"God’s Spirit – What Are We Looking For"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – June 12, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Acts 2:1-21; I Corinthians 12:4-13


     Each year when Pentecost Sunday arrives, we rehearse that familiar story that is described in the Book of Acts.  Listen again to the description of what happened.

     All the believers were gathered together in one place.  Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing.  It filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.  (Acts 2:1f)

     Christians throughout the ages associated the presence of God’s Spirit with this powerful imagery that Pentecost became the birthday of Church.  The only aspect of this experience that still lingers today, however, is the practice in a number of Christian communities of speaking in tongues.

     The early church identified the Holy Spirit’s presence by this extraordinary experience even though this small group of Jesus’ followers had difficulty explaining it.  First, the group said that there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing.  Secondly, the witnesses saw what looked like tongues of fire that touched each person. 

     Since the occurrence of this event, no one has experienced anything identical to what this group of believers witnessed.  This morning we will be examining the meaning of Pentecost for our lives.  What does God’s presence in our lives look like?  What do we want from our Creator?

     We do not seek personal validation from God by longing for an experience like the one that Moses had at a bush that appeared to be on fire but was not consumed.  The Scripture is unclear who it was with whom Moses was speaking. The Bible tells us that it was an angel that appeared to Moses like a flame coming from the middle of a bush.  (Exodus. 3:2)

     Likewise, we do not long for an experience like the one encountered by the Apostle Paul. Even as important as this event was for Saul of Tarsus, the experience lacks clarity.  In the Book of Acts a passage says, “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul!  Why do you persecute me?”  The men with Saul heard a voice and later discovered that whatever Saul had experienced, it caused him to lose his eyesight. 

     Later in the same Book, however, we read another version of this experience as Paul, himself, told of the event to King Agrippa, “I saw a light much brighter than the sun coming from the sky and shining on me and the men traveling with me.  All of us fell to the ground and I heard a voice say to me in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul!  Why are you persecuting me?  You are only hurting yourself.”  (Acts 26:13f)   In this account, Paul never mentioned his blindness. In fact, the blindness mentioned in this passage had to do with the voice’s directive, “I am sending you to open the eyes of the blind so that they will turn from the darkness to the light.”  (Acts 26:18)

     My point in mentioning these biblical illustrations is that they are descriptions of how individuals encountered an event that changed the direction of their lives.  Their importance to us is not found through the accuracy of the details but in the results that followed in each of their lives.

     How can we use these lessons to support our spiritual growth in the 21st century? Do we spend our time looking for God to come to us in some mysterious way?  Underneath our deepest desires, do we really want God to micro manage our lives by telling us what to do and where to go?   Again, what are we looking for from God? 

     Most of us have recognized that there is only one thing that is permanent in the physical universe.  That one thing is change itself.  How many of us greet change as a friend? Since Lois and I have arrived, we have heard countless people tell us, “Bermuda is not the same.”  This expression describes every nation on earth.  This same comment is also true for each of our lives. What remains unique is how each of us responds to change.

     When the winds of change come to us, some of us build walls of caution and regret while others of us build windmills that energize our lives.   Those who build walls want their lives to remain exactly as they were.  Because that is impossible, many people decide to define themselves by looking in the rear view mirror, remembering the way their lives used to be.

     Those of us who choose to build windmills have learned to look for cues: transitional symbols, sign posts and invitations that will help us map out our future.  Each change presents us with a new opportunity to order our lives differently. 

     For example, since our return from the States, I received an email from an old friend who has decided to retire from her position as a public school librarian.   I was surprised because she is only in her fifties.  I responded by asking her why she made that decision. 

     Her response may be like those of countless other people as every government agency and company is trying to find additional sources of revenue while also trying to find ways to cut spending.  This is how she responded.

     I never thought I would leave my school. Retiring had never entered my mind. However, when my supervisor told me that next year I would be dealing with three schools instead of one, checking-out, checking in, and re-shelving books with no chance or time to get to know the students on a personal level, no research or stimulating projects, no TV and other activities that made my current job enjoyable, I realized it was time to say, “goodbye.” By consolidating positions, our school system was giving me only the boring and tedious parts of the job magnified and multiplied.   There were several spiritual pieces to my decision.  I will compile them soon and share them with you.  My sister reminded me of a lesson that I had learned a long time ago, “Look for and follow the signs. Basically, that is what I did in making my decision.”

     A number of people want God to appear in a very predictable, tangible form.  This is what the Israelites were seeking when they asked Aaron to fashion a bull-calf during one of Moses’ long absences.  They wanted something tangible to lead them.  (Exodus 32:1f)  

     We need to remember the story of Elijah who discovered that God was not in the earthquake, wind and fire, but in the guidance of a still, small voice.  In essence, that voice told Elijah, “Get out of your cave and go back into the world.  Stop paying attention to your fears. Trust me instead.”

     We have often heard the expression, “When a door slams in our face, somewhere God leaves an open window.”  Rather than lamenting the changes that are going to happen to each of us for the rest of our lives, we need to begin immediately to look for that window, those signs that move us along the path of our continuing life adventure.

     In our lesson from I Corinthians, we are made aware by the Apostle Paul that God has equipped each of us with specific gifts.  The listing Paul used is by no means exhaustive.  All these gifts are designed to enable people to be of service.  Being of service is the key. Understanding this broader view of how the Holy Spirit offers guidance to us opens our lives to countless alternatives that have nothing to do with burning bushes, winds, tongues of fire, light and voices from the sky or people speaking in languages other than their native tongue.

     Currently there are countless people that are experiencing life changes as a result of poor economic conditions, health issues, or natural disasters.  Many of these circumstances are far beyond anyone’s ability to control.  What do we do when it is our turn for such moments to visit us?  Does God really intervene? Is this how the Holy Spirit works in our lives?  

     The Apostle Paul was telling his readers that God had already acted in their lives by giving them countless skills that remain available for their use.  God does not rescue people from one set of circumstances by placing them in another environment where once again they have control over what happens.  God would be the first to tell us, “Use your imagination!  Do not lose hope.  Use all of the resources I have given you to find your way. Remember, you will always be safe in my keeping.” 

     One day, a young girl heard her parents talking about her brother’s medical condition. They did not have enough money to pay for a surgical procedure that would save his life.  She watched from the upstairs railing as her parents wept during their discussion in their family room, sobbing in each other’s arms.

     That night she knelt beside her bed and prayed, "God, my little brother needs my help right now. What can I do?" A flash of inspiration came to her. The little girl decided to take her piggy bank to the drugstore two blocks from her home. The next day that is exactly what she did.

     As she approached the counter, the druggist was engaged in conversation with another customer. The two either did not see her or they chose to ignore her. (The needs of little people can often be overlooked by adults.) After waiting and waiting, she took the plug off the bottom of her piggy bank and spilled the coins on the counter. The clanking sound attracted the attention of both men.

     The pharmacist said, "I'll be with you in a minute, honey." She said, "But I have an emergency! My brother is dying and I want to buy the medicine that will make him well." Her comment made both men give her their undivided attention. The man beside her said, "Do you know why your brother is dying?" She said, "I think he has a hole in his heart and I know that you have medicine in here that can fix that. My parents do not have any money but I do."

     The man said, "Do you live near here?" She said, "Yes."  He put her money back in the piggy bank and said, "Why don't we walk to your home where I can talk to your parents.  I'm a doctor and your pharmacist here is my brother. I fix people's hearts all the time. Maybe I can help your brother.”      

     After hearing the story from the little girl's parents and reviewing her brother's medical history, Dr. Armstrong made arrangements to have the boy flown to Houston, Texas, where he performed the surgery to repair her brother's heart.

     The story of the little girl and her piggy bank circulated in the family's hometown as well as in Houston where the story was carried in both newspapers and radio commentary.  Strangers made many generous donations and more than enough money was donated to cover all the expenses of the hospital, the travel and lodging for the family. Dr. Armstrong and his team donated their time to save this little guy’s life. 

     Was this event a miracle? Was this event influenced by the work of the Holy Spirit? You bet it was!  There may not be a formula for how dire circumstances can work out as this one did. Perhaps, however, there may be a process that makes such things happen.  The process has to do with the boldness of one’s faith.  In this case it was the unabashed faith of a little girl who was armed only with a piggy bank filled with coins.  Remember what Jesus said about moving mountains with faith no bigger than a mustard seed.

     There is no better interpretation for what happened as this story unfolded than a process that was once described by the German poet, Goethe.  He wrote:

     Concerning all acts of creation there is one governing rule one must follow. The moment a person becomes committed to a purpose that brings healing, personal stability or a public sense of being in community, then God and the entire creative forces of the universe move as well.  All sorts of activities occur to help that person that would never otherwise have occurred.  An entire stream of events is created the moment one acts decisively, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come his or her way.  Bold decisions have genius, power and creative energy in them. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it now! 

     The Spirit we define as “Holy” is the most powerful loving energy source in the universe.  Like the faith of a young girl, sometimes all we have to do is ask God to help us and then act decisively by taking our piggy bank to a drug store – what ever this image symbolizes to you.   We have to act, let go and let God work out the details.