Lower Your Expectations

Acts 2:1-21
David A. Davis
June 9, 2019
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A sound like the rush of a violent wind…..and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them…..and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem, a crowd gathered and bewildered at the sound…..and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Amazed and astonished, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…..  and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

All were amazed and perplexed because they each could hear them speaking in their own language, telling about all that God had done…. and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. When they listened to Peter preach, when he is preached about how everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved and that the every one should know with certainty that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah, the bible says that they were cut to the heart….and that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. According to Luke here in Acts, 3,000 people were baptized and added that day, many wonders and signs were done by the apostles, awe came upon everyone…..and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together, they would sell their possessions and goods and share proceeds according to who was in need, they spent much time together in the temple, broke bread in their homes, ate food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people….and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

I have told you before about the first lecture I heard as a seminary student on the Holy Spirit. It was my introduction to theology class. The professor was David Willis. Dr. Willis often read from his bible in class. Maybe he opened every class with scripture, I can’t quite remember. What I do remember is that when his bible was opened, he would take a 3 by 5 note card and sweep the crumbs from his breakfast off the page. Crumbs of toast and maybe some eggs tossed into the front row. You may hear that and think it sounds kind of gross. Or, you may hear that and think about him reading his bible at breakfast table. At one point during the lecture, Dr. Willis stopped his lecture, looked up from his notes, stepped in front of the lectern, and shouted, “The Holy Spirit matters!” He let out a laugh, and yelled it again. “The Holy Spirit matters! And I mean that in every possible way!” He went on to tell of a fellowship hour conversation with a woman after worship. She was announcing to Dr. Willis, the guest preacher for the day, her disillusionment with her church and the lack of the Holy Spirit. During that conversation, people from the church kept coming up to her and asking for her health, offering a touch on the arm, mentioning they had been praying for her in the aftermath of some illness. Surrounded by the fellowship of the church, the witness of prayer, the touch of concern, the smell of coffee hour, the professor confessed that he found the woman’s take on the Holy Spirit ironic.

Here she was surrounded by what the preacher in the Book of Hebrews calls “ the great cloud of witnesses”. A rag tag, run of the mill, a feeble flock. A group of people that the cynics of the world often refer to as a “church full of hypocrites.” Broken followers of Jesus just trying to devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles, fellowship with one another, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Dr. Willis turned again to the class that morning and bellowed, “The Holy Spirit matters!” And he took his hands and rubbed his fingers together. He might as well have said, “When it comes to the Holy Spirit, lower your expectations”.

In all these years of pastoral ministry, I have long since given up questioning or doubting when someone honors me with the sharing of a profound, inexplicable spiritual experience that has moved them deeply and has great meaning for them.  I just listened to another one Friday morning. To share examples of what folks have shared with me seems like sharing something too intimate, too raw, too confidential. But along with those profound, mystical experiences that stretch the boundaries of comprehension, these years of ministry have also brought me to lower my expectations of the Holy Spirit. I don’t mean that in a diminutive way at all. Rather, it is affirming a role of the Holy Spirit that matters. Or, having the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the heart to believe that God is present and active and moving in the ordinary places of our lives. Or to put in church terms, in our teaching and learning of the gospel, our fellowship, our breaking of bread, and our prayer.

The theologian Karl Barth once wrote that the miracle of preaching is not that the preacher finds something to say each week. The miracle is that people come back week after week expecting to the preacher to have something say. They come each week expecting to hear and experience a word from the Lord. Every preacher knows the experience of standing at the church and having someone say, “pastor, it was like you were speaking directly to me this morning!” The person goes on to reiterate what was heard, what the preacher said. And, of course , in her head the pastor is thinking I don’t recognize a word of what the person thought I just said in that sermon. The Holy Spirit matters.

I have had a similar thing happen to me when I am visiting the hospital far too many times to count. When pastors go to visit someone in the hospital, being able to see family members is as important, sometimes maybe more important than seeing the patient. So it can be a disappointment when those family aren’t there. An example might be when someone is in surgery and the pastor was hoping to sit with a loved one for a while. Or the patient is asleep and there is no one else in the room at the time so you just have to leave a note.  Often when that happens, the pastoral visitor goes looking around just hoping to see a family member. Check the waiting areas. The lobby, Look in the cafeteria or the coffee shop. So, so many times, I don’t find folks in those areas. More often, I turn a corner and they’re walking down the hall. Or the elevator door opens and there they are. Just last Sunday after a visit at Capital Health in Trenton, I was leaving through the lobby after a brief visit to see a church member and the spouse was just walking in. No, I don’t think God and the Holy Spirit give much of a hoot about you finding a parking spot but I do believe the Holy Spirit matters.

I’ve told you before about the lecture from Dr. Willis on the Holy Spirit. I haven’t told you about an upsetting youth group experience of the Holy Spirit I had as a freshman in high school back in 1977. That year several young adult church members were serving as youth group advisors. In my Presbyterian church in the south hills of Pittsburgh there was growing small group that considered itself charismatic and strongly in touch with the Holy Spirit. Two of the youth advisors were part of that small group. One Sunday evening after fellowship, those two advisors, Sue and DJ, asked a few of us in the youth group to stay after for prayer. The youth pastor, I am guessing, had no idea. I know he wasn’t around when we went into the sanctuary. The sanctuary was about this size and it was dark except for the lights turned on in the chancel. We circled up in the split chancel, the pulpit on one side, a lectern on the other. We circled up for prayer. The young adults explained to us that they were going to pray over each of us one at a time so that we might receive the Holy Spirit’s gift of speaking in tongues.

We took turns in the center of the circle with everyone else laying hands on us. The older folks prayed out loud. When DJ prayed, he spoke words that made no sense. Words that  didn’t sound like a language. I figured that he was speaking in tongues. I had heard about it, read about from the Apostle Paul, but never heard it or anything like it. For what seemed like a long, long time we were there in that chancel. As far as I could tell, none of the Youth Group members received the gift of tongues that night. The reaction from the advisors was a mixture of disappointment and “we’ll try again later”. The Holy Spirit just didn’t come this time was their conclusion. I went home convinced I wasn’t good enough and wondering why the Holy Spirit wouldn’t come that night.

Decades later, college, graduate school, years of ministry later. Countless small groups, prayers groups, clergy groups later. Years of ministry, several spiritual directors later. Having told that story many, many times, it was only a few years ago, when someone, I can’t remember who, when someone heard that story from me gave a response I never considered. Instead of lamenting with me over what I have sometimes described as “spiritual abuse”, or giving me the proverbial pat on the back about an upsetting memory I can recall in such vivid detail, the person said, “well, clearly that prayer was answered.”  The look on my face must have indicated I didn’t understand so there was a follow up. “Well, you’ve been preaching for what, 25, 30 years? And your pretty good at it. That sounds like tongues to me.” Or in other words, the Holy Spirit matters.

When I teach over at the seminary or grab coffee with a student who wants to talk about preaching, inevitably the questions turn to the process of sermon preparation, sermon writing, sermon delivery. Amid all the technical question, a bigger question in play. “How do you it every week?” My answer is always the same. I’ve been doing this a long time, and week after week after week, God has never, ever, ever let me down. Certainly every sermon is not great but there has always been a word and you always come back. Some of you always come back. I’ve never had to say, “This morning we’re going to have a hymn sing”. A lot of Sundays, a lot, and God is faithful…..still. And I have learned that the Holy Spirit matters.

Every time I remember the confidence I have, the certainty I have that God will meet me here, that God is present with us here, that the Holy Spirit is here, then comes the prayer, my prayer, our prayer, that God will give us that confidence, that certainty, that assurance that God will meet us out there. That God is present with us out there. That the Holy Spirit is out there.

That God will fill our hearts with knowledge and the comfort that the Holy Spirit surely matters.