Listen to it:
“Powerful Deeds, Wonders, and Signs”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Is there something missing from the Church today? We hear in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the sending of the Holy Spirit; we hear of violent winds, fiery tongues, speaking in languages never learned, bold preaching by former cowards, and mass conversions. We hear of amazed, confused, and maybe even frightened crowds. Jerusalem was packed to overflowing. Pentecost was a day of obligatory worship, and so Jews by birth and Jews by conversion had come from as far as Rome–over 1400 miles away–to be present at the Temple for the Feast of Weeks. The Hebrew Feast of Weeks, or “Pentecost” (Greek for “fiftieth”), was one of three festivals at which every male Israelite was to appear before the Lord to worship and bring his offerings. This feast was to take place when the first grain was gathered in Palestine, fifty days after the Passover. On this fiftieth day, the disciples were waiting together as Jesus had instructed them, and the Father fulfilled His Word. Just as Jesus had promised, “[T]he Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV). The violent wind, fiery tongues, and speaking fluently in unknown languages were all signs that pointed to the reality of Jesus Christ present in the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring people back into right relationship with the Father. “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21, ESV).
“But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-15a, 17, ESV). Do not get caught up in the signs and wonders, and miss the One to whom they point: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22, ESV). Wonders and signs are nice and exciting, but unless they are the wonders and signs of the Holy Spirit who always testifies to the incarnate Son of the Father, then they are deceiving signs and wonders. “Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and sacrament. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and sacrament is of the devil” (Smalcald Articles, III:8, Kolb/Wengert ed., 323:10). In other words, if the Spirit is whispering things in your ear and it’s not the Word of God, then it might not be the Holy Spirit.
Is something missing from the Church today? Now maybe what seems to be lacking here is present at some other church. Maybe your friends or family go to a church where the worship is moving and energetic, where the technology is up-to-date, and the people are excited about what’s going on. You might feel a little embarrassed to invite anyone to come here because there is nothing that necessarily reaches out and grabs you at first glance. And isn’t that what people in our culture are looking for? If nothing demands immediate attention, if nothing on the web page makes you linger, if nothing about the TV show keeps your finger from continuing to surf the channels, then no one will hang around long enough to see what you’re selling. But in the Church that desire to frantically pursue whatever will take hold and keep attention shows a lack of trust in the One who actually calls sinners to faith. How presumptuous to think that you and I need to add something to God’s Word to attract people and make them stay! Do you think that you can do better than the Holy Spirit? Do I think that I need to make the Divine Service or my sermons more “exciting” because God’s Word is missing something? As if we needed to liven things up a bit for the Holy Spirit, because forgiveness of sins just doesn’t cut it anymore. As if the problem were in God and His gifts rather than in us and our entertainment-driven, seven-second attention spans. Repent of your desire to make God look better. Repent of your lack of faith in God’s Word. I, too, have doubted God. I have been embarrassed by the Holy Spirit’s lack of flare. I want works of power and wonders and signs like on that first Pentecost. O people, repent! We have put ourselves in the place of God and tried to do what only He can do: cause people to believe and keep them in the Faith.
When the Apostles begin to speak in the languages of all the people gathered for the Feast of Weeks, when the wind rushes violently through the place, when fire rests upon their heads, these things happen for one reason and one reason only: to show that these few men have been sent by God to testify about the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ in the boldness of the Holy Spirit. Being sent, they preached. Preaching, many heard. Hearing, some believed and called upon the God who saves. And through the preaching of His Word, God poured out His Spirit on all flesh. God does not discriminate; He scatters the seed of the Gospel far and wide in order to reap a harvest wherever the seed might sprout and grow and bear fruit. These don’t seem to be neat lines of seed put into the ground with insecticide and fertilizer, carefully watched and tested and guarded. The Spirit, like the rushing wind, blows when and where He pleases, creating faith that trusts the promises of God. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8, ESV). “For through the Word and sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel…” (Augsburg Confession V [Latin text], Kolb/Wengert ed., 41:2).
When the Holy Spirit brings dead people to life, when He gives new birth “by the washing of regeneration and renewal” (Titus 3:5), then such people–even such people as you and me–are called the Holy Christian Church, the everlasting Body of Christ. And this making of new people cannot happen unless the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins is preached clearly and without shame. How does the Holy Spirit make you holy? “‘Through the Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’ In the first place, he has a unique community in the world, which is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God, which the Holy Spirit reveals and proclaims, through which he illuminates and inflames hearts so that they grasp and accept [that Word], cling to it, and persevere in it. … For where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church, apart from which no one can come to the Lord Christ” (Large Catechism, Kolb/Wengert ed., 436:41-42, 45). We may not try to have the Church, the mother of all believers, without the preaching of Christ, nor will there be the preaching of Christ without the Holy Spirit, nor will there be the Holy Spirit without the preaching.
But give thanks to God the Father because Jesus Christ is here and the Spirit has been poured out on you! The Word, as unspectacular and plain as it may seem to the eyes of unbelief, is still preached here. Christ still gives Himself in simple bread and wine to work His powerful deed, His wonder, His sign in you: today He forgives you everything you are and everything you’ve done. He works through your baptism and daily raises you from the grave which you dig for yourself by your thoughts, words, and deeds. The Holy Spirit, who displayed Himself by wonders and signs on Pentecost so many years ago, has done His work in you, and your very life is now a sign which points to Jesus. You are calling your friends and family, your co-workers, your classmates, and your neighbors to come and drink from Him who offers the water of life. They may not see the sign of any wind other than the usual Northern Minnesota wind. They may not see the wonder of flames on people’s heads. They may not hear any foreign tongue other than German or Norwegian. But God has for them powerful works and signs and wonders far better than those. He’s got the powerful work of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners. He’s got water made holy by a Word that washes away your fear and despair. He’s got bread and wine that carry a broken Body and shed Blood to give you new life. And it shall come to pass that everyone who hears this Word and, believing, calls on the name of the Lord, will be saved. They will be saved as the Holy Spirit uses water to crucify them with Christ and to bring them out of death again with the same Christ, risen and alive forever. No, it’s not spectacular by human standards. No, there’s nothing very impressive about the Holy Spirit’s work, according to our dim eyes. But it really does not get more impressive and spectacular than raising the dead. The Holy Spirit has been doing that for two thousand years and more, and He will continue to do it until He creates saving faith in the last heart chosen by God in Jesus Christ. That is why every Sunday is a little Easter where the dead are brought to life, and every Sunday is a little Pentecost where the Holy Spirit comes in the hidden power of the Word and the Sacrament (Sasse). Today is your Easter. Rise from the dead! Today is your Pentecost. The Spirit is upon you! Rejoice in the goodness of your God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! There is no good thing missing from His Church. And Jesus says to you, even now, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37, ESV).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/07/08