Sermon: “Life Goes On”
Text: John 14:8-27
Note: My commentary on this text can be found here.
We’ve all heard the old adage that “the only thing constant in life is change.” It’s a simple fact of life that in everything we do, we will see changes occur. Usually these changes are minor, and we adapt to them quickly without too much trouble. However, sometimes drastic unwanted changes occur, and we find ourselves grasping for any sense of normalcy as our world gets turned upside-down. This can have devastating consequences if we don’t learn to adapt to our surroundings, especially when the changes occur in what is probably the one place that we always expect will stay the same: church!
The truth is, however, that churches are not immune to changes. Pastors come and go. New members join and old members leave. Decisions must be made, some of which alter the landscape of our life together. What can we say? We change. Church changes. It’s just how it is.
But as it turns out, there are a lot of things we can say about change in the church. We can remind ourselves of scripture readings that speak of change, passages like Psalm 46, which reads:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
We can also pray together, asking God’s blessing upon us in the midst of our changing circumstances, even daring to use the prayer of Jesus himself, who prayed, “thy will be done.”
But what we usually do is just ask questions. Sometimes change in the church reminds me of the last New Year’s Eve of the previous millennium. Back then, there were a lot of questions as to whether or not we would survive the calendar change from 1999 to 2000. The anxiety about the coming of the New Millennium was so memorable and vivid that it defined our culture in the weeks leading up to that date. Maybe it’s not surprising then, that sometimes when faced with drastic change we find ourselves wondering, Will the computers around here still work? Will the Sunday School classes continue? Will the bulletins still turn out OK? Will people still get visited in the hospital? Will people still show up for worship on Sunday?
Of course, these are all just silly questions, even though they do express the anxiety that all of us might be feeling. Of course, the computers will still work. The church won’t fall down around our ears, and we will all continue to worship here on Sunday mornings. Life will go on no matter what: The bulletins will be done, the visits will be made, and our Sunday School classes will keep right on going. Life will be different here when things change, that’s for sure. However, that doesn’t mean that life won’t be good.
Anytime we face deep change in the church we can more easily imagine what the disciples went through when Jesus finally left them. Now this is not meant to in any way to trivialize Jesus’ departure from the disciples, but instead to underscore the point that we may be able to better relate to the disciples and their anxiety at that moment. After all, if we are so anxious and uncertain about the changes we face, just imagine how the disciples felt when they realized they would never again see their Master and Lord! Talk about anxiety and fear! The disciples at that time had to make the decision to keep going forward, a decision to continue the work that Jesus had started, or else the Christian life would come to a sputtering halt like a car running out of gas.
Jesus had foreseen this, and tried to prepare them. In our scripture reading this morning from the gospel of John, Jesus tells them, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” It is a measure of great comfort that Jesus describes the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is with the disciples even after Jesus departs.
Unfortunately, in many protestant churches the Holy Spirit is treated like the ‘odd man out’ of the Trinity. We speak a lot about God, and a lot about Jesus, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t get quite as much air play. While preparing for this morning’s service I ran across a humorous fake news article. The headline reads, Holy Spirit Gets Laid Off. It reads,
“Calling the Holy Trinity “overstaffed and over budget,” God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. “Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision,” God said. “The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services this year. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo.””
Whether you find such an article humorous or sacrilegious, there is a grain of truth in it. We don’t really talk about the Holy Spirit as much as the other ways that we encounter God – in Jesus Christ and in God the Father. Oftentimes, even when we read scripture, it’s easy for us to miss the Holy Spirit. A question I like to ask people sometimes is, “Where does the Holy Spirit first appear in scripture?” Answers to this question range from the Baptism of Jesus, to Jesus’ ascension, to Pentecost. The correct answer is that if you begin with Genesis 1:1 and began reading, it would only take you twenty-nine words to find the Holy Spirit. Genesis 1:2 reads, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” Even before God has said anything or created anything, God’s Holy Spirit is there, involved in the very creation of all that is. If you want to know what the Holy Spirit’s introduction in scripture has to do with us today, you have to start with the phrase, formless and void.
Now I have to tell you, I don’t like that phrase. That phrase is one instance in which the English translation doesn’t preserve the poetic quality of the original Hebrew language. The phrase formless and void is a rough translation of the Hebrew phrase, tohu’webohu. Tohu’webohu is so wonderfully poetic because the phrase itself seems to be formless and void, little more than a jumble of letters that takes some linguistic gymnastics to pronounce. Tohu’webohu. To an ancient Israelite, teho’webohu meant complete chaos. It is the complete absence of any kind of order. You and I might think of tohu’webohu as ‘topsy-turvy’. When you have one of those days that everything goes wrong that possibly can, you are in deep tohu’webohu. There are instances of chaos that we all experience, when it seems like the rug has been pulled out from under us. It seems like we’ve lost all our bearings and things around us aren’t as recognizable as they used to be, and all around us is formless and void. We might describe these times as change or transition. The ancient Hebrews called them tohu’webohu.
There are instances of tohu’webohu throughout scripture. When the great flood overwhelms the earth for forty days and forty nights, the earth is in tohu’webohu. When Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is experiencing tohu’webohu. And yes, when Jesus finally departs and leaves his disciples to carry on the work that he began with them, they find themselves in deep tohu’webohu. Likewise, we have plenty of tohu’webohu in our own lives. It’s bad news that none of us have to look too far to find tohu’webohu. The good news is that God’s Holy Spirit specializes in dealing with it.
The Holy Spirit that brought life out of a formless void is the same Holy Spirit that Jesus speaks about to his disciples. The Holy Spirit is with you, he says, and it will continue to create life out of your moments of tohu’webohu. The Holy Spirit isn’t just some abstract force floating around in the cosmos like fairy dust. It is God’s Holy Spirit, that abides in us and with us. It is the Spirit of truth, the advocate, the comforter, the bringer of peace, and the everlasting power of God.
It has been written that power can be used in at least two ways: it can be unleashed, or it can be harnessed. You can unleash the explosive energy in ten gallons of gasoline by throwing a lighted match on it. You can also channel it through the engine of a car in a controlled burn and transport a person 350 miles. Explosions are spectacular, but controlled burns have lasting effect. The Holy Spirit works both ways. At Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit exploded on the scene like “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). Thousands were affected by one burst of God’s power. But the Holy Spirit also works through the church—where God means for us to stay in it for the long haul. Through worship, fellowship, and service, Christians are provided with a persistent driving force. Life goes on.
Jesus reminds the disciples about the persistent power of the Holy Spirit just before his arrest and crucifixion. He knows that they will be tested by his absence. He knows that a number of things are about to change for them. He knows how easy it is to be overcome by anxiety and fear, and how hard it is to realize that life goes on. We are no different. It’s very easy to let the anxiety and fear of change overwhelm us. We need to be reminded from time to time that God is here with us, no matter what circumstances arise.
There is an interesting map on display in the British Museum in London. It’s an old mariner’s chart, drawn in 1525, outlining the North American coastline and adjacent waters. The cartographer made some intriguing notations on areas of the map that represented regions not yet explored. He wrote: “Here be giants,” “Here be fiery scorpions,” and “Here be dragons.” Eventually, the map came into the possession of Sir John Franklin, a British explorer in the early 1800s. Scratching out the fearful inscriptions, he wrote these words across the map: “Here is God.”
We could easily take a copy of any church history book, with its thorough account of the church’s history, and looking back through the years write things in the page margins like, “Here be dragons”. We actually could write “Here be persecution”, “Here be the depression”, “Here be war”, “Here be transition and change”, “Here be goodbyes”, “Here be sadness”, “Here be sickness”, and “Here be death”.
We could go through and make notes about all the dangers and difficult times that we have faced over the years, but not without also writing on the cover, ‘Here is God.”
As we look ahead, we place the future of the church in the hands of God, who does not change. At the same time, we realize that we, as His Church, are His instruments in our community; and pray that God will continue to guide and bless our ministry together.
Change. Growth. Change. It isn’t always easy. I remember the sentiments of a longtime Elder at who lived to the ripe old age of 96. Just before his 95th birthday, a local newspaper reporter interviewed him about all of the changes he had seen during his life. While being asked about his church life, the reporter said to him, “I bet you’ve seen a lot of changes here.” He replied, “Yes I have, and I’ve voted against every one.”
I’m sure we all have encountered changes that we would have voted against if we could. The changes that we face may not be what we desire. But even when it feels like the world has gone topsy-turvy and we are knee-deep in tohu’webohu, we reaffirm what scripture teaches us: The power of God’s Holy Spirit is here. Life goes on.
Thanks be to God.
* * * * *
This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz