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The Wind

Mission Possible!
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
John the Baptist says something interesting in Mark, “He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Those were prophetic words. John was pointing to a time when those who followed Jesus would be infused with the power of the Holy Spirit. Later this prophetic word would be underscored by Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove. Just a few years later John’s words would be confirmed on the day of Pentecost when the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit. On this historic day God’s power exploded through the church and began its mission of making disciples.

It was a day the disciples would never forget. Thousands of people were in Jerusalem celebrating the day that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Disciples were gathered together in a house. Suddenly it happened: wind and fire swept through the disciples. Everybody was amazed and astonished. Many thought a drunken party was taking place even though it was only 9 a.m. A huge crowd gathered around Peter as he preached and said, “God has given us the Holy Spirit!” Three thousand people confessed Christ and were baptized.

Pentecost should be the third great holiday of the church, next to Christmas and Easter, but most churches treat it as just another Sunday. This says a lot about the attitude of the modern church regarding the Holy Spirit. Yet, the words of John continue to echo today, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” They remind us that the church was born on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit infused it with the power to change to world.

I remember being invited to a birthday party. It was for one of the children in the church I served. They had the party at home and invited a bunch of children over. It was quite a scene. They had a big blow-up jumpy contraption in the front yard. They hired a clown to make funny balloons. The place was saturated with decorations and banners. There was cake, presents, and games. Most of all, there were excited boys and girls running all over the place.

I was sitting in the living room watching all of the excitement. I was smiling and remembering the excitement of my birthday parties when I was a kid. As I sat there eating cake, I struck up a conversation with an older man sitting next to me. He was the birthday boy’s uncle. He didn’t look too excited to be there. He said something about it being too noisy and the children being too exuberant. Then he looked at me and said, “It’s funny. When you are young you get excited about your birthday, about life and all that is ahead of you. But as you get older, there seems to be less to get excited about. When your birthday comes you are reminded how old you are. People keep saying ‘Happy Birthday’ to you but there’s really nothing happy about it.”

I thought about the conversation with that man and came to the conclusion that it is a living parable for how the modern church views Pentecost and the whole idea of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us sit back and observe the story of Pentecost like a noisy party from the past. We understand it. We know it is a part of our history. But we would just as soon eat our cake then go home and take a nap. There may have been a time for all that enthusiasm, wind, and fire, but we are civilized Christians now and we are careful not to get carried away. Some cynic has said that if it were up to most Christians, churches would have lightning rods on their steeples instead of crosses in memory of that time when lightning struck the early church and as protection against it ever happening again.

The truth of this was seen on an ABC News Special titled “In the Name of God.” Peter Jennings interviewed the founder of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, John Wimber. Wimber said that the first time he went to church he expected dramatic things to happen. He had read some of the stories in the Bible and couldn’t wait to experience church. After attending three Sundays, he was disappointed and frustrated. Following the service, he talked to an usher and asked him, “When do they do it?” “Do what?” asked the man. “The stuff,” Wimber answered. “What stuff?” “The stuff in the Bible.” “What do you mean?” “You know, multiplying loaves and fish, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind. That stuff.” “Oh,” the man replied apologetically, “We don’t do that. We believe in it, and we pray about it. But we don’t do it.”

This is true in most churches, especially the mainline church. Many Christians want just enough religion to be comfortable, to be respected, to feel good about themselves, but not so much that it shakes up their routines and changes their way of living. Many Christians want the benefits of the Holy Spirit without having to experience much of the Spirit. Many Christians want to go to the dance without having to dance. Many of us read about Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit, smile, and then put it back on the bookshelf next to our favorite novels and DVDs then go back to our lives as usual. Such exuberance is kid stuff, the stuff of movies and myth. After all, you have to be careful with this kind of exuberance. If there is one thing that most modern, mainline Christians are, it is careful.

You can’t really blame us for being careful. There’s lots of weird stuff that goes on in churches that aren’t as careful. I recall being invited by a friend of mine to go to his church. I was in high school. They met in this warehouse. We sat down and the service began. It seemed like a normal service. There was a worship leader who led praise and worship. People were singing and enjoying worship. Then the preacher got up, and he was rather exuberant. Then he became more exuberant and started to speak in tongues. It sounded like gibberish. The lady next to me started to speak in tongues. People around me started to work themselves into a frenzy. Soon the whole row in front of me was on the floor shaking and writhing. I wanted to call an ambulance for them but then my friend informed me that they were fine. They were “slain in the Spirit!” I said, “Slain in the what?” He said, “The Spirit.” I said, “Well, I’ve got the Spirit too, but it never wanted to hurt me.”

I was terrified and told my friend I needed to go to the bathroom. Really I just waited outside until the service was over. The next day I brought my Bible to school and showed my friend where it says in scripture that if you speak in tongues in church there must be a translator. Otherwise it is just showing off. I quickly told him that there are many gifts of the Spirit and speaking in tongues is down on the list. We really do have to be careful with this Holy Spirit business.

I remember sitting in a board meeting at another church. A youth had come to the meeting to propose a plan for evangelism for the church. He had gone to some conference on evangelism. He heard a dynamic speaker, brought some literature, and was excited to get the church to evangelize in the community. When he was called on to speak, he said that if a handful of members went door-to-door in the community they could reach a certain percentage of people for Christ. The chairman of the board quickly told the youth that they were not that kind of church — “We don’t go door-to-door bothering people.” He said, “Son, we have to be careful about how we present ourselves to the community.” We really do have to be careful with this Holy Spirit business.

A colleague of mine was assigned to a new church. He was just out of seminary feeling excited about what God was calling him to do at his first church. It was an older church but they had lots of young people moving into the area. My friend felt led to reach those young people and grow the church. He decided to start a contemporary service. He got a team of people together and made plans. Members of the church who were musicians volunteered to play. A bunch of media equipment was donated. They set a start date and began publicizing it around the community. About a week before the very first service my friend found the donated drums, speakers, and guitars piled up outside his office. On top of the pile was a note from concerned members of the church. It said, “Dear Pastor: If you continue with this new-fangled service, we will write the bishop and tell him you are incompetent and not fit to serve our church.” He continued with the service but a year later, he was voted out of the church. We have to be careful with all this Holy Spirit business, don’t we?

He didn’t like what his church was doing. He felt it didn’t have much life. It wasn’t doing the things that a church ought to be doing. It wasn’t praying enough and serving enough. It wasn’t studying the Bible enough. So, he, led by the Spirit, started all of these small groups in the church. Lo and behold, they started to catch on, got all fired up, started to change things, and shake things up. The leader of this crew started to speak all across town. He lifted up the gospel and all of these people listened to him and responded. They received Christ. He was the talk of the town. His church was none too pleased with all this excitement and exuberance, with all this change. They got annoyed with this group in the church and their leader. What did the church do? They wouldn’t allow him to speak in church anymore. His name was John Wesley. The group was the Methodists! We have to be careful with all of this Holy Spirit business, don’t we?

We have become really good at being careful of the Spirit over the years. We have become really good at putting a governor on the Spirit of God. We have become rather skilled at stifling the Spirit when it doesn’t line up with our whims and fancies or it threatens to inconvenience us. The Spirit is strong but it doesn’t force itself on anyone or any church, so it will go only as far as we allow it.

Thank goodness, right? Because it’s much easier running the church on our own, without being bothered by the Spirit, isn’t it? A church can survive while keeping the Spirit at bay. It just needs to be organized, be nice, be civilized, and be careful. All it has to do is find a good speaker to tell nice stories, find a good band to play good music, and the church will be well on its way with being pleased with itself. Sure, there is only so much you can accomplish without the aid of the Spirit, but at least you look good. At least you are in control.

For 132 years America’s Cup was kept and defended by the United States, but in 1983 Australia threatened to take the cup away from America. They were tied with three wins each. On the day of the final race, the whole world was watching. Australia was going crazy. Scores of people came to watch the race and television crews we ready to broadcast it all over the world. All was ready but there was no race. Why? There was no wind. Experienced racer Allan Walker said of that day, “In yachting, no wind means no race.”

It’s true. Nothing happens without the wind. In the Bible the Hebrew and Greek word for “Spirit” literally means “wind.” The great preacher Fred Craddock says, “I cannot describe the Holy Spirit. I cannot explain the Spirit of God. Jesus said it is like a mystery, like the wind. You don’t see the wind, yet you know when it comes and when it goes.”

Craddock remembers seeing a big wall standing proud. It didn’t need anybody or anything. He passed it another day and it had crumbled to the ground. He wondered what caused it. Someone told him it was the wind. The wall reminded Craddock of a man he once knew who was hardened by life. He hated the church. He didn’t need help from anyone or anything. Then one day all that bitterness crumbled to the ground. His heart was changed. Craddock wondered what caused the man to change and someone suggested to him it was the wind.

I understand the mysterious power of the wind. My wife and I were staying with some friends. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of chimes outside the window. I said, “What is that?” My wife answered, “Well, it’s the wind!”

I heard about a church that was about to close its doors. It was old and tired. One day all these people starting coming to the church. It started to grow. I asked, “What happened?” Someone said, “It’s the wind.”

There I was sixteen years old, minding my own business. I was playing tennis, getting crushes on girls, telling jokes, and having fun. I was sitting in church with my parents. We were passing the mints, playing tic-tac-toe, and writing notes about where we wanted to go to lunch. Then this man got up to preach. I was inspired. Next thing I know I am shaking the minister’s hand at the door telling him I want to be a preacher! Me, a preacher? What happened? What caused that? You know what I think it was? The wind. Amen.
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