May 2009 Sermons:
The twenty-third psalm. Can you imagine any person of faith, not loving it? My church in New Jersey surveyed its members to find out what their favorite psalms were. Only one person in that congregation DIDN’T rate the twenty-third psalm as number one.
The most popular version of the twenty-third psalm is the King James. That’s the translation with old-fashioned verb forms like LEADETH and RESTORETH. The modern translations leave me cold. For example, the New Revised Standard Version says, “He leads me in right paths,” instead of the King James’ “He leadeth me in paths of righteousness.” One modern version reads, “He sends me in the right direction.” These newer translations are supposed to be truer to the original Hebrew. An English version from Japan reads, “He leads me in the paths of efficiency.” Paths of efficiency? That sounds more like a dishwasher than a savior to me. The person who wrote that, doesn’t know the Good Shepherd. At least, not in my opinion.
What does it mean to know the Good Shepherd? Let me tell you a story. About a hundred years ago, a great actor was asked to recite the twenty-third psalm at a town gathering. He got up on the stage and spoke it from memory. This handsome young man had a loud, deep voice and he used a lot of hand gestures. Everyone applauded.
Later in the same meeting, an older woman in the community was asked to speak. She was well-respected in town. But She had never been a public speaker. The woman went up on the stage and apologized to everyone. She couldn’t think of anything to recite, except for the twenty-third psalm. She was sorry they would have to hear it twice, she said. But it was the scripture passage she knew best. Her voice cracked as she started, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The woman stumbled over her words. People had to strain to hear her voice because it was so soft and low. And yet, when she finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The twenty-third psalm is more than an inspirational poem about a pasture with cute, fuzzy animals, and this woman knew that. The psalm talks about life’s darker side—sitting at a table in the presence of your enemies, and, of course, the valley of the shadow of death. We know that side of life.
We live in a dangerous world, just as those shepherds did in ancient times. If you doubt that, think of the innocent people you know who have had their homes burglarized, or who have had their identities stolen. For example, last year, my ninety-one-year-old mother’s caregiver stole a credit card from her purse and bought a new car for herself. This was a person my mother had trusted. And loved. On the afternoon of Christmas Day last year, my mom discovered her caregiver was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us HE is the good shepherd. In Jesus’ time, shepherding wasn’t pretty. It was a dangerous job. It was like saying, “ I AM THE GOOD FIREFIGHTER!” Shepherds didn’t have barns where sheep could stay at night. Instead, at the end of the day, shepherds would gather the sheep into sheepfolds made of stone. Sheepfolds had no gates. The shepherd was literally the gate. He slept at the entrance to the sheepfold to keep the sheep safe from attacks by wolves and jackals.
Shepherding was complicated, as well as dangerous. A dozen or more shepherds and flocks would sometimes graze side by side on the same hill. At the end of the day, the shepherds put their sheep into the same big sheepfold. Sometimes there would be several thousand sheep crowded together in one sheepfold. Shepherds would take turns, keeping watch at the gate and getting a few hours of sleep.
How could they figure out which sheep belonged to which shepherd? Imagine the confusion in the morning, if all the sheep got mixed up. Compare it to a school field trip. If you’re a teacher, imagine a dozen fifth grade classes from several schools, all going on the same day to the Statue of Liberty, and none of the children knowing which bus to get on to go home. Isn’t that something like what happened to the sheep? We think of sheep as less intelligent than humans. Why didn’t the flocks of sheep get totally confused every morning?
It’s hard to believe---but those sheep knew who belonged to whom. Shepherds lived with their sheep day and night. Shepherds talked to the sheep and gave them names, the way many people talk to their dogs or cats. The sheep would get used to the sound of their shepherd's voice. Every morning, the shepherd would make a special call to his sheep. The ones that belonged to him would know his voice and come.
So that is the comparison that Jesus makes here. Jesus says that if we belong to Him, we will recognize His voice and follow Him.
But Jesus warns us that other voices will call us. Some will be the voices of people who seek to do us harm. Like my mother’s caregiver. So Jesus warns us to listen closely. Is it His voice that we hear, or the voice of a thief? We need to be on the lookout for leaders who are really looking out for themselves—even though they seem to be offering us something.
If we don’t want to be led astray, then we need to listen to Jesus' voice and to no other. Advice is everywhere we look. It’s on television. It’s in magazines. It’s on the Internet. But Jesus tells us that if we want the truth, then we have to pay a lot less attention to the other voices that call us. We must listen to Him!
We know—in our hearts-- that Jesus wants us to follow Him, and feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, and care for the poor. But when Jesus says, "Who will come and do this?,” we might hope that we can just get lost in the crowd. I think that’s why some people want to belong to big churches. It’s easier to sit in the pew for an hour and leave. But to Jesus, none of us is ever just a face in the crowd.
Jesus is calling each one of us by name. Only by following His voice do we find out what it means to live the way we were meant to live. So follow when Jesus calls. Because you're the one He's been looking for.
LET US PRAY.
O God, you are the shepherd of our souls. May we, your sheep, hear your voice, and be brought home to your fold, so that there may be one flock, one shepherd, one God and Father of all. In Jesus’ name. AMEN
Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2003), 925.
I’m not a good gardener—to put it mildly. I won two beautiful plants at Basket Bingo, and there’s irony in that. But I do know a couple of things about gardening. My mother showed me how to pick raspberries. You have to squeeze the berries gently enough to lift each one off the stalk without breaking it. I was pretty careful when I picked raspberries, but plenty of berries still ended up in my mouth. And not just the broken ones!
My parents were city people, but when they moved out to the country they learned how to grow things. They spent a lot of time pruning rosebushes, and they showed me how, too. I must admit I haven’t pruned any bushes since! When I was nine, I was curious about rosebushes, because I loved the fairy tale, “Sleeping Beauty.” Do you remember that story? A witch cast a spell on the king and queen and the whole royal family slept for a hundred years—until a prince broke through the brambles to the courtyard, to wake them up. It was so romantic. Why did the prince have to break through brambles? Rosebushes were so thick around the castle, they completely hid it. How could that happen? I couldn’t imagine vines getting so wild and tangled that they could hide a castle and conceal all those sleeping people.
My mom told me why rosebushes have to be pruned. A rose bush that gets left alone for a long time sprawls out all over the place. The vines and leaves get scraggly and they start to interfere with their own light. A gardener has to help the plant grow in the right direction. You might almost say that a rose bush gets pruned so it can be its true self.
Grapevines need pruning, too. The stalk of a grapevine can grow from, say, twelve to twenty feet in a week. To be fruitful, a grapevine should produce a few really good grapes, not a lot of poor ones. If the vine is going to grow into all it can be, the extra growth needs to be cut away.
That’s what our mothers do for us. God made our moms to help us be all we can be. We get wild like branches of a grapevine as we grow up. Our mothers help us prune away the habits we develop --like hiding dirty socks under our beds and biting our fingernails and putting off our homework until Sunday night. Moms want us to bear fruit, and not just any old fruit. Excellent fruit, not a lot of sour grapes.
Today’s gospel lesson is one of Jesus’ farewell discourses—His last words to the disciples, spoken in the upper room before His arrest. The image of the vine appears all through the Bible as a metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s people. Jesus uses the vineyard as a symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
There’s a connection between pruning and the well-disciplined Christian life. Jesus is saying that God is like a winemaker. Jesus is the vine and we, His disciples, are the branches. God the gardener prunes the grapevine—to make us stronger. Jesus has started to prune Peter, James and John. These former fishermen have gotten over their dreams to own bigger and bigger boats. They’re starting to do good ministry. But, as we know, God is going to prune them even more.
Jesus is saying that He is the true vine and the source of Christian life. His disciples are God’s true people. He wants them to bear fruit after He is gone. Except for Judas, the betrayer, that is. He is going to be cut off like a dead branch.
Jesus is saying that branches can’t get along by themselves. Alone, they will wither and die. A branch is useless unless it is connected to the vine. Branches that remain in the vine, live and bear fruit. Branches grow together so that it’s hard to tell where one vine starts and another ends.
We get pruned by God all through our lives. Being clipped by the pruning shears can really hurt. Sometimes we get cut off from things we think we need. Our television got broken in our move, and we’ve watched no t.v. in over a week. More serious pruning happens to us everyday. We are rejected, or we lose our jobs. A relationship ends. Our pruning experiences may help us bear more and better fruit. They may invite, in us, a new turning toward the source of our life in God.
Pastor Jack Hayford runs a school for preachers called the School of Christian Nurture. There he counsels Christian leaders who are discouraged when they compare the small size of their congregations to the size of megachurches. Hayford encourages these pastors to ask themselves, not ARE WE GROWING BIG CHURCHES, but ARE WE GROWING BIG PEOPLE?
What does it mean to remain in Jesus? Abiding, for the disciples and for us today, is to make a constant, moment by moment decision to follow Christ. What does this “remaining in the vine” look like in our church today? We are busy with work and family and church responsibilities. Balancing our lives can seem like a losing battle.
But it doesn’t all depend on us. God has to nurture and prune us. Our personal relationship with Jesus is the connection that enables us to bear fruit. We can’t go it alone. Let us abide in Christ—to the glory of God. Otherwise, we will become dead wood, and maybe even get hauled away in the trash bin.
The fruits of faith—good works—are accomplished by the spiritual strength that comes from abiding in Jesus, with our lives under his control. Our will and our personal strength alone are not enough.
And, although it hurts, we must not resist the pruning. If we bear good fruit, and a lot of it, we will glorify God. For that to happen, some of our extra growth has to be cut away.
Look at the great wine regions of the world and the soil in which those vines grow. Vines like steep hillsides where erosion has stripped away the topsoil. Grapes do well in harsh, dry climates. Experts say that, to produce great wine, the vines have to suffer. A vine that has to struggle produces better wine.
The pruning process isn’t fun—it’s tough on the grapevines. And it’s tough on us. If you are like me, you don’t enjoy criticism. If you’re like me, when you are criticized, you feel you have let you Mom or Dad down. Even if they’re not around any more. Even if you are an adult, middle-ages or older. We are as embarrassed as the day, twenty or thirty or forty years ago, when we brought home a bad report card. If you learn to take God’s pruning with a smile and thoughtful effort, you will bear fruit over time.
Prayer—O God, you give us everything we need to grow. We pray that you will keep us connected to each other and to Jesus. Help us, O God, to focus on fruitfulness and loving service. AMEN
Jack Hayford, “Great Expectations,” Current Thought and Trends, October 2002, 15.
John 15: 9-17
Let’s pick up where we left off last Sunday. We are looking at one of the great Farewell Discourses. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. Jesus prunes us and cuts us back, so we will be able to grow good fruit. In today’s gospel lesson, we learn that the fruit Jesus wants from us is love. Because God loves Jesus, Jesus loves us. When we abide in His love, we also abide in God’s love.
Jesus requires one thing—and that one thing is everything—that we love one another. He has loved us more than we can imagine. When we trust in Jesus, the Holy Spirit fills us with love. What is Christian love like?
Jesus describes Christian love in four ways. First of all, He talks about love as a commandment. Does this surprise you—a law that compels us to love? Isn’t love a feeling we choose whether or not to have? Feelings come over us, and we get swept away. How can love be commanded? That sounds strange. But Jesus isn’t talking about romantic feelings. He is talking about the kind of love that always looks to the best interests of another person—even if we don’t have nice feelings toward that person. Jesus speaks of love, not in a warm and fuzzy way, but in a moral way. The Greek word most commonly used for love is agape, which means the kind of love that seeks the best for self and others. Jesus commands us to make a decision to love our neighbors as fellow children of God.
I remember seeing a film about a middle aged widower, whose daughter was shot in a street fight between the Irish Republican Army and British loyalists in Belfast. She had been an innocent bystsnder. Reporters asked her father if he wanted revenge against the men who had shot his only child. He said no. The man replied, “I am a Christian. I don’t look for revenge. I forgive.”
He was right. But could you do that? I would have a very difficult time forgiving, if it had been my daughter. But a Christian is expected to do what is in the best interest of the other person, in every situation. It doesn’t make any difference whether we feel like doing it. In this gospel reading, Jesus commands us to make a firm decision to love. Always! It may seem impossible, especially for a parent whose child has died by violence. But Jesus expects us to love our neighbors. He himself offers His followers unconditional love. Every one of them. Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the authorities. But Jesus never speaks a word against Judas. Peter denies Jesus three times, but Jesus loves Peter still.
Jesus’ second point about love is that Christian love, the kind of love I just described, creates joy in us. In our society, many people think that competing and coming out on top, is the only way to find joy. So we teach our kids to compete, in the same ways we, ourselves, do. The valedictorian. The beauty queen. The captain of the team. The American Idol. Jesus is asking us to redefine joy. How can we rise above in our personal needs for prestige and control? How can we comprehend the kind of joy that Jesus is expressing in this speech to the disciples---even though He knows He will be arrested in the next twenty-four hours?
I remember a story that was broadcast on National Public Radio a few years ago. A family therapist from Kansas City, named Jim Roberts, was interviewed on the show. He told how he had been invited to visit his son’s fourth grade classroom. That day, one of the teachers had planned a balloon stomp for all the classes. You may not know what a balloon stomp is. (I didn’t know, either.) Each child ties a balloon to his ankle. The object is to destroy another person’s balloon while at the same time protecting yours. Only one person can have the joy of winning. It’s the last person whose balloon remains full of air, of course. That day, when the teacher gave the signal, the war began. Each child tried to stomp the others’ balloons.
Then another group of children was brought in for the balloon stomp. It was a group of mentally handicapped kids. Mr. Roberts, the fourth grader’s father, was worried when he saw these children. He wondered if this game would hurt and frustrate these special students. The signal was given to start stomping. This group of children seemed to have no idea what to do. They didn’t want to stomp other people’s baloons. Instead, they behaved lovingly. Each child went around, offering his or her balloon to be stomped. In fact, one girl held her balloon carefully in place so another student in her class could stomp on it. Then that stomper did the same for her. When all the balloons were gone, the whole class cheered. These children had transformed a competitive game into a cooperative one. Each student was a winner. Every child in that group experienced joy. Their joy came from feeling at home with each other, in God’s love. To “abide in Jesus’ love” means feeling at home with the Son of God. The Greek verb John uses comes from the word, meno, which means, literally, “to stay at home.”
Jesus tells the disciples that His own joy comes from perfect obedience to God. If we enter into an obedient relationship of love with Him, we will be joyful, He says. Jesus says that we won’t find joy by stomping other people’s balloons. Most of the world believes the message: "Do what feels good. Satisfy your desires." But Christians are supposed to communicate another message: "Decide to love God. And decide to love one another."
Jesus has more to say about friendship. Real friendship requires sacrifice. Christ laid down His life for us as an act of friendship. His willingness to lay down his life on the cross for his friends was a blessed gift. But each day he laid down his own desires for the benefit of others. I don’t mean, by that, that Jesus was a doormat. But His will was so tightly woven with God’s will that he found joy in carrying out acts of love. Like the love of parents, who sacrifice every day so their children are fed and clothed and are able to further their education. Like the love of children, who give up their own ambitions in order to care for their aging parents. That is what Jesus means when He says we are commanded to bear fruit. He was willing to love us in a sacrificial way because God so loved Him. We are free to make sacrifices for others, because Jesus loves us.
Next, Jesus says we must be open with each other. That’s what friends are supposed to do. Jesus has opened His heart to His disciples and made known all that the Father has made known to Him. In loving relationships, we need to let ourselves be vulnerable. We can’t hide our fears and hopes because we are afraid of the ways others will respond.
Then, Jesus makes His most important comment about love. He says that we can’t love, in the way Jesus commands, on our own. He tells us where we can find enough strength to live out the love commandment. The strength comes from God. We love, because God first loved us.
When we are Jesus’ friends, the world is a friendly place. It is no longer a place where people try to pop each other’s balloons, all the while protecting their own balloons from being popped. Christian love gives us freedom. When we know God loves us, we no longer need to keep up with the Joneses. We don’t have to be top dogs anymore.
Our neighbors desperately need to hear this good news. Even more than hearing it, they need to see it lived out---by Christians who are beloved of God. People like us.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, we are honored that you have chosen us as friends. Help us to remember that we are valued in your eyes. Give us what we need to be worthy of your faith in us. Equip us to do the work for which you have called us, O Lord. Keep our hearts ever close to yours, we pray. AMEN
A videotaped Bible study based on the book by Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan, 2001).
William Willimon, editor, Pulpit Resource, 25, no. 2, pp. 21-22. The story was told on the program, “All Things Considered.” John 15:9.
H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (Boston: Tufts, 1996).
Miracles happen every day. I saw a little miracle last Tuesday. God’s power came down from on high, and the Holy Spirit touched me just a little! Let me tell you what happened. I was alone, and driving south on Route 309 in my Honda SUV. I had spent the morning shopping at the Premium Outlets at Tannersville. I wanted to avoid the mid-day traffic tie-up on Route 22—and I felt adventurous. So, instead of returning home the way I had come, I headed west on Interstate 80 to the Hazleton Exit. I planned to drive south on Route 309 through Tamaqua and get home to Upper Macungie—all in a little more than an hour. Why take the easy way, when the hard way is more interesting? Little did I know!
I’m sure you can guess what happened. The route I had mapped out, seemed quick and easy. Just stay on Route 309 forever! But, to my surprise, it took me more than two hours to get from Tannersville to the Schnecksville Fire House. There are almost a hundred traffic lights between Hazleton and Schnecksville, even though there are hardly any houses or people on that mountain road. Or so it seemed to me, as my gas tank got lower and lower.
I almost ran out of gas in the wilderness. And I ended up being an hour late for an appointment later that afternoon. But it was worth it. God had planned a surprise for me, on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere. I gasped as I looked down through the passenger window! A spectacular view of the Lehigh Valley took my breath away. Green fields, red barns, cars moving like ants on winding roads, almost a thousand feet below—it was absolutely thrilling for a New Jerseyan from a town with wall-to-wall people. There, just south of Tamaqua, I saw a green paradise of farmland, stretching out as far as I could see. Off in the distance, the roller coasters at Dorneyville were visible. This view of paradise put me in mind of the “new heaven and a new earth” in the Book of Revelation.
I had been worried because my gas gauge was so low. But now I didn’t mind, because I felt I had touched heaven there on Route 309. I felt nothing but peace and wonder for the next forty miles, as I finally reached Route 22, found a gas station and then pulled into our driveway. Have you ever had a sight that seemed to lift you high above the earth---at a time you least expected it? And most needed it?
In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples have a mountaintop experience much holier, and a great deal more spectacular, than mine. Jesus returns to reveal Himself to His closest followers in Jerusalem. He shows up behind closed doors, with a resurrected body. He eats a piece of fish to show that He’s really there. He interprets the scriptures for them. Then, Jesus offers a parting blessing to His still-flabbergasted disciples. He says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised. So stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” He tells them.
What does Jesus mean by, “power from on high?” He is looking up to heaven, and His feet are barely touching the ground. He seems to know that his followers won’t be able to find enough strength within themselves to carry on His ministry. God will have to help them. And the disciples have to believe that this will happen. Look up, Jesus seems to be saying. Look higher. Leave your footprints in the earth. Look beyond yourselves! Go to the mountaintop, Leave your worries here on earth with your footprints. Then Jesus lifts His hands to bless them, as He rises to heaven.
Jesus’ rise to heaven has been a popular subject for art since the fifth century. If you like to go to major art museums, you’ve seen many pictures of this famous scene. Painters who have portrayed His ascension have a lot of interest in Jesus’ feet. These paintings and woodcuts always seem to focus on our Savior’s feet disappearing into the clouds. And there’s another detail I have noticed in these works of art. If you look closely, you can see the footprints Jesus has made, just moments before, on the earth. They show the disciples gazing up into the sky with their mouths open.
This story is the final scene before the curtain falls, in Luke’s Gospel. I have always imagined the disciples feeling as forlorn, at the ascension, as I felt last Tuesday, at the ninety-ninth traffic light on Route 309. I have imagined them longing to return to their fishing nets. Just as I missed my familiar back roads in New Jersey at that moment. We want to hang on to what we know, for as long as we can.
But Luke tells us that the disciples are joyful. There isn’t a downcast eye among them. They don’t kiss the good old days with Jesus goodbye, and prepare to go back to the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has prepared them well. He’s been a good teacher! They are ready to receive the Holy Spirit from on high.
I wonder how often the disciples retold this story. It was a major moment. You know about major moments in your lives when you remember what you wore and what song was playing in the background. We are like the disciples. We hate to say goodbye to those we love. Final partings are terribly hard. That’s why rituals of remembrance are so important to us—like the American Legion service we will be participating in, at the Triangle later this morning.
The Bible shows that Jesus is one of the most grounded people who ever lived—He’s not only a loving spirit, He’s a real person and He’s right out there in the front lines of life. He heals the lepers. He plays host to tax collectors. And He chooses to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a stallion or a chariot. Jesus always seems to be on the wrong side of the street, with the wrong people.
But in these gospel stories, Jesus is saying we have to move beyond the cares of the world. He tells parables about the kingdom of heaven, all through the gospels. These stories, like the story of the lost coin and the Good Samaritan, remind us that heaven is ours. We can catch glimpses of heaven, right now!
If we hope to fulfill God’s mission, we need to take time out to visit the mountaintop. That’s what worship is for. We have to look for the promise of Christ all around us, like footprints in the earth. We skim the surface of life. We get distracted by inconveniences and problems. I’m late for this, I have to do that, this doesn’t work, I can’t find what I did with that. When we walk with Jesus, we can put minor irritations into God’s perspective.
Our relationship with Jesus makes us incredibly powerful. We are powerful enough, right now, to leave our fears and worries inching down the road like ants. Not sometime in the future when we get holier. Now! We are blessed in every moment of our lives. Jesus surprises us with the Holy Spirit, and the kingdom of heaven is all around us, right now.
Let us pray.
Come, Holy Spirit, come to us in this familiar place. Come to us when are minds are trying to work too fast. We need more than a long, long traffic light to slow us down, O God. On the mountaintop, surprise us, revive us, and shape us into the Body of Christ. May we leave footprints in the earth that show Christ is here, because we have truly been here. AMEN
Mentioned by Barbara Lundblad in “Acts 1:1-11,” in David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 507.
Did you ever go to an after-Pentecost clearance sale? Did you ever receive a Pentecost greeting card? Probably not! We don’t think of Pentecost as an important holiday like Easter or Christmas. But it’s my favorite day in the Christian year.
What is Pentecost? It’s often called the birthday of the church. But isn’t Christmas the birthday of the church? That makes more sense to me. Christ was born on Christmas, and He is the head of the church. Pentecost is the anniversary of the baptism of Christianity. It’s the day when God’s gift of the Holy Spirit came to the disciples for the first time, as Jesus had promised.
Pentecost is one of the three major Christian holidays. Before anyone celebrated Christmas or Easter, Pentecost was on the church calendar—beginning in the first century A.D. Celebration of Christmas and Easter began three hundred years later. On Pentecost, we decorate the church in red, symbolizing the fire of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s a great day to celebrate a baptism. The disciples would have agreed, and so would the early church fathers.
Christians believe that Pentecost is the day when the Church receives the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to us, we don’t come to it. Today the Holy Spirit has will bless Briahna Jaicee Shuey. In baptism, the Holy Spirit will empower us to be Briahna’s spiritual teachers.
How can I explain the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity---the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They are all God, and their power is shared equally. A pastor is allowed to change some of the words in the baptism ritual, but never the all-important Trinitarian statement, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We can’t call God the “Holy Parent” or the “Creator” in that particular sentence. In this sacrament, God must be called the Father. Otherwise, it isn’t a baptism.
We know how to talk to God and to Jesus. Most of us pray, at least some of the time. But how do we communicate with the Holy Spirit? I’d like to compare it to a new technological tool that some of us have. Let’s talk about a GPS, or a Global Positioning System, as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. Just imagine that you are in your car, trying to get somewhere you’ve never been before. Last Wednesday, a choir member was talking about his GPS. A GPS is a computerized navigation system used in cars. Many new cars come with one. It’s often mounted on the dashboard, and it shows a map of where you are. You tell the GPS where you want to go. A voice tells you when to turn and what road to get on next. The GPS in their family car happens to have a female voice. This member of our choir was amazed at how well “she” –that is, the GPS--directed him on the back roads. But, like most of us, he didn’t really understand how the GPS knew what “she” was doing. “She took us in several odd directions, but she got us there!” He said. He sounded amazed.
As it happens, the Holy Spirit is often called “she,” –just like the voice of that GPS. Think of the Holy Spirit as our pathfinder from God—the spiritual equivalent of a GPS! The Holy Spirit is our spiritual navigator. “She” may lead us in odd directions, but “she” gets us where we need to go.
So, what happened on the first Pentecost? How did the Holy Spirit surprise Jesus’s followers? The disciples went to Jerusalem, as Jesus had told them to do. They suddenly heard the sound of a mighty wind blowing into the upper room where they sat. Over each disciple's head, there appeared something like a flame. It was the Holy Spirit. These men were amazed to discover that the Spirit had given them the power to speak hundreds of languages. Lo and behold, Jesus’ disciples were able to make themselves understood by a huge crowd of foreign travelers, as they told stories of Jesus. The people in the crowd noticed that they all had one thing in common: God’s Spirit was with each one of them. I’m talking about the Parthians, and the Pamphylians, and the Elamites, whose names Eileen just pronounced so well! Jews from every country of the world heard the good news of the gospel. An entire city was possessed by the power of God. Three thousand people became disciples.
When was the last time any church in the Lehigh Presbytery took in three thousand new members in one day? It's probably been quite a while. The good news about Jesus needs to be heard by everyone. We need to share our own personal faith stories with people we don’t know. The Holy Spirit will help us do this.
But language keeps us from communicating what we believe. Preachers talk about religion in ways that are hard to understand. Too often, we throw words around, like patristics and justification and pneumatology. The average English-speaking person doesn’t know what we’re talking about. The Holy Spirit comes to remind us that language is supposed to help us tell the good news of Jesus Christ. And to encourage us, too! It's the job of the church to make sure that every person gets the chance to hear that news in way that they can understand.
A couple from the United States was taking a tour of a South Pacific island. One day they saw a young boy climb up a palm tree to get a fresh coconut. But just as he was about to swing the machete to cut the coconut loose, he paused for a moment. His mother was running out of their hut and yelling at him in their native language. The American wife turned to her husband and said: "She's telling him to be careful or else he'll cut himself." The tour guide was amazed. He turned to her and said: "I had no idea that you spoke our language." But the woman answered: "Oh, I don't know your language. But I know mothers."
The Holy Spirit gives us the power to connect with people very different from us, in a universal language. The early church grew with amazing speed. It grew because the Spirit made the disciples’ communication techniques so persuasive. They didn’t have to place any advertisements in the local papers and they didn’t have to hand out Christian bumper stickers. They didn’t even have to create a web site. Instead, the disciples were out there healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and preaching their personal faith stories.
What does the Holy Spirit have in store for us? Christ has sent the Spirit to be the church’s pathfinder—the GPS for our souls. When the Spirit comes to us, anything can happen. What if, next Sunday, thousands of new people want to join our church? We might need to put in some folding chairs. We might run out of bulletins and hymnals. But that's a problem that the Holy Spirit would like us to have.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we thank you for this special day in Briahna’s life, and in the life of our church family. We thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit. Grant us the boldness to live as your disciples and communicate our beliefs to the whole world. AMEN
Kathleen Long Bostrom, ed. For Everything, A Season: a Study Of the Liturgical Calendar (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2005),52.
J. Dudley Weaver, Presbyterian Worship: a Guide for Clergy (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1972), 110.
Peter Bower, The Companion to the Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2003), 117-118.
Story told by C. Edward Bowen, in a sermon, “What’s Going On Here? Acts 2:1-11”, http://www.goodpreacher.com
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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