As promised last week, here is the message the Spirit gave me to preach in worship yesterday. It's a little longer than my normal post and I pray you will be blessed in the reading of it. Enjoy!
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
When we hear this familiar verse, this Great Commission, what is it we really hear? Think about it for a moment. What stands out? If you’re like me, you heard “YOU WILL BE MY WITNESSES.” You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Wow! What an awesome responsibility.
Let’s just agree to skip past that initial hesitation that seizes all of us at one time or another when someone starts talking about our responsibility as it pertains to the Great Commission. We’re going to skip over the reasons that this verse “doesn’t apply to me” and how “my schedule is already overloaded.” In fact, we’re just going to skip right over the big guns, the ultimate conversation-ending responses – “This was only for the apostles” or “this is just for professional missionaries and ministers.” We’re also going to ignore the flip side of that coin—“that’s just not my spiritual gift.” “That’s not my calling.” Let’s assume for today that as the children and servants of a missionary God whose only objective since the fall was and is to reconcile the lost souls of the world to himself, it is our responsibility and our joy, each and every one of us, to bring hope to a broken and hurting world by sharing the Good News of the Gospel.
So all we need to do now is ask God to help us discern what our Jerusalem is? Is it our neighborhood? Our workplace? Our group of friends? Where is our Judea and Samaria? Does “the ends of the earth” mean the ethnic community down the road or perhaps it is the thousands of foreign students who come to our city to earn their degrees at one of Pittsburgh’s universities. Or maybe it means a change in culture is in store for someone.
Let’s stop here for a minute and rewind. There was a whole phrase of this verse that we skimmed past without even looking at which might make a big difference in how we understand it so let’s look at it again. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” That seems like a really important piece of information. Maybe one we need to consider before we start asking all those “where” questions.
Before I continue, I want to tell you the story of how I came to be speaking to you this morning. As you probably know, our former pastor introduced me to the New Wilmington Mission Conference many years ago. It is the highlight of my year. The worship is amazing. Digging deep into scripture and hearing firsthand from mission coworkers from around the world what God is doing in the Middle East and in South Sudan and Central Asia, for example, is informative and uplifting. I learned more about the history of the Muslim-Christian conflict in one hour last Monday than I had in all the rest of my life. As a result, I now know better how to pray for them and what to look for as God brings more and more people of Muslim background to himself in those nations. I heard about organizations that mobilize mission efforts both in aid and sharing the Good News. In one week, I was able to converse, pray, and worship with Christian brothers and sisters from 35 states and 23 different countries.
Anyway, thirty-six hours before I left for Westminster College where the Conference is held, I received an email from the Worship Committee Chair. She knew I was leaving for vacation soon but wondered if I would be able to give today’s message. I thought about it but didn’t feel that one day would be enough time to prepare. Reluctantly, I felt I had to decline.
I arrived at the Conference early last Saturday morning even though registration wasn’t until 3pm because I was invited to join in the Concert of Prayer and Worship that the Conference Staff participates in before the delegates arrive. It was a wonderful time of worship and prayer where we pretty much prayed for everything and everybody. At one point we formed groups of six and, laying hands on each other, prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon each and every one of us. It was a beautiful experience of prayer, peace, power, and praise.
I thought I’d put the few hours between lunch and registration to good use by writing my weekly blog which I was going to need to post soon. Something that was said in the earlier worship time had caught my attention and my fingers flew over my computer keyboard as I explored the implications on my faith and my life this new discovery made. It was as if God was speaking and I was just typing what I heard. (I am a secretary. That’s what we do.) As I began to edit, I was excited about the great insight God has shared with me and said something out loud, to myself, that I’d heard a thousand times from a pastor friend of mine. I said, “That will preach!” I paused; shook my head and muttered, “Oh.” And that’s when I email the Worship Committee Chair and told her I would be happy give today’s message.
Why did I tell you that? Because I think it speaks directly to the great pearl God revealed to me last Saturday—you will receive power WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT COMES UPON YOU! When I received the request from Dana, I didn’t ask the Holy Spirit if he was going to share his wisdom with you today through me. I asked myself, can I possibly put something together in one day and decided that I’m just not that talented. So I said no. What I didn’t take into consideration is that the Lord had already decided who he was going to share this message through and I probably should have asked him first before putting Dana through two more days of worry and frustration in trying to find someone else to speak to you today.
I’ve been attending this Mission Conference for seven years. I earned a certificate in a graduate level course—Perspectives on the World Christian Movement which is an in-depth study of Scripture and the history of God’s people in their role and purpose in the redemptive and restorative plan of our Missional God. I did a specialized word study on the Holy Spirit for several years and yet…this is the first time I ever saw this all important beginning phrase, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
Whatever follows, we must first recognize and comprehend that the Holy Spirit is the instigator, the One with the plan, the Person in charge. The One with the authority and the power to accomplish whatever comes next. He is the actor in this verse and his action is the catalyst for what follows. If this were a spiritual grammar lesson, the Holy Spirit would be the subject of the sentence and his “coming upon us” the main verb. All the rest is a modifier, the adjectives and adverbs, if you will, that describe who the Holy Spirit is, what he does, and how he does it.
In our first reading today (John 14:8-20) just before Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them in God’s house and that he will return for his followers to bring them back with him. I think what Philip is really saying is that if Jesus could just leave something behind to help him not feel so alone, if Jesus would leave someone in charge whom he and the disciples could look to for direction, if they had some way to focus their full attention on living their lives in a way that was pleasing to God, they would feel more secure in his leaving. Jesus reminds them and us that when we know and love him we are knowing and loving the Father. He promised to send the Holy Spirit to step into that role of Holy Companion, Compass and Focal Point.
Then Jesus leaves some last minute instructions. He tells them that they know how to live a life pleasing to God. They just need to continue on doing what they’ve seen him do. And because he won’t be confined in his earthly condition, he will be available in a way he cannot be in person to enable them and us to do even more and greater things now. He gives us permission to use his authority in prayer to seek God’s provision and power in carrying on what Jesus has started. And the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in our hearts and lives will be the tangible substance of our hope and faith. When the Spirit comes upon us, the very nature of God will be in us and with us in the same inexplicable way he and the Father are in and with each other. So the Spirit who dwells in and with us will be for us a Companion and Counselor. He is the connective tissue that hold us together with a Holy God and with our brothers and sisters. He is the mind, the will, and the power of God in us and in our lives. For someone like me, that’s great news because I really don’t have confidence in my own power and abilities in this life to imitate Jesus’ example let alone do greater things in the world, my country, my state, my city or even my neighborhood.
In fact for much of my life, I have felt powerless. I tried to control everything around me to make sense of things and to avoid getting blind-sighted and hurt. But I learned that I never had control and pretending that I did only made me a fool out of control who didn’t even know it. However, the bible tells us that God IS in control. The power is his. And he is gracing us with that power in the Holy Spirit’s presence upon and within us. The kind of power the Spirit brings is revealed in a great variety of ways: the power of forgiveness, the power to heal, the power to defeat demons, and the power to speak in tongues. The power of prophecy, of prayer, and of service. His power is manifest in miracles, in dreams and visions, in reconciliation and in cooperation. The bible is full of examples of God’s limitless power and how he uses it often through the faith, words, and actions of his people.
Last week, when I saw this verse again for the first time, I began to see and understand the many ways in which I have already experienced his power as he has witnessed to the grace and redemption available in Jesus through my life and my interactions with those in my community. I’d like to share a few of those personal insights with you now.
First, prayer. Prayer is power. There is no greater power on earth. Prayer brings me (and you) into the presence of the Almighty. It lifts us up into his waiting arms. Prayer can move mountains, turn a stone heart to flesh, heal wounds, vanquish Satan and overcome temptation. Prayer changes the pray-er. Prayer is my part of God’s work in the world around me. Prayer is a privilege and it is my joy!
Service is power. Humbling myself, serving another, is my way to show God I love him. It is the means by which I can bring, in my own flawed way, God’s love and grace to others. When I do what he has equipped me to do in his name for others, amazing things happen both in those I serve and in me. God doesn’t need me to bring him food or drink but someone does—someone whom God created and whom he went to the cross for. In serving the ones he loves, I am pleasing him and making him smile.
Hope is power. Hope is a formidable weapon against the enemy. He wants us to feel hopeless because without hope, we cannot live into the new life, the clean heart, the obedient spirit that Jesus has birth in us and is nurturing to completion. Hope see victory when only defeat is evident. Hope is a bright tomorrow when today is so bleak. Hope is the restoration of our relationship with God even though we do not deserve and cannot earn it.
Love is power. Love overcomes everything—hate, frustration, fear, misunderstanding, radically differing opinions, annoying habits, quarrels, painful pasts, uncertain futures… It’s our greatest desire and yet sometimes so elusive in this world. There is no end to what love can change or conquer. Love is a heavy and often painful burden. It’s hard to perfect and even harder to ignore. Love disarms and embraces. And perhaps the most important thing to remember is that love has already won.
The Spirit is upon me and he is upon you, working through each of us individually and collectively to bring his message of grace everywhere we find ourselves to a world that desperately needs it. He’s got the power and has granted unlimited access to that power through prayer and in service, with the hope and love that comes from knowing the Risen Savior and being reconciled through him to our God.
Now that we understand that, we can ask the Spirit: Where is our Jerusalem? Our Judea, our Samaria? How far to the ends of the earth is he going to take us to touch and restore this broken world?