8th Sunday after Pentecost “Holy Spirit, Our Intercessor”
July 23, 2023 Romans 8:18-27
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
In Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he instructs them & encourages them in how God has brought them into the larger story of His kingdom. In the last couple of weeks, we have reviewed what Paul taught about God-The-Son = our Deliverer, who rescues us from
our sin. And last week we talked about how God-Our-Father reclaims us as His children, like the father did with his prodigal son. Today Paul tells us that God-The-Holy-Spirit is given to us to help us in this life of faith & in the hope of the future.
In Psalm 139, the psalmist asks God: “Where shall I go from your Spirit?” He ponders: if he goes out to the farthest reaches of creation, God’s Spirit is there. If he goes into the place beyond the earthly realm, called Sheol, God’s Spirit is there. For the unbeliever, it means they can’t hide from God; and for the believer, it means you won’t be lost. God’s Spirit will always guide us, and hold us secure.
That Psalm reminds us of Genesis, when the Spirit of God is present, hovering over the face of the waters, as time begins with light & life, & creation takes shape. That’s the Spirit’s ‘macro’ work. That Psalm also reminds us that we were each knit together in the hidden darkness of our mother’s wombs, and God’s Spirit was there in His ‘micro’ work.
When Jesus’ visible time on earth was complete, the Spirit of God came on Pentecost Day to clothe those disciples with ‘power from on high’, so that with courage they could speak the gospel in many languages, and souls would be brought to life in the Savior Jesus. It is for OUR special comfort that, no matter where we are, the powerful-but-gentle Spirit of God will be with us, and keeps us with Jesus for that day of redemption.
Today, to illustrate the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we go to a hallway in Florence, Italy, in the Galleria dell’Accademia. This hallway is part of a museum, where there are four large blocks of marble. It looks like the sculptor began but then stopped working & left them unfinished; rough & unpolished. Emerging from these blocks of stone are the clear beginnings of human figures; some have no faces; others are missing arms, hands, or feet.
Michelangelo was the artist; he titled them slaves, or prisoners, who could never escape the stone. So these statues are frozen at an in-between time. Not just a rough block of marble; & not yet a beautiful figure. Some poets have called this ‘an awkward moment.’ What was is leaving, but not yet gone; what will be is coming, but not fully here. The lovely future is taking shape, and yet the painful past is still there; these humans are locked in the stone, in between.
In Romans 8, Paul invites us into a hallway like this to see our ‘awkward moment.’
He asks us to see how we are caught in the middle of the present rough troubles of our ’old nature’, which God is chipping away. At the same time, we have a glimpse of God’s greater work of being a finished eternal sculpture. Paul begins by saying, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”. Both suffering & glory is present today as we are being worked on by the Spirit of God.
Like rough hewn stone, our present world grips us with rough suffering. In the beginning, God had formed a perfect, beautiful creation. Everything reflected only His goodness, working together without trouble; especially Adam & Eve. But they were tempted to be suspicious & doubt their Creator; they disobeyed God & brought in God’s curse & suffering. God said: “The day you eat of it, (that is, the day you disobey me & my laws for life) you shall die.”
And when they did, the free & holy beauty of creation was now ruined; and we became subjected to the stone-cold bondage of sin.
Divine punishment was set in stone under His Holy Law; and no one but God could free us, and bring about a new creation. This is the glory that Paul has seen in the Son of God; who is the beginning of that new creation, by His cross. Like the ‘firstfruits,’ which foretell a future harvest, The Risen Jesus is the promise of a new & glorious life. God’s promise was unfolded in Jesus’ arrival & cross & empty tomb & ascension. Now even you & I are being chipped out of our old forms, and soon the full glory of God will bring the redemption of our bodies. Even now, the Spirit of God is sculpting us in this promise of glory.
So Paul writes to the Believers in Roman to help them stand firm in this sometimes painful in-between time. This Word is for US, too. In Christ, God has made a promise of Baptismal grace, and you have been adopted to be a child of God. Jesus’ death has destroyed the power of sin over you. With the promised washing in His name, you have received that new birth of His Spirit, as the first-fruits of the future harvest & heavenly life.
When we look at each other, Paul says, we see people who have that future hope but who are burdened. At times, we are hounded by sin & suffering; sometimes groaning because God’s promise is not yet fulfilled. The world thinks this makes us ‘hypocrites’; but we are God’s people in the ‘awkward moment’ between the sufferings of this present world, and the glory yet to be revealed. In this place, in this faith, God tells us to be patient as He is moving us to trust in the finishing work of the Holy Spirit == both for ourselves and for His Church.
One thing that’s often on our minds among the sufferings we face, is the increasing troubles & stresses of being a faithful Biblical Christian in America. Christianity used to be a strong cultural force in our nation. The Bible was used in school to teach kids how to read; prayer was said in public schools, especially at graduation time. A nativity scene on main street was normal, not controversial. Parades used to be fore family fun & city celebration, not for ‘gay pride’ & sexual perversion. That connection between honoring God in our nation’s founding and the American culture is largely torn apart; & in many settings, prevented by law.
So, it’s easy to fret & fear when we see those good Christian values & Bible morals pushed further & further away from public use. We worry when honesty, kindness, morality & family are labeled as just ‘religious’ & optional. Hard work & responsibility are mocked as out-of-date or even ‘racist’. We worry when new laws force us to accept, tolerate, or pay-for those things God condemns as sinful & immoral. It looks like we, & the Church, are losing strength & influence. Again, the Spirit reminds us of having patience in our greater hope.
Unfortunately, some Christians will confuse the power of God with the powers of this world. They think that the strength of God & His Church are directly related to the strength of America as a Christian nation == which is very short-sighted, since God’s people have been around forever, and America is only a nation of a couple hundred years. But, as American culture turns against Biblical Christianity, we do wonder about the love & blessing of God.
How can we be God’s people in a non-Christian nation? Paul understood that situation, and he offers hope.
In Rome, Christianity was not a legally recognized religion. You would think that it
was no problem that Christians wanted to worship their One God in a city that had many gods. But they suffered because they confessed ‘Jesus as the only Lord’ in a nation where Caesar was also a ‘Lord.’
Also, at that time, Rome’s view was that Christians were worshiping a person who had been associated with resistance against the gov’t; and that ‘Jew from Nazareth’ was condemned & crucified for His crimes; that would make His followers ‘criminal.’
So, we sometimes forget that our suffering-Savior rules over a suffering-people. If the world hated Him, it will also hate those who follow Him. Back then, they were quietly meeting in small homes rather than in public & open churches. The congregations were made up of the poor & the slaves rather than the popular or powerful. Not long after Paul’s letter, they would experience severe persecution; prison & death. They had to hold worship services down in the dark caves & catacombs, in the place of the dead.
Psalm 139 said: “If I make my bed in Sheol,” in the place of the dead, “You are there.” When holding on to the faith brings persecution, and pushes us out of the public light & into the dark, God’s Spirit has promised to be there. That’s Paul’s message. The Spirit of God is there, even in the darkest places; in the valley of the shadow of death. When we open our ears to the word thru the Prophets & Apostles, the Spirit of God speaks, and we are comforted.
The believers in Rome needed to hear this message: that the Spirit of God cries out on behalf of God’s people. The world is groaning as it awaits the end-day, when God reveals all His sons – all His children, & the new creation. God’s people are groaning as they are still stuck and not free from this stony world. But God’s people are never abandoned:
Paul writes, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
There are times when we are at a loss for words. What are the right words when you go to a child’s funeral? What do you say when the doctor uses the word ‘cancer?’ How do you respond when an earthquake strikes, or a tornado, or a terrorist attacks, an airplane falls out of the sky? Sometimes our language is not enough; so Paul tells us to take heart: It is the job of the HSP to see our suffering, and intercede for us according to the will of God = which looks to the greater future.
You may have read about how Michelangelo approached the carving of stone. He thought his job was not to shape a stone into a figure, but to set the figure in it – free. So, these 4 pieces in that museum illustrate the way he thought, as he chipped away the old stone from the body inside. This is also the work of the Spirit on us. Thru each day, each suffering, each worship Sunday, Bible study & prayer, the Spirit chips away the old and renews our hope in what is to come.
The Holy Spirit can see us as the new creation in Christ still encased in this old creation; and in small =& sometimes painful ways= the Spirit is forming us into the children of God fit for heaven. It’s hard for us to see that greater plan of God, but the Spirit helps us in our weakness to trust Him that the great day is coming for all who are Baptized in -& belong to- Jesus Christ.
Back in that hallway of the Galleria dell’Accademia, a person walks past those rough & unfinished sculptures; and then, at the end of the hallway, stands before that incredible piece of finished work: Michelangelo’s David. This figure is not a prisoner struggling in old stone, but a finished work to show the freedom & glory of a ‘man of God.’
We can marvel at the skill of a sculptor, but that glory cannot compare to the glory of David’s son & David’s Lord. Jesus Christ is the Bringer of the new creation, and the Spirit of God is the ultimate Sculptor of the sons of God = the children of faith that inherit the kingdom.
In Christ, God the Father will bring all things to completion, just as He promises. Even for Paul that future is hard to see; but by God’s Word he knows it’s there, and so he offers us the Spirit’s word of hope.
Christianity may be losing cultural power in America, but it can never lose its true spiritual force. God is alive & well in His Church = that is, in & thru His faithful & steadfast people. He still rules over all creation. He sees your life, He knows your suffering, and He has sent His Spirit to strengthen you in patience with your hope in Christ.