The Apostle's Tale: INTERCESSION
Notice: Spoiler alert!
This series reveals details about the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you don’t want to know anything in advance of viewing, watch the series before you read the sermon notes.
On this third week of our series, Paul reminds us that even though we sin and fall short of the glory of God, and even though God calls us to join in the groaning of creation and to enter fully into the suffering of the world on behalf of others, God does not abandon us in this work. The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is with us every step of the way.
In twelve-step programs, there is a term known as “hitting the bottom.” An addict’s “bottom” refers to the point when the person has irreparably fallen and cannot get back up of his or her own volition. It may come after the individual has lost everything, or it may come just before a person’s life has been totally destroyed. Either way, it is up to each individual to decide when he or she has had enough and confesses, “The first step is admitting I have a problem.”
If I had to pick a moment when Offred hits the bottom on the Hulu version of The Handmaid’s Tale, I would choose a scene from the finale for season one. In this episode, Serena, the wife in the household, makes an especially cruel decision. which She takes Offred to visit the home to which Offred’s three-year-old daughter has been given. Offred is locked in the car where she can only watch from a distance while Serena interacts with her kidnapped and re-homed daughter on the front porch of a grand home.
Serena’s purpose in this cruel act is to put additional pressure on Offred to deliver her a healthy baby. After the visit, Serena says to Offred, “She is a beautiful girl, Offred, and she’s happy, and she’s well taken care of, and you don’t have to worry about anything. Listen to me. As long as my baby is safe, so is yours.” Even in the context of a terrible world, this threat seems especially painful and heartless. Offred is overwhelmed by her personal heartbreak, desperation, anger, and horror.
Maybe we can think about hitting the bottom as a kind of general term or description for the state of human misery that overpowers people in every generation. As in Alcoholics Anonymous, hitting bottom may not necessarily mean we have lost everything (yet), but may be the result of dealing with the continuous march of catastrophes that befall God’s creation: wars and conflicts; oppression and prejudice; the pollution of land, air and water; the global rise in temperature; deforestation; the disappearing sea ice in the arctics; the poverty in which people live in so many places in the world; overpopulation; extinction; and the depletion of natural resources. The list could go on and on. I wonder sometimes if the seemingly endless succession of troubles faced by humanity has not engulfed the whole world so deeply that there is coming a time when there will be no way to reverse the damage and we really will “lose everything.”
But of course, we are by no means the first generation of people to feel overwhelmed by the fear, misery, and despair that besieges us. Each new generation of people faces a crisis, a “bottom” of their own, even without knowledge about how human pollution affects the earth’s atmosphere, or having borne witness to the devastation caused by weapons of mass destruction, or instant news coverage of every natural disaster around the globe.
In the fictional world of Gilead, the “bottom” is brought about by the possibility of extinction of the human species due to infertility caused by all of the chemicals and poisons released into the world by human beings. In the real world, previous “bottoms” have occurred because of the systematic oppression and even attempts at the extinction of entire populations, or a leader’s ceaseless desire to colonize other lands and peoples, or the decision to drop a weapon of mass destruction on another country or fly airplanes into buildings occupied by thousands of people.
Bottoms come for individuals, for communities, and for nations.
Let us consider, for example, the Apostle Paul and the times in which he lived. He was in trouble personally from the time he switched from being a persecutor of Christians to being a Christian leader. In his own words, he wrote,
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28, NRSV)
Paul was overwhelmed by his circumstances and responsibilities. But in addition to his personal troubles, he lived in troublesome times. His own country, Israel, had long ago been overrun: first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians, then by the Persians, Greeks and Seleucids, and now by the Romans.
Furthermore, the Roman Empire itself was in death throes. Civilization, as Paul and his generation knew it, was on the verge of collapse. The churches, about which Paul was so anxious, were tiny, and they struggled to survive against both the Jewish hierarchy and the Roman authorities. Paul described the entire world situation –we remember from last week–as “groaning in labor pains.”
What do we do when we hit bottom? Paul’s response to the Roman community is to offer words of hope: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
For Paul, living by the Spirit of Christ was not just some kind of a dream. It was his reality. It was not just a future possibility. It was a present experience.
Paul does not think the troubles of his time are any less perilous than those of any other generation. Nor does he think he is a person of especially great strength. Paul only thinks that, when overwhelmed by trouble and misery, the people who live in his day need, along with him, all the help they can get. So Paul takes help.
What he does to help himself is soak up the Spirit of Christ like a sponge soaks up water. That is how he is able to say, “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.”
Does this immersion into the Spirit of Christ pull us permanently out of the pit? Of course not. Most addicts relapse at least once. And we who have claimed Christ as our Savior backslide from time to time. It is human nature. But when it happens, this intercession on our behalf helps us. It lifts us up. The Spirit of Christ strengthens us and enables us to get up and go on, even when we can’t do it on our own.
What we do when we are near the bottom, or someone we know is in that place, is join with the Spirit in praying for intercession. We pray that the Spirit will help us in our weakness, and intercede with sighs too deep for words.
We pray. We sigh alongside those who are hurting. We ask God to be with us and to make us able to do what we cannot do on our own.
Maybe what intercession does do is make us better able to not be overcome by adverse circumstances, and by the help of God, to ultimately triumph in the Spirit. As Paul puts it, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”
The Apostle’s Tale reminds us that disciples are called to love God and to live according to God’s purpose. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to know his very Spirit living within us as a very present help in time of trouble.
Being a disciple means knowing that even hitting the bottom will not do us in. Because our hope is not in ourselves, but in Christ, who by the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, we know we can get back up and go on.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced 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. Romans 8:31-39, NRSV