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The Holy Spirit: The Presence of God

September 13, 2009

Sermon: The Holy Spirit: The Presence of God
Text: Psalm 139; Luke 4:1; Isaiah 63:1-3; Job 33:2; Psalm 51:10-12;

Today we begin a new series of sermons, The Holy Spirit in Christian Life. This may be somewhat puzzling to some of you. Why should we embark on this particular study? Why study the Holy Spirit? I ran this topic by some people on our worship committee. One of them said, “I think a better question is one that the Lord might ask: ‘Kirk, why haven’t you done this before?’” That may be a very good question. The truth is that many of us want to avoid talking about and making too much over the Holy Spirit because for many of us the topic is too emotional. We are afraid that if we say too much about the Holy Spirit, get too involved in this issue, we are going to lose control; our emotions will get the best of us. Some people might start speaking in tongues, or some might want to start handling snakes. I just read a fascinating account entitled Salvation on Sand Mountain, a story about how people in northern Alabama believe handling serpents is evidence of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is certainly difficult to explain. I enter a disclaimer and tell you that I do not know everything about this topic. I am still very much a learner. I know from my own life experiences the kind of peace, the kind of power, the kind of guidance that we can receive in our Christian living through the presence of God’s Spirit.

Robert Persky, a chaplain to people with mental handicaps, said that he could talk about God the Father in his institution. People could understand a loving Father, even those who had a bad father. They could understand a caring childcare worker. They could understand Jesus as the Son, as a friend, as an example. He said that we pretty much have to let the Holy Spirit foot for himself. We just do not address that subject because it is too difficult to explain. In fact, even Billy Graham, in his book on the Holy Spirit, states in his introduction that one of the great struggles in his ministry has been to understand and interpret to other people the work of the Holy Spirit.

When Holly and I started planning this series together, she commented, “Very few hymns speak directly about the Holy Spirit, and there are almost no anthems.” The Holy Spirit, appearing in the books of Genesis through Revelation, is very much a part of the biblical record. We do not need to neglect such an important study because the Holy Spirit is mysterious to so many of us. I do not embark on this topic because I can solve the mystery. The Holy Spirit is mysterious. That is not my purpose at all; it just the other way around. My purpose in this series is to restore the mystery of the Holy Spirit to its proper place of significance.

The concept of the Trinity is one of the most difficult doctrines of Christian theology. We say we have a monotheistic religion, but people of other great faiths say, “No, you do not have a monotheistic religion. If you believe in a Father, a Son, and the Holy Spirit, you have three gods. That is not monotheism.” We do believe in one God, but one God with three persons. That certainly becomes confusing to Christians and non-Christians alike.

People have been trying to explain the concept of the Trinity for centuries. St. Patrick took the simple shamrock and tried to explain the Holy Spirit by saying, “This is one leaf, but it has three segments.” Ancient monks from the Middle Ages made pretzels, saying they were shaped like a child’s arms folded in prayer. The monks showed the three compartments – three in one – as a way to illustrate the Holy Spirit. Some have said the concept is like an apple with its peeling, flesh, and core. The Holy Spirit is just one with three parts. I can best conceptualize the Holy Spirit by thinking of myself. I am a father. I am a son. I have many other roles that I also fill. I am a teacher. I am a pastor. I am a counselor. I am a friend. I am a guide. I am an encourager. I am all of those things.

That raises some questions: Why would we limit God to just three? Why would we have just a Trinity? Why not give God an opportunity to be a God that expresses all of these roles? The role of Father and Son are clearly defined. Basically, Christian theology has referred to all of the other roles God fulfills as the invisible presence of God, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit.

Listen to words of “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” That hymn says at the end, “We will know when we leave this place that we have been revived.” When is the last time you were part of a revival? This series has at least a potential to become for us a revival. We are not going to pitch a tent. We are not going to pitch a fit. We are not going to bring in a stem-winding evangelist. We are not going to take up the offering in wheelbarrows. These services will not intentionally go much longer than an hour. When we come to the issue of the Holy Spirit, the possibility exists that the work of the Spirit will bring renewal and refreshment to our individual lives, to the life of this church, and maybe to the life of this community. I cannot make that happen. You cannot make that happen. Only God, through His Spirit, can make that happen.

I always ask that you pray for me as I prepare for these messages. Could I encourage you especially now, to pray, pray, pray for this series of messages? It has the great potential to make a real difference in our lives, in the life of this church, and in the life of this community.

I want you to open your Bibles and keep them open until November 1. I am going to refer to many passages of Scripture throughout the series, and I want you to have your Bible.

We will begin with a discussion of the Holy Spirit by considering two Hebrew concepts, one relating to Hebrew poetry and the other to a Hebrew word. I need to introduce you to the concept of parallelism, which is found throughout Hebrew poetry. The poet offers a sentence and then conveys the same idea in another way. Hebrew parallelism essentially presents the idea twice, using different words.

We see the use of parallelism in Job 33: Verse 2: “I am about to open my mouth; my words are on the tip of my tongue.” Can you see that those two sentences parallel each other? They essentially mean the same thing; they have the same idea, using different words. Verse 3: “My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know.” Again, those two sentences repeat the same thought. Look at another example in Verse 4: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” The parallel here is between Spirit and breath. The Hebrew word Ruach, which has a guttural sound, means breath. It is translated throughout the Old Testament as Spirit. When God gives us His Spirit, He literally gives us His breath.

I want to present four concepts about how this breath of God plays out in the Old Testament. First, the Spirit of God is creative. In Genesis 1:1, we see the creative work of God’s Spirit: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The breath of God hovered over this emptiness, this formless void This passage addresses the important fact that from the very beginning of time, the Spirit of God was present. The Holy Spirit is not some Johnny-come-lately. The Spirit has been here forever, from the beginning of time. The Holy Spirit was a significant part of creation.

This passage at the beginning of the Bible also addresses the fact that the Spirit of God does not create confusion and disorder. The Spirit brings order out of confusion, order out of chaos. God’s Spirit is at work in every person who has any kind of creative bent – an artist, a musician, a composer, a writer, a poet. They have all used the expression, “I need to wait until the muse comes to me before I can do my creative work.” Maybe they say it differently: “I have to wait until the Spirit moves me.” Remember that God created us in His image. That means, at least, that God created us to be creative. One way our creativity is energized is through the Spirit of God.

George Frederick Handel went into a room, locked the door, and stayed there for twenty-five days. Food was slid to him under his door. After that time, Handel came out, having written the Messiah, that great oratorio we hear at Christmastime and at Easter. Ask Handel how he wrote that. He would not talk about a muse. He would say the Spirit of God gave him that creative energy, enabling him to create that work. God’s Spirit is creative. Listen to these words: “Holy Spirit, breathe on me. Fill me with power divine. Kindle a flame of love and zeal within this heart of mine.”

Second, the Holy Spirit cleanses. People are often told that when they want to relax, they need to take a deep, cleansing breath. You do not begin by inhaling. A deep cleansing breath begins by exhaling. You push and push and push out the air all the way down to the very bottom of your lungs, eliminating the stale carbon dioxide in your body. Next, you inhale deeply, bringing in fresh oxygenated air that goes all the way down to the bottom of your lungs. If you go through that process three or four times, you give an additional supply of oxygen to every organ in your body and especially to your brain. The Holy Spirit gives you that deep cleansing, making you feel energized. That is the second function of the breath of God.

Look at Psalm 51, the text our choir used in the anthem this morning. You know the story behind the psalm. David was a man after God’s own heart. As king, he did something very, very wrong. While his army was at war, he took a walk out on the roof of his house. When he looked down and saw the beautiful woman named Bathsheba taking a bath, he decided that he would have her. He sent for her to be brought to his chamber, and there he committed adultery. When David found out that Bathsheba was pregnant with his child, he placed her husband, Uriah, on the front lines of battle, knowing he would be killed. David actually committed a double sin: adultery and conspiracy to murder.

David did not tell anyone about his wrongdoing, but the prophet Nathan confronted him. It was as if Nathan held up a mirror to the king, asking, “David, do you see what I see?” When David saw the sin he had committed with Bathsheba, he wrote Psalm 51 as his confession. Remember the use of Hebrew parallelism as I read Verses 10, 11, 12:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
And grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

David needed the cleansing of God’s Spirit. Listen to these words: “Breathe on me. Breathe on me. Holy Spirit, Breathe on me. Take Thou my heart. Cleanse every part. Holy Spirit, breathe on me.

The third function of God’s Spirit is to anoint. This is a scary concept. People think that if you have the anointing of the Holy Spirit, you are going to break out in ecstatic utterances. It has not happened to me. Maybe it will someday, but it has not yet. I do not require it. I do not think God does either. Let me explain. In the Old Testament, kings, priests, and prophets were anointed by the Holy Spirit. The symbol of that anointing was oil being placed on their heads. You see it in the anointing of David. Anointing does not require oil though. Think about what happens when we ordain deacons. We lay our hands on those deacons, either on their shoulders or on their head. The actual touch is nothing special. It has no magical quality. The anointing, the touch, is a symbol that God has set that particular person aside for a special responsibility.

Every person needs this anointing. You might think of it as a blessing. We give our children and our grandchildren this blessing. We go into a child’s room at night, as I did when our children were young and as I do now with my little grandson. I want to be sure he is ok. If we put a hand on a child’s head and breathe a little prayer of blessing, we are giving to that child something like an anointing. God does that, too. God places His special blessing upon people He chooses to do particular tasks. In the series on leadership we just complete, we learned that everybody can receive this blessing from God. This blessing bestows upon us a particular responsibility to do what is right. Micah said this responsibility was to speak the truth, to do justice. It is a special blessing from God.

Do you remember that in one portion of Isaiah, we have what are called the Servant Poems? God has chosen a servant. Look with me at Isaiah 42:1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” This passage goes on to describe the work that this servant will do.

Turn now to Isaiah 61:1-3, a similar passage.

The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for
prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our
God,
to comfort all who mourn, and to provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

The servant of God is being anointed for a particular task. This is the kind of anointing all of us receive, though some do not want to assume that responsibility. Once again, I return to the hymn Dean sang for us, to these words that some of us resist: “Holy Spirit, breathe on me, My stubborn will subdue: Teach me in words of living flame What Christ would have me do.”

In just a very few verses in Luke, we see the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus three different times. This work begins at his baptism in Luke 3, Verses 21-22: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. As he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” The Holy Spirit coming to identify Jesus as a beloved of God and a person with a special task is an anointing.

Consider Luke 4:1: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Jesus does not need cleansing in the same way we do, but he was tempted in the same way we are tempted. You will notice that the Holy Spirit put him in a situation where he would be tempted. Why? Jesus needed to crystallize his own identity, to decide what kind of messiah he was going to be. His temptations allowed him to rule out being a spectacular messiah, an economic messiah, and an expedient messiah.

What kind of messiah did he decide to be? Verse 14 tells us that he returned to Galilee. Again he is in the power of the Spirit. On the Sabbath day while in the synagogue, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the scroll and read the very passage we just read from Isaiah 61. What kind of messiah did he decide to be? He was to be the “suffering servant,” prophesied about in the book of Isaiah. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.” Jesus needed this kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit. We do, too.

Fourth, the Holy Spirit longs to have an intimate relationship with us, all of us. Did you hear the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism? “This is my beloved son, the one whom I love, the one with whom I am well pleased.” Can you see the intimacy in that statement between Father and Son? God desires to have that same kind of intimacy with us. Some of the great devotional writers of Christian history – Thomas à Kempis, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avalon, and Julian of Norwich have described their relationship to God in the most intimate terms. We hear the words of the hymn again: “Holy Spirit, breathe on me, Till I am all Thine own, Until my will is lost in Thine, To live for Thee alone.”

This quality of intimacy is perhaps one aspect that makes us so uncomfortable about the Holy Spirit. A part of us would like to keep God in the wild blue yonder, at arm’s length, up in the sky. To think of God up-close and personal is a little more than some of us want. It is a little too close for comfort for some of us. To imagine having intimacy with the All-Mighty might seem somehow improper, but that is what God wants. In Psalm 139, we read that we cannot get away from God’s Spirit. We can go nowhere, not to the other side of the world, not to the depths of the earth. God’s Spirit is always with us.

Look back at Genesis 2. When God created us, He did something like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It was not resuscitation. It was creation, breathing into us the very breath of life. How much more intimate could you be?

You know the story about Elijah, the discouraged prophet that takes refuge on God’s sacred mountain. He is hiding in a cave, and God calls him out to the mouth of the cave. Elijah hears the earth quake, feels the wind roar, and sees the fire. This passage says that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Then Elijah hears a gentle whisper, a quiet voice, a still small voice. If somebody has ever whispered in your ear, you can feel their breath. The breath of God was whispering in Elijah’s ear.

I have tried to imagine what God would say to a discouraged prophet. About the closest I can come to it is to think about holding my grandson close to me at naptime when he is tired, fussy, and out of sorts. I say to him something like, “Ben, just put your head on my shoulder.” I whisper in his ear, “Ben, I love you” and sing some sort of silly song about how I love him and how God loves him. Then Ben sings one of those baby songs, one with no words when he is winding down. He does not need any words, but I know what he is singing. God wants that kind of relationship with you. He wants to be so close to you that He can whisper in your ear. Listen to the words of the following song:

I can feel you breathe
I can feel the magic floating in the air
All my thoughts just seem to settle on the breeze
The whole world just fades away
The only thing I hear
Is the beating of your heart.
I can feel you breathe,
Caught up in the touch.
Isn’t that the way love’s supposed to be?
I can feel you breathe.
I know my heart is waking up closer than I have ever felt before.
And I know it’s you.
There’s is no need for words.
Because I can feel you breathe.

Those lyrics are not from a Christian song. They are from a romantic song sung by Faith Hill, hopefully, to her husband, Tim McGraw. They have three children together. Though I edited some of that song’s words, it illustrates the kind of relationship God wants with us. He wants us to be so close to Him. He wants us to breathe the breath of God that sponsors this creativity within us, the breath of God that cleanses us, the breath of God that anoints us and blesses us, the breath of God that whispers words of love and encouragement. That breath is the presence of God’s Spirit.

You may be afraid of that, but isn’t that exactly what you want from God? He gives to us the gift of the Holy Spirit to come alongside us, to encourage us and to love us. The way you start experiencing that is to accept Christ. When you accept Jesus as your Savior, you receive the gift of salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit. We invite you to accept Jesus as your Savior, acknowledge him as the Lord of your life.

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