June 4, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
SPIRIT OF THE LIVING GOD
There are many strange and terrible things happening these days. It’s a rare day that there isn’t something in the news that shocks us and sickens us. In fact, sometimes we aren’t even shocked anymore, because these things are happening so often.
A couple of weeks ago, a man deliberately drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians at Times Square. One was killed and 22 were injured. The one who was killed was a beautiful 18-year-old from Michigan, celebrating her high school graduation with a long anticipated trip to New York City.
The driver was arrested at the scene of the crime. He was a 26-year-old Navy veteran. He told police he had been hearing voices. The voices told him to “kill them all”.
When you hear voices, it’s sometimes a sign of mental illness, as it was in this tragic case. But not always. In fact, not usually. I think we all hear voices.
As long as I live, I’m going to hear the voices of my parents. I’m going to remember the values they instilled in me and I’m going to hear either their approval or disapproval as I go through my days. I also hear the voices of teachers and coaches and pastors and other mentors who have been part of my life. Those voices help keep my life on track.
But sometimes there are negative voices. Maybe somebody told you once that you were never going to amount to anything. Or that you weren’t very smart, or you weren’t very good looking, or you weren’t very talented. Maybe you have some of these tapes that play over and over again in your head. They are tapes that might be characterized in an AA group as “stinking thinking”. But still those thoughts are there.
There’s an old cartoon that shows a devil and an angel, one on each shoulder, whispering in your ears their conflicting advice. Whether or not you believe that’s the way it really works, I think we all have had that experience of hearing a voice that tells us what we know we should do but don’t really want to do, and at the same time we hear another voice that tells us what we know we shouldn’t do but we really want to do it anyway.
Mental health does not mean you don’t hear voices. Mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, is a process of learning which voices to listen to, and which ones to ignore. Which ones to encourage and feed and get tuned into, and which ones to discourage and starve, and tune out.
There is one voice that is speaking to all of us all of the time. It may be the voice you are always listening for and paying careful attention to. It may be a voice you are not tuned into at all. It may be a voice you will be learning about for the first time today. This voice has a name. It’s called the Holy Spirit.
There’s a reason we’re talking about the Holy Spirit today. This is Holy Spirit Sunday, better known as Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost Sunday is the day, seven weeks after Easter, when the voice of the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples of Jesus and filled them with power and wisdom and courage.
We read about how it happened in the scripture from Acts 2. We’ll get back to that, but first a little bit about what the Holy Spirit is.
The Holy Spirit didn’t just show up for the first time on Pentecost Sunday. The Holy Spirit is all through the Bible.
The Old Testament Hebrew word for spirit is “ruach”. It means spirit, breath, wind, or air. The New Testament Greek word is “pneuma”. It means pretty much the same thing. You will recognize “pneuma” in our word “pneumonia”, an infection of the airways in our lungs. Also, “pneumatic tools” which are powered by compressed air.
It can be confusing, as we translate the Bible, to know for sure if the words “ruach” and “pneuma” are just referring to air, breath, or wind, and have no particular spiritual connotation, or whether they are referring to the Holy Spirit. For example that word “ruach” is found in the Book of Genesis. It’s the second verse of the Bible where it says that the “ruach” of God was sweeping and swooping over the dark waters (1:2). That might just mean the wind was blowing that day. Or that might mean the Holy Spirit was directly involved in God’s creation.
It’s interesting, especially if you’re a Bible nerd like me, to note that different translators disagree on this. Here’s the New Revised Standard translation: “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” And here’s the New International Version translation of that same verse: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” So which is it? “A wind from God” or “The Spirit of God”? As it is with so much in the Bible, you decide!
In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is connected with gifts God gives to certain gifted people. For example, Bezalel, the builder of the Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus. It says, “The Lord said to Moses, see I have chosen Bezalel . . . and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kind of crafts” (31:1-2). Bezalel is Spirit-filled. We might say “inspired”. That’s where we got that word. God inspires certain chosen people, like God inspired Bezalel.
The Holy Spirit is also connected with leadership. When leadership transfers from Moses to Joshua, we are told, “Now Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the Spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him” (Deuteronomy 34:9). When Samson needs a little help fighting a wild lion, it says, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands” (Judges 14:6). When King David gives his dying testimony, he looks back over his life and says, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me” (II Samuel 23:2). And when Jesus begins his ministry, he recalls a verse from the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18 / Isaiah 61:1).
So far, God’s Spirit is parcelled out selectively. It’s for leaders and gifted people. But then when we get to the New Testament, that changes. The Holy Spirit is now available for everyone. Anyone and everyone. Here’s the key passage. It’s found in the Book of Joel.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days (Joel 2:28-29 / Acts 2:17-18).
And that is exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost! In fact, this same passage from Joel is used by Peter in his Pentecost sermon. He says this prophecy has now come true. The Holy Spirit has come, and the Holy Spirit has come for everyone!
The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times as many times in the New Testament as it is in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament is three times as long. So I’m not going to even begin to go through all the New Testament references with you. I’m just going to mention two. Both of these come from Jesus.
Before he died he made this promise to his disciples:
I have said these things while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
That word “counselor” is a difficult one to translate. In other versions it says “advocate”, or “comforter”, or “helper”, or “encourager”. The Greek is Paraclete. Not parakeet. Paraclete.
It’s a word that has a legal background. Your “paraclete” would be like the person who represents you and speaks for you in court. Who is on your side. What Jesus is saying here is that his disciples will not be alone, even when he is no longer with them. Because he will be with them. He will always be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit. And yes, that means he will always be with you!
What does the Holy Spirit do in our lives? Those various words used to translate “paraclete” are a beginning. The Holy Spirit will counsel you, advocate for you, comfort you, help you, and encourage you. But that’s just the beginning. Holy Spirit will also shape you, form you, change you, lead you, guide you, empower you, use you, and speak to you.
All this is available for us. For all of us. Not just for certain people. It’s available for everyone on this earth. But the way it works is the way this famous painting illustrates.
Jesus is knocking on the door of our hearts. But Jesus won’t come in unless we open the door. Unless we invite him in. And notice, there is no door handle on the outside of this door for Jesus to let himself in. We let him in. We invite the Holy Spirit in.
The other thing Jesus said about the Holy Spirit leads directly to Pentecost. This was after his resurrection but before he had ascended to heaven. Just before. These are his parting words according to Luke: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). This verse leads directly to Pentecost, because that’s what happened on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came upon his disciples, just as promised. And they received power, just as promised.
The Greek word is “dunamis”, from which we get our word, “dynamite”. That’s the kind of power unleashed in the lives of the disciples on the Day of Pentecost when they received the Holy Spirit.
And if you don’t believe it, read the rest of the Book of Acts! There is no way they could have done all they did – risking their lives to bring the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth – without power beyond themselves. It’s right there if we continue reading that same verse: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria; and to the ends of the earth.”
With the Holy Spirit comes power. Which means, without the Holy Spirit comes powerlessness. So how is it with you? Are you feeling that power at work in your life right now? Or are you feeling powerless? You’re the only one who can give an honest answer to that question.
Did any of you bring your cell phone with you this morning? Hold them up. You’re not in trouble. I generally leave mine in my office because it would be really embarrassing if mine were to ring during worship. You would never let me forget that. And you would know my ridiculous ring tone. Cell phones are amazing inventions. But even the latest, most advanced cell phones have one serious limitation. I think you know what that is. Battery power.
Just out of curiosity, how many days will your cell phone work without a charge? How many say one? Two? Three? The more advanced you phone is, and the more you use it, the more often you will have to charge it.
The technology packed into one of these is incredible. But without power, it’s worthless. I guess I could use it to hold down the papers on my desk. That’s about it. This little thing has unbelievable potential, but without power, it’s a paper weight. A very expensive paper weight.
So here’s the question: If I were to look to see how charged up you are with the Holy Spirit you right now, how many bars of battery power would I see? Four? You’re fully charged. Or would it be three? You’re almost there. Two? Getting kind of low. Or zero?
God’s voice is speaking to us. There’s an important call coming in right now. But we might not even know it because we have been disconnected from our power source for too long.
So the disciples have been promised this power. They are waiting for it and expecting it and praying for it. Then comes Pentecost.
When the Day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).
They had been hiding out in fear. They knew the incredible good news of the resurrection of Jesus, but they had been afraid to tell anyone about it. They had been powerless. And now all that in an instant has changed. This mighty wind blows through, and now they are compelled to go out and tell everyone about Jesus.
But you see, it was Pentecost. People from all over had come to Jerusalem for this Jewish holiday. They spoke different languages. The disciples were not well educated. They spoke Aramaic and not very well. Maybe they knew a little Greek. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, when they started talking about Jesus, they were understood even across language barriers. This wasn’t the kind of speaking in tongues we hear about today where you don’t know what is being said. This is the opposite. Everyone knew what was being said.
Jack Levison, a professor at Perkins School of Theology says it was like this:
The Spirit was a force to be reckoned with, an impulse to which mere humans capitulated, a source of daily breath and uncontrollable outside power.
But here’s the thing. This isn’t just a history lesson. This isn’t just what the Spirit did a long time ago. The whole point is that the Holy Spirit has that same power today.
Do you believe that? If you do, if you are waiting for that and expecting that and praying for that – as the disciples were – that’s when it will happen. Because the Holy Spirit will not come into your life without your permission.
It’s one of the most ancient of all the prayers. “Come Holy Spirit, come.” Pray that prayer as you start each day. Open your heart so you can receive that power. Listen for God’s voice so you will use that power for good. Offer yourself to be part of what God is doing in this world. God needs Spirit-filled, Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered people. God needs you.
What if that troubled young man in New York City had heard the voice of the Holy Spirit instead of the voice that told him to drive his car into all those people? What if that other troubled young man across the ocean in Manchester was able to tune out the impulse to kill, and tune into God’s voice compelling him to love? What if our world leaders were filled with God’s Spirit? What if ordinary people living our ordinary days in an ordinary place like Nampa were plugged into the extraordinary power for good that is always there for us? Do you think that might make a difference?
But we have to open that door. We have to extend that invitation. “Come Holy Spirit, come.”
Instead of a closing spoken prayer from me today, I’d like us to sing the prayer I think most of you know. It’s an invitation to the Holy Spirit. “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” Let’s sing that prayer right now.