June 25, 2006; April 19, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
John 16:12-13 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
In the gospel of John, as Jesus prepares his disciples for his coming death and resurrection, he promises that he will not leave them alone but will send the Holy Spirit to them to guide them and keep them in his love. The Holy Spirit plays a large role in the theology of the gospel of John because the Spirit is the answers to the question of the disciples (and of modern day Christians), “We know that Jesus is risen but how will we continue to experience him if he is no longer physically with us as he was before his crucifixion?” Jesus explains that we will know Jesus’ love, his will, his thought, and his guidance through the presence of the Spirit.
In 2006, I took a group of our youth to the Dominican Republic to live and work for a week with a congregation there. Our host pastor asked me to deliver the sermon in their church that Sunday and having worshiped with them several times during the week, I knew that they were a very Spirit based church, and so I chose as my gospel reading several passages from John about the Holy Spirit. I shared that sermon again with our own congregation upon our return, and I would like to share it one more time as an appropriate sermon for the Sunday following Easter.
When I entered Junior High, my guidance counselor suggested that if I was college bound, it would be beneficial for me to chose a foreign language to study but, being in a small rural school, my choices of languages were limited. I could either pursue a course in French or a course in Spanish. Like most 12 year olds, I had no real experience with either but since I had at the time a vague notion that the name DeMott might have French origins, I chose French. (I have since found out that the DeMotts came over from Holland in the 1600s but since my school offered neither Dutch nor Colonial King’s English my confused sense of genealogy ultimately was irrelevant to the question.) Consequently, for 6 years I studied French. I learned how to read books in French, eventually even tackling the French existentialists Sartre and Camus in their native tongue. I learned to write essays in French and I learned French songs – un flambeau Jeanette Isabella, un flambeau courons au berceau. Now, it’s been 30 years since my last French course and I’m not sure that I could manage Sartre today but I can still understand French well enough to hail taxis in Paris and ask directions to the restrooms in the Louvre. There’s only one problem – I’ve never been to Paris. Here it is 30 years later and I still have not been to France. Instead, two weeks ago I found myself where I never expected to be, in the Dominican Republic wishing that 30 years ago I had chosen to learn Spanish instead.
If 30 years ago, I had known I would travel to La Romana, I would have taken Spanish in school and on June 25 th , when I preached to the people of Iglesia Bautista Bethel, I would have been able to preach in their native tongue instead of having to stop every sentence to wait for Abel, my translator, to interpret my words for them.
If 30 years ago, I had taken Spanish in school, I would have been able to explain to the inexhaustible five year old Chico that I was not inexhaustible and that though I enjoyed tossing him into back flips over and over again, it was necessary for me to go to bed if I expected to be of any use in the morning. But I didn’t take Spanish, I took French and so I had to end our play sessions with the blunt, “non mas” – no more – and leave Chico unenlightened as to the reasons for my sudden disinterest in him.
If 30 years ago I had taken Spanish, I could have told the story of Moses and the Ten Plagues to the Vacation Bible School students in all of its elaborate and gory detail instead of forcing Brendan, Brian, Nora, and Emma to hop around like frogs in the hope that maybe the baffled children would catch even a bit of the pantomimed plot line.
If I had taken Spanish, I could have chatted about the weather, discussed politics, compared church notes, asked the names of the dishes we were served, participated in their Bible Study, and maybe even figured out all of the relationships of the people in and out of the house that week. But I didn’t take Spanish; I took French and so I just smiled and nodded and depended on Brian Butts and Petra Visscher do their best to mediate conversations for me while I wished I was in Paris.
30 years ago, I couldn’t predict where my life would take me and when I became older and made a commitment to put Christ at the center of my life, I had to accept that any control I had previously thought I had over the direction of my life was gone for good. When I said, “Jesus, I am going to follow you,” I had to be prepared to be surprised because Jesus warned us that “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” When we commit ourselves to Jesus and let the Spirit loose in our lives, we never know where the Spirit might take us next.
There is a story of a great preacher whose sermons were so moving that people flocked to hear him, and his example of the Christian life was so inspiring that scores of people joined the church and likewise dedicated themselves to Christ. The church grew in love and strength and became known throughout the community as a vibrant testimony to Christ’s compassion. Those who wanted for mercy found mercy in that church. And those who wanted for renewal found new life in that church. The hungry were fed. The forgotten were remembered and cherished. Those who grieved and whose hearts were broken by their troubles found comfort and hope and peace in that church.
One Sunday, after a week of especially dynamic activity together, the minister walked out from behind the pulpit and looked the people square in the eye.
“Do I have the Holy Spirit?,” he demanded. They were startled at his question, not sure at first how to respond.
He stared them down a second time and then asked, “Do you have the Holy Spirit?” They began to nod and smile in their pews.
He then called out, “Does this church have the Holy Spirit?”
The congregation jumped up and began to shout, “Yes, yes!” but just as they did, the minister boomed out in a loud voice: “NO!” “No!,” he cried out.
The congregation become quiet and sat back down a bit uncomfortably, and the minister looked them square in the eye again and he said,
“I do not have the Holy Spirit. You do not have the Holy Spirit. This church does not have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has us! The Holy Spirit has us!””
“The [spirit] blows where it chooses , but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
When we say that we will follow Jesus, we are born now not of flesh but of the Spirit and now the Spirit has us. And when the Spirit has us, we may have to let go of our own desires and our own plans and be ready to go places and do things we never expected.
I ended up in La Romana instead of Paris, France because that is where the Spirit took me. A week before I left, Dan Acton stopped by my office to chat about my upcoming trip and he said, “You must be looking forward to it. I know you must enjoy these trips because otherwise why would you do them?” I’m not sure what I said to Dan’s question but I remember thinking to myself, “Enjoy? Do I enjoy flying hours on planes when I’m afraid of flying? Do I enjoy a week of hot and humid weather in a noisy country with no privacy, primitive conditions, and a queasy stomach from the change in food and water? Even when I do these service trips in the US, I can count on seven days of probably rooming in a school gymnasium with hundreds of noisy teenagers, no sleep, hard work, heat, and questionable food. I do love the time getting to know our own youth better and the trips are always memorable and enlightening but “enjoy” is not a word I would generally use, so why do I do them?”
Because the Holy Spirit blows where it will. As difficult as these trips can be for all of those who participate, there is never a doubt that they enable us to do the work of the Spirit. When the Spirit has us, we may have to let go of our own desires, our own comfort, and our own plans and be ready to go places and do things we might never choose on our own.
Our journey to La Romana was a physical journey, but the places that the Spirit leads you to may not be new geographical locations but may be – and are more often – new places of the heart. When you commit your life to following Christ, the Spirit will ask all kinds of things of you that you would not be likely to do if you were really in charge of your life.
Maybe somebody hurts you and what you honestly want is to make them sorry for what they did to you, even to hurt them back, but instead the Spirit says, “Make friends with that person. Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.” Well, that’s not the way we want to go but if the Spirit has us, that’s the way the Spirit is going to take us!
Maybe you forgave someone and then they made the same mistake again and you want to say, “No more. I’m only going to forgive you once and that’s it,” but instead the Spirit says, “Forgive them again. Forgive them 7 times 70 times!” Well, that’s not the way we want to go but if the Spirit has us, that’s the way the Spirit is going to take us!
The Spirit weeds out our selfishness and molds our lives into constant compassion and thought for others until it works on us in even the small moments that we don’t always notice. You are tired from a long day and all you want is to space out in front of a stupid television show but your child really wants you to read a story before bedtime and so you drag yourself out of the chair to attend to your child because the Spirit has led you to shape your life as a loving parent. Or a colleague tells you some vicious gossip about another in an on-going attempt to manipulate the politics of the office but you quietly forget the gossip and try to stay out of the politics because the Spirit has led you to shape your life one who seeks peace with others.
When we commit our lives to following Christ, we are saying that we are no longer fully masters of our own fate and captains of our souls. We are turning control over to the Holy Spirit who may push us and take us to places we would simply not go if it were entirely up to us. Sometimes the Spirit takes us on physical journeys so that we can meet new people and learn more about others and ourselves. But just as often the Spirit takes us on journeys of the heart so that our hearts can grow and we can become better people.
I told the church at La Romana that my Spanish vocabulary was very limited but that there is one very important Spanish word I had learned at a previous youth conference. In a National Youth Gathering which included American Baptist Youth from both America and Puerto Rico, the theme of the conference was the Spanish word, “Adalante!” We sang it in songs and shouted it in worship. It was emblazoned in banners hanging from the stage. Adalante! we cried out together.
In English, Adalante means “forward”.
We may never know where the Spirit is taking us, but we can be certain of one thing – wherever it is, it will be Adalante – forward.
Without the Spirit, we would never learn to make peace with our enemies but would remain divided from one another.
Without the Spirit, we would never learn to let go of our selfish desires that isolate us from others and leave us feeling alone and unloved.
Without the Spirit, we would never heal the bitterness in our souls that plagues us in the dark of the night.
Without the Spirit, we would never overcome the worries, fears, doubts, and anxieties that weigh us down and hold us back.
Without the Spirit, we can never be the new creatures that Christ has called us to be.
But with the Spirit! With the Spirit we shout, “Adalante!”
With the Spirit, we will go forward into forgiveness!
With the Spirit, we will go forward into peace!
With the Spirit, we will go forward into new life!
And so I ask you,
Do I have the Holy Spirit?
Do you have the Holy Spirit?
Does this church have the Holy Spirit?
No, the Holy Spirit has us! The Holy Spirit has us! Go forward in the Spirit and become new creatures in Christ.