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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Festival of Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, unfortunately many Christians today are not exactly sure what that Spirit does. We would like to say that the Holy Spirit gives evangelists and pastors the power to preach. Unfortunately, I am reminded of the older pastor who was greeting folks at the door after service. A woman complimented him on her way out, “Oh, Pastor, that was a very good sermon.” The pastor then responded, “Thank you, ma’am, but you’ll have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” The woman lifted up her nose and huffed, “Well, it wasn’t that good.”
Others say that the Holy Spirit gives voice to our inner thoughts. Apparently it didn’t help the young pastor who was preaching for the first time. He stood before the people speechless as several moments passed. At last, opening his mouth, he slowly began to speak, “On the way here this morning, only the Holy Spirit and I knew what I was to share with you today…and now only the Holy Spirit knows.” Maybe as one critic joked, that’s why churches serve coffee after worship. It’s to make sure the parishioners are fully awake before driving home.
Still others say that the Holy Spirit gives us direction. Well even the great evangelist Billy Graham tells of a time during the early years of his preaching ministry, when he was due to lead a crusade meeting in a town in South Carolina, and he needed to mail a letter. He asked a little boy in the main street how he could get to the post office. After the boy had given him directions, Graham said, “If you come to the central Baptist church tonight, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.” The boy replied, “No thanks, you don’t even know how to get to the post office!”
So, it’s not surprising that the crowds who were gathered in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost were confused by the work of the Holy Spirit. They were bewildered by the sights and sounds. There were even Lutherans gathered in their numbers. The pious Norwegians were sighing, “They are filled with new wine.” And the Germans were wondering why they had started without them. There might not have been red jello, but they were already quoting the Luther’s Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” It is a question worth repeating. “What does the Holy Spirit have to do with the Church and our faith today?”
Over the centuries, Christian have struggled to makes sense of the work of the Holy Spirit. In the middles ages Christmas and Easter were considered two of the three great festivals of the church, and the third was Pentecost. It was celebrated both as the birthday of the church and the beginning of the season of summer. Many cathedrals and parish churches were appointed with a special architectural feature used just for Pentecost. The richly painted and plastered ceilings often disguised a number of trap doors and openings known as the Holy Ghost Holes. During the worship services, deacons would be drafted to climb up on the roof. At the appropriate moment during the liturgy, they would release live doves through the openings. These doves would come swooping down on the congregation as living symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same moment, choirboys were encouraged to make whooshing and drumming sounds, like a holy windstorm. Then, finally, as the doves swooped and the winds rose again, the trap doors were opened, and red rose petals were showered upon the congregation, symbolizing the tongues of flame.
Diane L. Eck in her work, “Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras” writes that many Christians today are searching for those places and occasions, those skyward openings where the breath of God can enter in. They want mystical, spiritual moments that surprise them, and then lead them in directions they might not have otherwise taken. Perhaps, you are searching for such a place yourself.
Of course, even with a white dove floating over us, we don’t have any holes in the ceiling at Lake of the Isles where the Spirit magically descends. But we do have places through which we believe and trust that the Holy Spirit does come to us. Now, you may not suddenly be able to speak in a language that you have never studied, nor do I expect to see a tongue of fire upon your head, but I do believe that in these places you will be touched and changed. That is God’s promise. As Peter proclaimed long ago on Pentecost, “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” But to those who seek the power of the Holy Spirit- beware.
There are evangelists and preachers today who promise their followers that the Holy Spirit will dramatically bring them earthly treasures in abundance. They promise their faithful that the Holy Spirit will guide them into the way of riches and prosperity. They promise that the Holy Spirit will bring them to health and security. But truthfully my friends, that has never been the promise of the Holy Spirit. God sent the Holy Spirit into the world, so that you and I would believe in Jesus Christ and walk in his ways- and not our own. And God poured out his Holy Spirit on the church, so that you and I should go forth and share the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
The Holy Spirit comes to us today through the mystery of God’s Word and Sacraments, and its changes are subtle and nuanced in its seven-fold gifts. From the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, through the Book of Revelation, we hear of these gifts. They are the treasures spoken of at every baptism when God promises his faithful, “The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in his presence.” They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit intended not to build up your wealth and security in this world, but to encourage and build up your faith for eternal life- and to live a life modelled by Christ’s own example.
In the Word and Sacraments, the Spirit of wisdom enters your life teaching you to see God’s hand at work in the world. It is to see the world’s injustice and inequality and to call it wrong. Indeed, God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s ways the ways of the world, but the Spirit of wisdom allows you to see God’s ways in others and in his creation. And his Spirit of understanding allows you to accept that difference and then to work courageously for change.
The Spirit of counsel challenges you to question the ways and teachings of the world. You don’t simply affirm everything you see or read or are taught to be true, but the Spirit of counsel allows you to challenge the reasoning of the world to avoid the error of doubt and sin. While, the Spirit of counsel encourages you to follow the right path in life, and not simply the crowd, the Spirit of might provides you with the strength and the will to follow that course.
In times of trouble and in the face of conflicting views, the Spirit of knowledge inspires you to embrace God’s ways, and it provides you with the ability and finesse to handle them. The Spirit of the fear of the Lord fills you with an awe and a deep respect for and all that is holy and divine, as you carry out God’s will.
And finally, the Spirit of joy in God’s presence gives you the simple pleasure in serving God. This is perhaps the most delightful and life giving gift of the Holy Spirit. It is to enjoy God and long to be with him. It is the spirit of gentleness and hopefulness that brings comfort and hope to the world.
What will be the occasion for the Holy Spirit to enter into your life? Where will the openings in the church’s heavens be thrust open for the Holy Spirit to enter in? That is why God established the Church at Pentecost and poured out his Spirit upon it. In my mind, the Holy Spirit enters in when you allow yourself to be exposed to the presence of God, to be surrounded by the company of fellow believers, to be captured in prayer, to be embraced in his holy sanctuary. God will remain veiled to you, and by his Holy Spirit, he will tap you on the shoulder through the Word and Sacraments to dare to do acts of faith for others. He will not overwhelm your intellect- for then he would violate your integrity. But he will simply whisper into the ear of your soul, gently persuading you to have faith and to go forth. You may not be completely certain of what the Holy Spirit is doing, but you know that you are being encouraged to take a step, to make a commitment even before all the evidence is in- and you are being challenged to do something, and go somewhere that you could not and would not do on your own.
A kindergarten teacher observed that confidence in her Sunday School class one Pentecost Sunday. She watched her children drawing. One little girl was working so diligently, that the teacher asked her about the drawing. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused and said, “but no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will when I am done.” That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
Most likely, my friends, you will not see a dove descending upon you this day, but you will sense that you are being sent to tell the good news of Jesus to others. You may not you feel the winds of the Spirit blowing around, but you will find yourself offering a welcome embrace to a neighbor in need. You may not see a flame of fire resting on your brow, but you will become a light for the world, and a word of welcome to the stranger who has not yet heard. Yes, by the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit, your life will be changed and like the apostles at Pentecost, you will become a force of change in the lives of others.
Martin Luther understood the power of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life. He wrote, “It is a restless spirit, for it cannot remain silent or idle, but it is always striving with all its powers to spread the honor and glory of God among all people, that others too might receive the Spirit and then help with the work.”
That is how the Holy Spirit changed the disciples that Pentecost morning, and how the Spirit continues to change each one of us. The Holy Spirit is not only the gift to be received, but it is also the gift for us to give. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.