Seventh Sunday of Easter, Exaudi, June 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
The Spirit of God, John 15:26 – 16:4, Ezekiel 36:22-38
Shelee and I are bad dog owners, in at least one respect. We have two lab-mixes, Jack, who is black, and Dan, who is tan. We feed them well and give them a safe place to live. We pay attention to them. We also regularly walk them, often out by the canal behind the justice center in Sidney. And here is where some might say better pet owners would gain some control.
When we walk behind the justice center, Dan is always looking for a fox that lives there. If he finds the fox, Dan chases the fox. Through the farmer’s fields. For just as long as he wants, because we can’t control him. We’re not happy about it. We don’t want Dan running through the fields. We wish he’d leave the fox alone. And, we’re worried what would happen if he actually caught up to the fox. (The fox does seem to be faster than Dan, just barely…)
All the same, I have to say, I admire the fox’s spirit. I’m not sure whether foxes live in family groups or not, so I’m also not sure whether the fox we see is a male or female. I’m going to guess our fox is a female, mama, not papa fox. But either way, the fox’s selfless, even self-sacrificing spirit, is a thing to behold.
The fox isn’t very big, like an oversized cat, less than 20 pounds, I’m sure. Dan is 65 pounds, fast, and has great endurance. So if Dan happens to spot the fox, off they go. We’ve used the shock collar, to no effect. Our calls to “come back here right now” apparently sound like encouragement to Dan. Round and round they run. Most times, the fox loses Dan, in and around irrigation pipes, or if the canal is dry, by running across it and into the North Meadows neighborhood. Basically the fox does all the foxy, dodge and double back stuff that you see foxes do in Disney movies and nature shows.
But the last couple of times, the fox has been different. Early last week, instead of lying low, hiding from Dan, the fox showed itself when we were still some distance away. Off went Dan, and the fox led him off to the northeast, while Shelee, Jack and I kept walking. Then, when Dan grew tired of chasing, and started coming back toward us, running toward where we were standing on top of a side ditch, the fox started chasing Dan. The little fox was running after Dan, and making this strange coughing, not quite barking noise. (For those who have seen the music video, What Does the Fox Say?, I know. I can even describe it for you if you like.)
Last Friday morning, the fox did it again, this time without the dogs. This time Shelee and I were out for a bike ride. Again the fox showed itself, and raced off to the northeast. As we biked along the big canal in that direction, the fox periodically showed itself, and then took off again, trying to make sure we followed it well away from its kits.
The fox showed a spirit of self-sacrifice, almost a spirit of love. I don’t think animals have emotions in the same way we do, but certainly the fox’s acts were loving, in that they were a service to others. The fox was willingly putting itself at risk to protect the family.
When I use the word spirit in this sense, it doesn’t mean spirit-as-in-soul, that is, the non-physical part of our human make-up as body and soul people. Animals don’t have souls. When I use spirit in reference to the fox, it means attitude or manner of living. Regardless of what emotions a fox does or doesn’t feel, its actions displayed a spirit of service, love, and self-sacrifice. And it occurred to me while we were riding away on Friday that the fox’s spirit of self-sacrificing love is a pretty good picture of God, who, despite our sinfulness, has willingly done whatever it took to rescue His children.
Only God is greater. The spirit, or attitude of love, that God displays is even greater than the self-sacrifice showed by our bushy tailed furry friend. For God not only risked Himself to save His children, God actually gave up His life. God didn’t come thirty or forty yards from danger, then pull up short. No, God in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ, went all the way. Jesus suffered and died, in order to draw the danger away from His family. And the danger to His children, which He took upon Himself, was not just from some third party enemy, but rather came also from His children themselves.
The devil is certainly prowling around, hunting God’s children, like my dog Dan chases foxes. But God’s children, you and me, are also working against God’s good purposes, exposing ourselves to danger. It would be as if the fox kits, instead of strictly obeying their mother’s barked commands to get down deep in the den and stay quiet, instead ran out into the open and called to my dog to come and devour them.
When you and I sin, we are running out of God’s protecting care and begging Satan to come and devour us. And by devour us I mean to take us captive to false belief, in order to hold us in suffering, with him and all the fallen angels, forever and ever. This is the risk of sinning, and yet, we do it, again and again. No wonder God had to promise through Ezekiel that He would act, He would do whatever it takes to rescue His people Israel from their sinful rebellion. The Lord promised: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” All of these things God would do, not for the sake of Israel, not because they were so good and deserving of God’s care, but rather for the sake of His Name, by which God had swore to raise up from the children of Israel a holy people to live with Him forever.
And here we see how, yet even more, God is greater. For there is another, greater, the greatest use, of the word Spirit. God does indeed have a spirit, that is an attitude of love and self-sacrifice. But even more, as God revealed at the Creation and throughout the Old Testament, as in our passage from Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you,” and most fully through the words Jesus spoke just before His ascension back to the throne of heaven, God is Spirit. That is, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the One true God who is also three persons, all three distinct, and yet still one true God. God doesn’t just have a spirit; He is the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Helper, sent from the Father and the Son, to protect and build up the Church in these days, when the end of all things is at hand.
Yes our God is not only a good Father, looking out for wayward children. Nor is God only the best Brother possible, the man Jesus who has taken all our sins to His Cross, willingly suffering in our place, in order to set us free from sin, death and the devil. God is also the Holy Spirit, the Helper, the One who takes from what is the Father’s and the Son’s, and declares it to you, the One who by the power of His creating, sustaining, and regenerating Word truly removes our sins from us, truly creates new hearts in us, truly moves us to be self-controlled, sober minded, and above all things loving, all for the sake of His Good Name. It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that we know how and also believe that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has loved us.
The fox does whatever it takes to draw our attention onto her, and away from her children. The Holy Spirit works in almost the opposite way, focusing all His efforts not on drawing attention to Himself, but rather doing all things to get you to focus on Jesus Christ and His self-sacrifice, declaring the story again and again so you can see the Father’s love, poured out for you. Through this seeing and believing, this vision that comes to you through your ears, God gives you eternal life.
And so we need the Spirit to keep helping us, for the life of Christians is not always rainbows and puppy dogs. Sometimes the gnashing and snapping teeth of our enemies are all too real. To the unbelieving sinner that, sad to say, still exists in each of us, the witness of the Holy Spirit is condemnation and death. And so our sinful nature does all it can to survive, trying to get us to believe something else about sin or salvation, anything else, in order avoid the Spirit’s voice. Oh Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.
To the unbelieving world, there is something perverse and even dangerous in those who believe the witness of the Spirit about Christ crucified and resurrected, something subversive about people whose greatest good is not of this world. As Jesus predicted, the Church has always and will continue to face resistance and persecution, as the world tries to conquer and destroy the Spirit’s message. But have no fear, Christ has already conquered the world, and Satan. Their power is limited.
The world promises we can gain power and glory and lasting pleasure right now, in the things of this world, especially those things that God has forbidden. The world says your body is for your pleasure, however you like it. God says the joy of being a man or a woman is found in marriage and family. The world says that material things and wealth are to be accumulated and used to serve you own pleasures, always. God says true riches are found in those good things that you can share with others. The world’s temptations are empty lies, only able to divert our attention us from the truth of sin and death for a while.
The world’s threats against the Church and Christians, the threats of persecution and suffering, are proven meaningless when you contemplate the suffering of Jesus, which He did in your place. The promises of life and peace and eternal joy with God are as sure the Cross and Resurrection, as solid as the Word of God, as good as the Holy Name of God. Your place in God’s kingdom is secure, your seat at His table is reserved, by the power of the Spirit, through the sacrifice of the Son, in the love of the Father, Amen.