STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 18, 2013
Genesis 41: 14 – 41; Acts 19: 11 – 20; Luke 4: 31 – 37
When I was a student at York University I would frequently walk through the pedestrian tunnel to get to class. As I was walking through one day another young woman grabbed my arm and exclaimed with great excitement, “Hey, aren’t you Sabrina Macdonald? I’d recognize you anywhere. Don’t you remember me? I’m Leslie D—n.” I drew a complete blank. She continued, “We were in Grade 2 together. You haven’t changed a bit.” I don’t know what was more embarrassing – the fact that I didn’t recognize her or the realization that I still looked like a 7 year old. Recognizing people is sometimes more significant. This past June a man was watching TV when he saw a video surveillance photo of a woman. The police were asking for information as she was a suspect in a bank robbery. The man recognized his mother and when she came home he called the police to come and get her. In 2010 a 20 year old man noticed a missing child poster of a toddler who in 1993 was believed to have been abducted by his father. The man recognized the child as himself. He went home and convinced his father to turn himself in.
As we continue to look at the work of the Holy Spirit in scripture we come across the three scriptures we read today. In each of them the Holy Spirit is recognized. In the story from Genesis, Joseph, a young Israelite, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers and then arrested on false allegations of rape, lingered in an Egyptian prison. At the same time, the Egyptian king or Pharaoh had his own problems. He’d had two dreams. In the first, 7 fat cows appeared followed by 7 skinny cows that then ate the fat cows. In the second, 7 plump ears of corn appeared followed by 7 scorched ears of corn which somehow subsumed the plump ears. He knew his dreams were significant. He was haunted by them. So he called for his magicians, the pagan priests of Egypt, to interpret the dreams but they all came up dry. Pharaoh was disappointed and frustrated; he was unable to get the images out of his head. One day his cup bearer told him about this young man he’d met while in prison who had interpreted his own dream and that of the king’s ex-baker with great accuracy. Pharaoh called for Joseph and asked him about his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph replied, “It is not in me; God [Yahweh] will give Pharaoh a favourable answer.” (Genesis 41: 16). Pharaoh relayed his tormenting dreams and Joseph shared his insight from God: There would be a great harvest for 7 years, followed by a 7 year famine. Joseph then suggested that Pharaoh appoint a wise leader to plan and provide for the years of famine. While deciding on this leader, Pharaoh asked his aides, “Can we find a man like this [Joseph] in Egypt, in whom is a divine spirit?” (vs. 38) To Joseph he said, “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you.” (vs. 39)
In Acts, Paul had been blessed with a great ministry of extraordinary miracles of healing and deliverance. Some locals decided they’d also use Jesus’ name to exorcise demons. On one occasion the demons made this claim, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19: 15) The possessed man then overwhelmed the would-be exorcists and they fled from the house. This led to a huge movement of the Spirit in which many local magicians and miracle workers confessed their practises and burned their books. We are told “the Word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (vs. 20).
In Luke, Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath teaching and debating with the Elders. Suddenly a man cried out, “Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (vs. 34) Jesus recognized the man was demonically possessed and ordered the demon to leave him which it did. The crowd in the synagogue was amazed at Jesus’ authority and word got around the local community concerning his power.
Two things here are unexpected. Many people in the ancient world were seen as having special powers. In Egypt these people were advisors of the King. In Israel at the time of Jesus and Paul, they were people who performed sensational public acts. What was the difference between these magicians and those who were recognized as having power and authority from the Spirit of the God of Israel or his Son, Jesus Christ? Other miracle workers relied on their own “gods” or evil powers or on human knowledge of spells, magic tricks, analytical decoding, potions and learned formulas. In every case, the ability of these miracle workers proved to be inadequate. By contrast Joseph, Jesus and Paul had a personal relationship with God which gave them authority. Joseph knew and trusted God throughout his life – he knew he was nothing without God. Jesus was “one with the Father” so his power came directly from his own Spirit. The disciples acted in “the name of Jesus”, just as we do when we pray. Now the name Jesus was pretty common back in the day and invoking it was not a magical formula. To speak the name of Jesus is to call on the essence or Spirit of Jesus and to do that successfully one must be in relationship with Jesus. Those who are in relationship with Jesus are filled with the Holy Spirit who lives within all who believe in Christ. When those who had no connection to Jesus tried, they failed miserably. When Jesus followers called on his name the power of the Spirit triumphed.
The second unexpected thing is that in all cases the Holy Spirit is recognized by those outside of God’s covenant: Pharaoh, the most powerful man of his day worshipped a pantheon of false gods; in the other two cases evil spirits and people recognized Christ’s Spirit. Christian people can get the impression we have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit; that somehow God has revealed himself only to us and we are the only ones able to recognize the Spirit. These stories tell of a different reality, a reality which knocks us off our high horse and creates humility and respect for others. Each person we meet, by God’s grace, has the potential to recognize God’s Spirit. Without that recognition people would never be drawn to Christ or convicted of their need for redemption. For that reason God grants them the ability to recognize the Holy Spirit in other people. This means we have the potential to be signs of God’s Spirit in our world.
As the 7 sons of Sceva discovered the Holy Spirit cannot be faked. We cannot fool people by intoning the name of Christ. When we look at Joseph, Jesus and Paul, we see something authentic. Joseph knew that interpreting dreams for personal glory would end in nothing. Paul didn’t heal so that demons would recognize him. Jesus wasn’t power hungry. All of these people had a single desire. That was to serve God by bringing healing and wholeness to others. People can see through our actions to our motivations. There is a story about a teacher whose 4 students ride bicycles. He asks them why they ride bicycles. The one says “for transportation”. The next says “for exercise”. The third says “because I like to feel the wind in my face”. The last one says, “I ride my bike to ride my bike.” In a similar way we serve God to serve God and the Holy Spirit is recognized in those who show compassion for the sole purpose of showing compassion. The fruit or manifestation of such serving and caring is that God is glorified and people come to desire and believe in Jesus.
As a congregation, the Spirit can be recognized in the warmth and love we have for one another. Nearly every story I hear people tell about why St. Stephen’s is important to them has to do with the warm, loving support that is shared here. I’ve had guests say they feel the Spirit when they come into the building, which is a very high compliment. The Spirit is even more recognizable for guests or those on the edge of a congregation when they experience the same warmth and love directed towards them. Congregations have ways of keeping people at arms length. We don’t bother learning names; we don’t engage people or meet with them outside the church building; we don’t invite them to participate – we make the decision for them. Many people visit St. Stephen’s through worship, programs and Pasta Supper. Since October of 2009 we’ve had over 147 visitors come through our doors for worship alone. How have we revealed the Spirit to them? Was Christ’s Spirit recognizable by the ways we’ve reached out and included them?
As individuals we can also be signs of the Spirit. Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone and knowing immediately they were Christian? The Holy Spirit seemed to glow from within them. We don’t have to perform miracles or glow in order for others to recognize there’s something different about us. The Spirit is seen (or not) through our actions, our words, our demeanour and our character. The Spirit can be seen in how we react to situations and people. The other day I was in Canadian Tire and skipped a line to ask the clerk to page someone; a woman in the line took great offence to that and let me know. I weighed out my possible reactions and decided to apologize. Later I went back to the clerk who I’m sure got an earful and apologized again; she seemed appreciative and said she pauses in her work to page clerks all the time. It felt better for both of us and I hope that she’d saw a glimpse of Christ in me. We’re not perfect but by the Spirit we can live so when others discover we’re Christians they’ll see congruency in us rather than hypocrisy. How will the Spirit of Christ be seen in you in this coming week?
I hope that we will have an ever deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, so that when people encounter us, their reaction will be to say, “Can we find another man like this – a woman like this – a congregation like this, in whom God’s Spirit is this easy to recognize?”