Knowing the Spirit by His Work

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Sermon for the Day of Pentecost

Joel 2:38-32  +  Acts 2:1-21  +  John 14:23-31

You’ve heard today about the coming of the Spirit of God. There are many spirits in the world, unclean spirits, wicked spirits. St. Paul says to the Ephesians that even now the spirit of this world, the devil, is at work in the sons of disobedience. You don’t see these spirits, any more than you can see the wind (the word “spirit” means wind or breath), but you can see the results of their work in the world, just as you can see what the wind does to the ocean, to the trees, to the dust of the desert, to anything in its path.

Where there is false teaching about God and His Word, where there is compromise on Scriptural doctrine for the sake of peace, there is an unholy spirit at work. Where there is a mindset that God’s Word is just a matter of personal interpretation, there is an unholy spirit at work. Where there is apathy toward what God says and a stubborn determination to follow human reason and human desires regardless of what God’s Word says, there is an unholy spirit at work. Where there is rebellion against God’s Word or against God’s preachers, where there is lovelessness and selfishness and self-centeredness, there is an unholy spirit at work, seeking to keep people out of God’s kingdom, or to pull people out of God’s kingdom.

There are many of these unholy spirits in the world, putting evil for good and good for evil, convincing people to seek God anywhere and everywhere but in His holy Word, convincing people to justify their sins, or to despair in them. There are many unholy spirits, but there is only one Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of God. And today we celebrate, because Jesus kept His promise and sent His Holy Spirit into the world, to be with us forever, to testify about Jesus, to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify the whole Christian Church on earth, and to keep it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.

You don’t see the Holy Spirit. No one saw the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. But they certainly saw the results of His work, like a great wind that blew through the city of Jerusalem, and has made its way throughout the world, even here to us. We see three kinds of works of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

First, there were the outward miracles. The loud sound from heaven of a rushing, mighty wind, so loud that it got the attention of the whole city of Jerusalem. Not only does the word “spirit” mean wind or breath, but Jesus once compared the Holy Spirit to a wind, as we’ll hear in next week’s Gospel: The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. So the wind signaled, “The Spirit has come!”

Then there were the tongues like fire that divided and rested on the heads of Jesus’ disciples. Fire is fueled by the wind, and driven by it. Jesus had promised His disciples that they would be baptized with the Spirit and with fire. He also said, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  But it couldn’t be kindled yet when Jesus said those words. First He had to suffer and die and rise again and ascend into heaven. Then He would send His Spirit to kindle this fire.

What is the fire? It’s not an accident that the Scripture mentions “tongues” of fire. This fire is spread, not by lighting a match, but by speaking. It’s the fire of God’s spoken Word that kindles faith in the heart, from which love also flows. God said through the prophet Jeremiah: Is not My word like a fire?” says the LORD, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Picture a large fire with the wind blowing behind it, like the wild fires that so often damage our lands in this part of the country. Such is the Word of God, spoken by men, but driven and spread into the hearts of the hearers by the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Then there were the different tongues or languages spoken by the disciples, a special gift of the Holy Spirit to announce to the world that these Christians, these apostles, were approved by God, who had sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for all men and who wants all men to be saved, people in every nation, Jews and Gentiles. The Gospel of Christ does not know any race except for the human race, so it was to be preached in every corner of the world. In this way the fire of faith would spread.

These miraculous signs of Pentecost—the sound of the wind, the tongues of fire, the different languages—were not ongoing works of the Spirit, but attention-getting works of the Spirit, works, designed to teach us something about how He works through the Word of Christ and the message of the apostles. We don’t need to see those signs for ourselves in order to learn from them and benefit from them.

The second kind of work of the Holy Spirit is an ongoing work of His. The second work of the Spirit on Pentecost was His work on the disciples, on the believers. They had been huddling together quietly. They had been fearful and doubtful and silent. But now they are bold to speak to the crowds. Why? Because their faith in God has been strengthened, and their love for their neighbor has been increased. It’s love for the neighbor to speak the truth to him—the truth about his sins and rebellion against God and the judgment that awaits, and also the truth about God’s judgment poured out on Christ crucified so that all who trust in Him are judged innocent by God. This immense growth in faith and love on the part of believers is a work of the Holy Spirit; He was responsible for strengthening and fueling the fire of faith and love in the hearts of believers.

That ongoing work of the Spirit is also for you who believe. We call it “sanctification.” St. Paul said to the Thessalonians, “Brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.” It’s the Spirit of God, working through Word and Sacrament, who builds us up in faith and love, in peace and in holiness of living. Just as He did with the first disciples, He makes us bold to speak God’s Word. He makes us courageous to face the cross and temptation. He takes the peace that Jesus gave to His disciples and works it into your heart, so that the world can crumble around you, and you can still say, or maybe just sigh, “My God loves me, because He gave His Son for me. I am baptized into Christ.”

Finally, the third kind of work of the Holy Spirit we saw today in the crowds that heard Peter’s preaching. (We didn’t read about it today, I urge you to read the rest of Acts chapter 2 when you get home.) Peter preached about how the Messiah had been sent to Israel and then rejected and crucified by Israel, and then raised from the dead by God and set at God’s right hand until all God’s enemies are defeated. Those words aren’t all that convincing to human reason. But the Spirit of God works through preaching. He brought at least 3,000 people in the crowd that day to fear and tremble because of their sins, so that they asked the apostles, “What shall we do?”

Then Peter announced the Gospel to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And amazingly, miraculously, they did. Many who didn’t before believe in Jesus as the Christ suddenly did. Many who before were impenitent enemies of God were now converted to repentance and faith in Christ the Savior. And they were baptized for the remission of sins, and adopted in God’s family. And then it says that they kept gathering and adhering to the apostles’ teaching, and receiving Holy Communion, and praying together.

The Holy Spirit carries out this same work today. You can’t see Him, but you can see a world that has been filled with this Gospel, a world in which millions and billions of people over these past 2,000 years have been brought to faith and baptized and have formed congregations to continue gathering together around the apostles’ teaching and the Sacraments. Yes, the unholy spirits are also at work among these churches, seeking to mislead Christians by false doctrine and temptations, and there are many false Christians throughout the world. But in spite of all the obstacles, the Church of Christ continues to exist and to grow, soul by soul. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

I hope you see how vital, how essential is the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, and in our own hearts and lives. You can’t see Him; He works invisibly. But you know how He works— through Word and Sacrament. And you can see the results of His work. Where the Word of God is preached in its truth and purity, there is the Holy Spirit at work. Where Christians gather around the Word of Christ and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command, there is the Holy Spirit at work. Where the Law of God convicts sinners of their sins and brings them to their knees in repentance, where the Gospel of Christ leads penitent sinners to look to Christ for forgiveness and mercy, there is the Holy Spirit at work. Where there is comfort and conviction in the Gospel, where the Gospel inspires courage under the cross, thanksgiving under affliction, and patient endurance under trial, there is the Spirit of God at work. Where there is zeal for the Word of God and for living holy lives here on earth, where Christians show genuine love for one another, where Christians confess the Word of Christ as true and every other religion as false, where Christians are willing to die rather than compromise on a single article of the Christian faith, there is the Holy Spirit at work. Let us give thanks to God for sending us His Spirit, and let us pray for His continued work among us. Amen.

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