Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Holy Spirit: God's Presence in the Present

[This message was shared on Pentecost Sunday, June 3, 2006, with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church. Three young people from the congregation publicly affirmed their Baptism, confirming their intentions to follow Christ through their adult years.]

Acts 2:1-21
True story as told by the late Bill Bright, a Christian leader: During the Great Depression, there was a man named Yates who owned a Texas sheep ranch. But it wasn’t a profitable venture at all. Yates was unable to make enough to pay on either the principle or the interest on his mortgage. He and his family were forced to live on a government subsidy, daily facing the possibility of foreclosure.

Then one day a seismographic crew from an oil company told Yates that there might be oil on his land. They asked for permission to drill for oil. Yates signed a contract letting them do that.
Some 1115 feet underground, they struck an enormous oil reserve! For a long time, that first well produced 80,000 barrels a day.

More wells were drilled on Mr. Yates’ land that produced many times that. “In fact, 30 years after the discovery, a government test of one of the wells showed it still had the potential flow of 125,000 barrels of oil a day.”

Yates owned every bit of it. “The day he purchased the land he...received the oil and mineral rights. Yet, he’d been living on relief. A multimillionaire living in poverty. The problem? He didn’t know the oil was there even though he owned it.” He had no notion of what he already had!

That, says one of my favorite Christian communicators, Greg Asimakoupoulos, is like many followers of Jesus Christ. We live in spiritual poverty. We could be living lives powered and inspired and encouraged by God’s Holy Spirit. Instead, we try going through life on our own wits, our own intellect, our own minds and bodies. We fail to embrace the wisdom that ancient King Solomon was given by God centuries before the birth of Jesus, words recorded in the Old Testament book of Proverbs:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. [Proverbs 3:5-6]
Today is Pentecost, one of the three great festival days of the Church Year. On it, we remember a strange event that happened ten days after the risen Jesus ascended to heaven.

After Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, He spent forty days with His followers, forgiving them of their sins, shoring up His teaching, preparing them for their future lives without Him, and readying them to be His witnesses.

Jesus, according to Paul, spent time with about 500 of His disciples during this period. Just before He ascended to heaven, Jesus told them to go back into Jerusalem and pray: He would send the Holy Spirit to them. The Spirit would make it possible for them and others to believe the Good News that when people surrender to Him, their sins are forgiven and they have life forever with God.

So, they prayed. And prayed. And prayed some more. There were still about 120 of them praying when Pentecost rolled along.

And then it happened.

All heaven broke loose and “...suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”

The Holy Spirit had come to that humble crowd of believers in Jesus.

So, what does this strange incident tell us?

First of all, it tells us that through the Holy Spirit, the risen Jesus can be with us now. Our faith is not about some old events that happened to a bunch of people wearing bath robes back in the first-century. We can experience Jesus’ presence in the present. This is especially important for our three confirmands--Heather, Cori, and Laura--to remember today.

All too often, young people and their families treat confirmation like graduation from the Church. But confirmation is really supposed to be a beginning, a moment when you tell the world, “Now that I’m on the cusp of adulthood, I intend to follow Jesus Christ as a grown-up. I intend to make Him the highest and most important priority in my life!”

There are many people in this sanctuary today who can talk about how in difficult and challenging times in their lives, they knew that the Holy Spirit helped them experience the presence of Jesus.

They could also talk about how in the mountaintop experiences of their lives, they knew that presence too.

When my wife was three-and-a-half months pregnant for our first child, our son, she suffered from an appendicitis. During the wee hours of Palm Sunday, 1981, she underwent surgery and I and a lot of family members and church friends, prayed like crazy for her and our baby. In the midst of that praying, I sensed God’s presence.

The doctor told us that five years before my wife's appendicitis attack, we would have lost our son and that ten years before, I would have lost both of them. When I preached at the sunrise service at our home church on Easter Sunday one week after my wife’s surgery--and with her in the sanctuary, you can bet I also sensed the presence of the God into Whose hands I had placed her, our son, and myself.

Many times, I’ve experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit when I visit people who are dying or those who are grieving. In those circumstances, I still don’t know what to say or do. But then I pray: I ask God to guide me, to give me the right words and the right silences. Every time I’ve done that, God has empowered me for those moments. I’ve learned that Jesus is good for the promise He made to those who dare to follow Him just before He ascended to heaven: “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.” Through the Spirit He sends to His followers, He is constantly present.

On the first Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit came to bring comfort and power for living to a group of people who had committed themselves to prayer in Jesus’ Name. Heather, Cori, Laura, and everybody: The Holy Spirit of God can be present for you, too. You simply need to invite Him into your life by committing yourselves to prayer. As someone has said, “If God seems distant to you lately, you can be sure it wasn’t because He moved.”

But that brings up a second thing that the Holy Spirit did on that first Pentecost: He made it possible for people who had once been afraid that they might be crucified if they just whispered the Name of Jesus to tell the whole world about Him.

The Spirit even made it possible for them to talk about Jesus in ways that made sense to others. The crowds who heard them asked, “ is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

An old song by the Christian rock band, Newsboys, says, “God is not a secret to be kept.” That’s true. But a lot of times we Christians act as though we belonged to some secret society.

Wrong! Our call as followers of Jesus is to help the whole world know that they can experience Jesus’ presence in their present.

Years ago, a man called me. I’d met him through a group in the community, but didn’t know him well. He asked if we could meet at a local restaurant. He needed to talk. He knew that something was missing in his life and sensed that it might be God. He asked me some questions about Jesus.

I prayed that God would give me the right words. To my astonishment and delight, we prayed together in that restaurant and he gave his life to Jesus Christ. He joined the church to which his family belonged and has been an active Christian ever since.

For as long as I live, I won’t forget the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence as we prayed together. And even today, I see God in the way that man is living his life. It's an awesome thing!

But a good question to ask is, “Why would I want to help others come to faith in Christ? I’m not an evangelist.”

Maybe not. But Jesus has called you and me to be witnesses, telling and showing others His love. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus tells us. He states it as a matter of fact; the only question is whether we're going to be good witnesses or bad ones.

To paraphrase Rick Warren, the church that isn’t interested in sharing Christ with others is really telling the world to go to hell. I don't want to be part of that sort of church or to be that kind of Christian!

Once Jesus Christ has come into your life--once you’ve experienced the presence of God in the present, it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t love your neighbor enough to tell them about Christ!

But what’s really interesting is that the more we share Christ with others, the more present He becomes to us, too. As I helped that man surrender his life to Jesus in the restaurant, he wasn’t the only one who sensed God wrapping His arms of compassion and promised around his life. He embraced us both!

For Heather, Cori, and Laura and all of us, this can be a moment like the one experienced by the three-thousand people who came to faith in Jesus on the first Pentecost or like that man. The presence of God can be a present reality for you.

The presence of God can make it possible for you to give the life that Jesus offers to your friends and family members.

In closing, let me tell you that this can be a time when faith may be kindled in some for the first time or when faith can be renewed.

It’s a simple matter of rejecting sin and of asking Jesus Christ to be at the center of our lives today and every day.

The Spirit can be present in your present. He wants to be. The question is: Will you let Him be? Today, in response to the love and new life God gives through Jesus Christ, let your answer be Yes! "Yes, Lord, be present in our present all the way to eternity!"

[Greg Asimakoupoulos citation of Bill Bright's telling of the tale of the Yates oil reserves is found in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.]


DennisS said...

Good sermon.

Personally, I'm stuck by the sounds of Pentecost. Every part of that day included sounds. Lots of sounds aren't specifically mentioned, but I think of the sounds of about 3000 repenting and coming up out of the waters of baptism. What Joy!

I also think of the sounds of those who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (2:42).

But my favorite sound of Pentecost (right up to this very day) is: "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (2:47).

And thus we get a missional focus, as Jesus said: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). Not a "holy huddle", but an outward focus in mission.

And thus, I see Pentecost as an opportunity to consider anew our mission, our reason for being. It's an opportunity to reflect upon what the Holy Spirit has been doing in the Church for the last year. It's an opportunity to pray fervently that we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Since Pentecost 2005, the Holy Spirit was active in restoring 3 individuals to the fellowship (after around 20 years away for each of them), 4 communicants joined, 1 adult baptism, 2 children baptized, a family of four joined (the parents were of two different denominations and finally decided on one Church inwhich to raise their children), and four other individuals transferred membership upon moving here.

That's over a 10% gain in membership for this church which had been dying - literally. It's a gain in one year which is more than the previous five years put together.

And there's now a 50 year old (unmarried) male wanting to be baptized, who wants to make sure his sister, mother, and nephews are present when he is baptized, as they haven't been presented with the Gospel yet. Can you believe this fellow has been custodian at the church for 16 years, and none of the previous 4 pastors asked him about his faith?

The sounds of Pentecost! What a joy!

Mark Daniels said...

That's fantastic news about your congregation! Keep on truckin', man; the Spirit is clearly at work among you!