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Praying When Words Fail
a sermon based on Romans 8:26-39
by Rev. Thomas Hall


I would like to begin my words by inviting you to join me in saying The Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried,
The third day he rose from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge
The quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.


Notice what this ancient piece of Christian belief says about the persons of the Trinity. We believe in the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, but what does it say about the Spirit? What job does the Spirit perform? When we come to the Spirit we are only given six words. Just believe in “It.” That’s all-just believe.

Now recall the words in the ancient doxology: “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” I wonder if we really understand the Person and work of this Holy Ghost whom we so confidently praise. The Holy Spirit has received such sparse PR that it has been called, “the Cinderella of Christian doctrine.”

Let me ask you a personal question. When I say the words, “Holy Spirit,” what connections do you make? Maybe your experience of the Spirit happened during that final night at summer camp when everyone huddled around a fire singing softly? Perhaps it happened during a tough time in life when you felt you could no longer carry the weight of a problem and cried out to God and almost immediately a presence seemed to fill that room with peace. Others may recall the mid-week prayer service with guitars and praise choruses. No bulletins or written prayers were needed. You quietly raised your hands and around you people prayed in joyful response to God. For others of us, the Spirit raised red flags, as an self-claimed “anointed” religious personality paced the stage of a large auditorium on late night TV.

Our lesson this morning may not change any of your associations of the Spirit, but perhaps it will add one more. Because here Paul provides a new scenario for where the Spirit is. Prayer. He says that the Spirit prays with sighs too deep for words and that the Spirit prays for us according to the will of God. That’s a fine thing . . . the Spirit is in our prayer life. That’s great. But why then does Paul turn right around and criticize our prayer life? He says that we don’t know how to pray as we ought.

Paul needs to come to our church; he’d clearly see that we do know how to pray. We pray a collect, a prayer of confession, a prayer for the offertory, prayers of the people. Why we even prayer the Lord’s Prayer-every Sunday. Can’t improve on that. Of course we know how to pray as we ought!

But what if we imaginatively invited the Spirit to spend a couple of days with us in a more accessible form-a more visible form-to you know, just sort of hang around our community. How might such a conscious awareness of the Spirit teach us about the importance of the Spirit in our praying. So please allow me to imagine between the lines for just a moment.

So you’re going to spend some time with us? That’s great! Please join us at the jazz festival in the park this afternoon. We do this every year. Isn’t this great! What are you looking at her for? She already goes to our church. Pray for her? Why? She’s doing fine! She isn’t? She is? I’m sorry, I had no idea she was going through that. She smiled at church this morning; even said, “Nice sermon pastor.” And all the while You wanted to work in her life-through my prayers? “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”

What about the congregation? Attendance is picking up. Finances too. We just finished VBS; you should’ve been there. It was fantastic! You’re kidding! Several of the instructors are struggling with their faith? And others are facing discouragement and loneliness? You’re telling me that someone I don’t even know is going to face major surgery without any hope of recovery and I’m supposed to let you work through my availability and pray? Yeah. Yeah, I know. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”

I love Mondays, don’t you? What do you say we play the back nine; we can get back by noon. The local assisted living place? But there’s no golf course there. Sure I’ve been here many times-in this very room and I’ve prayed too. Just hold her hand and don’t say anything? Just sit there with her for thirty minutes and do nothing? That’s not prayer! It is? You mean to tell me that you’re really praying through me with deep sighs-praying perfectly without my preconceived ideas or personal agendas? I know, I know, I’ve got it memorized by now. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Right?

That was just my imagination running wild. But still, I wonder how aware we are of what the Spirit seeks to do through us? I am discovering that whether armed with spontaneous words that we shoot off Pentecostal style in God’s direction, or whether we are offering God a few carefully scripted words, the fact is, we need the Spirit’s help. Without the Spirit’s presence and assistance, we stand dumb and speechless before God; but the good news is that the Spirit stands ready to form the words that we cannot form ourselves. The Spirit prays perfectly for others through us.

Words fail. Crack under the strain of the moment, seem hollow, pointless. So often we know not what to say, much less how to pray. I must confess that as a professional pray-er, I don’t know how to pray. Because I pray with vested interests. I see only the tip of the ice berg, but God sees under the deep icy waters the grotesque dangerous shape. I see the weeds, but God sees the roots. I see the symptoms, but God sees the infection. So the Spirit as the Master Surgeon, knows how to pray.

Let me conclude with a few lines that Sharon Carr wrote. She’s no longer with us. Went home to God last year not long after graduating from seminary.


I asked you to pray for me-
the suffering has begun, and
the skullwracking pain
is a shadow I know only too

well . . .

I wanted you to console me,
for the breadth of my grief
gnashes at me with steely
teeth, hacking and clawing at
my shreds of hope,
and stubborn strands of faith;
and then you told me the Spirit
prays for me,
that he intercedes with the
Father on my behalf,
that the strength of the Cross
sustains me . . .

The tears are rolling from both our
faces, friend-
let me conform you,
for someone in heaven has
already comforted me. [1]


[1] Adapted from Oliver Nelson’s, Yet Life Was a Triumph (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), page 48.