven’t been in regular contact with the Word and Sacrament, and so as a result someone doesn’t have much of a prayer life. Of course, that can happen, but I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of Paul’s original words and intended meaning in this section.

We are sometime left speechless in prayer because we have “our weakness.” Notice that Paul didn’t say, “our weaknesses” (plural), but “our weakness” (singular). Everyone is in the same boat when it comes to this problem. Think back to last week’s sermon, when we talked about the way that sin affects us and even God’s creation. We may have different problems, but we have the same weakness. Your problem may be chronic pain, a tumultuous relationship, job insecurity, mental illness, something else, or all of the above. Our problems are different, but the cause is the same, and that cause is sin’s presence in our world.

Please do not misunderstand. I don’t want to suggest that every disappointment and problem in life is caused by some particular sin we’ve committed. Actually, Scripture is pretty clear that this is not the case. But every disappointment and problem in life testifies to the fact that we live in a sinful world and that we ourselves are sinners. Remember what God told Adam and Eve immediately after the fall into sin? Life was about to get very, very hard. Life would be full of headaches and heartaches. Peace and perfection were things of the past. And so when disappointments and problems come, it feels like a slap in the face reminding us that we have lived our lives in the “tradition” of Adam and Eve. We haven’t looked to the wisdom of the Word of God like King Solomon in our First Lesson. We haven’t treasured the words of Scripture like Jesus’ parables encourage in today’s Gospel encouraged us to do. We’ve looked to our own selfish wisdom and chased after our own worldly treasures. And that sinful rebellion against God not only leads to an earthly life affected by sin, but it merits an eternal death as punishment for sin. And that thought alone is enough to make anyone speechless before God.

III.

I’ll tell you what isn’t the answer to this problem. The answer is not to try to badger God into doing what we want him to do. I received a personal email last week from a Belmont resident I’ve never met before who came close to suggesting that. The person suggested that if I and every local pastor told our congregations to pray to God and ask for his blessing on each person we see throughout the day, we would call down so much blessing from God that soon everyone’s life would be much better. But then I think about the apostle Paul, who once prayed to God about a serious problem that perplexed him (2 Corinthians 7:7-10). He hoped that his prayer would convince God to take his problem away, and God’s answer was a firm but polite, “No.” When you feel like you don’t know what to pray about, the answer is not to badger God into doing whatever you want him to do. Besides, what should a holy God do to a person who tries to badger him into following his own personal desires rather than God’s good will? You know the answer!

There is a little Greek word in verse 26 that speaks to this thought. This little word is hard to translate, but the idea is that we don’t how to pray in such a way that our prayer is in line with the thing God wants us to pray for. We know what we want, but what God wants is so much better, even if it means that we have to endure some sort of hardship for a time. But how can we know what God wants us to pray for? How can we peer inside God’s mind and figure out what an appropriate prayer to him sounds like? We can’t! And that’s one reason why sometimes we can be left speechless in prayer. We know we’re facing a difficult challenge, we know that God invites us to come to him in prayer, but we don’t know what we ought to ask for.

IV.

When life leaves you speechless, when you don’t know what to say to God in prayer, the answer is not in yourself, but in God. When your speechlessness kicks in, the Holy Spirit picks up your prayer to God the Father. Listen again to verse 26. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Some Christians, particularly Pentecostals, have suggested that Paul is referring to the miracle of “speaking in tongues.” The thought is that the “groans that words cannot express” refers to the Holy Spirit taking over our vocal cords and causing us to pray to God in some type of ecstatic, unintelligible language. But that would be saying much more than we can safely surmise from this verse. The particular Greek word used here is seldom used in the Bible or ancient literature in general, so it’s hard to nail down its precise definition. But the word seems to have the idea of something left unspoken, without implying that it cannot be spoken.

Think of it this way. Mom tells her teenage daughter on Saturday morning that she needs to get her room cleaned before noon because company is coming over for lunch. Fifteen minutes before noon, mom comes upstairs and sees her daughter listening to music with her i-pod on her bed, but the room is still a mess. Without saying a word, she puts her hands on her hips and stares at her daughter sternly. Mom didn’t speak a word, but the message came through loud and clear. We could come up with dozens of further examples where different thoughts and different emotions are communicated without a single spoken word.

Without speaking a word, the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf to God the Father, and asks him to help us in our weaknesses and problems, our trials and challenges. And because of the unique relationship among the three persons of the Triune God, the Spirit doesn’t even have to use words to communicate his prayer for us. “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” Life can leave us speechless and we don’t know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit “wordlessly” prays to God the Father for us. The Spirit asks for the very things that God knows we need in ways we cannot explain or understand.

Of course, that’s been God’s track record throughout all of human history. God knows our needs and provides us with the very blessings we need the most, even though we don’t recognize our need. God knew that our sinfulness so thoroughly affected our lives that there was no way we could live up to the high and holy standards he demands. And so he sent his Son Jesus into our sinful world to live a sinless life in the place of sinners like you and me. God knew that our sinfulness so thoroughly affected our hearts that we could never fully atone for the wrongs we have done, even with our best efforts. And so he sent his Son Jesus into our place on the cross to pour out his blood for us and atone for our sins fully and completely. God knew that our sinfulness so thoroughly affected our being that the only thing certain in our future was death. And so he sent his Son Jesus to do for us what we could never do for ourselves when he defeated the grave for you and me by his resurrection. If God knew and met our greatest spiritual need without our asking, how much more will his Spirit be able to pray for us in our time of need and ask God to best meet the needs and challenges we face day by day.

V.

When life leaves you speechless, that’s when you feel the most helpless. But what comfort to know that the God whose Son took away your sin also has his Spirit pray for us when we can’t come up with the right words. What comfort to know that the God whose Son won your greatest victory on Easter morning also has his Spirit ask for the very best things for us, especially when we don’t have a clue what to ask for. What comfort to know that the Father knows your heart’s true needs, that Jesus Christ has atoned fully for your sin, and that the Holy Spirit has solved your speechlessness. What comfort to know that when life leaves you speechless, you are not left alone, but you have the Spirit’s inexpressible prayers, the Son’s unfathomable grace, and the Father’s incredible love! What comfort to know that when life leaves you speechless, God does all the speaking for you! Amen.

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