The Spirit is needed here

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Sermon for Cantate – Easter 4

James 1:16-21  +  John 16:5-15

We’re still within the 40 days after Easter, recalling the time during which Jesus still made several personal appearances to His disciples. On the 40th day (Thursday May 25th) we’ll celebrate the Ascension, and on the 50th day (Sunday June 4th) we’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Today’s Gospel helps us to understand both of those important events.

On the night before He died, Jesus told His disciples that He was going away. And the very thought of that made His eleven disciples very sad. Why did Jesus have to go away? They didn’t even know what He meant by “going away.” We do. Why did He have to ascend into heaven, so that we can’t see Him here anymore, so that we can’t ask Him questions and hear His responses, so that we can’t see His miracles or see His face? The simple answer is, He went away, because He was no longer needed here. I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away.

The Son of God was needed here on earth, in human flesh, living a human life, in order to die a human death. He was needed here to reveal the depth of the Father’s love for poor sinners by becoming the sacrifice for sins, the Substitute who paid the penalty for all people’s sins with His own blood, with His own death. He was needed here to earn a righteous verdict and the forgiveness of sins for all sinners. He was needed here to rise from the dead and to show His disciples the proof of His victory over sin, death and the devil in His risen and glorified body, to show us the life that awaits all who believe when He comes again in glory.

All of that is done. All of that was accomplished nearly 2,000 years ago. What’s needed now, during this entire New Testament period, is for the blood of Christ and all that He earned by it to be applied to sinners for their justification. What’s needed now is for sinners around the world to be forgiven by the God who gave His Son into death for their sins, for sinners to be brought into the household of God’s Holy Church, adopted into His family for the sake of Christ, and made coheirs together with Christ of an eternal heavenly inheritance. That’s what needs to happen for the rest of this earthly age.

And all of that happens by faith in Christ Jesus. And faith happens—faith is created, faith is strengthened, faith is preserved—only by the work of the Holy Spirit of God.

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 depart, I will send Him to you.

The Holy Spirit’s proper work is explained in this name that Jesus gives Him: Helper, also translated as Comforter, sometimes just transliterated from the Greek word, Paraclete. The proper work of the Holy Spirit is to help sinners by bringing them to faith in Christ Jesus, urging them, convincing them to flee in faith to Christ and there to receive the forgiveness of sins. His proper work is to comfort sinners with the knowledge of God’s love in Christ Jesus and with the assurance that all who trust in Him are safe from the guilt of sin, from the accusations of the devil, and from the fate of eternal death.

But before He can get to that work for which He is named, He has other important work to do. Sometimes we call it His “foreign work,” or His “alien work” (from the Latin), because His proper work and His ultimate goal is to help and comfort. But before He can comfort, He first has to convict.

And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

How does the Spirit convict or rebuke the world? He does it through the preaching of the Law. The apostles were sent out by Jesus and empowered by His Spirit to expose sin, to tell the world what sin is and to accuse the world of it. The only way to escape the guilt and condemnation of sin is to flee in faith to Christ Jesus; where there is faith in Christ, there is Christ, and where Christ is, all guilt and condemnation are gone. But where sinners remain in unbelief, there they remain guilty of every misdeed, every harsh word, every wicked thought. They are rebuked, convicted of sin.

And of righteousness, because Jesus, the only Righteous One, has gone to the Father. And yet men, in unbelief, will still claim to be righteous without him. They hate the Word of God. They despise the commandments of God. They reject Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, but they still pretend that they are righteous, that they are good.

I’ll give you a few examples from the public square. They defend a woman’s right to choose…to kill her unborn child. See how righteous they are! They promote LGBT acceptance and “safe” sex and the freedom of little children to decide their gender. See how righteous they are! They teach evolution; they rail against the Biblical teaching of creation; they brand Christians as science deniers and would gladly disallow Christian parents to teach their children anything except for the lie of evolution, all in their “righteous” pursuit of “truth.” But the Holy Spirit continues to rebuke them, to convict them of their self-made righteousness. It’s worse than worthless before God, because the righteousness that counts before God is wrapped up in Christ, and Him they do not wish to know.

And the Spirit rebukes the world and convicts it of judgment, because the unbelieving world refuses to believe that Christ is the Judge and that Christ will come for judgment. They’re more afraid of meteorites and asteroids and global warming than they are of the judgment of God. But there is the Holy Spirit, wherever Christian preachers preach the Law, announcing the already-pronounced judgment against Satan, the ruler of this world, and the impending judgment that they, too, will surely face. For this, the Spirit is needed here.

So Christians can take great comfort in the fact that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work rebuking sin, wherever the Word of God is preached. We can also take comfort that the Holy Spirit brings some of those sinners in the world—like you and me—to repent of our sins and to believe in Christ Jesus. He washes away sins in Holy Baptism and there He clothes us with the true righteousness, with the righteousness of Christ. Now we are safe, as long as we remain in Christ.

And it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to see to it that we do. Jesus told His apostles: I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth… He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.

For the apostles, that meant that the Holy Spirit would guide them both to understand the truth of Christ and to record it for us in the inspired books and letters of the New Testament. For us, it means that we have the testimony of the Holy Spirit preserved for us in the Scriptures, together with His continual working through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, to keep convicting, to keep helping and comforting, to keep teaching and guiding His beloved Christian Church all the way up to the end of the age. For this, the Spirit is needed here.

I think we sometimes get the idea that, if only Jesus were here in person, making appearances around the world, then people would listen. Then we would have real and lasting comfort. But it’s not true. We don’t need Jesus sitting down in one home at a time, in one church at a time, preaching and teaching in one place at a time around the world, as He did long ago. What we need is His Holy Spirit, filling the world all at once with the powerful preaching of Law and Gospel, convicting sinners everywhere of sin and righteousness and judgment, comforting Christians everywhere with the peace of Christ and the forgiveness of sins, teaching the truth from every Christian pulpit, washing away sins through every Christian Baptism, and bringing the body and blood of Christ to every Christian altar. This is why we will celebrate the Ascension of Christ and the Day of Pentecost, because the Spirit is needed here, and the ascended Christ has given us exactly what we need. Amen.

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