The new fire of the Holy Spirit

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Sermon for Pentecost

Joel 2:28-32  +  Acts 2:1-21  +  John 14:23-31

Pentecost is the feast of the 50th day.  And it’s a feast filled with fire.  It began as an Old Testament feast.  It was 50 days after the children of Israel left the slavery of Egypt that they arrived at Mt. Sinai, where God came down on the mountain in a thick cloud and darkness, with a loud trumpet blast, and with fire that set the whole mountain ablaze.  It would have been an awesome sight.  And over and over again in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites of how God spoke to them that day from the midst of the fire and gave them His commandments, that they should walk in them and keep them always.  The fire impressed on them that God is a consuming fire, and utterly serious about His commandments. The fire of Sinai blazed fear and dread into the hearts of the people.

Pentecost is also the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after the Passover, when God commanded Israel to gather, each year, at the sacred altar of His tabernacle (or His temple), on the 50th day and bring, together with their grain offerings, seven lambs, a bull and two rams, to be offered up in fire and flames as a burnt offering, to make atonement for their sins.  The fire of the Feast of Weeks was to emblazon on the hearts of the people the reality that sin brings death.  Someone has to be given over to the fire because of your sins: either the sacrifice that God supplies, or you.

But we, as Christians in the New Testament, celebrate Pentecost differently.  We celebrate Pentecost because the Law of God has been fulfilled by Christ, for us.  We celebrate Pentecost because atonement for all sins has been made by the blood of Christ. We celebrate Pentecost as the feast of the 50th day after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  We celebrate Pentecost as the day on which Jesus fulfilled His promise to send His Holy Spirit from the Father in heaven as a lasting gift to His Church on earth, a gift that has empowered the proclamation of God’s Word since that day until now, and will remain with us until Jesus returns.

This New Testament feast called Pentecost is also a feast filled with fire, but it’s a different kind of fire; the new fire of the Holy Spirit.

When the believers were all gathered together in Jerusalem, ten days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit came upon them and made His coming known by signs: the sound of a rushing wind, fire that came down and separated into individual tongues of fire that rested on believers, and the gift of tongues—foreign languages that were miraculously spoken by the believers and understood by the foreigners visiting Jerusalem that day.  But this fire was different than the fire of Sinai and the fire of the Feast of Weeks.  This fire wasn’t sent to frighten people away from God, but to bring comfort to Jesus’ disciples, and understanding, and boldness and power.  This fire wasn’t sent to proclaim the laws of God that show people their sins, but to announce the Gospel of forgiveness through faith in Christ Jesus.   This fire wasn’t sent to burn up sacrifices for sin in order to make atonement for the people, but to kindle the fire of faith in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, who is the atonement for the sins of the world, and to kindle the fire of love for God, who gave His Son into death for His enemies. The new fire of Pentecost is the fire of the Holy Spirit.

There are two aspects to the work of the Holy Spirit, two ways in which this fire behaves, and both of them are wrapped up in the fiery Word of God.  “Is not my Word like fire?, declares the Lord.”  That’s why this fire took the form of tongues. That’s why the sign of the Spirit’s coming was the speaking of God’s Word in foreign languages.  The Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of God’s Word. And God’s Word always carries with it the Holy Spirit.

The two things the Holy Spirit accomplishes through the Word of God are (1) regeneration and (2) renewal; the conversion of unbelievers to faith in Christ, and the strengthening of believers so that they remain in the faith.  And it all goes back to Baptism. Paul says to Titus in chapter 3: God saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. He works on unbelievers from the outside, burning His Word into their hearts to convict them of their sin and to drive them to Christ, who died for them, so that they may believe and be baptized and so seek shelter behind His righteousness.  Then, once He’s caused a person to be born again—that is, brought to faith in Jesus and given new life—He begins to work on believers from the inside—still through the same Word and Sacraments, but now as the Person of the Godhead who makes His permanent dwelling in our hearts and works on us and works with us for the remainder of our earthly life. We see both aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work on the Day of Pentecost, and also referred to by Jesus in the Gospel.

Here’s how Jesus put it in the Gospel: If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. This love for Jesus—where does it come from?  By nature, we don’t love God.  On the contrary, we hear His Word and we want to run away and hide, like Adam and Eve did when they heard God’s voice in the Garden of Eden.  Why?  Either because we want to be left alone to keep living in our sins, without being bothered by this God and His commandments, or because we think God is a wicked God, an unjust judge, and so we want nothing to do with Him.

But then the Holy Spirit comes in the Word of God and shows us that, no, we are the wicked ones, the loveless ones, the rebellious ones.  God is good; we are not.  He reveals God’s love to us in the Person of Jesus—that, for love of this fallen world, God sent His only-begotten Son into the flesh to suffer and die for us, who were His enemies, in order to become reconciled with us through Christ.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for revealing the love of Christ to us, and the love of the Father who sent Him. It’s that love of God for us that brings us to love Jesus.  That’s the first work of the Holy Spirit in us, to kindle faith in our hearts through the Word, to forgive us our sins, to cause us to be ‘regenerated’ or ‘born again’ as God’s children, who love Jesus, who first loved us.

Then Jesus describes the second work of the Spirit, the work of ‘renewal.’ And My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.  This is God’s special gift for those who believe in Him, for those whom He has adopted by faith and Holy Baptism, that God Himself makes His home with us and dwells in us in the Person of His Holy Spirit.  As Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” Or as Peter would announce to the crowds on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  As Paul says to the Ephesians, “Having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.”

Now, what does the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit do for us?  What is this work of renewal that the Holy Spirit does?  Jesus says, These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

See how Jesus describes the work of the Spirit.  First, He is the ‘Helper’ or the ‘Comforter.’  He only comes to those Christians who need help, who need comfort.  And how does He comfort us?  By reminding us of Jesus and of Jesus’ words; by helping us to understand God’s Word, to understand how all the words of Scripture point to Jesus, to understand God’s love for us in Christ and the significance of Jesus’ promises to us.  He comforts us by daily and fully forgiving all sins to all believers in Christ, and by assuring us of God’s love and faithfulness.

Then, as the Spirit dwells in us, He is constantly holding before our eyes the life of Jesus, the holiness of Jesus, first as that which covers our sins and makes us children of God, and second, as the pattern for us Christians to follow.  He renews us in love and molds us into the image of Jesus, so that we can no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.  That living in love, living for Christ, imitating God—it isn’t perfect in this life.  Christians struggle daily against the sin that clings to our flesh.  It’s a renewal that isn’t finished in this life, but it has certainly begun and must increase in us so that we struggle against sin. Where there is a struggle, there is the Spirit!  Where there is no struggle—where we give in to sin and let it rule over us, there the Spirit is not.

Another part of the Holy Spirit’s fire of renewal is that He makes us bold to confess the name of Jesus, and unafraid.  What did Jesus say?  Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.  God doesn’t remove danger and affliction from our lives.  Instead, His Spirit comforts us and gives us peace and courage to do what is right in the face of wrong, because we have a gracious Father, whose love matters more than life itself.

That was the newfound peace and courage that now filled Peter and the other Apostles on the Day of Pentecost, to stand up and proclaim the name of Christ crucified and risen.

And then, what happened?  It started all over again. The Spirit, working through the Apostles’ words, brought His fire to the crowds in Jerusalem and burned through their stony hearts and kindled faith there, too, so that 3000 were baptized on that day, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins.  And then they, too, received the gift of the indwelling Spirit.  So it is that this new fire of the Spirit spreads like wildfire throughout the earth.  It’s all the Spirit’s doing, from the first kindling of faith through the Word and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, to the continual gift of renewal in believers through the Word and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Being renewed daily by the Holy Spirit, we lead godly lives and speak God’s Word, according to our vocations, and so the Holy Spirit uses us to call more people into the Church.  It’s a cycle, a process that goes on and on and on.

This is the new fire of the Holy Spirit, and it blazes wherever this Gospel is preached, wherever the Sacraments are rightly administered.  The Spirit brings Christ to us, and with Christ, forgiveness of sins, life, salvation, rebirth, adoption, love, courage, peace in the midst of strife, joy in the midst of sorrow, fearlessness in the face of death—all God’s gifts of grace, and all that we need to make it safely through this life to our heavenly home.  These are the Pentecost gifts for which we give thanks on this feast of the 50th day.  Amen.

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