A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen at Evening Prayer on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 26 July 2020.
1 Kings 3.5-12. Romans 8.26-end.
This evening we continue our progression through the Letter to the Romans. If you were here two weeks ago you would have heard me speak about St Paul’s conviction that we are free from condemnation when we live in Christ, with faith, under the Gospel, and we turn away from our natural instinct of judging and condemning others.
Paul notes earlier on in his letter that we all have a law written on our conscience, which may accuse and even condemn us; for this purpose we don’t even need God’s revealed law in the scriptures (Romans 2.14f). In chapter 7 he has that brilliantly insightful description of the human person caught in inner conflict:
‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it’ (Romans 7.15,18). We will each have examples in our minds, I’m sure, of where we have failed to live up to our own standards, whether that’s in our relationships, or in our work, or in our failure to be kind to strangers, or in our walk with God.
How do we begin to untangle those knots? Well, the first answer for Paul is that the tension has already been resolved in the one perfect human being Jesus Christ, in whom the image of God is expressed and restored on behalf of a new redeemed humanity. All who put their faith in him are reconciled with God. And yet, we find ourselves still weak and unable to live up to the example of Christ. How can this new life in Christ become mine?
Faced with all the demands of God’s law, all our duties towards God and our neighbour, the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer says this: ‘My good child, know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace’.
There is an element of mercy in knowing that when we fail to be good, that’s only what’s to be expected. There is a grace in a basically pessimistic view of what it is to be human. And yet we do desire to live without resentment and distrust and apathy and whatever else our weaknesses might be. We do want that ‘special grace’ to walk in God’s ways. So the catechism continues: ‘his special grace which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.’
When we pray, however stumbling and unfocused our prayers may be, we tap into God’s grace. We begin, however imperceptibly, to conform to the character of God. Listen again to what Paul said about that in our reading this evening: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.’
The words translated as ‘sighs too deep for words’ are also sometimes translated as ‘inarticulate groans’. We are by no means fully tuned into the mind of God, and yet God’s own Spirit comes to our aid, so that our ‘inarticulate groans’ are transformed into the intercession of the Spirit, ‘sighs too deep for words’.
Paul said, in the verses just before this evening’s reading, ‘the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ – and ‘we ourselves’ groan too! Our prayers are mere groans, but in the power of the Spirit, they become a sacrifice of praise, ‘too deep for words’.
He continues: ‘And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’ When God’s own Spirit prays to God the Father, everything falls into place.
Think of King Solomon in our first reading, in that moment of clarity where God came to meet him and somehow by the grace of God he knew how he ought to pray and what he ought to pray for – for wisdom and not for wealth or safety or power or revenge – and God searched his heart and gave him more than he could have prayed for!
Are you and I praying for God to shape our character and our understanding – or just praying to get the things we would like? We ought to pray for both: for God to be at the centre of our lives, and for ourselves to trust him to give us all we need. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we should pray equally ‘Hallowed be thy name’ – that our lives would give glory to God – and ‘Give us this day our daily bread’.
Yes, there is no condemnation for us on the day of judgement – but our hope is not exclusively for the future. God knows the harsh reality of our life now, and our inability to deal with it, and he sustains us while we are still weak.
This invitation is open to everyone.
There’s no time to get into the rest of our reading at any depth, but just taste again the triumphal tone of Paul’s words: ‘those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, … And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.’ So 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.’
God wins – and his triumph is our triumph.