Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost sermon

In the last few months, I've preached on Christmas, on Easter, and I'm going to be preaching this Sunday on Pentecost. All I need to do is preach during a funeral and a wedding, and I'll have reached the top; I can retire from preaching a happy man. Here is a rough draft of the upcoming Pentecost sermon.

In the beginning, God created everything that exists. He created the earth, the dry land, the waters, the trees, the wolves and bears, the birds, the fish, and everything whatsoever. He made one particular creature, however, in a special way, and that is humankind. Whereas the other creatures were made in various ways, according to their species, humankind was made according to the image and likeness of God. God's intention from the beginning was that he have a sort of representative on earth, namely human beings, who could take care of the creation and could love and worship God for his goodness. Human beings were made to be living, moving, breathing icons of God in the world. Moreover, Gen 3.8 suggests that God even intended to live in the garden with humanity. God had created the world in love and wanted to see it guided to perfection in love, alongside humanity.

But human beings decided not to go with God on this suggested journey, and they sinned. And with sin, they incurred a punishment of death, contracting into themselves a sort of disease which would affect every aspect of their being. Whereas God wanted them to live, now they are doomed to die; whereas God wanted them to know him in close proximity, now they are condemned to live outside of the garden; whereas God wanted them to work to care of a creation that was favorable, now they had to work a cursed land with sweat and tears. Worse still, because of the presence of sin, they were turned one against the other. Brother murdered brother, wife turned against husband, and so conflicts and strife became part and parcel of life in God's world.

What God intended was that humanity be made into his image, that humankind be made like God. But as it happened, humans were turning into devils more and more with every day that passed. God did not want to leave things like this; he did not want to allow his creation to be undone. So after many years, he called a person named Abram to leave his home, to leave his father's house, and to go out to a land which he would give him. And he told Abram that he would make a great nation out of his offspring, that they would have a blessed land to live on, and more than that -- he told him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him. God was going to make use of Abram and the family that would come from him to bless the entire world, to bless all nations.

So Abram, whose name was eventually changed to Abraham, had a child: Isaac. And Isaac in turn had two children of his own, and from his son Jacob, a great nation had come forth. Jacob's twelve sons eventually had children of their own, until they formed quite a large group. Famine forced them to move into Egypt, where they were successful for a while, thanks to the favor of the Pharaoh. But after a while, a new Pharaoh took control who did not like the Hebrews, and so he made slaves of them.

They were slaves for quite some time until God raised a liberator to set them free, Moses. Through God's power and miracles, Moses managed to move the now very large Hebrew family from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where he received from God a law that would guide the new nation. This law was supposed to teach them how they ought to live; it was a help to them to understand God, his nature, and how they can be like him. God gave them conditions with this law: if they obey it, they will be blessed and enjoy long and prosperous lives in the land that God would give them; but if they were to disobey, then they would be cursed and suffer horrific punishments.

Yet even if they should suffer the curse for the law, yet this accursed state did not have to be permanent. God gave them the opportunity to repent and to start things from the beginning. And this is what he tells them:

When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live (Deut 30.1-6).

Notice what God says! After they have incurred the curse of the law and have been scattered throughout the nations, and after they repent and turn to the LORD with all their heart, then he will do something special to them. He will "circumcise their hearts," so that they will love the LORD and no longer turn away from him. God's goal from the beginning was always that humanity love God, and he will do what it takes to win humanity's love for him.

So the Israelites received the law and began a new covenant with God. But they did not obey God's laws, even though he sent prophet after prophet to them, and would punish them for their sins, calling them back to repentance all the while. After a certain point, their evil became too great, and so God condemned them to be exiled. They went away, some to Assyria and others to Babylon, and there they stayed for some time. The temple they had constructed for God had been destroyed, and it is as if God had abandoned them. Indeed, that is what many of the Isrealites felt for some time. But notice what the Lamentations of Jeremiah say, even after describing the horrors of their punishment:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3.22-33).

This trust in the eventual mercy of God did not fail, because after 70 years the exiles returned from Babylon. They were given freedom to return to their homeland in Palestine. There they rebuilt the temple. And yet they were still eventually subjugated by the Greeks, and then by the Persians, and then by the Romans. Though they had turned to the LORD, yet it would seem that his curse was still upon them, because they were not free to worship God and to enjoy his good gifts in their own land.

It must have been that their repentance was not sufficient. So a man came from the desert, John the Baptist, and he began to call all of Israel to repent of their sins. He would call the nation to repent, to begin to live differently, so that God would fulfill his promise in the Law to restore them to his favor. And as he was calling Israel to repentance, there came a man from Nazareth, named Jesus, who was sent by God for the salvation of Israel and the whole world. John was anticipating that this Christ would come, and he said of him: I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1.8).

So Jesus came and was baptized, and then for three years afterwards, he began his ministry in Galilee and Judea. He took the burden of providing adequate repentance on himself, and he did what the Israelites in their weakness could not do. He went from place to place, doing good to everyone, healing the sick, teaching the multitudes, and freeing those who were under the control of the devil. He provoked the ire of the religious authorities at the time, so they put him to death with the help of the Romans. Little did they know that in his death on the cross, he had died for all humanity, to reconcile it to God! Through his death, all of humanity had died, and when he rose from the dead three days later, he guaranteed the resurrection of all humanity after him. He had undone what the first humans had ruined: for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15.22).

Now death and sin were no longer obstacles before God. His goal, of course, as I said from the beginning, was to make humanity into his image, to make of human beings little gods to live on earth in love and harmony. Now that Christ had offered atonement for the sins of the world, now that he had kept the law and offered up a sort of repentance on behalf of Israel, the promise from Deut 30.6 could be fulfilled: the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. So before Jesus ascended, he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem.

Then something happened which they never could have expected. As they were praying in the upper room, the Holy Spirit of God descended upon them! They had received the Holy Spirit which the Law and the prophets had promised! Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, to whom they had prayed and whom they obeyed in remaining in Jerusalem, had baptized them with the Spirit of God just as John the Baptist had foretold. Now something new had come into the world; the very Spirit of God was living in the human heart, and the human body was made into God's temple. No longer did God reside outside of a human person in some far off temple; on the contrary, now God was within the human person, empowering him to live a life in the likeness and resemblance of God!

Pentecost therefore represents the fulfillment of God's intention from the very beginning. He created humanity to live in the world and to be the image and likeness of God. Though humanity had provided obstacles for this through sin and death, yet in Christ God conquered sin and death, so that his goal and purpose would not be frustrated. And on Pentecost, the Spirit of God was given to humanity, and in a way we can say that the human person was deified. Now it is no mere human being who walks and moves and breathes, but a living creature of God in whom God's very Spirit lives. God, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, was transforming human beings back into his own likeness, making them like him, little gods on the earth.

If Christmas is an important celebration for Christians, and if Easter is even greater, to my mind Pentecost has to be the greatest and most important of holidays for Christians. On this day, God himself took up residence in the human heart -- not only Christ's heart, but in mine and yours and the apostles' hearts, as well. God came even closer to humanity than previously: whereas Jesus ate and drank with the apostles for three years, now the Spirit of God comes in even closer proximity, taking up residence within the walls of your heart, animating your life from the inside.

God does all of this in order to make us like himself. God's goal from the beginning was that humanity be like God, that we be like little gods on the earth. So he gives us his Holy Spirit in order for us to be made into his likeness. And what is that likeness? Paul tells us:

... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-3).

This is the sort of person we become when we have the Spirit of God living within us, because this is what God is like himself! God is love, is joy, is peace, is patient, is kind, is generous, is faithful, is gentle, and is self-controlled. When we have the Spirit of God living within us, we become persons like this thanks to his grace.

Perhaps you don't find yourself to be this sort of person. Certainly oftentimes I do not. But the good news is that we are not called to be like this on our own powers, which would be impossible. Rather, God gives his Spirit generously and graciously to all persons who ask! This is what Jesus said: If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11.13) All we have to do is ask of God to give us his Spirit, and he is happy to do so!

Don't get it into your head that you are unworthy of such a thing, and therefore you will not ask. That thought does not come from God. Notice what Peter told the people on the day of Pentecost:

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. . . Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2.22-3, 38-9).

The same persons who killed the Christ of God are the ones whom God promises the Holy Spirit. Our sins, all of our sins, put Christ on the cross. There is no one here for whom Christ did not die; there is no one here who did not, by his own sins, contribute in some way to the death of the Son of God. But Christ was happy to die for our sins, because it meant that we could live for God; and then God could give us the Holy Spirit, which was promised for us.

So today, on Pentecost, I want to ask of God that he give me his Holy Spirit. And I invite all of you, all of us together, to ask of God to give us his Holy Spirit, so that we can love him, and one another, and can made into his likeness. Amen.