Monday, December 12, 2011

More than Following the Leader


Do not quench the Spirit.  (1 Thessalonians 5:19)
In the children’s game Follow the Leader, you simply mimic what the leader does until it’s your turn to be the leader.  It’s all external stuff.
You wave your hands or stand on one foot or stick your finger in your ear when the leader does it.  Your view of the world or other people or yourself doesn’t change a bit.
Phillis Miller's "Floral Road to Emmaus"

Following Jesus does mean that your external behavior will probably change.  You might grow a bit more patient or forgiving or generous.  But this external change arises from something that’s been happening on the inside.
The Holy Spirit resides in the heart of every believer.  And that is why the Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians, “ Do not quench the Spirit.”  In other words, do not extinguish the Spirit.
Paul uses the common image of fire to talk about the Holy Spirit.  That image tells a great deal about the work of the Spirit:
Fire refines.  It turns ore into precious metal.
The Spirit refines us.  It shapes us more nearly into the image of God.
Fire illuminates.  The Spirit shows us Jesus and he illuminates the path in front of us.
To use a churchy word, the Holy Spirit sanctifies us.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul strikes this theme with these words:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Romans 12:2)
In other words, following Jesus means submitting ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit every day.  And the Holy Spirit helps us to do basically one thing: get over ourselves.

There are two ways to live.  Following Jesus involves living according to the Spirit.  We will get back to that in just a minute.  But let’s look for the moment at the alternative.
Before the Holy Spirit does its refining work, we live according to the flesh.  Here’s what Paul says:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (Romans 8:5-6)
Living according to the flesh is to set our mind on things of the flesh, on things that pass away.  We pin our hopes for fulfillment and significance and contentment on our achievements or our status or on thrilling experiences or our possessions or other people’s approval.
Who and what we are, the very point of our lives, is ultimately fleeting, because all of these things will vanish in the great sea of time.  To set the mind on the flesh is to set our mind on death, on annihilation.
And so Paul tells the Thessalonians, and he tells us, not to quench the Spirit.  Let the Spirit do its work.  Set your mind on things of the Spirit.  Tend the fire of Christ within you.
When we pursue fulfillment through social position or comfortable material circumstances or career success or fame or power, we quench the spirit.  We fill our hearts with fleeting pleasure or a tenuous sense of security or a shaky confidence in our self worth.  We settle for what will not abide and saddle ourselves with the perpetual pursuit of one more thrill or yet another promotion or one last standing ovation.
By contrast, turning to the Spirit to know Christ’s presence stokes the refining fire of the Spirit and results in the fruit of the Spirit:
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)
The fruit of the Spirit does not arise from our external circumstances, but from the Spirit who resides within us.
Paul Cezanne's "Un coin de table"
This is why people who lack material things or suffer chronic pain or confront the limitations of physical handicaps can astonish us with their positive attitude toward life.
One of my favorite things to do on Thanksgiving week is to recount to Ken all the things for which I am so thankful to God: the glorious gift of Jesus… His Gospel always rescuing us from darkness… His grace that sustains us daily… A mission to accomplish, friends to be encouraged, and a family that's always 'there!' And getting really detailed? Well, I'm especially grateful for the spate of pain-free days I've recently enjoyed, and a greater sense of courage rising in my heart – lately God has been teaching me to be a wiser 'steward of pain' (when it comes) and nothing could make me more contented! Truly, "God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him," as [John] Piper says.
Joni has been a quadriplegic since she was a teenager.  Over 40 years ago, she broke her neck in an accident.
Her life has a single focus: being close to God through his Son Jesus Christ.  Making Christ her treasure above all else.
Let’s not quench the Spirit by making something less than God himself our pearl of great price.  And then we will know the joy and peace that cannot be extinguished by the changes and chances of this world.
(This sermon was preached at 8:00 at St. Mark's Cathedral on December 11, 2011)

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