Little Pentecosts

Sermon on Romans 8:22-27 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Pentecost, 2012.

The clock on the mantle has just struck eleven.  Elaine sits in her chair, still wearing her rumpled black dress, staring vacantly at the television as it flickers silently.  Normally she would have gone to bed hours earlier, but tonight she can’t bear to pull herself from her chair.  She can’t bear to face the emptiness of the bedroom she shared with Harold for forty-seven years.  Knowing that it had been a trying day of wake and funeral and internment, her son had offered to stay with her this evening, to keep her company.  But like so many women of her generation, she said, “I’m really fine” and sent him home.  She wasn’t fine.  The truth was he looked too much like his father; it was just too painful to see Harold’s face right now.  After a long time, Elaine rises and gingerly wanders to her empty bedroom.  She stands on the threshold for what seems like hours, afraid to find out what it feels like to be truly alone.  Eventually she walks to the closet, slowly changes from her dress to her nightgown, and carefully lies down in the spot where she had slept for so many years.  In some ways, nothing has changed.  Harold’s shaving kit is still arranged just so on his dresser, his dry-cleaning still hangs on the doorknob of the closet, and scent of his cologne even lingers in the air.  Elaine almost expects to hear Harold snoring next to her.  But as she reaches out her hand and grasps only the bedspread, she begins to weep, her sobs filling the empty house.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

It should have been a good day, Darrell thinks to himself as he drives home.  He had arrived at work early, anxious to finish a project that had been on his desk for several weeks.  His manager had already complimented him on his efficiency and his attention to detail; Darrell hoped that the finished product would seal his reputation as someone with significant potential.  It was Thursday, which meant that Darrell could look forward to an evening with his college buddies, all of whom have a similar affinity for karaoke.  But now as he drives home, the words of the late-afternoon phone call from his doctor resonate in his ears.  Words like “stage three,” “chemo,” “radiation,” “surgery,” and “cancer,” the scariest of all, distract him as he navigates the traffic on the interstate.  “Take some time to tell your loved ones,” the doctor had said, forcing Darrell to wonder who that might be.  His parents had died a decade ago, he hadn’t spoken to his sister in years, and his college friends avoided discussions of anything more serious than the NFL draft.  Darrell pulls into the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lives and directs his aging Ford Escort into its assigned space.  Turning the key, he removes his cell phone from his jacket pocket and leans back with a sigh.  As he stares at his phone, tears begin streaming down Darrell’s face.  He has cancer and has no one to call.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

There are moments in our lives when words simply cannot express the depth of our experience.  These moments are when we feel desperately lonely like Elaine or when we come face to face with our mortality like Darrell.  These times in our life rob us of our ability to use words, our ability to make sense of the world.  These moments of profound sorrow force us into a place where we are at a loss, where our lives seem like they will never be normal again, where the meaning and purpose of life seem to have changed forever.  It is in these moments, however, these deep and wordless moments, that we are most alive to the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is in these moments that Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.

It is amazing to me that Paul was able to describe the Holy Spirit in this way.  After all, most of the New Testament is taken up by words written by Paul or attributed to Paul; the fact that he could even acknowledge that there are these wordless moments in our lives is nothing short of miraculous.  Moreover, Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is entirely different than what we’re accustomed to, especially on days like Pentecost.  In our reading from Acts this morning, we have the image of the Holy Spirit being poured down upon us once and for all time, like a deluge from heaven.  In Acts, the Holy Spirit is the power given to us to proclaim the gospel.  In our reading from the John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is depicted as the Advocate or the Paraclete (from the Greek for “call alongside”).  For John, the Holy Spirit is a helper that we call to our side when we feel threatened, or when we particularly feel the need for God’s assistance.  But for Paul, the Holy Spirit is the sign that God is with us in our most painful and our most joyful moments, those times that we cannot begin to describe the depth of our feelings, when we cannot begin to express the depth of our need for God.

You might have noticed that the translation I have been using is slightly different that what you might be accustomed to.  Even though the word is “groans,” the NRSV, perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit groaning, changes the word to “sighs.”  But it’s enormously important for us to understand that the Spirit groans with us.  When we are at our weakest and most desperate, the Holy Spirit does not translate our sorrow or our joy into something that is more palatable to God.  The Holy Spirit dwells with us and groans with us and within us; God through the Holy Spirit knows us especially in our most intimate and painful moments.  Those wordless moments in our lives become “little Pentecosts,” small moments of assurance that even in our darkest hours, God will be present with us.  Even in those moments when we cannot articulate our sorrow or our joy, God hears our prayers, even when we can only groan.

The 37-seat plane begins its descent toward the small regional airport.  Alan peers out the window and wonders what he will say to his wife when he steps off the plane.  It had been a long year.  Not only had he been serving on the front lines in a faraway country, often unable to communicate with his friends and family, leaving them to wonder constantly about his safety, he also had a daughter who had been born while he was away.  For months, he had thought about the moment when his family would be reunited, but in these final minutes, he wonders what he is going to say to his wife and newborn child.  How could words possibly express how much he missed them, how much he worried about them, how much he loves them, how much it means that he is finally coming home?  As the plane lands with a shudder, Alan draws his pack towards him, aching for his wife’s embrace, longing to kiss his baby girl, and hoping that he can say what needs to be said when he sees them.  He strides up the long jetway, only half-acknowledging the smiles he gets from his fellow passengers.  As he approaches baggage claim, he can see his wife standing by a stroller, and he breaks into a run.  Feeling his face burn with hot tears, Alan picks up his daughter and holds his wife in his arms, his embrace and his tears expressing all the fear and worry and meaning and love that words cannot express.  In the midst of baggage claim they stand, oblivious to the clamor for suitcases around them, embracing each other with an all-encompassing love and inexpressible joy.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

The early morning light filters through the bedroom window.  Though it is only a few minutes past five o’clock, Jane is wide-awake.  As her husband snores quietly, she pulls herself up, propping her head against a pillow.  Images from the past year and a half race through her mind.  The doctor’s appointment she scheduled to ask about some persistent back pain.  Her physician’s face as he advised her to see an oncologist.  The oncologist uttering the words “multiple myeloma” and “no cure.”  Her husband’s tear-stained face as he told their daughters that they were going to fight.  The seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.  The horrific side-effects that left her sick and exhausted.  Her doctor’s tentative hopefulness as he described an experimental stem-cell transplant.  And the shock of hearing that her white blood cell count was normal at her latest check-up.  The realization that she was, against all odds, cancer-free.  Jane looks around the familiar furnishings of her bedroom with new eyes, dazzled by the pattern on the bedspread and the play of the morning light on her mirror.  She feels like someone who has come back from the dead, someone who finally understands the enormous gift that life is.  Jane looks toward heaven, searching for words that might begin to express her joy, her gratefulness, and her fear of the unknown, and she begins to cry, her tears expressing that which words cannot express.

“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

4 thoughts on “Little Pentecosts

  1. I remember the first time I read this verse, and I’ve been comforted ever since by the knowledge that God, Himself, intercedes for me when I lack the words to express my sorrow. But I never thought about this verse with regard to those moments of inexpressible joy. And suddenly it dawns on me that Jehovah Jireh, my Provider provides for all my needs–even the need for words!
    Reading this makes me so glad that you blog. You’re a very talented writer. And your special talent lies in the ability to make the deep mysteries of God accessible.

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