Each year on the Feast of Pentecost we celebrate God the Father sending the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to his disciples at the Last Supper:
“I will not leave you comfortless,” Jesus assured them, “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14: 18, 26, KJV).
And that of course, is what happened on the morning of Pentecost, as Luke tells us:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:1-4).
Often the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is associated with power, with signs and wonders, speaking in tongues and the like. As a teenager I attended a charismatic church, and later served on staff as a youth minister at that same church. It was not uncommon for people to raise their hands during worship, or for there to be speaking in tongues as well.
There were even revival gatherings where I served as a “catcher,” which meant I would stand behind people as they were prayed for and catch them if they were “slain in the Spirit” (fell backwards because they had been touched by the Holy Spirit). I witnessed many episodes of people rolling on the floor in fits of “holy laughter” or uncontrolled weeping, things that back in the day Johnny Carson would have classified as “weird and wacky stuff.”
Sometimes a “superiority complex” can grow in a charismatic congregation, the idea that because of the presence of such charismatic phenomena they are a “Spirit filled” congregation whereas other congregations are not. Such spiritual pride tends to alienate hurting people. Many have been burned by charismatic churches.
I attended a Christian college where charismatic phenomena were frequent at our weekly chapel services. I remember standing in an aisle at the campus bookstore at the beginning of my first semester, syllabi in hand trying to purchase all the right books, when a lady with big 80’s hair and more make-up than Tammy Faye Bakker placed her hands on my shoulders and leaned right up to my face. With a crazed look in her eyes, she told me that the Holy Spirit told her to tell me that the only book I needed for college or anything else was the Bible, and that all other books were a waste of time. Then she wandered off, presumably because the Holy Spirit was leading her to scare some other impressionable freshman J.
Certainly the Bible is the most important book in the world because it is the Word of God that points us to Jesus Christ, but I remember wondering if it would help me in my statistics class. There used to be a segment on Saturday Night Live years ago called “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey,” one of which went as follows:
“Instead of having ‘answers’ on a math test, they should just call them ‘impressions,’ and if you get a different ‘impression,’ so what, can’t we all be brothers?” J.
For the record, I believe the Holy Spirit does move in charismatic ways sometimes, and while I think some of the “manifestations of the Spirit” I have witnessed were contrived by troubled people, others were completely legitimate. I won’t speak disparaging about such things or throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
But in Scripture while the power of the Holy Spirit sometimes involves charismatic phenomena, more often than not it involves something very different—comforting people in their weakness.
We see this clearly in today’s lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the apostle tells us that “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26).
The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
When Jesus promised his disciples at the Last Supper that the Father would send the Holy Spirit, he referred to the Holy Spirit as the paraclete, a Greek word translated as “Comforter” or “Advocate” or “Helper” or “Counselor.”
In this sermon I’m going to focus on the Holy Spirit helping us in our weakness as our Comforter.
“I will not leave you comfortless,” Jesus promised his disciples, and indeed God the Father sent the Holy Spirit to be our Comforter.
When people hurt they need to be comforted.
Sometimes people know why they hurt—it may be a physical pain or disease, a spouse who is completely checked out, an oppressive boss, a financial setback, or a major disappointment.
Sometimes people hurt and they don’t know why. Sometimes by and large things may be going fine in someone’s life but they can still be seized with anxiety and doubt, they can still hurt. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon captures this in his 1973 song, American Tune:
“I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong”
The rock band REM also captures this as Michael Stipe sings simply, “Everybody hurts sometimes.”
Let me ask you a question. As a pastor, do you know what the most useful thing in my office is? It’s not my computer or books or calendar or smart phone or the pencils with the cool pirate pencil toppers on them. It’s not even my coffee maker.
As a pastor, the most useful thing in my office is… the box of Kleenex, because often people simply need to cry and be comforted. Sometimes people need a hug, and to be assured that in time everything will be eventually be alright.
The Holy Spirit is our Comforter who helps us in our weakness.
Outside of Jesus Christ, the most influential person in the history of Christianity is the Apostle Paul, who spent years planting churches throughout the Mediterranean world and whose thirteen letters comprise nearly half the books of the New Testament. Certainly Paul knew more than a little about the power of the Holy Spirit, as he witnessed many supernatural healings and other miracles.
And yet for Paul, when it came to the Holy Spirit, his emphasis was not on how the Holy Spirit is present in signs and wonders and speaking in tongues and the like, but in how the Holy Spirit is present to comfort us and give us grace in the midst of our weaknesses—again, as Paul wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26).
And this idea of the Holy Spirit helping us in our weakness was not a theoretical or esoteric idea for Paul; this is where Paul experienced over and over again the grace of God in his life. For Paul, grace in weakness was where the power of the Holy Spirit and the reality of his life actually connected. He describes this in the following vulnerable passage from his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
“Therefore, to keep* me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh…* 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power* is made perfect in weakness’1” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Scholars have argued and guessed for centuries about what exactly Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. Some think Paul’s thorn in the flesh was something physical—perhaps a speech impediment or epilepsy or arthritis or a recurring illness or a physical disability.
Others think his thorn in the flesh was something relational—perhaps family dysfunction or difficult relationships with other missionaries (he did have a falling out with Mark) or the relentless opposition from those who opposed his theology.
Still others think his thorn in the flesh was moral— perhaps a besetting sin or a character flaw or guilt from his past or chronic temptation. Paul never reveals exactly what his “thorn in the flesh” was, and no one has been able to figure it out for sure either. We can only guess.
But this is a good thing, as biblical scholar Paul Barnett observes:
“It may be to our advantage not to know. The very openness of the identification allows wide possibilities of personal application to a broad range of personal suffering, which precise identification might limit” (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 570).
While we do not exactly what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, we do know that it really distracted him, that it would not leave him alone. We do know that Paul did not just pray about it, he begged God not once but three times that the thorn would be taken away.
And God response was, “No.”
But thankfully God’s response did not end there; He added, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power* is made perfect in weakness.”
A couple questions for you… What is the thorn in your flesh that won’t go away? What is the greatest weakness in your life? Perhaps you have begged God three times, or three hundred times, for this thorn to be taken away… but it’s still there.
That is where the Holy Spirit wants to give you comfort and help you in your weakness. That is where the Holy Spirit wants to give you grace. That is where Pentecost connects with your actual day-to-day life.
Many local pools opened this weekend and I was reminded about an incident from my childhood. When I was seven years old my family joined a local YMCA swimming pool. I was really excited but I had never been in a pool in my life, so I took swim lessons, an awkward two weeks because I towered over the four and five year olds who made up most of the group. On the last day we all had the opportunity to jump off the diving board in the deep end.
I was petrified, and I stood at the end of the line. I watched as every single kid in front of me scampered up the ladder and without hesitation, jumped off the diving board and swam or doggy-paddled to the ladder. Our instructor was treading water under the board to give a little help to some of the kids, but most did not need it.
My turn finally came. With sweaty palms I gripped the rails and scampered up the ladder and walked to the end of the diving board, and… froze. I couldn’t do it. Then my knees started to shake, and that caused the diving board to bounce up and down faster and faster, but I was still too scared to jump. This went on for awhile. The kids and parents were lined up around the deep end, encouraging me, and the swim teacher was treading water under the board, assuring me that he was there to catch me, that it would be okay, that there was nothing to be afraid of. But my knees kept shaking and the board kept bouncing and I was still too scared to jump.
I could tell you that the Holy Spirit filled me with power and I triumphantly leaped off the diving board, completing a graceful double back flip with a twist and nailing the landing with a minimal splash, that I emerged from the pool to the loud applause of everyone around the pool, to which I responded with self-deprecation, “Please… I can’t take credit for this, it was the power of the Holy Spirit” J.
But that is not exactly what happened. As it turned out, I just couldn’t do it. After awhile I turned around, purple with embarrassment and slowly walked the length of the undulating diving board back to the ladder and climbed back down. The silence was deafening.
When it comes to the thorn in your flesh—where you are the weakest, the most afraid, the most vulnerable—that is where the power of the Holy Spirit meets you to give you comfort, to help you in your weakness.
In other words, the Holy Spirit is with you at the end of the diving board, to give you grace and comfort even if you’re too scared to jump.
In the Garden of Gethsemane moments before being betrayed, Jesus, stressed to the breaking point, begged his Heavenly Father not once, but three times, to let the impending cup of suffering pass. But the cup did not pass; he drank it to the dregs.
And on the cross Jesus bore every thorn in your flesh, every one, as He bore a crown of… thorns. And regardless of what happens with the thorn in your side this side of heaven, in heaven there will be no thorns left at all, for anyone.
And in the meantime the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, helps you in your weakness.
In the meantime the Holy Spirit ministers God’s grace to you at the end of the diving board.
The good news on the Feast of Pentecost is that God does not leave us comfortless.
And a “Spirit-filled” congregation is a place where hurting people receive grace and comfort from the Holy Spirit and in turn can offer comfort and grace to one another as well, a place where there are plenty of hugs and plenty of Kleenex J.
The Holy Spirit is our Comforter who helps us in our weakness, and because of that, as we prayed in the collect for today, we can truly “rejoice in his holy comfort.”
- Romans 8:26