For many of us, the Holy Spirit is a natural topic of devotion and study. We recognize the Holy Spirit as the daily presence of God in our lives. But that is not so for everyone.
The last two sermons I have preached have been “Believing in God” and “Believing in Jesus.” For the world outside the church, those may be controversial topics, but they are not new ideas. The question of whether one “believes in God” is universal, and the idea of believing in Jesus is something that at least those in our western world have heard about, even if only by hearing passing references to John 3:16.
Today’s topic is a horse of an entirely different color. If you ask most people outside the church if they believe in the Holy Spirit, you are going to draw mainly blank stares. Most people have either never heard of the Holy Spirit or dismiss the idea before they process it. Ask your unchurched friend if he or she believes in God, you will most likely get a thoughtful answer. Ask the same friend if he or she believes in the Holy Spirit, and if you get any response at all, it will be confusion or a snicker, akin to what you get if you ask if they believe in UFOs.
It is popular today to say that you are “spiritual but not religious.” Enough Americans now fit into this category these days that they get to check their own box on questionnaires. Saying they are spiritual does not mean that they believe in the Holy Spirit. Lillian Daniel’s comments on this recent brand amuse me:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach…. Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself…. Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. [https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lillian-daniel/spiritual-but-not-religio_b_959216.html]
That’s kind of funny, but it illustrates how much of the world outside the church thinks about quote-unquote “spiritual” issues.
But the reaction of the world is not my target today. What do you believe about the Holy Spirit? In 2009, the Barna group surveyed 1871 self-described Christians, and 58% of them, well over half, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s power or presence but is not a living entity.” [https://www.barna.com/research/most-american-christians-do-not-believe-that-satan-or-the-holy-spirit-exist/] If you put any credence into the survey, you have to wonder what the church is teaching about the Holy Spirit if more than half of Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is merely symbolic, not real and alive.
Let’s be honest. Talking about the Holy Spirit, especially if we talk about gifts of the Spirit, makes a lot of us uncomfortable. For some, you remember “Holy Spirit services” or “Holy Ghost power” sermons, and you picture pew jumpers and remember recitations of tongues that you could not understand. Faith healers and snake handlers come to mind quickly for some when we start talking about the Holy Spirit.
Others of you are put off by any discussion of spirits at all. That is just a bridge too far for you. You can understand Father God, and you identify happily and readily with Jesus. Those are ideas that make sense to you, that resonate with your experience. You have seen depictions of those in art and literature and theatre. You remember your acceptance of God as a child. But talking about spirits sounds like Casper the Friendly Ghost or 1980s Spielberg movies. When you hear about churches celebrating the Holy Spirit, that seems like those charismatics and those hippie churches. A sermon about a Spirit that moves like the wind, something called the breath of God, seems either too 19th century or too New Age – you are not sure which, but you are having none of it.
To some, the idea of the Trinity – God in three persons - is so hard to grasp that they simply choose not to go there. It is easier to relegate the Holy Spirit to some third place standing of relatively low importance in the divine lineup, and then He can be ignored for all practical purposes or defined in whatever narrow way suits individual choices.
For still others, discussion of the Holy Spirit hits a little near to home. God the creator and Jesus who walked the earth 2000 years ago can be kept – if we want – at arm’s length. When we start talking about the Spirit of God inside you, knowing your thoughts and feelings and directing your steps, that is too close for comfort.
So today I am wading in where you may not want to go. I want to discuss and celebrate this third person of the Trinity, this breath of God that infiltrates our very lives.
The truth is that many of you are more comfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit than you realize. You may say that the concept of God the Father is where you are most at home, but when we start thinking about that, what you appreciate is the welcoming presence that directs you and comforts you and never lets you down. That is the Holy Spirit. You may gravitate to the person of Jesus, in whom God is revealed, but in fact you have never seen Jesus, and you are reveling in the one with whom you have a daily personal relationship, the one sent to indwell you and speak to you. The one who goes through every hardship with you. That is the Holy Spirit.
There can be no dispute that the Holy Spirit is an essential Biblical character. The name “Holy Spirit” appears in Psalms and Isaiah, and references to the Spirit of God are throughout the Old Testament, beginning in the second verse of Genesis. In the New Testament, Jesus discusses and interacts with the Holy Spirit on numerous occasions, and all of the epistle writers discuss the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Acts, of course, chronicles the work of the Holy Spirit after the momentous events of the Day of Pentecost. While some of your Bibles may call this book the “Acts of the Apostles,” many refer to it as “the Acts of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is responsible for the virgin conception of Christ. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us that David wrote the Psalms through the power of the Holy Spirit and that when we share the gospel, it is not we who speak but the Holy Spirit speaking through us. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, Simeon, Zechariah, Stephen, Peter, and Jesus Himself, descending like a dove. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and you will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes upon you.
OK, enough of the laundry list. You get the point. We cannot seriously study scripture without addressing the Holy Spirit and worshiping Him as a face of God.
So let’s turn to our scripture for the day in Romans 8. I am going to be a very old-fashioned preacher today, or perhaps you prefer to say that I am being very traditional. I am going to have an outline that has five points, five short point (I promise), and I am going to use alliteration to help us all remember. I believe that the scripture teaches us at least five things about the Holy Spirit, and they all start with P. They are Presence, Promise, Preparation, Power, and Prayer.
We start with verses 5-9, where Paul tells us that we are of the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us. This idea of indwelling – that the Spirit of God literally lives within us – echoes Jesus’s words that we read earlier from John, where Jesus tells us that the Spirit abides with us and “will be in” us. [John 14:17] Paul tells Timothy to guard what was trusted to him with “the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” [2 Timothy 1:14] Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 6:19]
The fact that the Holy Spirit lives within us has enormous consequences. That the Spirit of God Himself would choose to abide in us, to make His home within us, to commune with us is truly beyond our ken, and it ought to drive us all to our knees. Paul speaks interchangeably of the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ” in this chapter, which is entirely appropriate because God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are all expressions of the same being. Jesus speaks of the presence of this indwelling Spirit as His own: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” [Revelation 3:20]
This indwelling Spirit is responsible for our Christian fellowship. When we Christians meet, even if we have not met before, there is a tie that binds. The Holy Spirit in you recognizes the Holy Spirit in me.
And what is this presence? When we talk about an indwelling Spirit, what does that mean? Who is it? Do you picture this presence in any form?
The Greek word used in John for the Holy Spirit speaks to me very personally. In our responsive reading from the Gospel of John, we heard Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate. Other translations say “Comforter,” “Counselor,” or “Helper.” The Greek word here is paraclete, and it literally means one who is called alongside to aid in a court of law. It is particularly meaningful to me because it is the word the ancient Greeks used for a lawyer, the one who stands beside you before the judge. To this day, when I am in court, judges refer to me as “Counselor.” I am there because I know the language and the rules, because I know how to say what needs to be said and how to negotiate what is, to the untrained, a labyrinth of confusing, if not outright confounding procedures and potential penalties. Clients want me there because they are lost if they have to walk that road alone. The translation of the word as we read it, from the New International Version, as advocate is right on point: the paraclete speaks for us, takes up our cause, argues our case. We are sinners, and standing before the almighty holy God is a daunting challenge. The paraclete – the Holy Spirit – stands with us and delivers a divine closing argument on our behalf. That is incredibly meaningful to me.
Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means God with us. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit, which had moved over the face of the earth, entered into us as the indwelling presence of God with us. This paraclete – comforter, counselor, helper – lives with us and in us, reminding us of the love and work and essence of God.
Another importance of the indwelling Spirit, beyond driving us to our knees and forming our fellowship and being God to us, is confirmation of our salvation experience, which leads us to ...
There is another particular word for the Holy Spirit, a particular role, if you will, that speaks to me. It is the word “deposit.” You may be old enough to remember a deposit you had to pay on Coke bottles; you got it back when you brought the bottle back to the store. The deposit was a promise, a guarantee of what was to come. We heard that explained earlier in the Second Corinthians text my Dad read for us. In Ephesians, Paul says it this way: “When you believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of His glory.” [Ephesians 1:13:14]
In other words, the Holy Spirit is given to us a promise, like earnest money paid on a mortgage to assure future payment. I could have used another “P”-word here, the word pledge. The Holy Spirit is God’s pledge to us of all that awaits us in the kingdom. Paul calls the Holy Spirit a guarantee of what God has for us, an assurance that our salvation can never be taken away so that we live by faith and not by sight. [2 Corinthians 5:5,7] The Greek word that our Bibles translate as “deposit” is arrabon, which literally means earnest, or earnest money. Interestingly, that is the word that in modern Greek is used for an engagement ring. What a picture that is – we, the Bride of Christ, are given the Holy Spirit as a beautiful, incredibly valuable promise of what is to come.
This promise is what the “deposit” or “seal” language is all about. Jesus tells us that we will continue to see and know Him because of the Spirit, who will come to us and teach us and remind us of everything that Jesus has taught us and given us. The Helper/Paraclete will testify about Jesus to us when we need reassurance [John 15:26]
The indwelling Spirit is the key to our eternal life. In verses 10 and 11, Paul tells us that Spirit in us gives us life and will give our mortal bodies eternal life just as Jesus Himself conquered death. The rest of that paragraph, with the great “Abba! Father!” language of verse 15, assures us that the Spirit bears witness with us that we are children of God and heirs with Christ, to be glorified with Him.
It is ok to say Amen right there.
This indwelling Spirit does even more.
The Spirit teaches us. We need not wonder how to behave, for the words of Jesus are constantly brought back to us through the Spirit. Jesus caps this explanation off in the 16th chapter of John, when He says this:
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. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. [John 16:7-11]
This leadership goes beyond merely tidbits of information. While what we call our conscience is undoubtedly one facet of the Holy Spirit, He is not some Jiminy Cricket character, limited to whispering in our ear and hoping for the best. He is the one convicting of sin, reminding us of God’s words, and glorifying Jesus. Yes, glorifying Jesus: there is a worship service going on inside each one of us all the time, conducted by the Holy Spirit. When you cannot find a worshipful bone in your body or thought in your mind, just step back. Let what the Holy Spirit is already doing lead you. He is preparing you, leading you and teaching you.
Let me add that the preparation and leadership of the Holy Spirit are the only hope for Trinity River Church. This church was born in Jim’s and my heart out of the working of the Holy Spirit. Our many obstacles are known to all of you, and we are now facing the struggles inherent in any new work of a small congregation meeting in unfamiliar surroundings at an unfamiliar time. The only way this church will survive and grow is through the work of the Holy Spirit. That preparation will occur in each of our hearts. If each person in this room is not sensitive to the leadership of the Spirit – meaning, if you are not in prayer about our church and your role in helping it grow and helping Jesus reach people who need to be reached – we will be nothing. Our foundation has been laid, but unless the Lord builds the house, our labors are in vain. I believe wholeheartedly that this church has begun and will continue as the work of the Holy Spirit. That means I am not worried. But it also means that I must choose every day to seek out the Holy Spirit in the work and follow his leadership. I beseech you to do the same. Pray. Show up. Invite. Join the Holy Spirit, who leads this work.
That leadership is not simply preparation, however.
The Spirit empowers us. It is the Spirit working through us that enables our service. In verses 5 and 14, we learn that the Spirit leads us. We need not wonder if we can do what God wants, for the Holy Spirit provides the ability, the impetus, the power to do what we need to do, if we just let Him do the work to help us. God will not call us to anything that His Spirit will not enable us to accomplish.
The Spirit of God inspires and energizes us to do the will of God. This is the power to resist temptation, the power not to sin. Verse 11 tells us that the Spirit who dwells in us gives to us from the very power that raised Jesus from the dead. Paul says in First Corinthians that he rests his entire preaching on the power of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 2:4]
That power is available for all of us. We have to know where to look for it and how to access it.
Many of you know the story of Eric Liddell, Olympic runner and later missionary who is the inspiration for the great movie “Chariots of Fire.” Liddell says this: “I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”
I remember a story told by my friend and Debra’s former colleague David Johnson, who was college minister at Columbus Avenue Baptist in Waco. David tells of his three-year-old nephew who spilled a Pixy Stix all over the carpet in the van. You remember Pixy Stix I hope – the paper straw full of powder absolutely guaranteed to get everywhere when placed into the hands of a child. The child’s parents naturally thought very little of the incident until later, after they got home, when they suddenly realized that their toddler was not in the house. Before they got too desperate, they found him in the garage, on the floor of the van with their Dustbuster, running it back and forth over the spilt candy and saying “Vroom. Vroom.” Of course, nothing was happening, because the child did not know how to plug it in. You see, we can go through all the right motions and make all the right noises, but without the right power source, our efforts do no good.
As I said, we have to know where to look for it and how to access it. The where is answered by Eric Liddell, for we have the power from within us. Accessing it is a matter of opening ourselves up – the Biblical word that our culture does not like is “submitting” – to the Holy Spirit of God. It is from this indwelling Holy Spirit that Jesus says we will receive power to be His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Dwight Moody said it this way:
When the Spirit came to Moses, the plagues came upon Egypt, and he had power to destroy men's lives; when the Spirit came upon Elijah, fire came down from heaven; when the Spirit came upon Gideon, no man could stand before him; and when it came upon Joshua, he moved around the city of Jericho and the whole city fell into his hands; but when the Spirit came upon the Son of Man, He gave His life; He healed the broken-hearted.
The Holy Spirit prays for us. The Holy Spirit is the premier pray-er in the universe.
The discussion of the Holy Spirit in our passage of Romans 8 finishes with this wonderful security about prayer: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” [Romans 8:26-27] The great Puritan Jonathan Edwards said: “The true spirit of prayer is no other than God’s own Spirit dwelling in the hearts of the saints. And as this spirit comes from God, so doth it naturally tend to God in holy breathings and pantings. It naturally leads to God, to converse with him by prayer.”[https://www.christianquotes.info/top-quotes/18-beautiful-quotes-holy- spirit/#ixzz57cJouXkN]
Sometimes your pastor can help you out. I had always read this verse all wrong. When Romans says that the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray, I had interpreted that as meaning that the Spirit can come up with just the right three-dollar-word to get the Father’s attention when we are just too dumb to know the right language. My pastor in Nashville, Frank Lewis, lovingly set me straight. I was struggling mightily with an issue and could not find it within me to pray about it, and Frank explained that this verse has nothing to do with finding the right language and everything to do with our Advocate’s fighting on our behalf when we have no idea how to pray in the first place. When we are up a creek without a paddle, a lost ball in high weeds, having no idea how to approach God or even, truth be told, if we want to pray about our deepest hurts and struggles, our paraclete is already in the breach, lifting us up and arguing our case to the one who trusts the Spirit.
I do not understand the intricacies of the Trinity, but I know that Jesus prayed to the Father, and I know that the Spirit prays to the Father. I know that the paraclete, the face of God that indwells me and glorifies Christ and reminds me of all that Jesus teaches, is also my biggest fan in the Holy Court, making my case before the Father. When I don’t know the language to use, the Spirit prays with groanings that are beyond human comprehension. When I don’t even know where to start, the Spirit has long ago taken up my representation before the Father. When I cannot be convinced that my problem can possibly be solved and thus I am not ready to pray, the Spirit is already interceding on my behalf.
Presence. Promise. Preparation. Power. Prayer.
A.W. Tozer said that “the Spirit-filled life is not a special, deluxe edition of Christianity. It is part and parcel of the total plan of God for His people.”
That plan is waiting for you. Believe in the Holy Spirit.
A.W. Tozer said that “the Spirit-filled life is not a special, deluxe edition of Christianity. It is part and parcel of the total plan of God for His people.”
That plan is waiting for you. Believe in the Holy Spirit.