Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †
What an exciting day this is! On this day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was first a Jewish holiday, called the “feast of weeks;” that was the shadow. Now Jesus stands up in the midst of that feast to declare He’s the real thing that all the shadows have led to. He’s the source of the living water that was prophesied to flow from the Temple. The Christian festival of Pentecost has been named the birthday of the Church, the beginning of the Gospel’s spread throughout all nations, as noted by the many languages that instantly appeared on the tongues of Jesus’ disciples, who are now apostles. At Pentecost, we are thankful that Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, the promise of our Heavenly Father, and rejoice that by His help, our church will thrive in this evil world. Thus we pray that God will continue to work among us for many more years to come until the return of Christ.
Now I hate to rain on your Pentecost parade, but I must. If the most important thing for you as a Christian is to believe in Jesus Christ your Lord, then perhaps the second most important thing is to acknowledge that it is impossible to believe by your own reason or strength. To say it another way: I believe that I cannot believe. But boy is that a hard thing to confess! These days you see people giving personal testimonials and people trying (with good intentions of course, but) trying to make church no more than just a fun and exciting place to be. Free hamburgers might get them in the door! Then, once you’ve lured them in, perhaps they’ll commit their lives to the Lord, thanks to you. That makes you feel good, it feels like God is using you and you made a difference, and that good feeling you tend to translate into a stronger faith. Why? Because you feel that your own commitment got stronger, and your heavenly Father has no choice but to be pleased with you for what you’ve done for the good of the kingdom.
Isn’t that what having the Holy Spirit is all about? Jesus Himself said after all that the rivers of living water (meaning the Spirit) would flow right out from the believer’s heart. And isn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to come with some spectacular special-effects like we read about in the book of Acts? Miracles and tongues and prophecies and so on. Your human nature would crave a little more of this visible, tangible proof that God is acting mightily—it would do our world some good. Just like those Jews were looking for Jesus to overthrow the Roman Empire’s rule and establish a kingdom right then and there. And then you suddenly find yourself tempted to write the agenda for the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than believing that He works when and where He pleases. When that happens, then your ideas of success in the church take over God’s plan and mission.
Which is why you cannot get anywhere as a priest of God and worker in the Lord’s vineyard unless you first admit that you cannot make a difference. In fact, your own efforts that flow out of your own sinful purposes, those could actually bring harm and hindrance to the work of the
Church, if it weren’t for Christ’s forgiveness. Whether you like it or not, the Holy Spirit convicts you because in the eyes of God’s law in the Ten Commandments, you stand condemned. You have not loved the Lord your God with all your heart. You have not loved your neighbor as yourself. And when it appeared to others like you were fulfilling these things, still your sinful thoughts, which are known only to you and your Lord, dragged you into sin despite any good that might have resulted.
You must face the truth. All your righteous, spiritual-looking acts are in God’s eyes no better than filthy rags, as Isaiah says. Your ear has bent more readily to nasty rumors than your mouth has spoken up for the truth. You have insisted in many and various ways that the Holy Spirit works in ways that you determine, rather than through the Word of the Lord. It’s a common misperception that doctrine is dead, cold and lifeless—just a book on a shelf that does nothing unless you dress it up and add the Holy Spirit to it as though the Holy Spirit came from somewhere else besides the Bible. But really, doctrine, that is God’s teaching, is the only thing that gives true life and it’s the source of the Holy Spirit. No wonder the devil attacks doctrine in the church, in his effort to destroy it.
Don’t think that you’re immune to this, that you can ignore it, be nice, and it’ll all go away. Satan doesn’t want you to live from the Word, but rather to use it as a weapon like he tried to do with Jesus in the wilderness. He leads others to ridicule you, even in petty ways, like what happened when outsiders accused the apostles of being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning. You could find yourself with a lust for peace despite the sufferings of the cross of Christ that has pushed you to give mere lip service to your confirmation vow: the promise that you would suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from your confession of faith. But for you to live renewed each day with the Holy Spirit’s power within you, the sinner that you are must die—drowned each day in the waters of your baptism. Your spiritual thirst can only be quenched in one way.
This is why it is so important to believe that you cannot believe. You need to receive the Holy Spirit from outside of you in the Word of Christ’s forgiveness. For the rivers of living water wouldn’t have had a chance to come out from your heart, had it not been the case that the same river streamed out first from the pierced heart of Jesus as He hung on the cross. After all, it is Jesus Himself who says to you who are thirsty, Come to Me. The Holy Spirit comes from no other source than from Christ. Forgiveness and eternal peace comes from nothing else besides His death for you and His resurrection from the dead. Your Savior doesn’t want you to be uncertain of the future; His plan is not to have you scrambling around looking for comfort for your distressed soul. He wants you to call on His name and be saved, each and every day. Believe in Him. Don’t trust in your commitment to Him. Instead, latch on to His rock-solid promise to you. Feed on His flesh just as He told the 5,000 whom He miraculously fed out there in the remote field.
Yes, all this comforting Gospel may be offensive to your selfish human nature. I may be raining on your parade, as long as your parade makes you the Grand Marshal, or the center of attention. But you know, the prophet Joel speaks of rain as God is moving him to write in his book of prophecy about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Peter quoted from Joel as he was speaking to the gathering people on Pentecost, and just before that quoted part, Joel writes this: “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before.” (2:23) This kind of rain from the Lord your God is what you need for your faith in Christ to grow. God the Holy Spirit comes and goes as it pleases Him, but He always comes to give you faith when you hear the Gospel of your forgiveness. This is not the same as to say if you don’t feel loved by God, wait 10 minutes and the weather will change, but it does say that you are not in control of the Holy Spirit no more than you are in control of where it rains in Southern California, and that is a good thing for you. He’s the one who calls you by the Gospel, enlightens and sanctifies you and keeps you in the true faith. Your Savior gave you the ability to trust in Him, you didn’t have it by yourself. And His Body and Blood will strengthen that faith until He comes again in fully visible glory.
And that is the answer to your nagging question on a day like Pentecost? What is the future of this particular church that was founded decades ago? Jesus answers: Come to Me. Drink of the living water that comes straight from the heart of Jesus. Hear My Word and trust Me when My called and ordained servant of the Word says your sins are forgiven. Eat My Body and Drink My Blood and you will have forgiveness, life and salvation through yet another means. When it comes to the mercy, grace and blessing of God for you, His people, when it rains it pours! Then in turn, He automatically directs your heart to serve your neighbor, that they may also partake of the living waters of grace. And though you may or may not see the visible, special-effects of the Holy Spirit among you, like the fire and wind and language-abilities, you still have God’s promise that as long as there is the preaching of the Word, there the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. May He bring you to Jesus until you see God the Father face-to-face in the heavenly Zion of His kingdom.
In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.