HOLY SPIRIT: GOD PRESENT
Numbers 11: 16-17; 24-25; John 14: 15-21
This week I heard that the location where two films were made that, together, garnered a total of 16 Academy Award nominations, is such a remote town that citizens there do not believe that all the press from tonight’s award ceremony will change their community. Called Marfa, Texas, it has a population of 2000 people and no town movie theatre. In areas away from the town, a camera can pan in all directions and not stumble onto a single billboard, or power line, or airplane, or automobile, or anything that will give away that the movie set depicting a bygone era is being filmed on location in 2007. Tonight as you see clips from “There Will be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” think about the little town that, in one year, was the location for two Oscar nominated films! I’d imagine away from that tiny town one’s cell phone would have no service; I don’t know if OnStar would work, but perhaps it would from satellites. The point is, to find places around us that are truly remote is difficult in our day and age. We can be in touch with those across the miles by e-mail and text message; we can check the blog of someone on the other side of the world, and the venerable telephone booths that dotted our landscape for decades are disappearing due to lack of use. Where could Clark Kent change into Superman in this day and age? Telephone booths are gone, closets are locked for security, and alleys are (thankfully) disappearing with the building of new structures! By the I-95/Taylor Road intersection in Port Orange, there are acres and acres of natural land that have been bulldozed level for what someone decided was the progress: a shopping center will go there. To some it’s a revenue stream. Others join Joni Mitchell in her song “Big Yellow Taxi, later recorded by “Counting Crows” in prophetically complaining that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot!” So in our day, it is rare to be so far away from technology, and from the dozens of ways we can call for help. But when the Gospel of John was written, the picture was so different. A car would not break down but a donkey might give out. A trip across the small country of Israel was sometimes treacherous with bandits ready to rob travelers. There was no fast food, just local markets here and there; and if one wanted water, it would have to be carried from the Jordan River. There were plenty of desolate places in Jesus’ day. Many people lived far from the Temple in Jerusalem, where they believed God dwelled. To stay close to God, some would pray, some would kiss their mezuzah as they entered their home, and some would have symbols in their homes that reminded them of God. Before God had Moses lead his people to Canaan, Caanan was a land of many false gods. But God was not going to put up with statues of the Holy One; God was much bigger than a souvenir placed on a shelf in one’s sparce home or around the neck of an animal for traveling mercies. So God saw to it that a Godly version of satellite radio, of a cell phone, of 911, (all ways we call for human help in our world) was put in place: God left us a gift of a Holy Connection that remains with us to this day, one that trumps all kinds of technology. God left us the Holy Spirit; a counselor to receptive hearts, a guide when one feels lost; and a real presence to those who feel discouraged, confused, or in despair, The same Spirit, even in the Old Testament, guides leaders who, it is said, are “inspiring” that is, “filled with the spirit.”; Some over the years have noted that wise leaders were ones said to have “God’s Spirit” in them; unwise leaders became that way when, through selfish or mortal motives, they decided to make decisions that went contrary to God’s ways. When that happened, God withdrew His Spirit from them; and friends, I have no reason to believe that God doesn’t still do that: give the Spirit to those listening to the Holy One who spoke ages ago in a still small voice, and who speaks still; and withdraw the Spirit from the din of chaotic or confused ways that surround others. Our nation needs to pray carefully for the right candidate to lead this nation next year. Our school teachers and administrators and parents need our prayers as they stuggle to teach in an increasingly toxic environment. God is so close by, and so available, that there is no reason why believers in their work life, their personal life, and in their prayer life cannot stop to call on the God who left Holy and wise counsel here on earth, available for the asking. With all the technology we have at our fingertips, God has stayed as close as a prayer since the days of camels, donkeys, and the sound of a messenger’s feet running toward the next village. An extraordinary gift was left for the world at a pivotal time: It was the Spirit that, long ago, moved across the face of the deep and brought life from it. It was that Spirit that made God present for the disciples then and for disciples now. It was that Spirit that Jesus described as he was about to leave the earth: the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17), the presence of God that will not leave us as orphans (in verse 18,) which meant in the first century that they still had a Heavenly Father who was, “a very present help in times of trouble.” God’s Spirit dwelled with them, and there is no record that the Spirit of God has been withdrawn from the faithful.
What have faithful people done with that Spirit? In the book of Numbers, God took some of the Spirit of leadership he had bestowed on Moses and distributed it to the seventy elders he assembled. Today elders in this congregation and others draw strength from the Spirit of the Living God as well. Wise pastors will constantly pray for that Spirit to rest on them and not leave them; you can tell pastors who have lost God’s Spirit can’t you? They seem to be desperate just to keep drawing a paycheck, they cause conflict because they have lost their way, and cataracts have formed over their spiritual eyes. We need leaders who do not take God’s Spirit for granted, but as a great gift. We need leaders and followers who are aware of God’s holiness and God’s presence, which is as strong as Gospel Armor, but as delicate as holding an egg. We carefully, reverently, and with awe, come into the presence of our Holy God. Like a lighted candle, we let Christ’s light shine when we let God’s Spirit surround us, and we extinguish our effectiveness when we let sin choke off the Spirit supply in our world.
In our day, with all the ways we stay connected with friends, can call EVAC by dialing three numbers, and can reach our auto club with the push of a button or a toll-free number, how are we doing with our holy connections? Can you envision the world being like Marfa, Texas, where friends are close and civilization is not? Can you picture that God wants to be as close to you as your friends, and not so far that you feel orphaned? Can you imagine what it is like to have unlimited minutes and text messages to pray to God alone through the operator Jesus Christ himself? That connection keeps us in touch with the very essence of God: God’s heart, God’s mind; God’s Spirit. Jesus came to earth with a gigantic clue about God’s plan: he was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” God still is.
A little man named Henri Nouwen became a giant follower of Jesus during his lifetime. He spoke at my graduation from Princeton and lived his life among the poor and disabled. These are his words about God:
“It strikes me again and again that, in our publicity-seeking world, a lot of discussions about God take it as their starting point that even God has to justify himself. People often say: ‘If that God of yours really existed, then why doesn’t he make his omnipotence more visible in this chaotic world of ours?’ God is called to account, as it were, and mockingly invited to prove, just for once, that he really does exist…. Now look at Jesus: he came to reveal God to us, and you see that popularity in any form is the very thing he avoids. He is constantly pointing out that God reveals himself in secrecy.” [SHOW ME THE WAY, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, p. 84.] God is here. Will you carry out spiritual practices, starting with prayer, that at least make you aware of the presence of God?
Hear this prayer, and this week, offer some of your own to God Almighty, whose Spirit is ever near:
Holy Spirit, Holy God: you are above us so you can show us the way: you are beside us so we will not feel alone; you are in front of us so that we can hope one day to see you face to face; you are behind us, encouraging our actions and discouraging our hesitations; and you are below us to catch our stumbling soul. With your presence all around, how can we keep from singing? With your ears so close, how can we keep from praying? With you voice so near, how can we keep from hearing? Re-tune our senses so they are on pitch with heaven’s harps, and the voice that cried from a manger, a mountain, and a cross; in the name of Jesus I pray; Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 24, 2008