May 18, 2015
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
Well before Jesus ever preached his first sermon, there was John the Baptist. Long before Jesus ever uttered a parable or healed a blind person, there was John. John had come to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus. And when John preached about this great and coming One, he talked a lot about the Holy Spirit. Everybody who came out to see John knew that chief among the spectacles they would witness would be baptisms. They hadn’t nicknamed John “the Baptist” for nothing, after all. Baptizing was to John what making bread is to a baker: it was the most common thing he did each day when he went to work.
But John always downplayed his baptisms in favor of the vastly more powerful baptism Jesus would do. Hopping up and down with great verve, John said over and again that the real fireworks would start as soon as Jesus showed up to baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit. For all the publicity he had garnered, John’s self-assessment of his own ministry boiled down to “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” And indeed, when one day Jesus showed up to be baptized, John saw the heavenly dove of the Holy Spirit land squarely on Jesus’ head. Clearly, everything John had predicted about Jesus would come true.
But then a funny thing happened: in his ministry Jesus hardly ever talked about the Holy Spirit. Nor did he baptize anyone. Go through any one of the four gospels and you can count on one hand the number of times Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t what John had anticipated at all, and so in a startling passage (cf. Matthew 11 and Luke 7), John at one point sends Jesus a message to ask, “Are you the One who was to come, or should we be on the lookout for somebody else?” John was looking for more Spirit, more fire.
But in this Pentecost Year B lection from John 16 we encounter what is hands-down the longest single section about the Holy Spirit in all the gospels. Here we discover that John the Baptist had been right, except for the timing of it all. Jesus was going to send forth a powerful Holy Spirit. But the surprise comes from the fact that before he would do this, Jesus himself would go away. Call it a kind of Trinitarian tag-team approach. The Father dispatched the Son to this world to teach, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Then the Son returned to the Father so that he could send the Holy Spirit to his followers on this earth.
Jesus makes clear that the Holy Spirit would become the conduit through which would flow all the energy and riches of God. The Spirit would become the jumper cables to re-infuse us with the Father’s energy whenever the Church’s batteries ran down. The Spirit would become the cosmic water main through which the cleansing tide of baptism would flow to wash away sin. The Spirit would become the ultimate radio beacon who would broadcast the truths of Jesus, letting all of us who have been fitted with the right antennae learn on a constant basis the implications of the gospel for our lives. Use whatever image you want, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been the Church’s living connection to God ever since the great day of Pentecost.
But this tends to be the limit of our thinking about the role of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, we quietly restrict the Spirit’s primary work to the interior life of the Church and of its members. That’s why John 16 is so arresting. Because here when Jesus talked about the Spirit’s work, he focused as much on the Spirit’s work in the wider world as he did on the Spirit’s work in the church. In fact, in verse 8 the very first thing Jesus says has to do with what the Spirit would reveal not to the church but to the world.
As Dale Bruner has noted, the Spirit, according to Jesus, would tell the world three related things:
And please notice that any one of those teachings without the other two would be not just incomplete, it would be wrong. Take away or forget about any one, and the other two dissolve into confusion.
First, the Spirit reveals what’s wrong. The Spirit needs to convict the world of guilt with regard to sin, Jesus says. Just talking about the fact that this world has problems is not enough. In fact, it has never been too difficult to convince the world that something is fundamentally amiss. The key is to underscore not just that something is awry with life but why that is so. After all, it is sickeningly easy simply to note the horrors of this world. The underlying message that needs to be revealed by God’s Spirit is that the source of all that wrongness is sin. There’s a cause behind hunger and terrorism, behind corporate greed and pornography, behind drive-by shootings and cynicism, and that cause stems from the fact that this world has fallen away from what God wanted. There’s something wrong with this world all right, and the reason is sin. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost reminds us of this.
But secondly Jesus says the Spirit comes to convict the world of something else: righteousness. At first glance, that seems like an odd thing to say. These verses are a bit difficult to translate or understand, but it seems that Jesus is saying that he himself is the Righteous One, the source of all that is good and beautiful and proper. The Spirit reveals this Christ to the world. Jesus is going to return to the Father and so will not be on display, will not be visible, in the usual way a person can be seen. He’s not going to be available for any interviews with Larry King and won’t be making any guest appearances on the Hour of Power, either. But despite that physical unavailability, this Jesus must be taught to the world and also brought to the world through us. We are the Body of Christ. When filled with the Holy Spirit, we are the ongoing presence of Jesus on this earth.
That much we know, but here’s what I take away from Jesus’ close linking up of the Spirit’s message about sin and the Spirit’s subsequent message about righteousness: what I take away from this is that we dare never talk about what’s wrong in this world unless we do so in a hope-filled context. It’s altogether too easy to talk about what’s wrong. Op-Ed writers in the newspapers and the talking heads on all those 24-hour cable TV news channels do this every single day. In fact, bad news is better for ratings than good news could ever be. In the television industry a so-called “slow news day” is any day when no disaster happens. Most of us don’t watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox News on those days, but if you ever have turned to those channels on a quiet day, you soon realize they are crashingly boring. The news anchors cast about for things to say but they mostly dissolve into an inane blather that can make your skin crawl.
Anybody can talk about what’s wrong with the world. Christians are good at it, too, and we do it a lot. But the key item to check is whether or not we do this with hope ever and always lurking behind even the worst and most difficult things we must say to the world. Are we just lamenting what’s bad for the sake of lamenting it? Are we merely wringing our hands and shaking our heads and wagging our fingers in order, by contrast, to highlight our own moral integrity? Or are we letting the Holy Spirit inject even our critical words with a strong dose of the hope that comes through Jesus the Christ?
It’s the difference between screaming at someone “That’s wrong!” and then walking away in disgust as opposed to saying instead, “That’s wrong but now let me come along side you to spend however much time it takes to introduce you to the Righteous Jesus who right this very minute loves you despite the mess you’ve made.” It’s the difference between saying only “You’re a sinner!” and saying “You’re a sinner, but it was while we were all still sinners that God in Christ loved us, so let’s talk about that, too!” Sometimes convincing people of this may take a very long time indeed. But if we cannot find a way to present the gospel even at the same moment when we confront the world with its faults, then we’re missing not just one piece of the Spirit’s work in the world, we’re missing the whole thing.
But that’s not to say that we never arrive at a conclusion of judgment, because that is the third thing Jesus says the Spirit must do. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is here also to reveal to the world that the prince of darkness is done for. It will be the goodness, grace, and beauty of the Righteous One that will rule the cosmic day in the end. That’s the good news of the gospel. The bad news, however, is that if any person refuses to be on the side of that Holy One named Jesus, then that person will forever be on the wrong side of history.
So as people of Pentecost, we need to let the Spirit use us to tell the world what’s wrong but we do this ever and only with hope in our voices. There is much that is wrong but because it is not random wrong but a systemic problem that can be traced back to sin, it is possible for a powerful God to fix that systemic wrongness, and in Christ Jesus the Lord God has already done so!
The NIV of John 16:11 translates the Greek to say “prince of this world.” I’m not certain why they used “prince” here because the Greek is archon, which quite straightforwardly means “ruler,” which is the translation in the NRSV. But maybe for some people calling the devil the “ruler of the world” sounded too scary and so they made him a prince, which seems less threatening. But John has Jesus saying that the evil one has been a ruler of this world, and the long, sordid run of history certainly lends credence to the idea that someone pretty awful has been calling some shots in this world. But the really good news is that even if there is some sense in which the devil really has been a “ruler” of this world, he has even so gone down to defeat at the hands of God’s Christ!
Some years back I watched the movie, When Harry Met Sally. In one scene we witness something that is at once somber and yet funny. In the scene Harry and his best friend are seated in the stands at a New York Giants NFL football game. But they are not really watching the game because Harry is deeply sad since his wife had left him the day before. With a crestfallen expression on his face, he tells his friend all about the events that had led up to this tragedy in his life. It is a very serious, unhappy conversation.
The funny part of this otherwise somber scene is that while these two men are talking, “the wave” is sweeping through the stadium–this is that phenomenon that cropped up about twenty or so years ago whereby all the people in a stadium sequentially stand up, raise their arms, and give a yell, and then quickly sit back down so that as you look across the stadium, it looks like a human wave is rippling through the stands. So in this scene, although the conversation between these two friends is so dark that they really are paying no attention to the people around them, nevertheless each time the wave reached their part of the stadium, both men stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, never missing a beat in their conversation about the one man’s sorrows!
Being in a crowd can make you do funny things–stuff you would not do or say otherwise. Have you ever been to a basketball game only to find yourself screaming like a banshee? (Or have you ever been to a game where you saw someone you know—someone who is ordinarly rather shy and retiring in nature—screaming like a banshee!!?) There seems to be a certain spirit or power in many situations in life–an influence in which you can get “caught up” and so motivated to do things which are not called for in other situations. On a darker note, some of the same dynamics that can make us jump up and down like everyone else at an exciting basketball game can also lead people to get carried away at post-game parties which turn into out-of-control riots.
There are influences on all of us which are not visible but which are very powerful nonetheless. Parents have strong reasons for warning their children to stay away from “the wrong crowd.” Most of us at one time or another have experienced what can happen when we get caught up in peer pressure. On the other hand, there are good community spirits which can mold people in positive ways. Just think of how the spirit of neighborliness draws the Amish together. There are few spectacles as startling or as moving as an Amish “barn raising” when neighbors from a region come together to build a barn in just one day.
There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something. Interestingly, the New Testament tells us in many places that the Holy Spirit of God–the living fire that just is Pentecost–is also something in which believers need to get caught up. The Spirit carries us away and so leads us to say things and to do things that we would not do were we not in the zone of the Spirit’s influence.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.
Comments and Observations.
Like a lot of us, I have seen my share of people at wedding receptions, at restaurants, and at beaches who have had too much to drink. My son and I ate at a Chicago steakhouse a couple of years ago and at the table next to us—happily they left fairly early on in our meal—were four grown men in their 40s who had rented a limo for the day. They had spent their afternoon at a Cubs baseball game drinking beer (lots of it) and then had spent the first part of that evening at this steakhouse drinking cocktails and then several bottles of wine. One man was nodding off, the other was speaking with quite the slur, and much to my anger another was being very foul-mouthed only a couple feet from my teenaged son.
I’ve seen people drunk before but honestly, never once have I seen a tipsy person start to speak Russian when he knew no Russian or begin to spout grammatically perfect Japanese despite having never studied it. Drunks say lots of things you’d just as soon not hear but achieving eloquence in another language quite simply is not one of them. (Mostly they lose their ability to speak their native language coherently!)
So when some onlookers that first Pentecost concluded that the suddenly polyglot disciples were drunk, I wonder who was really doing the drinking! When you hear the testimony of people from Pamphylia and Pontus and Asia and Egypt and Libya telling you that some untutored Jewish fellows who had never traveled more than 60 miles from home in their lives were speaking pitch-perfect foreign languages, it’s confoundingly odd to chalk this amazing spectacle up to the loss of control alcohol brings on. Concluding the disciples were drunk does, however, reveal something about those who said it.
This is the kind of thing someone says just to be mean. When a pastor says that God calls us to share equally with one another and someone in the congregation then accuses the pastor of being a socialist, you just know this person is grinding an axe and is pretty mean-spirited to boot. When you call a sincere pacifist a wimp or accost a nurturing man as being “like a woman,” there is a mean spirit behind it all.
It’s probably somehow fitting given what would follow in the centuries to come that Pentecost began with the disciples encountering mean-spirited people. The Spirit descended in undeniable power and ran smack into one of the spirits of the age, the perpetually nettlesome spirit of disbelief, accusation, and ignorant cruelty. It would not be the last time. Not by a long shot.
Of course, the fact that the disciples were speaking the languages of the other people there that day—and/or that the people heard their own languages in case you want to engage the old debate as to whether this was a miracle of speaking or hearing—was such an encouraging phenomenon at bottom. There was more than a hint that this was a harbinger of a greater unity for humanity that God had in mind, a repairing of millennia-old divisions among peoples. This was an early sign that what Jesus had done was not a local event but global, cosmic, for all people and for every people. What could be more encouraging or hopeful?
This year we (once again) celebrate Pentecost in the shadow of events that highlight how ugly racial and ethnic divides are in this world. The litany of late has grown long: Ferguson, Staten Island, South Carolina, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Madison, Baltimore. Whatever the ins and outs of each case, each incident has lit up differences among people like fireworks in the sky. Meanwhile Muslims and Christians slaughter each other in Nigeria, ISIS enflames every religious tension it can exploit, and the list goes on.
So what could be more hopeful, more encouraging, more worthy of wonder and joy than a spectacle that suggested that such disunity is not the whole story nor the end of the story? What could be better than people understanding each other across ethnic and racial lines—understanding not just syllables and vocabulary (because this was the tip of the Pentecost iceberg) but each other as fellow beings made in God’s image?
Yet some mocked. They mocked in so silly and irrational a way as to reveal what was really behind the mockery: an inability to see new possibilities, a willingness to entrench the status quo, a desire to let all the bad momentum of history gather speed and just go on and on and on.
Even so, God stepped in. He sent the Spirit as promised and these oft-clueless, frequently timid, generally non-eloquent men from Galilee found a voice and a power they never knew could be theirs. It changed the world. It really did. But it began amid ridiculous, ill-founded mockery.
Even today you can chalk up the whole Christian movement and all the theology it has ever generated to immature wish fulfillment, to the ravings of deluded people, to the childhood phase of a human race that needs to grow up for the love of God! When all the dust settles from the anti-religious sneerings of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and others in the New Atheist camp, what it really comes down to is their looking at every Mother Teresa, every saint you’ve ever known or heard of and saying, “They’re drunk!”
Most such mockers don’t have a better vision for uniting humanity, saving us from the worst of ourselves, or generating any hope that there could yet be a cosmic reckoning in which justice really will win out over every racial and ethnic outrage ever committed. But those who believe in God and who believe, further, that this God has a plan are nevertheless ballyhooed, called names, and consigned to some dismal category of retrograde troglodytes.
Christians today ought not be surprised it is so. This started at Pentecost when the Spirit came in undeniable power. And if could happen then . . . well, it surely can keep happening.
But that need not prevent us from joining Peter and saying to any and all who are even half-willing to listen, “Hey, this is not what you suppose. This is bigger and better than that and it is, just so, way more hope-filled than that. It’s part of a story as grand and as long as all creation and by God’s grace it’s our joy to share it with you. Will you listen?”
Some will. They always have.
As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” The new electronic sign by a local high school regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When that big statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled years ago, you could see the “spirit” of enthusiasm wash over that crowd in Baghdad. You could no more see that spirit than you can see my breath right now, but you knew it was there.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 104 is a lovely, lyrical hymn of praise to God the Creator and Sustainer. It offers what William P. Brown calls “a grand tour of God’s creation and maintenance of the cosmos.” It glides from verses 2b-9’s description of God’s first acts of creation to verses’ 10-30’s description of God’s care for God’s world and everything in it.
Yet as Brown also notes, Psalm 104’s “tour” actually begins with Psalm 103. After all, the psalmist’s call to herself to “Praise the Lord, O my soul” brackets each psalm. The psalms are also, in one sense, complementary. 103 focuses on God’s gracious work in people’s lives. 104 focuses on God’s loving work in God’s creation. Taken together, they remind us that the God of salvation and the God of creation are one and the same.
Citizens of the 21st century tend to think about and analyze the world in terms of disciplines like science, economics and aesthetics. Psalm 104 invites us to think about that world as “the work of God’s hands.” Those many “works” fill both the earth and the sea. In fact, Psalm 104 seems to want to draw our eyes, ears and attention to the abundance of God’s creatures. After all, verse 24 notes that the earth is “full of” God’s creatures. Verse 25 adds that the “vast and spacious” sea teems “with creatures beyond number.” Yet as many creatures as there are, Psalm 104 reminds us that, in the words of the beautiful hymn, “The Lord God made them all.” In fact, it reminds us that God even creates creatures that seem strange and terrible to us.
This assertion offers those who preach and teach Psalm 104 an opportunity to invite hearers to reflect on how much more we know about God’s “works” than the psalmist did. After all, he didn’t have microscopes with which to peer into the minutest corners of God’s creation. The psalmist didn’t have a Hubble Telescope with which to stare into the farthest corners of God’s creation. He didn’t even have undersea apparatus with which to peek into the ocean’s deepest depths. So it may be fair to suggest that we have even more reason than the psalmist did to “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”
God created this abundance, says the psalmist, “in wisdom.” (24) While biblical scholars aren’t sure just what that means, it would seem to at least suggest that God creates with such skill that God equips creatures to do precisely what they need to do. Those plentiful “creatures,” notes the psalmist, include those that fill the earth. So verse 24 is a bit reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s sixth day: “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures, according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind’.”
In verse 25 the psalmist adds with an almost breathless hint of awe and admiration that God’s work includes the countless creatures that fill the great seas. That makes it reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s fifth day: “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures’ … So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the sea teems … God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas’.”
Those who read verse 26 may be surprised by its inclusion in the list of abundant sea creatures the “leviathan.” After all, it was a mythological creature that terrified mariners. The psalmist’s contemporaries thought of the leviathan as an enemy of both God and people. Yet in verse 26 the psalmist compares it to what the NIV Study Bible calls “God’s pet playing in the ocean.” So he invites worshipers to think of God and the leviathan as what Brown calls “playmates.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 104 may want to reflect with hearers on the contrast between its theology and some views of our world. After all, if our contemporaries think of God at all, they tend to think of God as perhaps creating the world, but then having nothing to do with it afterwards. By contrast, Psalm 104 views God as vigorously and intimately involved in caring for what God so lovingly and wisely created. Even when worshipers take into account the specifics of the psalmist’s pre-scientific understanding of the world, we can’t help but marvel at the truths it communicates about God’s deep ongoing involvement in the world God so loves.
Psalm 104 vigorously asserts that God provides for what God makes, including wild animals, trees and even mountains. So the psalmist insists that creation completely depends on God for its sustenance. In fact, her imagery brings to mind a kind of servile or childlike dependence. Psalm 104 invites hearers to think of creation as a baby hungrily straining toward his mother’s breast.
So when God generously provides, the psalmist adds, creatures eagerly scoop up the provision. He uses language that’s reminiscent of Exodus 16’s description of Israel’s act of eagerly gathering manna. It’s vivid language of timely provision, inviting worshipers to think of God’s “hand” as open rather clenched as in a fist of anger or miserliness. Psalm 104 reminds us that God is very generous, an attribute of God that worshipers sometimes neglect.
Yet when God is not generous with God’s creatures, those creatures suffer. When God looks away, when God withdraws the breath of life, dependent creatures are terrified. They so rely on God’s timely provision that when God turns away, they, in fact, die and return to dust, the very stuff of which Genesis 2 reports God created Adam. However, when God sends God’s creatures God’s life-giving spirit that hovered over the primordial waters at creation, creatures are made and renewed.
Psalm 104’s hymn of adoration concludes with a prayer to the Creator and Sustainer of creation. The psalmist prays that God’s glory will “endure forever.” God’s creation and creatures may be fragile and short-lived, depending completely on God’s generous provision. However, the psalmist prays that God’s glory won’t be fragile, that it will outlast even the creation as we know it.
However, in a lovely, poetic but perhaps surprising turn, the psalmist also prays that God will rejoice in God’s works. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 104 a chance to reflect with hearers on how often they think of God as rejoicing. God’s children sometimes think of God as punishing and forgiving, as being angry and loving. However, they may not often think of God as rejoicing or delighting in things. Yet the psalmist invites worshipers to think of God’s care for what God makes not as drudgery, but as something God enjoys. So perhaps, as Brown notes, God’s children’s own care for creation is something not to be just endured, but enjoyed as we celebrate the abundance with which God fills God’s works.
The Revised Common Lectionary offers Psalm 104’s preachers and teachers the opportunity to skip verse 35a’s troubling words. Yet that verse offers an opportunity for those who teach about the psalm to explore just how it fits into the rest of the psalm. The psalmist prays, apparently harshly, that sinners will vanish from the earth and that the wicked will no longer exist.
It may seem difficult to reconcile this prayer with the majestic and lyric hymn that is Psalm 104. It may be helpful, however, to remember that the wicked and sinners mar that for which God cares so deeply, God’s creation and creatures. After all, Psalm 104’s creational chaos comes not from mythical beasts like the leviathan, but from “human” monsters. What’s more, one might interpret verse 35a’s plea not as a prayer for sinners’ obliteration, but for their repentance and regeneration. After all, were the wicked and sinners to join God’s creation and creatures in recognizing their complete dependence on their Creator and Sustainer, God’s whole creation would join together to sing to the Lord as long as it lasts.
Few activities are more pleasant than feeding birds. The late Jane Kenyon wrote a lovely poem describing that activity that she entitled, “At the Feeder.” It delightfully captures birds’ dependence for their provision and hints at the delight God takes in generously feeding God’s creatures.
“First the Chickadees take/ their share, then fly/ to the bittersweet vine, / where they crack open their seeds, / excited, like poets/opening the day’s mail.
And the evening Grosbeaks — / those large and prosperous/ finches – resemble skiers/, with the latest equipment, bright/ yellow goggles on their faces.
Now the Bluejay comes in/ for a landing like a SAC bomber/ returning to Plattsburgh/ after a day of patrolling the ozone. / Every teacup in the pantry rattles.
The solid and graceful bodies/ of Nuthatches, perpetually/ upside down, like Yogis … / and Slate-Colored Juncoes, feeding/ on the ground, taking only/ what falls to them.”
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
How should we celebrate Pentecost? What should our mood be, given the very different emphases of the four lectionary readings for Pentecost, 2015? As I pondered that, I recalled some wry comments made by Orthodox theologian Frederica Mathewes Green on the very different ways we celebrate Christmas and Easter. “It’s that time of year again, when school children are coloring pictures of Jesus hanging from a cross, and shop owners fill their windows with gaily colored cutouts of Jesus Flogging at the Pillar. In the malls everyone is humming along with seasonal hits on the sound system, like ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded.’ Car dealers are promoting Great Big Empty Tomb Size discounts on Toyotas. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter.”
Well, if Easter takes second place in our celebrations of important days in the Christian calendar, Pentecost comes in a very distant third. And that’s too bad, given all the life changing benefits that flow to us from the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as evidenced by the four lectionary readings for today, those benefits are so vast that it’s more than a little difficult to decide which one(s) to focus on. Our choice of text will determine what mood our Pentecost celebration will take today.
The reading from Acts 2 is a reminder of the redemptive historical event of Pentecost with its mighty wind, speaking in other languages, powerful sermon, and conversion of 3,000 new believers. The reading from Psalm 104 emphasizes the Spirit’s everyday work in creation. After running his gaze over the wondrous diversity of life in the world, the Psalmist gushes, “When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.” The reading from Ezekiel 37 speaks of the recreating power of the Spirit, bringing life to the dry bones of Israel. That’s an Old Testament foreshadowing of the Gospel’s emphasis on the Spirit’s work in regeneration, renewal, and sanctification. And verse 23 of our reading from Romans 8 reminds us of the eschatological role of the Spirit. The Spirit is the first fruit of the new world or, as Paul put it in Ephesians 1:14, the Spirit is the deposit or down payment guaranteeing our inheritance. All of those themes are positive and upbeat, inviting us to whoop it up on Pentecost the way we do at Christmas and Easter.
As I indicated just above, our reading from Romans 8 does have that celebrative air about it, what with all its talk about waiting eagerly for our adoption as children and the redemption of our bodies. If we focus on that part of this text, we could have a “holly jolly Pentecost.” Our mood today would be one of joyful hope. Hope is, in fact, the dominant theme of this text.
But I want to suggest a very different mood, a more somber approach to Pentecost, almost a lament for those who have nearly lost their hope. The last two verses focus on a quieter work of the Spirit—not the mighty wind and the anti-Babel of tongues, not the daily whoosh of creative activity, not the eerie sound of God’s breath causing dead bones to rattle together, not the blast of the trumpet as the Spirit brings our recreation to its completion, but the soft sighing or the painful groaning of the Spirit with our spirits. Romans 8 is filled with the various facets of the ministry of the Spirit, but these last two verses assure us of what is arguably the Spirit’s most tender and Christ-like work. Here is Immanuel, God with us, in the most visceral, primal, dare I say, animal way. The Spirit groans with us.
As I’ve already said, the preceding words are full of hope and promise—the liberation of creation, the glorious freedom of the children of God, our adoption as God’s children, the redemption of our bodies. No wonder Paul fairly sings of hope; “for in this hope we are saved.” No wonder he can say with deep conviction (verse 18), “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”
But there are times in life when we are hurting so badly that we can’t focus on the hope of our salvation. Songs are turned to sighing. Shouts of joy are lost in our groans of agony. Now I must say here that some scholars think that Paul is talking here about groans of anticipation, groans of hope, like the groaning of a woman in childbirth. That is entirely possible, given the way Paul uses that very image in verse 22 when he talks about creation groaning. So then Paul is talking about a kind of eschatological groaning, a sighing that looks ahead to all the glory that will come with Christ’s return. We don’t quite know how to pray for that return (except perhaps, “Come, Lord Jesus”), so we need the Spirit’s intercession as we “wait eagerly” for the Day. That interpretation makes textual sense.
Another interpretation makes even more existential sense, and I think it is in the text. Paul begins this whole section in verse 18 with talk about suffering and frustration and decay and bondage. Yes, we eagerly wait and even groan in our longing for the glory to come, but sometimes the existential reality of suffering is so overwhelming that all we can do is groan in pain and despair. And in our weakness, we don’t know what or how to pray.
I currently am praying for two old friends (my age) who are suffering terribly and anticipating that things will get much worse. One has a tumor just in front of her ear. The cancer has wrapped itself around the nerve that controls her cheek, tongue, and eye. The necessary surgery could result in a numb face, a drooping eye, loss of taste, and worse. Every time she sees a doctor, something else is discovered. She is very good at asking for prayer, specific prayer for a new doctor, for a surgery date, for the surgery itself, for patience. She is groaning, but she can still put her groans into words.
Another friend has suffered severe eye damage as a result of a freak accident with a rope on a fishing boat. Her iris, her retina, cones and rods, cheekbones, and more have been so severely injured that she may never see again. That would be a tragedy for anyone, but she lives to read, watch movies, gaze on her beloved grandchild, put together puzzles—her eyes are her life. The saga of her injury and the consequent medical treatment drags on and on, with ever increasing bad news. At one point her loyal husband said, “I can’t pray anymore. I don’t even know what to pray.”
Here’s the good news of Pentecost for my friends; “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” The word “weakness” in the Greek is a general word, but Paul has a particular form of weakness in mind here, namely, when you don’t know what to pray for in a time of trouble. Not only do we groan in pain, but we also don’t know what to pray about that. We’re speechless, either because we can’t put our thoughts into words or we don’t have any thought to put into words. Or we have multiple thoughts, but we don’t what to pray for, because we don’t know what God’s will is. For example, how do you pray for a beloved 93 year old mother whose health is failing and who wants to die? What is God’s will for her?
The Spirit helps us in our weakness by interceding for us. Actually, Paul puts it in a more remarkable way—“the Spirit himself (auto in Greek)” intercedes.” What a remarkable statement! God is not the unmoved Mover, but the Tri-personal God who is moved by our weakness. Yes, I am aware of the philosophical and theological difficulties we get into when we begin to posit movement in God, but I am also aware of the pastoral and personal difficulties we get into if we don’t listen carefully to the Word of God. It says that the Spirit himself, God himself, doesn’t sit in isolated splendor when we are hurting. Rather, he comes alongside us, which, of course, is the literal meaning of what Jesus called the Spirit (the Paraklete).
When he comes alongside us, he doesn’t, as the friends of Job did at first, just sit in silence commiserating with us. Rather, in his sympathy, he intercedes for us. And not just with words, with carefully considered and beautifully expressed prayers, but “with groans that words cannot express.” It says stenagmois alaletois in the Greek, and it is hard to know exactly what those words mean. Does Paul mean that the Spirit groans his own groans? Does the Spirit give voice to our groans? Or does Paul mean that the Spirit takes up our groans and makes them his own, turning them into prayer? Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end. Paul’s point is the Holy Spirit ministers to us in our weakest times by entering into our pain and using our groans to intercede for us to the Father.
What’s more, the Spirit’s sympathetic intercession is completely effective. When we don’t know what or how to pray, we can be the most certain of an answer, because of the Spirit’s work. Here’s how Paul puts it. “And he who searches our hearts [which, of course, is where the Spirit lives], knows the mind of the Spirit.” Even if the groans are incoherent, even if the Spirit never turns our inchoate groans into words, God knows exactly what the Spirit is saying, because God knows the mind of the Spirit. Of course, he would, given the perichoresis of the Triune God. So the Spirit’s intercessory prayers/groans are always answered, because “he intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” I John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” In this lovely Pentecost text, we are assured that even though we may not know the will of God for our mothers or our injuries or our tumors, and thus aren’t sure that we are praying “according to his will,” we can be sure that the Spirit’s intercession will be completely effective.
So, there’s another mood for Pentecost. Even as we lament in our suffering, even as we struggle with hope, even as we groan, we can quietly rejoice because of the Pentecostal blessing of the Spirit’s deep, groaning prayers for us.
Long before feminism urged us to think of God as our Mother, Abraham Kuyper, premier Dutch Reformed theologian and Prime Minister of the Netherlands, pointed out that Romans 8 talks about two different intercessions. Here in verses 26 and 27 it is the Spirit who intercedes for us, while in verse 34 it is Jesus who intercedes. Kuyper suggests that Christ’s intercession is “like a Father, the head of the family, for all the family members. The Holy Spirit’s intercession is like a mother kneeling at the bedside of a sick child, and presenting that child’s needs to the heavenly Father.”
Kuyper’s analogy reminded me of “God’s Garden,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem about the Spirit’s work in creation. Note especially the maternal image at the end.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.
Speaking of poetry, as a child I learned this hymn by James Montgomery that talks about prayer in terms very like Romans 8:26, 27.
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Unuttered or expressed
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.
Prayer is not made by us alone,
The Holy Spirit pleads.
And Jesus, on the eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.