January 04, 2021
The Epiphany 1B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 1:4-11 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 1:1-5 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 29 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Acts 19:1-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 18
Author: Scott Hoezee
Fans of Peter Jackson’s films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy will recall the opening sequence in the final film, The Return of the King. As the movie opens, we are taken back hundreds of years from the main action of the trilogy to the time when the Hobbit-like person Smeagol finds the Ring of power, murdering his own cousin Deagol to secure the Ring for himself. Since the Ring corrupts whoever possesses it, murder was only the beginning of Smeagol’s descent into darkness.
The film then moves quickly, covering scores and then hundreds of years in just a minute or two as we witness the Ring’s corruption of Smeagol’s soul and body until he transforms into the shadowy figure of Gollum who spends centuries living in caves to hide his “Precious” (the evil Ring of Power) from any would-be thieves.
Through deft editing and swift narration, a huge amount of important historical background material is conveyed in mere minutes before the film flashes forward to where the prior movie had left off as the Hobbits Sam and Frodo, led by the scheming Gollum, progress toward the dark land Mordor in order to destroy the one Ring in the only place it can be destroyed: the volcano where it was created centuries before.
The opening of Mark’s Gospel is like that. Mark wastes no time in getting us into the action as John the Baptist appears, predicts the coming of a powerful Messiah, and then that very person shows up to be baptized. The action is fast and furious and fraught with background. In the first 3 verses of Mark 1 we also are told in no uncertain terms that what will follow will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, who will fulfill prophecies like the one Mark goes on to quote from Isaiah.
Savvy biblical readers will sense that for all its apparent modesty, this section in Mark is summing up for us nothing less than the whole history of God’s plan even as it launches us into the heart of that plan as the incarnate Son of God arrives on the scene, earning immediately (Mark’s favorite Greek adverb is euthus after all!) the favor of the Father above.
Yet no sooner does God express his love for Jesus and suddenly the Spirit pitches Jesus headfirst into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. (I realize that the Revised Common Lectionary fails to include verses 12-13—it will pick them up in a Year B Lenten lection on Mark 1:9-15—but you cannot really get the full import of Jesus’ baptism without those two key verses and so I will de facto include them here and encourage my fellow preachers to consider doing the same in their sermons.) That hardly seems like a very loving thing for God to do! God no sooner declares ardent love for Jesus and he slaps Jesus into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil.
Very simply: because such an engagement with evil is precisely what Jesus’ baptism was all about. God did not send his beloved Son into our world just to be nice. No, God was in Christ to reconcile the world to himself and for that very reason task #1 was to engage the evil that holds our world captive. That’s why there are those hints of violent activity in these few verses. In verse 12, although many translations such as the NIV renders the Greek to say merely that the Spirit “sent” Jesus out into the desert, the Greek verb there actually carries with it the notion of being “thrown out” (ekballein). It seems as though the Spirit descends like a gentle dove but suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of hawk who picks Jesus up in his talons and brutally hurls him out into the realm of the devil himself! (Think of a bouncer hurling a troublemaker through the swinging doors of a bar and out into the street if you want to capture the essence of this image.)
It is indeed strikingly dramatic. This is no gentle baptism such as we see in church on a Sunday morning. Clearly something cosmic is afoot. However, having said that, it needs to be admitted that Mark’s text then seems to sputter a bit. Unlike Matthew and Luke who give us a lot of details on what went on between Jesus and Satan, Mark sums the whole thing up in just one verse, telling us Jesus was tempted for forty days, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. We’re not even told how Jesus fared in his temptations! Did he resist or give in? Mark doesn’t say.
Or at least he doesn’t say in so many words. But if you pay attention there are a couple of hints how things turned out. One hint is obvious: the angels were with Jesus. That probably indicates things turned out well. But the other hint is Mark’s reference to the “wild animals.” It’s an odd detail to throw in. But think about it: when was the last time in the Bible you had one man alone among the animals? It was Adam. The first man lived in harmony with the animals of the Garden of Eden, calling them to his side, naming them.
By taking on the powers of evil, Jesus has begun life again for us all. Jesus is the Second Adam, doing it all over again but this time doing it right in order to set this cosmos back on the course God set for it in the beginning. Jesus goes out into as wild and chaotic a place as exists but instead of being consumed by it, he changes it into an oasis of shalom!
Mark’s action is swift and fast-paced and chockfull of detail for those with eyes to see. Because Mark wants us to know: In Christ a whole new world had dawned.
The Year B Revised Common Lectionary will spend a lot of time in Mark’s gospel, and so as we begin this new Lectionary year it is well to focus on some of Mark’s key characteristics, starting in Mark 1 with the first occurrences of Mark’s #1 favorite Greek word: euthus. The force of this word is “immediately,” though sometimes Bible translations blandly bury the word under some boring-sounding phrase like “then” or, as in Mark 1:10, obscure the word from sight altogether by translating it “As . . .” as in “As Jesus came up out of the water . . .” But in the Greek Mark really is saying, “Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn.” And then not two verses later we are told in verse 12 that with equally lightning quick speed the Holy Spirit “Immediately hurled Jesus out into the desert.” Things happen fast in Mark’s narrative style but something of the very verve and vitality of the gospel is in there, too! We don’t want to miss it!
In Jesus’ life a funny thing happened again and again: when he touched the sick, they got well; when he touched the unclean, they got clean. Jesus reversed the conventional wisdom of his day that said it is sickness that gets transferred from the sick to the healthy. Jesus went the other way letting his health flow to those who were sick. Jesus reached out to the sick because he knew that the contagion of God’s Spirit with which he had been anointed was stronger than the contagion of sin. As it was with the wild animals, so with everyone else thereafter: where Jesus went, shalom followed.
But people today have a hard time believing that. In the movie Pleasantville we see a reversal of the Christian story. In the film two teenagers from 1998 somehow get trapped inside a 1950s situation comedy show on TV. They suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville U.S.A. long about 1953. Like the old TV show itself, the entire town and all the people in it are in black-and-white. It’s the typical caricature of 1950s buttoned down, middle class suburbia where Mom wears a dress all the time (even when baking cookies), Dad goes off to some nondescript job every morning, returning home each evening around five with the characteristic, “Honey, I’m home!” And in those pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles days, the teens of the town are all very square and moral and, according to the film, boring.
So the kids from the future set about to inject some enlightenment into the town and they do so through (what else?) sex. But no sooner do they start to spread the sexual revolution around town through seducing basketball players and providing homebound housewives with lessons on what sexuality is really all about and suddenly the black-and-white town begins bursting into color. First it’s just one red rose but soon it is entire persons (the enlightened, sexually active persons, of course) and finally, as the roaring 1990s gets fully injected into the staid 1950s, the entire town is in Technicolor splendor.
Get it? It’s a reversal on the Garden of Eden story. Being moral is dull and lifeless and colorless. Eating the forbidden fruit is what gives life zing. The Garden of Eden bursts into color and full bloom after sin arrives, not before.
The story of Jesus insists that we resist thinking this way. Because Jesus was the incarnation of Eden regained. The world into which Jesus was born was black-and-white and lifeless. But wherever Jesus went, whomever Jesus touched, suddenly new life and glorious color burst back onto the scene! Jesus came to restore shalom, to bring us back to God by bringing God down to us.
Author: Stan Mast
This First Sunday after Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus, that spectacular epiphany of his glory as he began his public ministry. All of the Lectionary readings for this Sunday were chosen because they have to do with water, whether the primeval waters of Genesis 1 or the waters of the Mediterranean that spawn a thunderstorm in Psalm 29 or the water of baptism in Acts 19 or the water of Jordan in which Jesus was baptized in Mark 1.
It surely makes sense to preach on Mark 1 today; it would be easier and more obviously relevant to the subject at hand, namely, the baptism of Jesus. But I want to suggest that preaching on Genesis 1:1-5 will make the earth-shaking importance of Jesus’ baptism shine forth even more than simply focusing on the story in Mark 1.
Here’s why. Mark 1 is the genesis of Jesus public ministry. Genesis 1 is the genesis of everything. In Mark 1 the Triune God who created everything in Genesis 1 begins his incarnate ministry of saving everything. If we can help people sense the majesty and mystery and miracle of Genesis 1, they will have a much deeper sense of awe at what happened in Mark 1.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Many scholars have pointed out that the Bible begins with God, making no attempt to explain God or argue for God’s existence. It simply assumes that God is and always has been. Before there was anything, there was God. And everything that exists came into being because God created it. The phrase, “the heavens and the earth,” means the entire cosmos. It was not always here. But God was. And God created it all.
Everyone who has ever thought about origins believes that there was never a time when there was nothing or no one. Something has to be eternal– whether mass or energy or a person– or there can’t be anything. The Bible assumes that the eternal “something” was a someone, a person, actually persons, namely, the Triune God.
How did the Triune God create the heavens and the earth? Well, says Genesis 1, when God began to create the earth, our particular planet in the universe, it was “formless and empty” and “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” This is very hard to imagine. Indeed, it is impossible to picture, because if something is formless and empty, there’s nothing see. And if everything was pitch dark, there was no light by which any spectator could see anything.
To convey this unimaginable new world, the Hebrew uses three ominous sounding words—tohu wabohu (formless and empty) and tehom (the deep). When I first heard those words in my intro Hebrew class, they seemed to reverberate with mystery and dread. The primeval world was unimaginably unlike the world in which we live today, though there are times when it seems as though tohu wabohu have returned and we are sinking into tehom again. (See my illustration ideas at the end of this piece.) The rest of Genesis tells us how God brought form to the world by separating and gathering (days 1-3) and removed emptiness by making and filling (days 4-6).
Before we hear about God’s creative activity, we encounter this enigmatic statement, “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, which fundamentally means “breath or wind.” So, some scholars claim this simply means that the waters of the primeval world were stirred by the wind, i.e., that it was stormy, chaotic.
Others see an early hint of the existence of the Holy Spirit, even as the “word” spoken by God suggests the Son of God, “the Word made flesh” in John 1. Some even wonder if the “and” in that sentence is really a “but.” Things were without form and empty, dark and deep, “but the Spirit of God was there, hovering over the waters,” about to join the Word in creating the world of form and order, fullness and beauty. That is surely how the New Testament wants to read these words.
But even if we’re reading too much into that phrase at the end of verse 2, we can be sure about God’s first creative action on this unimaginable world. He threw light on it. Or, more accurately, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Of course! There can be no visibility or viability until and unless there is light. We cannot see and we cannot live without light.
So, God spoke light into being. Many critics have pointed out that the lights by which we see were not created until the fourth day; “let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night….” So how could God create light with those lights? The answer is simple but profound, and revealed in the New Testament, which says that God is light. God himself produced the light without the sun and moon. How? I have no idea, but Rev. 21:23 says that in the new heaven and new earth, it will be the same way as in the original heavens and earth. The New Jerusalem “does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”
That’s not exactly what Genesis 1:3 says, but it helps us to imagine how there could be light without lights. The main point of this verse (and subsequent verses that use the same formula) is this, “And God said….” Contrary to all other ancient accounts of the origin of the universe, the God of Genesis did not put forth effort to create the world, either fighting or fornicating or whatever gargantuan use of energy those gods expended. God simply spoke.
His word doesn’t just impart new information; it brings forth a new situation. That’s how omnipotent God is; he speaks and it is so. This is not a snarky anti-scientific statement; it is a deeply theological statement. It is not an argument against a process that might be called evolution; it is as assertion about the creative power of God that is the ultimate cause of all that is.
Once God called light into being, or shed his own light into the world, or entered the world in a new way and brought the light that lightens every human being, God continued to exert his power by declaring that the light was good. God will say that 6 more times, as a way of asserting that the created world is good, not evil, perfect, not flawed, exactly what God had in mind. We humans set out to create things, but we often fail. Our creative effort is flawed, the product is misshapen or cracked or discolored or it breaks entirely. It is not good. About all of his creation, God says, “It was good.” Then came sin, and it wasn’t good anymore. Well, not totally. But then came Jesus into the waters…. But I get ahead of myself.
This first day of creation ends with God naming the light and the dark, another expression of power and sovereignty. The power to name, which God immediately gave to Adam in the next chapter, shows ownership or dominion. I can call you anything I want, because you are mine. When I put it that way, it sounds almost abusive. But that is not at all how Genesis means it. God in his creative love begins to give shape and content to the chaos and darkness. And as we do with a baby, he gives it a name as a gesture of love. So began day and night, the fundamental time division of human life, as a gift of God. And though there was no sun to rise or set, the text says that was the first day of God’s creative activity.
Genesis 1:1-5 tells us things about God that we cannot imagine. As Paul put it in his soaring doxology at the end Romans 11, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out…. For from him and through him and to him are all things! To him be the glory forever! Amen!”
Now, connect Genesis 1 with Mark 1. Genesis 1 is the cosmic backdrop of Jesus baptism. The beginning of his ministry was as earth shaping as the creation of the world. In the same way as God created the world by his Word and Spirit, so God sent forth his Son by his Word and Spirit. That man walking into the water of the Jordan is the Word by which the waters of creation became the world we know (John 1). As Jesus enters that muddy water in Palestine, the forces of tohu webohu are being tamed and the darkness that is over the tehom is being pushed back. Even as the Triune God created the heavens and the earth, so the Father and the Son and the Spirit will create a new heaven and earth. Genesis 1 was the beginning of everything. Mark 1 is the beginning of a new everything.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (II Cor. 5:17).” “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new (Rev. 21:5)!”
If you are able to use your sound system during a sermon, I would recommend using a recording of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zerathustra” when you come to “let there be light.” Pull that up on Google and you’ll find a stunning video from “2001:A Space Odyssey” (I think). The combination of trumpets, tympani and full orchestra will send chills up your spine. That might help your people feel the awesomeness of God’s creation power. The title of the piece is problematic, of course. You might have to hide that.
One way to help people understand the concepts of tohu webohu would be to recall the chaos of the first Presidential Debate in the United States back in late September. It was without form and empty and darkness was over the face of the deep, no matter what party you are part of. With speakers interrupting, making ridiculous claims, attacking each other, clashing like a couple of furious sixth graders on the playground, it was a picture of waves crashing into each other in a storm-tossed sea.
Author: Scott Hoezee
My Mom has always had a fear of storms of any kind. We used to joke about the fact that if ever there was a Severe Thunderstorm Warning or a Tornado Watch, you would soon see Mom’s purse on the top step of the stairs leading to the basement in case we had to flee down there for safety. (I was never sure how having her purse would help but maybe she thought that if the house was flattened, she’d still have a credit card or something). In any event, this wariness of storms got instilled in me and I seem to have passed it along to my daughter.
My wife on the other hand revels in big storms. Nothing could thrill her like watching a big storm roll in over an Iowa prairie or coming off Lake Michigan. She is no more a fan of lightning strikes, felled trees onto a house, or other storm damage but short of that, a whopping storm is a spectator sport for my wife.
Psalm 29 is an ode to a thunderstorm. But this poem is not just that. The primary aim here is to move through the storm to the Lord of the storm, to the King of Creation, to the one, only true, sovereign God: Yahweh. As such, Psalm 29, for all its lyrical and poetic beauty, is actually a fairly feisty piece of polemic or argumentation. (It is also the Revised Common Lectionary’s psalm of choice in all three years of the Lectionary cycle for the Baptism of Christ Sunday at the head of the Season of Epiphany. Not sure why: if I had to choose one of the 150 psalms to accompany Christ’s baptism, Psalm 29 would not be in the running.)
This psalm throws down the gauntlet of challenge to some of the other religions of the Ancient Near East–religions that claimed that the forces of nature are gods and goddesses in their own right. Psalm 29 reveals the falseness of those idolatrous claims by saying that the God of Israel is the One who creates all those wonders. More, he’s the one who is greater than them all. So in a way you could read this psalm as a rebuke to those who worshiped the creation instead of the Creator.
As such, Psalm 29 walks a fine line. This is the only Old Testament text that so extensively identifies God directly with what people today might call “natural phenomena.” The thunder simply is the voice of God, the lightning just is the strike of God’s voice, the wind is the effective speech of God that is so stunning, it twists even the mightiest of oaks the way a child might mold Playdoh. This is indeed the treading of a fine line seeing as the Bible is always very careful to distinguish God the Creator from his creation.
But despite its close identification of God with the manifestations of a thunderstorm, Psalm 29 never crosses or blurs the boundary line between Creator and creation. Yahweh can be seen in, through, and by the thunderstorm, but he’s never just the same thing as the storm. The thunder, lightning, wind, and the very power of the storm are the effective presence of Yahweh in the same way that my voice through the loudspeakers here reveals my presence among the congregation whenever I preach somewhere. But I am not just the same thing as the sound from the speaker. So also God is manifest in the storm without being the same thing as the storm.
Because in the end Yahweh is seen as seated in glory on his throne above it all. Though something of his glory and strength can be seen in the storm, all of that is at best but the faintest of hints as to his true grandeur. It is almost as though the psalmist points to the magnificence of the storm and then says, “If you think that’s something, you ought to consider the God who doesn’t even break a sweat in producing such wonders!!”
To keep the ultimate focus on God, this psalm begins and ends with pairs of verses that direct us to think about Yahweh. Verses 1 and 2 open the psalm with a call to render Yahweh alone glory. Then in conclusion verses 10 and 11 redirect us to the heavenly court of Yahweh, where he rules as the supreme King. The problem most people have is they fail to see this God in their everyday lives. And so the middle portion of this psalm, verses 3-9, serves as a kind of illustration. Verse 2 ends with a call to worship Yahweh “in the splendor of his holiness.” That sounds kind of abstract. What exactly is “the splendor of holiness”? Holiness seems to be an invisible quality. You can no more “see” holiness than you can see kindness. You can’t see kindness the same way that you can see blonde hair or a tree. Kindness needs to be embodied by someone for you to see it.
So if I tell you to praise Leanne for the splendor of her kindness, you may respond, “What do you mean? What kindness?” And true enough, just looking at a picture of Leanne won’t reveal kindness to you. So perhaps I would then say, “Well, look over there, for instance. Do you see how Leanne plays so tenderly with those children in the emergency housing shelter? That’s just one example of what she’s like all the time. She’s got kindness all sewn up, and so she deserves to be respected for the splendor of her kindness. That’s what I mean.” Some things need to be illustrated, lived out in concrete ways, if they are to be seen at all.
So also in Psalm 29: the psalmist says that an example of God’s splendid holiness is a thunderstorm. It’s not the only example, but it is one example that can be seen and appreciated. It’s a window through which to glimpse the one true, almighty God of Israel. So the psalmist takes us to the edge of the ocean as a storm approaches. Many of us know this kind of experience. Sound travels exceedingly well over open bodies of water. And so even on a clear day on a beach somewhere, you may suddenly hear a distant rumble. Soon it gets closer, and as you look out over the water, the horizon gets dark.
Often it is astonishing how quickly the conditions can change. A chill wind kicks up as the thunderstorm begins its pumping effort to move the warm surface air up and the colder air down. Then flashes of lightning become visible, the thunder gets louder. The waves kick up and start to wash over the pier. Hail begins to bounce off the beach like popcorn. Trees may fall, lightning may split the taller trees unlucky enough to become the equalizing point for the storm’s electrical currents. And if you’ve ever been dangerously close to a lightning strike, then you know that Psalm 29’s description of the ground shaking is no exaggeration.
It’s an awesome, often even a frightening, spectacle (again: I do the “frightening” part of storms and my wife keys in on the “awesome” part!). But the real punch of this middle portion of Psalm 29 is not the tumultuous waves, the high-voltage lightning strikes, or the split oaks. More powerful than all of that is the conclusion of verse 9 when all who are in Yahweh’s temple cry, “Glory!” It is an amazing feat of faith to be able to see a display like this one but even so not be distracted from the Creator God whose glory the storm reveals. The response of this psalmist to this powerful storm is not, “Wow!” or “Awesome!” or “Cool!” or even “Yikes! Let’s take shelter!” No, the response of the faithful is simply, “Glory to God in the highest! A sliver of God’s nature just got paraded before our eyes!”
In verse 11 we are told that Yahweh gives strength to his people and this, then, leads to peace. A psalm that shook the foundations of the earth, a psalm that rattled the panes of our stained glass windows, a psalm that split oaks and caused us to plug our ears and cover our eyes from the noise and brightness of it all–this very psalm ends in peace. But this is not just the calm after the storm. This is not a depiction of that moment when suddenly the sun peeks back out, and the only sound you can hear is the dripping of water from leaves.
No, the last Hebrew word of Psalm 29 is shalom. This is not “peace and quiet” but rather the peace that passes all understanding. This is the inner peace you get when you know that all is right with the world. This is the kind of peace that descends on your soul after a beautiful evening out with your family to celebrate a 50th anniversary–a peace that produces a deep sigh of satisfaction as you reflect on how much you love your children and grandchildren, how much they, blessedly enough, love you, and so how good it is to be alive in this particular moment. That’s shalom. That’s the sense that all is well.
Shalom is the sense that things are as they ought to be. In this case, it’s the sense that things between you and the Almighty One of the cosmos are all right. And how do you get this peace, this sense that everything is in plumb and in proper alignment? You get it, verse 11 says, because Yahweh gives strength to his people. And after all that we’ve seen in this psalm, that little line ought to deliver quite a few gigawatts of juice to your soul!
Because in this psalm the strength of God is what we’ve seen laying waste to forests, boiling up oceans, cracking the air with sound, frying the atmosphere with heat hotter than even the sun itself. And this, this is what gets hard-wired into your soul! It’s a wonder we don’t disintegrate like a lightning-struck oak! It’s a wonder we’re not fried! But that was the fundamental mystery of Israel’s existence in the Old Testament: God dwelled in the midst of her and yet she was not consumed.
As has so often been noted in history, everybody tends to worship somebody or something. Psalm 29, like the rest of Scripture, suggests that we look to the grandeur of creation for our first, primary source of awe-inspiring experiences. But on a deeper, vastly more profound level, Psalm 29 calls us to bring those experiences into conversation with the Bible’s revelation that God loves us enough to want to save us by turning his strength loose in our souls. And it is that revelation that wrings from us the cry “Glory!”
I noted earlier that if I had to choose on of the 150 psalms to accompany the Baptism of Christ Sunday, Psalm 29 might not be anywhere near my top choice. Then again, maybe the Lectionary is onto something, and we can see it reflected in the swift and almost violent imagery accompanying Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1 (see the sermon starter for January 10, 2021, on Mark 1): namely, baptism is not some polite little ritual. It is a full-on engagement with evil through the awesome and mighty power of God.
Maybe Psalm 29 for all its fierceness has something to do with baptism after all!
Thunderstorms. incredible meteorological phenomena. Even as you read this sermon starter, there are likely upwards of 2,000 thunderstorms going on across the earth. On average, each day 45,000 such storms occur. They are among the most powerful forces we know. In the simplest sense, but also in perhaps the most boring sense, a thunderstorm is little more than an atmosphere stabilizer. Acting like a giant heat machine, a thunderstorm forms when there is a lot of cold air sitting on top of a lot of warm air. In order to re-balance the atmosphere, a thunderstorm pumps the warm air upward and the cold air downward until the atmosphere evens out. Once that happens, the thunderstorm has achieved its stabilizing purpose and it dies out. In that sense thunderstorms exist only to destroy themselves.
But along the way these storms can and do produce some of this planet’s most stunning marvels because that shifting around of cold and warm air can produce incredible winds. Here and there an outflow produces a microburst that can puff down toward the ground at 100 mph–we’ve all seen those grim pictures of what such wind shear can do to airplanes. In addition to wind, thunderstorms also produce rain and even ice. The storm’s strong currents can supercool water particles to well below freezing, and if enough of this ice builds up, it falls to the ground as hail–though usually no larger than pebbles, some strong storms have produced so much ice that it falls in chunks as large as a grapefruit.
But there’s more: the forces within thunderstorm clouds are so great that particles of energy smash into one another with enough wallop to exchange electrical charges. So some particles get stripped of electrons while others add electrons, thus producing both positively charged particles and negatively charged particles. Typically the positive particles zoom to the top of the cloud and the negative ones sink to the bottom, creating a high-voltage chasm that equalizes itself through a fiery flash of lightning. Lasting only 30 microseconds, a bolt of lightning peaks out at 1,000,000,000,000 watts (one trillion) with a surface temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade: that is three times hotter than the surface of the sun!
Author: Doug Bratt
The woman who told me with a puzzled look on her face, “I don’t think anyone here has the Holy Spirit,” had been part of a church community I pastored for about six months. Yet in that short time she’d concluded that members of our church didn’t have the Holy Spirit. So she sadly left our church community.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul too might have deduced, “I don’t think anyone here has the Holy Spirit.” He, after all, meets what Luke calls “disciples” in the church in Ephesus.
Yet while we might assume this means Paul met Jesus’ followers in Ephesus, something about those folks must have made him question that. So we might wonder of those believers weren’t, perhaps, saying, “Praise the Lord” or raising their hand when they sang enough?
We only know with any certainty that, as John Rottman notes, our text’s Paul gets out his stethoscope and blood pressure cuff and does a kind of spiritual check-up on Ephesus’ Christians. Like any good doctor, he has some questions for them.
But they don’t include, “How’s your physical health been?” Instead Paul asks, according to verse 2: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” “The Holy Spirit,” the Ephesian Christians answer the apostle, perhaps with voices confusion accents, “What’s that?”
Of course, what we call the Old Testament mentions a Holy Spirit. Since Acts 19’s Jews knew about John the Baptizer’s teaching, they probably also knew that he mentioned someone who would eventually baptize with the Holy Spirit. Yet these Ephesians didn’t seem to know that Spirit was now also available to them.
So like any good doctor, Paul asks his “patients” a follow-up question. “What baptism did you receive?” he asks them in verse 3. “John the Baptizer’s,” the Ephesian Christians answer. So it seems as if they had, at best, an incomplete understanding of both baptism and the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism was one, after all, of repentance (4). When people turned away from sin and toward God, he dunked them in the Jordan’s muddy waters as a sign that God had washed away their sins. So the Ephesian Christians whose visit by Paul this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson recounts had apparently responded to God’s prompting by repenting of their sins.
Yet Paul senses they lack the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. So he explains to them that the Jesus whom God raised from the dead was the Person about whom their mentor, John, had preached.
When John’s disciples in Ephesus hear about Jesus, they must want Paul to baptize them. And when the apostle lays his hands on and prays for them, probably as part of their baptism, the Holy Spirit fills them. The Ephesian Christians then speak in strange languages and speak messages from God.
It all sounds, candidly, a lot like what happened on the first Pentecost. The Holy Spirit and baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, after all, always somehow go together. Yet the link between baptism and the Spirit is a bit murky as well as controversial to at least some of Jesus’ modern followers. John’s baptism. Baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus. First baptism. Second baptism. Immersion. Sprinkling. Speaking in tongues. Prophesying.
So ever since the first Pentecost, as Dave Davis notes, “Where ever two or three are gathered, there will be disagreement about the Spirit or baptism or tongues or prophecy.” Yet Davis finds it important that our text also reports that Paul baptizes twelve people in the Lord Jesus’ name in Ephesus. That’s, after all, not just the number of Jesus’ disciples. It also symbolizes completeness in the Bible. We might say, then, those twelve are, in one sense, all of Jesus’ followers, including both those who proclaim and those who hear Acts 19.
So what if Paul were to somehow ask this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s modern proclaimers and hearers the same questions he asked the Ephesian Christians? What if he were to ask us if we received the Holy Spirit when were baptized? About what baptism we received?
Christians profess that the Holy Spirit is absolutely vital to everything we are and do. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess that God has given Jesus’ followers that Spirit to make us “share in Christ and all his blessings,” comfort us and stay with us “forever.”
In fact, at least Reformed Christians admit that we can’t even be honest about our sins or turn toward the living God unless the Holy Spirit works in us in the first place. Yet Christians’ repentance is also crucial to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in and through us. When, after all, we stubbornly refuse to forgive someone or cling to our anger, we make it hard for the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work through us.
So God’s dearly beloved people not only receive God’s grace with our initial faithful repentance. God’s adopted sons and daughters also respond to that grace by repeatedly repenting of our sins. That’s why many Christians spend time in corporate confession nearly every Sunday, repenting as a church community.
Yet what if Paul were to also ask us into whose name we were baptized? Hopefully our hearers would answer that we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But what if Paul were to press us, “Are you sure you have the Spirit?”
After all, the woman to whom I referred earlier mourned that members of my church community didn’t have it. What’s more, some Christians still speak in tongues and prophesy, just as those Ephesian Christians did in this morning’s text. Others laugh, cry, or fall down when the Spirit touches them.
So is there something wrong with those who don’t display any of those spectacular evidences of the Holy Spirit’s presence? Are we sure we have the Spirit? I, for instance, have enough trouble speaking in English, to say nothing of trying to speak in tongues.
That’s why it’s good to remember some of the other gifts the Holy Spirit also gives Christians in whom the Spirit lives. The Bible lists gifts of service, teaching, giving, mercy and leadership as evidence of the Spirit’s presence. It also mentions the Holy Spirit’s gifts of healing, miracles, pastoring, wisdom, intercession and more. So if this Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers have one or more of those gifts, we can know that God’s Spirit lives in you.
As we use those gifts the Spirit gives us, we often sense the power of that Spirit at work in us. Jesus’ followers have a growing sense that this is especially what God wants us to do. So Acts 19’s proclaimers might point out that if God has given our hearers, for instance, the gift of mercy, they may never feel as alive as when they bring someone a meal in Jesus’ name. If God has given them the gift of intercession, they may feel most alive when they’re praying for God’s world and its people.
Yet there’s also at least one more sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in us. God’s adopted children profess that the Spirit graciously works through the Lord’s Supper. We profess that the Spirit works through its elements to assure us that we belong to Jesus Christ. Christians profess that the Holy Spirit somehow uses this bread and juice to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ.
So neither Acts 19’s proclaimers nor hearers may speak in tongues. But if when Jesus’ adopted siblings take the Lord’s Supper bread we feel even a flicker of the comfort of God’s forgiveness, we can know the Spirit is working in you. We may not feel like rhythmically clapping our hands when we sing. Yet if when God’s dearly beloved people sip communion’s juice we sense that Christ’s blood flowed for you, we can be sure God has given you the Holy Spirit.
And just think … it all somehow started, in God’s sovereign purposes, when God sent us the Holy Spirit when we were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus!
While some of the more spectacular “manifestations of the Spirit” remain controversial, they’ve proven to be quite durable. In a March 7, 2014 article in Christianity Today (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/enduring-revival.html) entitled, “The Enduring Revival,” Lorna Dueck writes about returning to the church where the “Toronto Blessing” originated.
She notes that early in 1994, a small church in a strip mall near Toronto Pearson International Airport had thousands of people waiting at its doors night after night—50,000 unique visitors, as we’d say today, in the first six months of the year, enough to make it “‘Toronto’s top tourist attraction of 1994, according to Toronto Life magazine.’
“Laughing, falling over, shaking, roaring like a lion, and being ‘drunk in the Holy Spirit’—the Toronto Blessing was a charismatic revival featuring manifestations of spiritual power more commonly associated with the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thousands registered first-time conversions to Christianity at the services. Every evening people lined up to stand or fall under shouts of ‘More, Lord!’ while hands were laid on them in prayer.
Dueck reports that the atmosphere felt just the same to her as it had 20 years ago as she made her way through a crowd that had turned up two hours early to celebrate the revival’s anniversary on January 20, 2014. The services were held at Catch the Fire, formerly known as the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, which was the Toronto Airport Vineyard at the revival’s inception. The church has grown from its storefront beginnings to a 3,200-seat auditorium, 8 satellite campuses, 23 church plants, and a global “Catch the Fire” church network.