Sermon audio here.
Today is the festival of Pentecost and once again we’ve heard the old familiar story. Rushing wind, tongues of fire, and people speaking in languages they don’t even know.
The tongues of fire thing has always struck me as odd. I mean, what in the world is a tongue of fire anyway? Honestly, I don’t have a clue. What would a tongue of fire even look like? The Rolling Stones’ logo set ablaze?
I don’t know about that, but I do know it’s a very appropriate image for the Holy Spirit. It’s funny, we have no trouble associating Jesus with the cross. Nothing could be more natural. But that’s because we understand what the cross means and how it relates to Jesus.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, most Christians know much less. If you don’t understand the Holy Spirit, you won’t understand the imagery the Bible associates with Him, either. The Holy Spirit’s sort of like the Ringo of the Trinity. You know He’s there and you know what he does is really important, but it’s easy to take him for granted and put all the focus on Lennon & McCartney. Or, in the case of the Trinity, to put all of the focus on the Father and the Son.
The dove, as a symbol of peace, makes sense. But so do the tongues of fire. Think about why we have tongues: so we can speak. The most important thing you could ever hear is the Word of God, and the tongue is the means by which that Word is spoken. The tongue is an appropriate image for the Holy Spirit because He works through preaching and the Word to create faith. The cross is to Christ as the tongue is to the Holy Spirit. The cross is Jesus dying so that you may live. The tongue is the means by which the cross is proclaimed.
The Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Word. That’s where He does His work. There is no Holy Spirit apart from the Word. He doesn’t float around like an invisible little butterfly giving you signs from God about what to decide or what to do next. All of the guidance He gives you is in His Word. The rest is up to you, which is why the Father has given you reason and all your senses and still takes care of them.
If you want to know where the Holy Spirit is, you’re in the right place. Jesus has promised to give the Holy Spirit in preaching and the Sacraments. These are the means by which the Holy Spirit creates and strengthens faith, which is why the Divine Service is necessary for salvation. To cut yourself off from preaching and the Sacraments is to cut yourself off from the Holy Spirit and His saving gifts.
Like peanut butter and chocolate, the Holy Spirit and the Word are a match made in heaven. Jesus Himself has wed the Spirit to His Word, and we listened in on the ceremony in today’s Holy Gospel. First Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my Word. Anyone who does not love me does not keep my words.” So there’s the
Bride, the Word. But where’s the Holy Groom? He’s the next thing Jesus mentions. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name will… bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” So there it is. Jesus says keep My Words; the Holy Spirit brings those Words to our remembrance.
That’s the Holy Spirit’s job: to preach the Word. It’s crazy how much effort people spend these days trying to “feel the Spirit” or figure out what the Spirit is saying, all the while avoiding the one place the Holy Spirit actually does speak: in preaching and God’s Word.
So the tongue serves as a really good image for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings to remembrance all that Jesus has said. But we shouldn’t forget that other detail about the tongue: it’s on fire. Sounds painful. The tongue makes sense, but what are we to make of all the pyrotechnics?
Think back to the effect God’s Word had on the disciples when Jesus spoke it to them. After He departed they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). This is the intended effect of God’s Word. That, like fire, it would fill you with an all-consuming love for that which God loves.
And that’s the terrifying part. How often has your heart burned within you when you heard the Scriptures? How often has the Holy Spirit filled you with an all-consuming love for that which God loves? The problem here isn’t with the Holy Spirit, it’s with your cold and stony heart. Repent.
Which brings us to the first Pentecost which took place with Moses and the Israelites in the Old Testament. Fifty days (Pentecost) after departing Egypt, Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. But instead of rushing winds and tongues of fire, this Pentecost was filled with darkness, thunder and lighting, and fire and loud trumpet blasts, so that all the people trembled.
Terrifying and painful though it may be, the Holy Spirit must first remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Jeremiah says God’s Word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces. You are the rock that the Holy Spirit needs to smash. You are the sinner who must walk through the burning fire of God’s Law lest you find yourself standing in the burning fires of hell. Though your instincts tell you to avoid walking through fire or allowing a hammer to smash you into pieces, let it. Repent. It may not be pleasant, but it’s for your own good.
Then the Holy Spirit can do His healing work. He heals the wounded, comforts the weary, and forgives the sinner. Jesus didn’t die for pretty good people; He died for really bad sinners, those who think, say, and do awful things and don’t even think they’re that bad. If you want a visual for your sin, if you want to know how badly it looks, gaze upon the disfigured, bloody, and naked corpse of your Lord on the cross. That’s what sin looks like. Your invisible sins had a very visible consequence for Jesus.
But on the cross you also see the death of your sin. Your sin is buried with Jesus in Holy Baptism. The Spirit Who washed you clean with water and the Word continues to create in you a clean heart through preaching and the Sacrament so that you might repent of your sin and love what God loves.
The fire of the Holy Spirit was felt by the disciples who went from being cowardly deniers to bold confessors overnight.
The fire of the Holy Spirit was great in the early Christian martyr Lawrence, who was punished for loving what God loves and was put on a burning gridiron. But it didn’t bother him. After he had been lying there for a while, he reportedly said, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”
This fire of the Spirit was so great in Tiburtius that given the choice between sacrificing to the Roman gods or walking over burning coals, He chose the latter, and when he walked over them he said, “these red-hot coals seem to me like roses.”
So also was this fire strong in Zaccheus and Matthew, who, after hearing the Word of the Lord, dropped all of their worldly cares, passions, and desires, and followed Jesus. And so we pray:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful,
and kindle in us the fire of Your love.
Alleluia; Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
 Spangenberg, The Christian Year of Grace (tr. Matthew Carver).
+Rev. Eric Andersen
Concepts based on Spangenberg, The Christian Year of Grace.
The Festival of Pentecost, 2015: Loving What God Loves
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