Sermon for 05-06-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 1: Who is the Holy Spirit?””

What—or better, who—is the Holy Spirit? We have an easy time picturing God as Father because most of us have experience with fathers. We have an easy time picturing God as Son because he came to us in the flesh as one of us. But God as Spirit? That image conjures up something invisible or ethereal. It doesn’t help that the King James translates the term as “Holy Ghost”!

The Holy Spirit can easily seem mysterious to us. But Jesus’ words in John 14-16 should set our mind at ease: whatever else the Spirit does, he makes Jesus a present reality to us. Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to teach, comfort, encourage, and walk alongside us.

In fact, since this sermon was preached on the day that we celebrated high school seniors, I emphasized that through the Spirit, Jesus was going with these young people as they begin the next phase of their lives. What Jesus will teach them for the next four years of college will be even more important than what they learn in class. So they need to keep listening!

Sermon Text: John 14:16-18, 26; 15:26-27; 16:7-16

The following is my original manuscript.

The General Conference of our United Methodist Church finished meeting in Tampa last week. This was the big meeting that we have every four years, with representatives from the worldwide church. By a wide margin, the church put an end to something called “guaranteed appointments.” Guaranteed appointments meant lifetime job security for us ordained elders, provided we play by the rules, stay out of trouble, and are willing to move whenever the bishop said move. I imagine that any average layperson hearing this would scoff: “Lifetime job security? In this economy? With the denomination declining in membership? That’s nuts!”

And I hear you. And so did General Conference. They saw the writing on the wall. And I say, “Good riddance to guaranteed appointments.” It’s a system that offers an incentive for clergy to be mediocre. For the sake of the gospel if nothing else, we can’t afford mediocrity. Nevertheless, given the passion and outrage expressed about the change on Twitter and Facebook last week, I gather that many of my colleagues in ministry disagree.

And I want to say to them, “Who do you work for? The United Methodist Church or the Lord Jesus Christ? What or who are you trusting in? A fallible, human, and sin-filled institution like the United Methodist Church or God? You want to dip your toe into the deep end of Christian discipleship by following his call into ministry—and then receive a money-back guarantee if it doesn’t work out? Following Jesus doesn’t work like that. It’s much riskier than that. But we take that risk because our life—your life, my life—rests safely in the Lord’s hands. He’s the source of true security!

And through the Holy Spirit, our Lord Jesus is everywhere—above us, below us, around us, inside of us. He’s been with us in the past, he’s with us in the present, and he’ll be with us in the future—in fact, he’s got our future planned out for us. He’ll take care of us no matter what happens, no matter where we are—in life, in death, and in the life to come. We can trust Jesus. Amen?

I spoke to a group of unemployed people at our church’s “job transition ministry” a few weeks ago. I told them that on one level, they’re preparing themselves for a new job—polishing their resumes, honing their interview skills, increasing their networking opportunities—but on a deeper level, the Holy Spirit is preparing them for their next assignment. They’re waiting to find out where the Lord will send them next. But you gotta trust!

A few weeks ago, when “Powerball”—or whatever it was—was at 180 kajillion dollars, one of you told me that you bought a ticket, and you were disappointed when you didn’t win. To which I said, “Thank God you didn’t win! What a blessing not to win the lottery!”

Can you imagine? If most of us struggle to trust in the Lord given what we already possess, imagine how hard it would be to trust in the Lord with the dubious benefit of 180 kajillion dollars in the bank! I know what some of you are thinking… “I’d sure like to try!” I probably would, too! The spiritual danger with winning lotto jackpots or even guarantees of lifetime employment is that these things tend to place a hedge between ourselves and faith. They give us the illusion of a safety net. They tempt us to entrust our lives to something other than Jesus Christ—something we can see and feel and touch and hold in our hands and put in the bank.

It was true for Jesus’ first disciples. Think of that time they were on the boat on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the storm. What they knew for sure was that the wind was threatening to capsize their little fishing boat. What they knew for sure was that if they didn’t keep bailing water, their little boat would sink. What they knew for sure was that they were desperately afraid and their lives were in danger—and Jesus wasn’t there with them. He didn’t seem to care. He was sleeping in the stern of the boat in their time of need. What they were supposed to take on faith was that somehow, against all appearances, Jesus really loved them; and Jesus would take care of them; and they would be safe.

Similarly, in today’s scripture, the disciples were facing a test of faith. Jesus is speaking to them, after all, on the night of his betrayal and arrest. And he’s telling them that he’s leaving them—that after his death and resurrection he’s going away; he’s ascending to the Father. But he wasn’t leaving them alone, despite the way it appeared.

In fact, he says something remarkable: He says, “I assure you that it is better for you that I go away.” Why? Because when Jesus goes away, he sends the Advocate, or the Comforter, or the Counselor… All are synonyms for the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, will teach us and remind us of Jesus’ own words. This means, for example, that when we read the Bible or even hear the Word of God proclaimed in a sermon, we’re not simply processing the words with our brains—intellectually trying to figure out how to interpret and apply them to our lives. There’s something else going on, something supernatural, something miraculous. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus himself is speaking his words to us. It’s not that he’s changing the words that he spoke in scripture, but we’re able to hear and apply them in new ways, to meet the changing circumstances in our lives.

You’ve had that experience when you’ve read the Bible, right? A passage that you’ve read a hundred times before is suddenly speaking to you in a new, fresh way. That’s the Holy Spirit!

All preachers that I know have had the experience of having parishioners come up to them after a sermon and say, “Thank you so much. Your sermon spoke to me today. I just loved when you said such-and-such; that was exactly what I needed to hear because I’m dealing with this situation in my life.” And we preachers smile and say, “You’re very welcome and God bless you.” All the while we’re thinking, “I didn’t say that in my sermon! I mean, I wish I did—I wish I thought of that—but I didn’t!” Brothers and sisters, that’s the Holy Spirit at work! He’s sneaky that way. He makes my sermons better than they are or ought to be! Thank God! I sometimes pray before I preach, “Lord, take my weak, fallible, imperfect words and use them somehow to speak your Word into the hearts of the people.” And I believe he does… Through the Spirit.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.” If it’s true for these first-generation disciples, who, for three years, lived with Jesus and worked alongside Jesus and sat at the feet of Jesus when he taught, how much more true is it for us? Jesus can’t give us everything that we need in life all at once. He can’t teach us everything we need to know all at once. What Jesus taught me at 14, when I first became a Christian, was something very different from what he taught me 24 or 34 or, now, at 42. And the same goes for you. He keeps on teaching us.

How critical it is, therefore, for us to stay plugged into his Word! Which means reading God’s Word regularly on our own. Studying it in Bible studies. Listening for it each day in silent prayer. Hearing it proclaimed in worship. Taking it into ourselves through Holy Communion. In all these ways and more Jesus continues to teach us, continues to speak to us, continues to give us what we need, when we need it.

Earlier in our service we recognized our young people who are graduating from high school. For 18 years, these young people have depended on you parents for most things that they need: room and board. Chauffeur service to and from their various activities. Basic amenities like piano lessons, TVs, iPhones, and automobiles. Sometimes when I’m out shopping with my kids, they’ll say to me, “Will you buy this thing for me. I’ll pay you back.” And I’m like, “Where is the money coming from? Show me the money.” And even if they have the money, chances are they got the money from me! Our kids depend on us for nearly everything. But now these graduating seniors will soon be taking one large step away from us… from dependence to independence.

It’s scary, isn’t it. It’s scary for parents. And, although they may not admit it, it’s scary for graduating seniors, too.

I want to speak to our graduating seniors for a moment… When I was at freshman orientation at Georgia Tech a long time ago, I was in a large assembly of incoming freshmen. One of the administrators spoke to the assembly. He said, “Look to your left.” And we looked to our left. Then he said, “Look to your right.” And we looked to our right. And he said, “One those two people will not be here four years from now.” And, of course, I was thinking, “No wonder!” Because when we looked to our left and looked to our right, we all thought to ourselves, “Where are the girls? I’m going to UGA!”

No, the point was that college was going to be harder than we knew. And the sad-but-true fact was that not everyone was going to make it.

For the past six years of youth group, leaders in our church like Jay Gulbin, Turner Lee, John Stephens, Mikey Stephens, Don Martin, Sunday school teachers, confirmation class teachers, small group leaders, and others, have poured their hearts and lives into your life—and into the critical task of nurturing your Christian faith and discipleship. They have tried as best they can to equip you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be faithful followers of Jesus. In a little while—in a matter of weeks or a couple of months—they will have done all they can do for you. Except pray!

If I said to you, “Look to the graduating senior on your left; now look to the graduating senior on your right.” The very real and sobering possibility is that one of those two people will no longer be Christian four years from now. It won’t be because you’ve had some major crisis of faith. It won’t be because you’ve learned something in philosophy class or science class that has shaken your faith. It won’t even be because you consciously decided that the gospel isn’t true or that you no longer believe in God or Jesus. It will be because you dropped out of church. You stopped gathering regularly with a group of your brothers and sisters in Christ. You stopped worshiping, praying, reading the Bible, and taking Communion. Like the seed that was planted among the thorns in the parable, you let other activities, other people, other priorities, distract you from from Jesus. And your faith withered and died. It happens all the time. And it often happens in college.

But if you are a baptized Christian, you have already promised not to let that happen. O.K.? Be true to the promise you made to God. Wherever you go after high school, find a church. Make it your home. Continue to be faithful. You’re becoming independent from your parents, your home, your family… And we want you to be, believe me! When you move away, we love you, but we don’t want you to move back in later. We want you to become independent from us, but we want you to become ever more dependent upon God.

I am 42 years old, and I have never needed Jesus more than I do now. Every day, every hour, every moment. I have discovered from bitter experience that my life is a mess without him! I need him to love me, guide me, teach me, forgive me, comfort me, and reassure me. I need him to be strong for me when I can’t find the strength on my own.

Listen: many of you are leaving home to go to college. Even if you’re physically staying at home, when you graduate, you’re leaving your childhood behind.

Here’s the good news: You’re not leaving Jesus behind. He’s going with you. In fact, he’s already gone ahead of you and prepared the way for you. He’ll meet you when you move into your dorm. He’ll meet you when you go to class. He’ll meet you when you’re stressed out and studying, and he’ll fill you with his peace. As important as what you learn in school these next four years is, it won’t be as important as what he’ll continue to teach you.

[Close with Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition.]

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