The Advent of the Spirit upon a Dispirited Church

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.’” John 1:32.

Though the outpouring of God’s Spirit is always an extraordinary event, this is not the first instance of it in the Bible. The Spirit of the Lord fell mightily upon the judges of Israel giving them strength to perform superhuman feats in their battles for Israel’s liberation. e.g., Samuel at Judges 15:14-15. God’s Spirit fell upon Saul shortly after he was anointed king of Israel. I Samuel 10:6-10. In our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet declares, “The Spirit of God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Isaiah 61:1. Of course, there is the marvelous story in the second chapter of Acts about God’s outpouring of the Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost. Acts 2:1-21. So, too, the Spirit of God descended from heaven upon Jesus, says John. But John goes on to say one thing more. “[The Spirit] remained on him.”

The Greek verb translated here as “remained” is “meno.” This verb can be translated as “live,” “dwell” or “lodge.” One who “remains” in this sense is one who does not leave the realm of the sphere in which one finds oneself. “meno.” can also mean to “continue” or “persist.” Indeed, it is used in all these senses throughout John’s gospel. The first disciples Jesus called followed him home and “stayed” with him. John 1:38-39. The Samaritans brought to Jesus by the woman he met at the well invite Jesus to “stay” with them and Jesus does just that-for two days. John 4:39-40. The bread of heaven Jesus promises to all who believe in him “endures” for eternal life. Jesus “remains” in Galilee rather than going up to Jerusalem with his brothers for the Feast of Tabernacles. John 7:1-9. Jesus tells his audience that those who “’continue’ in my word…will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32. Rather than going immediately to the bed side of Lazarus upon hearing that he was ill, Jesus “stayed” two days longer in the place where he was. John 11:1-6. Jesus tells his people that whoever believes in him does not “remain” in darkness. John 12:46. During his last hours together with his disciples, Jesus tells them that God the Father “dwells” in him (John 14:10) and that the Spirit “dwells” within them. John 14:17. Jesus admonishes his disciples to “abide” in him just as a branch clings to the vine (John 15:4) and to “abide” in his love. John 15:9. All of these verses employ that same word, “meno,” variously translated in the English text.

The import is clear. God’s Spirit remains on, continues with, abides in, dwells with and persists with Jesus. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples remain, continue, abide, dwell and persist with Jesus, just as Jesus remains, continues, abides, dwells and persists in the Father. In the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus prays that his disciples may be one even as he and the Father are one so that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:26. The love which is the glue binding the unity of the Trinity is to be reflected in the community of faith grounded in Jesus. This is the testimony of John the Baptizer.

John’s good news comes to us during a time when most of us find it hard to keep our congregations, families and communities glued together. Pandemic has robbed us of so much that once mediated the Spirit’s binding power: the gathered community; the Sacraments; singing together; greeting one another with the peace of God; simple gestures like hand shakes, hugs and back slaps. Yes, I am thankful for the technology allowing us to be together virtually. We are better off with it than we would be without. Still, for me, it serves as much to remind me of our separation as it does to connect us.

Despite all this, John’s testimony is good news. It is good because it reminds us that our unity, like all of God’s good gifts, is a gift of grace. Once given, the Spirit cannot be taken away from us. She remains, continues, abides, dwells and persists with the church. Though physically distanced from one another, we are neither distanced from Jesus nor abandoned by the Holy Spirit. John’s testimony assures us that the Spirit travels through the prayers arising our homes, telephone calls, cards, letters, texts, emails, U tube worship services, Zoom meetings and whatever other channels she might make use of in this time of our physical separation. The Spirit is nothing if not innovative.

I am hopeful that the church will come out of this time of pandemic with an enriched sense of the ways in which the Spirit works among us. It is my prayer that we will begin to recognize how deeply we need and depend on one another. I hope that the time we spend apart will strengthen our prayer life, remind us of our frailty and deepen our compassion for our neighbors. I hope that we will emerge from this dreadful epidemic with a deeper appreciation for the people whose faithful work maintains the network of health care, food distribution, sanitation and safety that we are so prone to take for granted and undervalue in times of relative peace and prosperity. I hope that the events of the past year have opened our eyes to the vast disparity in resources between those of us who identify as white and people of color. More so, that having had our eyes open, we will be driven by God’s Spirit to pursue justice. Though much ecclesiastical activity seems to have ground to a halt, rest assured that the Spirit remains at work in Christ’s church.

Here is a poem by Emma Lazarus reflecting on the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest in the United States. It was built in 1763. At the time Lazarus wrote her poem, the building was abandoned. It has since become the home of a worshiping Jewish congregation once again. Lazarus reflects on the lively faith that sustained so many generations to which the synagogue testifies in much the same way as John the Baptizer testifies to the Spirit he witnessed remaining upon Jesus.

In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport

Here, where the noises of the busy town,
The ocean’s plunge and roar can enter not,
We stand and gaze around with tearful awe,
And muse upon the consecrated spot.

No signs of life are here: the very prayers
Inscribed around are in a language dead;
The light of the “perpetual lamp” is spent
That an undying radiance was to shed.

What prayers were in this temple offered up,
Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!

How as we gaze, in this new world of light,
Upon this relic of the days of old,
The present vanishes, and tropic bloom
And Eastern towns and temples we behold.

Again we see the patriarch with his flocks,
The purple seas, the hot blue sky o’erhead,
The slaves of Egypt,—omens, mysteries,—
Dark fleeing hosts by flaming angels led.

A wondrous light upon a sky-kissed mount,
A man who reads Jehovah’s written law,
‘Midst blinding glory and effulgence rare,
Unto a people prone with reverent awe.

The pride of luxury’s barbaric pomp,
In the rich court of royal Solomon—
Alas! we wake: one scene alone remains,—
The exiles by the streams of Babylon.

Our softened voices send us back again
But mournful echoes through the empty hall:
Our footsteps have a strange unnatural sound,
And with unwonted gentleness they fall.

The weary ones, the sad, the suffering,
All found their comfort in the holy place,
And children’s gladness and men’s gratitude
‘Took voice and mingled in the chant of praise.

The funeral and the marriage, now, alas!
We know not which is sadder to recall;
For youth and happiness have followed age,
And green grass lieth gently over all.

Nathless the sacred shrine is holy yet,
With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
Before the mystery of death and God.

Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings, (c. 2002 by Broadview Press) Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is most famous for the words of her poem, The New Colossus, inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

She was one of the first successful and publicly recognized Jewish American authors. Lazarus was born in New York City to a wealthy family. She began writing and translating poetry as a teenager and was publishing translations of German poems by the 1860s. Lazarus was moved by the fierce persecution of her people in Russia, a frequent topic of her writings, as well as their struggles to assimilate into American culture. You can sample more of Emma Lazarus’ poetry and read more about her at the Poetry Foundation website.

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