Guest preacher: James Armstrong
Scripture: Luke 3:2-3, 15-17
This morning we’re going to be looking at biblical passages that refer to the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity. I hope that, as a result, we will end up with a clearer picture of the Holy Spirit and what the Spirit offers to us as Christians.
I’d like to begin, though, by talking about two things in particular that the Holy Spirit is not:
First, the Holy Spirit is not an afterthought. You just might think so, if you focus only on statements like the Apostle’s Creed, which, after substantial descriptions of God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, simply says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” without further discussion. If this was all you had to go on, you could be excused for thinking that there was very little to say about the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit was indeed an afterthought in the theological scheme of things. But that is not the case. The Holy Spirit is not a minor figure in the Biblical record. As we shall see, the Bible has a lot to say about God’s Spirit.
Second, the Holy Spirit is not a ghost – not a small-“g” ghost. Yes, in English we use the terms Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost interchangeably, but the Holy Spirit is not a ghost in the popular meaning of the term. God’s Spirit is not a colorless presence hovering around the edge of our awareness, like some kind of wandering, homeless ghost. God’s Spirit is not ineffectual like the ghosts we see in the movies, caught, as they are, in sad old houses, and unable to move on. At the beginning of creation (in Genesis 1:2) the Spirit was present and moving – moving everywhere, never trapped and never stopped. Nor does the Holy Spirit mean to scare us like popularly-imagined ghosts are supposed to do. I originally wrote here that the Holy Spirit is not scary. However, I remembered that the Holy Spirit is God, and God in God’s full power can sometimes be – and probably should be – scary to us. That said, we still should not think of the Holy Spirit as some kind of scary and ragged old ghost. God’s Spirit is something else entirely. And this is made clear when we look at how the Spirit is actually depicted in the Bible. Scripture describes what the Holy Spirit does as well as what the Holy Spirit is like. We can learn a lot about the Spirit from both kinds of descriptions. Let’s start with what the Holy Spirit does.
In the Gospel of John Jesus describes the Spirit as a counselor or advocate – the Greek word is paraclete. In chapter 14 verse 26, he says, “. . . the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” And in chapter 16, beginning with verse 8, Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. . . . he will guide you into all truth.” As we can see, the Holy Spirit has the enormous responsibility of taking care of us. As our counselor, the Holy Spirit helps to show us God’s will and leads us to the truth of all things. The Spirit is truly “God with us” as we worship and as we work in the world for God’s kingdom.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul presents his understanding of spiritual gifts. It is here that we learn two important things about such gifts. First, they are given to the church by the Holy Spirit. And second, as Paul says in verse 7, “. . .to each one the manifestation of the Spirit [that is, a spiritual gift] is given for the common good.” Whole sermons have been devoted to the gifts of the Spirit, but it is not my intention to go into detail on this subject today. The point I do want to stress is made in Ephesians 4:12: the gifts are given “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ [that is, the church] may be built up . . .” The gifts of the Spirit have a purpose, which is to build up the body of Christ.
This, then, is a very brief job description of the Holy Spirit – abbreviated, yes, but it does lay out for us several crucial points: the Holy Spirit is “God with us,” our caregiver, counselor and guide, and the Spirit is the bringer of gifts from God that build up the church. Of course, more – much more – could be added to this short description of what the Holy Spirit does, but the clock is not my friend, and I’d like to turn now to the question of what the Holy Spirit is like.
To do this, let me introduce you to a few of the words that are used about the Holy Spirit in the Bible. In some cases these words are poetic and metaphorical, and I think that as we look at and think about them, we will begin to understand just who the Holy Spirit is. And the picture we are able to build up is of a dynamic and powerful Person, as far from the colorless, hovering presence I mentioned before as it is possible to be.
The first word I want to call your attention to is fire. As we saw in this morning’s scripture reading from the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist said that the Messiah, Jesus, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” You will also recall that when the Holy Spirit first descended on the infant church at Pentecost, in Acts 2:3, tongues of fire came to rest on each one present. I’d like to make two comments about how the Holy Spirit is like fire.
First, as we read in Luke 3, fire burns away chaff. Chaff consists of the inedible parts of the stalk of wheat that cling to the kernel of grain. Our chaff – that is, the things of this world that cling to our lives – is burned up in the fire of the Holy Spirit, leaving only the good wheat. From this image we learn that the Holy Spirit helps purify us, enabling us to throw off and separate ourselves from the unworthy things that belong to this world. In this way the Spirit draws us closer to God. Of course, we are talking here about John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, which Pastor Allie preached about in the spring. Sanctification is something we might well be frightened about – it certainly sounds like a process of loss as the chaff of our lives is separated from us and burned up. If we take our Christian life seriously, we must recognize that this is our destiny: we will be purified – sanctified – and we will one day stand before God. And the chaff cannot stand with us there. What chaff in your life needs to be burned away?
My second comment about the Holy Spirit as fire is that fire wants to grow and move, and it is not easily contained. This image tells us that the Holy Spirit is not easily contained, either. Don’t be mistaken, God’s Spirit is dynamic, hard to contain and ultimately unstoppable. Is that your experience of the Holy Spirit in your own life?
Our next word picture comes from the prophet Joel (chapter 2:28); it is repeated by the apostle Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17). The image here is of the Spirit being poured out, like a liquid from a large vessel: God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” “I will pour out” – think about these words for a moment. Don’t they convey a sense of generosity, even lavishness; don’t they depict a situation of plentitude and abundance? God is not stingy with God’s Spirit; the Spirit is not dribbled out to us, one drop at a time, but is showered down on us. This precious gift is not sparingly given. Imagine some valuable liquid, like expensive perfume or a very fine wine. Then imagine it being poured out in great quantities, being made available to just anyone, heedless of the cost. That’s the picture we are given of the Holy Spirit. And please notice, the Spirit is not just for a few of us; there is enough of the Holy Spirit to go around for all of us. The Holy Spirit is not small or limited! The Holy Spirit is not dainty or fragile! These seem like pretty obvious things that don’t need to be emphasized, but sometimes we act as if the Holy Spirit is an insignificant, inconsequential part of our lives – perhaps a treasure, but a dainty, fragile treasure, kept out of harm’s way, high up on a shelf. Remember, the Holy Spirit has been lavishly and robustly poured down on us. We are abundantly endowed with the Spirit of God, so much so that that Spirit demands to be shared with others. And that brings me to my next word image.
Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as rivers or streams, plural – streams of living water. In John 7:37-38, he says: “‘If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me . . . streams of living water will flow from within him.'” And the gospel author then explains in verse 39, “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” The image here is really quite wonderful, even awesome. The Holy Spirit flows through the broken and patched vessels of our lives, like barely contained gushing rivers. And these rivers flow out of us to provide living water to a parched and dying world. In a dry, desert country like much of ancient Israel, the rivers were bringers of life. They regenerated and revived the land. Like those rivers, the Holy Spirit regenerates, revives and refreshes, and after we ourselves are refreshed, we become the channels through which the Holy Spirit revives the world. There is a corollary here: If we are the channels through which God’s Spirit flows out into the world, we must take care that we do not dam ourselves up. We should – we must – keep the channels of living water open. Moreover, when we are out in the world, serving as channels for the Spirit into that world, please keep in mind that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit who flows through us is also serving alongside us as we work. Don’t forget, we are not alone. God’s Spirit is with us and in us – always.
The final word I want to mention in connection with the Holy Spirit is the word power. This association of the Holy Spirit with power is found both in the Old and New Testaments. For example, when Samuel anointed the boy David as the future king of Israel, 1 Samuel 16:13 says that “from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.” And in Acts 1:8, Jesus promised his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” Of course, power is implicit in the other images I have introduced this morning. Fire and rivers – both are powerful. But we need to underline the word power in connection with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is powerful, and we misunderstand the Spirit’s fundamental nature if we do not recognize that through the Holy Spirit flows the power of God. And as the passages I have quoted above make clear, that power is available to us – to all of us.
What does the Holy Spirit offer us? Many things, but this morning I’ve spoken in particular about God’s care and guidance, gifts for building up the church, personal purification, and power – that is, God’s power. That’s a bit of a laundry list, but it all comes down to this: the Holy Spirit wants to be a part of our lives and wants us to share in God’s power and abundance. Yet so often we feel powerless and adrift, not taking part in the spiritual abundance that God and God’s Word have promised us. How do we access this power? How do we live an abundant life? How do we become active partners in the work of this powerful and dynamic Holy Spirit?
If you are not a Christian, then there is a most important first step. You need to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. If you would like to do this, or to talk further about it, it would be my privilege to meet with you after the service, or you can speak with Pastor Allie when she returns next Sunday.
For Christians, the answer is simple, though not necessarily easy. The Holy Spirit is with you and has been with you from the time you accepted Jesus into your heart. You only need to acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit and welcome the Spirit into your life. God’s power and God’s abundance – are these too much to ask for? No! But it may be a scary thing to do, because your life will almost certainly change. If so, then be brave. Invite God’s Spirit to fill your life and to guide and direct you. George Croly, the author of our next hymn, put it this way: “I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay, no angel visitant, no opening skies, but take the dimness of my soul away.” Take the dimness of my soul away! Do you want to pray this prayer?
Whatever and however you pray, be assured that God will answer you. God will meet you where you are. And remember, you can always draw closer to the Spirit through prayer, meditation and Bible study. One terrific opportunity for study is coming up this fall, when Pastor Allie will be leading the after-service small group in a study of the gifts of the Spirit. I strongly encourage you to participate in that study.
As we have seen, one of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to care for and build up the church. If we, as a church, say yes to the Spirit, the Holy Spirit will change our lives dramatically for the better and will build up our church in ways beyond our imagination. The Holy Spirit is waiting for our answer. Will we say yes?