>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, May 16, 2010. The text for this week’s message is Acts 1:4-11.

Last week we started our series on the Holy Spirit by talking about who the Holy Spirit is. And “who” is a very important term here. The Holy Spirit is not a “what,” but a “who.” We talked about how the Holy Spirit is a personal being, referred to in Scripture as “he,” not “it.” While we may not be able to give a perfectly clear description of who the Holy Spirit is, we do know that the Spirit is a part of the Trinity, alongside the Father and the Son. We also know that the Holy Spirit cares and wants to be involved in our lives – the type of relationship that we cannot have with an impersonal object.
Over the course of this series, it is my hope that you get a better idea of who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit does and what the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst today. We may have a difficult time describing the Spirit and the work of the Spirit in exact detail, but that doesn’t make the Spirit any less true in our lives. There are a lot of things in life that we don’t know in precise, exact detail, but we know them to be true, and that is what is most important to remember when we approach a subject like the Holy Spirit.
This week we are getting a little deeper into the question of what it is that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. And as I got deeper and deeper into this subject, I realized that there is no way to go into detail on all the things that the Spirit does without making this a very, very long message. One of the books that I am using as a resource during this series has 40 pages in 8 point font on the work of the Spirit, and there is no way that we have the time to go that deep into the subject.
So, clearly, the Spirit’s work is not limited to what we are going to look at this morning. I’ll try to make it as clear as possible, but know that there is so much more to what the Holy Spirit is doing than what we will be talking about in the next little while. And that’s all right, because, after all, if we can completely explain the work of the Spirit in one morning, we’ve severely underestimated what God can do. No matter how long we dig into it, God is always bigger than our understanding.
In approaching the work of the Holy Spirit, I’d like to look at it in three different segments. First, what does the Holy Spirit do in the Old Testament? Secondly, what is the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of Jesus’ ministry? And finally, what does the Holy Spirit do in the life of believers in the time following Jesus’ ascension into heaven? This last segment will dive a little bit into the focus for next week, which is “what is the Holy Spirit doing today?” But we’ll be taking that question in a different direction next week.
There is one thing that is an overarching theme in the work of the Spirit, and we’ll see it throughout these three segments, and that is the fact that the Holy Spirit gives new life. In John 6:63, Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is no help at all.” It seems like an odd statement. After all, we all know how life happens on this earth, and flesh is certainly involved on some level. But what Jesus is saying that that flesh would not have life were it not for the Spirit. And as we dig deeper into the subject, that will make much more sense.
So, first off, what does the work of the Holy Spirit look like in the Old Testament? We are told right from the beginning that in the beginning the earth was dark, formless, chaotic and empty, but that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. God speaks and creation happens. Life comes into existence because of the spoken word of God.
As the creation story unfolds, we get to the part of creation where God forms man out of the dust of the ground. But man is not given life until the breath of God fills the form. Why is this important? Because the Hebrew word for “breath” is the same word that is used for “Spirit.” In fact, in the New Testament, the word for “breath” and “Spirit” is the same in Greek as well. The Spirit is what gives life, not only to all creation through the spoken word, but also to all humanity through the very breath of God. What we see, first and foremost, about the Spirit in the Old Testament is that the Spirit gives life. Without breath, there is no life. Without the Spirit, there is no life.
Throughout the Old Testament, several different things symbolize the Spirit. Water is used by the prophet Ezekiel to show the presence of the Spirit of God flowing outward from the Temple. And at the end of the river, a river that sustains life, is a sea that is refreshed by the waters. Water cleanses, revitalizes, refreshes. It gives life.
Not surprisingly, the Spirit does the same for our souls. The Spirit cleanses, revitalizes and refreshes our spiritual selves. I was talking to my brother-in-law while we were on vacation, and he said that he heard an ant can live for several days without food, but it can’t go more than a day without water. Isn’t the same true for us? We cannot survive without water. Likewise, we cannot survive without the Spirit. Because the Spirit gives life.
The anointing of the Spirit is symbolized by oil in the Old Testament. Oil is used to set apart holy places and holy items in the tabernacle after the people left Egypt and in the Temple once they were settled in the land. When the prophet Samuel anoints David with oil, the Spirit fills him from that day forward.
The Spirit comes upon certain key leaders at important times in the life of Israel. I’ve already mentioned David, but also Samson, Gideon, and even Saul, before he became disobedient to the Lord, were filled with the Spirit. The prophets were also filled with the Spirit to fulfill their task of being a prophetic voice in the midst of a covenant community that had fallen astray.
What the people of Israel tended to forget, and we talked about it a few weeks ago, was that they were not elected for their own superiority, but to be servants so that all the world may be blessed through them. God spoke to the people by the prophets through the Holy Spirit, calling the people back to Him and to their primary purpose – to be a blessing to the nations.
In the story of Noah and the flood, some see the dove as symbolic of the Spirit. The dove was the bird that came back to the ark with an olive branch in its beak. It was letting Noah know that there was indeed life back on the earth. Later on, in the New Testament, we see the Spirit take the form of a dove again at Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus is coming out of the water, the Father speaks, and the Spirit descends upon him like a dove.
What we see from that point forward in Jesus’ ministry is what it looks like to live life in full compliance to the will of God through the empowerment of the Spirit. What we see in Jesus is not Jesus acting out his role as the Son based on his own strength. We know this because Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Jesus poured himself out in full obedience to God. Jesus let go of his rights and stature as the Son, and fully relied on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in his ministry.
Jesus’ ministry on earth begins with the Holy Spirit, and it is fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, like we did last week, we retell the story of Jesus, and it begins with his conception by the Holy Spirit. In Luke we can read about the angel’s visit to Mary, and her consent to give birth to the Son of God, even though she didn’t understand how it was going to happen. She stepped out in faith, in spite of the fact that she had no clue what was going to happen. The Holy Spirit came upon her, and she became the earthly mother to the Son of God.
Again, just like I said last week, we don’t know the exact details of how this happened, but what we do know is that it happened. We don’t have to completely understand the mechanics of it all to know that it is true. If we truly believe that God is almighty, then we’ll trust Him to take care of the details that we can’t seem to understand.
As we read through the gospels, we see time and time again how Jesus had to rely on the power of the Spirit throughout his ministry. The miracles that we read about, the healings that took place, the changes that we see in the disciples – all of these are attributed to the work of the Spirit through the ministry of Jesus.
Not only does the Spirit work in the Old Testament and in the ministry of Jesus, but after Jesus ascends into heaven, as we read about in today’s passage, the Spirit’s work begins to take off in a whole new way. Throughout the Old Testament, we never read about the Spirit continuously dwelling in an individual. Often, the Spirit empowers a particular person at a particular time for a particular task. Rarely, does the Spirit remain with an individual for the duration of his/her life.
One glaring example is the first king of Israel, Saul. Saul becomes disobedient, begins to do things his own way and the Spirit of the Lord leaves him. In fact, we are told that the Lord rejects Saul as king of Israel. It is a downward spiral from there on out for King Saul. He slowly descends into madness and his story tragically ends when he falls on his sword during a battle with the Philistines.
Up until the ascension of Jesus, the indwelling of the Spirit is intermittent at best. Afterwards, the Spirit dwells within the believer to guide, counsel and lead. Jesus’ mission was to make salvation possible for all, and then the Spirit applies the work of salvation in the life of the believer. The Spirit calls us to repentance, and accomplishes within us the justifying grace of God which cleanses us from our sins, as well as the sanctifying grace of God which helps us conform more and more into the image of Christ.
In the same way that the disciples were guided and led by Jesus, the Church today (notice the “big C”) must be guided and led by the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish its mission to make disciples through baptizing and teaching. And this is where we, as a congregation, need to be able to discern the voice of the Spirit over the voices of the world.
Have you ever seen a dog chase it’s own tail? Random question, I know, but you’ll see where I’m going in a minute. It expends so much energy, it’s getting all kinds of exercise, but in reality, it’s not going anywhere. Sure, it moves around, and it may even move forward a little bit, but I guarantee you, that progress is merely an accident. Eventually, that dog will sit down having accomplished nothing. On the rare occasions when it actually does catch its own tail, all it is doing is hurting itself.
As a church, if we aren’t being led by the Holy Spirit, we aren’t doing anything more than chasing our own tail. If we aren’t being led by the Holy Spirit, we end up a lot like that dog. We end up going nowhere, the progress that is made is done by accident, and eventually we’ll just be worn out, or even hurt ourselves.
I know that we’ve covered a lot of ground this morning, and I hope it wasn’t too overwhelming. As always, I want to remind you that if you want to go back over this message, it will be available on the website listed on the front of the bulletin later on in the week. I try to remember to put all the messages on the webpage so you can go back over it later on… not as an excuse to miss a Sunday and catch back up. And if you want to try it out, we could also start having conversations in the comments section.
Okay, one last thing before we finish up here. I came across a quote this week that I want to leave you with, and we’ll just see where it takes your mind. “Vitality, authority and community are continuing evidences of the work of the Spirit.” Are those three things evident in your own life? Are those three things evident in our life as a congregation? Two questions that I really want you to think about, and I’m not going to answer for you. Think about them this week, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in the process.