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The Spirit of Life in Us

Sermon 1864 John 7.37-39 May 28, 2023

Everybody knows about reenactments. History buffs in America reenact Civil War battles. In 1998 almost 20,000 gathered at Gettysburg. So popular was the reenactment trend, my neck of the woods, La Crosse Wisconsin, had a weekend of reenactments of the French fur trapper days. People wore bear and deer skins, sold handmade trinkets, cooked stews in pots over open fires and secretly ate delivered pizza in their tents. Needless to say, some of the reenactments are more authentic than others.

God not only wanted his Old Testament people to reenact their history, he wanted, through these reenactments, to keep that history alive, part of their daily thinking. Their religious holidays were reenactments of God’s saving actions in their history. The Feast of Tabernacles was one of them, the one Jesus used to prophesy the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit of Life in Us

1. For us (37).

2. For others (38-39).

“On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink (37).’”

The Feast of Tabernacles was the week long reenactment of the Children of Israel’s time in the Wilderness. For forty years Moses had led them in the deserts between Egypt and the Promised Land. The Lord had miraculously taken care of them, giving them manna in the morning and quail at night. Early in their wanderings they had no water. God told Moses to strike a rock and the Lord brought water out of that rock, water enough for over two and a half million people for days. Cute story. We are going to teach it in this year’s Vacation Bible School. But it is more than a cute story. The Apostle Paul makes mention of it. “They drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10.4).” It was Jesus taking care of his people in the wilderness. It was Jesus who was giving his people water to drink in the desert. In the same way, Paul says, it is Jesus who is giving you your spiritual life. Don’t grumble and reject God’s undeserved gifts of forgiveness of sins. Don’t imitate the wicked behavior of the Children of Israel who turned against God and littered the desert with their bones.

Jesus is making the plea again, on the last and greatest day of the Feast, the day, some Jewish scholars tell us, when the priests would fabricate a temporary waterfall over the wall of the Temple courtyard to reenact the miracle of water from the Rock. Jesus stands there and says he gives us spiritual water, spiritual life.

The Spirit of life in us is for us.

Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, whom he will send from the Father. We confess that we believe in the “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” The Holy Spirit gives life. In our Old Testament reading for next Sunday we are going to hear that “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” of Creation. It is almost like the Holy Spirit gives life, animates lifeless molecules. “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth (Psalm 104.30).” The Holy Spirt gives us and all things physical life.

But the Holy Spirit gives even more. The life Jesus is talking about at the Feast is the eternal life, the spiritual life, the Holy Spirit gives. By nature we are dead to God. We don’t think about him, we don’t care about him. In fact, there is an animosity towards God. We see that at work in unbelievers. Christianity is the source of all the evil in the world. Any religious symbol publicly displayed is welcomed as long as it doesn’t have Christian overtones. It even shows in Christians when they promise to attend worship if they don’t have anything else going on.

The people murmured and grumbled about God before the rock of Rephidim. That didn’t stop Jesus. As soon as Moses struck the rock, water gushed forth in the desert. Our grumbling and complaining, our half-hearted efforts for God, that doesn’t stop Jesus. A flow of blood from his pierced side washed away the sins of the entire world. His sending forth the Holy Spirit into our hearts makes that forgiveness ours.

The story of Pentecost, the sending of God’s Holy Spirit upon his people, is very much the story of you and me. It is not a reenactment of a long gone, nearly irrelevant event. Every time the word of Jesus comes to us, the Gospel in word or sacrament, Jesus gives his Holy Spirit. In the first place, it is for us. We don’t come to church to confess our neighbor’s sins. We don’t send the kids to Sunday School or Green Valley Lutheran School, but never attend worship ourselves. It is for us. We don’t claim to believe in Jesus, but then treat brothers and sisters in the faith with near contempt and a desire to be as far away from them as possible. Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to change us. Jesus sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts to save us, to make us believe, to quench our thirst for forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Drink of this water and you will never go looking for something else.

The Spirit of life in us. It is for us. It is for others.

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (38-39).”

John is talking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. On that day the Holy Spirit clearly showed who the believers were and what the true message from God was. On the one hand, you had the religious leaders of Jerusalem claiming to be the true source of spiritual instruction. “By your deeds you will earn heaven.” On the other hand, you had the ragtag handful of Jesus’ disciples claiming to preach the Way to heaven. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Since the New Testament had not been written, how would you know which group was telling the truth? God the Father would pour out the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the men Jesus had selected to be the eyewitnesses to his life, death and resurrection. And for the world to know these were the men accredited by God and this was the message sent from God, the Holy Spirit would come upon these men in a miraculous manner on the day of Pentecost. There would be the sound of a great wind. Tongues of flame would rest on each of them. They would declare the wonders of God in foreign languages they had not learned! Everybody could see it. And wherever the Christian and Apostolic Church, that is, the Christian Church which received and obeyed the apostolic message, wherever the Christian and Apostolic Church was in those early years, there the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred. Everybody could see it. When Peter was able to fill in the blanks of the Roman centurion’s faith, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and all his household. When the people of Samaria believed in what they had heard about Jesus, Peter and John visited to confirm their faith and instruction. The Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans. So it went, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, in all the churches of God, until the New Testament was completed. Then you didn’t need that miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit to verify what you were saying was true. People could simply compare what you were saying to what was written in the New Testament to determine whether they were getting the straight scoop.

But the whole thrust of this miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit was for others. Jesus’ words indicate this. “Streams of living water will flow from within him.” From us to others.

That has always been the message of Pentecost. “Look at Jesus!” “Believe in Jesus!” Christianity is not self-serving. “Hey! Look at us!” Christianity is serving others. “How can we get more and more people to believe in our Savior?”

I don’t think we appreciate how different this is from other religions. If you really want to be a Muslim, you have to learn Arabic. It is the language of the Koran. There are no translations of it, only interpretations in other languages of it, but they don’t count. If you are Jewish today, you have to learn how to read the Hebrew. That’s a big part of their Bar- (and Bath-) Mitzvahs. Hinduism is literally Indianism, for the Hindi race. There were no Confucian missionaries. The American Indians did not send their shamans to convert the colonists, nor did they spend a lot of energy translating their religious myths into the Queen’s English. Looking for examples of true outreach in other world religions is as productive as trying to find the Italian section in a Mexican grocery.

Now look at the day of Pentecost. Right away it wasn’t the language which was important, like God only spoke through the Hebrew or the Greek or Aramaic language. The message was important. And the apostles spoke the message in the languages of the Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; Rome; Cretans and Arabs. They did not have to become like the apostles. The apostles became like them. The apostles spoke in their languages. The apostles didn’t expect them to understand the Aramaic or Greek the apostles spoke.

And when the New Testament was written, the Holy Spirit chose to have it written in the language that ruled the ancient world, as least as far as London to India—Greek! But before you could say, “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at understanding Greek,” it was translated into Syriac and Coptic, Latin and everything in between. We even have copies of some of these ancient translations. And the people who used those translations were not second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. They were not treated like hillbilly cousins. Jew and Gentile, brought together into one church, one faith, by the Holy Spirit.

Now, why do some of you say, “Green Valley Evangelical Lutheran Church is my church” without quickly adding, “and it can be your church, too!”? Why do we share the deal we got on our car more readily than we share news about our Savior? Is it possible that everyone we know is already a Christian and a member of Green Valley Evangelical Lutheran Church or of another Christian congregation in town? Is it possible that every member of our family consistently comes to worship services three or four times a month? In heaven, there will be no evangelism efforts. All the saved will be saved. But unless we mistake this sorry world for heaven, evangelism is the one thing we’ve got available to make this tottering country, this sin-saturated world great again. If what comes out of a person makes them unclean (and Jesus says it does—out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander), then clean the heart of that person and you will have a good tree producing good fruit. But that can only happen when Holy Spirit works through the Gospel. There is no betterment of our spiritual condition through character (who we are), through lineage (who our parents are) or through works (what we do). The only way spiritually dead and impenitent sinners can become children of God and powerhouses for good in our world is to become believers. That’s the way it worked for us, whether we live in Nevada, Nicaragua, Nigeria, the Netherlands or Nepal.

And that’s why it is so important that we pull together and put our shoulders to the task of this congregation. The task isn’t to pay off the mortgage. The task isn’t to meet payroll. It isn’t to salve our consciences over the terrible way we treat each other or the way we treat those outside our congregation. The task is to spread that message of God’s salvation to everyone we can. To our neighbors, yes, especially in a time as ours when so many people are not going to church, we can safely assume anyone we are witnessing to hasn’t been in church for the past year. To those in the new neighborhoods, yes. If the freeways are packed because of all the new residents driving this way to get to work, won’t they be able to find the same route to get to our church on Sunday morning?

The Spirit of Life in Us

1. For us (37).

2. For others (38-39).

You know, we kind of have a religious calendar very similar to the one God’s Old Testament people had. Oh, the names and dates are different, but the purpose is the same. We celebrate the events of God’s saving history and, in the celebration of them, they become an active and authentic force in our daily lives.

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