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Sermon – July 10, 2011 – “With Sighs Too Deep for Words

For this week’s webpage sermon we are printing one from years ago.       Sermon for Sunday, June 11, 2000

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
With Sighs Too Deep for Words

Acts 2: 1-21, Romans 8: 22-27, John 5: 26-27, 16: 4b-15
In the second chapter of Genesis, in the familiar story of God’s making Adam out of the dust and moisture of material things, life gets into Adam by God breathing it into him. God’s own breath animates the creature God makes. This is the Bible’s understanding of living things– living things are made of the common elements of creation and are animated by respiration. In Adam’s case, the source of the breathing is God’s own breath; and this is part of what distinguishes the kind of creature we are from all the other creatures. We have an affinity with God from our very origins.
Whence this identification of breathing and the possession of life? Well, creatures that breathe their last die. That’s simple enough. And I suppose there may early on have been something like the slap administered to newborns, to clear their chests and heads and get them breathing properly, which reinforced observation that first breaths were the beginning of life. So there’s a kind of common sense basis of the Bible’s equating living with breathing.
But there’s more to it than that. Because life isn’t mere animation, being able to move on one’s own. Nor is it only awareness, nor simply powers like reasoning or creating. Life is having spirit, and the whole concept of spirit is closely related to the concept of breath. The words are related in the Bible’s languages and in our language: respiration and inspiration, drawing in the invisible air to quicken our frames, drawing on divine power to quicken our abilities.
In making a connection between spirit and breathing, the Bible has addressed that strange connection between things we usually regard only as material and those things we usually regard only as abstract. Breath usually isn’t seen, and often not noticed, but how we breathe changes when we are anxious, or startled, or when we are reassured. Things happen which take our breath away, and conversely, when we have worried, good news brings with it a “sigh of relief.”
Nowadays biochemists measure all kinds of substances secreted within the brain, and those often are associated with certain moods a person has, or even activities in which a person engages. Long-distance runners produce chemicals in their brains which give them pleasure under the stress of exercise; chocolate mimics the effect on brain chemistry of romantic love. So we’ve been told.
There’s another study which bears on the connection between brain chemistry and feeling good which seems to have religious application. A study showed that the rapid moving of the tongue up and down stimulates the secretion of a chemical which produces elation. The kind of “speaking in tongues” which is known in ecstatic religions, most familiarly in Christianity and in Islam, suggests that it works the other way, too– that overwhelming spiritual excitement can set the tongue working. It dawned on me recently that the word we have from the Bible which we translate “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah” is an exclamation associated with religious excitement and it may be no coincidence that it involves making the tongue go up and down twice each time it’s said. This leads me to wonder if part of the pleasure people take in public singings of the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the holidays doesn’t come from the exhilaration of song combined with biochemistry.
But whether there’s anything to that or not, our spirits are lifted by the right sort of breathing, and that’s part of what makes exercise healthful not only to our bodies but to our spirits. Again, working the other way, all the mind-over-matter philosophies of life, to the extent that they work, operate on having an inner outlook which is so healthy that its health sustains the health of one’s body. A person with an ill body gains from achieving the proper spiritual attitude, and a person with an anxious spirit benefits from exercise.
I am emphasizing how breathing makes an ongoing and unnoticed link between an outer and invisible resource and our inward life because that is true for us physically and it is true for us spiritually. Just as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation preserves us in a time of crisis by someone outside us breathing for us, getting into us what we need to remain alive, so God’s gift of the spirit preserves us as those who have been made for eternity. It is like the next step up: we first have life by God’s once having shared breath with us through our ancestor Adam, and we now have a higher sort of life by God’s having sent us the Holy Spirit through the saving work of Christ.
In the Book of Acts the gift of the Spirit comes from heaven like a wind– it is God filling the disciples’ sails, so to speak, launching them on their ministry. In John’s gospel the Spirit is given by Jesus, who breaths on the disciples. In both it comes as a kind of breath of fresh air, a breath making possible new beginnings. But once it finds its way inside the human disciples, how does it help them live a more heavenly life?
The three Bible readings for today show three ways the Holy Spirit works. From the gospel of John we learn that the Spirit of God is a Counselor and a leader. In the Book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit empowering the disciples to communicate the good news. In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he describes the Spirit helping to connect the individual believer’s soul to God.
In John’s gospel Jesus’ going on to glory through his resurrection creates a problem for Jesus’ followers, because when Jesus goes up on the cross and draws the whole world to himself, he leaves the disciples, at least temporarily, behind. They’ve been following him, relying on his guidance and judgment and wisdom, and now he’s gone. How are they to know what to do? No earthly leader can replace Jesus. So the Holy Spirit comes to supply that need.
When we pray before church meetings, we acknowledge that our deliberation and decision-makingrequirebetterguidancethanwecangetfromeachother. Achurchisnot just an earthly enterprise, it is a Spirit-led endeavor. We have an invisible God, and our image of the face of Christ, whom Paul names “the image of the invisible God” comes from reading and study and prayer, and it likewise is immaterial. God’s leadership, if it is to be present to us, must be present in our hearts. It has to be in the earnestness with which we seek God’s will, in the peace we feel when we trust God’s presence, in the longing for good which we know is a share in God’s spiritual priorities. If we have worked at our Christianity, and been prayerful, then we should have developed, by God’s grace, some spiritual judgment, some chance of trusting those signals that come from deep within us which tell us when something just doesn’t seem right, or when something compels us because it seems like the right thing to do.
We can’t just wait our way through life, we have to decide now and then, we must act at times, and we can’t console ourselves only with the assurance of God’s forgiveness. We also must encourage ourselves with the promise of God’s leadership through the Holy Spirit. That’s true for us individually as well as together. Sometimes we aren’t sure which way to go, and we have to hope that God helps us find our way.
One way which God helps us along as we go through life is sharing our faith. Not everyone is called to teach or preach or be a missionary, but everyone is called to the kind of witness which results from being available to God. A Christian should seem odd to someone who knows only the values of the world, as the disciples seemed strange to the crowd who witnessed them on that first Pentecost. Just what kind of difference you’ll demonstrate has to do with two things: the Spirit’s gift to you, and the people you’re put in among to whom to be a witness. That’s another lesson of the Pentecost story– possession of the Holy Spirit, possession by the Holy Spirit, isn’t primarily for the benefit of the person who has it. God gives the Spirit to benefit God, to give God the opportunity to get out of the invisible and immaterial realm and do something here and now in this world.
Lots of people have a bad conscience about their witnessing to the gospel because they don’t talk about it, but actions speak louder than words, and God will help you find a way to show your faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. God creates opportunities. God gives the will and the way.    Trust that. That’s what the Pentecost story shows. You can stop nursing guilt about keeping quiet about Christ and get on with putting your Christian weight on things which come more naturally to you. That won’t hinder God from making you useful in inviting others’ attention to what God can do.
Finally, Paul counts on the spirit to supply our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought; so says Paul, whose whole career is built on prayer. We do not pray as we ought. But we count on God’s spirit, on the Holy Spirit, which is present to us as it is present to God Almighty, to bring us surely into God’s presence.
When we would address God, we don’t know what to say. All our careful and well-taught words which ascribe majesty and glory and goodness and love and justice and power to God fall short. We are very small creatures presenting ourselves to a very large Creator, and however abundant our hearts, we are puny and poor practicers of love who attempt to address One Whose love is immeasurable. When we need God, and neither learned words nor attentive silence suffices, we have hope that God’s spirit takes our part, and presents our hearts and longings and hope to God with, as Paul describes them, “sighs too deep for words.”
And this gift of the spirit is for us alone. It is for our solitude, our secret and inner life as sons and daughters of the Almighty. The gift of leadership and guidance and recognizing what is right God gives us to make us all together more effective servants of Christ. The gift of enabling us to reach people where they are, whoever they are, with the good news of God’s love, by transforming us into workers of God’s will, God gives us for the benefit of those among whom we live. But this gift of the Spirit is ours one-by-one. It is God’s gift to us to help us hope always to be connected with God, despite our deficiencies of attention or intent. It is God’s gift to us always to know that we are understood by God, whether or not we always understand ourselves. With “sighs too deep for words” God’s spirit carries the weak thing each of us is into the presence of power and of love; and with the same deep breaths of compassion and feeling returns to us something of God, to give us the strength and the love to go on living.