“The Groaning Spirit”
May 31, 2009 - Pentecost Sunday
Wearing red for Pentecost reminds me of my congregation in Nebraska where I first learned this liturgical ritual. There, of course, folks used any excuse possible to wear the color of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for us here in Duckland, though green is in the liturgical calendar, yellow is not. And I’m not quite sure what a celebration of “Ordinary Time” (the green church season) would be about.
Thinking about my old congregation of Cornhusker fans also reminds me of what they were like on Sunday mornings in the fall if the team happened to lose the day before. I had to stand up and preach to a bunch of gloomy faces moaning and groaning inwardly about a fumble or a missed field goal. Their post-game groans didn’t have much to do with spiritual life, but groaning is part of Christian experience.
There is actually a trinity of groans here in our text for Pentecost today. It begins in verse 22 with the groaning of the whole creation. Paul moves in verse 23 to our own inward groans as we hope in Christ for our redemption. And then in verse 26, God Himself gets into the act as we’re told about the “wordless groans” of the Holy Spirit.
There are all sorts of groans. I’m pretty good at the kind of groan one emits getting up or down from a chair. Some of you offer these up as we ask you to stand and sit frequently in worship. There are groans of pleasure, like when you bite into a perfectly cooked steak. There are groans of pain that happen with a stubbed toe or recovery from surgery. But there are also inarticulate, indescribable groans of frustration and longing that arise right out of our very souls.
Paul begins by imagining the world itself groaning. In the verses just before this, he says, “the creation was subjected to frustration.” He explains that frustration as “bondage to decay.” As much as we experience and celebrate growth and new life in the natural world, creation is constantly dying. Just yesterday people were using bulldozers to try and rescue over 50 whales that got stranded on a beach in South Africa, but without much success. Earlier this year dozens of whales and dolphins died off Australia in the same way. Everywhere we look, death and decay is the rule of nature. The oil we fuel our cars with is the decayed remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Now burning oil is producing climate change that probably means the extinction of thousands of plant and animal species in our own time. The scale is inconceivable for us, but even our sun is slowly dying and will burn out one day, reminding us of the frustration and decay of the creation in which we live.
Yet the imagined groans of creation are still for Paul not the despairing moans of a world on its deathbed. They are much more hopeful. Verse 22 says the creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” It’s not decay and death for which creation groans. All that pain is the prelude to a birth, the birth of a new and better and even more beautiful creation. The beached whales and the trout with whirling disease and the captive giant pandas and the little dead bird you once found and cried over are waiting for something better.
In Revelation 21:1 John says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…” and in verse 5 Jesus says, “I am making everything new!” Like many of you waited in pain and even frustration for the birth of your son or daughter, creation is waiting for the birth God will send it. But as Paul told us in verse 19, just before our text today, the new birth of creation comes only with our own new birth in Christ.
So verse 23 turns from creation’s groans to our groans. “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” It’s easy here to zero in on the groans our bodies produce. I feel it and so do you. A little arthritis in my right hand. Knees that ache a little after a racquetball game or a run. An elbow that cracks when I reach out with the communion tray. Even if you’re young you probably know what it is to twist an ankle or scrape a knee. We hurt and we groan. Yet Paul is talking about groans of hope, hope for something better for our bodies. Once again these are the groans of childbirth, the pain of new life coming into the world.
What Paul continues with in verse 234, cannot be repeated too often these days. “For in this hope we were saved.” We were saved in the hope verse 23 describes, the hope of our bodies being redeemed. Unlike Christians so often imagine, we are not really hoping to go and live in heaven forever as pure, bodiless spirits. That’s just temporary. That’s just a little more waiting. In the end, we’re hoping to be adopted by God into His kingdom, which will be this world redeemed and made new with bodies also made new and whole and strong.
On Pentecost we celebrate this hope because it’s at Pentecost that we received the down payment on what we’re hoping for. Paul says that we groan as those, “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit.” The original Jewish feast of Pentecost was a feast of firstfruits, the first grain of the wheat harvest after counting off fifty days of the barley harvest which began at the end of Passover. Unlike the hard, flat, unleavened bread of Passover, in Leviticus 23:16 and 17 the Israelites were commanded to reap new wheat grain and offer up rich, soft loaves made with yeast to God at Pentecost. It was an anticipation of a bountiful harvest of wheat and fresh bread all summer.
As we remember the Christian Pentecost, we are celebrating the firstfruits of God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit who lives with us and in us in anticipation of the full harvest of being in the presence of God. We celebrate the birth of the Church, the beginning of the harvest, the hope that one day this whole world, both nature and all we who live in it, will ripen into God’s kingdom come down to earth.
Part of Pentecost is a reminder to wait in hope. When Jesus ascended into heaven He told the disciples to wait and that’s how the Spirit found them, waiting in hope and prayer for something they couldn’t even have imagined. They didn’t know what they were waiting for in that little house in Jerusalem. But they hoped and prayed and waited.
You and I still need to wait in hope and prayer. We have the firstfruits. The Holy Spirit is here now, but we haven’t seen everything we’re hoping for yet. As we heard from I John 3:2 a few weeks ago, just exactly what that hope is, just exactly what we will be is not yet known. Yet we know we will be like Christ. We know we have the beginnings, the firstfruits in the Holy Spirit, but there is more to come. So we wait. As verse 25 says here, “But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Yet it’s so easy to be impatient. Why all the waiting? Why the beached whales and the polluted streams? Why do we have to feel ourselves growing old? As one preacher put it so well, “My hair falls out. My stomach sticks out. And way too often my brain blanks out.” Why does that need to be? Why do we need to wait? Why doesn’t God bring us and our world into His kingdom today? It’s at that point, at the point of waiting patiently in futility and weakness, that Paul turns to the third groan of our text.
The groans of the world. The groans of our own souls. And now the groans of the Holy Spirit. The great good news of this text, of Pentecost, is that our groans become God’s own groans. As He hears our world and our spirits groaning for a new day, God’s own Spirit comes alongside us to offer up His own “wordless groans,” it says in verse 26.
God knows the futility of our world and our lives. He knows that our world suffers from decay. He knows that we can’t stop the pain and the sickness and the heartache which trouble us so much. He knows how weak we are, that we cannot even stop doing the things which cause us trouble, which ruin our bodies, which wreck our relationships.
Yet Pentecost has come. We have the firstfruits of the Spirit, so even as we groan in our weakness, the Spirit helps us, helps us pray. Paul said, “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” It’s not that we can’t think of things to pray. “Lord, make her well.” “Lord, please don’t let me do that awful thing again.” “Lord, help me pay the rent.” We have plenty of words for our prayers and we even have the Lord’s prayer Jesus taught us. But we don’t know what we ought to pray for. Much of the time we’re in the dark about God’s will, just kind of hoping everything will work out and groaning when it doesn’t.
A friend is very sick and you don’t know whether to pray he will get well or that God will take him quickly. You’re struggling at work and you don’t know whether to pray for strength to stick it out or for a new job. Your spouse is unfaithful and you don’t know whether to pray for him to come back or to stay away. That’s when God Himself comes alongside to help you pray: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
Our groans become His groans. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s the gift of grace. That’s how God saves us. God came to Moses to save Israel from slavery and said He had seen the misery of His people. He had heard their cries, their groans. And He made those groans His own in a wonderful way, leading them through the ocean and feeding them with bread from heaven despite their groaning and grumbling.
That’s how it was when Jesus came. God heard His people, His world groaning in misery and sin. So He came and listened to those groans with human ears and a human heart. He took that misery on Himself and let us hang Him on the Cross. It was our sin, our pain that put Him there, that made our groans into His. As the old hymn says, “Was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree?” The answer is yes. God in Jesus Christ groaned with us and for us. And He keeps on groaning with us through the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit helps us. The word for “help” there in verse 26 means something like carrying a load together. As we groan under our burdens, the Holy Spirit picks up one end of the load and carries it along with us. That’s why He’s groans. He’s groaning under the same weights we bear through life. And those groans of the Holy Spirit go up as wordless intercession to God, expressing to Him the needs and desires and the hopes for which we have no words.
We can only imagine the moaning and groaning that must have been going on in that house where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost. They were together. They were probably praying. But imagine the sense of loss, the lack of direction they experienced. Jesus was gone, really gone now, back into heaven. They were all alone. A dozen men and a few women against a whole society. There had to have been despair, there had to have been some hopeless, there had to have been groaning.
But then those groaning disciples heard a wind begin to moan through the windows of the house. The Holy Spirit was groaning with them. He had come to help them. He had come to lift them out of groaning into glory. The Spirit still comes like that to us. He will come like that as we gather here, “all together in one place,” as Acts 2:1 says.
It’s O.K. to sit and groan together a bit. There’s plenty to groan about. The immediate future of our country and our world looks a little bleak. Our retirement accounts have dwindled and paychecks are smaller. At least some people believe a climate crisis is on the horizon. There’s no end in sight to American involvement in conflict some place in the world. And our church is a bit smaller and poorer than it was last year. We could do some real good groaning.
Yet I hope the open windows of our sanctuary will remind us this morning that the Holy Spirit is always with us, always ready to blow across our lives and our community with His own groans. Verse 27 says, “he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit.” As God looks in our hearts and hears the groans that come out of them, He is also listening to His own Spirit, “because,” says Paul, “the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” We may not know what God wants of us right now, but the Holy Spirit does, and He is praying right along with us. He is helping us. He’s right there ready to lift one end of the load and help us get on our feet again.
Right now, I hope that each of you will simply be blessed and encouraged on Pentecost to know that, just as He said in our Gospel lesson from John, Jesus left us with help, with the gift of One who comes alongside us to teach us, and to comfort us, and even to pray with us when we don’t know how to pray. Yet in the long run, my hope is for a little more.
Pentecost is firstfruits, the beginning of a harvest. It’s a birthday, the beginning of a new year for the Church. As the Holy Spirit comes groaning alongside us in prayer, He’s also helping us to lift and carry our burden, to do what God wants us to do.
In Leviticus 9, right after the feast of Pentecost was described and commanded and the Israelites were directed to offer bread from new grain in anticipation of a great harvest, another command was given. In verse 22, God told them not to reap their land all the way to the edges. They were to leave some wheat standing in the field “for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.”
Pentecost means we have a mission. It’s not just that the Holy Spirit comes to help us, to help lift our burdens and pray for us and give us hope. He comes so that we can be helpful to others. He gives us strength and power and all sorts of blessings so that we can extend the harvest to those around us.
Right now part of our congregational groaning is how to pay the mortgage and utilities for our church buildings. It’s not an exciting or glamorous sort of burden, but it is part of reaping a harvest that leaves a blessing for the poor and the foreigner among us. Thursday I met with Jim Kooiman and Dave Robertson about the opportunity to use our building as an emergency shelter when cold weather rolls around again next winter. All spring a group of Spanish-speaking women have been meeting here to learn how to care for their babies. This summer a group of youth going into high school will study God’s Word in our building. Those people are part of why we groan about a mortgage, and the Spirit groans with us.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, the harvest of God, is not just for us. It never was. Peter and the disciples took it out into the streets of their city and then to every corner of the world they knew. Some of you who spoke in different languages this morning have taken and will take the gift of God’s Spirit to other countries. And we all can carry that gift out into the streets and homes and hearts of our cities.
There’s so much to do, it’s overwhelming. We don’t know what to pray or what to do. It makes us groan. But the Holy Spirit is groaning with us. He’s praying with us. And God is listening. Our burdens are His burdens. Our groans are His groans. And the joy and hope and promise is that His glory will one day be our glory.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj