Day: May 30, 2009

Pentecost Sermon: The Work of the Holy Spirit

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009.  I hope your day is filled with God’s presence.  May the fire fall on us.

The Work of the Spirit
John 15:26-27, 16:4-15

John 15:26-27:
26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

John 16:4-15:

4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.

5“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt[a] in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

Why Are We Wearing Red Today?

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  This is the last big Sunday, a feast day in the medieval church, before we enter ordinary or normal time.  So, we’re wearing red today because red is the liturgical color of the Holy Spirit.  Red is the color of fire and symbolizes the presence of God.  Just as Moses saw the burning bush as a symbol of God’s presence, so we wear red today as a symbol of God’s presence with us, but also as a reminder of the coming of the Spirit on that Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Of course, the story of the coming of the Spirit is found in Acts 2, but today we are reading the Gospel lesson for this year’s lectionary, John’s Gospel, chapter 15:26-27, and chapter 16:4-15.  Because before the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, before the ascension of Jesus, before the resurrection and the crucifixion of Christ, he promises the disciples the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, today I want us to look at the work of the Holy Spirit, which is not something we as Baptists often do.  Baptists in the 19th century bought into the idea that the sign gifts, the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit which include speaking in tongues, gifts of knowledge, gifts of healing, and other sign gifts ceased with the end of the apostolic age.  In other words, we believed that when the apostles died, and the Scriptures as we know them today were finished, that God had given us all we needed to proclaim the Good News.

And then, something very amazing happened.  In 1906, in California, at a prayer meeting, the Holy Spirit fell on those who were praying at Azusa Street, and the Azusa Street revival sparked the renaissance of awareness of the Holy Spirit’s active work in our world.  A work that continues in extraordinary ways, in unlikely places, with amazing results.

In the 1970s, the charismatic movement burst on the scene of mainline and evangelical churches.  Churches steeped in the tradition of both organization and liturgy found themselves struggling to explain and cope with a new wave of the Holy Spirit in their midst.  The charismatic movement swept through Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and yes, even some Baptist churches.  Sadly, some churches majored on minors in this resurgence of awareness, and some fellowships were fractured.

Today, the fastest growing segment of Christianity is the Pentecostal/charismatic segment, and it is growing fastest in South America and in Africa.  Pentecostals were the only group in a recent US study of church growth and decline, to post positive growth.  So there must be something to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s take a look and see what Jesus had to say, because he is promising to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples after he’s gone from them.

The Work of the Holy Spirit is Creative

Let’s take a quick trip to the first chapter of Genesis, where Genesis 1:1-2 says —

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

So, there he is, the Holy Spirit present in the first two verses of Scripture.  God’s creative spirit is the Holy Spirit.  And the picture in Genesis 1:2 is of a mother hen brooding over her chicks — hovering over them in a life-giving act.  God’s creative spirit brings something from nothing, and then sits on it like a mother hen until all of creation is hatched, newly formed, and alive.

But, that’s not all the creative spirit of God does.  This creative spirit is also a life-giving spirit.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- 5 and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

This creative spirit (and the word ‘spirit’ is the same word for ‘wind or breath’) then gets breathed by God into his new creation called Man, and this wind, this spirit, this breath, gives life.  God imparts himself in the ‘breath of the Spirit’ into Man, and by extension, each man and woman.  This life from the Spirit is part of the image of God in each of us, part of the presence of God with us all from the moment of God’s creation.

The Work of the Holy Spirit is Companionship

Just as God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden before their sin, Jesus walked with his disciples during his earthly ministry.  But, Jesus has told the disciples he is going away in that famous moment when he says,

John 14:15:  “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

Just as Jesus has been their companion for the past three years, he promises to send the Holy Spirit to continue God’s presence with them.

There is a misconception that in the Old Testament we have God, in the Gospels we have Jesus, and in the Book of Acts we have the Holy Spirit.  But, the reality is that the Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit, the same spirit that created Adam and Eve; the same Spirit that called Noah and Abraham; the same Spirit that rested on Samuel, and Saul, and King David.  This Holy Spirit is the same Spirit who inhabited the Temple in his shekinah glory, and then withdrew from the Temple when God’s people turned from God.

The Holy Spirit has always been God’s companioning presence with his people.  He appeared as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night to lead the nation of Israel through the wilderness.  The Holy Spirit fell as fire from God when Elijah prayed and he consumed the altar, the sacrifice, and the prophets of Baal.  The Holy Spirit is the same spirit who spoke through the Judges who led God’s people; through King Saul, and after his sin, through King David.  This Holy Spirit is the spirit who in the Old Testament is referred to as upon God’s chosen.

But in the New Testament, beginning with this passage, God’s spirit inhabits each believer, just as the Spirit inhabited the Temple at its dedication.  Paul even refers to believers’ bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit.  So, the Spirit is our companion, the paraclete — literally the one called alongside us.  He was sent by Jesus, made manifest on the Day of Pentecost, and demonstrated his powerful presence first through the apostles, and now through his people 2100 years later.

The Holy Spirit Gives Courage

If we had been there with the apostles in Jerusalem waiting in an upper room, waiting for who knows what, we would have seen a scared, leaderless group, uncertain of what the future would bring.  But on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit’s presence announces itself as a mighty rushing wind.  Tongues of fire appear on the heads of the apostles and they begin to speak in languages they have not learned.  Peter boldly ascends a makeshift pulpit to proclaim that this — the wind, the fire, the speech — is what the prophet Joel spoke of — the coming of the Spirit on young and old, the restoration of confidence and courage to God’s people.

A phrase repeated over and over as the nation of Israel prepares to take the land of promise is, Be strong and of good courage for I am with you! That same Spirit of God that gave courage to Caleb and Joshua, and others like them, gave courage to Peter and the apostles.

That same Spirit that gave courage to Peter, not only preach but eventually to die, gave courage to God’s people through the persecution of Roman emperors, starting with murders of the apostles, and extending through the end of the first century as thousands of Christians were martyred for their love of Christ.  The same Holy Spirit gives courage to Christians in Iraq, and in Iran, and in Sudan where fundamentalists factions are seeking to wipe out all influence of Christianity in the name of Islam.

The Holy Spirit Brings Conviction

In a compelling description of one of the main works of the Spirit, Jesus says the Holy Spirit will convict mankind.  That conviction comes in three ways —

  1. Conviction of sin. The Holy Spirit will show those who have not believed how they have missed the mark, missed the target that God has set for them when they failed to believe that Jesus was God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, God’s Savior.
  2. Conviction of righteousness. Jesus said the Holy Spirit will show the world that my life was the one example of righteousness — rightness with God — and even though I will no longer be with you, the Holy Spirit will convict the hearts of mankind that my life, my example, my love, my sacrifice is the example of perfect righteousness.  God confirmed that by raising Jesus from the dead, Paul said, and gave Jesus a name like no other name.
  3. Convict the world of judgment. There is a judgment coming, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.  In other words, if you choose this world, you lose.  And by this world Jesus means this world which lives in opposition to the world to come, the Kingdom of God.

The Work of the Holy Spirit is to Speak of Christ

3But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

With these words, Jesus reminded his disciples and us that the work of the Spirit of God is not to draw attention to himself, but to point to Jesus.  Jesus is the hope of the world; Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; Jesus is the light in a dark night; Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Bread of Life; Jesus is God’s Messiah; Jesus is the savior of the world.  The work of the Holy Spirit is to take what belongs to Jesus and make it known, bringing glory to Jesus in the process.

So, when Peter stands to speak on Pentecost, he explains the phenomenon of the sound of a mighty wind, the flames of fires, the unknown tongues, and the boldness of the disciples.  But after he explains the signs, the expounds on the savior.  After he clarifies the situation, he celebrates the Son of God.  Peter says,

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

Then, continuing in verse 29 —

29“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ,[f] that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. 32God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

And so the sermon on the Day of Pentecost wasn’t about the Spirit of God, it was about the Savior from God, Jesus.  And, Peter preached that sermon in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What About Today?

Which brings us back to today, Pentecost Sunday here in Chatham, Virginia.  We frankly are relieved that there has not been a sound of rushing wind.  We are relieved that tongues of fire have not appeared on our heads, and that we have not all, or at least some of us, spoken in languages we did not learn saying words we did not understand.  We are especially relieved that the service did not overflow into the streets of Chatham, and that our neighbors did not come rushing out to see what all the noise was about.  And, we are really relieved that we do not have to explain to them that, No, we’re not drunk, this is just the work of the Holy Spirit. But, should we be relieved?

Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s associate for their entire ministry, told this story when we were with him at The Cove a couple of weeks ago.  Barrows said that when he was a boy of about 8, in the early 1930s, his father took the family to Yosemite on a camping trip.  He and his father had climbed to the top of Glacier Point, but as the afternoon lengthened, they made their way down for a surprise that his father promised him.

As they got back to the campground, which was called Camp Curry, and night was falling, his father held Cliff’s hand, and told him to watch the 3,000-foot cliff at Glacier Point.  Night fell, and all the campers gathered in chairs and sat on blankets on the ground, almost silently waiting for the evening spectacle.

About 1872, the tradition had begun of pushing the glowing coals from a massive bond fire at Glacier Point, over the edge of the cliff, and watching the burning hot coals fall like a ribbon of molten fire 3,000 feet to the canyon floor below.  Those gathered there that night knew what to expect, but Cliff Barrows said it was all new and marvelous to him as an 8-year old boy.

As darkness blanketed the scene, an invisible voice echoed from Glacier Point —

“Are you ready, Camp Curry?”

In reply, a park ranger shouted, “Let the fire fall.”

Cliff Barrows said the most spectacular sight he had ever seen occurred that night.  Crimson embers, hot with burning cascaded over the edge of Glacier Point.  The pushers were skilled in pushing the fire slowly so that it appeared to be a steady stream of red-hot lava flowing over the edge of the rock.

Barrows said it lasted seconds, but seemed like forever.  The fire fell, people in the camp sat in rapt silence, and then burst into applause as the last dying embers reached the valley floor.

In 1968, the fire fall was discontinued.  Lack of interest and environmental concerns were the official reasons given.  At the last firefall, the offical park bulletin proclaimed–

The Firefall, a fancy of James McCauley’s that caught on, and was popular for almost a hundred years, died Thursday, January 25, 1968 in a blazing farewell.

It was a dandy Firefall, fat and long and it ended with an exceptionally brilliant spurt, the embers lighting the cliff as they floated slowly downward…

There weren’t many people around to watch. Maybe fifty. Hardly any congestion at all. *

Hardly any congestion at all.  And I wonder today if, we are no longer interested in having the fire of God fall.  If in our observance of Pentecost, we have replaced fire with fabric, courage with color, and look with relieved nostalgia back on an extraordinary event that we are thankful doesn’t happen here.

But suppose God were to say, “Are you ready Chatham Baptist Church?”

Would our response be “Let the fire fall!” ?

That gives us something to reflect on today, Sunday, May 31, 2009 — Pentecost.

(*The Story of the Yosemite Firefall can be found at —