Friday, May 25, 2012

John 7:37 - 39 Pentecost: New Life in the Spirit

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord,
            The Bible and the church teach us that our God is a God of life.  The resurrection of Jesus shows that it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  He conquered death and the grave.  He is alive.  He creates life and sustains it.  He invites us all to turn to him so that he may strengthen us.  He offers life in eternity to everyone, and those who accept him in faith receive the blessings of his promises.
            The Bible’s message about God’s dominion over life and death encourages us if we are feeling low.  How downcast Ezekiel must have felt as he surveyed the valley of dry bones to which God’s Spirit had led him.  But God instructed Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that he would pour the breath of life into them and they would revive.  This promise of God emboldened Ezekiel and it fills our hearts with joy and hope today.  God is the Lord of life, who brings life to his people.  Jesus says that streams of living water flow from within all believers.  He means that Christians will be alive with the joy of faith ad that willing hearts will take the place of reluctant ones.  He lifts us people up from momentary sorrows so that we live by courage and hope and faith.  Even large scale calamities like famine or war or great storms can’t shake God’s promise that he is the master of life.
            How do we stay in touch with the living water he promises?  By coming to worship, reading the Bible, and saying our prayers every day.  It’s not difficult or complicated.  God is always available to us.
            Nonbelievers get into trouble because they shut themselves off from the Lord of life and his blessings and sometimes they make simple things complicated.  A well-known rock musician decided he was interested in mysticism.  He left the music business and went to live as a monk.  He dressed in yellow robes and gave up food and all pleasures.  He spent hours and hours in prayer and after a long time without food he believed he had turned into white light and that a white light surrounded him completely.  He later said the experience almost killed him.  “My body essence was dripping out slowly,” he said.  “My energy was just leaving my body.  It was like I was evaporating…because I was so thin and weak.  Every day I’d wake up and say, “Am I going to live or am I going to die?”  He was looking for existence on a higher plane; he looked for God where he cannot be found:  in experimentation and the beckonings of his own brain.  Instead of finding life, he found death.
            This is an extreme case, but the devil tempts all of us to seek God in the wrong way.  He tempts us to expect an immediate and personal revelation from God.  He encourages us to hope that God will call us to him and enlighten us without the help of his Word or the sacraments.  This is a common experience.  I bet we’ve all met people who claim to have seen God and that God has spoken to them directly.  We need to weigh such claims carefully.  They are usually the fruits of sin and like all sin, they lead to death, as the rock musician discovered to his dismay.
            Fortunately, our Lord offers a way out of these calamities:  faith in the person and merits of Jesus Christ, who has promised that living water, not the brackish water of sin and death, will flow freely in the hearts of all who believe in him.  Jesus means that the Holy Spirit dwells in the souls of all Christians.
            The same Spirit that enlivened Ezekiel as he contemplated the valley of bones brings us vitality today.  The same Spirit that helped to raise our Lord from the dead also raises us to new life as we meditate on God’s Word and receive his sacraments.  The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin; he also assures us of God’s forgiveness and his eagerness to strengthen us for a better walk with him.  The Spirit picks us up and consoles us when we mourn the loss of loved ones.  The Spirit enlivens us with the assurance of God’s love at times when the world turns against us. The Spirit brings us hope of eternal life if heavy thoughts cast us down. In order to make sure we take advantage of God’s gifts, we stay close to the source of living water – what the Lord tells us in the Bible.  We ask him for self-discipline to keep our hearts from wandering toward the traps and pitfalls that lie in wait for the naïve, the lazy, and the unsuspecting.  The Spirit blesses us with the wisdom and strength to stay faithful to God and his Word.
            Today is Pentecost – the one day of the year the church sets aside to honor the work of the Spirit.  Many Christians, myself included, don’t think very often about God’s Spirit, so I want to share with you some of the insights I’ve learned about the work of the Holy Spirit.
            To begin with, the Spirit doesn’t act on his own. He comes to us through the word of Scripture.  He doesn’t startle us as we’re driving down the street.  He won’t interrupt us with a special bulletin while we’re watching TV.  He comes to us when we read the Bible, as we take the sacraments, as we worship in church.
            Another way to put it is to say that the Spirit doesn’t call attention to himself.  The Father and Son send him into the world and he draws attention to them.  The spirit is at work in us when we understand our sins and trust in Jesus for salvation.  The Spirit points to Christ and reminds us of our need for salvation.  He awakens faith in the blessings of Christ’s crucifixion and stirs us to rejoice in the miracle of the resurrection.  The Spirit builds up trust that God is for the living and that he will sustain each of us in happiness forever so long as we don’t wander away from him. 
            During his farewell speech to the people of Israel, Moses said that they were either to choose life or choose death.  Choosing life means love for God, walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments.  This disciplined walk with God brings life and prosperity and increase.  The Spirit guides us to choose life.  We can even say that the Spirit acting in us like a stream of living water chooses life for us and we obediently comply with his choice.     
            I learned, also, that the Spirit not only helps us choose life, he also guides our walk with God.  This means that he puts us into a new relationship with the law.  The law tells us God’s will and it commands us to walk in newness of life, but it doesn’t give the power or the ability to carry out God’s commands.  The Holy Spirit working through the gospel of forgiveness and salvation in Christ, renews our hearts and empower us to live by God’s will.
            The rock musician I mentioned tried to find God and please him by carrying out certain laws that he thought were appropriate for a religious person. He dressed in a special way; he prayed incessantly; he fasted to the point of starvation.  But he didn’t look for God as the Spirit reveals him in Scripture and the sacraments, and the result was disaster.  He wanted to win God’s favor by carrying out works of the law.  Where God invites people to freedom, he made himself a slave to various laws.
            New birth in the Spirit frees us from the law’s whip.  The law doesn’t drive us the way the master of a dogsled drives his team.  Instead, the Spirit of Christ leads us and guides us so that we carry out our duties with free, cheerful hearts.  The works we do then aren’t law-works, but works and fruits of the Spirit. We don’t live under the law but under grace.
            We’re not perfect, of course.  A conflict between the flesh and God’s will continues in us throughout our lives.  Even though our inner selves delight in God’s desires for us, the spirit of our flesh is at war with our minds, so we submit to God’s chastening and welcome guidelines like the Ten Commandments. Though we are under grace, we accept the teachings of the law and don’t rely on our own holiness and piety or invent works for ourselves like excessive fasting and incessant prayers that the Bible doesn’t prescribe anywhere.  The law teaches us, too, that our works are imperfect so we don’t rely on them for our standing with God.  The Lord accepts our works, though, because we do them to please him and not because the law coerces us. Our works arise spontaneously from within our hearts because the Holy Spirit has renewed us.
            We’ll close then with a brief summary of the work of God’s Spirit. The Spirit sustains the world and preserves the church through the ministry of Word and sacrament.  The Spirit also acts on behalf of individuals by enlightening our minds, shaping our wills, and awakening new desires in our hearts.  He brings life to our bodies and keeps us holy.
            We all slip from time to time.  The Spirit shows us our faults and brings God’s mercy to us.  The Spirit teaches us to believe God’s Word and that he is on our side.  It’s through the Spirit that we learn that the world is not a valley of bones, but a beautiful creation of God and that keeps going day after day. Because of his mercy and pardon, we take part in life to the best of our abilities with joy and thankfulness.  In our Savior’s Name.  AMEN.   
The peace of god that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN.                             

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