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A Spirit of Strength

Date:7/26/20

Passage: Romans 8:26-39

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

As the Associate Pastor at my previous church, I supervised the weekday preschool director position. And because I was technically “the boss” of the preschool I was called upon to lead their weekly chapel service. I would lead the young children in singing fun faith filled songs, and then share a Bible story using props or puppets. I would end every chapel lesson with an old, familiar song:

“Jesus loves me this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

I can’t help but feel that we need this song this morning as we search our hearts for some type of hope in these difficult times. And the good thing is, that familiar song sums up everything we’re about to consider this morning as we explore this well-known scripture in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “We Are Weak, But Jesus Is Strong . . .” Oh, and God loves us very much.

Well, we are still in the eighth chapter of Romans and I bet you’ve heard this scripture passage many times before. Think about it. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Do you know where you’ve heard that? More than likely it was at a funeral. This is one of the most used scripture passages at funerals and memorial services. At those services, the person we loved is gone and is not coming back, and we need to be reminded that God loves us, that God gives us a firm foundation no matter what. We want to know that nothing can come between us and God. And it doesn’t matter if we’re at a funeral, or if we’re depressed and alone, or if we’re undergoing chemotherapy, or having surgery, or feeling the pain of suffering. No, God is with us, God loves us, and God will give us strength.

The past couple of weeks we’ve examined Paul’s letter to the Roman church and how we are to live according to the law of the Spirit rather than the law of the flesh. And if we are to live in the Spirit of God and the work of Christ, we will have generosity towards ourselves and others and we will become a part of God’s family. Since we are adopted and brought into communion and connection with one another and with God, we are made strong. The spaces and separations between us become no more and our weaknesses are diminished as we find strength and stability in community with one another.

And this was important for those new Christians in Rome. For Paul, as he wrote to the Roman Christians, he affirmed that the Spirit indeed helps to bring us all together so we can be stronger. That is the way the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Paul wanted to establish a firm foundation and hope for these oppressed Roman Christians to strengthen them for the work ahead, when the energy around the Messiah was now gone and when the hopes of Jesus’s return were growing dim. Just like when we use this passage for funeral services, the one we love is gone but a new phase of life is beginning, one where we might feel weak, insecure, and alone.

And it seems that one of the weaknesses of the Roman Christians, and Paul for that matter, was that they did not know how to pray as they should. Their experience of persecution in Rome and being under the thumb of the Empire was so profoundly oppressive, that they simply had no words from which to pray to God. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt that life was heavy and unbearable that all you could do was moan in agony and cry out in pain? We’ve had loved ones die recently and we have not been able to have funeral services for them because of COVID-19. So, we groan in grief. We have lost jobs or are barely hanging on to our jobs and we cry into our pillows, wondering how we will keep our finances from going into utter ruin. I have a newborn baby with major breathing complications and he has been in the NICU for 8 weeks with at least another month or two to go. I spend many hours a day sighing with emotional and physical fatigue. I have friends and colleagues in the black community who are shouting out in fear and in anger, wondering what they can say or do to be heard by the world that beats them down. The earth and all of creation is groaning under the weight of pollution, climate change, poor water, and extinction of species.

With all of these cries and groans and moans we wonder if God even hears, if God will do anything to redeem this broken existence. But, if we are living in the law of the Spirit then we can know that the crying out of our bodies and the crying out of the earth is indeed heard by God, because the Spirit translates our mutters and mumblings, our sadness and sorrow, our griefs and grumblings into prayers that God understands. The weakness and defeat that we feel right now is turned into strength by a loving and compassionate God. God knows the language of mourning, grief, and pain because God, in the work and life of Jesus, felt everything we could possibly feel. God knows every mumble and murmur that comes out of your body. God knows, because God knows your heart.

In fact, that knowing your heart stuff is part of God’s name. In verse 27, “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” God is the Heart Searcher. And although we might feel weak, and alone, and useless right now, God isn’t looking at your stock portfolio, the color of your skin, the clothes you wear, or the job you have. No, God is searching your heart for those hidden places that you think are useless and faulty. It is those places that God searches and finds the you that is strong and the you that has purpose. N.T Wright says, “The word ‘searcher’ comes from a root which suggests someone lighting a torch and going slowly round a large, dark room full of all sorts of things, looking for something in particular. Or perhaps this someone is searching in the dark, by listening. What is this searcher wanting to find, and what happens when it is found?”

Having the divine search for and within us can be intimidating. I know I don’t really want God poking and prodding around my heart and my intentions and my thoughts. But I think this phrase, “God the Heart Searcher,” is beautiful and one that reveals the benevolence and intimacy of God. Nick Carter says, “Seeing God as a heart-searcher offers a moving image of tenderness and closeness. This stands in contrast to images of a distant and uncaring God and [rather] calls us instead to the covenant language of a God who wants to be in relationship with us.” These early Roman Christians and, I think, us today, need God to be close to us in the midst of our struggles. For we are like Christ when we suffer and when we are scorned. We can only build strength in our bodies and in our spirits when we exercise our faith and when we go through hard times. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointments, but never lose infinite hope.”

And that’s the word for us this morning, I think. There’s no doubt that if God were to search the dark places of our hearts, God would find things that we would rather keep hidden, those things about which we are embarrassed or that show our weakness. But that’s not what God is looking for in you and in me. God is looking for, above all else, the sound of the Spirit’s groaning. Because if the Spirit’s groaning is within us then you can bet that the Spirit will provide strength when we feel weak and when we feel alone. We have hope in the Spirit.

Maybe that’s all we can do sometimes, is allow the Spirit to groan in us so that the Searcher of Hearts might recognize in us the Spirit of strength and the way of Christ. For God’s son, Jesus, suffered and groaned and uttered prayers so deep and so painful that sweat like drops of blood dripped from his body in the Garden. Eventually, real blood gushed from his body on the cross and all he could pray was “don’t leave me, Father.” Jesus knows the groans of our hearts because he has been there before. God searches for those moments in us because it is those moments that ultimately give us strength.

My favorite verse in the whole Bible comes to us next. Verse 28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” This verse arises from a place of groaning and despair, a verse that affirms God’s love for us no matter what. N.T. Wright says verse 28 is a much-loved promise for many who have learned by it to trust God in the many varied and often troubling circumstances of our lives. The world is still groaning, and we with it; but God is with us in this groaning, and will bring it all together for good.

Then verses 29-30 reveal that each and every one of us have a purpose. Paul wanted the early Christians, the oppressed spiritual, religious, and ethnic minority in Rome, to know that they were loved, adopted, and brought into the family of God. It says that God “foreknew” that we would all be a part of the divine family. And for me, that brings me comfort that no matter what the Heart Searcher finds deep inside of me, that I have the assurance that I am adopted, loved, and brought into a large family. We didn’t have to choose God, or say the right thing, or do the right motion, or be the best person. No, God chose us, each of us, to join the divine family as sisters, brothers, siblings, of one another and to become stronger in the process. We are in this together, every single one of us.

And if God is for us, who can be against us? If we are strong in the Spirit and live out the work and purpose of Christ in the world then life can throw whatever it wants at us and we will be free, we will be loved, and we will be “more than conquerors,” as we will be one with God and one with each other. We will know the love of the divine and will find the strength in that love. John Donne likened the love of God to a circle, seeing that it is endless. Love binds us all together and binds us to God in such a way that we find the strength we didn’t know we had, the strength that was also inside of us along with the heart things we were trying to hide. The Heart Searcher not only hears the groanings, not only sees the pain, not only feels the depression. The Searcher of the Heart brings out the strength that is within us and the connection with others that is among us in order to change the world, one heart at a time.

So, let us go out this week in all that we do, knowing that God’s love is near to us. There is nothing to fear and nothing can separate us from God. Let us not, as people of faith, participate in the systems and structures that seek to separate others from the love God. Because God is searching for us even if we feel hidden and hurting. God is searching for us, even if we feel abused and abandoned. God is searching for us, even when we are lost and lonely. God is searching for us. And God will find us. And God will give us a spirit of strength.

“Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

Amen.