Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The New Testament reading is featured prominently in the text of the sermon.
“Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
Well, you know it must be true because it says so. You know -- in the Bible.
But what is the Holy Spirit and how do you know if you have it?
The Holy Spirit is perhaps the least tangible of the Trinity. We can envision Creator God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne, and Jesus, of course, is a very real historical figure. But the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost is difficult to grasp, as is the concept of the Trinity itself, of which the Holy Spirit is part. But not a “part” as in the Trinity is three separate parts, because the Trinity is One.
Let me explain. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which comes from the Latin for “Trinitas, that is “triad” or “threefold,” holds that God is one God. Now generally, when we speak of “God,” we usually mean “Creator God,” but in our belief, God is but three coeternal consubstantial persons or hypostases—the Creator, the Christ (or Messiah), and the Holy Spirit—as "one God in three Divine Persons". Again, one God, but three coeternal consubstantial persons or hypostases.
Wait until you hear what “hypostasis” means! It is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else.
So. Any questions?
Trust me - Theologians have wrestled with this concept from the beginning and we can discuss that another time. For today, let’s look at the Holy Spirit.
The concept of the Holy Spirit is with us from the very beginning. Literally. Reading from Genesis 1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the 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. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
By “Spirit of God,” the Bible does not mean something like God’s pet. “The Spirit of God.” The Spirit. The Spirit of God as opposed to the Creator God, mastermind of the “In the beginning” activity.
Luke wrote more about the Spirit than any other of the Gospel writers, mentioning it 65 times in both Luke and the Book of Acts, which he also wrote. In fact, in the 100 lines in the story of Jesus’ conception, Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and his circumcision, Luke mentions the Holy Spirit ten times.
Luke writes of when Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Once Jesus defeated the temptations of the devil, he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
When he went home to Nazareth, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath Day and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
A new favorite passage of mine is Luke 10: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
As Christians, one of the most important events involving the Holy Spirit, besides Jesus’ conception, came at the time of Pentecost. Luke writes in 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.”
So the Bible has a lot to say about The Holy Spirit. It just isn’t really clear as to what exactly it is.
In our Luke reading, the Spirit descends upon the newly baptized Jesus like a dove. Let me read that verse again: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And 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.”
It’s interesting that the other three gospels word this same event a little differently. Oh, if only someone had put a comparison of all four gospels together. Oh, wait! (Pull out the Synoptics) They did! *ahem* I went to Seminary.
It’s called SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS and it takes what each author wrote about a particular event, as many of the gospels have duplicate stories.
We heard from Luke and listen carefully for the subtle differences in the other readings.
In Matthew 3, we read “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Mark 1 reads Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
And in John 1, we have less of a story and more of a narrative. This is the author speaking about John the Baptist - the John who baptized Jesus. “Then John (the Baptist) gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
The testimony of Luke and Mark is that Jesus saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
Matthew’s testimony is that Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him, and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This my beloved Son. with whom I am well pleased.”
John the Baptist said the he too “saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” And while the words recorded in the other gospels are not here, clearly the Baptizer believes “that this (Jesus) is God’s Chosen One.”
Why is there so much variance in a story important enough to be included in all four gospels? And the answer is, “of course there is variance.”
If each of you, immediately after this service, went into separate rooms and were interviewed as to what we just experienced, we would likely have 50 different stories. That is human nature - the Rashomon effect, if you know that movie.
Now imagine an event that happened thirty years ago - an event that no one thought was historically significant - interesting at best. Nobody was sitting down with scroll and pen, thinking, “Oh, this is about Jesus. People in 2019 will be interested in this.”
How the gospels came to be written is a long class in itself and we won’t go into it here, but know that different people, decades after his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, researched the events of Jesus; the gospels are from two common sources - Mark and a mystery source called “Q” - and from independent research. In truth, it is amazing how in synch they are.
But there are skeptics who say, “If the Bible contradicts itself, how can it be true?” I say it is precisely that the Bible DOES contradict itself that the stories are true. If the sole purpose was to promote the story of Jesus as the Messiah, then why would anything be published that puts those stories into question? And remembering that the Bible we have at home or in front of us in our pews, was not created in one sitting, but was collected over centuries and is, in fact, still being written, as scholars and scientists make new discoveries.
So all four gospels write about the Holy Spirit. Paul, in his many letters, writes about the Holy Spirit, It is mentioned often in our Old Testament and in other New Testament writings.
But what is the Holy Spirit?
Is the Holy Spirit given to us in baptism?
It would seem not.
In our reading from Acts, When Peter and John “arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
John said, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
First of all, this is a baptismal font designed to hold water. It is not a fire pit. Secondly, I have a grandson whom I hope will someday soon be baptized at Bethany. Water will do just fine, thank you.
What then, is the point of baptism?
Those of us here can say we are either “baptizing” or “christening” the baby, the subtle difference being that in Christening a baby, the child is being given a name. But we use the terms interchangeably.
So in those pre-Jesus revealed as the Messiah days of yore, what the heck was the observant Jew John doing, baptising people?
The purpose of John’s baptism was not much different that the reason adults choose to be baptized into Christ today; they want to repent of their sins, cleanse their souls and commit to follow God’s law. As Christians, we announce our faith in Jesus Christ, and show that we want to know, love and serve Him as His chosen disciple. We then answer questions affirming this and voila!, we’re in!
In an infant baptism, it is the parents and the Godparents, if any, who announce their faith in Christ and pledge to raise the child accordingly.
So while baptism is a commitment to living a life in Christ, it is not a Golden Ticket to the Holy Spirit.
Which one again begs the question, “What is the Holy Spirit?” And the good news is that we will find out. Not likely before this sermon is out, but Luke writes in Acts 2 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
Is today the last day? Or will we be here, ten thousand years? I know some of you think highly of me and to those few, I have to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t know.” But in the meantime, we can work on receiving it. We can work on loving each other. On loving our neighbor. On showing mercy. On living our faith. Compassion. Empathy. Generosity. Agape - unconditional love. Testifying to Christ, in word and deed. Share the faith. Remain hopeful. Keep a clean heart, mind, and body. Respect your family members. Don’t kill, cheat, lie, steal..
Do these things because they are the right things to do. Do them in the name of Christ. And if in doing them, we find the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us, then that is the answer.
And if, after doing all these things and the Holy Spirit does not dwell in us, well, I’d like to believe that we are at least one step closer to heaven by creating a heaven on earth.
Meanwhile, let’s gather in the name of the Creator God, a loving Christ, and a guiding Holy Spirit.
Song immediately following sermon: SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER
Other music included OPEN OUR EYES, SPIRIT, and the post-postlude, Norman Greenbaum's SPIRIT IN THE SKY.
THE HOLY SPIRIT*
Presented January 13, 2019 at Bethany Presbyterian Church.
*The Holy Spirit is not actually the name of this sermon. The original title was WHOLLY SPIRIT, which is really weak. Suggested titles after I gave the sermon include MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR and HOLY SPIRIT MYSTERY. The name in the church bulletin was THIS SUBJECT IS SO COMPLICATED I COULDN'T THINK OF A TITLE.