January 13, 2013
I. In 313CE the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed to have converted from paganism to Christianity, and in 340 CE he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However sincere he may or may not have been, he saw Christianity through the lens of empire building. He had his soldiers “baptized” by marching his army along a river as priests used tree branches to fling water over them, so they were now officially Christians. In that atmosphere, the spiritual fervor and strength of the Church declined precipitously. In response, a revival movement began, but they had no illusions that the Empire could ever nurture authentic spiritual vitality. Many people with spiritual passion withdrew to desert communities where they not only pursued their own spiritual lives, but also instructed and encouraged spiritually alert pilgrims who came seeking advice. We know them today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas). They left us both their own writings as well as legends, some of which seem rather fantastic but often point to an important spiritual truth. Abbas Lot and Joseph is one of my favorites.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 103)
A. Whatever Abba Lot saw when Abba Joseph lifted his flaming hands, it was a sign that God was present with him in a remarkably immediate way. Throughout the Bible, both Testaments, fire is a sign of God’s presence, from Moses’ burning bush to the tongues of fire at Pentecost. This week you might want to make a list of the many others as we start talking about the Holy Spirit.
B. Ephesians 1:14 says that the Holy Spirit is God’s pledge of our inheritance of redemption. The idea is repeated in Ephesians 4:30 and 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5. Having the Holy Spirit living in us now is God’s pledge we’ll be in God’s direct presence in the resurrection to eternal life.
C. Like Abba Lot and Abba Joseph, I aspire to become spiritually all flame. For me, I understand that as a prayer life of total intimacy with Jesus. I encourage you to think about your spiritual dreams and aspirations during these weeks when we are thinking about the Holy Spirit.
II. The Holy Spirit plays an important role in the account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:15-18, 21-22. As you listen for the Holy Spirit, remember that Luke is not presenting systematic, abstract theology but is describing the free work of a divine person. In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can mean breath, wind and spirit, which the New Testament writers often use in plays on words that we miss in English. John 3:8 gives us a feel for this when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John the Baptizer’s preaching attracted a large following.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
A. In Luke 1:15, the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptizer will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. And while Luke is clear that Jesus was the Son of God from his conception and as a child, something new happened when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. The one who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit received the Holy Spirit just as he launched his public ministry. Along with the voice of the Father from heaven, this was the presence and power of God for the redemptive ministry Jesus was about to undertake. Jesus did nothing on his own. Everything he did was at the direction of the Father and empowered by the Spirit.
B. Isaiah 43 is God’s promise to the people of Israel, and not to individuals and is not usually considered to be particularly messianic. Nevertheless, for God to call the community of faith by name and claim them as belonging to God, is echoed in the voice of the Father at Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son.” The voice of the Father also told Jesus he was the beloved who please the Father, again echoing Isaiah 43 where God tells Israel they are precious and created for God’s glory.
C. Our own baptisms also echo Isaiah 43. In the tangible drama of baptism, God assures us that we belong to God who created and redeemed us, who loves us and protects us, who honors and values us. Passing through water and fire points to baptism and the Holy Spirit.
III. Luke makes a very specific point that Jesus was praying when he had been baptized and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. George Hendry taught theology at Princeton Seminary for 24 years. “To take the measure of other theologians, he would read what they had to say about prayer. If a theologian took prayer seriously, Hendry took that theologian seriously, even if he had theological objections. ‘Prayer is the life line of theology,’ Hendry said.” (Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 8)
A. Luke gives more emphasis to Jesus’ prayer life than the other Gospels, but he does not tell us what Jesus was praying when he had been baptized. I don’t know if Jesus specifically asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit, but I suspect he was praying to have whatever he was going to need for his ministry, and he received the Holy Spirit.
B. Acts 8 says that Peter and John prayed that the new Samaritan disciples would receive the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that the Church was still very young, and things are just starting to unfold and not make sweeping principles out of their experiences. I am sure we can recognize in those new Samaritan disciples our own experience of not being aware of the Holy Spirit. I would also conclude that praying for the Holy Spirit to be present and active is not just acceptable but good.
C. Luke 11:13 concludes Jesus’ teaching on prayer that is close to what Matthew included in the Sermon on the Mount, with a very Lucian emphasis on the Holy Spirit. “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more with the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Would you like the Holy Spirit to be more active in you? Jesus says, “Go ahead and ask! The Father will joyfully give you the Spirit.”
IV. While we can’t know specifically what Jesus was praying when he had been baptized and the Holy Spirit descended upon him, we can confidently pray to receive the Holy Spirit to purify us, be present in us and powerful through us. Romans 8:23 says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” So the Holy Spirit not only responds to what we pray, but recasts our prayers to be in congruent harmony with the will of the Father.
A. A central significance of baptism is the cleansing of water that assures us that Jesus has washed our sin away. Fire also purifies, here burning chaff, elsewhere refining precious metals. Chaff burning fire may not sound like “good news” at first, but deep inside we all long to be rid of spiritual contaminants in ourselves and in our world. Getting pure may not be fun, but being pure is wonderful! So pray that the Holy Spirit will purify you.
B. When Jesus was baptized, he identified himself with us – broken, sinful humans. When we are baptized, we identify with Jesus, the beloved Son well pleasing to the Father. The Holy Spirit lives within us so that God is always present. As we pray, the Holy Spirit sharpens our awareness of the presence of God in the ordinariness of our lives.
C. Luke’s Gospel especially presents Jesus, not as a super hero with super powers, but as a human totally empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ insights into people were from sensitivity to the Spirit. Jesus got his direction from the promptings of the Spirit. Jesus did his miracles by the release of the Spirit. When you pray for the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than expecting something spectacular, expect to be aware of the pain and joy in other people to whom you can extend the love of Jesus. Expect to be nudged, sometimes without being fully aware at the time, toward people and situations in which you can represent the grace of Christ.
Pray for the Holy Spirit to purify you, be present in you and powerful through you.