In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There was a pastor who began to feel that his sermons lacked “pizazz”; he wondered if, with all his careful study, preparation, and writing, he was really letting the Spirit guide his preaching. So one Sunday he announced to his congregation, “I have been praying about this, and I realize that I have not let the Holy Spirit control my preaching enough. So from now on, I’ll prepare the first half of my sermon, and let the Holy Spirit take over the second half.” After several Sundays of such sermons, as the pastor was greeting folks leaving the service, one parishioner shook his hand and said, “You know, Pastor, you’re a much better preacher than the Holy Spirit!”
The preacher thought that he was letting the Holy Spirit take over his preaching. But who was really in control of the “Spirit’s half” of the sermon? Was it the Spirit of the Lord, or the man? That man was treating the Holy Spirit as some sort of magic that would come upon him apart from the Word, apart from Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the Author of Holy Scripture, as the Apostle Peter declares: “We have the prophetic Word more fully confirmed … knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pe 1:19–21). That word interpretation is literally unloosing. Think of it as a “spiritual free-for-all,” people saying whatever they feel “moved” to say “by the spirit”—but by whose spirit?
Quite often, the “spirit” is not the Spirit of the Lord, but the person’s own spirit, or even an evil spirit. The surest test is to compare what a “spirit” says with what Scripture says. God the Holy Spirit will never contradict His Scripture. We may not always understand fully, so we must study His Word with patience, care, and discernment. In the second century A. D., a man named Montanus began teaching what he called “the New Prophecy.” He was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maxilla, who left their husbands to follow him. The trio claimed to be voices of the promised Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise—contrary to Scripture, which teaches that Jesus’ promise was fulfilled among the Apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day. Montanus’ and the women’s utterances were supposed to be “new revelations” adding to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. The “New Prophecy” was eventually condemned as a heresy.
There are still people today, claiming to be prophets, with “new revelations” supposedly given to them by the Holy Spirit. There are many more who don’t necessarily claim to receive new revelations, but still believe the Holy Spirit is working in them directly, apart from His chosen means of grace, the Lord’s Word and Sacraments. A pastor friend of mine tells of one class at seminary. The professor was lecturing about the work of the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit works to give us faith by the means of grace. Another student raised his hand and said, “But wait a second! Just in the means of grace? The Bible says that the Spirit works where and when He wills!” The professor responded, “Yes, it does. And it tells us exactly where and exactly when He wills to work.” Even when He worked directly through the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost, He still was confirming what He had already foretold in Scripture. As Peter said of the Spirit’s actions, “But this is what was uttered through the Prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). God the Holy Spirit has spoken by His prophets, apostles, and evangelists, and He still speaks through His people, through His Church.
When people speak of the Holy Spirit, they forget just Who and what He is. Jehovah’s Witnesses speak of “holy spirit” as an “it,” a divine force, God’s power, but not as a person, and certainly not as God. Sadly, this is true not just of unbelievers, but of Christians, too. How often do we pray, or talk about praying, and it’s not the work of the Holy Spirit, but our own wishful thinking? So often, we think of the Holy Spirit as a vapor or a will-o’-the-wisp, something ethereal. We treat Him as a good luck charm or a talisman, wanting Him to confirm our own thoughts and desires, even if they go against the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture. When we think and speak of the Holy Spirit and treat Him in such ways, or speak a false teaching in His name, we’re guilty of idolatry, breaking the First Commandment, and we’re misusing the Lord’s name, breaking the Second Commandment. He calls us to repent, to turn away from those evil ways, and then He points us to the forgiveness of our sins by pointing us to Christ.
Let us remember that He is God the Holy Spirit! We would do well to speak of Him that way more often, to remind ourselves of that fact. Consider the names and titles given to Him in the Bible, how He is pictured, and His work. He is God Almighty, and He is not to be toyed or trifled with. Our first hymn today calls Him “Creator blest.” Indeed, God the Holy Spirit is our almighty Creator, together with God the Father and God the Son. Look at what He did before the eyes of the Prophet Ezekiel, when through the Word spoken by the prophet, He brought dry, dead bones back together, put flesh and sinews and skin on them, and breathed life back into them. Only God can do that, raising those long dead, as He will also do for all the dead on the Last Day, raising the faithful in Christ to eternal life. His name Spirit means breath, and He is the very Breath of God, no mere puff of smoke, but “the Blast of the Breath of [God’s] nostrils” (2 Sam 22:16; Ps 18:15), who breathed life into Adam’s nostrils, and who still breathes life into us. He is, as we confess in the Nicene Creed, the Lord and Giver of Life. Jesus calls Him the Spirit of the Truth. This means that He, the Holy Spirit, cannot lie; more than that, He is the Spirit of Christ, just as Christ says, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). It is God the Holy Spirit’s job to speak what Christ spoke, to remind us of Christ’s teaching and work, to point us to Christ and what He has done for us, above all Christ’s suffering and death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, and His resurrection for our justification, our being declared righteous, before God the Father.
On Pentecost Day especially we use two symbols for God the Holy Spirit, the dove and the flames of fire. At Jesus’ baptism He appeared as a dove—why? Oh, the dove is so sweet and peaceful, cooing softly. Remember, a dove is also called a pigeon, and we don’t usually think of pigeons as sweet and peaceful. Doves and pigeons are tough birds, champion flyers, as shown by Noah’s doves; they are used to carry messages; and they’re survivors, somehow managing to raise offspring even as people try to eradicate them as pests. So the dove is a very fitting symbol of the Holy Spirit. And think about fire. It is energy, and it gives light. The Holy Spirit is called “the Energy of [God’s] great might” (Eph 1:19), and He enlightens “the eyes of your hearts” through His Word, as Hebrews and Psalm 19 declare. Fire purifies, and it consumes; you don’t mess around with fire, especially the Fire of God. God the Holy Spirit purifies you in Holy Baptism, and in Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of sins. Through His discipline of us and all believers in Christ, He works to remove the dross, the impurity, from our hearts and minds and lives. He sustains you in the one true faith of Christ through His holy Word, and through the Holy Supper. There He really points you to Christ, to the tree of the cross and its fruit, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, as you join with fellow believers confessing the true faith of Christ, as the Holy Spirit has taught you.
Jesus also calls the Holy Spirit the Helper. This word is also translated Counselor, Comforter, Advocate, Defender, Intercessor; all are translations of the word Paraklētos, Paraclete. A paraclete is one who is summoned to someone’s side, especially to help. In ancient courtrooms, the paraclete was an advocate, defense counsel, pleading another person’s cause before a judge. Jesus is your Advocate before God the Father. The Father has made Jesus Judge of all, and now the Holy Spirit is your Advocate before Jesus!
Jesus forewarns His disciples, you and me included, that the world will hate them, hate us, just as it has hated Him. When God the Holy Spirit is at work, His saints don’t find it easy-going. Sometimes when it’s difficult or dangerous, when you’re made an outcast or a target for death, that’s when the Holy Spirit is really working. There is no way to proclaim the Gospel so that it is welcomed by the world. Luther says, “For if I believe and say that faith in Christ alone does and accomplishes all, I overthrow the monkey play of the whole world; and that they cannot allow.” Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me. He will convict the world concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer. He will convict the world concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” Convict means to convince, by presenting evidence and testimony. It also means to render a verdict. Unbelief is the root of all sin and rebellion against God, the chief sin and worst of all sins. The Holy Spirit must convict us of sin through the preaching of the Law and repentance, or we cannot be turned from unbelief to faith in Christ. The death of Christ for the sin of the world is the Righteousness of God. Jesus went to the Father in His death, and this is the only source of salvation for the world. God’s judgment that sinners are righteous for Christ’s sake sets us free from the judgment of the Law that the devil uses to accuse us. The Spirit used His apostles and prophets to speak His conviction of the world, and He still uses His Church, His preachers and teachers, His people; He still uses you, yes, you to speak and show the Truth in love to your neighbor and the world. Because God forgives you of all your sin for the sake of Christ Jesus and has given you His Spirit as gifts of His grace, the ruler of this world can no longer accuse you or charge you. You are no longer judged guilty; he is! God the Holy Spirit, the almighty Spirit of the Lord, by the Word of the Truth, convict you each day of this Truth, of your freedom in Christ to live as His own, and of the love of God the Father for you.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.