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 SERMON TEXT 
Monday, May 20 2013

Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8–17, 25-27

 

          A Sunday School teacher taught her class to recite the Apostles Creed by giving each child one phrase to learn. When the day came for the class to give their recitation, they began beautifully.

          “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” said the first child.

          “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord,” said the next.

          And so it went perfectly until they came to the child who said, “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

          At that point there was silence.  The next line was to be, “I believe in the Holy Spirit . . .” but there was only silence.  Finally, a little girl spoke up and said, “Uh, the little boy who believes in the Holy Spirit is absent today.”

          Don’t you love it!  And yes, we do believe in the Holy Spirit, and thank God we are not absent today.  Let me welcome you to the third great festival of the church.  This is the day that we celebrate Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the church.  And because the Holy Spirit came to those first disciples, we rightly call today the birthday of the church. 

          The Holy Spirit made a difference – a big difference – in the hearts and lives of those first disciples.  120 in all.  And in that one moment – in just one moment – they are different men and women. They become bold proclaimers of Jesus Christ – crucified and risen from the dead.  The Holy Spirit is the One who made the difference.

          And let me tell you – the Holy Spirit is still present – is still working – is just as active in our lives as He was in the lives of those first century believers.  When we talk about seeing God at work in our lives – call them God moments – God winks – whatever – when you see God – feel God – experience God somewhere in your day – that is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in your life.

          Now – those first disciples of Jesus were all Jewish and they celebrated the holy days of the Jewish people. One of those holy days was called Pentecost. Pentecost was a feast day that celebrated the giving of God’s Law to His people through Moses on Mount Sinai.  For Christians Pentecost became the celebration of the gift of God’s Spirit to His people.

          So God arranged for the Holy Spirit to come down on these early Christian believers on the very day that thousands of Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem for this celebration.  When they heard the sound of the wind blowing and the disciples speaking, the crowd was totally bewildered, because each one heard his or her own language being spoken.  Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” They were witnessing a miraculous event. No wonder thousands of them responded to the Gospel message and were baptized.

          I told you earlier that Pentecost is the third great festival of the Christian church.  Christmas we all know.  That’s the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And Easter we all know.  That’s the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Those two festivals focus on Jesus.  Pentecost focuses on the coming of the Holy Spirit.

          So I want to talk with you today about what we need to know about the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to accomplish what God calls us to accomplish.  Folks –we have a job to do.  It’s called the Great Commission.  Jesus gave it to disciples before he ascended into heaven.  Their job is now our job, to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.  And then what else did Jesus say?  He said, “And remember, I am with you always.” 

          How is Jesus present to us?  Through the person, and the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that gives us the power to accomplish what God has called us to accomplish.  So how does the Holy Spirit work?

          I like the way Corrie ten Boom described the work of the Holy Spirit.  Corrie was a Dutch Christian whose family sheltered Jews from Hitler’s forces during World War II.  Corrie and her family ended up in one of Hitler’s death camps but Corrie managed to survive.  She tells her story in her book “The Hiding Place.” 

          In the following years, she became a much sought after speaker.  Here is what Corrie said to one of her audiences. “I have a glove here in my hand. The glove cannot do anything by itself, but when my hand is in it, it can do many things. True, it is not the glove, but my hand in the glove that acts. We are gloves. It is the Holy Spirit in us who is the hand, who does the job. We have to make room for the hand so that every finger is filled.”  For any of us to be used by God, we need to make room for the Holy Spirit. 

          One of the images used to represent the Holy Spirit is fire. That’s because on the day of Pentecost, tongues of fire appeared above the heads of the disciples.

          There is a book by a man named David Loth, called “Lorenzo the Magnificent.”  In it Loth tells the story of Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) as a pageant director. Lorenzo was one of the key movers behind the Italian Renaissance — and one of the greatest patrons of the arts who ever lived.  Now, whether the story I am about to tell you is true or not, I don’t know.  But this story is told in relationship to Pentecost.

          Loth tells how Lorenzo loved to provide the citizens of Florence with artistic and magnificent religious pageants with striking realism and effectiveness. On one occasion, he staged a pageant of Pentecost.

          The descent of the tongues of fire upon the apostles, however, was just a bit too realistic. Actual fire was used, the flimsy trimmings and stage hangings were set ablaze, and not only the stage but the whole church burned down.

          All I can say is, “Holy smoke!”  But you know – that’s not the kind of fire we’re looking for. The fire of the Holy Spirit is a different kind of fire.

          Let me explain.  There is a story that comes from frontier days about three women who were members of a Bible study. One day they were reading in their lesson for the day that the Spirit was a refining fire. They didn’t understand what that meant, “a refining fire”.

          One of them volunteered to go to a nearby silversmith and see what that meant.

          The silversmith explained the process of refining silver this way. He said you want to be sure you put the silver in the hottest part of the fire. That is so all the impurities in the silver will be burned away. He also said that you had to watch it at all times to make sure it was not in there too long. If it were there too long, it would be ruined. The woman was fascinated by his explanation. She asked, “How do you know when it is done?”

          His answer was, “That’s easy: you know it’s done when you see your reflection in it.”

          God desires to see His reflection in our lives. Scripture tells us that we were created in God’s image. But we know – that we are also sinners.  So God sent His Son to save us from our sin. After Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, God sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit to be at work in us, so that we might believe – so that we would know that we are loved and forgiven – so that we might experience God in our lives.  When that happens, God is able to see His reflection in our lives.

          As 2nd Corinthians 3:18 tells us, “As the Spirit of the Lord works in us, we become more and more like Him.”

          So when we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” what we’re asking for is for the Holy Spirit to be a refining fire.  To burn away every burden, every distraction, every selfish ambition – any thought or attitude or belief – that keeps us separated from God – until all that remains are those things that are really needed. 

          We have a name for what remains, by the way.  They’re called the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  In short those things that help us make sense of life and help us understand God’s purpose for our life.

          So the Holy Spirit is a refiner’s fire that burns out the hypocrisy, the mediocrity, the apathy, the self‑righteousness that infects us all.  Myself included.

          This is what we mean – this is what we’re asking for – when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

          Through the Holy Spirit, God is at work in us giving us the power we need to do what God is calling us to do and to be – people in whom God, and others, can see God’s own reflection.  

          That’s who the Holy Spirit is.  That’s what the Holy Spirit does. And that’s why we pray, “Come Holy Spirit.”  Amen

Posted by: AT 11:41 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, May 15 2013

Acts 16:16-34

         

          I run into people all the time who say things like, “Pastor, I don’t know a lot about the Bible.  My parents used to drop me off for Sunday School when I was a kid, but I’ve been away for a while, and I’m looking to get back to church.  I want this for my children too.  I know it’s important.  I’ve never read the Bible much, so I guess I want it for me too.”

          When I hear things like that – I want to jump for joy!  We live in an age of growing skepticism about God – about Jesus Christ – about the Bible.  And to make things worse – we live in a time when we are bombarded by 24 hour news programs – radio – TV – internet blogs – and most of the news we hear is what we would call bad news. 

          It’s almost as though there is a famine.  And the famine has nothing to do with food.  To me, there is a famine today for Good News!  People are starving these days for Good News in their lives – given to them in words and in ways that they can see, and hear, and understand.  

          Now you know that the church – you know that this church – is a Good News place.  I think one of the biggest crimes any preacher – including myself – can do is to be boring.  I think one of the worst things any church – including this church – can do is to be inhospitable.  Especially when there’s a famine for the word of God – a famine for Good News.  People want to hear it.  People want to see it.

          Now ours certainly is not the only generation in which this famine has occurred.  All you have to do is read the Gospels.  Just follow the lives of the disciples – particularly the life of Paul in the book of Acts – and you’ll find that the world in which those first Christians lived experienced a spiritual famine too. 

          And that’s where our story begins today in our reading from the book of Acts.  Paul and his traveling companions Silas, Timothy and Luke, have crossed over from what is now modern day Turkey into Greece.  They have arrived at a place called Philippi. There they share their faith – there they share the Good News of Jesus Christ – crucified and risen from the dead.

          Did they win over the entire city?  No.  But they did have a successful start.  In fact the first European to become a believer – as far as we know – is a woman by the name of Lydia.  She and her entire household hear the Good News, and are baptized.  So satisfied is Lydia with the Good News she has heard, she invites Paul and his companions to stay with her.  Lydia’s offer of hospitality creates the first house church, where this tiny but growing flock can be taught and nurtured.  It also gives them a base of operations -- a place from which the Good news of Jesus Christ goes forth.     

          Well, things are going fine until one day – Paul and Silas get into trouble.  You see, there is this slave girl who the Bible says, has a “spirit of divination.”  This girl – this slave – is a fortune teller, and she earns a lot of money for her owners through her fortune telling. 

          Following after Paul and company day after day she cries out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you “a” way of salvation.”  Well, after several days of this, Paul becomes annoyed.  He addresses this spirit of divination in her and says, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to come out of her.”  And it did.

          But alas, now her fortune telling days are over.  She no longer is a source of income for her owners.  So what do they do?  They seize Paul and Silas and drag them before the magistrates of the city.  “These men are disturbing the city.” (A lie, but never mind that.)  “They are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Roman to adopt or observe.”  (Another lie, but never mind that too.)         As a result, they are stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison. 

          Now folks, how do you think you would respond if that were to happen to you?  You’ve been lied about, stripped and beaten, thrown into prison, your feet locked in stocks.  Every painful breath reminds you of the beating you’ve just received.  Your ribs are cracked.  Your kidneys are bruised.  Your back aches.  Your legs are cramped.  It’s cold and damp.  Rats run across the floor in the dark. 

Did I make it sound gruesome enough?

          How do you feel?  Feel like ... singing?  Listen to what Paul and Silas do next:

          “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”

          In the midst of their pain, they’re praising God.  In other words – they’re making that jailhouse rock.  And if that weren’t enough, an earthquake hits – an example of God’s perfect timing by the way – and that jailhouse really starts to rock.  The foundation is shaken.  The doors are opened.  Chains are unfastened.

          Imagine the jailer’s panic.  He is responsible for all of those prisoners.  Suddenly, they are all free!  Will they kill him in revenge?   Will his captain do the job as punishment for letting them escape?  He decides to save them all the trouble, and just as he is about to plunge his sword into himself, Paul cries out,

          “Do not harm yourself.  We are all here.”

          What happens next is simply amazing.  The jailer goes to Paul and Silas, falls down on his knees, and asks, “What must I do to be saved?”  Obviously, he’s been listening to Paul and Silas as they make that jailhouse rock with their prayers and songs.  Who knows, perhaps he had even heard Paul preaching on the streets of Philippi.  Whatever, what Paul and Silas did was far more important than what they said.  They cared for the jailer’s welfare.  They cared about his life.  They literally save the jailer’s life.  “Do not harm yourself.  We are all here.”

          Paul and Silas by their words and their actions reveal the mercy of Christ.  They reveal the compassion of Christ, and the jailer, well, the jailer was hungry for more.  He was hungry for good news.  “What must I do to be saved?”  And the answer?  “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved – you and your household.” 

          When you get home, I want you to take and circle that verse in your Bible.  Circle it as God’s promise to you.  To you and your household.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”  Acts 16:31.      

          The jailer took these men to his home, and he bathed their wounds.  They in turn bathed him and his entire household in the waters of baptism.

          The Bible is full of stories just like this one – about people like Lydia and the Philippian jailer – people hungry for Good News.  People starving for the Word of God.  And God, in God’s own way, and in God’s own timing, brings the Word to them.

          People are no less hungry – no less starving – for Good News today.  As I said earlier, one of the worst crimes preachers and churches can commit is to be boring, inhospitable, and uncaring.  Folks, if you ever feel that I am boring you, please let me know.  It might mean that it’s time for me to find another line of work.  Because God’s Word is not boring.  It’s Good News.  And we are Good News people!

          And by the way – we need to be hospitable people.  Lydia and the Philippian jailer not only heard and believed the Good news Paul proclaimed to them, but they in turn immediately practiced the ministry of hospitality.

          We are a hospitable church.  But I think we can always do better.  More and more people are coming to this church for the first time all the time.  By the way – if you are a first or second time guest with us today – I want you to know that we’ve been expecting you and praying for you – and we’re glad that you are here with us today. 

          But it’s the job of all the rest of us to be hospitable.  So say hello to someone you don’t know.  Introduce yourself by name – and say something like, “I don’t believe we’ve met,” and let the conversation go from there.  People are hungry for the Word of God.  And they are looking to be fed – not only by what we say – but also by how we welcome them and by what we do. 

          Centuries ago, Paul and Silas– and all the others in that jail – with a little help from an earthquake – were all shook up.  And with their prayers and singing – they made that jailhouse rock.  The jailer heard their prayers and their singing – but then he also saw the integrity of their actions that were the result of their great faith.  He saw that they not only talked the talk, but they walked the walk.  He said to himself, “I want what they’ve got.  I want to be one of God’s people too!”

          Folks – people today are just as hungry for good news – just as hungry for the Word of God.   So any time we can make this church rock, let’s do it!  Let’s get people all shook up!  We have Good News to share.  So let’s do it!

                                    Let’s tell it! 

                                                Let’s live it! 

                                                          Let’s be it!

                                                                   Let’s do it!

                                                                  

          God is doing a wonderful thing among us.  And that’s Good News – Good News that people need to hear!         Amen

Posted by: AT 01:15 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, May 09 2013

Revelation 21:1-6; 10, 22—22:5

          The story is told of a husband and wife who loved to golf.  They golfed just as often as they were able.  Both died and went to heaven.  To their great surprise, heaven was filled with golf courses, and again, they play just as often as they can.

          One day Ethel says to her husband, Fred, “Oh Fred, isn’t heaven filled with the most beautiful golf courses you have ever seen?”

          And Fred replies, “Yes.  And we’d have been here a lot sooner if you hadn’t insisted on us eating your bran muffins every day.”

          Folks – we all know that heaven is the hoped for destination of every Christian.  But have you ever wondered what heaven is going to be like?  Ever wondered that?  Would you like me to tell you?  I wish I could.   But right now I’ll bet you’re thinking fluffy white clouds, angels strumming harps, you know, those sorts of things. 

          A number of you have told me of a book that you have read.  Just last Sunday, Shirley Willman asked me if I had read it.  She and her husband Pastor Don were both impressed with it.  So when I saw that one of our texts for this weekend was from the book of Revelation – I decided to get it and read it for myself.  The book is called Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander.  I picked it up on Tuesday afternoon, and had it read by that evening.  Another popular book from last year along the same lines is Heaven Is For Real.  I’ve read that one as well.  Both books are about the experience of people who have died, gone to heaven, and come back.  Heaven Is For Real is the story of what a four year old boy experienced, and Proof of Heaven is by Dr. Alexander’s experience of heaven.  I found both books intriguing. 

          Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurobiologist.  As such, he has knowledge about the brain and how it works – how it operates.  “That's one reason why his book, Proof of Heaven, is so interesting.  He wrote it after returning from a trip into a coma from which his colleagues thought he'd never return.  But he did.  His story blends in well with our reading from revelation in which John, in a vision, not a coma, sees a new heaven and a new earth.  Listen again to what John has to say:

          “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4).

          This passage is sometimes read at funerals, but probably not often enough.  Both Nancy and I have written instructions that all of chapter 21 and the first portion of chapter 22 from the book of Revelation are to be read at our funerals.  These words are wonderfully comforting, and give us an idea of what is waiting for us on the other side. 

          Now there are some who would want to tell you that all this talk of heaven is nonsense – skeptics, atheists, agnostics, and the like – who would want us to believe that this world is all there is.  That death is the end of life.  No life beyond the grave.

          Well – that’s why I find books like Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven intriguing.  Dr. Eben Alexander’s story at least needs to be examined.  Again, he’s a neurobiologist – a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon, who was also a religious skeptic.  But on November 10, 2008, he woke up with splitting headaches that instantly devolved into seizures. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital – the same hospital where he worked.  E. coli had attacked his brain in an ultra-rare form of bacterial meningitis.  He fell into a coma, and his colleagues gave him a near-zero chance of survival.  If he did survive, he'd be a brain-damaged shell of his former self, for life.

          The happy ending to this tragedy is that Alexander made a full recovery from his coma – something all of his colleagues admitted was an impossible medical miracle.  An afterlife experience during that coma turned a skeptic into a faithful Episcopalian, and a man compelled to offer the world his conversion story through the unique lens of neurobiology.

          Proof of Heaven is his account not only of his medical miracle, but of the shocking afterlife experience of heaven he had while in his coma.

          His brain activity and brain scans fell dark and silent.  But in his brain-dead coma, he claims he was in heaven.  He describes lights and sights and sounds like this: “Below me was countryside.  It was green, lush and earthlike. It was earth ... but at the same time it wasn't.”  And here I think of John’s revelation where he saw a new heaven and a new earth.

          While there, Dr. Alexander heard these words spoken to him:

          “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

          “You have nothing to fear.”

          “There is nothing you can do wrong.”


          These images and words have some overlap with John's heavenly vision in Revelation 21-22. But prior to his coma, Alexander had no real knowledge of this text from Revelation – or any need for it. Heaven was a place he previously dismissed as religious nonsense.  He would explain other people’s near-death experience reports as subconscious hallucinations created by the neocortex based on memories of what the person had previously heard or imagined about the afterlife.


          But here’s what I find so intriguing.  In Alexander's extreme case, the E. coli infection was spread across his entire cortex – the outermost layer of the brain responsible for all of our higher functioning.  Brain scans during his coma showed zero electrical activity in the cortical areas that could access memories, create dreams, or imagine visual and audio sensations.


          In other words, Alexander claims that all previous medical explanations for his experience could not apply in his case.  Alexander believes that his vision of heaven could not have happened within his physical brain.  

 

          His scientifically unexplainable afterlife experience convinced him of the existence of heaven and of a loving, personal God.


          While the neurobiology stuff was somewhat over my head, the message is this: Science can't explain Alexander's heaven.  His afterlife experience is what he calls the Proof of Heaven.

 

          I’ll leave it up to you to read either of these books, and allow you to draw your own conclusion as to what heaven is like.  All of the descriptions – as well as what we read here in the book of Revelation – are word pictures that are – well – they’re like things that we know here on earth – but they are fantastically different.  You might even say otherworldly.

 

          But you know what?  I don’t need books like these to tell me that and that heaven is for real.  Even though I have little reason to doubt that what these books say is true – God’s word is enough for me to confirm that God is, that God loves you – God loves me – and that someday by God’s grace – we will be with God forever. 


          So what is heaven like?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if there are golf courses or not.  But what I will tell you is this.  I Corinthians 2:9 says, “…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”   

          Of one thing I am certain.  Heaven will bring us a reunion with our rescuer. Let me share with you a story.  Little Lisa Greene was three years old when she was rescued from the smoke and flames that engulfed her family's home in Brooklyn, New York, in 1975.  A city firefighter named Marvin Bunch arrived at the scene to find three women on the porch of the flaming house screaming that children were trapped upstairs.  Bunch crawled upstairs at the risk of his life and brought Lisa Greene out in his arms, unconscious.  Two other children were also rescued.  

          Fourteen years later, Lisa phoned the New York City Fire Department and learned that the person who had saved her life was a retired fire captain living in Las Vegas.  Her family brought the Bunch family to New York as guests of honor for Lisa's high school graduation and for a luncheon afterward.  Bunch said of his taking her to the hospital, unconscious, fourteen years before, ‘I was up all night until I got the report’ that she was alive.  

          Lisa was ecstatic to be in the presence of the one who had saved her life and to thank him profusely and honor him gratefully.

          In Heaven, by God's grace, we shall have the privilege of living forever in the presence of our divine rescuer, as we thank him profusely and honor him gratefully.

          Folks, I don’t know what heaven is like, but let me say this.  I say this at almost every funeral I preside over.  Death does not have the final word.  Jesus has the final word, and that final word is life – resurrection life – in a place – in a home with no more sorrow – no more tears – no more pain. 

          Our time here on earth is merely the introduction to the story, not the story itself.  Philippians 3:20 says that our citizenship is in heaven.  Please catch the present tense of the verb.  Our citizenship IS in heaven.

          So let us live with expectation – with joyful hope and expectation – that the Kingdom is already ours – won for us – given to us – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And perhaps for right now – that is enough for us to know. 

                                                                                                                   Amen

Posted by: AT 12:24 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656
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