Sighs Too Deep for Words

Sermon for Sunday, July 24th, 2011|| Pentecost 6, Proper 12, Year A|| Romans 8: 26-39
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

At another parish I served, one year the Music Director wanted the choir to sing the “Halleluiah Chorus” on Christmas Eve between the reading of the gospel and the sermon.  A great idea—unless you’re the one about to preach.  I’ll never forget how the interim rector responded in disbelief with something like:  “Are you kidding?  You expect me to get up and preach after the Hallelujah Chorus?  There’s nowhere to go after that but down!” 

I feel a lot like that about this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Roman’s—definitely one of my favorites.  This is Paul at his absolute finest. And as the preacher, it’s mighty tempting to just re- read the lesson, utter a heartfelt “Amen, brother!” and sit down.  Because there’s no way to hold a candle to the fiery passion and conviction that Paul expresses here.

That being said, as magnificent and eloquent as this passage is, it invites a bit of  explanation for modern ears.  So this morning what I’m going to do is a little more like a Bible study than a sermon.  But you’ve heard the sermon:  Paul just gave it.  I’m going to talk to you about what Paul means:  What he means when he says we don’t know how to pray as we should, but that the Spirit will do it for us; what he means when he says that all things work together for good for those who love God; and what he means when he says that nothing in life can ever separate us from God’s love.

First, the prayer piece:  In the past few weeks, Paul has established that the Spirit of God lives in each of us through Christ.  Today, Paul tells us that the Spirit living in each of us helps us in our weakness when it comes to prayer.  That weakness is that when left to our own devices, we don’t really know how to pray as we should. A more literal translation would be “we don’t know what to pray for.” But the Spirit of God that lives in us through Christ intercedes (on our behalf) with what Paul calls, “sighs too deep for words.

God searches our hearts, Paul says, (where the Spirit makes its home) and God hears those “sighs too deep for words” that are prayed on our behalf and understands them.  God understands them, because like the prayers of the Son, the prayers of the Spirit are in perfect accordance with God’s will—they are God’s own prayer too.

So while our own conscious prayers may be weakened by self-will, or watered-down by our personal wants and desires, the Spirit of God that lives in us through Christ—and who wants more for us than we could ever ask or imagine– that Spirit intercedes on our behalf in sighs “too deep for words”— sighs so deep they release us from the fear of letting go, so deep they relieve us of the need to control even God, so deep they redeem even our most feeble attempts at prayer by praying properly for us. 

Thomas Merton once wrote that: 

Prayer is…not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart— it is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit to God…a conversion of our entire self to God.

It’s the Spirit that lives in us that makes possible that conversion of self. When it rises to the level of consciousness and is clothed with words, such a prayer might sound a lot like Mary’s, “Let it be with me according to Thy word.”  It might sound  like Jesus praying, “Thy will, not mine, be done.”  It might sound like the Episcopal “Prayer of Self-Dedication.”  In each instance, it is a prayer breathed first by the Spirit in the innermost reaches of our being, in sighs too deep for word—a prayer that then inspires our prayer to join God’s prayer for us. 

 “All things work together for good for those who love God“:  This is probably one of the most misused lines in scripture—the simple mind’s answer to the complexity of suffering and evil, as in:  “I’m so sorry about your loss, but you know ‘all things work together for good for those who love God.’”  No. This is not only pastorally insensitive, it’s theologically wrong. 

Paul isn’t saying that bad things don’t happen to good people, or that everything always turns out fine for those who believe in God. In Paul’s world, as scholar Safiyah Fosua explains, “goodness was…the ultimate virtue in the philosophy of the day. How goodness was thought to emerge, and whether or how all things participated in that goodness, varied by philosopher. This Christian declaration of “the good” proclaims that Christians… attain it by fulfilling God’s purposes for us, established of old. Christians are intended to be conformed to the image of Jesus…”  To be conformed to God’s will.

Please don’t get too wrapped up in Paul’s talk about how those who are predestined are called, and those who are called are justified, and those who are justified are glorified.  Just know he’s talking about you:  God has searched you out and known you since before he knit you in your mother’s womb, and out of love has he called you into being.  In God’s “eternal now” we are all pre-destined for his love, all justified by his love, all glorified by his love, and all called to respond to his love by conforming our wills to His will. Christ has shown us just exactly how to do that, and the Spirit that lives in us makes it possible.  This is what it means that, “all things work together for good, for those who love God.”  What Merton called “the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit to God” is not only a description of the pure prayer that asks only for God’s will to be done, it’s also the philosophical “good” of which Paul speaks to which the Christian life is dedicated. 

And finally, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”:  Having established that we’ve got God’s Spirit interceding on our behalf when our prayer falls short of God’s prayer, and that our destiny is to be conformed to Christ in our desire to do God’s will, Paul asks rhetorically:  So if God is so for us– so committed to loving us– that He gave us both his Son and his Spirit– what could possibly destroy that love?  And the answer is: nothing. “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.”

Nothing. Ever. Not too much work or too little work, not success or failure, not wealth or poverty; not good health or debilitating disease, not the right family or the wrong friends, not the best of intentions or the worst of ideas; not heat waves or cold spells, not spending cuts or tax increases, not even democrats or republicans playing chicken with our future.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, because we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us!  We haven’t earned it, we don’t deserve it, we’ll never be worthy of it.  But by God He loves us, and He always will, no matter what.

 (pause for moment of silence)

Did you hear that?  Did you hear that in the midst of the silence?  That was the sound, my friends…of sighs too deep for words. 

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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