There’s a scene in the movie, “Finding Nemo,” where Bruce, a great white shark, ‘invites’ (for lack of a better word) Marlin and Dory to a meeting of the Fish-Friendly Sharks support group. Fish are his weakness. He is, after all, a shark. We don’t know his entire back-story (How about a “Finding Bruce” movie, Pixar?), but we do know a few things: Bruce never knew his dad, he hasn’t eaten a fish in three weeks, and he has exactly two friends (Anchor and Chum), in an entire ocean teeming with sharks, who are trying to swim the same, hard, fishless eating road. When an accident leaves Bruce assaulted by the smell of blood; even though he has overcome adversity, he reverts to his old self. Thankfully for Marlin and Dory, Anchor and Chum are there to push him up against a wall, shouting, “INTERVENTION!”
What could this possibly have to do with Scripture?
Romans 8:26-27, “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. 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” (NIV).
I’ve read this passage of Romans more times than I could guess. I’ve memorized it. Once I went to a church where the senior pastor took several years to preach through the book of Romans, so I understand the concepts are enormous and must be taken in small ‘bites.’ I’ve quoted it. I’ve answered questions over it in Bible quizzing. I should have a lot of deep, meaningful things to share. But when I read it, this morning, all I could think about was Bruce (and it’s not even because I recently watched “Finding Nemo,” because I haven’t…).
Intercession is not the same as intervention, but maybe it’s close in this particular instance. I don’t think we have a god who watches for moments to forcefully back us up against walls, just to get his way, but I do think we have a relational God who intercedes, as Spirit, when we invite such action.
God’s interaction with the people of Israel always baffles me a bit. Today’s reading was no exception:
Ezekiel 39:28-29, “Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind. I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the people of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord” (NIV).
When I read passages such as this one, I can’t help but wonder how things got to this point. They were the chosen people! How can they not already know that God is their God? How could God send them into exile? The implications for this are huge on multiple levels. Does God thwart their free will? Does God even love the people God chose, if God is willing to take such action Godself? And why does God decide to bring them back? Is the timing arbitrary? Have they simply paid enough for their offenses now that an entire generation is dead? And, wait. God was hiding? Please excuse me while I feel a little bewildered by the question, “Why would Israel want this kind of God?”
To understand any of this, I think we have to take a step way back, realizing that God chose Israel, but covenant cannot be one-sided. The Israelites do break the covenant, time and time again, which (at least in theory) means that God is also free to walk away from the terms. Interestingly, God doesn’t do this. In some ways, God even seems to go above and beyond the terms of agreement, taking chance after chance on these people God has chosen. And so, when God leads the Israelites back into a land of their own, it is, perhaps, actually more an act of grace than one of control. I don’t suppose God would have forced such a migration, and even if God had tried; who’s to say the Israelites would have listened this time around? To me, it seems more like God offered an option.
“Hey Israelites! I’m not sure you even know what you want, but there’s this Promised Land… if you’re interested…”
It had to be relational.
Let’s just imagine Anchor and Chum were two random sharks Bruce had never met. Do you think their intervention would have been successful? Because I kind of think we would have had either a couple of dead sharks… or a couple of dead fish… or both… on our hands, and that would have made for a terrible scene in a children’s movie!
Anchor and Chum were allowed to speak truth into Bruce’s life, because they were friends. They had spent many days together discussing the desire to live a better, transformational, radically unusual life. Even when Bruce forgot what he wanted, his friends remembered and intervened.
Let’s just imagine God was some random being the Israelites had never known. Do you think God’s offer of hope and new life would have been accepted? Because I think the Israelites had enough trouble connecting to this God they did know, from the beginning. I think, without a foundational relationship, they might have wandered for another 40 years… or maybe forever.
God was allowed to speak truth into the lives of the people of Israel, because they knew one another intimately. They had spent generations living together in the ebb and flow of both ordinary days and extraordinary ones. All of the experiences from love to hate to joy to pain had been shared. Even when the Israelites forgot what they wanted, God remembered and offered it to them.
But what about us?
I don’t know about you, but I can be unsure of what I want or even unclear regarding what I “ought to pray for…” (Rom. 8:26).
It doesn’t even have to be a matter of eating my friends or breaking covenant! Often, there are multiple good options. Making decisions can be difficult. Life is hard! And so, I desperately need the Spirit to search my heart, to intercede when I have no words, because I am so very interested in what ought to be.