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The Holy Spirit: The Power of God

September 20, 2009

Sermon: The Holy Spirit: The Power of God
Text: Acts 1:1-8; Matthew 28:19-20

Last Sunday, we started our series of sermons The Holy Spirit in Christian Life. We continue that series today as we begin our Week of Prayer for State Missions. There is this convergence of a sermon on the Holy Spirit with a mission emphasis. Of course, we go to the book of Acts for this kind of connection.

Some years ago, I was fortunate to take a mission trip to the Sioux reservation in Sisseton, South Dakota. I traveled with some of my family and with another family named Ross. Jim Ross, a Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma, is a dear friend. One day we decided to take a break in the afternoon. Jim had been spending a lot of time visiting in nursing homes on the reservation, and I had been counseling and teaching a lot.

Jim especially wanted to go out on the prairie and find some Dakota sweet grass. Please do not worry. Sweet grass is not a euphemism for marijuana. Neither is it the same kind of sweet grass used by the Gullah people to make baskets in the Low Country of South Carolina. This grass, indigenous to the Great Plains, is like a combination of air freshener and mothballs. It was very useful to early Native Americans, who put it in their clothing as a preservative and freshener.

Jim had talked with an elderly woman at one nursing home who had told him about a place that had sweet grass. We followed her directions, driving a truck along a back road through the reservation until it became a gravel road. We finally stopped at a path and walked through very tall prairie grass to the top of a grassy knoll. We actually found some sweet grass there. We picked some and stuck it in our mouth, like people put a strand of fresh hay in their mouth. It was very sweet. Then we just stood there in silence for a few minutes, looking at the blue sky and taking in the fresh air. A pair of golden eagles, the first I had ever seen, soared high above us.

Finally, Jim broke the silence and said, “We are out where the wind never stops blowing. This is the home of the Great Spirit.” Jim, a very fine Christian, is also very much in touch with his Native American heritage. He knows that among the Sioux people, the name Wakan Tanka is translated Great Spirit. It means a powerful wind. The same is true of the Navaho people of the Southwest. They call the creative force, the Spirit that moves in creation, Holy Wind.

Halfway around the world, a Jewish rabbi from Nazareth made the same connection. I tell you that the hills of Galilee are as much like the hills of South Dakota as any other place I have ever been. The wind blows most of the time. Jesus says, in the hearing of fishermen who knew the power of the wind, men who depended on the wind, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound of it, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

The Greek word pneuma means wind, but it is also translated spirit. These two words – wind and spirit – are interchangeable, depending on the context. You know the word begins with the letter “p,” and you see it as a derivative in words like pneumatic drill or pneumatic hammer. You see it even in the word pneumonia. An important connection exists between these two meanings: wind and spirit It represents both the presence and the power of God. I suppose that as we approach the twentieth anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, it only stands to reason that we would think about the wind on this day.

Luke, as you know, is the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. He has a unique perspective on the Holy Spirit. Last week, we saw in the Gospel of Luke continuity between the Ruach, the breath of God in the Old Testament, and the Spirit of God in the New Testament. Luke gives us a clear vision of the turning point at which this Spirit of God becomes the Spirit that empowers the life of Jesus, the living, breathing life of Jesus. Luke has told us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he came into the world through the power of the Spirit.

Now at Jesus’ baptism, we see the Spirit symbolized with a dove that descends on him. We hear that divine voice from heaven speaking, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Then the Spirit leads Jesus through the wilderness. Through temptations, he crystallizes his identity as the suffering servant. Under the leadership of the Spirit, he returns to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18). We see the Spirit at work in the life of Jesus, in his ministry, in his miracles, in his healing, and in his teaching. We see it even when he breathes his last words, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:26).

I would just remind you Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, has been referred to as the Acts of the Holy Spirit. One of the early church fathers called the book the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Since we do not have time to trace the activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the book of Acts, I want to give you just a little flavor about how the Spirit of God, this mighty wind, was at work. We have already seen the work in the Old Testament and in the life and ministry of Jesus. This Gospel opens with a turning point, which occurs at the ascension of Jesus. Now, we see that the work of God’s Holy Spirit continues in the life of the church.

A fresh wind is clearly blowing as the early church comes into being. Jesus gives them this counsel in Acts 1, Verses 4-5: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift that my Father has promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” You see a connection between the baptism of Jesus and now this gift of the Spirit. Verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In that one verse, we have in a nutshell an outline of the entire book of Acts. The witness in Jerusalem is detailed in Chapters 1-7 of the book of Acts. The witness in Judea and Samaria appears in Acts 7-9. The witness to the ends of the earth is found in the rest of the book of Acts. Chapters 10-28 focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ being carried to the entire known world.

Try to imagine yourself in the position of these few frightened disciples. At this point, only eleven are present, as Judas Iscariot is no longer among the group. They cower in an upper room when Jesus, as the Risen Christ, appears to them and tries to reassure them. He spends forty days with these disciples, helping them understand that he has a great work for them to do. Imagine their reaction as they hear Jesus say, “You are going to be my witnesses all the way to the ends of the earth.” I can only imagine that they would say, “How can that happen? How can the eleven of us do that? We are fishermen, tax collectors, ordinary guys.”

A strong wind of change is also blowing.

In the far South Pacific just off the tip of South America, sometimes the wind just does not blow in an area of the ocean known as the doldrums. A sailing ship trying to go around the tip of South America could be caught in the doldrums and not continue toward their destination. Sailors would watch a tell-tale, a piece of cloth hanging from the mass that indicated how the wind was blowing. When no wind blew, they could not make any headway.

Dr. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to the Inland China Mission, was aboard one of those tall-masted ships when it reached the doldrums. The captain of the ship came to him and said, “Dr. Taylor, I need for you to pray for wind, for favorable wind. We cannot make any headway.”

Dr. Taylor replied, “I will be glad to pray for wind, but you must first hoist the sails.”

The captain argued, “How can I do that when there is no wind? My crew will think I have lost my mind!”

“I am not going to pray for wind until you hoist the sails,” Dr. Taylor answered.

Once the captain did as he was told, Dr. Taylor prayed for wind. Favorable winds came, and the ship sailed all the way to China.

These eleven disciples wonder how they can do what Jesus has asked them to do. We all wonder how we can do what God wants us to do, too. We must be prepared to receive the gift of His power, His Spirit. Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Many people from all over the world are in Jerusalem at this time for the significant Jewish celebration of Pentecost. Since they believed that the people of Israel received the Ten Commandments fifty days after Passover, Pentecost was observed fifty days after Passover. These disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, are able to speak in languages other than their own. These guys have a Galilean accent, which is like having a Southern accent. Some people get so wrapped up in the person’s accent that they do not listen to the message. God can use anybody if they are committed to be led by His Spirit. These disciples are empowered by the Spirit. Peter quotes from Joel, the Old Testament prophet. Verses 14-18:

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’”

Peter goes on to tell them how Jesus is the Christ and that he is the one sent by God. He adds that Jesus is the one who was crucified and that by his death and resurrection, they now can receive the promise of God. The people heard what Peter said. Verses 36-38:

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent…”

“Repent” is the first word of the gospel. It is the message John the Baptist brought. It is the message Jesus gave. Repent. What does repent mean?

My dad and I used to go home for a noontime meal, which we called dinner, not lunch. After washing our hands at the kitchen sink, we would sit down at the table where Mama had a big dinner fixed and ready to eat. One hot day of working in the sweltering heat, we went home. I picked up the jug of sweet tea on the table, poured myself a big glass, and took a swig. It was not sweet tea; it was vinegar. Mama had fixed turnip greens for lunch and put the jug of vinegar on the table. Just about the time I took a big swig, she walked in with an identical jug and said, “Kirk, this is the tea. That jug is vinegar.” Believe me. She did not have to tell me by then. I had figured that out.

If you are going to put sweet tea in a vinegar jar, you must get rid of the vinegar taste by cleaning out that jar. The same is true of your life. If you are going to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you have to be fresh and clean all the way down to your very soul. You must get rid of bitterness and acid that will eat your stomach out, that will destroy your soul. You rid yourself of the bitterness by repentance. Once we repent and get rid of the sin and the guilt, we can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Look at what Peter says in Acts 2:38-39. These are words for everyone.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Look at what happened after the disciples delivered the message of Jesus and the people repented of their sins. Verse 41: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” I do not know what kind of altar call was given, but it does not sound as if they gave much of one at all. The disciples called the people to believe and repent. Can you imagine 3000 people responding to that call? That is what started happening in the early church. Why? Was it because Peter was such a great preacher? No. God’s Spirit had empowered these men.

In addition to a fresh wind and a wind of change, we see a refreshing wind of joy. Look at Verses 42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Clare and I were driving back from the beach several weeks ago. Somewhere between Galavant’s Ferry and Aynor on Highway 501, just on the left there, a man had a yard filled with whirligigs that were spinning to beat the band. I do not know if he was selling the whirligigs, but people had stopped just to look at that amazing display.

You can have fun with the wind. Do you ever see kids flying a kite? Have you ever seen people throwing a Frisbee on the beach? The wind can do amazing things with a kite and a Frisbee. The wind can be very refreshing, and it can bring great joy. That is what happened in the early church.

This wind is not only a wind of change. It is not only a wind that is refreshing. It is not only a wind that empowers. This wind is also full of energy. We hear a lot about the power of wind, about harnessing wind. Eventually, we will find ways to use wind to generate electricity. The Holy Spirit has amazing power, which we see in Acts 4. Peter and John have been preaching. They have also healed a crippled man who began leaping and dancing and praising God. They preached the gospel of the resurrection. The Sadducees, who did not much like the idea of the resurrection and did not believe in it, criticized Peter and John. Finally, they brought them to the Sanhedrin. Verses 3-8:

They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men continued to grow to about five thousand.
The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem (the Sanhedrin)…
They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name do you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit gives a testimony before them, telling them about Jesus. Where is the power coming from? It is coming from God’s Spirit.

Once released, Peter and John return to the other disciples. Verses 29-31:

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

We are all a little bit chicken. There is a little scaredy cat in all of us. There are times when we have to do the right thing. Peter and John’s boldness did not come from their spunk or fortitude. It came from the Holy Spirit. This is the power of the Holy Spirit, even in times of persecution. Maybe I should say especially in times of persecution. The church has experienced this kind of power.

Turn to Acts 9, to the conversion of Paul. Here you have a man named Saul breathing threats against the church, against Christians. He is on his self-assured way to Damascus when he encounters the living Christ. His life is changed. God is working on the other end of this situation with a man named Ananias, who is in Damascus. God’s plan is to get Ananias and Paul (Saul) together. Ananias, unsure about this because he knows Saul has been persecuting Christians, protests. In Verse 15, God speaks to him, explaining, “This man is my chosen vessel.” God has great plans for Paul.

Ananias does as he is told to do. He places his hands on Saul, Verse 17, and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Do you know what the word conversion means? It means to do a 180 degree turn, to make an about-face, to head in one direction, turn completely around, and go in the opposite direction. Paul had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. His life was never the same again. Neither was the world. God needed this kind of person to do His work. We see similar stories in the book of Acts in the lives of Peter, Phillip, and Stephen. God was working through individuals to accomplish His purpose.

One day, I stood on the top of Grandfather Mountain and watched a gray-headed man bigger than I am jump off the mountain. I did not try to stop him. I watched as he put on his helmet, leaving his gray ponytail to hang out from underneath. I watched as he strapped himself to a hang glider, stepped on the edge of a platform, and jumped off the mountain.

Do you know what happened? The wind caught him and lifted him, way above where I was standing. That fellow flew around on the hang glider for more than an hour, back and forth across the face of that mountain. Whistling as he flew, he sounded like a red-tail hawk. As I watched, I wondered how in the world he could fly like that. He did it through the power of the wind. God’s Spirit does the same in our lives, enabling us to do things that seem improbable. Bette Midler sings about this ability. “I can fly higher than an eagle because you are the wind beneath my wings.”

The Holy Spirit took a guy who learned to speak English on a lumberyard and put him in an eighth grade English class with Mrs. Austell Lampley. She worked for a whole year, trying to improve his English. Just to be sure, God gave that boy Mrs. Lampley again in the eleventh grade. She worked hard, teaching this guy to write. He learned the joy of writing. He went into the ministry, to some improbable places, finally came back to Spartanburg, and made his way to Morningside. Then one day, he and his wife lost their son. In that grief, he sat down to a computer and wrote, through his tears, a book about grief. The Holy Spirit took that book, written by a guy who grew up on a lumberyard, and had it translated into Korean and into Chinese. That book has gone to the uttermost parts of the earth.

God has incredible optimism about what He can do with us. “Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation,” He says. How can we do that? I cannot do that? Can you? No. The Holy Spirit of God, which is like the wind, can empower and enable us to do what we could never do in our own strength. Ladies and gentlemen, that is what God wants to do with this church. That is what He wants to do in our lives. The question is, Are we going to let Him have His way?

Letting God have His way begins when you make the decision to accept Christ. Repent. Repent and believe. Accept Jesus, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. If you have never done that, we invite you to make that decision. Do not put off making that decision any longer. Respond to God’s invitation.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2009

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