Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost (May 24, 2015)

Pentecost – Series B (May 24, 2015)
“He Will Bear Witness About Me” (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)

Last week you heard me suggest that Easter seems to end with a whimper.  Jesus ascends into heaven.  Then, on the last Sunday of the Easter season, Easter sort of fizzles out.  We say “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”  But the joy of that acclamation is not as fresh and new as it was back on Easter Sunday.
            But, you may remember that I also said that Easter really never ends.  In fact, it continues as the risen and ascended Christ continues to make his presence and power known.  Easter does not end with a whimper.  It continues with a bang on Pentecost.  Jesus sends the Holy Spirit so that his Easter joy can remain with us, even though he has removed his visible presence from us.
            Today’s reading from the book of Acts describes that amazing day when the Spirit was poured out on the believers in Jerusalem.  Peter declares that this is what the prophet Joel foretold would happen in “the Last Days.”  The measure of the Holy Spirit that was poured out upon the prophets in the Old Testament would now be available for all people, young and old, male and female.  At the cross, God had already shown signs in the heavens and on the earth.  Darkness at midday.  A rock-splitting and tomb-opening earthquake that brought forth many saints who had died and appeared as risen to many in Jerusalem.  This was the great and magnificent Day of the Lord, the day when Christ faced the judgment of the whole world at the cross.  It was a preview of Christ’s own tomb-opening and tomb-emptying event three days later.  And it pointed far forward to the final great and magnificent Day of the Lord when the risen and ascended Jesus will return in the same way he went into heaven, and all things will be made new.  On the day of Pentecost, today, and until the final Day of the Judgment, what Peter said is true: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
            Many people wish that we could have the same Pentecostal signs and wonders that were manifested on the day of Pentecost.  We have churches today that bear that name and claim these magnificent signs and wonders.  But the truth is, they were unique to the Book of Acts and the ministry of the Apostles.  They were the distinctive “calling card” of the Apostles, to prove that they were Christ’s authoritative representatives.  But this does not mean that the Spirit is not present and active in the same way as he was back then.  He is.  He just operates a bit more quietly.  He keeps a low profile.  He operates in unexpected ways, as Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
            Jesus anticipated this when he prepared his disciples for his departure.  In the Upper Room, the night of the Last Supper, he told them he was going away.  And sorrow filled their hearts.  They were probably already sad and confused after Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, and future persecution for his followers (13:36-38; 13:21-30; 15:18-25).
            In this sinful, broken existence, our hearts are often full of sorrow, too.  We wish we could see and feel and hear Jesus like the disciples did when he walked and talked among them.  We know that Jesus is risen and ascended, but we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the idea that Jesus is everywhere as True God and True Man.  We grieve over the ways in which we have denied and betrayed Jesus.  We have said things contrary to his truth.  We have done things contrary to his will.  We have thought things that plague our conscience.  We are afraid of persecution.  Mocking words come from others around us.  The name of Christ is dragged through the mud because of the public, sinful actions of his followers.  The Church faces threats of retribution because of the divine truths we confess.  And we are called hateful … discriminatory … hypocrites.  And certainly we have sorrow over the threats of death against our brothers and sisters around the world, threats that are often carried out.
            And we ask, “Where is Jesus?”  He seems so far away, even though he promised he would be with us always.  We can’t see him, feel him, or hear him in person.
            Jesus knew the challenge this would be for his Church.  And so he promised to send “the Helper … the Spirit of Truth.”  Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit’s job would be to bear witness to Jesus.  He bears witness to Jesus by filling us with faith in Jesus.  He empowers the witness of the apostles.  He empowers our witness as we proclaim the apostolic testimony about the Risen Jesus.    Now that Jesus’ work is done, he sends the Holy Spirit.  In his earthly, visible presence, Jesus testified to the Father’s love and mercy.  Once his Messianic ministry was complete, he removes his visible presence and sends the Holy Spirit to testify to the ongoing presence of Christ.
            The mighty rushing wind signifies the Spirit as the breath of God who breathes new life.  He breathed the breath of life into Adam at the very beginning.  The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision received flesh and skin and breath and the Spirit of life.  Jesus breathed on the disciples after the resurrection and sent them forth with the Holy Spirit to forgive the sins of those who repent or to withhold forgiveness from those who refuse to repent.  The breath of God speaks forth words of Law and Gospel, words that are meant to be understandable.  At Pentecost, God reverses the curse of Babel where languages were confused and rebellious humanity was scattered to far off kingdoms.  The Apostles speak in different languages, but now everyone understands them.  Scattered humanity is brought back together into the Kingdom of God as they hear and believe “the mighty works of God” accomplished at the cross and the empty tomb.
            And then there was the fire.  The presence of God was seen in fire in the Old Testament.  The burning bush where Moses first heard the voice of Yahweh.  The pillar of fire that led them through the wilderness.  Now the presence of God is evident in the tongues of fire on the disciples.
            Even with this fireworks show that the Holy Spirit put on, he still did not forget his role in all of this.  His job is to point people to Jesus.  When Peter began to preach, he did not highlight the work of the Holy Spirit.  He preached Jesus.  His crucifixion.  His resurrection.
            Over and over again, Jesus makes the same point about the Holy Spirit.  “He will bear witness about me.”  The Holy Spirit’s job is to point us to Jesus and his work of redemption.
            “He will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.”  This is all about Jesus.  He will convict the world of sin, because people don’t believe in Jesus.  He will convict the world of righteousness, because Jesus the righteous One is the only perfect one who deserves to go to and be in the presence of the Father.  And he will convict the world concerning judgment, because Satan, the ruler of this sinful world is judged.  And where was he judged?  At the cross!  Again, this is all about Jesus.
            “He will guide you into all truth.”  This is all about Jesus, too.  The Holy Spirit would inspire the spoken testimony of the Apostles.  He would inspire the written testimony of some of them and their associates which became the books of the New Testament.  The Holy Spirit would not speak on his own authority, but would speak whatever was given to him from Jesus.
            The Holy Spirit never points to himself.  Even on the amazing day of Pentecost, it was not about him.  It was about Jesus.  I have a book in my library entitled, “The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity.”  That’s an accurate description.  The Holy Spirit likes to stay in the background and push Jesus forward into the spotlight.  And in the book, the authors make the point that if someone is making too big of a deal about the Holy Spirit, you can be sure that it’s not the Holy Spirit who is at work.  But wherever Christ is preached and magnified and glorified, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is at work there.  You can never make too big a deal about Jesus.
            Where has Jesus gone? To rule and reign at the right hand of the Father … everywhere, with power and glory.  But what good does that do for us?  How do we get connected to Jesus?  How do we know he is everywhere acting for me?  Still working on my behalf?
            We know because from his place at the right hand of the Father, with his work of redemption complete, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to work in Word and Sacrament to connect us to him, to work in our hearts to create and sustain faith, to keep on blowing through our hearts and lives with his life-giving power, to keep on filling us, to breathe on our dried up bones.  At times, we are just like the children of Israel in exile: “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off.”  Jesus breathes his Word and Spirit into us so that we may live. He forgives our sin.  He restores our hope.  He reconciles us to God.  And one day, after our bones are really and truly dried up, he will open our graves and raise us up and place us in our own land, the new heaven and new earth that he has promised.
            “Come, Holy Spirit,” we pray with the Holy Church, “fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love.”  He is, indeed, the mighty rushing wind in our sails that moves us and motivates us … the breath of God that breathes into us new and eternal life … the fire that ignites our love, our service, and our witness.

Shine in our hearts, O Spirit, precious light;
Teach us Jesus Christ to know aright
That we may abide in the Lord who bought us,
Till to our true home He has brought us.
    Lord, have mercy!
(LSB 768.4)

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