Sunday, May 3, 2015


Spirit Filled
Romans 8:22-31
May 3, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

For this month, as we anticipate Pentecost Sunday, we will be looking at the suggested texts for that Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary. If you follow the devotional guide in the newsletter, that lists the texts and some suggested devotions for the week, you know that our scripture for this week is Romans 8:22-31. I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Book of Romans for Christians and Christian thought. Romans was the book of the Bible that moved St. Augustine to abandon his wicked ways and turn to Christ. Romans was the book of the Bible that inspired Martin Luther to write and post his 95 theses and thus begin the Reformation. Romans was the book that gave John Wesley “a heart strangely warmed” as he read it, and led him to a deeper faith that became Methodism.” And in the 20th century, Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans revolutionized theological thinking in the reformed churches. 

In Romans, the Apostle Paul sorts out many tricky doctrines and ideas. He contrasts law and grace, human and divine, evil and righteousness, life and death, and does so in a way that captures not only the intellect but also the imagination. Paul uses many images and metaphors in this book, and this scripture is no exception.

At the beginning of chapter 8, we hear the basis of the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Through the Spirit, God has set us free, and through the Spirit, we are adopted as God’s children. The imagery of adoption and birth is carried through this chapter. As with those awaiting a birth, the entire creation waits with eager longing for this new life promised in Christ. All of creation is pregnant, as it were, groaning in labor. But the suffering of labor will prove worthwhile, because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Listen for God’s word to you now in these “pregnant words” of Romans 8:22-31:

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.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

This is a very noisy scripture. So much moaning, groaning and sighing – sounds of labor and delivery – not only creation, but we too, groaning in labor pains. The Holy Spirit groans with us, like a spiritual midwife, and we groan with creation, anxiously awaiting this new birth that God promises. That image of the Holy Spirit indwelling us is crucial to our understanding of the work of the Spirit. We learn more about that in the next verses about prayer and the Holy Spirit. The section begins with the word “likewise” – “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.”

Likewise – in the same way that we in creation groan, and that the new creation groans in us, the Spirit sighs within us and we, wordless, sigh in prayer. It’s like a Lamaze coach, this Holy Spirit – breathing with us – sighing within us, interceding for us, praying with us and in us and for us when we do not know how, when words fail us.

Sighing is a strange and interesting human phenomenon.
When you sigh, there is a lot going on – more than we imagine. 
Try it – sigh with me - take in a deep breath and let it out like a sigh. 

Most of the time when we sigh, it is a sign of frustration or negative emotion – a sigh is a sign that there is something wrong. And most people, hearing someone sigh, interpret it that way. You’ve experienced that, right? You sigh, maybe not even consciously aware of it, and someone asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Psychologists say sighing in general is a signal of an unexpressed feeling, most commonly exasperation. It could also be anger. Or depression. Or anxiety, irritation, disgust, resignation, dismay, impatience or exhaustion.”[1] But a sigh is also a reset mechanism –when we are highly stressed, the sigh, a deep release of breath, relaxes the air pockets in our lungs and gives us a sense of relief. Hence, sighing with relief. And sighing with frustration, and sighing as a sign of giving up.

There is another kind of sigh – the sigh of love and longing. The 18th century poet and musician Christian Schubart even assigned it a musical key – C minor! “All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key”[2]

Maybe they are all there, all those meanings, in the sighs of the Spirit within us. There are moments, sometimes hours and days, even weeks, in our lives, when we do not know how to pray. Not that we have lost our memories of how to say the words of a prayer. I’ve found that even in the most severe stages of illness or dementia, most people who know the Lord’s Prayer can still say it. Not knowing how to pray describes those times when we have no words.

Those are the moments when we most need to pray, and when we cannot, because our prayers are inexpressible, ineffable – longing, and love and surrender. I’ve experienced several of those moments this past week. As I watched the heartbreaking footage coming out of Baltimore, the desperation and fear and anger and violence left me speechless. We saw, too, the devastation in Nepal, entire villages flattened, loved ones lost, lives utterly destroyed. It calls for sighs, for what else can be said? It is then that the Holy Spirit, surrounding us and indwelling us, prays in us and with us and for us.

We Presbyterians are not given to great displays of spirituality. We can barely lift up our hands in worship, much less express the presence of the Holy Spirit in the ways that some of our Christian sisters and brothers do in dancing and shaking and speaking in tongues.

Still, that Spirit is with us, teaching us and guiding us pulling us in with magnetic love to promise us that all things work together for good in the great and grand scheme of God’s universe. The sighs and prayers of the Spirit draw us into the will of God, that great circle of love that encompasses our lives, that surrounds the entire cosmos.

For we know that this will of God, the purpose of God, to which we are called and in which we pray, is this encircling love of God and neighbor, the love of every part of creation, the earth and all that is in it. It is this for which we pray, when we do not have the words. It is this for which we sigh, when we do not know what to say. It is then that the Spirit prays within us, interceding for us in that great and speechless prayer of the heart of God.


[1] Smith, Lynn, “It Turns Out Sighs Matter”


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