Experiencing God’s Presence

Experiencing God’s Presence

Experiencing God’s Presence     Pentecost

Psalm 104:24-34   Acts 2:1-21  John 14:8-17, 25-27

Wishing to encourage her young son’s progress on the piano, a mother took her boy to a piano concert by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the famous Polish pianist. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and went down the aisle to greet her.

Left to his own devices, the little boy soon discovered a door marked “NO ADMITTANCE” and he explored his way onto the concert stage. Finding a piano behind the stage curtains, he began to practice. The lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin. The mother returned to her seat to find the child missing! Suddenly, the stage curtains parted to reveal the impressive Steinway grand piano with the missing child gently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then Paderewski, the piano master, made his entrance and quickly moved to the piano, whispering into the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit; keep playing.”

Paderewski leaned over the boy, filling in a left hand/bass part while the boy kept picking out his version of the melody. Then, with his right hand, Paderewski added a running obbligato to this duet. Together the old master and the young novice transformed what could have been a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience!

The audience was so mesmerized that they could not later recall what else the grand master had played that night. Only the classic “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was the talk of the town.

I tell this story because it reminds me that our infinite God chooses to work with finite mortals through the power of the Spirit. Today is Pentecost Sunday, an annual celebration of a fulfillment of an old promise—the promise that God’s people would be empowered, would be partnered with God in doing Kingdom work.

Our Scriptures for today focus on 1. The dynamic power of God and 2. How God is revealed through his glorious acts and 3. How you and I are forever different when God abides with us.

God’s Deeds of Power

Every year, we hear the story of Acts 2—God’s Holy Spirit filling the Apostles and sending them out with a passion for sharing the Gospel. It’s a great event, often called “the Birthday of the Church.” But God’s Spirit has always been active, mentioned as part of the process of Creation and seen in the characters filling our Scriptures. But the Day of Pentecost was extraordinary. The Spirit molded them into a community, bound together by the same mission as they went out into the streets and proclaimed God’s mighty deeds of power. They talked about the resurrection of Jesus, but they demonstrated God’s power in their own lives! Remember, these were folks who had been hiding in fear, and were now propelled outside, proclaiming Jesus in public!

It brought to mind the prophet Joel and his message from God, “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit.” Jesus had instructed them, “Wait in Jerusalem until you have been clothed with power—and then you will be my witnesses!”

Show Us the Father (John 14)

Our Gospel reading today gives us some interesting background information through some of the teachings that Jesus had shared. They were triggered by the request from Philip, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” At first, Jesus seemed to be a little put out with Philip when he says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?!” Then he makes it into a teachable moment, and tells them, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And he goes on to say (and this goes hand-in-glove with Pentecost), “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Because I am going to the Father.

Jesus told them more than once that he was going to go away, but that they did not need to worry because the Father would then be WITH them in the person of the Holy Spirit. He says, in the very next chapter of John, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, the Spirit will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” According to Matthew, the last thing Jesus tells his disciples is, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It is clearly the expectation of Jesus that his followers will be filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

The Power to Will and to Do

So the question that hangs with me is this: IF Jesus intended that I be filled with God’s Spirit, and IF he promised that I will do even greater works than he has done, then WHAT HAPPENED? I am a follower of Jesus, but I’m not seeing those amazing works in my life.

And maybe that’s the answer right there—I am not seeing the miracles that God is working through me. Perhaps it’s because I am expecting something sensational. Or maybe it’s because I, in my smallness, am not capable of perceiving the wondrous things God is doing all around me.

I find myself directed to Philippians 2:13 “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to God’s good purpose.”

Oh! It’s not about me! It is God who is at work in me, accomplishing the purposes of God (not MY purposes).

And God works in me to WILL. Interesting. I don’t know about you, but my will is almost totally self-consumed. Only God makes it possible for me to see others. Only God’s power working through me can help me to WANT to work for God’s Good Purpose!

So God is working in me to want and to ACT. And there’s another problem. There are so many times when I feel just like Paul when he says, “That which I want to do, I don’t do; and that which I know I should NOT do, that’s exactly what I do! I am the chief of sinners.”

And yet.

And yet God’s power IS working through me, and through YOU. I have to keep hanging on to that line from Ephesians 3:20 (which is the theme verse for our Vacation Bible School this year!) “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” God’s power is at work within us!

I will finish today by taking us back to that young piano player, surrounded by the great virtuoso Paderewski. The boy kept playing, and the Master made it magnificent!

Friends, God keeps whispering in our ears, “Don’t quit; keep going.” You see, God takes our tiny willingness and MAGNIFIES it; God takes our tiny strength and suddenly, IT IS ENOUGH. GLORY TO GOD!

June 2, 2019

All ONE at the Table   7th Easter

Psalm 97   Acts 16:16-34   June 2, 2019   John 17:20-26

In 1994, the world was shocked by an ethnic genocide in Rwanda. The Hutus killed more than 800,000 Tutsis, along with many moderate Hutus. The slaughter lasted for 100 days, but the pain of that event still lives to this day. A young Tutsi woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza, shares her experience:

“My family urged me to run and seek shelter in the home of a local pastor. I hid with seven other women in a tiny bathroom in the Hutu pastor’s house, concealed behind a large wardrobe.

“Many nights, we heard the mob surrounding the house, hunting for Tutsi. ‘We are looking for you, Immaculee Ilibagiza!’ I heard a voice call out one night. Chills ran up my spine. I knew then that the rest of my family had been killed. And when we emerged 91 days later from Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom, it was confirmed. They were all gone.

“In those three months confined to Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom, I prayed and meditated. I gave myself over to God completely. I reflected on the Beatitudes. Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called children of God. If I survived the genocide, I told myself, I would strive to be a peacemaker.”

After the war, she went to the capital and worked for the UN, but she was plagued with sorrow and nightmares. She prayed for relief. And one night she had an amazingly vivid dream in which she saw her family, all well, and her brother called out, “Hey, Immaculee! You’ve been gloomy far too long and must stop all this crying. I know how much you miss us, but we are at peace, in heaven. Now, you must heal your heart.” She woke up calmer and knowing what she had to do. She had to return to her village.

She went to the prison to confront the leader of the gang who killed her mother and brother. The man in charge of the prison had lost four of his six children in the slaughter. Through his interrogations, he knew which killers had murdered whom, and he asked her, “Do you want to meet the leader of the gang who killed your mother and brother?”

“Yes, sir, I do.” She watched as they brought in a disheveled old man, who had formerly been a nicely-dressed businessman, a man whose children she had played with in school. And she realized it was his voice she had heard calling her name when she was in hiding.

He stumbled onto his knees and stared at the floor. “Explain to Immaculee why her family is dead. Explain to her why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother. Get up and tell her!” His clothes were tattered; his body was emaciated; his bare feet were covered with sores. He was broken. Here’s what Immaculee wrote: “He sobbed. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly and said, ‘I forgive you.’ That, I suddenly understood, was why God had led me back to my village.”

The guards dragged the man back to his cell, and the prison director yelled, ‘What was that about, Immaculee? That was the man who murdered your family. I brought him to you to question…to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you?!’

‘Forgiveness is all I have to offer.’ It was true: I did not feel hatred. I did not seek revenge. In my heart, I understood that even the killers are part of God’s family, and I could honor God only by forgiving. This was how to be a peacemaker.”

Even the killers are part of God’s family.

Friends, every time I read the passage in Acts that we heard this morning, I think about Paul and Silas in that Philippian jail, having been beaten with rods and their feet fastened into stocks, and I consider the choice that they had to make. They had to decide, Do we nurse our resentment, or do we forgive? “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart!” (Corrie ten Boom)

So, put yourself in Paul’s place. Unjustly accused, imprisoned without a trial, beaten with rods, feet locked into stocks. You cannot lie down on your side because of the position of your feet; and you cannot lie down on your back because of the pain from the beating; your bottom goes numb from sitting straight-legged on the floor; do you nurse your resentment, or do you forgive?

It’s obvious that Paul and Silas forgave, because the jailer was ready to kill himself when he believed that his prisoners were gone (when the earthquake opened the doors). But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” (I honestly don’t know what I would have done. I’m afraid I might have been just a little satisfied to see my jailer kill himself, had I been subjected to all that pain and injustice.)

BUT that was not the attitude of Paul and Silas. NO, the text tells us that they were praying and singing hymns to God—loud enough that the other prisoners were listening—they were praying and singing songs of faith!! The jailer called for lights, then fell down trembling before them, and asked, “What must I do to be saved?”

Their first response was to say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And then they talked with him and his whole household, and they were all baptized that very night! The jailer tended to their wounds, and set a meal before them. (They were all together at the table!)

Then comes the most beautiful part of this story: and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. The story ends with jubilation and a victory—very much like the one experienced by Emaculee Ilibagiza—a victory that began with forgiveness. We don’t know anything more about this jailer—not even his name is recorded for us—but this family must have been a nucleus—along with Lydia, the lady in Philippi that Paul and Silas had already shared the Gospel with—together, they became the nucleus for the church in Philippi, which was the first church established in Europe! Years later, Paul wrote at least one letter to that church, and we have a copy in our Bible! It’s called Philippians, and Paul wrote it to them from his prison cell in Rome! He tells them that he is once again “in chains.” Here’s what he says: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” I can just hear the people in the church in Philippi saying, “O, Paul. Back in prison, again! Christ who indwells you has something he wants to do through you, right where you are!”

I am hoping that, in the next day or two, you will read Philippians. (It’s only a few pages long.) Try reading it from the perspective of the household of the jailer—people whose lives had been vastly enriched when Paul and Silas brought the Gospel to Philippi—people who could picture Paul in jail because they had seen him there—people who knew the power of forgiveness.

Friends, we have two clear choices: 1. Holding on to our “right” to withhold forgiveness (which will slowly poison us and shrivel our lives to nothingness); or 2. Letting it go by an act of the will.

We have the communion table right here in front of us. We hear Christ praying that we may all be ONE—and that means being ONE at the table. The imagery of oneness at the table was portrayed beautifully at the end of the 1984 movie, “Places in the Heart” with Sally Field. The final scene was in the local church, where people were passing the communion elements. (It was a way of doing a “curtain call” for the cast of characters.) It included the main characters, and some folks who were kind of despicable, as well as the sheriff who was shot and killed by a drunk early in the film. And the sheriff then served the man who had accidentally shot him.

It’s a BEAUTIFUL scene, and it illustrates the fact that we can all be ONE at the table of Christ, even if we are very different from each other—and even if our life circumstances have set us against each other. We can leave our differences, forgive each other, and meet at the table. It reminds me of something Jesus taught: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or your sister has something against you, leave your gift there and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Prayer: Father, we do have hurts and injuries. And we have the right to hold it against those who have hurt us. But it’s killing us, and we don’t want this in our life. God, we’re ready to let it go. Father, help us to let it go. We want to experience the joy, the intense love that flows from You when we decide to forgive. Help us to let it go. Bless us and our whole household with the peace that comes from forgiveness. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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