Posted on 2021-05-21 22:30:00 in Spirituality
26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. ...
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. ....
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 15:26–16:16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Note: When I preached this sermon, I had as an illustration a birthday cake for the church with about 100 candles on -- a candle for 20 years.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is the gospel reading for today that we heard just a few minutes ago, and I want to start by continuing, in a more grown-up way, the children's sermon that you heard, too. On the occasion of a birthday, we who are a little older than those kids are might be inclined to look at the candles, and look back over our lives, and reflect on how things have gone, and ask what future candles will be representing. Will they good years or bad ones?
American Christians today could be forgiven for feeling that, perhaps, many of the happier years are sitting there already as candles on the cake, and the candles yet to be lit, in another year, will be representing sadder ones. I was talking to a friend this past week, and we both agreed that it seems that everyone appears to be grouchy, out of sorts, in a bad mood these days. I don't know for certain if it's COVID hangover, or cultural uncertainty, or something else. I have some strong suspicions though, which I'll share in a bit.
The story is told of three friends who went to different colleges. I'm going to leave the names of the colleges out, so you can fill in blanks with your own choices once you have heard the story:
The three friends were on spring break, and short on cash, and found themselves close to the water, but not able to afford anywhere much fun or anything to do, so they were walking around in an industrial area near the docks. There was a sign on a door they walked by saying, "Harbor tours, $5."
The first one said, "I don't know, it seems too good to be true."
The second one said, "don't be such a wet blanket, it's spring break, maybe it's a volume discount sort of thing. What do you think," he asked the third one, who simply replied, "I'm not sure what to think."
So the second friend said, "I'm going in," and didn't come out. The first friend asked the third, "do you think we should follow?" And he again answered, "I'm not sure." So the first friend went in.
Finally, after a long pause, the third one also went through the door, where like the other two, he was hit from behind and knocked out. All three came to on a life raft, without their money or much of anything, floating out in the bay.
"I knew this was a bad idea, the first one said."
The second one said, "stop being such a downer, I'm sure they're going to send someone out to pick us up."
The third one said, "No, they're not. I did this last year."
It would be a great American sermon if I used this text to tell you, somehow, that of course they were going to send a boat out to pick us up. We Americans love a happy ending, and we're addicted to the idea, I'm not sure where it came from, that with progress and human cleverness, things will just keep getting better and better forever. But we need to be realistic about some of the candles on this cake here.
I did a little online research, and I discovered that many historians agree that 536 was perhaps the worst year to be alive in the northern hemisphere. A volcanic eruption in Greenland or somewhere in North America put so much ash in the air that the sun's rays were blocked. Snow fell in June, and no crops survived for three years. Many died of famine. Just six years later, the Eastern Roman empire, barely recovered from this awful weather event, was struck by the first wave of a bubonic plague that killed about a third of the population. The Roman empire was Christian at that point; in fact, the ruins remain today of a huge church whose construction was halted by that plague and never resumed. I wonder what those unhappy Christians thought as they were recovering from famine only to face the plague. No, things don't always just get better and better.
Our text says a lot about how we should look at the candles on the cake. I think it is a great time, as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit, to think that this same Spirit is active in our own time.
Pastor Ely preached last week from the same portion of John's gospel as we read today. Our readings don't always move forward; in fact, last week's reading actually comes after today's. But Pastor Ely spoke about how John was remembering Jesus and writing his Gospel for people who felt that the world was a hostile place for their beliefs. By the time John was writing this Gospel, even though the events he remembers and describes happened before pentecost, the people who first heard his gospel regarded that first day of the church as a distant memory, or perhaps had not even been born when it happened. The Holy Spirit came down with great power and enthusiasm (if I may use that word) on that day of the first thousands added to the church. There were many days afterwards, though, that were just ordinary days, both good and bad.
Jesus says, as part of this same talk he gives to His disciples, "In a little while you will not see me, then a little longer, and you will." When we read this prediction of Jesus, from our vantage point, we assume that Jesus is talking about how he will be killed, and the disciples will not see Him until He comes again at Easter. But many in the age of the apostles could be forgiven for remembering these words of Jesus and thinking that He would return very soon, perhaps any day. I wouldn't be surprised if some of those on the first Pentecost of the church weren't more expecting Jesus to return, rather than the Holy Spirit to come.
I think that many Christians in the age of the apostles would have been horrified and disappointed if they realized that the Father intended to put so many candles on the cake. Many of them would have acted very differently, and perhaps the church would have have even survived. The apostles themselves, in that upper room, obviously had no idea what was going to happen at all, so it seems strange that Jesus would say they He had given them His Word. There was a lot of the Word they didn't get.
And, in fact, it's well worth noticing that Jesus says that they are not meant to know everything all at once. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." It certainly doesn't make much sense that things were going to get so incredibly happy for the church, that they couldn't "bear them." We don't use those words when we're talking about good things. It's something I've noticed years ago, that when a spouse or a long friend or loved one dies, that people think they're over it when they're not. Suddenly a billboard, or a plate of food, or some other seemingly unrelated something brings back memories, and the grief is suddenly real again, tears and all. Perhaps you've experienced this. I have. What is going on, in my mind, is that God gives us grief on the installment plan. If we had to do all of our grieving for a very close person all at once, it would kill us, as I have also witnessed. So, Jesus knows of what He speaks when he says, "you cannot bear them now," and He doesn't mean it's because it's all so wonderful.
So, then, how did Jesus mean to continue to share? Our Lord and Savior talks to us through His Word most clearly, but also through things that happen in our lives, and it is often here where it is so hard to bear. But he does not leave us alone. The ESV translates the word Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit as "Helper," but the most literal translation is "advocate," which word itself comes from the Latin "ad" and "vocate", or "one called alongside." In fact in the original language, the word, paraclete, means exactly this, "one called along side." The Holy Spirit is called to our side to make the things Jesus says bearable -- to help us bear them.
Jesus says of the Helper, "he will declare the things that are to come." This sounds like predicting the future, or what we would call prophecy -- and surely the Holy Spirit has done this -- but another more common occurrence is another way to take those words, which is that the Holy Spirit helps us understand those candles as they move from the future to the present, and helps us bear them, especially when we need comfort or encouragement to do so. Brothers and sisters, I submit to you that this is truly what empowers the church and sets it apart from the world -- this Holy Spirit, this Helper, this Advocate, who is called to our sides and makes the unbearable into something bearable.
I don't want to go into detail about Jesus' words this morning about how the Holy Spirit confronts the world. To us, in the church, the Holy Spirit is a beloved advocate, giving life and explaining God's work to us. To the world, however, the Holy Spirit shows a different face: one that convicts. The Holy Spirit convicts the world with regard to sin, and righteousness, and judgment. Occasionally -- for some of us, frequently -- we fall back into the world's way of thinking about things, and when we do, we suddenly see this other side of the Holy Spirit. It convicts us when we are in the wrong.
We moan and complain to God about the bad things in our lives, despite the overall evidence that we are wealthy, comfortable, and free from many of the terrors that beset our ancestors and Christians of old. When that happens, we stop trusting in God and try to make the world in our own images, and it never works. We simply find ourselves separated from God. But the Holy Spirit convicts us with regard to righteousness, which is to say, He shows us Jesus dying on the cross, and we see that God both loves us and wants us to repent. This is the source of all true life. Put your faith in Jesus and you will watch the Holy Spirit go from convictor to advocate.
Along with life, the Holy Spirit brings hope. We are talking in our midweek Bible studies about Peter's first letter, and that letter focuses on a living hope which we have in Jesus. All of us "hope" that 2021 will be better than 2020. But we honestly have no guarantee that it will be. Time will tell. But the living hope that the Holy Spirit gives us is sealed in heaven, where our Savior lives and sits who died for us. This isn't just some empty hope for a better tomorrow, but the certainty that Jesus rose from the dead, and because of this, we are free from the sin and its attendant death that used to cloud around us like flies around livestock. Who wouldn't want that?
It must have been great to be there on the first day of Pentecost and see the tongues of fire, like the little candles on the cake, on the heads of the disciples. It must have been amazing to see the well-known phenomenon of ecstatic speech, as it existed in Jesus' day among many Greek religions, turned into something beautiful as, instead of words no one could understand, people of every language heard the truths and glories of God told them in a way that tugged on their heart strings. But, you know, we don't have it so bad. We have all those candles to look at, and while those early Christians could not bear the knowledge of all that was to come, the Holy Spirit has made it known and comforted the church for centuries.
We're not out of the woods. If you want to think the way the world thinks, there is always plenty to worry about. For my part, I worry a lot about these phones we all carry around. I think that the technology is amazing, and I'm going to use it as best I can to spread the Gospel even, but the technology is so new that we don't understand yet how dangerous it might be. Remember how I said everyone is grouchy? I think the phones may have as much to do with it as COVID. We'll need to find out, and I pray to God that the damage from overusing or misusing phones and their technology isn't as great as a plague or a famine, but it could be, it could be.
A few sentences after our reading today, Jesus says to his disciples, "in this world you will have trouble." He surely spoke the truth. But He immediately followed that by saying, "but take heart, for I have overcome the world." Oppressed Christians through the years have sung beautiful songs, like "we shall overcome." It is true, we "shall," by God's grace. But with the Helper at our side, it is also true that we have overcome. Your hope is in front of you! Let's march out with it in confidence. Amen.