The Unexpected Work of the Holy Spirit

Sunday the 4th of June 2017


Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the day of Pentecost, the time when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples and what is commonly thought of as the beginning of the Christian church.

The account of this which is found in today’s reading from Acts chapter 2 is full of mystery and happens unexpectedly.

The context of this account tells us that there is a bigger picture at work here. When the Holy Spirit comes we see the completion of what John the Baptist began. Acts 1:5 says: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” In one way the disciples were waiting as Jesus had told them to, but they did not foresee or expect what happened on this Pentecost day. When the Holy Spirit acted that day things happened; this is why it is considered to be the beginning of the church, but the more I think about it, I believe it was more than just this. I see that the Holy Spirit was empowering the believers to bear witness, just as Jesus had told they would.

After today’s reading, as a result of Peter’s sermon, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we see the conversion of nearly three thousand people who come to put their faith in Jesus.

The coming of the Holy Spirit was a major time in history and the consequences are still being felt today.

But I would like to take a closer look at what did happen that day, and to explore what this means for us.

It begins with the disciples, what is thought to be about one hundred and twenty, meeting together as Jesus had told them when suddenly the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples with something like flames above their heads, but also with the sound of a violent wind. I wonder if we miss the sense of drama that occurred at that time. It was sudden, taking them by surprise. The Holy Spirit did not come nice and gently upon them, but suddenly and violently. And he came enabling them to speak other native languages so that God’s glory may be shown, which, if you think about it, is very strange.

The people around them who witnessed this were amazed. To be amazed here is not something that is positive. This is not a joyous amazement. These people had gathered because they also heard the violent wind. There is a sense that these people are reacting in confusion and shock. It says “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.”

There is something about the Holy Spirit who acts mysteriously and in a way that is unexpected that can cause us to be hesitant. The way the Holy Spirit came upon these early disciples and the way he guided them throughout the book of Acts, may lead us to have a picture of how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians. There is something dramatic, something spectacular, something that is even unsettling about how he acted in this account.

Notice how the Spirit came upon the disciples. There was nothing that the disciples were necessarily doing to make him come. He just came. In this I think we need to be reminded here that the “mighty works” that the Holy Spirit works in us are God’s, not ours. The Holy Spirit works in ways he chooses, not in the ways we want him to.

When we hear a reading like this I wonder whether we can get easily distracted by the wrong question. In our world we like to know and understand everything, we like to be able to logically put things in boxes, and maybe we try to do this with the Holy Spirit also. Maybe we look too much to how the Spirit works, focusing on and looking for the specific details, rather than resting assured of the fact that he is at work in our lives. He works in our lives in many ways that we do not recognize or see, but he is at work.

As I was thinking about this I began to think about whether a part of our hesitancy and sometimes our inability to recognize him at work comes from our longing for him to work in ways that make us feel good. The Holy Spirit prompted Peter’s first sermon in which he spoke from the prophet Joel; a passage that has to do with judgment and the end times. The day of the Lord refers to Jesus’ second coming. In the reading that follows today’s it shows us how the Holy Spirit convicted people from this sermon and brought them to faith in Jesus.

This is not the way we imagine the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. I suspect that we tend only to look for the Spirit’s work in our lives when it is comfortable and convenient; perhaps when he affirms to us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. Because the Holy Spirit does work in ways that are often spectacular, we look for those times and fail to see him working in the difficult and confronting times in our lives.

As Lutherans we do not put too much focus on the Holy Spirit in our speaking about God, which can be a very good thing at times. But I believe we need to be challenged in this — to ask the question, ‘Why don’t we?’ I suspect that the answer to this question lies in what we believe about the Holy Spirit, and whether what we believe has more power than our trust that he is at work in us.

When we look to the Holy Spirit to always be doing great things in us, we may despair when our lives are just normal. It can cause us to doubt that he is even at work in us at times. Perhaps we think that the Holy Spirit has better things to do than to show up in our lives, because we are too sinful.

But this is where we need to remember from our reading that, yes, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, and that through him our Triune God has come to us, his children, baptised into his name, the people whom he made for himself at the beginning of creation. You and I who have faith in Jesus Christ have this because the Spirit has called us, he has gathered us, he is making us holy through his working in us, and he is keeping us. This is something that you and I can rejoice in and have confidence in.

One thing that stands out from the book of Acts and the history of the early Church was that they gave witness to the work of the Holy Spirit regardless of whether or not people recognised, agreed with, or accepted him at work. From the very beginning as the Holy Spirit came upon his disciples and declared the work of God to those people, right up to this very day, the Holy Spirit is still at work. No one is out of the range of the Holy Spirit. He targets every human heart. As we go about our ordinary Christian lives telling others about Jesus, we receive what appear to be so many closed doors. Often it appears that our testimony of the truth of Jesus is rejected by others around us. But the Holy Spirit keeps about his work and will continue to do so until the very last day.

On this Pentecost Sunday I want to encourage you that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in your life working faith in you; also, that he does not give up on those who have wandered away or those who don’t know God. Just as from the very beginning the Holy Spirit works and acts in ways that are not predictable to us, we cannot dictate to him how he should be working, but we are to trust that he is; to trust that he is bringing people to faith and salvation, not only in our lives, but in the lives of others.