Holy Spirit

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.

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Building Blocks

Romans 15:1-6 (NLT)

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. For even Christ didn’t live to please himself. As the Scriptures say, “The insults of those who insult you, O God, have fallen on me.” Such things were written in the Scriptures long ago to teach us. And the Scriptures give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


If you heard last week’s sermon, you’ve probably realized that today’s text is a continuation of what we heard last week, with a few subtle shifts.

After having encouraged all of his audience to live with flexibility about lifestyle rules and show tolerance for each other, Paul now focuses especially on the “strong” believers, the ones who are more mature in their faith. He says the strong have a special burden, a specific calling, to “help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.”

As Methodists, we could apply one of our favorite 18th century words, “sanctification,” here. This is the idea that even after we are saved, God’s grace continues to shape us, growing us in spiritual maturity and our ability to love as Jesus loves. We see this as the primary work of the Holy Spirit in our lives once we have found salvation.

And while humans are completely dependent on God for grace, Paul is once again reminding us that Christians are invited to come alongside God and help with the great work being done, including the ongoing sanctification of believers.

So, how do we go about this work of building up others?

An Honest Look in the Mirror

Well, there’s an obvious first step. We have to assess whether we are really among the strong in faith. It is possible over time to fool ourselves. Time spent in church doesn’t necessarily translate into discipleship, although time in church certainly helps.

Some matters to consider as you make your assessment:

Do you get all the basic points in the Bible, particularly the stuff about the resurrection, and how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in what Jesus did through the cross? Do you know the important Bible stories well enough to tell them to others when appropriate?

Is your understanding of Christianity aligned with the core doctrines established by the larger church through the centuries?

Certainly we’ve made adjustments to doctrine over time. After all, this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Those adjustments, however, usually have involved a return to the early church’s understanding of Christianity. They are adjustments for drift, designed to get us back on a course set by Scripture.

If you find yourself out of alignment with these biblically based truths and doctrines, further study may be in order. It is unlikely you are the first person to properly understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance after nearly two millennia of the Spirit educating billions of Christians.

Does your life reflect these truths? As we’ve heard in Romans, there is thinking and there is doing. Are you aware of your weaknesses toward sin, and working with God to overcome them?

If you’re confident in your ability to answer “yes” to these sets of questions, then you may be called to help build up others, perhaps as a teacher or guide.

A Willingness to Intervene

The next step may sound a little odd, but I think it’s important. We have to overcome the idea that what is going on in other people’s lives is none of our business.

Certainly, we don’t want to be nosy, rude or intrusive, and we cannot help those who give us the old Heisman Trophy stiff arm in response to our overtures. But if we see people off the Christian path and don’t try to help them find their way to it, we are actually going against the grain of Christian theology. When we look away, we are no better than the supposedly holy Jews in the parable of the Good Samaritan who gave their injured fellow Jew a wide berth.

This responsibility to intervene is particularly true when we see our Christian brothers and sisters off the path. By calling themselves Christian and joining a particular church, they already have sought community and accountability so they can grow as disciples.

Training for Action

Once we’ve overcome our reluctance to interfere, we have to discern how we are going to help others build their lives for the better. The ways we do this vary depending our personalities, abilities, and education. I will say this: In one way or another, we all need mentors.

I needed mentors as a lay person who was beginning to teach and lead. I continued to need mentors as I became a clergy person. If I’m trying to learn some new aspect of ministry, or deepen my spirituality in some way, I still need mentors, even after 15 years of professional ministry.

Paul knew the importance of mentoring. Look at his two letters to a young pastor named Timothy. It simply is easier to go somewhere new if you go with someone who has been there before.

Hearing all of this, some of you may feel a stirring in your heart.

I hope all of you feel a desire to mature as Christians, to get to a place where you feel you can answer “yes” to the assessment questions I raised earlier.

Some of you may be feeling it is time to make a real difference in the lives of people around you. If so, I want to hear from you. I want to spend significant time with you.

Together, we’ll figure out what God is saying.

Day of Adoption

It is Pentecost Sunday, and we of course should not gather on this day without hearing the story of the Holy Spirit falling upon a small group of Christ’s followers, birthing our Savior’s church in the process.

The Spirit’s falling that day had immediate, obvious effects, of course. There was an ongoing miracle, the miracle that Christ’s followers could declare him Lord and Savior regardless of the language spoken by the audience. The Spirit also filled Peter so he could preach the first full, great Christian sermon. If you keep reading in Acts, you hear much of that sermon, and you see the results—more than 3,000 in the crowd accepted Jesus as Savior that day.

With that story in mind, I want us to continue our Romans series, where Paul talks about life in the Spirit. What he writes illuminates what we celebrate today and hope to live out every day. We’re going to work our way through our Romans text, Romans 8:15-30, a little at a time.

It begins:

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.

My brother and his wife adopted a boy from Haiti a few years ago. They were in relationship with the boy well before the adoption; Chad met the boy we now call Nathaniel while doing medical missionary work in Haiti. Chad and his family continued to visit him and remain in contact with him in other ways while the long adoption process proceeded.

The day the Haitian judge signed the papers changed everything, though. Nathaniel had a new home, one very different from the little orphanage where he lived. He even had a new language to learn. And he had two new people to call Mom and Dad.

The nature of the relationship had changed dramatically. Think of the Christian Pentecost this way: It marks the day of adoption for all believers. Our relationship with God changes because of the Spirit’s very active presence in our lives. We are now on affectionate, familial terms with God as we experience him as the Holy Spirit.

It is not just a matter of knowing by way of creeds and Scripture we are saved. We are now so close to God that the Holy Spirit can whisper directly to our spirits, giving us assurances of salvation. We have been taken into a new home, and the good, perfect Father draws us close and says, “You are mine, and all will be well.”

But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

This can be troubling. No one likes to suffer. We are part of a new family now, though. Holy families stick together and work together. There is work to be done in a broken world, one where sin and death still have a lingering hold, causing continuing suffering.

Our older brother in the family, Jesus Christ, suffered mightily in this work to defeat sin and restore all things. We know his death on the cross is enough to restore us to God in full! His resurrection proves it!

We also know his work will be made complete—the astonishing thing is we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are invited to play a role in this family business.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Have you seen those ads on the internet that say, “This will make your jaw drop!” The ads are never for anything very exciting, but this text, properly understood, should make your jaw drop. It asserts something rare in Scripture.

Creation—not just human beings, but all things made, the animals, the grass, the oceans, the stars, everything—longs for the completion of Christ’s work. Everything is broken; everything is suffering because of human sin.

Restored by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been adopted into a powerful task. As we let the Holy Spirit move us toward the time of full renewal, the world is literally watching, straining toward the day of remaking and resurrection.

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

Do you believe the promise and trust the promise enough to feel the longing Paul describes?

Oh, for that day of resurrection renewal to come! Oh, to see the glory we know we have been granted as children of God! The idea is so powerful, so beautiful, that we can find ourselves at a loss regarding how to pray for such a thing.

But it’s okay. The Spirit senses our longings, and when we let him, he can plead our emotions and desires to God when we cannot put them into words.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

Sometimes these ideas get abused. People read “God causes everything to work together for the good” and interpret it to mean God makes evil occur so some good can come of it later. That is not what Paul means.

Instead, Paul is saying God will take the results of sin and use even the worst horrors to the benefit of the kingdom. That must drive Satan crazy. Can you hear him complaining? “Every time I think I’ve got those humans whipped and beaten, God comes along and turns my work against me.”

Our dear Father, Abba, wins, and through the work of our dear older brother, we as co-heirs in the family win. The horror of the cross has turned into resurrection glory. The terrible things we see and suffer will dissolve into glory one day, too; they will be completely reversed, undone, and every tear will be wiped away.

That is the promise the Holy Spirit whispers to us every day as we work with his guidance and strength in us.

Lead Us, Spirit

Romans 8:1-14 (NLT)

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.


Last week, I preached about the spiritual war going on around us, and particularly, in our minds. There was a warning embedded there: Evil still contends for us, and we fall prey to sin if we do not take care.

I should point out that not all theologians would agree with the direction I chose for that sermon. Some think Paul was simply comparing his old life under the law with his new, holy life lived in God’s Spirit. They would argue that for a person truly saved, the lure and aggravation of sin should cease.

I disagree, of course. But there is a danger in what I preached last Sunday. The danger is we will say to ourselves, “I’m saved, but I’ll always go on sinning, and I guess I can just live with it.”

For Christians, learning to be content is generally a good thing. We should never be content with sin in our lives, however. Any present known sin should cause us great anguish. Sin should keep us awake at night.

And let me add something important: Our anguish should not be that of a frightened child awaiting punishment. Instead, we should be upset because sin is blocking us from living the truly free, joyous life we are offered on a daily basis.

It’s less about the fear of a whipping and more about the simple fact that our sour, worried stomachs won’t let us eat the cake already set before us. Ongoing sin keeps us from experiencing now the happiness and sense of blessed assurance that we will have for all eternity in the direct presence of God.

I hope the idea of a life without sin—a life without sin’s accompanying worry, fear of embarrassment, sense of shame, and feeling you have betrayed The One who loves you most—intrigues you. I hope that as you imagine such a life, you think, “I want that.”

I pray you take your relationship with God seriously enough to make the sinless life the major goal of your life.

Most of us do not live as if we have made such a choice. Kids have a saying these days: “Meh.” It means they’re uncommitted, neither impressed nor unimpressed. Wesley once preached about what he called “Almost Christians.” When I look around me, I see a lot of “meh” Christians.

For many, a relationship with God is one checkbox on a long list of life goals, and it often is not even the first item on the list. Such an approach to life is a far cry from what Paul is encouraging.

Paul wants us to understand what it means to live life in the Spirit, the capital-S Spirit, by fully experiencing that life. I probably need to pause here for just a second—does everyone know what we mean by God’s Spirit?

The Spirit is God, God moving through us and among us. We know God in other ways, mostly now as stories of God as Father and God as Son at work in the world. As we conclude this Easter season, we need to remember that the resurrected Jesus is not the end of the story, not even after he ascended into Heaven. By reconciling us to God, Jesus the Son made it possible for God to once again touch us directly, and God now does so through his Spirit.

So, a simple question: Will you let God’s Spirit lead? In every moment? In every matter?

Back to that checklist most of us have either on paper or in our heads. Try this: First, take “relationship with God” off of it completely. The moment we make it one part of the list, we’ve completely missed the point of the relationship.

Next, say to yourself, “My relationship with God is so important that I will put everything on that list under God’s authority.” Look at that list: “God, are these items this part of your will? God, are these goals really what you want for me? God, does all this serve you?”

Where you hear “no,” ditch those items. Where you hear “yes,” by all means, focus there! And don’t be surprised if God starts adding items to your list, possibilities that surprise you.

The answers may not be immediate or obvious, but if you’re sincere in your approach to a life in the Spirit, the answers will become clear over time.

A few basic truths in all of this: If you’re not developing a deeper understanding of what is in the Bible, it’s very hard for you to be living a life in the Spirit. God has been making his introductions and clarifying his will for thousands of years—why would anyone seeking a deeper understanding of God’s will not explore the Bible thoroughly?

If you’re not praying earnestly, don’t expect to be able to discern God’s will amidst the din of a very loud, sin-filled world.

If it is not a priority for you to be in deep, sincere fellowship with other Christians, sharing in the larger, corporate Christian life, then you’re being quite “meh” about whether you want a life in the Spirit. Remember the Spirit works among believers as well as in believers, and one of the greatest confirmations we can have of God’s presence is corporate unity in the Spirit. Occasionally, we find ourselves aligned not only with each other in the present but also with the faithful saints of the past, and we know something beautiful has happened.

Remember to what you are being invited: a remaking, a complete refurbishing of who you are. Paul tells us that God’s Spirit was the active, very personal force in the resurrection of Christ and will be the active personal force in our remaking after death. And even in this life, there are new gifts, new abilities, and new opportunities when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading.

Who wouldn’t want the power of such a relationship with God in our lives now?

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Christian Pentecost, and we will continue to consider what it means to fully submit ourselves to God’s leadership through his Spirit.

 

Mind Wars

Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.


Most of us intuitively understand what Paul means when he writes, “I want to do what is is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” We’ve been there. We’ve done that.

His statement is, of course, in the context of his long conversation in Romans about the law, how it was given to us so we could better understand right and wrong. It also is rooted in a related thought he has been repeating, that we are too broken by our sinfulness to live holy lives by our own effort.

Paul also is moving us toward a deeper understanding of the spiritual world around us and how it influences us. For modern Christians, this concept may elude us a little. Some other Bible stories may help. Be sure to click the links to read the stories.

Daniel’s Tardy Angel

Daniel was praying to understand why his people remained in captivity. After three weeks of prayer and fasting, he received a vision and heard directly from an angel.

I’m not focusing on the vision, which had to do with revelations about the end times. Instead, I want to focus on the angel’s reason for taking three weeks to deliver the answer to Daniel’s prayers. He was delayed by an evil force, and ultimately the archangel Michael, known for his prowess in battle, had to arrive on the scene to make delivery of the message possible.

In this story, we receive a rare glimpse of what is usually unseen, the struggle between the forces of good and evil on a spiritual plane. And yes, what happens there affects world events.

The Sorcerer’s Folly

This story in Acts reminds us of how humans and evil spirits can combine forces to contend for the allegiance of one person, particularly if that person may have some worldly influence. The sorcerer’s motive is made clear in the text: He wanted to keep the governor from believing. The governor is described as an intelligent man, so we can presume this sorcerer kept his victim spellbound with an impressive bag of tricks, gifts from the evil spirits who worked within and alongside the sorcerer.

Paul dealt with the situation head on, trusting in the Holy Spirit to take the lead. He declared precisely for whom the sorcerer worked. The Holy Spirit won out, and the governor became a true believer.

Porcine Possession

Modern people often want to re-orient biblical stories about the spiritual world toward a more modern understanding of events, chalking up behaviors seen in the Bible to epilepsy or mental illness.

Yes, epilepsy and mental illness are very real conditions that can occur in our broken bodies. But at the same time, there are stories in the Bible that show us the negative direct effects spiritual powers can have upon us.

The demons in this story know Jesus’ full identity more clearly than any of the disciples would have known at this time. And yet the demons are pulling hard in the other direction, wreaking havoc in the lives of these two men in need of healing.

Modern minds also should note that mental illness is not directly transferable to pigs. This story is rooted in the spiritual world, not a medical journal.

The Victorious Life

Spiritual evil is real. It has a powerful influence on our lives, and the battle for our minds is real and should not be ignored. For a Christian seeking truth in Scripture, these are undeniable biblical principles.

Paul initially joins us in a universal lament, acknowledging the despair we can feel. “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death!”

But remember the core message of Romans: We are freed from the trap. Christ’s death on the cross and ensuing resurrection represent a victory over sin and death we could not win. Through belief, we gain a new power.

Often as Christians, we focus on the moment of belief, the day and time we were saved. As we proceed in Romans, however, Paul is going to tell us more about how we tap into and use the power we are graciously given by our loving God. We are going to learn from Paul how to grow in strength as we contend with evil every day.

We are about to learn how to live life in the Spirit.


The featured image is a detail of Michael the archangel, from a 1488 painting by Bartolomeo Vivarini.

Freedom!

Freedom is certainly what we’ve been celebrating in the United States these past few days. We look back to a time when people were much less free, living under the control of a king.

They were not free to speak as they wished. They were not free to worship as they wished. They did not have the influence they thought they should have in their government, particularly when the king and his men were deciding to tax them.

So, people in what is now the eastern edge of the United States revolted. During the course of the war, about 376,000 of them actually valued freedom enough to take up arms and risk dying to secure freedom for themselves, their families and their neighbors. More than 23,000 of them did die from death or disease during the war.

This idea of freedom certainly stirs people’s hearts, motivating them to great acts. Our Bible reading today shows us the deepest source of freedom. Freedom is a gift from God, expressed through Jesus Christ.

Galatians 5:1: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why did Christ die on the cross for our sins? Here’s one way to understand the atonement: We were trapped, bound tight, in slavery to Satan because of sin. When Christ died on the cross, he broke the chains. “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free … .”

Why would any slave return to the master once set free? Simple. We sometimes will trade freedom for what seems familiar.

In the laws the Jews lived under, there even was provision made for a slave who was freed but preferred to continue to live under his master’s control. (We’re talking about slaves who were what we might call indentured servants, existing as someone else’s property for a limited time rather than a lifetime.) If the slave expressed a desire to remain, the master would put the slave against the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl, marking the slave as the master’s property for a lifetime.

Now, in Old Testament times, a slave might have good reason to do this. Maybe his wife and children were still slaves and he wanted to be with them. Maybe he feared starving if he could not find regular work.

There is no good reason to re-submit ourselves to Satan’s slavery, however. There is nothing to be gained. There is everything to be lost, including the most precious gain of all through Christ, eternal life. We must never let the sins that may seem comfortable, familiar and even beautiful in this life to cost us our freedom.

Galatians 5:13-15: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

The gift of freedom carries with it great responsibility. We voluntarily begin to serve one another, not because of some mandate of the law, but because we now know the power of love. We begin to live and love as Christ lived and loved, and sometimes, that means living sacrificially, knowing even the loss of our lives in this world means nothing when we consider eternity with Christ and one another.

Galatians 5:16-21: Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Providentially, we are not in this life alone. Not only are we set free, God becomes our companion as his Holy Spirit works within us. We are elevated, lifted above those actions that previously bound us and pleased our old master Satan.

Yes, our earthly selves, our flesh, will continue to chafe at the presence of the Spirit and pull us in the wrong direction. Trust what God whispers to us within, knowing his Spirit works to change us through Scripture and prayer.

Galatians 5:22-25: By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Now, here’s the really good news. When we let God work alongside us and within us, this freedom we have gained is never a chore. Instead, we experience a life of constant reward. Who would not want the fruit of the Spirit in their lives?

We taste this fruit occasionally and know we want more. I doubt if any of us experience or express the fruit of the Spirit all the time. I know in just the past week I would have liked to have better exhibited God’s Spirit to those around me. But I also knew immediately what I was lacking when I exhibited other, poisonous fruits.

If we are a Christian nation, what is true individually should also be true corporately. A Christian nation will show godly fruit more often than not. In particular, our leaders will show these traits most of the time. I will leave it up to you to decide whether we as a nation do enough to show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Once we see such evidence of God’s presence expressed nationwide, we will know freedom, freedom rooted in God, has established itself deeply. There will be a taste of heaven on earth, and we as a people will shine as a light for all the world.

An even greater revolution than the one in 1776 will have occurred.

With Us in the Last Days

Acts 2:1-21

The most immediate and personal expression of God usually is the most difficult for us to comprehend.

For many Christians, the first story that comes to mind regarding the Holy Spirit is the one we celebrate at Pentecost, the falling of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. While the Pentecost story found in Acts 2 is powerful, I have wondered if its mysterious tone contributes to the confusion even longtime Christians sometimes experience.

The Spirit rushed in like wind and danced like fire on about 120 of Jesus’ followers. They began to speak loudly in languages they did not previously know, attracting a crowd, some of whom accused them of being drunk.

In other words, the Spirit caused them to behave in a way that made people stare.

That can make people who don’t like to be stared at a little uncomfortable with the idea of encountering the Holy Spirit directly. Open yourself to the Spirit, and hey, the next thing you know, you might be speaking in tongues. (Speaking in tongues is biblical, by the way, although the gift should be used with limitations; see 1 Corinthians 14.)

It helps me to spend time studying what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s purpose in John’s gospel, specifically, in chapters 15 and 16. It is a purpose designed for the last days, the era between the Spirit’s arrival and the return of Christ, the era we live in now.

Working through us, the Holy Spirit accomplishes three particular tasks, laid out in John 16:8-11.

Task no. 1 is to provide a clear definition of sin. In this new era, all sin is rooted in the failure to fully declare in our hearts and with our mouths that Jesus is our savior. When we do this—when we humble ourselves enough to say we are dependent on God and cannot save ourselves through strength, intellect, wealth or power—we open ourselves to discerning what is and is not God’s will.

For most Christians, even devoted ones, it remains an imperfect understanding, of course. So many aspects of our broken humanity, in particular our emotions, still get in the way. That is why Scripture remains so important to us, even with the Spirit at work in us. We know God is unchanging, and that thoughts and feelings we experience cannot be from God if they conflict with clear scriptural teachings. We are blessed in the last days with dual revelations co-witnessing to Christ, one written for our eyes and one whispered to our spirits.

Task no. 2 is to declare to the world that Jesus is right in what he taught and continues to teach through the Holy Spirit. Now, it is not politically correct these days to declare anyone right. “Tolerant” has replaced “righteous” as the secular description of an upstanding member of the community. But guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to share with the world the definition for righteousness, as provided by God. Jesus, as revealed in the Bible, is the shining example of righteousness.

This is not as harsh a task as it might sound. The word “righteous” can have such negative connotations. But remember, from a Christian perspective, righteousness is best defined as loving God completely while at the same time loving other people as we want to be loved. We obey God, but a big part of that obedience is loving and forgiving people who are difficult to love, even when their sin touches us negatively in some way.

Task no. 3 is to declare that judgment already has come and remains under way. When Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, he meant that his work to break the power of evil in this world is complete. As terrible and messy as it can be at times, our fight with evil is now a mop-up operation. The evil spiritual forces opposing God know they have been defeated because God’s Spirit is visible to them in the world.

Note that all of this involves our active participation. God wants us to play a part, in the process growing into the beings he intended us to be. Trusting the Holy Spirit, we are a people who are working to expand Christ’s kingdom and waiting for Christ’s return.

We may have other work we do to get by, along the lines of Paul continuing to make tents while in Corinth, but service to God’s kingdom is our primary reason to exist. Anything we put ahead of that responsibility likely is an idol.

Let me add something important: It is glorious work. If you seek meaning in life, know that the moments you walk hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit to serve God’s kingdom will be your best moments. We can even make what should have been otherwise mundane moments shine with the glory of God, if only we learn to constantly look for opportunities to let the Holy Spirit work through us.

Hear again the mystery in Peter’s words as he speaks of people working in conjunction with the Holy Spirit in these last days:

“Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

If you want a life that is more than what you feel you have now—if you want a life that transcends a normal life—engage fully with God’s Spirit. He is available to you always through prayer and meditation, in the sacraments, through Scripture, and in all those other places God has promised to meet you.