(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 28, 2017)
Last week, we looked at the promise of God’s presence with us in the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift which Jesus promised on the last night before he was crucified.
Jesus promised his good friends that they wouldn’t be abandoned; they wouldn’t be left alone, because God’s very presence in the Holy Spirit would surround them. The Holy Spirit guides and teaches and is present through even the most difficult things. All of that, I believe, is true.
What’s interesting is that the bible talks about the Holy Spirit in many places, and in those various places, different qualities are emphasized. As we take all of these in, we realize that the Holy Spirit is more than presence, and Guide, and Teacher, and Advocate. In fact, in the two places we are going to look today, the best word to describe what the Holy Spirit brings is power.
Power. That is intriguing. For me, it immediately begs the question: power for what? Power like gasoline in the tank of my car, to go wherever I want to go? Power to contain or control someone else, like an electric fence to keep cattle in a field? Power to give others access, like the electricity that makes that elevator lift back there go?
There’s something about thinking of God’s power inside me that really grabs me, and it probably grabs a lot of us. It was one of the reasons Jesus had so many people in the crowds that followed him: they saw that he had power, power to heal and confront the people who were oppressing them with spiritual and political power. Power is attractive.
So as we look at these biblical passages, the question in front of us is a key one: power for what? How does the bible describe that the power that the Holy Spirit brings will be used?
Today is called “Ascension Sunday”, the day of worship when we as the church remember when the resurrected Jesus ascended to heaven to take his seat at the right hand of God.
As we will see in the book of Acts, after Jesus was resurrected on the first Easter, he walked the earth for 40 days before returning to heaven. Today is actually 42 days since Easter, but it’s the closest Sunday to the 40 day mark, so this is Ascension Sunday. Turn with me to Acts chapter 1. Listen for Luke’s version (he’s the author of Acts), Luke’s version of the promise of the Holy Spirit.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:1-11, TNIV)
The “power for what?” question is a good one to explore with this passage. One of the things that stands out to me is how the disciples have a mistaken impression that the Holy Spirit is going to bring power for their goals, power for them to do get what they want, power to restore their country to a kingdom, to the glory days.
“Now, Jesus? I mean, wow, you back to life is an amazing sign of God’s power in your life. Now are you going to get rid of these Romans and lead our nation to glory again?” It’s a natural reaction, and we shouldn’t forget that just about every one of us has a similar response. We follow Jesus, and we often unconsciously (or consciously) expect following Jesus should help us get what we want.
God, give me a parking space; help me win this game; give me this job; fix this relationship; heal my friend. It is natural. It isn’t necessarily bad or wrong-in fact, I’ve taken to heart Jesus’ words that we can ask for anything in his name.
But Jesus’ response to the disciples’ natural reaction tells us that while we are allowed to ask for anything, that doesn’t mean we will get it. It doesn’t mean the power of the Holy Spirit is ours to decide how it will be used. Jesus doesn’t chide them in his response, but he does remind them who is making the decisions. Listen again to verse 7.
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.
It’s crystal clear: you are not calling the shots, God is. God is the decision maker, and Holy Spirit power is going to be used as God decides.
I think this is a really important guiding thought for us when we think about the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we wield as we wish. The power of the Holy Spirit is woven together with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The truly amazing thing is that while we are given amazing power, God has plans and direction for that power.
It’s always tricky when we read the bible to know what things are specifically for the people at that time who received the words, and what things can apply sort of universally, to all of us who follow Jesus. I don’t claim to know how to always get that right. But I think in verse 8, there’s a big way the power of the Holy Spirit functions for all of us across time and around the world. Let’s look there again.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
“You will receive power” and “you will be my witnesses.”
I think this is one of those times where there is a causal relationship here; the power of the Holy Spirit is what makes it possible for the disciples…and I believe us, too…the power of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be witnesses.
Witness is a powerful word in the New Testament. It’s got the idea of a court, where you are testifying, you are verifying, you are giving evidence of something that has happened. It’s got the idea of actually being the space or vehicle that brings things out, that makes things known, makes them manifest…the idea that our very lives, our changed lives ARE a witness…our very lives make known and bring out the activity of God and give evidence of what God is doing in our world.
Part of the Holy Spirit power to be a witness…maybe the primary or central or first part…part of the Holy Spirit’s power to be a witness is for God’s power to be at work in our lives, transforming our lives, taking action in our lives. I think about it this way: I’m not subpoenaed or “empowered” to be a witness unless I was present where some action took place. I’m only a witness in court if I was part of whatever the activity in question is.
Part of the Holy Spirit’s power to give testimony, to be a witness, is for our lives to be spaces where God’s activity is taking place. Let me be more blunt with that. I don’t believe we are witnesses who just have some content of beliefs that we spout at people. We’re not like sales people working from a script in order to sell a product. No, the kind of witnesses God creates with the Holy Spirit are the kinds of witnesses whose lives are changed and transformed; that change, that fruit of the Spirit exhibited in these disciples’ lives is then a witness to the world through the disciples’ actions and words.
Which leads to the most exciting thing! You and I are given the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit to be made into people whose actions and words give witness–we testify to the world–about the love, grace, and power of our Creator God!
And when we grasp the excitement of that kind of power, is it any wonder that Jesus speaks so confidently that these kinds of witnesses will spread to the ends of the earth?
Because this isn’t a command, like the Great Commission. This isn’t a burden to put on our to-do list, like we have to get up each morning and literally put the weight of Judea, Samaria and the world on our shoulders as a task for us to go do. This is Jesus saying what GOD is going to do through the power of the Holy Spirit.
You WILL receive power, and you WILL be my witnesses to the ends of the earth! No should, have to, go try and accomplish this. Just a clear indication of the gift of the Spirit’s power and the goal of what God is doing by giving it. God IS directing the power of the Holy Spirit. God WILL be made known all over this planet. And it happens because the power of God’s Holy Spirit is so great, it makes you and me ground zero for God’s loving activity and gives our actions and words the ability to point the whole world to God.
Could this be? THAT much power? And how will it all happen?
To explore these questions, turn with me to the other passage for today, Paul’s familiar prayer for the Ephesians. Turn to Ephesians 1:15-23.
For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all his people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:15-23, TNIV)
Here is yet another part of the bible with different words used to describe the Holy Spirit. Here in Ephesians, the Spirit is connected to wisdom and revelation. I’ve been drawn to that and even preached about that several times before, so today I want to move to the later section where Paul describes the functions of the Spirit. And that’s where power comes in again, “incomparably great power for us who believe.”
This is one of those sections that challenges us if we ever question whether God really could forgive me, really could use me, really could make me someone in whom others could be encouraged and led to God. The Holy Spirit has incomparably great power! The same power, the same mighty strength God used to raise Jesus from the dead; the same power that proved evil cannot, does not, and will not win! That’s the power at work through the Spirit in you and me who follow Jesus!
In other words…yes, God’s Holy Spirit comes with power to change anyone, to make any life a space where God’s beautiful, loving, justice-seeking activity can be a witness to the world!
That power has already come to rest in the authority of Jesus, who is seated in the place of authority for the universe, an authority and power that no other power or rule can stand against. To answer our questions: “Could this be, that you and I could see God so at work in us that we are witnesses to the world of God’s power?” Yes it could! “THAT much power?” Yes! The same power that turned the deathly horror of Good Friday into the joyous life of Easter is at work in you and me. Yes!
Which leaves the last question: how will it all happen? For that answer, Paul’s last part of the prayer gives direction and points out another way that God lets us know Holy Spirit power is being used. Look again at verses 22 and 23.
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
God uses Holy Spirit power to put Jesus in a place of authority; authority over all creation, but specifically authority to pull together the church, the body of which Christ is the head. God uses Holy Spirit power to turn individual disciples into an organic church.
God’s power constitutes the church. God’s power links us all together in an organic, living way. And one of the keys is that God’s power creates a body out of us precisely in the act of connecting us to Jesus, the head.
It’s beyond obvious to say that we at NFC need this reminder now.
God’s power makes and creates the church. Only the Holy Spirit’s power can make a church. And the only church the Holy Spirit’s power is making is the one, worldwide body that is intimately connected to Jesus, the authority and guide and head.
We didn’t make Newberg Friends. We won’t make any church. God’s power through Jesus’ death and resurrection, through the Holy Spirit, is what draws us together, fits us together, knits us together and makes us THE CHURCH.
My big “a-ha” was this: I really don’t have to plead to God to be at work in our church in this difficult time. God is already at work, here and everywhere, with resurrection power that puts Jesus at the center and brings all these different parts of the body together in functional interdependence.
God is already at work. With enough power, incomparably great power, to do it. We have choices, we take responsibility for how we are helping or hindering the work of church-making that God is doing. But God has been at work, is at work, and will be at work no matter what!
That’s the hope I need. That’s the hope we need.
Oh God, open the eyes of our hearts to see your incomparably great power! Bring all things, even all of us squabbling and hurting and confused people, bring all things into right relationship with Jesus; help us find our places in Your body, the church.
Give us, let us receive your Spirit’s power, so that in our individual and corporate lives your activity is easy to be seen and is a witness here in Newberg and to the ends of the earth! Come, Holy Spirit!