At a Loss For Words: Shutting up in Advent

A sermon on Romans 8.18-30 preached at The Parish, December 6, 2015
To listen to this sermon, click here.

They’re reading names out
Over the radio
All the folks the rest of us
Won’t get to know

Sean and Julia
Gareth, Ann, and Breda
Their lives are bigger than
Any big idea

So sings Bono in “Peace on Earth.”
He names names.
He names the dead.

And then he sings,

Jesus in this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth

This peace on Earth
Peace on Earth

Hope and history won’t rhyme.
And somehow the words of Jesus,
and the words of the season,
stick in the throat,
you can’t get them out,
and you are rendered speechless.

Let’s name some other names this morning:


Anyone know who these women are?
Twenty-six years ago on this date, these fourteen women
were murdered at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.
Their crime was that they were women studying engineering.

I remember exactly where I was when the news reports started coming over the radio from Montreal on December 6, 1989.

And I remember being stunned and silenced by this massacre.
As these women were silenced, I found myself at a total loss for words.

And today, across the country there will be memorial services for these women.
Some speeches will be made, but the most poignant moment will be in silence.

Sometimes there is simply nothing to say.
Sometimes words are too easy, too cheap.
Sometimes words are just the chatter to cover up the silence.

But here’s the thing.

You know, I know and I think we all know
that when it gets to the deepest places of our lives,
when we plumb the depths of our most powerful
– indeed, most overpowering –
experiences, longings,
emotions, desires and hopes,
we find that there are very few words indeed.

Maybe that is why we stumble around so much in our prayers.
We just can’t find the words to say.
It’s not simply a matter of no longer being comfortable
with the formulae of past pieties,
– although it may also be that –
but more profoundly it is that those deepest longings
seem somehow inarticulate.

We find ourselves reduced to inarticulate groans,
moaning, sighing, weeping,
and sometimes just sitting before God in silence
– and often a frustrated silence –
because we just don’t know what to say.

We are at a loss of words.

We find ourselves entering Advent with a profound sense of longing,
a deep experience of waiting, waiting and waiting some more,
and we can’t find the words to name that waiting.

You know what I’m talking about?

Some of us are waiting for a resolution, a reconciliation and maturity,
in the midst interpersonal dynamics
that have been broken and stalled for so long.

Some of us are frustrated that gifts that we have received from God
seem to remain stuck
because we can’t find a vocational path for the expression of those gifts.

Some of us are longing so deeply for a partner
with whom to share a life of deep love and intimacy,
while others have such intimate partners but those relationships are not welcomed by our families or our churches.

Some long for health in the face of debilitating disease,
and others are waiting to be released from depression or addiction,
or a crushing sense of inadequacy.

These are deep longings,
so deep, that sometimes we find ourselves paralyzed before them.

There are so many things that we long for,
so many things for which we wait.

And while I might have just named some of those things in a way that resonated with you, there is still a sense that neither I, nor you, can find the words to really express your deepest prayer.

St. Paul seems to understand this loss of words,
even though he was so elegant and expansive in his own use of such words.

And he wants to tell us two things this morning.

First, he wants us to know,
– he wants you to know –
that these deep longings,
this profound waiting that seems to characterize our lives,
is in tune with the very nature of creation.

All of creation, Paul writes, waits with eager longing.
All of creation is waiting for redemption.
All of creation is waiting for the restoration of all things,
not least the restoration of human beings
as faithful stewards of this good creation.

All of creation waits.
Waiting goes all the way down.

So we are not alone in our waiting.
We are in tune with the very nature of things.

And second, he wants us to know,
– he wants you to know –
that God the Holy Spirit,
groans with all of creation,
and groans with all of humanity in the travails of childbirth,
in the labour pains of the new creation.

Waiting goes all the way down,
and all the way up,
and all the way through, and around, and within.

All of creation waits,
and even God waits.

We’re all in this together.

But Paul takes this a step further.
Not only does the Spirit groan in the travails of childbirth with us,
those groans are sighs too deep for words.

You see, the Holy Spirit cannot take our inarticulate prayers
and translate them into words for God,
because the Holy Spirit is just as much at a loss for words as we are.

The brooding Spirit over the face of the deep,
is still brooding,
is still about to give birth,
but like all women in the throes of contractions,
the Spirit isn’t all that articulate in her groanings.

These are sighs too deep for words.

But … God can interpret the groaning of the Spirit,
God can understand the mind of the Spirit,
because the Spirit is groaning on behalf of us,
and God knows those deepest longings,
God knows what we wait for,
because God shares those longings
and God is waiting for the same thing as we are.

It is Advent, friends.
And if you find yourself inarticulate before God,
if you find yourself unable to find the words to say,
then weep,
and maybe even, sit in silence.

It is Advent, and we are at a loss for words,
though I have already spoken 1039 of them.

Maybe what we need is to sit and listen.
What does the groaning of creation sound like?
If the inarticulate sighs of the Spirit were put to music,
what would be the genre?

Listen to this:

Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”

What did you make of that?
What did you hear?
What did you feel?

This piece was composed in 1927 and is considered by many
to be one of the finest pieces of music of the 20th century.
It is the second last piece on the Golden Record placed in the Voyager spacecraft and launched into the universe in 1977,
followed by Beethoven’s String Quartet #3.
Should another species of living beings exist in the universe,
we want them to know Blind Willie Johnson’s
“Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.”

But here’s the problem.

While we may be moved by the deep, deep blues of
“Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,”
Christians tend to want to find words where there aren’t any.
Christians so often seem to think that they have to ‘say’ something,
when there is nothing to say.

Some years ago I was a campus minister at Brock University
when tragedy hit the Christian community.
My IVCF colleague, Michael Hare, was killed in a car accident,
returning with a group of students from a Bible study retreat.
His young wife, Catherine was left a widow,
and their baby boy would never know his dad.

The Brock Christian Fellowship students were in shock and grief
and so I gathered a number of them together to share their feelings and to pray.

We went around the table.
Everyone had a chance to share what was on their hearts.

And one by one, these young Christian students reached for the only thing
that they could find to give them hope.

“Michael is now with the Lord, and that is a better place.”
“God is going to use this in wonderful and powerful ways.”
“God has a purpose in all of this.”

And then, almost inevitably,

“All things work together for good for those who love God.”

They reached for that verse that we so often appeal to in such situations.
When we have nothing to say, we blithely quote Paul only two verses away
from where he has told us that the Spirit herself has only inarticulate sighs,
and is at a deep, deep loss for words.

The Spirit may be at a loss for words,
but we’ll not be left speechless.

I was deeply uncomfortable with how quickly these young students wanted to find something good in all of this. And as the sharing came around the circle and back towards me, I was torn – not wanting to strip them of what comfort they found in this language, but also not wanting to allow them to so quickly rationalize a tragedy that took a beloved brother away from us, and stripped his young family of a husband and a father.

But it was the last student in the room who broke the bubble.

“I don’t believe any of this,” he said.
“I don’t believe, can’t believe and refuse to believe that any of this is God’s will.”
“I can’t worship that kind of a God!”
“This is too awful, too painful, too wrong to be able to accept so easily and so quickly.”

I was so grateful to that student for his honesty.
I was so grateful that he refused to provide a sweet coating
to such a bitter tragedy.
I was so grateful that he was not going to allow
a benevolent determinist to be his God.

We face the same kind of struggle whenever tragedy hits.
Just as there is no sugar coating the deaths in San Bernardino this week,
there is no ‘divine will’ to be discerned in the deaths
of more than a 100,000 Syrians in their civil war,
or the displacement of more than a million refugees.

Our reading this morning tells us that
“in all things, God works for the good of those who love God”
but surely this is not to dismiss or disregard
the real pain and suffering that we face.

I mean, this magnificent chapter of Romans is full of pain and suffering.

We suffer with Christ, Paul writes.
And while he will want to place this suffering in the perspective
of what he calls “the glory about to be revealed to you,”
it is clear that such suffering sets off a groaning throughout all of creation;
a groaning that reaches right into the very heart and being
of God the Holy Spirit.

Paul speaks of a waiting and longing for redemption
precisely because he knows that our present reality
is so far from such redemption.

He speaks of a hope that is not seen precisely because
there is no hope to be cheaply found
in the mangled body of a dad and father,
the lifeless body of a little boy on the Turkish shore,
in disease the debilitates
and depression that leaves us paralyzed.

No wonder that even God is at a loss for words.
Where is God in all of this?
Before answering that he is enacting his will
towards some sort of good,
we need to answer that God is speechless in his grief
in the face of these tragedies.
This text is too dynamic, too full of pathos,
too full of longing and waiting,
too much taken up with a God who is fully involved in our groaning,
to be read as a piece of pious determinism.

The Spirit intercedes for the saints,
intercedes for Michael Hare and his family,
intercedes for Syria,
intercedes for the families of the dead,
intercedes for our sister Amy,
because the Spirit knows the will of God,
and that will is for life, not death;
that will is for goodness, not evil;
that will is for love, not hate.

Paul isn’t offering us determinism here.
He is giving us a glimpse into the heart and purposes of God.

We are saved in hope, he has just written.

Hope for what?

Hope that love wins.
Hope that goodness is stronger than evil.
Hope that we will be conformed to the image of Christ.
Hope that we will come to full humanness in Christ,
that we will bear the image of God in our lives.
Hope that humanity and all of creation will come to the fulfillment of our calling.
Hope that instead of shame, we will be a people of restored glory.

And this leads me to a re-reading of this famous verse.

It isn’t just that we have employed Romans 8.28
as a panacea to all evil that befalls us,
we’ve actually misread it altogether.

I mean, let’s ask some questions of context here.

First, if God is speechless, then there is something wrong about
using this verse to fill in the words when we should be speechless as well.

Second, doesn’t it seem a little strange that Paul,
who has been talking about all of creation longing for redemption,
would now quickly move from a cosmic vision of all things
being restored in Christ,
to the daily circumstances of our personal lives?

Might it be the case, that when Paul says that
God brings “all things” together for good,
he is actually talking in cosmic terms about all of creation,
literally “all things,” not limited to the vagaries
of our personal lives?

But there is something else going on here.

There is good reason, from closely looking at the tense of the Greek in this verse,
to retranslate …

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” NRSV

or …

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love, who have been called according to his purposes.” (NIV)

alternatively as …

“We know that in all things God works for good with those who love God, and are called to his purpose.”

Do you see the difference?

Paul is not saying, cheer up, God’s got it all under control,
even if it doesn’t look that way.

No, Paul is saying that in the face of the suffering,
in the face of the pain,
in the face of the brokenness,
in the face of the labour pains of creation,
in the face of such deep, deep longing,
in the face of inarticulate sighs and groaning,
in the face of being rendered utterly wordless …
those who are called according to God’s purposes,
those who embrace their calling to tend creation,
those who have a vision of life in the face of death,
those who claim redemption even against the evidence,
those who are renewed in the image of God,
those who live with an aching longing for his Kingdom,
those who suffer in Christ …

don’t wait for cheap words,
don’t look for easy comfort,
and don’t remain passive,
but get busy in paths of redemption.

And that, my friends, is exactly what you have been doing,
and will be doing this week as you welcome a refugee family to your community.

God works for good with those who love God, and are called to his purpose.
And so you have been working with God,
to bring all things together for good in the face of unspeakable evil,
to transform displacement into welcome,
to replace hatred with hospitality.

You may be speechless, but you have not been paralyzed.
You may have nothing to say, but doesn’t mean that you have nothing to do.

Paul goes on:

“Those whom he foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”

Don’t get hung up on later theological debates about predestination here.
That’s not the point.

God’s foreknowledge is more a matter of loving us before we were born,
then it is a statement of God’s omniscience.

And God’s predestination here is that we be conformed to the image of his Son.
Do you want to know God’s purpose for your life, then be like Jesus!
That is God’s purpose.

That is how we are restored to what we were always called to be,
the image of God.

We are not predestined to violence, to death, to tragic brokenness.
We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus.
We are predestined, called, and find our deepest meaning and fulfillment by being invited into the family of Jesus and living as a member of that family.

And this, Paul says, is our glory.
It all comes down to glory:
… we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him;
… the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us;
… that the creation will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God;
… those whom he justified, he also glorified.

This glory is the Kingdom of God that overthrows the kingdom of death.
This glory is the homecoming of God’s children
as loving stewards and caring homemakers.
This glory is manifest when the weighty presence of God
takes up residence in lives of restored justice.
This is the glory that we meet when God’s purposes are fulfilled and love wins.
Paul’s vision does not cover up the real evil that wreaks such pain in our lives.
He faces that evil squarely and insists that
goodness is stronger than evil,
love is stronger than hate,
light is stronger than darkness,
truth is stronger than lies.

I don’t know about you, but I want to live in Paul’s world.
I want my life to be animated by this kind of hope.


Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

One Response to “At a Loss For Words: Shutting up in Advent”

  1. Andrew Stephens-Rennie

    Brian – I just got a chance to read this, and I’m grateful for these words. I’m especially grateful for the retranslation:

    “We know that in all things God works for good WITH THOSE who love God, and are called to his purpose.”

    That’s the kind of move really does change things, really does call those of us who claim to be Christ followers to live in a way that responds to the muck and filth of this world. It helps me to see that my responsibility, and that of my own community takes place in both small and large ways, and helps to reposition us as stewards of the world and its interrelationships, as it has been from the beginning.

    Paul is pointing us back to the wisdom of God’s original commission in the Garden, even in the midst of THIS world. And I think I forget that all too often.


Leave a Reply