“Perfect Prayer: Help in Weakness” – Romans 8:18-27
Rev. Michael J. Zehnder
July 22/23, 2023 Ascension Lutheran Church, Littleton, CO
Grace, mercy and peace…
I’m continuing with the topic of prayer that was started weeks ago by Pastor Larson. He’s been focusing on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and when he asked me to sub for him last week and this week due to a youth mission trip he was attending I noticed that the assigned Epistle lessons for both weeks deal with a different aspect of prayer which provided me a way to give some continuity during his series on the Lord’s Prayer. Last week’s Epistle said we can come to God as dear little children who can call him Abba, or what could just as well be translated as “Da, da, da.” That expresses both familiarity and intimacy. This week our Epistle from Roman 8 says not to worry even when we don’t know what to pray because the Spirit helps us in our weakness and groans up wordless petitions to the Father that are just the right things we need, expressed in just the right way.
Illustration: Early in my career as a pastor I went to see and pray with a parishioner in the hospital who for some unknown reason to me didn’t like me very much which she made clear the very first day I arrived. When I got to the hospital to visit and pray with her she was just coming out of anesthesia. As I entered her room there were some far off church bells sounding in the distance and she was murmuring, “I must be in heaven.” Then she saw me. “No, I can’t be,” she said. “There’s Pastor Zehnder.”
It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t like you and doesn’t trust you for reasons you don’t understand. It’s also frustrating when things are going wrong in your life and you know things need to change but you just don’t even know what or how to ask God to help you with the situation. There’s a certain dissatisfaction about life that exists. Our text says that “all creation was subjected to frustration not by its own choice, but by the will of one who subjected it” and that all creation “is in bondage to decay.”
Scientists, without giving glory to God or credit for having anything to do with anything, call this decay principle the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What that means is that nothing on this earth improves over time, rather that everything, over time, decays, falls apart, gets worse. If you put an old rusty car in the desert, it’s not going to become new over time, it will continue to rust and fall apart. Years ago, I was privileged to visit the extraordinary ancient village in Peru called Machu Picchu. Originally, it was a marvel of engineering in its housing, storage and water transport and they had even figured out how to make sound travel through its stone walls so that you could hear a person speaking from one end of the city to the other. The city was built for Incan emperors in the 1400’s but abandoned for reasons unknown and not rediscovered until the 1900’s. In the meantime…it had fallen apart and decayed…it was completely overtaken by the jungle around it over time. No one even knew it existed until it was discovered and painstakingly restored 500 years later.
Everything in life decays and gets worse over time which is the opposite of certain scientific theories. The truth is, things don’t get better and more complex. Things break and fall apart. When we are born we may look brand new, but the seeds of death and decay are already in us and over time our bodies just fall apart little by little. Even babies get colds and various childhood diseases and sometimes even maladies like alopecia or cancer. The same is true for all created things. Because of Adam’s sin, all creation also came under God’s judgment. Nothing in creation has since been able to fulfill its God-given purposes. This is the result of sin that entered our world at the beginning of Creation with Adam and Eve. God said, “if you eat of this fruit you will surely die” and so death and decay entered into our world at that time and that’s the way it keeps going year after year, century after century. Creatio,n as well as mankind, is now trapped in an endless cycle of deterioration leading to death. But on the Last Day, God recreates us – verse 21, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” There awaits a new heaven and a new earth and the old order of things will disappear with a roar and with fire. The good news is that God will give us new bodies and a new order of creation that will never decay. The resurrection of Jesus after dying for our sin is the promise not only of sins forgiven but a new order of things where there is no longer a Second Law of Thermodynamics, no longer decay or bondage to decay and sin. Not only we, but creation itself, will experience a complete liberation from the effects and decay of sin.
Until then, however, we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:22,23) Why do we groan inwardly? Because we know this is not our final destiny nor the perfect plan God has for us as the hymn states, “I’m but a stranger here; heaven is my home…earth is a desert drear, heaven is my home. Danger and sorrow stand round me on ev’ry hand. Heav’n is my fatherland, heaven is my home” (TLH 660). It’s been said that all people have a God shaped vacuum in their heart and we can try to satisfy it with every pleasure on earth but it will never be satisfied until God fills it. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You O Lord.” To think of oneself as perfectly wise, satisfied and content is a sign of self-deception. Every person should long for development. Christians rightly groan inwardly as we long to be more complete in Christ and to living in His presence.
We long for a solution to our many griefs and problems on earth. We have deep needs that can only be fulfilled in Christ. Life is a constant wrestling match within our hearts over the fact that we were made for God and nothing else will satisfy. When we cease to desire to progress we move away from Christ and fall back on our own resources. Dissatisfaction with the way things are going in our lives can be a good thing because it causes us to look to Christ for solutions and help.
Like the little girl on a family retreat who wrote down a final prayer and left it in her cabin, “Dear God, I have had a beautiful time here. The hills were so beautiful and the lakes were so beautiful. But I was getting bored because there was no one to play with hardly. But you know best. Amen. Ha.
Or like the married couple who had been together 25 years in what seemed like an outwardly good union. They went to church every Sunday and prayed together every night. But they had one seemingly insurmountable problem. They couldn’t seem to have a conversation that didn’t end up in an argument. Finally, the wife decided she’d had enough but because of her religious scruples, divorce was out of the question. So, one night as the couple settled down for their nightly prayers she said to her husband, “We must put an end to this terrible bickering. We can’t go on like this anymore. Let’s pray that things will change. Maybe let’s pray that soon the Lord will call one of us home to Himself. Then I can go and live with my sister!”
When we are dissatisfied, Paul urged people to find fulfillment of their needs, expectations and desires through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When we feel discouraged, the Spirit is able to encourage us with all the encouragements in Christ. (Phil. 2:1-2). And our Romans passage says that even when we pray, “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 (mere) words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).
I don’t know if you noticed this, but there are 3 types of groaning going on in our Romans 8 text; (1) Creation groans because of its bondage to decay, (2) Christians groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption as sons and daughters resulting in the complete redemption of our bodies. We hope for what we cannot yet see that has been promised to us by Jesus when he took away our sins on the cross and promised that one day he would take us home to live with him in perfection and glory where there is no sin and no results of sin. This is the tension is between the already and the not yet. We have the firstfruits of the Spirit but we long for perfection to take over in both mind and body (3) The Holy Spirit groans. Scripture says He intercedes for us with groans that mere words cannot express. This is not glossolalia or what is sometimes called “speaking in tongues.” It is no language at all. The Holy Spirit praying through our spirit.
When I was serving full-time as a pastor often a person would come up to me and say, “Pastor, I was talking after the service today to so-and-so and she really needs someone to pray for her.” Depending on the spiritual maturity of the person, I sometimes said, “I’m happy to pray for her, but why don’t you? God listens to all His children.” Sometimes I’d get a wink and off they’d go to pray. But often, I’d get a response like “God is more likely to answer your prayers.” I want to encourage all of you that this just is not true but I know we often use rote prayers or prayers we learned in childhood as a substitute for a heartfelt conversation with God. The disciples also felt their inadequacy in praying and asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. In this lesson from Romans Paul faces up to the same issue. He assures us that we can allow and depend on the Holy Spirit to do our praying. Why let God the Spirit do our praying? Because He alone knows how best to pray, because He wants to help us in our need and come to him as Abba, Father, and because He knows the will of God.
We don’t always know God’s will in prayer which is why He taught us to pray “Thy Will be Done.” This verse 26 is an assurance that when we pray, the Spirit intercedes through our spirits so that we DO send up perfect prayers of “Thy Will be Done.” In our minds we don’t always know what or how to pray. Sometimes when I pray without a clear path ahead, I just admit that to Jesus. I will pray, “I don’t even know what to pray about this or about this situation. I don’t know what is best, but Lord, you do, so please HELP in whatever way is best.” “Lord, please help” is a legitimate prayer!
Saying you don’t know what to pray but that you’re trusting in God to pray for you is a completely valid prayer. Sometimes, especially when I’m praying out loud FOR or WITH other people I might end my prayer something like this: “Lord, I don’t know if I’ve left something out important that I should have asked, or if I asked for something that’s not in your will and if so, please fix this prayer. Send the things we (or this person) needs and minister to us through the groanings of your Holy Spirit so that your will might be done and your Kingdom might come.” That’s no cop out. That’s a perfectly legitimate prayer to admit you don’t know what is best so you’re leaving it up to God to ask it right. Sometime the Spirit will lead you to ask the perfect things in a situation and you have clarity of mind by God’s Spirit. Other times he leads you not in your mind but in your spirit. And you can rest in that because verse 27 says, “the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” For me, that’s a hallelujah, to think that every time I pray the Spirit is correcting it or perfecting it or completing it and sending it up with a “Thy Will Be Done.” Rest in that dear friends! You have God’s Spirit ALWAYS helping you when you pray. Amen.
And now may the peace which passes all understanding …