A sermon preached on January 8th, 2012 based upon Genesis 1:1 – 5, Acts 19:1 – 7, and Mark 1:4 -11.
The unifying image in these three lessons is the presence of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps more accurately, the Spirit moving. In a certain sense, the Holy Spirit is always present. Without the Holy Spirit, we could not exist. It is the movement of the Holy Spirit that draws our attention here, because it is when the Holy Spirit is moving that something new and life-giving is created.
In Genesis story we are taken back in time to that original moment of creation, what physicists might call the big bang. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” There is nothing but chaos, a watery darkness, and suddenly because the Holy Spirit is hovering over this chaos — like a mother hen hovering over her nest about to lay her eggs — creation takes place, and light is brought forth, and the light is declared to be good.
Fast forward to a creation long sense set in motion, but a creation that has lost its way, and the Spirit once more is on the move, once more hovering over water — this time the waters of the River Jordan where John is baptizing masses of people longing for a new life, and the Spirit descends like a dove to take possession of one man, Jesus of Nazareth, who has come with all the others to enter into those dark waters.
And then, several years later, a group of people described as “disciples” — people intently following the way of the Lord — who happen to meet up with the Apostle Paul, and learn from him that there is a far deeper place to go on their spiritual journey, that is, to be united to Jesus through baptism and infused by the same holy spirit that filled him, and as Paul lays hands upon them, they, too experience this deeper spiritual reality, the holy spirit moving through them, empowering them, recreating them.
Each example of the Holy Spirit’s movement is different, and yet similar, in that something is created by this movement that could not have been fully anticipated, and it is good, life-giving. Even in the Genesis account, where there is no mention yet of life, the thing that is created is that great mystery of Light, which is essential for life. There can be no life without light.
But the question that occurs to me as I ponder these three stories is…Why does the Holy Spirit move, when it moves? Why at this particular moment, and not another?
We cannot say. There is a mystery here.
Why, as the physicists suggest, was the time ripe 14 billion years ago, for the creation to come into being, for matter that was compressed into a tiny point to suddenly explode outwards, to take form, establish order. Why, at that moment? Although the physicists can provide helpful information about the conditions in place at that moment in time, but I think you will agree that there is an impenetrable mystery. Why should this time of ripeness occur at all?
And Jesus was a grown man, at least 30 when the heavens opened up, and the holy spirit descended upon him like a dove, empowering him for the ministry that lay before him. Why at that moment? Why not earlier? Why not later? All we can say, as he would say as he began his ministry, “the time was right”, it was God’s time.
And why would a group of believers, indeed, “disciples,” who, for some time have been consciously trying to follow the way of the Lord — why should it be that not until this particular moment in their lives should they experience the interior illumination and liberation and empowerment brought about by the Holy Spirit?
We could say, well, they didn’t have someone to properly teach them, and baptize them into the name of Jesus, to lay hands on them, as Paul did, and that is true. But it is also true that Paul acts only as a midwife in this new birth, and if the time wasn’t right for the baby to be born, it didn’t matter whether the midwife was on hand or not.
THE question of life then becomes, how do we live in harmony with the Holy Spirit?
In tune with the Holy Spirit? How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, that creative, life-giving, loving, nurturing presence of God that would direct and empower our lives in life-giving, creative, loving directions? Ah, that is the million dollar question.
The words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus when he came to him by cover of night (like the darkness before the original creation) fit here: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So on one level the answer to the million dollar question is: we can’t. We can’t control the wind. We can’t know when or where it is going to blow.
So perhaps I should end here.
But there are things to be said, I think, that are helpful. First off, it’s important to recognize the limits of our knowledge. We know not where the wind or the Spirit comes from or where it goes.
Thinking we know what is up, what needs to happen, why things are happening the way they are, etc. etc. etc. creates something of a barrier. It is arrogance. Presumption. The truth is, what we don’t know always far outweighs what we do know, and to forget this is to end up going it alone – that is, without the Holy Spirit.
Our lessons reveal this truth: The earth was formless and void. It had No pre-conceived notions.
Those disciples who met Paul didn’t pretend to know more than they knew, as in, “Oh, yeah, we know all about the holy spirit, we’ve written books about the Holy Spirit.” No, they said plainly, without embarrassment regarding their ignorance: “We haven’t even heard that there was a holy spirit!” They are like babes, ready to be taught.
And Jesus himself was without pretense. He emptied himself, as it says in Philippians 2. He claimed no special status. He got into the waters of chaos, the dark waters of death, just like every other poor, clueless slob, knowing not what was needed.
But there is one thing that is helpful. How exactly one can possess this one helpful thing is, itself something of a mystery, and that is to have faith. Faith is not a matter of belief. Not really. Believing “the right things” in and of itself won’t bring you any closer to living in harmony with the Holy Spirit.
The faith I speak of us is more closely akin to trust. To be like a child who trusts his or her parent to love them. The faith of a child — the child who relies on the love of the divine daddy and mommy, who chose that we should be alive, brought us into the dance, so to speak, and didn’t just create us in order to abuse us, but rather to dance with us, bless us.
Jesus arises from the dark waters to hear the voice of Abba: “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”
So it helps to know one thing, and one thing alone. I am a beloved child of God.
I may not know what God the future holds, or how I will ever work out the problems in my life, but I do know I am God’s child, and that in the end, that’s the most important thing.
I recognized as I was writing this sermon that I was describing a process that I struggle with every week in this peculiar calling I have to preach. Unless the Holy Spirit in some sense shows up as I go about preparing, then whatever it is I am doing up here, it ain’t preaching.
I often spend a fair amount of time waiting around for the Holy Spirit to start to move. I wish I could get it to jump through a hoop. Okay, God, I’m in my study, sitting at my word processor, get your Spirit flowing!
But it doesn’t work that way. There are things I can do – that I need to do. For one thing, I can read the scriptures over several times, letting them sink down into my unconsciousness. Generally speaking, this doesn’t feel very ‘inspired.’ But it’s necessary to plant the seeds.
There is a certain state of consciousness that I have come to recognize where I am ready for the Spirit to move. It is hard to describe, but inwardly my mind starts to slow down. I empty out, so to speak. I become still. And there the words and images of the Scripture, planted in my psyche, begin to dance.
I can’t make myself reach such a place. But certain things can help. We are spiritual beings inhabiting flesh, and the flesh is good, and needs care and attention. This is part of the truth we celebrated at Christmas. Christ dwelt in the same flesh as we dwell within. The flesh needs to be cared for. The flesh needs enough sleep. It needs to get exercise, to move (indeed, to dance.) It needs to eat properly.
This might be the least holy thing I will say from the pulpit, but maybe, for somebody hear today, the most helpful: It is hard to reach that empty, open state of mind when our bodies are constipated.
But every week it comes down to a question of trust. Do I believe that God has my best intentions at heart? Do I believe that God wants to use me? Do I believe that God can use me even when I am clueless how that will happen?
There is something comforting about the fact that we aren’t in charge of the timing of God’s Spirit. If truth be told, we aren’t up to the job. God is God, and we are not.
Sometimes the hardest place to trust is in relation to the people we love. One of my favorite Christian authors Frederick Buechner, who describes in his memoirs the terror he went through when one of his three daughters was dangerously sick with anorexia — her life threatened by that illness of the mind that led her to refuse to eat.
He lived under a dark cloud, his heart closed down — his fear about his daughter all he really had room for. And then unexpectedly, he had an experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Buechner describes the experience this way:
“I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany. The owner of the car turned out to be, as I suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.”
In his particular case the trust he needed involved letting go of his daughter, entrusting her to the care of professionals who understood far better what it was that she needed than he did, overly involved in her terror as he was.
In closing, what I want to say to those of us who are finding ourselves stuck in that scary place: the Holy Spirit will move in God’s good time. Fear not! What is hard now, indeed seemingly impossible now, WILL become quite possible, in God’s good time, and sometimes what we most need to do is get out of the way to allow God to work, to allow the Spirit to move.
God is God, and I am not.
Thank you God, for your love. Thank you God for knowing what is needed far better than I will ever know.