Harrowing Of Hell
December 8, 2013

The Power of the Holy Spirit

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Matthew 3
Romans 15
Isaiah 11

My sermon today is about the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am inspired to preach this sermon in memory of Nelson Mandela.  He once said, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than you are capable of living.” And I believe that to be true. And I believe that it is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to move from living small to living large. I believe this movement from small to large happens when the Holy Spirit fills that space between what we think we can do and what God made us capable of doing.

Today I invite you to ask yourself, “Do I want to live small or do I want to live large?” That is the question we contemplate in the season of Advent as we await the coming of God into the world and into our lives…“Do I want to live small or do I want to live large?”

The Gospel of Matthew is helpful in considering this question. In the river Jordan, John the Baptist is dunking people in a ritual of repentance. His purpose is to get people to refocus their lives on God.  To repent means to turn around, in this case, to turn around toward God.

Now we know how to do this. In our tradition we call this turning around the spiritual disciplines. I talk about them a lot. There are seven: Sunday worship, daily prayer, weekly Sabbath, living into the liturgical rhythms of the year, taking a once in a life time pilgrimage to the Holy Land, fasting, and tithing.

I am a big advocate of these spiritual disciplines because they create a framework for how we pay attention to God. But here is something else I know to be true about them: it is possible to participate in these disciplines without letting our hearts be fired by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can muscle our way through much of what we do in life, and when we do this, when we live only by the power of our own competency, we are living small.

Maybe that is the point Jesus was making when he said of John the Baptist, “among those born of women no one is greater than John, yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.” (Lk 7:28) John was as big as small living could be, and he knew it. He knew he needed help bridging the gap between his competence and God’s hope for him.  He also knew where the fire would come from for he said, “I baptize you with the water of repentance but one will come after me who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” And that baptism is bigger than anything we can muscle our way through. When we say “Yes” to the baptism of fire the Holy Spirit lights up our world.

I’ve seen it in big ways and in small ways, from Mandela to my friend Iris Johnson who always let the homeless man in her neighborhood sleep on her front porch. I’ve seen it in big ways and in small ways, but God only sees it one way – as us living with God, by the power of God, in the way God intended for us to live, from the beginning of time toward the point of making the world the place God imagines it can be. That is what Mandela did. That is what Iris did. That is what we can do when we decide it is time to live large.

I am always surprised by the infinite ways the Holy Spirit calls people to live large.

I was struck by this as I was watching Monday night football last week. During the game, while the Seahawks were crushing the Saints, they ran an interview with Russell Wilson, the Seahawks quarterback. There was an honest humility in his responses, laced with the confidence, that comes from a man who believes that God fills the gap between his innate capability and God’s particular hope for his life, right now.

Now here is the thing about Russell Wilson. Standing at 5’11” he is too small to be a quarterback in the NFL. Now to you and me, 5’11” is a decent height, except when the lineman blocking for you are 6’4”, 6’5”, 6’6”, 6’7” or taller, and weigh 350 pounds; and when the men charging by them to tackle you are almost as large. Then being 5’11” is problematic for many reasons, not least of which is you can’t see over them, and you can’t see around them, and you can’t see through them. They are enormous people, which is a problem when you’re trying to see down field to pass the ball.

So, Wilson, it seems, has learned the lesson we hear from the prophet Isaiah, “to see not with our eyes,” but to see in a different way – to see by the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Seeing by the fire of the Holy Spirit is why at 5’11” Wilson is one of the largest players in the NFL. He plays with passion, and as Mandela said, “there is no passion to be found in playing small.” The fire is the light that lets us see what God is capable of doing with our lives. In the season of Advent the question we ask is, “Do I want to live small or do I want to live large?”

Fire is hot.  It is a scary thing… I know.

I know what it feels like to be a 5’11” quarterback in the NFL, because I am your priest here at Epiphany. Sometimes I feel like I’m too small for this work. Sometimes I feel like it is an accident that I’m a priest at all, let alone a priest in the most literate city in the nation (if not the world) in one of the most literate neighborhoods of this city.  I feel like a 5’11” priest in a congregation of giants.

And you know why because you know my story.  I’ve told it before. As a kid I couldn’t read.  I struggled with dyslexia. I was tutored as child for years and years.  If someone had told me I’d have a job where I would have to read out loud, I would have laughed, and then I would have cried. If someone had told me I’d have a job where I’d have to be vigorously well read, I would have laughed, and then I would have cried. If someone had told me I’d have a job where I had to write all of the time and prepare sermons, well you know, I would have laughed, and then I would have cried.

But the Holy Spirit fills the gaps, of that I am certain. The Holy Spirit unleashes a power that fills the space between our innate gifts and God’s intentions for our lives, right now. And even though I am small, I hope to be small within the kingdom of God. Because I know for certain that within the walls of God’s kingdom the light that gives sight is lit by the Holy Spirit, and that is good enough for me to see by, and it is good enough for Russell Wilson to see by, and it is good enough for Nelson Mandela to see by, and it is good enough for Iris Johnson to see by, and it is lit for you as well.

The question is, “Do you want to live small or do you want to live large?” Now if we want to live large here’s the strategy:

  1. Trust God;
  2. Work hard; and
  3. Have faith in your friends.

First, trust God. Admit that God is capable, and that we need God. Choose to say with certainty, with utter assurance, “I believe that Jesus was born into this world to light our lives on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit has been given to us to fill the space between what we are capable of doing on our own, and what God actually made us to do, right now.” Choose to trust God. It is a choice.  It is your choice.  It is not necessarily about what you believe,it is about what you choose. Give it up for God. Say God is good; say God is here;  say God cares about me. Give it up for God and when you do, those gaps will start to fill.

But you might ask, “Is it enough to say that?” And I would say, “No!” It is just where we start.

We start by admitting our need for God.That is our invitation for God to burn the dross that junks up that space. And I believe that if God loves me enough to do that, then I am going to do my part with whatever God has given me. As Russell Wilson says, “I’m going to work really, really hard.”

That is how we respond to the Holy Spirit so when we meet God face to face we can say with an honest heart, “I gave it everything I had.” That hard work is fire in our belly.

Which leads to the third part of being filled by the Holy Spirit, it only really works when we are working as a team. The power of Russell Wilson only is manifest because other people are running down field to catch the ball. God fills the gaps for you and for me and for someone else with you and with me and with someone else. When we choose to trust each other, like we choose to trust God, there is fire and amazing things happen, and the world is made a better place. “There is no passion to be found playing small…”

Letting God run loose in our lives may look like Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, or it may look like throwing a football, or it may look like learning to read in front of a crowd, or it may look like letting the homeless man sleep on your porch, or it may look like doing whatever you are doing today, right now.

But whatever it is, it starts when we admit we need God to make up the difference, to fill the gap, to move us into the kingdom, to allow us to live large. Advent is the season when we ask the question, “do I want to live small or do I want to live large?”