January 21, 2007 - Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, appears throughout the Bible. He is present from the second verse of Genesis, “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” until almost the last words of Revelation, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” The Spirit is the person of God who goes out, bringing life to human beings, wisdom to leaders, the Word of the Lord to prophets, and power, inspiration, and knowledge to Christ and His Church.
Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit at His baptism and declared this at the inauguration of His ministry in Luke 4. Teaching on prayer in Luke 11, He explained that God’s ultimate answer and best gift to us is the Holy Spirit. And in John 16, when Jesus approached His death, resurrection and ascension from this earth, He promised that the Holy Spirit would come to His followers and continue His ministry in them.
In Acts 2, then, the Holy Spirit took up residence in the apostles and in the whole church. In Romans 8 Paul declares that it is by the Spirit living in us that we belong to Christ, and that by Him we are able to call God Abba, “Father.” Likewise, in I John 4:13, the way we know God lives in us, and we in Him, is through the Spirit. John says the Spirit of God testifies that Jesus Christ came in the flesh from God and that the Father sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. We know the Father and the Son, the other persons of the Trinity, in and through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit brings gifts to God’s people. In Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and I Peter 4, we find lists of some gifts. It is also well not to forget an Old Testament list, in Isaiah 11:2-3, which Catholic Christians recognize as gifts of the Holy Spirit.
For all this, the Holy Spirit remains mysterious. In the Old Testament and even as the descending dove or the rushing wind and tongues of flame in Acts, the Spirit appears impersonal. We may speak of the Spirit as “it,” understanding the third person of God along the lines of a general “spiritual force” acknowledged even by society around us. The Holy Spirit becomes an abstract expression of the fact that God is everywhere present.
Yet true Christian faith holds tightly to the affirmation that the Holy Spirit is a person deserving the personal pronoun “He.” Jesus speaks of the Spirit thus in John. Paul says the Spirit prays with us and for us when we have no words. The Spirit can be grieved. In I John, the Spirit testifies. The Spirit is very much a person, co-equal with the Father and the Son.
Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit comes to us clearly as the gift of God the Father, through God the Son. It is by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, that the Holy Spirit, who in the Old Testament comes and goes from God’s people, finally comes to stay and abide in us. The Spirit in the Church is the Spirit of Jesus, who is the Son of the Father.
In Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, young David is apprenticed to the legal firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. Despite the firm’s two partners, David finds that he always deals only with Mr. Spenlow. Nonetheless, Mr. Jorkins seems ever-present even though he is ever-silent. Whenever Spenlow is asked for some favor or for some consideration of a client, he always expresses deference to the opinion of Jorkins.
So if a client asks for leniency regarding the payment of a bill, Mr. Spenlow would say that, if it were only his opinion to be considered there might be some room for such compassion, but that Mr. Jorkins would be quite immovable. If a clerk wanted a raise in salary, well Mr. Spenlow might have granted it, but he was sure that “Mr. Jorkins wouldn’t listen to such a proposition.” Over and over, Spenlow names his partner Jorkins as the reason for his most hard and cruel business decisions.
As it turns out in Dickens’ book, the silent presence of Jorkins is only an excuse for Spenlow to exercise his own will. In point of fact, Copperfield discovers, Jorkins is a mild, retiring man, who simply lets Spenlow use his name to deceptively have his own way in all matters of the firm.
Today as we look at Jesus’ inaugural address in the synagogue of Nazareth, at the beginning of His ministry, we might get the impression that He has just such a silent partner as Mr. Spenlow did. Using the beginning of Isaiah 61, as the Scripture reader for that Sabbath service, He read out the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me…”
That declaration that the Spirit of the Lord was on Him was literally true. Last week we saw how, as Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove. Jesus could certainly claim to have God’s Spirit, if anyone could.
Yet other than that dove, and maybe some wind and fire in the second chapter of Acts, we never actually see the Holy Spirit. In John 3:8, Jesus suggests that the Spirit is like the wind. You may hear its sound, “but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” The Spirit is invisible and mysterious. Like the wind, we may not even hear the coming of the Spirit. By claiming the Holy Spirit with the words of Isaiah, Jesus seems to be setting up a silent partner for His own practice.
Jesus is setting up shop here, you know. Just like a newly minted attorney with a J.D. degree, a freshly licensed medical doctor with an M.D., or a college instructor with a finished dissertation and a Ph.D., Jesus had come back to His hometown to announce that He was ready for business.
It was not quite the beginning of His work. It was not the first place He set up practice. Verses 14 and 15 make it clear that Christ had already been at work in towns throughout the whole region. He had done His residency, taught as an adjunct, whatever you want to call His warm-up ministry. Verse 15 says that everyone had good words to say about Him. Yet now He had come to open an office in the town, as it says in verse 16, “where He had been brought up.”
In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus staked His claim on His own title. It wasn’t quite the jumble of letters that represent modern degrees, like B.A., M.S., D.D., or my own M.Div., but it was a title that followed His name. Ann Landers once got a letter asking if she knew whether “Christ” was Jesus’ last name. Since she lived in Chicago, she went to the best Christian authority she knew and asked the now late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin about it. His response was correct. “Christ” is not really a name at all. It is a title.
“Christ” means just what Jesus says there in verse 18, that Spirit of the Lord is upon Him, “because He has anointed me.” “Christ” means “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the Hebrew word, “Messiah,” which means the same. That old kitchen staple, Crisco Oil, gets its name from the same root, the Greek verb, chriō, which is “to anoint.” Iesus Christos, Jesus Christ means “Jesus, the Anointed One.” If you were to letter a sign for Jesus’ office, it would read, “Jesus comma Christ” or “Jesus the Christ.” Christ is His title, not His last name.
Jesus was not anointed with oil, like the ancient kings of Israel were. Even then, the oil was not the point, but symbolized something else. When Jesus read those ancient words from the scroll of Isaiah, He meant His old friends and neighbors to realize that He was Christ because He was anointed with the Holy Spirit. That’s what anointing with oil symbolized in Israel. Sweet, pure oil dripping down upon one’s head meant that God’s Holy Spirit had come down upon that person.
So Jesus stood in the synagogue, reading an old scroll, and in the process announced His title and His mission to everyone present. Just the way He read it must have sparked their attention. Everyone woke up. Verse 20 says that when He sat down—in those days you read the Scripture standing, then sat down to preach—when He sat down “the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.” Then Jesus added the clincher: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He wasn’t just reading. Isaiah’s words were His words. For hundred of years, those words had waited for Him to come and open that scroll and read them as complete truth. The boy everyone knew came home and announced that He was the Christ. Isaiah was speaking about Him.
Jesus came to town and set up shop. In what kind of business is someone with the title Christ? The rest of verse 18, still quoting Isaiah, explains. The practice of the Christ, His business, is to “preach good news to the poor,” “to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.” His work is “to release the oppressed,” and “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” To sum it all up in a single word, Jesus comma Christ is in the salvation business. He has come to redeem and save people.
And the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ silent partner in the business of salvation. Unlike Mr. Spenlow naming Mr. Jorkins in David Copperfield, when Jesus names the Holy Spirit as His partner, it’s not just a front for His own wishes and plans. As Jesus’ ministry unfolds, it’s obvious that He does what He does and says what He says at the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit.
Earlier in Luke, at the end of chapter 2, you can read how even at age 12, Jesus knew that His work was not just His own pleasure. As the KJV puts it, He said to His parents, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” Jesus has partners: the Father who sent Him, and the silent Partner, the Holy Spirit who came down on Him.
At the very beginning of chapter 4, we see again that the Spirit is an active guide for Jesus. Verses 1 and 2 say that He “was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days…” That would not be a merely human Jesus’ own choice, spending forty days starving and wrestling with temptation. That was the Holy Spirit’s direction, the Spirit’s plan to prove that the Son of God could live a perfect human life and so change the course of our lives.
All through His ministry, Jesus understood what He said and did in terms of His partnership with the Holy Spirit. When in Matthew 12 He did miracles and some people accused Him of using the power of the devil, Jesus was not offended for Himself. He said they were blaspheming against His silent partner, against the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, Jesus had a monumental business plan. To make again the point I made last week, but in different terms, Jesus’ plan was to bring you and I into the partnership. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is a fine old firm, and they want us to join them. And the Holy Spirit is the active partner and agent in making that happen.
In Luke 11:13, when Jesus concluded His teaching on prayer, He said that if even human parents know how to give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus prepared the disciples for His death and resurrection, and ultimately His departure into heaven, by promising the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus in the flesh would be gone, would be in heaven, but the Spirit would come and would live with everyone who believes in Jesus.
As evangelical Christians we often talk about Jesus living in us, about praying and asking Jesus into our hearts. But the way that happens is through the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit who comes to us and brings the life of Jesus Christ into us and who brings us into the life of Christ, into His partnership.
We make a huge mistake, therefore, if we are not truly Trinitarian in our theology, if we forget, in particular, the role of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. That’s why I’m speaking today on the Holy Spirit first, so you and I will not forget that we receive Jesus Christ and His salvation only in and through the operation of the Holy Spirit.
If the Spirit was Jesus’ partner, then He is our partner too. Jesus promised in John 16:7 that the Holy Spirit would come alongside us as a Counselor, and further on, as a guide into all the truth that Jesus wants us to know. As believers and followers of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is our constant partner, directing our lives and making known to us the Father and the Son.
I’m worried, though, that the Holy Spirit way too often is for us the kind of silent partner that Mr. Jorkins was for Mr. Spenlow. Because the Spirit lives in us, because He often is silent, it is easy to confuse the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, with our own spirits. We create our own plans, live out our own wishes, find our own course through life, and yet imagine that we are following the direction of the Holy Spirit. We may even say out loud, as some Christians do, “The Holy Spirit told me this,” but in reality we told it to ourselves. We are Spenlows making the Spirit into our Mr. Jorkins and doing whatever we want to do, not what He wants. We are using the Spirit’s name to have our own way.
That’s why it is helpful to go back to Jesus’ own understanding of the Holy Spirit’s partnership in His ministry, in His business. Look what the Spirit anointed Jesus to do: “preach good news to the poor… proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That’s what the Holy Spirit, acting as Jesus’ partner, directed Him to do. I believe it’s the kind of thing He directs us to do.
We really are partners in the business in the business of God, and not just to collect a share of the profits. The profit is abundant, as I explained last week. Brought into the life of the Trinity, we receive the abundance and joy that they experience forever. But as part of that life, of that business, we also share in their work, in their mission.
In short, if we really believe in the Holy Spirit, then we will be listening for Him to direct us into the same concerns that Jesus expressed here in the words of Isaiah. We will be expecting the Spirit to show us poor people waiting to hear good news, prisoners crying out to be set free, blind people seeking vision, oppressed people looking for release. And perhaps most of all,we will let the Holy Spirit spur us on to constantly proclaim that now is the time of God’s favor, that God loves and cherishes everyone and wants all people to know His love.
This evening we are going to meet together as a congregation. It’s a business meeting. You may think our meeting is what we ordinarily call “business.” So you expect to hear reports and talk about money and budgets and elect officers. And so we will. But if the Holy Spirit is our partner in this business, than those things are not what matters most. The real business we have is the Spirit’s business, the business of bringing good news and hope to people who have none. It’s the Spirit’s work of going out, of getting outside our own selves, outside our own wants and wishes, to care about the people God cares about.
Unless we let the Trinity of God be a practical reality for us, we don’t really believe it. Unless you and I are willing to let the Spirit of God be more than a silent partner in our business, we are not really following Christ. Unless the business the Spirit gave Jesus is also our business, we are not a church.
The people of Nazareth missed their partnership with the Spirit. If you read on, you find in verse 23 that their whole concern was for themselves. They wanted Jesus to do the kind of miracles for them that He had done elsewhere. They missed the whole point of His anointing, of His purpose there. They did not understand a Spirit that would push them beyond their own needs to consider the needs of others. They would not let that Spirit come down on them.
I pray that, whatever “business” we here at Valley Covenant have to attend to in the way of finances and record-keeping, our primary business will be to follow God’s Holy Spirit in the business of Jesus. If the Spirit leads us out into the desert to be hungry for awhile, it may be that He’s only getting us ready for real partnership with Him.
So I ask that now for a little while we would simply be quiet and listen for the Spirit. He is often quiet, but He is not silent. Jesus went out to the silent desert to listen for the voice of the Spirit for forty days. Let’s you and I spend at least forty seconds this morning in silent listening, so that we might hear the Spirit speak to us, so that we might hear and remember what our business really is.
May the Holy Spirit come to each of you, from God the Father, through Jesus Christ His only Son.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj