The Spirit of God sets the world on fire

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Sermon for the Festival of Pentecost

Joel 2:28-32  +  Acts 2:1-13  +  John 14:23-31

Toward the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus said: I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is finished! Dear Christian friends, it is finished! The Lord Christ was referring to His baptism in blood, His own blood which He would shed as the payment for the sins of the world, so that all sinners, any sinner from the beginning of the world till its end can plead the blood of Christ before the throne of God and he will be saved. As of Good Friday, it is finished. As of the third day, Easter Sunday, Christ rose from the dead. And as of the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection, the sending of fire on the earth began.

It was a different kind of fire, of course, not the kind that burns up forests, but the kind that burns through the human heart, convicting of sin and kindling faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, where and when it pleases the Spirit of God. That fire has now been sent and kindled in every corner of the planet, even here in America, so many years after that special day of Pentecost. The Spirit of God has, indeed, set the world on fire.

The Day of Pentecost that we Christians commemorate wasn’t the first Pentecost. Pentecost means “fiftieth,” the fiftieth day, or seven weeks + 1 day after the beginning of Passover. Since the days of Moses, the people of Israel were required by God to come to God’s temple three times a year: for Passover, for the Feast of Weeks, and for the Feast of Tabernacles. Just as the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, changed the significance of the Passover forever, so the coming of the Holy Spirit changed the significance of Pentecost. It used to be celebrated as a harvest festival, and in celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Now it is celebrated for the harvest of souls that began 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, and in celebration of the giving of Gospel of Christ, who has fulfilled the Law of Moses for us.

Let’s consider first the three miraculous signs that occurred on the Day of Pentecost. The disciples of Jesus were all together in one place, in Jerusalem, where Jesus had commanded them ten days earlier to remain until they received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

Sign #1: And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.

Remember, the word for “spirit” in Greek and Hebrew is related to the word for “wind.” Jesus had promised to send His Holy Spirit from heaven. And now there comes this sound from heaven of a rushing mighty wind. The sign for the disciples was clear: this is it, what Jesus promised, the sending of the Spirit.

But there was no destruction involved with this rushing mighty wind, no visible movement at all, just the sound of the wind. So the Spirit, too, would blow through the world mightily, not visibly, but audibly, through the preaching of the Gospel.

Sign #2: Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.

Here is the fire Jesus promised to send. And it’s just like Jesus to send it in this way. He speaks of fire, and immediately men imagine some spectacular wildfire burning through the earth, or fireballs raining down from heaven. And there will be that kind of fire destroying the world on the Day of Judgment. But on the Day of Pentecost, the fire was only visible for a moment, not a raging fire, not a fire to destroy Jerusalem for having crucified the Christ who was sent to them, but a fire that looked like tongues, hovering over the heads of Jesus’ disciples. This was a sign that the Spirit of God would fill the speech of Jesus’ disciples and would work mightily through the Word they would proclaim. Like a fire spreads through the earth, so the Holy Spirit would go through the earth in connection with the preaching of the Word of God.  As God once said through the prophet Jeremiah, “Is not My Word like fire?” Always working through the Word, the Spirit would convict the world of sin, and would kindle faith throughout the earth.

Sign #3: And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

The disciples were suddenly able to speak in tongues, in foreign languages they had never learned before. In fact, they probably weren’t even able to understand what they were saying. But the crowds of Jerusalem did! The crowds of Jerusalem were attracted by all the commotion in the house where the disciples were, and the crowds who were visiting Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks from all the foreign countries in that part of the world heard the wonderful works of God being proclaimed in their own native tongues.

And so God’s Spirit confirmed the word Jesus had already spoken to His disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

We’ve talked about the signs of Pentecost and their meaning. Now let’s consider the ongoing meaning of the Holy Spirit’s coming.

The Word of Christ has gone out from Jerusalem, just as the Old Testament prophets had prophesied that it would. No longer are people directed to seek God in His temple in Jerusalem. Now God the Holy Spirit has gone out from Jerusalem seeking to build God’s temple—God’s Church—in every place, even turning human hearts into temples of God, as the apostle Paul says to the Church in Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?”

See what the Holy Spirit has done! You don’t see the Spirit of God, just as you don’t see the wind. But you see the effects of the wind. So also with the Spirit. You see His works, His effects on the world. We call the Spirit’s work “sanctification,” that is, the act of setting people apart for God as holy people, as saints. And there are two parts to sanctification: regeneration and renewal.

Regeneration means causing a person to be born again. It’s what the Spirit does through preaching and through Baptism as He convicts people of sin and brings them to faith in Christ. Regeneration is how the Holy Spirit brings people into the Holy Catholic, Christian, Apostolic Church. Some 3,000 people were regenerated on the Day of Pentecost, and that work has been continuing ever since. See how the Church has spread to every corner of the globe, how the Word of God is being proclaimed in every place, how sinners, one by one, are still being converted from unbelief to faith, still being baptized, still coming into the Church, still being changed from hating Christ to loving Christ. Here, too, in this place, the wonderful works of God are now being proclaimed in English, in our own tongue, because the Spirit’s fire has spread to us, too, and has caused us to be born again. The Spirit’s work of regeneration is also called “justification,” or “the forgiveness of sins.” And it’s something He will continue to do until Christ returns, bringing more people into the Church by giving them a new, spiritual birth. This is the fire that the Holy Spirit spreads.

The other part of sanctification is called renewal. As Jesus said 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. First the Spirit regenerates a person and brings him to love and trust in Jesus. Then the Spirit continually works on the reborn so that we keep the Word of Jesus. He sustains us in faith. He increases our love for God and for our neighbor. He sets us apart from the sinful world, brings us the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins, strengthens, guides, and molds us into the image of Christ. And He does all this work of renewal, as the signs of Pentecost teach us, through tongues, through the preaching of the Word of God.

Do you wonder what makes Christians ready to be burned alive or have their heads cut off rather than deny Christ? Or more locally, do you wonder what makes Christians ready and willing to accept heavy fines or other life-changing penalties rather than renounce Christ and His truth? Do you wonder what makes Christians willing to show love to their enemies and to their friends alike, or what makes Christians willing to sacrifice their earthly comfort for the sake of the truth? It’s all the work of God’s Holy Spirit in us, sanctifying us, renewing us and keeping us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. This, too, is the fire that the Holy Spirit spreads.

And so on this Festival of Pentecost we give thanks to God for the invaluable, fire-spreading, life-giving work of His Holy Spirit. And we pray that the Spirit of God would make us wise to understand the Word of Christ, bold to confess the name of Christ, and eager to walk in the commandments of Christ, until He comes again. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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