FIRST LESSON: Jeremiah 1:4-10 (p. 1167)
EPISTLE LESSON Acts 2:1-13
SERMON: “What Do You Do with a Problem Like the Spirit”
Have you ever felt like you were on a wild goose chase? Not literally trying to catch a goose, but chasing after something difficult to grab hold of? We are on something of a wild goose chase today as we consider what we are to do with the Holy Spirit. Consider for a moment our God in three persons, Creator, Son and Holy Spirit. Which one of those do you find easiest to comprehend, or even feel close to? Perhaps for you it is God the Creator of galaxies and universes, of baryons and quarks, the God to whom we appeal in prayer, think of as a benevolent father, and whose love and mercy we hope to grasp. For many it is easier to identify with Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, who lived among us as one of us, engaged in a ministry of teaching and healing, was unjustly condemned, suffered and died and rose again from the dead. For a few of you, in a mainline church such as ours, a small minority of you, it is the Holy Spirit you find most appealing.
Celtic Christians chose, not the dove, but the wild goose as a symbol representing the Holy Spirit. It sounds strange to us, but it has a long tradition in Ireland. While the Roman Church imagined the Holy Spirit in the form of a peaceful, graceful dove, the ancient Celts understood the Holy Spirit to be like a wild goose. When you hear of the Spirit descending like a heavenly dove on you, you hear harps and strings softly playing and get a peaceful feeling.
The image of a wild goose descending upon you is a different matter altogether. A wild goose is one noisy, bothersome bird. This image of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose jars us out of our complacency. Both images may be helpful to us, depending on what it is we are seeking and need.
When the Spirit comes in the Bible, it never seems to be sweet or safe. God's Spirit called Jeremiah to speak God’s word to Israel. Jeremiah protested, saying that he was too young and had no idea what to say. The Spirit wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer:
You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. . . . Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (from Jeremiah 1:8-10)
Ezekiel saw a vision of God's Spirit blowing through a valley of dry bones and bringing them to life.
John the Baptist dressed in camel's hair and eating wild locusts proclaimed, "I baptize you with water but he who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Paul gave this advice to young Timothy, "For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
Neither safe nor tame, the Spirit inspired Paul to proclaim, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).
It was this wild Goose that Jesus referred to when he preached his first sermon and quoted Isaiah, saying, "For the Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of God's favor"(Luke 4:18)1
Graham Standish in his book Becoming a Blessed Church urges us to open ourselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit, not only in our personal lives, but in our church lives. He especially those of us in the mainline tradition who tend to be wary of getting involved with the Holy Spirit, to open ourselves to the Spirit, not just in worship, but in decision making, and in every area of our life together as a church. We wince and squirm at the idea of people waving holy hands, speaking in tongues and being “slain in the spirit.”
With apologies to Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein,
How do you solve a problem like the Spirit?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you solve a problem like the Spirit?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
Many, if not most, of us Presbyterians are in a mainline church precisely because we recognize the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the Holy Spirit. As Standish points out we celebrate Christmas big-time; Easter is a major Christian holiday; but the holy-day that is the defining moment for the Church is Pentecost – the day the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with tongues of fire –a day we barely acknowledge in the Church, and which is pretty much unknown to the secular world. Really –have you ever seen Pentecost chocolates go on sale, right after Easter? Mother’s Day?
It was at the moment God breathed God’s breath into the human, that he became greater than the other creatures. “The Day of Pentecost was a defining moment,” says Standish, “because from that Day on, the Christian Church became increasingly clear each day, about what it was, –– the community of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit.” 2
Am I proposing sweeping changes in worship to some sort of Pentecostal style? Not at all. What I am recognizing is that if, as a congregation, we are not Spirit-led, if we are not seeking in our decision making processes, in our ministry choices and support, in our prayer life as a community and as individuals, we will miss the mark. To paraphrase Standish, if we do not aspire to seek the Spirit’s inspiration, we are in danger of expiring.
He then shares with us an example of “respiratory failure” in a church he served early in his ministry. The church was growing and needed space for programs. A member of the church who was an architect drew up plans to build an addition, plans that addressed the needs of the church in a well-though out way, and proposed building the expansion o the side of the church facing a large parking lot and 16 acres of wooded property. The plans were presented at the session meeting, questions were asked and pretty much everyone agreed with the proposed plans. Then one elder said that he agreed with the plans, but he thought it should be built on the other side of the church, facing a large field and a park. An argument ensued and the session divided itself into those who wanted the addition on the parking lot side and those who wanted it on the park side. A commission was formed to decide the matter which itself became divided. Eventually the senior pastor left, partly because of the stalemate, and, says Standish, thirteen years later the addition remains unbuilt, there has been more conflict and the congregation has shrunk in size.
All the people involved in that dispute were good, honest people. The problem was, that instead of stepping back and asking, “What do you think God wants?” they made deciding what they wanted the criteria upon which they made their decision. Frankly, it’s easier that way. It is much easier for me to figure out what I want, than to try to discern what God wants. It is difficult to put aside our egos, our plans, our ambitions. Still, the key to becoming a blessed church means seeking to do what God wants, and that means opening our hearts and minds to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit.
It’s a little scary. We might really be tempted to just ignore the Holy Spirit as much as we can. If we do think about it, we might prefer to imagine it more like a dove, gently settling down on our shoulder than like a wild goose, noisy and bothersome, shaking us out of our comfort zone, honking at us to compel us to listen for the will of God and make our plans and decisions accordingly.
No one ever said faithful Christian ministry would be easy. What do you do with a problem like the Spirit? You love her and listen for her, and then follow her.
1 Anders, Mickey Dynamic Preaching.
2 Standish, N. Graham, Becoming a Blessed Church, p. 30.