THE TRAIL SO FAR
Our text this morning is from the eighth chapter of Romans, so if you’ve got Bibles go ahead and turn there.
This weekend we’ve been doing some reflecting on what prayer is.
We started a couple of nights ago by thinking reflecting on our need for prayer.
Our need to connect with Something (or Someone)
that will lead us into true Life and put our lives together.
We thought about how prayer is an elemental human impulse—
we all feel an impulse to extend ourselves towards something bigger than ourselves.
But prayer frustrates us too.
None of us feel like we’re doing it well.
And so what a relief it is that Jesus prays.
Jesus’ prayers of groaning in the garden of Gethsemane
were for the rescue and healing of the world.
And he has. not. stopped.
Jesus has been and will continue and is presently praying for us.
The crackling power of prayer is being spoken over us and for us by God himself.
All our prayers are just us responses to his.
The Heart of Universe is already working and speaking and pumping love to us.
All our prayers are just us learning to dilate.
Us learning to let this love in.
And us learning to respond to this love.
And then last night we briefly reflected on The Lord’s Prayer.
We learn from Jesus to speak simply and directly to God,
and recognize the incredible gift he has given us—
a pattern of prayer that we can basically begin to breathe.
We’re invited to breathe in the reality that Jesus is Lord (confessing that we’re not),
and we’re invited to exhale our real needs and trust a Father who already knows them.
That’s the priority of all prayer—hailing God as king.
That’s the ultimate fruit of prayer—gratitude that God is caring for us.
And now, this morning, I’d like for us to just briefly meditate on a passage.
This passage comes near the middle of an absolute masterpiece of a letter written two thousand years ago… and we can barely scratch its surface in twenty minutes. But I think this passage may serves as a great reminder of what we’ve been thinking the last two days. And I think it may help give us a glimpse a little bit more about the meaning of prayer… and the meaning of life.
Let’s read it:
(8:18) I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom 8:18-30)
One of the world’s leading biblical scholars (N.T. Wright) describes this passages as a scenic view. You know, the kind of spot that requires a bit of work to get to—blazing through some underbrush and ducking a few tree limbs—but once you’re there, you can see for miles and miles with breathtaking clarity.
The world just opens up before you.
A passage like this can be just absolutely overwhelming.
But I think we catch its general shape if we just listen carefully.
Our plan this morning is to just take a handful of minutes to do just that—to listen carefully to this passage. And then we’re have just a quick reflection on what this means for us as we learn to pray.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
Let’s try to blaze through some of the underbrush, and see the view.
Although there is indeed suffering right now (v18), Paul says God’s plans for humanity and the universe are so good that you can’t even compare the two. Like someone who gets a paper cut while opening an envelope only to realize that they’ve got their pardon from death row—our present suffering just can’t keep up with the good that is coming.
But there definitely is something wrong with creation right now because
nature itself is “groaning” like a woman in labor (v22),
and is waiting “in eager expectation” (v19)
to be “liberated” and experience a “freedom” and “glory” it was made for (v21).
In other words, we look around at the natural world and it’s good,
but it’s not what it was made to be—not yet anyway.
And then we hear that something is wrong with us too.
We ourselves are part of this broken world
but we’ve heard the story of the God who rescues us
and we’ve begun to breathe in the Spirit of God.
What we’re breathing in right now isn’t much—
it’s like a fresh breeze from a cracked window,
like delicious first fruits that just make you ache for the full harvest (v23).
The “full harvest” of course including the literal, physical resurrection
of our actual bodies from the dead (v23).
This is where our hope lies.
It’s not here yet. We can’t see it.
We can’t definitively prove it.
But it’s our real hope that we’re waiting for patiently. (v24-25)
And while we’re waiting, God’s very own Spirit is helping us.
Because “we do not know what we ought to pray for” (v26)
and all of us are powerless, helpless and weak.
If you feel like that, be encouraged. Really.
It’s because you are.
And God is helping—praying and (get this!) groaning
with us and for us and through us.
And there is absolutely nothing that can derail God’s beautiful plans
for the world and for those who love him (v28).
Since the beginning of time, (v29-30) God has known and planned that through Jesus,
he would create a giant family—a giant predestined and called and justified and glorified family.
If we read carefully, I think we can hear most of that. We might not understand all of it—but the general contours are there.
The world is broken and groaning and waiting, and we are too, and
God is helping us in our weakness—teaching us to pray and teaching us to hope—
and nothing can stop him from accomplishing what he’s always planned on doing:
completely restoring the world and inviting everyone to be a part of it.
What’s coming for us—where history is actually, literally headed—is so good that all suffering just can’t even compare. Like stars in a sunlit sky.
That’s the general shape of this passage, and it certainly is a breath-taking view.
And prayer—God praying and us praying—sits right in in the middle of the landscape.
But what is this telling us about prayer?
And what does this mean for us as we’re headed out of the mountains
and back into the daily routines of our lives?
GROANING IN OUR GARDENS
To answer that, I think we need to zoom way way out and remind ourselves
why we exist—why humanity was created in the first place.
In the opening words of Scripture, we’re told
(1:27f) So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Just verses after this the story will describe that God created the first man “and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (2:15).
We were made to help God take care of creation.
To care for the garden for we’re placed in.
We’re an absolutely unique part of creation that gets to share in the responsibilities of God by steering and shaping and caring for creation.
We catch glimpses of this in our own lives.
We’re like God—made in his image.
We see chaos in creation around us and we love—we LOVE—to order it.
I don’t know what it looks like for you,
but I can guarantee that a five minute conversation would reveal how you love
to do wood-working
or teach children
or perform music
or organize information
or repair cars
or help people heal.
My brother-in-law is an engineer for the city of Denver, and he designs and oversees the construction of some of the city’s water drainage systems. And he finds it deeply satisfying (he finds it deeply human) to step back and say: “I have ordered the chaos of Denver’s water.”
A desire to help God carry creation forward is built into our bones.
One of the early psalms actually reflects this too:
(8:3f) When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
So if we’re meant to be stewards of creation—meant to be ordering it and taking care of it—it’s no wonder verses 19-21 say what they do.
Did you notice what creation is waiting and groaning for?
It doesn’t say that creation is waiting on God.
Creation is waiting on us.
According to Paul,
when God finally reveals what we are going to be
when that day we’re all groaning for finally arrives—
all of creation is going to be set free.
Creation will eventually be healed
because those charged with caring for it will finally be healed.
But that decisive day of healing isn’t here yet
for the natural world,
for our political or economic systems,
for our relationships or
for our inner lives,
but God’s Spirit is helping us begin to smell and taste and imagine it.
And this is where prayer finds its place.
We’re all like the first man in Genesis, we’re all placed in gardens.
All situated in particular contexts and jobs and families.
We’re all called to partner in the work of God wherever we are.
But all of our gardens seem cursed.
Nothing works. So much is broken.
It all seems subjected to futility.
And so we’re all called to become like the God-man in Gethsemane.
We’re not called to avoid suffering, not called to be pain-free.
We’re actually called to be like Jesus—groaning in our gardens in prayer.
And trusting that there is real hope and final healing coming one day.
The places of pain in our world is where we’re called to pray.
The place we’re called to breathe. The place we’re called to hope.
We are the place, we are people,
learning to anticipate and proclaim that final healing
will one day come to the world—
to pray again and again
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy will be done—
in our marriages and marketplaces,
our families and finances,
our bodies and hobbies,
our big decisions and secret moments
in whatever garden we’ve been placed…
…as in heaven.
Where have you been placed?
What are the gardens you live in?
Who are the people there?
What are the areas that just feel like futility?
Do you realize that God is already praying and groaning and working redemption in all our cursed gardens?
He’s joined us in our praying. He’s joined us in our groaning.
And we’re called to join him in working redemption.
C.S. Lewis points out that as we learn to pray “thy will be done,”
”[we] must be an agent as well as a patient.”
It’s the height of hypocrisy—really the height of stupidity—to pray for God’s will but never embody that prayer with our lives.
Our task remains what it has always been.
We’re called to join God in steering and shaping and caring for creation.
And one day creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay
and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Nothing. Can. Stop. This.
All things are working towards it.
Have courage, my brothers and sisters.
Jesus is praying that you would not be afraid.
So as we leave the mountains and back into our gardens,
may we learn to breathe the air of God’s healing now,
may we be heralds of hope wherever we find thorns and thistles and pain—
may we learn to pray.
I leave you with the words of Richard Foster: “For now, do not worry about ‘proper’ praying, just talk to God. Share your hurts, share your sorrows, share your joys—freely and openly. God listens in compassion and love, just like we do when our children come to us. He delights in our presence. When we do this, we will discover something of inestimable value. We will discover that by praying we learn to pray.”