(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 24, 2005. The theme of this message was suggested by the folks of changingchurch.org. But they bear no blame for what I did with that suggestion.)
Today, I want to talk about growing a deep sense of the presence and love of God. I want to talk about how that can happen when we allow three things we already know to penetrate our hearts and wills.
I had just finished mowing my lawn several Sundays ago and was in the garage, sitting down to take off the shoes I wear whenever I do this chore, getting ready to go take a shower. Suddenly, I heard a car pull into the driveway and looked up to see it stop almost sideways there, a sure sign that someone was in a hurry and probably because something was wrong.
It was Donna, from our congregation. “Mark,” she said, “I tried to get you on your cell phone, but didn’t get an answer. The son of a neighbor was just killed in an accident and we can’t get in touch with the family priest. Could you come over?”
I put my shoes back on and ran into the house for my keys. I didn’t know the family and wasn’t sure what to say or do. I just kept praying, “Please, God, help this family. Help them and help me to help them, too. Please, God.” It took me two minutes to get to their place and I probably prayed that prayer, parrot-like, twenty times. I simply couldn’t think of anything else to pray!
When I arrived, I gave the mother a hug and put my hand on the shoulders of the father. I stood there a lot in silence. I prayed with them and a short time later, I left. I didn’t feel as though I’d done much. Later though, the young man’s father asked Donna on two different occasions to convey to me how much it had meant to him that I had been there.
I filed the incident in my mind as yet another example of God’s mysterious ways. In particular, to me it exemplified how God answers even inarticulate and sometimes wordless prayers when the words don’t come to us.
Further confirmation of how God answers such prayers came just this past week. As you know, our congregation has been keeping eight year old Jacob in our prayers. He was undergoing a delicate surgical procedure designed to help him have some hearing, something he’s never experienced before. His mom, Carol, wrote to me several times to thank all of you for your prayers. She said it was particularly comforting to her because all she could think to pray while Jacob was undergoing surgery was, “Please, God…Please, God.”
Carol dismissed her two-word prayers as nothing more than “a mother’s nerves.” But that’s not how God heard them! In our Bible lesson for this morning, the New Testament preacher and evangelist Paul says, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought, but…[God’s] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
When we approach the God we know through Jesus Christ with trusting faith and authentic helplessness, the helplessness of those who know they need God and cannot rely on themselves or their own resources or anything else, the Spirit turns our inarticulate craving for God into prayer.
And it’s prayer that touches the heart and the will of God because in our helpless surrender, we’ve let the Holy Spirit turn our prayer into a simple plea: “In this place, in this circumstance, Lord, Your will be done!”
In last week’s Bible lesson, Paul told us that we followers of Jesus Christ place our hope in a heavenly home that we can’t yet see. Today, he tells us that in just the same way, when we pray the kinds of desperate prayers I offered a few Sunday afternoons ago as I headed for the home of Donna’s neighbors or that Carol offered in the surgical waiting room during Jacob's operation, we trust that the Spirit Who we can’t see is nonetheless at work, making something of our seemingly pathetic prayers.
In an effort to understand some of what is going on in our world recently, I’ve been doing some reading about the Muslim religion and about their holy book, the Qu’ran. In that book, Muslims are told that the prayers offered in response to the five daily calls to prayer (adhans) are only acceptable to God if they recite the correct words with precision from the Koran and then, only if they do so in Arabic. What a contrast to the God we know through Jesus Christ! Through Jesus, we know the God Who is big enough and compassionate enough to reach down to us and hear us even when our words and our minds are jumbled. Paul reminds us today that through Jesus Christ, we know that the Spirit is making sense of our prayers even when we don’t know how to pray.
We know something else. “We know,” Paul writes in our Bible lesson, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
Peregrine Lanziosi was an Italian priest who lived from 1260 to 1345. He “developed an advanced cancer of his foot and was scheduled for an amputation. Amputations in fourteenth-century Italy were gruesome; the extremity would be sawed or cut off with a dull instrument while one was awake. Peregrine…is said to have prayed before sleep for a healing to come to him in the night. He had a vision that he was cured. When he awoke the cancer was gone, surgery was canceled, and he spent the rest of his life ministering to people afflicted with cancer. He was canonized [by the Roman Catholic Church] in 1726 and is known as the patron saint of cancer patients.” Apparently, the surrendered believer in Jesus doesn’t even have to be awake for the Spirit to search our hearts and sue for God’s good to be done. God took Saint Peregrine’s anxious presentation of himself to God and turned it into a prayer that God would use him to serve other victims of cancer. I’ve meet more than a few modern-day saints who, in remission from this disease I hate so passionately, have taken on their own ministries of service and compassion to other cancer victims!.
God doesn’t cause the rotten things that befall us in this sin-tinged, death-infested world. But we believe that through the prayers and efforts of followers of Jesus who are turned prayerfully to Him, God can take even bad things and use them for good.
Last December 26, a massive tsunami hit much of this planet. Most of its victims were Muslims and Hindus. More than 160,000 people died or went missing and more than 500,000 homes were destroyed. The estimated cost of rebuilding that housing stock is $5-billion. As Pastor Paul Gauche writes, God surely didn’t cause this tragedy. But God has stirred the hearts of Christians and others around the world to respond compassionately to it. In the case of Christians, they're helping others in the Name of Jesus Christ, because of the prompting of God's Spirit.
And so we know that even in a world sometimes gone crazy, the Holy Spirit makes sense of our prayers and that God is bringing good out of even the worst of circumstances.
We know something else, too. Paul puts it this way: “If God is for us, who is against us? He Who did not withhold His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not with Him also give us everything else?” The God Who came into our worlds in the Person of Jesus Christ and sacrificed Himself on a cross isn’t going to be skimpy about sharing His love and His presence with us.
A man was sent to me once for counseling. He was wracked by guilt. He had done a number of things in his life that he genuinely regretted. But he found it impossible to believe that God could forgive Him. After a frustrating hour spent showing this man one Bible passage after another revealing God’s willingness and desire to forgive and have a relationship with those who turn from sin and turn to Christ, I was about to give up on trying to help him.
Partly in frustration, I told him, “Your problem is that you believe more in your sin than you do in Christ.” “What do you mean?” he asked me. “I’m saying that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection are all the evidence you could possibly need that God is for you and wants what’s best for you and is willing to take the rap for you on your sins. But you think that your sins are too big for Him to handle or swallow up or throw away forever. If you believe in your sins more than you do in Christ, you will never feel forgiven.” Warming to my subject, I told him, “It boils down to this. You have got to get over yourself and let Christ love you.”
I’d like to report that that guy had a miraculous and immediate experience of forgiveness. The fact is I only met him once and at best, I had only given him food for thought. But believe this: No matter what your sins or your hardships in life, God is for you and nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever change that.
God is for you. In telling you that, folks, we are at the very core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians. We are, according to the great Reformed Biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias, looking at the central message of the New Testament and I would add, of the whole Bible. Through Jesus Christ, you can know of a certainty that God is for you and for every human being who has ever sinned, everyone who has ever confronted pain or suffering, any human being who has ever drawn a breath. And there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever or will ever alter that simple fact! Jesus' cross and empty tomb stand as testament to it. God, if I can say it again, is for you! God will move heaven and earth to make the eternal life of those who dare to surrender to Christ and allow Him to love them to turn out right.
So, this morning, I challenge you to grow deep in the love and in the presence of God in your life. That begins to happen when we allow ourselves to realize three truths:
- the Spirit can make something of our prayers even when don’t know how to pray;
- God can make good things come from even the worst of circumstances; and
- absolutely nothing can ever separate the believer in Jesus Christ from God’s love or care.
[My intent is to post some notes on the phenomenal passage on which this passage is based, later.]