Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pregnant Prayer

Romans 8:15-27
May 24, 2015
William G. Carter

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Pentecost is a noisy day. The last of the fifty days of Easter, we call this the birthday of the church. And we remember: the early band of Christians gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem. As they hid from the outside world, God blew in through the windows. The Spirit of God came upon them like the sound of a mighty wind. Everybody in the room started preaching the resurrection of Jesus, in all the known languages of the world. It was a noisy day.

From the Psalm, Psalm 104, we have a poem about how the world was made. It has seven stanzas, one for each day of creation, and the psalm is full of noise. Listen to the thunder in the clouds, the roar of the waterfalls, the symphony of the birdsong, the mooing of the cattle, the roaring of the lions, the splashing of the sea monsters. Psalm 104 says the world is full of noise because the Spirit of God gives life.

In Romans we hear another noise. It’s the sound of a groan … hhhhhh.  It is a belly groan, like a woman who is ten months pregnant and the baby isn’t here yet… hhhhhh. Paul says all of creation is groaning… hhhhhh.

He does say all creation. Paul doesn’t think small. All creation, he says.

That makes sense if you read the Bible. Whenever anything big happens in the Bible, all creation is affected. Adam and Eve disobey God, and the garden becomes a field with thistles and thorns and snakes that bite. When Israel was in Egyptian slavery, God spoke to Moses; and there was a bush blazing with fire yet not consumed. When God gave the law to Israel, there was thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and a thick cloud covered the mountain.

And it continues into the Christian scriptures. When Jesus was born, Matthew said there was a strange star in the sky.  When Jesus died, Matthew there was darkness and a great earthquake, and the tombs opened and dead people got up and walked into Jerusalem. At dawn on Easter, there was another earthquake and the stone was rolled away. And when the Spirit came on Pentecost, there was wind and fire.

Life affects life. Everything we do - and everything that happens to us - has some impact on nature, because all of life is connected. That’s why Paul speaks of “all creation.” And if there is a single sound at the heart of it all, it’s a groan. Hhhhhh.

Some of the scholars say he is using mythological language here. Maybe so, but you know where those scholars say that? From their desks indoors.  If they only closed their books, shut down their computers, and went outside to listen, they might hear the groan.

My wife and I went to the Canadian Rockies two summers ago. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. I would go there every summer if I could. We flew to Calgary, drove over to an inn in Canmore, threw our suitcases inside, and then drove an hour up the road to Lake Louise. Ever been there? It’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, surrounded by ten thousand foot peaks. We had canoed on the lake on our honey moon, and we couldn’t wait to get back. There was no way to even get within two miles of the parking lot. The road was jammed with tourists, people parking sideways, Canadian Mounties turning away the excess throngs. I didn’t realize that Canada had a Labour Day, too. For them, like us, it’s the last hurrah of summer.

We waited in line, couldn’t get in, turned around and came back two days later. When we got there, we noticed the Victoria Glacier was a third the size that it was ten years before. It’s melting from the warmer climate. The trash cans were full, and a lot of the tourists didn’t bother to throw anything in the trash. They threw it on the ground. And off in the distance, I heard creation groan.

This isn’t mythological language. It’s real. Paul says it is a form of prayer. When you don’t have the words, when you don’t know how to pray or what to pray, the Spirit groans. Hhhhhh. That is one of the noises of Pentecost, in sighs too deep for words. Have you ever prayed like that?

I stood beside a hospital bed this week. In the bed was a man I love as much as I have ever loved anybody. He’s been having problems swallowing. Apparently the disease that is affecting his reasoning has affected his memory of how to swallow. I stood there, and I didn’t know how to pray. The words didn’t come. Here is the sound that my heart made: hhhhhh. Is that a prayer? You bet it’s a prayer – a request for him and for all things to be made well.

Frankly, some of the prayers that I hear are a lot smaller than that. If we lived in Atlanta, we could tune in to  see that sparkly TV preacher. His name will tell you everything: Creflo Dollar. Apparently his given name was Michael Smith, but he changed it to Creflo Dollar. And he’s all about the dollar. His private jet is getting old, so he says the Lord has told him to pray that 200,000 of his followers will each give $300 or more, so he can buy a new $6.5 million dollar jet.[1] If you ask me, that’s a really small prayer.

Or there’s that football coach that we had in high school. Before we played a game, he led us in a prayer. He didn’t care if he got caught, and he didn’t care if any of the kids actually went to church. One time we were playing a Catholic high school in Binghamton. It was a small team in height and weight and numbers, and our coach prayed, “Lord, let our lions devour those Christians.” I am not making this up. In the grand scheme of things, it was a very small prayer.

Small prayers are not worthy of the eighth chapter of Romans. We are talking about bigger needs than football games and private jets. Paul speaks of the redemption of the universe. Not merely the individual soul or our little corner of it, but the entire created order. It has been broken. Back in chapter five, Paul affirms that “sin came into the world through one man” (Adam), and “the power of death spread to all because all have sinned” (5: 12). All things have been damaged by self-centered thoughts and actions. The power of death has threatened to consume us.

But thanks to the loving heart of God, one man has broken the power of death, and it’s Jesus Christ. In his death and resurrection, death has been broken. And in Paul’s words, “Just as (Adam’s) trespass led to condemnation for all, so (Jesus’) act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (5:18).

That’s why he says the whole creation is groaning, and that we who have the Spirit groan along. It’s because we are waiting for God to fix everything, to forgive everything, to renew everything. The groans are labor pains for a whole new world. That is what God is promising. And while we wait, we groan.

This is the evidence of Pentecost: that the Spirit of God within us is praying with sighs too deep for words. And the universal message of Pentecost, that Christ is crucified and risen, is slowly working itself out in those who wish for what God wants to do with the world and all those within it. It is God’s wish to make all things new, not some things but all things. And it begins with those of us who profess that Jesus is alive and that he is the Father’s agent to redeem the whole creation. This is God's mission.

Without a mission, Easter is merely an oddity of nature, a tomb declared to be empty, and that’s it. The greater mission of God is to make all things well, and all manner of things well. It began on Easter and it’s still going on.

Sadly, to hear some Christians talk, their mission is so much smaller than that. I’ve heard some fundamentalists say they are only interested in making more fundamentalists, and let the world go to hell. Hhhhhh…  It's so much more than that. Let's read the Bible, all of it, beginning with the eighth chapter of Romans. God is interested in so much more than our little corners of turf. God loves the whole world – the entire world - and wills it to become whole.

God shows this by sending Jesus to preach and heal and feed, to take the world’s destructive tendencies upon himself on the cross, and then God raises him from the dead, announcing the power of death is broken. This is the heart of all hope, that God is redeeming the world.

In the meantime, what about us? We have to put our hope into action, and take part in God’s great work of healing and restoring. We must live our prayers, for what does it matter to pray for things that we don’t also do? Pentecost means the church must be the church, witnessing to the abundant life of God in Christ through deeds and words. We live at peace. We offer our lives in love. We pray special attention to those the world rejects. In the words of one of the great critics of Christian faith, “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

We live the Gospel. We speak the Gospel. We serve the Gospel. And if the cause is great and the matter is enormous, we trust God will do through us what must be done, and God will finish what we cannot.

And in the face of the world’s enormous hurts, if we don’t know how to pray, we groan ... hhhhhh … for in our wordless sighs, that’s the Spirit of God praying in us and for us, inviting us to do what we can, promising to finish God’s own New Heaven and Earth.

Today is Pentecost. The Spirit of God has come among us to continue what God has begun in Jesus. And among the noises of Pentecost is the prayerful sound of a new creation being born. Can you say it with me?  Hhhhhh.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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