1 Samuel 21:1-9
We’re taking a brief break from our current sermon series on the book of 1 Samuel in order to mark the occasion of a very special birthday.
In case you’re wondering whose birthday we’re celebrating today – it’s yours – and mine – it’s our birthday as the Church – not Grace Lutheran Church but the Church Universal, the Body of Christ all around the world and across the ages of time.
It’s our birthday as the Church because today is Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost, a Greek word which means 50th, originally commemorated the Jewish Feast of Week or the celebration of the early harvest in Israel.
50 days after the beginning of the barley harvest, the celebration of the beginning of the wheat harvest would begin.
One year on Pentecost, during this annual observance, some 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ, the Spirit of God was poured out on Jesus’ disciples – just as Christ promised.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” -Acts 2:1-4
With this permanent filling of the Holy Spirit, the disciples preached the Gospel – the good news about Jesus – to the multitudes who were gathered from the nations in Jerusalem for the observance of the Passover festival – and thousands believed, were baptized, and began to follow the way of Jesus.
For this reason, we trace the beginnings of the Church to Pentecost and consider today to be our birthday.
Pentecost, often overshadowed by Christmas and Easter, is nonetheless a foundational event in our journey of faith together.
In fact, some Christians even refer to themselves as Pentecostals.
Though the history of the adoption of moniker was more about creating an unhealthy and divisive distinction between believers – those who are truly in the Spirit and those who are not.
Do you consider yourself a Pentecostal? Perhaps you’re thinking, “Um, Pastor Chris, isn’t this Grace Lutheran Church?”
I’m not talking about a denominational name.
Pentecostal is not a private or exclusive description for some select group of Christians – no matter what their particular theology.
No matter who you are or what Christian church to which you belong, Pentecostal is a name that belongs to all who, through the person and work of the Holy Spirit, have come to believe, be baptized, and follow Jesus Christ.
Our family roots go back to Pentecost – the day and the event that marked the beginning of the Church, so therefore, we are all Pentecostals. And that means today it is our birthday.
And birthdays as we all know involve the giving and receiving of gifts.
Today, through a portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are going to reflect on one of the many gifts we have received in the Lord’s giving of His Spirit to us.
Now you may have heard of various listings of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. But the specific gift of the Holy Spirit we will be focusing on is not from one of these lists.
None of these lists are meant to be exhaustive – all encompassing.
Despite this fact, the particular birthday present Paul talks about here is one that often gets overlooked.
And that’s a shame because it’s a really good one – one that will encourage and empower us in an area of our relationship with God that most Christians confess they struggle in – prayer.
So let’s hear about this gift as listen to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, starting in verse 22.
Normally when we receive a gift on our birthday, we have to unwrap it.
This gift is no exception.
We are going to have to do some unwrapping of Paul’s words here before we recognize exactly what we have been given through the Holy Spirit.
The whole of chapter 8 is about our life through the Spirit so keep those Bibles open as we will be pointing to some other things Paul has to say beyond the specific passage we are focused on today.
We begin with Paul’s image of a “groaning” creation.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning…” -Romans 8:22
This concise description of a cosmos that is broken and thus, inhibited in its proper functioning – of life being not what is supposed to be – fits well with the reality of the world we live in, with life on this planet as we know it.
Beyond the impact of a global pandemic, there are countless diseases that infest and impair creation.
Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Ice storms. Droughts. Famines. Fires that rage out of control. The list goes on and on.
God’s wounded creation is marked by so many natural disasters, wasted or corrupted resources, and unreconciled wrongs. And yet, if we pay attention Paul reframes our perception of this suffering world.
Creation’s great discomfort is not the result of bleeding out – gasping for its last breath, but rather all its pains and groans are birth pangs.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” – Romans 8:22
All of the long sighs and deep cries of the cosmos are painful expressions not of despair but of expectant hope.
Hope for what?
If we go back a few verses from our passage, Paul already has told us the answer to this question back in verse 19.
The whole creation looks for—yearns in “eager expectation” for “the children of God to be revealed.”
“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” -Romans 8:19
What all life on this planet is longing for is its deliverance from its brokenness – from what Paul calls in verse 21 “the bondage of decay” – when humanity is finally and ultimately healed and made whole.
“…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” – Romans 8:21
Through the Holy Spirit, an inseparable connection has been re-forged between the fate of humanity and the fate of this world.
Notice how Paul elaborates on this when he declares that we groan along with creation.
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” – Romans 8:23
We too yearn and long for something – hope that has not yet been realized.
We share in creation’s discomfort, even though we enjoy what Paul refers to as “the first fruits of the Spirit.”
This phrase, “first fruits” comes out of the Jewish traditions of the Old Testament.
In the aftermath of their exodus out of Egypt, in teaching the Israelites how to worship God, Leviticus, chapter 23 required the people to bring the first fruits of the harvest as their offering to the Lord.
Anyone who’s worked on a farm or done a little gardening knows the first fruits are the best, the most desirable part of the harvest.
Why? Because in all the waiting and anticipation, when the fruit finally arrives – that first tomato or peach of the season is mouthwatering and delicious.
However, it’s important to realize Paul here is not speaking about the first fruits that we offer to God but rather the first fruits that the Lord has given to us—”the first fruits of the Spirit.”
But what does this mean? What is this first fruit of the Spirit?
Paul answers this question when he writes, “For in this hope we were saved.”
“For in this hope we were saved.” -Romans 8:24
In other words, the first fruit is our salvation in Christ
– what God through Jesus accomplished for us on the Cross – forgiveness and reconciliation in the midst of separating ourselves from our Creator through our rebellion and rejection of His way of life for us
and through the Resurrection – victory and freedom beyond death so that our following of Christ is not in vain but is leading us somewhere – into a fullness and abundance of life that lasts forever.
The first fruit of this salvation is the person, the presence of the Spirit within us confirming our belonging to Christ and giving us an ongoing taste of the coming harvest – of the new life, of the new creation still to come.
To break down the significance of this further.
On the one hand, we have been saved in Christ.
Note Paul speaks of our salvation here in the past tense.
The work of the Cross and the Resurrection are finished.
This is not in doubt. The work of our salvation is finished. But the full force of that salvation has not yet been realized
for us or for all creation.
To put it back in agricultural terms, just like the first fruits of a harvest, the first fruits of the Spirit constitute only a small part — the beginning of the yield to come, marking the start of the harvest season but pointing to the greater bounty yet to be received with its completion.
Paul also employs the metaphor of adoption – specifically adoption to sonship.
While the seal of the Spirit marks our return back into the family as “children of God,”
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” -Romans 8:16
the fullness of our adoption is to become sons and daughters in Christ – we are to become like Jesus in our character and person.
Part of our understanding of the Incarnation – of God coming down to us in Jesus Christ is to reflect and to embody what it means to be human – not our definition of what it means to be human – but the Lord’s intention for our humanity in perfection. In Jesus we witness all we were created to be and to become in relationship with God and with each other.
So while the Spirit is the first fruit of our adoption as God’s children, this does mean we have already “arrived” spiritually.
We are all “works in progress.”
We are just beginning to bloom in terms of who we are in Christ.
The full harvest of all we will become thanks to Jesus – like Christ – is an ongoing work of the Spirit and our abiding in that work.
Our groaning then, like the groaning of creation, is the expression of our anticipation, our longing for the completion of our adoption, of the fullness of the harvest of God’s salvation.
Such groaning expresses something that we sense and feel but do not yet completely see. This something is hope – our hope in Christ.
As Paul clarifies, hope is not something we see. If we can see it then we have it, and hope is not needed.
“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.” -Romans 8:24-25
Hope requires waiting. Hope demands patience. The hope we have in the Spirit enables us to wait, spurs us to be patient – to abide in the ongoing work of the Lord.
The Greek word for patience employed by Paul here is related to the word for perseverance.
It’s the sort of patience, where we have to keep on keeping on in the midst of all our waiting.
Let us read between the lines here.
If creation is in the midst of birth pangs, if we are works in progress, then the kind of patience being invoked here is not the stuff of boredom – twiddling our thumbs while staring at the clock waiting for time to expire.
The kind of patience being invoked here is that of life in transition – of growth and change.
And the process of change – of maturing – involves conflict, struggle, & suffering.
That’s why what we experience as we mature and change – the process of being stretched and learning – of increasing our capacity, of eliminating bad habits and rhythms for good ones, are called growth pains.
Too often a false gospel is preached that claims if we follow Jesus we can bypass suffering and struggle.
That if we exhibit the right kind of faith and prayer we will only experience health and prosperity.
Jesus Himself never declares this.
He speaks repeatedly of both the challenge and the cost of dying to ourselves – of who we have been in order to follow Him and become who we can be.
Likewise, Paul makes no promises of our exemption from struggle or pain.
In fact, for those who might be tempted to think following Jesus means escape from the world, Paul clearly states being children of God indwelled by the Spirit does not remove us from the suffering of this planet.
Far from taking us out of a world marked by imperfection and unrest, our life in the Spirit brings into a deeper solidarity with the rest of creation.
Our groans and sighs – our expectations and longings through the Spirit are inseparably connected with the yearnings of the cosmos.
Paul’s emphasis on our solidarity with creation flies in the face of the apocalyptic mindset that is so popular in our culture – again perpetuated by bad theology within the Church. What Paul writes here is a counterpoint to any notion that at some endtime we as believers will be snatched away to heaven while the rest of creation is left behind to go to hell – awash in nothing but bloodshed and complete destruction.
Instead, this passage articulates a strong affirmation that our Creator cares deeply about His creation – all of it.
That God has not and will not abandon it – in the very same way our Lord refuses to forsake us.
The leading of the Spirit is not for us as the Church to turn away from this world as we plan for and even repeatedly try to nail down
the date and the time of some sort of divine airlift, rescue operation.
On the contrary, we as the Body of Christ – in our becoming who we are meant to be in Christ through the work of the Spirit – are bound to care for creation.
We are to protect and nurture this world in its expectant longing for its redemption and not savagely and mindlessly rape and exploit the planet for our benefit figuring it’s all gonna burn away and we won’t be here when it does.
Our hope of the dawn of a new creation in God’s good timing does not negate the significance and value of the creation which has been entrusted to us now.
We do not seek to escape from this world because, as Paul underscores, we share a common destiny with it. This world is our home.
The heaven we anticipate is not one that we’re going to; it is the heaven that is coming to us – down to earth – remaking this world just as we are being remade in Christ.
As the Spirit of Christ not only dwells and works within us but also moves and spurs the contractions of a creation wrestling with the bowed but not yet surrendered powers of sin and death, we will experience trouble in the world – conflict and suffering, pain and loss.
And yet, Paul’s point – the gift of the Spirit that we finally unwrap here is we are not driven to despair.
What is the birthday present – one of the many gifts of the Spirit – thanks to Pentecost?
That we have hope. Not just any hope – but the hope of heaven. We possess divine assurance thanks to the presence of the Holy Spirit.
And this is idle or fanciful hope that we have to generate in order to keep it alive.
This hope within us – out there in the world – is generated and sustained by the Spirit.
The hope of the Spirit is tangible and practical for, as Paul describes, this hope groans with us – interceding for us – testifying to us as we long, as we wait – that God is still working, that the Lord is making good on His promise of redemption for us and all creation.
“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.” – Romans 8:26
Paul gets it. Paul is in this world with us – in our longing as we wait and as we abide in Christ’s transforming work both in and through us.
Paul’s been there. Paul is one of us.
He knows as believers, as followers of Jesus, we can be worn down by weakness – by how far we and this world still have to go.
Paul understands sometimes things get so bad, life becomes so hard, that we can be tempted to lose the hope we have.
In those moments when we find ourselves breathless, speechless – not even knowing how to pray anymore – how to talk to God – how to put what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, what we’re experiencing into words.
Sometimes the darkness is all we see even as we desperately are looking for the light.
Sometimes in the challenge and struggle of our growth in Christ, the present moment before us can become so overwhelming; it can be hard to hold onto the future God has promised us – to embody that hope in the midst of where we currently find ourselves.
Sometimes the brokenness of this life can break us and we can’t speak. We can only cry. We can only sigh and groan.
It is precisely in such moments – at the point where we reach the end of ourselves before the ruin and misery of this world and the nagging reality of our own incompleteness
– when in our waiting we are hard-pressed, when we just can’t find the words anymore, that the Spirit intercedes – carrying us, filling us with the strength of divine hope.
Struggling with prayer is a reality for many Christians.
That struggle, apart from a lack of even trying, often comes down to not knowing how to pray – what to say and how to say it before God.
It is a comfort to read within the pages of our Bibles the recognition of this struggle by Paul.
We are not alone, if we grapple with the practice of prayer.
But the encouragement, one of the gifts on our birthday as the Church, part of the good news of the Gospel, is we have the Holy Spirit as our constant advocate in reaching out and speaking to God.
Notice, Paul doesn’t write that the Holy Spirit prays for us, so we don’t have to pray.
No. The Holy Spirit prays with us – helping us as we pray – shaping, forming, and even refining whatever it is we are trying to express to the Lord.
Sometimes when we receive several gifts on our birthday, we can have the tendency to rush through opening each of our presents in order to get to the next one which might be bigger and better than the last. But this particular gift of the Spirit isn’t one we should easily toss aside and quickly lose sight of. The gift of the Spirit’s intercession in our prayer life with God is remarkable – one that offers us not only profound comfort but needed encouragement in our conversational relationship with the Lord.
Sometimes when we pray, we know exactly what we want to say and what we want God to do.
Such prayers easily can become nothing more than a “to do” list that we attempt to hand to God and then walk away.
But based on what Paul writes here, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just act like messenger service handing our prayer list to the Lord.
Instead, the Spirit intercedes and adapts our prayer list to fit the will of God.
This is a relief because it means we can pray from the heart freely without fear of making a mess by asking wrongly.
Sometimes we think we know what to ask for but in hindsight we realize it was not what we needed and not good for us.
Serving as a filter for our prayers, the Spirit spares us from experiencing not how good but how bad and chaotic it would be if God actually answered all our prayers as asked.
Abiding in the Spirit as we reflect on the contrast between what we pray for and what God does in our lives, we can discover and learn how to stop handing the Lord lists and instead discern what the Lord wants for us.
There are other times when we try to pray but fall asleep or find ourselves distracted by other concerns.
The good news is that, just as the Lord gives us grace and delivers a salvation we don’t deserve, in the same way, through this gift of the Spirit, the Lord gives us grace and still hears, still receives, still picks up and helps where our poor, clumsy, halting, and inadequate words need help.
In other words, God carries the conversation even when we can’t seem to stay attentive and focused.
Even as we may even leave a lot out in terms of what needs to be said when we pray, the Spirit is active, and gracious, in filling in the gaps.
Sometimes when we pray, we can get frustrated.
We can’t put our thoughts together.
We just can’t get the words out.
Nothing we say sounds coherent or makes any sense.
We find ourselves so overwhelmed the best we can manage is “God, help me” or “God, forgive me.”
However, in the light of this gift of the Spirit we have been given, Paul’s counsel to us is to keep talking – keep processing.
We can talk it out before the Lord. It doesn’t have to be coherent.
We can say what we need to say before God. It doesn’t need to be perfectly or properly stated.
Prayer isn’t a magic formula – save the wrong word or say the words in the wrong way and the line suddenly goes dead with the Lord.
God remains on the line. The Lord is listening no matter what.
“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.” – Romans 8:27
Even more than this, the Holy Spirit searches our hearts, collaborating with all our sighs and groans, and takes what is inexpressible for us – what is too deep for words – and receives into the larger life of God.
So no matter what, we are heard. Message received.
And regardless of how the Lord answers our particular prayer in the receiving of our message in this way through the Spirit, God, our Father, assures us, “I am here. I am with you and for you. No matter what happens, I will carry you beyond the painful reality of the present into the hopeful future I have prepared for you beyond that reality.”
Contrary to how we as Christians often perceive and describe the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, Paul does not paint a picture of collapsing in individual ecstasy, exuding holy laughter or howling, crazed foot-stomping or hand-waving, babbling incessantly in tongues, or smacking each other on the head and proclaiming a word of healing.
No, for Paul, to be possessed by the Spirit is to be transformed by the Spirit – not externally – from the outside in but rather from the inside out.
The kind of change Paul describes is not merely a private, personal adjustment but rather the bringing about a new creation – a transformation that changes the world – not just the individual, not just a congregation.
In this world, in this life, as we wait and trust upon what the Lord is doing, we will struggle with the growth pains of our emerging redemption.
In maturing into all we can be in Christ, we will confront – often painfully – our weaknesses – all that we are not yet in following Jesus.
Along the way, praying – talking and listening to the Lord about all this (point “in”) and all that (point “out”) will be challenging – part of learning more about ourselves and more importantly, more about the faithfulness of God.
Through it all, in this wrinkle of time between what is and what will be, along with the whole creation we will groan, we will sigh, as we ache for the end of this long walk of obedience in the same direction – for the dawn of a new world – of our complete wholeness, perfect peace, eternal redemption.
But on this Pentecost, on our birthday, as we celebrate this life we have been born into thanks to Christ, let us remember we have been given the Spirit of Jesus.
And among the many gifts of the Spirit is the gift of divine assurance and holy advocacy – that we are not alone and the hope we have in Christ is not in vain – even when words fail us.
Just as our life begins & ends with God, our prayers begin & end with God too.
The same Spirit that gives us life is the Spirit that gives us the words to speak to God and to speak in the Lord’s name.
As we look to and rely on the Spirit for what to say and also what to do – we will find the clarity to discern the will of God, we will gain the strength to live according to what is right and good, and we will be empowered to love another as God loves usand become together all that our Lord has destined us in Christ to be.
This is what it means to be Pentecostal. For this is the witness and the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.