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How to Authenticate the Authority of the Holy Spirit

From Crowd to Community to A Cloud of Witnesses  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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How to Authenticate the Authority of the Holy Spirit Jeremiah 14:13—16 Romans 8:9—17 Matthew 11:2—19 We live in an age of Identity Theft. And if you're under the impression that the stealing one’s identity is the result of computer technology, I’d say you’re partly right. In another sense, however, the question of authenticity has been around for a long time prior to passwords and to that dubious kind phishing that’s spelled with a ph. For example, when the screen from my laptop lights up, I am prompted to authenticate my identity; and when I do so by typing in a certain set of symbols, I have to admit the contentment that seeps into my brain as I am confirmed. I am valid. Hallelujah! On the other hand, if I happen to fat-finger my keypad and fail to log in correctly, the whole day gets off to a horrible start. And I can’t explain the feeling except to say that when that word, INVALID, makes its appearance, it’s as if the ground has gone out from beneath my feet. And why? Because of Bill Gates? Because of Steve Jobs? Because of Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook minions? Or is it because of prophets like Jeremiah? Let me explain. In Jeremiah 14:13, there’s a very disgruntled prayer that has nothing to do with logging into a computer or remembering a password, but the issue is one of AUTHENTICATION. Apparently, the person for whom the Book of Jeremiah had been named was not so much of a household name. In fact, other prophets—religious prognosticators other than Jeremiah—just happened to have the ear of the majority. And so — “Ah, Lord God! Here are the prophets, saying to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place.’” In other words—what’s going on, God? Authenticate me! Confirm that I speak for you! Now whether or not you interpret Jeremiah’s prayer like that, I’d like to suggest to you this morning that whenever God engages in conversation with God’s people in a public setting, there’s is always a fair amount of contention. And yet, that very contention might be the first indication of divine intervention, and please notice that I used the word ‘might’—as in maybe so or maybe not—and it’s that very uncertainty on my part and on your part (and on Jeremiah’s part) that constitutes a second marker. Contention and Uncertainty… Many moons ago I attended Penn State University, when a certain Christian Fellowship gathered on a mid-weekly basis, and most of us (I’m speculating here) were there because of the Holy Spirit. We were there because of the songs we sang, the prayers we uttered for one another and the word that came to us through a faithful preacher. But somehow, in the middle of all that holiness, I spied a young woman across the auditorium, and her eyes seemed to sparkle and her hair seemed to frame her cheek bones just right. To cut to the chase, I was smitten. And then, as was the custom of this gathering, we took a break to greet one another. And suddenly there she was—this icon of beauty, and I was thanking God for making this person so beautiful, when I heard her introduce herself to my roommate. She said, “Hi, my name’s Kathy!” And my roommate responded before handing her off to me. And it was then I heard the most embarrassing words I had ever spoken escape from my lips. I looked this woman in the eye, and I said, “Hi, my name’s Kathy,” to which she replied, “That’s my name too!” And I laughed a nervous laugh, and later cried some regretful tears, and thought I might want to crawl under a chair and hide. Of course, as you know that was NOT my name, and that still is not my name. And I can prove it by pulling out my Driver’s License, my Birth Certificate, my Passport, my Library Card, my diplomas and and even my Ordination Card that declares me to be an ordained minister in good standing, yadda, yadda, yadda… These are the credentials I have to authenticate my … ah… myself? And in one sense, they far exceed the documentation that may have verified Jesus of Nazareth, or the Apostle Paul, or the prophet Jeremiah. But, in a deeper sense, not so much. I think it was Shakespeare who wrote, “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet”—and likewise, those names given to us, or those numbers assigned to us, or those societal roles constructed for us have little to do with the authenticity of our relationships. Moreover, if the biblical record highlights any unique identifying emblem for those who’ve been made in the image of God, it is that we are addressed and summoned and led as ‘children of God.’ Consider Romans 8:13-14: “…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” You see, this relationship is what informs and transforms every embodied encounter available to us. Are we so-and-so’s father, or so-and-so’s mother… or brother… or sister…? Yes, but in Christ, and led by the Spirit of God, we become the most authentic parent or sibling because first and foremost we are children of God. Are we so-and-so’s boss? Do we work for this corporation? Do we have jobs that shape our identities? Of course. But in Christ, and led by the Spirit of God, we become the most authentic employer and employee because we’re accountable as children of God. Walter Brueggemann was my professor for a class I took on the Book of Jeremiah, and one day he told us about a delay to his travel plans at the Atlanta International Airport. Apparently, he had arrived at the gate early, which pleased him, because he wanted spend some time reading and doing some research. Anyway—he took his seat among the throng of passengers, and one of them was talking on his cell-phone with an extremely loud voice about buying and selling stocks. He was bellowing and barking and baying at the Wall Street numbers, and because his volume was so excessive Brueggemann decided to approach the man and ask him to quiet down. In response, however, the man in the well-tailored suit became indignant. He said, “This is a public space. I can say what I want as loudly as I want.” And so, what’s a preacher and teacher of the prophets to do? Better yet—what’s an authentic child of God, who happens to be a preacher and teacher of the prophets, to do? Brueggemann immediately broke out his Bible and began reading from Jeremiah 14: “And the Lord said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them… I did not command them…’” You see, not everything that seems so all-important for our work-lives or so all-consuming for our family-lives rises to the level of God’s sending or God’s commanding. It is in fact invalid for us to claim that we have the God-given right to say anything we want, or to do anything we want simply because we’re concerned with our own pursuit of happiness. It is also invalid for us to claim, by contrast, that no one has been sent from God, or no one has been commanded by God. Jeremiah was one of them. And today, two weeks before the Celebration of the Day of Pentecost, in this Year of our Lord, 2020, you and I may be authentically led by the Holy Spirit. And the only question is HOW. How do we know? HEY YOU GUYS! Sheryl and I have this running joke about the way we used to gather our friends in the neighborhoods where we grew up. I, of course, was raised in the back alleys and the train tracks around Philadelphia, while she could be found amid the cornfields of Fort Wayne, Indiana. But we both remember, being shooed outside by our parents, whereupon we exited our houses, and we’d cup our hands to our mouths and say, “AaaOooUuu-It!” followed by “Hey You Guys!” My contention is that we, on the East Coast, started the practice, while she says that every good and wholesome thing must have originated in the Midwest. And today, with cell phone technology, the entire argument seems moot… Except it isn’t. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need a means of calling together the children of God, but we need to do it authentically! In other words, there are so many folks in the world and on-line on May 17, 2020 and what’s ironic is with more information than we can possibly use at our fingertips than any previous generation, we don’t have the wisdom to discern which is from God and which might be “a lying vision” or “a deceit of one’s own mind.” And so, to unravel this mess, I’ve decided to call to mind the most unlikely false prophet of them all: John the Baptist. At one point in time, this cousin of Jesus had been the most popular prophet this side of the Jordan River. He had countless crowds who followed his every move. But then, after baptizing Jesus, he goes directly to jail (and doesn’t get the monopoly gift of $200). Instead, John the Baptist is accosted with doubts. And, according to Matthew 11— 2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b] disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”.     Now a lot of folks interpret this passage as if Jesus were bragging to John about all the miracles he was performing in public. But I would offer a different approach. Jesus isn’t bragging; otherwise verse six would make no sense. People, you see, were taking ‘offense’ at Jesus—and the reason was that he associated himself with the most afflicted sorry losers of society. In other words, by the power and authority of the Holy Spirit, Jesus dwelt with the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dead and the poor. Their suffering as children of God became his suffering as the Son of God on the cross. And, you see, this is how you and I can begin to unravel the authentic from the inauthentic relationship with the Holy Spirit. That is—in addition to contention and to uncertainty—the Spirit of God speaks and acts with authority when doubts are acknowledged and when suffering is embraced. I absolutely adore that momentous scene in Shadowlands, in which the nine-year-old son of Joy Gresham goes to the attic and sits in front of the wardrobe in the home of C.S. Lewis. According to the fantasy-novels, written by Lewis, the wardrobe had been a magical portal to the parallel world of Narnia. But as Douglas sat there before this dusty piece of furniture, that terribly sad little boy had just buried his mother. C.S. Lewis, who would become Douglas’ adoptive father, then enters the room and sits next to him, in the shadows. “It’s not real, is it?” says Douglas. “No,” replies the author. “I don’t see why she had to die,” says Douglas, to which Lewis responds, “Mmmm.” And then—as if pushing at the boundaries of his relationship with his new father—the boy asks, “Do you believe in heaven?” Lewis says, “Yes…” And then, with sobs and sighs, Douglas declares, “I don’t believe in heaven.” And, you see, it’s moments like these which provide all the authenticity we need to authenticate the authority of the Spirit. Lewis replies to the boy’s declaration of unbelief by saying, “That’s okay,” and then he hugs him and they hold each other before that impervious and stubborn, old wardrobe. Jeremiah 14 is an extremely difficult passage of scripture. But if you understand anything about what the prophet is going through when he prays “Ah, Lord God!”—you can understand that he cannot avoid the suffering of the children of God. And neither will he relax when he overhears the false prophets offering a false hope. False hope is invalid and inauthentic. The true hope of faith in Jesus Christ comes with the redemption of our sadness, our pain, our loneliness and our fears. To admit all that is the password. Amen.
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