"Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?" 'How should I not?' said the Lady, 'I am in love...in Love Himself.'
~C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The sermon that I preached for Pentecost at Faith Anglican Church this past Sunday.

I know many of you have read C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, or have seen one of the many film adaptations. One of my favorite quotes comes from the first book in the series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Aslan explains how he intends to break the White Witch's curse of eternal winter. He says, "When a willing victim offered himself in a traitor's stead, then the table would crack, and death itself would start working backwards." Those of you who are unfamiliar with the story will not recognize the significance of the reference to a table cracking, but I love the quote primarily for the last part, "Death itself would start working backwards." When the curse was defeated it did not immediately disappear. The winter snow finally began to melt. It was still there, but the land began to thaw. Hopefully, these themes sound familiar for they are biblical themes. In our own world, in reality, when Jesus died and was raised from the dead the curse of sin was definitively broken and started working backwards.
From Adam onward, the curse was allowed to take root. “Darkness crept into the forests of the world”, shadows grew, and the night of sin advanced. The Lord sent his prophets to preach repentance, he chastised and punished on various occasions, and yet the curse advanced until there was but a small light remaining, a small remnant out of whom was called a Virgin who gave birth to the one who would turn the darkness back on itself. You see while it is absolutely true that Jesus came by his death and resurrection to “make all things new”, what he was really doing was making all things old. He did not come to earth to invent a new world, but by his grace to return it to what it was originally intended to be. Remember the Bible begins and ends in paradise-that is, in a garden. Christ has undone and is still undoing what humanity got wrong.
What’s the point? Today is Pentecost, the day we remember the Holy Spirit descending as a mighty rushing wind on the Apostles and the cloven tongues of fire that appeared over the Apostles as they preached. But Pentecost, much like Passover is one of those holy days we as Christians have borrowed from ancient Judaism. Pentecost, now celebrated on the fiftieth day after Easter, was originally the fiftieth day after the first Passover when the Angel of Death descended on Egypt slaying the first-born of every household which did not have the blood of the Passover Lamb on their lintel. It was fifty days after that event that Moses from the heights of Mt. Sinai delivered unto the people the Moral Law, the Ten Commandments. It was because of the feasts of Passover and Pentecost that there were Jews gathered from all parts of the world as our Epistle lesson from Acts 2 indicates. The cities listed in Acts 2:9-11 if you looked at a map would show you that what Luke is saying that people from the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western corners of the known world were gathered in the Holy City. This is significant because it gives us our first insight into the work of the Holy Spirit. You remember well from your Sunday school days, or even from earlier this year in the sermon series through Genesis, the account of the Tower of Babel. In the generations following the great flood in the days of Noah, men took it upon themselves to build a tower which could reach unto heaven. They were not fools, they had been told the story of the flood. And even though they had to know that God would not have destroyed the earth had it not been for the wickedness of men, these men wanted an insurance policy. They wanted a tower high enough that they would be protected from rising flood waters. This displeased the Lord as you will recall, and he decided to confound that is confuse, the language of the builders of the tower. And not only were they unable then to communicate, but as the Scriptures convey to us in Genesis 11, God scattered them abroad over the face of the earth. I hope then that you begin to see why we started with the idea that the curse while completely defeated, was not ended with the work of Christ. Instead it is in the process of being reversed, of working backwards. Pentecost is one of the great manifestations of this dramatic reversal. At Babel the people’s languages were confused and they were scattered. At Pentecost, believers from all over the world were brought together and by the power of the Holy Ghost, who appeared over the Apostles clothed in tongues of fire, each person was able to understand the Apostles’ preaching in their own language. Because of this miracle, three thousand souls were added to the Church that day.
For this reason, we give thanks to God that through the work of his Son, the curse is working backwards. Because of Christ and his Spirit, we have gone from Confusion and Being Scattered to Understanding and Unity. And to this day, people from all over the world are being gathered, unified in the one Church of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit gives men and women ears to hear.
But in this thought is also a challenge to us. Our Lord founded but one Church. Yet so often and at times for the most trivial reasons, the Church has divided, split into various sects, and fought against the Holy Spirit who promotes unity. We sang earlier that great line “in mutual love our hearts unite.” The question I have for you is rather simple: did you mean it? Are you ready to work actively for unity in the Church? Our Lord on the night in which he was betrayed prayed to his Father “Let them be one…that the world may believe.”
There are all sorts of reasons to which we can point for why the Church is not doing so well in our part of the world. But before we point the finger at the false gods of money, power, and lust, I think we need to understand the divisions in the Church, more often than not the result of sinful pride, has hampered our witness to the world. The Church to which the 3,000 souls were added was undivided. The Holy Spirit had brought people in from all corners of the earth. If we want to see that type of a revival in our own time, we must work with each other united in love by the Holy Spirit to preach to this world the “wonderful works of God,” as the Apostles did on that first Pentecost.
To lead Christ’s Church into unity, peace, truth and to extend the kingdom of God beyond the geographic bounds of Israel, that is why the Holy Spirit was sent. But the appearance of the Spirit in this passage from Acts 2 also gives us some hints on how he is going to make us Christians who love with the same kind of love and passion that the Apostles possessed. The first image, in verse two, is that he appears as a “rushing mighty wind.” We do not necessarily live in a region of the world where wind on a regular basis causes extreme damage. But the pictures and images from New Orleans circa 2005 are still pretty fresh in all of our memories. Wind is a mighty force and a metaphor and device which God employs often. You remember how he spoke to Job? Out of the whirlwind. In the lesser known prophecy of Nahum, we read that the “Lord has his way in the whirlwind and the storm.” God reveals a part of himself to us in the power of the wind. In fact, he reveals his greatest strength to us in the wind. Do you remember the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones? God commanded Ezekiel prophesy to the four winds and say come “O Breath and breathe upon these slain bones.” Breath and Spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek. What he was saying was “come Spirit and breathe life into the dead.” What happened on Pentecost as demonstrated by the sound of a rushing wind was the sheer power of the Holy Spirit to bring life to the lifeless. As we sang in our opening hymn “O holy Spirit by whose breath, life rises vibrant out of death.” As we confess every week in the Creed “I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord and giver of life.” The Spirit has come that we might know the life and love of Christ within ourselves. He is “the Giver and the Gift,” that breaks the chains of death and implants in our souls the very life of God.
How does he do this? The answer to this question is to some degree mysterious, but it is partially explainable if we examine his appearance in fire. As is testified in any number of places in the Scripture, the old sinful man has to be crucified in order for us to live the life God intended for us. The symbol of fire can show us how this was done. The Holy Spirit as fire burns away all that is not holy and all that is not true. Malachi wrote that the coming Messiah would be like a Refiner’s fire, so would the Messiah’s Spirit.
I’m sure many of you have probably heard the story at some point of the women’s Bible study group who were trying to figure out exactly what it meant that the Messiah would be a refiner’s fire and that he would sit as a refiner of silver. One woman offered to visit a silversmith to see if she could discover any clues. She noticed that the smith held a piece of silver over the fire, and he explained to her that this was to burn away all of the impurities. The next thing that the woman noticed was that the smith paid very careful attention to his silver and never left it for a second. She asked why? He told her, I cannot leave it here too long. If it is in the fire a few seconds too long it will ruin the silver. She asked the next logical question: sir, how do you know when it is finished? He answered her, “When I can see my reflection in the silver.”
The Holy Spirit through application of the blood of Christ, through convicting us to lead holy lives burns away all of the impurities in our hearts leaving only the silver. He will continue this process, what we typically sanctification-that is making us holy-until we are like “little Christs.” The symbol of fire can also call to mind the offering of the sacrifices. Remember that sacrifices were burnt on the altar. The Flame of the Holy Spirit in each of us is calling us to be a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God.” We are called to crucify, to sacrifice in ourselves all the sin that is there by our nature. We are to be altars on which we must kill our wicked elves, our desires, our base affections, so that the new man can take root and we might have life. The fire of the Spirit represents to us both purging and purifying power of the Spirit, but also our responsibility to shun sin and wickedness. That is how the Holy Spirit brings the life signified to us by the mighty rushing wind; he destroys sin and death so that only life remains.
That is our lesson for this Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has come into the world to reverse the curse which was defeated by the work of Jesus Christ. He comes to baptize us with fire, he comes mightily, ready to bring life to a dying world. Allow him to do it. The process of being brought to perfection, literally of learning how to abandon death, will be painful at times, that is a guarantee. But the finished project, the animated bones, the pure silver, will be the image and replica of our Lord and Savior. And as the people of God press on toward the holiness and perfection into which the Holy Spirit leads us, our love for one another and those outside the faith must necessarily increase as our sinfulness decreases. Understand this, for us to be reunited as one witness for the world to see, we must forsake sin. Unity cannot be achieved without all of us growing in our love for the Lord and for one another. And we must seek it: our purpose is by the power of the Holy Spirit to lead holy lives and through our words and actions draw unbelievers into the one Church that took shape on the first Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit was a unifying act and it was because of this unity in the Spirit that the first century Christians were enabled to turn the world upside down for Christ. If you want to see that happen again, allow the Holy Spirit to consume your impurities and ignite your love with his fire. Because it is only in the rejection of sin that we can grow in the love that produces the unity necessary for the type of evangelism that was done on the first Pentecost. Then and only then, when we are making a conscious effort to allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from our sins, will our lives both as individuals and corporately as a Church, lead people to see Christ and in turn, to believe. Amen.

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