John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15, Psalm 104:24-35
One of the nice things about where I work is that I have some options for how to get there. I usually take Sudley Road over to I-66, then get off at the Fairfax County Parkway, take that over to RT 29, and my building is right there. If I know there’s an accident on I-66 before the Fairfax County Parkway, there are a couple of exits I can get off earlier at and still get there. If I know there’s an accident before those exits, I can take a different road, RT 28, up to RT 29 and get to work that way. If there’s an accident on RT 28 I can cut over on Compton Road, or on New Braddock Road, or a couple of other places. If I know what is going on, I am able to plan and use a detour instead of my regular route and still get to work on time.
There have been times when God has used detours. When you read about the Israelites, the Jews leaving their slavery in Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land, you may not notice that they took a detour. The route they took from Egypt to what is now Israel was not a straight shot. They went a pretty long way out of their way. Exodus 13:17 says, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer, for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.”
I thought that was interesting. God wanted to avoid the hassle and the traffic for the Israelites, so he took them on a detour. It was kind of like me. I would rather go a longer way and feel like I am making progress than to sit in traffic. I may actually not be making better progress, the traffic may break thirty seconds after I turn off, but I still would rather feel like I am making progress. So it was with God and the Israelites. It was a longer way, but there were fewer stoplights and less traffic. Kind of a Canaan Beltway or something.
If you set up a detour, if you are the construction crew or the tow truck or the firefighter or something, you have to let people know about the detour. Did God have reflecting triangles and warning signs? Did God have a police car with flashing blue lights blocking the way? Did God put out flares?
Actually, the answer is kind of yes, at least on the flare part. Exodus 13:21 and 22: “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night left their place in front of the people.”
Even in the early days of God’s people, God was there. Even before the presence of the Holy Spirit, God was there to guide those who will follow him.
Skip ahead to the gospel according to Matthew, in chapter 3. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, baptizing all who come and repent of their sins. Jesus comes to be baptized, but John doesn’t want to do it. John says, “No Jesus, I’m not worthy of this. You’re the one that needs to be baptizing me.” Jesus says, “It’s okay John. Let’s go strictly by the book with these things.” John does baptize Jesus, and suddenly the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descends like a dove and lands on Jesus. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Even in the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, God is present. God is present in the form of Jesus to lead and reassure John. And God is present in the form of the Holy Spirit to confirm Jesus’s ministry. God is there to guide those who will follow him.
Skip ahead to the book of Acts. The title in the Bible is the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Someone once said it should be called the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven. Jesus’s last words to the disciples, just before he ascends, are these: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus’s last words to the disciples promise that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes.
Next chapter, Acts chapter 2. The disciples are all together in one place. There’s a sound like a hurricane, like a tornado, like a violent wind; tongues that somehow look like fire touch the disciples, and all of the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit and they all begin speaking in different foreign languages.
Everyone who sees and hears the disciples wonders what’s going on and some folks even think the disciples are drunk, until Peter stands and begins to speak. Peter hadn’t been noted as much of a preacher before, but here he gives a powerful sermon to everyone gathered around and he concludes with these words: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Under the Spirit’s guidance Peter speaks with such power and such conviction that over three thousand people are baptized. This is the beginning of the Christian church. This is the day of Pentecost.
Even at the beginning of the Christian church, God is present. God is there, through the Holy Spirit, to guide those who will follow him.
Our scripture reading from Psalms reminds us of God’s promise to send out his Spirit, just as he did for the Israelites before the nation of Israel was established and just as he did for Peter on the day that the Christian church was established. In our gospel reading, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as well to those who follow him. And he did. Just as with the Israelites leaving Egypt, just as with John and Jesus in the Jordan River, just as at the birth of the church, God is here. God is here in the form of the Holy Spirit, to guide those who will follow him.
It’s not as clear for us sometimes as it was for the folks I’ve talked about. If we had a pillar of fire up here, we’d all be looking for Jerome and heading for the exits. I have a friend named Tara who was a pastor. One Sunday Tara had asked everybody to bring in candles which were special to them to sit on the communion table and light during the worship service. Tara said there were some really neat candles, and one woman brought in a particularly cute little candle that looked kind of like a pine cone.
So they light all the candles near the beginning of the service, they sing songs and pray prayers, and at some point Tara looks over at the worship leader, whose face is frozen in horror. Tara looks around and sees that there is a fire on the communion table. That little pine cone thing was not a candle. It was something designed to be used to start fires in fireplaces.
Well, Tara uses her robe or something to put the fire out and the damage isn’t too bad and the service continues. To this day, some folks at that congregation think that Tara planned the whole thing and knowing her, she might have. She says she didn’t, though. A pillar of fire on the communion table is not what people wanted.
We probably wouldn’t respond much better to a pillar of cloud, or a dove landing on my head, or a tornado outside. If the Spirit showed up here in any of those ways we might not react the way folks in the Bible did.
But even if it’s not quite that clear sometimes, God is here. The Spirit is here. The ways the Spirit speaks may be more subtle, but they are just as real.
When John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, felt the Spirit’s presence he said that his heart was “strangely warmed.” Sometimes I feel something inside that might be a little like that. I feel a rush of compassion for someone or something, and I have to do something. I have to call them and see how they are. I have to pray for them. I have to ask after them with mutual friends, or check Facebook and see if everything is okay.
And more often than I can say, when I have been thinking of someone and felt that rush of something inside that person has been in some trouble or facing some difficulty. Often when I think of someone I find they have been thinking of me as well. I think that’s God’s leading. I think that’s the Spirit’s presence.
There are two parts to Jesus’s promise in our gospel reading. First, the Spirit will come and help us to know the truth. Second, the Spirit will help us to testify to that truth, the Spirit will help us to act.
What is in your heart today? Soon we’ll be having another in our series of visioning conversations, and we’ll pray and reflect on how the Spirit is calling us to work in and through this congregation. We’ll be sharing a meal; well, okay, a snack. A small snack. But it will be a chance to sit and share with each other in the conversation before and after the meeting about what the Spirit is doing in our lives as individuals and families.
The Spirit may be speaking to you now. The Spirit may be leading you right now. Your heart may be strangely warmed right now. Listen to your heart. Listen to the Spirit. If you are led to do so, come forward during our closing song to confess and repent. Come forward to pray for yourself or for someone else. Come forward to receive Christ in your life for the first time or to re-dedicate yourself to Christ’s service. Come forward for help in healing a broken relationship or apologizing somehow to a friend. Listen to the Spirit’s leading as our service ends.
Listen to the Spirit’s leading later on as well. In our gathering after worship, and in every minute of every hour of every day of your life, the Spirit is there. God is with you through the Holy Spirit. God is present. God will guide those who follow him. Listen, and follow. Amen.