Holy Spirit Filled
Based on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, 1Thess 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
There I was, in worship on a Sunday morning at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church and things were getting just a little bit uncomfortable and unpredictable. I had chosen to go there for my two year seminary internship to gain experience in both an inter-racial setting and one that espoused a different Christian doctrine than United Methodism. Sunday worship usually lasted two to two and a half hours, and was quite energetic. The choir would get everyone fired up, including an “exhorter” who would fan the fire and get folks up singing and dancing. They were fairly Pentecostal in their worship style – Bapticostal my pastoral mentor told me. However, a few times each year, the worship service would be taken over by the Holy Spirit and some of the congregation would begin speaking in tongues, some dancing wildly, and a few would be so overcome that they would fall down in a trance-like state in the aisle, choir loft or front of the Sanctuary.
For someone from Minnesota, who grew up in a very staid, stoic and predictable church liturgy, this out-of-control worship was difficult to understand and to engage. While I would enjoy the church services (I truly miss their spontaneity and energy at times) I never found myself overcome to the point where I would lose control of myself. I asked one of my pastoral mentors her views on the subject. She was raised in Jamaica and she was often moved to pray for folks in tongues – yet she had graduated from the same seminary that I did, so she walked in both worlds. She told me that she considered the “falling out” and speaking in tongues to be gifts of the unpredictable Holy Spirit that people could not control. She just took it as a sign that God was indeed living and moving in worship. There were times that people just got filled up with the Holy Spirit that they had to let it out. Our scriptures for today lead us in this direction of being Holy Spirit filled. On this third Sunday of Advent, won’t you join me in a moment of prayer as we seek to connect to this third person of the Trinity…
The prophet Isaiah is filled with the Holy Spirit and cannot contain himself. God has anointed him (i.e., given him a holy calling or purpose) to bring good news to those who are oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty, to proclaim Jubilee (the year of the Lord’s favor when all property is to be returned to the original owner), to comfort and provide for those who mourn. He is covered “with the garments of salvation” and “the robe of righteousness” to renew and restore the people of Judah to their rightful place in the world. Certainly he must have been humming with energy and excitement of the unpredictable Holy Spirit in order to be able to speak to this many charges without being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the tasks before him.
According to the Gospel of John the Evangelist, John the Baptist was full of the Holy Spirit and on a divine mission. We met John last week – clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. The Gospel of John portrays the Baptizer as one whose call is baptizing all of Judah in the Jordan River after they repent of their sins. In this way, his Holy Spirit-directed ministry was to prepare the way for the Messiah. The Baptizer plays the role of witness in John’s Gospel – pointing the people of Judah and the Temple leadership to the reality that the long awaited Messiah was there among them. To fulfill the ancient prophecy of Israel, all of the people needed to repent before the Messiah could “be revealed to Israel”. The Holy Spirit had so filled the Baptizer that he knew exactly who he was and wasn’t and exactly what holy task he needed to accomplish to foster the revelation of God’s kingdom come to earth.
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians ends with some exhortations to “…admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them…” (1Thess 5:14, NRSV) He exhorts them to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, be thankful in all circumstances. Most interestingly in verse 19 he writes, “…Do not quench the Spirit….” At first glance, this seems to be out of place in the laundry list of things to do to help the community thrive. Yet, Paul knew that being filled with the Holy Spirit was the key component in keeping the nascent movement alive and moving forward to make new disciples for Jesus. He would go on in future letters to the Galatians and Corinthians, respectively, to describe both the fruits of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. Paul realized that if the fire of the Holy Spirit went out, then the movement would wither and die.
Paul knew that the believers in his church plants needed to cultivate spiritual openness to be able to discern the movement of the Spirit. Once they recognized the activity of the Spirit, then they would be challenged, led, supported and comforted while they engaged in learning to live in Christian community. The Spirit would guide and empower them to recognize and name the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, patience and kindness (or mercy). Likewise, they would be able to recognize the gifts of the Spirit like healing, prophecy, discernment, wisdom and faith. It is the very same with each of us. When we are feasting on the word, participating in worship, doing acts of mercy, inviting others to church, welcoming the stranger, being hospitable – in these ways we are being filled by and moving with the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.
However, the Church lost this perspective over the millennia since Paul wrote his letters. For many years, the Church had not followed the exhortation of Paul and it had marginalized the Holy Spirit as a distant and unnecessary part of the Holy Trinity. This third person of the Trinity was kind of left off to the side and treated as a less than equal part of God for most of my spiritual life. It was brought out at the Baptism of Jesus and at Pentecost and then tucked away until the liturgical calendar rolled back around again. In fact, it wasn’t until I did some reading on contemplative spirituality and then went to seminary that I became truly aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in my life and the life of the Church. Renewed scholarship and teaching about the activity of the Holy Spirit have revived an interest and appreciation for how vitally important a spirit filled life really is to a disciple and to have a vital Church.
After all, the Spirit of God is present in the Bible from the second verse forward – helping God to create and motivate all the way through to the Book of Revelation. This creative and motivational force moved among God’s people producing and sustaining Patriarchs, prophets and kings. Jesus was so filled with the Holy Spirit that knew that once he ascended, His Disciples (and all those who would follow them) were going to need a counselor and advocate to teach them and remind them of all that Jesus had done. In fact, the Holy Spirit is the most important person of the Trinity for us on a day-to-day basis in our lives as disciples. Without being led by the Spirit the church will lose her motivation and will slowly die. It is why Jesus told us to abide in Him and the Spirit as in a vine.
What does all this mean for us? We hear so much about “the spirit of the season” of Advent/Christmas. Certainly it is a time for many to be joyful and excited about parties and presents and time with family. But this is the power of the world at work, not the power of God’s Holy Spirit. If we are co-opted by the world to neglect our duties as disciples to study scripture, to worship, to engage in right relationships with each other, and to identify and grow new disciples for Jesus, we will never get filled by the Holy Spirit. The real power of this season, for us then, is to regain our vision of the Holy Spirit at work as God found a young girl and made her into the bearer of One filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus came and lived as one of us, but He knew that we were not filled with the Holy Spirit, so He made sure we had this support until He came again.
In this season of Advent…with eight more days until we celebrate the coming again of our Lord and Savior, I pray for us to not quench the unpredictable Holy Spirit. Let us be moved by that Spirit to do all that the Apostle Paul exhorted his church in Thessalonica to do – let us pray without ceasing for one another and for our world. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to so fill us that we burn with the unquenchable fire of God’s call on our lives. Verses one and two of hymn #539, “O Spirit of the Living God” puts it this way, “O Spirit of the living God, thou light and fire divine, descend upon thy church once more, and make it truly thine. Fill it with love and joy and power, with righteousness and peace; till Christ shall dwell in human hearts, and sin and sorrow cease. Blow, wind of God! With wisdom blow until our minds are free from mists of error, clouds of doubt, which blind our eyes to see. Burn, winged fire! Inspire our lips with flaming love and zeal, to preach to all they great good news, God’s glorious commonweal.” This is my Advent prayer for all of us…may God make it so. Amen!