Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 12)

Text: Romans 8:26
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 words cannot express.

When itís hard to pray

It's the early hours of the morning. Everyone else is asleep. You are wide awake and very restless. Earlier you tried to pray as you do every other night but tonight you canít focus. Normally you would thank God for the many blessings you and your family have received; for keeping you safe during the past day and ask that he watch over you and your family during the night. But tonight your thoughts are all over the place. And now you are still wide awake, still not ready to bring the day to a close. Your mind just won't switch off and let you sleep.

You have been taught to cast all your burdens on the Lord, but things have happened that day that have left you so upset and uptight that every time you think about what happened, your mind goes over the whole event again - things that were said, things that were done, and ways that you and others reacted. The longer you lie there the more upset and uptight you get and the more sleep escapes you.

You know you should pray about it but the words of your prayer get lost in a fog of mixed up feelings of sadness, anger, pity, confusion, and a replaying in your mind of events and how things could have turned out differently if only this had been done or that had been said differently. You might even be thinking through things you will say next time you meet that person. And that makes you even more upset! You want to talk to God about it, but you can't, you aren't able to get your thoughts together clearly enough to make any specific requests. And so the restlessness continues and the hours tick by.

Have you had an experience like this? If so, then you will find what Paul has to say in the second reading this morning from Romans an encouragement for you. Allow me to read to you those words of St Paul,

The Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26). When looking at the whole idea of praying to God it's good to see how Jesus prayed. Letís look at times when Jesus was in a really tough situation and how he prayed.

The first one that comes to mind of course is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew what his enemies were plotting and what was ahead of him that night and the next day. The mental, spiritual and emotional torment was incredible as he thought about the events ahead of him and prayed that somehow this terrible suffering could be avoided. Help from the human side of things seemed distant as he listened to the snoring of his disciples nearby.

There are times when we are caught up in a similar frame of mind as we consider possible events in our immediate future that are all together unpleasant to say the least. Whether itís something to do with our bodies and the pain we are enduring or about to endure; grief and confusion over events that we donít have any control over and donít understand; or anguish over why people are treating us so badly - we want it all to stop and go away.

The suffering, the humiliation, the pain, and the dying were foremost in Jesusí mind. But what did he do? He didnít pray a long complex prayer; just one sentence placing everything into his Fatherís hands. He didnít need to say more than he did because he was confident that his Father knew what was in his heart and prayed that God's will is more important than anything else. He knew that his Fatherís love was never-ending and that his Father will take charge of everything. He trusted his Father completely saying, "Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands". That wasnít an easy prayer for Jesus to pray. Likewise itís not easy for us to pray "Not my will, but your will be done". We prefer our will to be done, we prefer God to do what we think he ought to do for us.

Secondly, we want to see justice done and wickedness punished; we hate it when someone gets away with wrong-doing, especially when they have wronged us. This keeps us awake at night as we brood over the undeserved and unjust hurts inflicted by others. As Jesus hung in agony on the cross, put there so unjustly, he looked at his tormentors and us, and prayed, "Father forgive them...". If we were in a similar situation, I hardly think we would be speaking words of forgiveness.

Thirdly, it's easy to get fed up with people, and I guess Jesus must have felt this way many times. He must have been frustrated with his disciples when they just werenít able to grasp what his mission was all about. How he must have been almost driven to despair at the failure of the Jews to understand that he Kingdom of God they so longed for was amongst them and yet they refused to accept and believe. This must have been so depressing and yet Jesus could focus on the positives and pray, "I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth ..." (Luke 10.21). Itís a hard thing to praise God when everything is going wrong.

Do you see what I'm getting at? Even though Jesus was divine, he was as human as you and I. He faced the same temptations, frustrations, hurts, as we do. And he really knew how to pray. He knew what to say and what words to use in even the most awesome of situations, situations that would have left us either struck dumb with confusion not able to find the right words, or demanding something of God that would hardly fit in with the prayer, "Lord, not my will, but your will be done".

We readily confess that our prayers are too often selfish, that we want our way; that we brood over things and often are unable to pray;
that we become so emotionally screwed up that logical thoughts and prayers are out of the question.
We readily admit that we donít know what are the right things that we should be praying about. Unlike Jesus, we are short-sighted, we can't see the future, we don't really know what is best for us.
We readily confess that there are times when we ought to pray to our heavenly Father, and we donít.

The question comes down to this:
How can we, being who we are, pray prayers that are acceptable to God?
How can we who are so weak know how we ought to pray?
If it was entirely up to us, we wouldn't even pray at all. And when we do pray we don't know what we should ask for, we don't know what words to use, and we aren't able to put into words our innermost desires and feelings of love and concern.

I am a pastor, a person who spends a part of every day praying for and with people, interceding for God's people, bringing their needs before God. My daily task is talking and speaking, advising and comforting, and praying. Yet even I, no especially I, often don't know what to say, what to ask for, what words to use.

I'm sure it's been your experience too, you want to say something in prayer but there just aren't the words to express just what you want to say. You just can't find the right words to say what you want to say just at that moment.
Maybe you have prayed and afterwards thought, "That was so pathetic. My words didnít express the need, the passion, the urgency, or the gratefulness".

Imagine you have been summoned to appear before a court on some charge. You choose to plead your own case but you soon discover that you aren't able to put the situation into the right words. So you get a lawyer, a counsellor. He gets to work and arranges the arguments, suggests what words to use and puts you at ease. When the case comes up, your testimony is essential and crucial, but it is the counsellor, the lawyer who presents your case in the right words and with the right questions wins the day for you.

The Good News today is, the Spirit speaks up for us, intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, he pleads our case for us to the heavenly Father saying what we wish we could say. God's Spirit not only calls us to let God be our God in the good times and bad, in this life and the next, but he also converses with God on our behalf, saying to God those things which we wish we could say. The Spirit talks to God about us and for us with sighs which are too deep, real, and true, even for words.

The Spirit of God pleads for us before the throne of God. He knows what we are trying to say better than we know ourselves. He knows what our needs are and he presents them to our loving heavenly Father. The Spirit prays for us. He takes our petitions and feeble expressions and groans and sighs and presents them to our heavenly Father.

We don't have to find all the right words, search for the fully appropriate theological expression, being careful to say just the right thing for fear of offending a holy and just God.
We donít have to worry whether we have flowing sentences and a clear expression of ideas and thoughts.
We donít have to worry about impressing the human listeners of our prayers.
In fact, sometimes our prayers are no more than exclamations and groans. We can pray without a word being spoken. Whatever happens when we open our mouths to pray, the Holy Spirit takes the prayer prayed in faith and trust in God, and turns them into prayers acceptable to a holy and loving God.

Someone once said: Perhaps the beginning of prayer is the admission that we don't know how to pray. We need the Spiritís help when we pray. He knows what kind of things get in the way of praying according to Godís will. He knows how our sinfulness, rather than Godís will, moulds our prayers.

The Spirit prays for us in ways deep and powerful, ways we could not pray ourselves. The Spirit, who knows not only our minds but also the very mind of God, prays for us and with us that God's will may be done in our lives.

And the apostle Paul finishes with these words expressing that God's answers to our prayers are always given out of love. He says, "We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
24th July 2011

More sermons

Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
All material written by Vince Gerhardy is copyright, but permission is freely given for limited use.
Please e-mail for permission, or with questions or comments about this web site.