The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

GETTING DIRECTIONS

Delivered 5/17/98
Text: Acts 16:9-15 (John 14:23-29)
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It is a scary world out there, isn't it? More scary this week than in a long time as India performed those nuclear tests. More to come? Probably.

If we are realistic, we know we have been living on borrowed time. In the over 3100 years of recorded world history, the world has only been at peace 8% of the time or a total of 286 years, and 8000 treaties have been made and broken. On any given day, soldiers are firing in thirty to forty nations. Wars of liberation. Territorial disputes. Religious principles. "One man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist," the saying goes, but the common denominator is death. Day in and day out.

The Center for Defense Information estimates the number killed since the early 1970's at anywhere from a "conservative" 4.5 million to a more realistic 7.1 million. More than one-and-a-half billion people - about one in three of the world's population - live in lands where there is armed conflict.(1) With the end of the Cold War several years ago, I began to get the feeling that perhaps we at least had dodged the nuclear bullet. Now the news this week. How foolish of me.

On Thursday night, 76-million of us tuned in for the last episode of "Seinfeld." Some, no doubt, were like me - because of all the hype, we watched the last episode even though we had never watched any of the others. Curiosity. As I prepared for the "experience," I thought about all this attention being paid to what has always been billed "a show about nothing." Why? Perhaps that is precisely why - in a scary world, it is sometimes nice to have "nothing" to think about, even for just thirty minutes on a Thursday night.

I wonder if the Apostle Paul ever felt that way. Probably. After all, he lived in a scary world himself - no nuclear nightmares, but just about every other kind. Listen to what he says:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.(2)

Whew. Give that man a little Seinfeld.

No. Not necessary. You see, Paul had something that every Christian has (if we only allow ourselves the luxury). Paul had the sure and certain conviction that he was not alone in this scary world, and that the Lord who loved him and gave himself on the cross would not leave him to fend for himself. The promise had come from Jesus' own lips:

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the...Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

And yes, I DID leave out one word. An important one, one which describes the work of the Holy Spirit. Depending on your translation, it might be "Advocate," or "Comforter," or "Encourager," or "Consoler." The Greek verb behind it is parakaleo which means literally "to call to one's side" - usually asking the other for help. In a legal context, it has the flavor of "helper at court."

WHOSE helper then? Ours? Perhaps. But it might mean Jesus' helper as well. The Paraclete comes to speak to us FOR Jesus. What was it Jesus said? Teach us? Remind us of all that JESUS said to us? The Holy Spirit speaks to us ON BEHALF OF Jesus. The Holy Spirit helps us remember the CONTINUING PRESENCE of this Jesus who promised to be with us ALWAYS.(3) The Holy Spirit helps us HEAR Jesus.

What is Jesus saying? It is that wonderful word of peace: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." Peace. Just what we need in this scary world.

But that is not all Jesus says. He may have other words as well. Think again about this brief account we have in our lesson of the Apostle Paul's Mission trip to Philippi. Just before we overhear the story about Paul's vision and the call to "Come over to Macedonia and help us," we find an intriguing few verses describing the missionary journey. The little band is comprised of Paul, Silas, Timothy, eventually Dr. Luke and who knows who else. They had been traveling overland through what is now modern Turkey. They arrive at the port city of Troas on the Aegean Sea, but only after some detours. Listen: "They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas."(4) Did you hear that? "Forbidden by the Holy Spirit...the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them..." Hmm. Yes, the Spirit offers the needed word of peace, but also the Spirit provides directions.

Has that ever happened to you? It happens all the time. You who have been around St. Paul long enough have heard MY story of ending up here instead of Kansas. I will not recount it here, but if you have never heard it, ask me. The leading of the Spirit would have been difficult to miss in that one (even though, had it not been for Christie, I might have).

So saying, that was not the only time I found myself being rerouted from a previously planned direction. It happened right at the beginning of my ministry as I got an unexpected call to "come over and help us" from a little congregation way out in the boonies - Liberty Hill, South Carolina...about an hour north of Columbia, and a century away from prosperity. Liberty Hill Presbyterian had no pastor and, seemingly, no prospects. It was an historic church, having been in existence since 1851. It had been the spiritual home of distinguished leaders of both church and state, but recent years had seen it fall on hard times - families had moved away, remaining members were aging quickly, finances were slim. About all that held the little band together was the listing on the National Historic Register, the cemetery next to the church, and a summertime ministry which offered a weekly outdoor worship for vacationers to a local lake - folks gathered at a marina and hoped for dry weather; seating was on lawn chairs which worshipers brought either by boat or car (almost like the scene in our lesson as Lydia and her friends gathered).

Now summer was approaching along with those lakeside services scheduled from the first Sunday in June through Labor Day. Who would lead them? The call came. I was fascinated by the possibilities, but the timing seemed all wrong. I was brand new at this - I would BEGIN seminary in mid-summer, and the school was clear in saying that new students should try to avoid outside work at the beginning of studies because the burden would be overwhelming. They were especially adamant in suggesting that incoming students not attempt to serve a church during this arduous period. As much as I would have enjoyed the challenge, my inclination was, "Thanks, but no thanks."

To make a long story short, we went anyway, and we were exceedingly glad that we did. The years that we spent there were marvelous and God tremendously blessed:

  • A 25% increase in membership;
  • Worship participation double what it was at the beginning;
  • A 400% increase in the church budget;
  • An increase in benevolence giving to the extent that the congregation became number one in its Presbytery in that category;
  • A new manse that was paid for in full within 90 days;
  • And that lakeside ministry which went from an average attendance of 35 to 40 in the first year to a weekly average of well over 150 with several Sundays going over 200 in attendance).


And that is just a PARTIAL list. Several years ago, the Liberty Hill Presbyterian Church was chosen as Small Church of the Year for the entire Synod of South Atlantic in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As I say, God blessed...in spite of me. Remember, I was the one who had not wanted to go.

I wonder if Paul were ever embarrassed about the spread of the gospel in Europe. After all, his plan had been to preach and teach in the opposite direction. But the call came to cross over from Turkey into Greece, and that began a missionary outreach that changed the course of western civilization.

Do you need some direction in your life? In this scary world, do you know anyone who DOESN'T? Yes, a Seinfeld "show about nothing" is a nice escape for a brief moment, but we know that reality returns with "Film at 11:00." Perhaps there is some direction in which you ought to be aimed, some task to which you are being called, that you need to reconsider. The good news of these lessons this morning is that we have direction available from the best director in the universe. All we have to do is listen.

In the current issue of The Christian Century,(5) James Somerville, a pastor and professor over in Wingate, offers a wonderful and unique way of picturing the Holy Spirit. He uses the Upper Room conversation between Jesus and the Twelve to recall a scene that has been played out in homes since the beginning of time. The kids are on the living room floor, absorbed in their Legos, when suddenly one realizes that Mommy is going out:

"Where are you going?"

"I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also." (14:3)

"Can we go with you?"

"Where I am going you cannot come." (13:33)

"How long will you be gone?"

"A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me." (14:19)

"Who will take care of us?"

"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever." (14:16)

Somerville then takes that picture and drops it into a contemporary scene. He writes:

When my wife puts her hand on the doorknob, her coat over her arm, my children look up from what they are doing to ask: "Who will take care of us?" and she gives them the name of one of their regular babysitters. All of them are capable, and my children enjoy the attention, but if my wife gives them one name - "Brittain" - my children leap up from what they are doing and rejoice. Brittain reads to them, romps with them, acts out plays and makes chocolate chip cookies; she nurtures their young lives like a loving parent, and as long as she is with them they are not afraid.

I don't know that the Holy Spirit has ever been compared to a babysitter. But if you can imagine Jesus as a mother, then it may not be so hard to imagine the Spirit in this other role, as one who cares for the church in the interim between Jesus' departure and return, as one who comforts, teaches, reminds and, yes, sometimes even romps with the sons and daughters of God.

This is the one who takes care of you and me, the one who gives us our directions, the one who offers words of comfort in this scary world. Are you listening? Are you listening?

Amen!


1. Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IA: Parsons Technologies, 1994)

2. II Corinthians 11:24-28

3. Matthew 28:20

4. Acts 16:6-8

5. James G. Somerville, "Who Will Take Care of Us?", The Christian Century, May 6, 1998, p. 471

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