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08.19.18 God’s Spirit and Ours, Luke 3:1-6, 15-18 Sermon Summary

by on August 20, 2018

In our Hymns of Faith (Presbyterian Church) series, today’s hymn has been the most challenging, even for a musician who loves hymns! “Come Down, O Love Divine” is a hymn about the salvation through the Holy Spirit. To understand it better, we begin with John the Baptist.

Luke tells us a lot about John through his introduction. He tells us it is the time of Pilate, the occupying Roman Proconsul governing Judea. Galilee in particular is being ruled by Herod, the “Jewish king”—Jewish in name only. It is during the corrupt high priesthood of Annas and Chaiaphas who colluded with Rome. And finally Luke tells us that John is the son of Zechariah who, with his wife Elizabeth, represents the righteous remnant in this roll call of characters.

By positioning John relative to all these others, Luke is telling us that John is “outside” these institutions. He’s outside of the government, outside of the religious orders, even outside the marginally faithful Temple ministry. In order that we not miss it, we’re told that only “in the wilderness” can the “Word of God” come to John.

This means that John’s message is also beyond these institutions. His is a message of forgiveness of sins, but not through sacrifice. Rather John preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Still, John’s message is not the full message. Repentance is not the means of salvation. Some today get that wrong. Some in John’s day got it wrong also. Luke tells us that some of the people, hearing John’s message, began to wonder whether he was the Messiah.

John responded to those queries by saying that one more powerful than he is coming, one whose sandals John was not worthy to untie. “I baptize you with water,” John compares, “but he will baptize you with Spirit and fire.”

Then he offers another image, that of a thresher who, with fork in hand, separates the wheat from the chaff—the wheat to gather, the chaff to burn away.

This, Luke is telling us, is salvation. It is not found in sacrifice, nor in repentance, but in transformation by the Spirit. This is, according to Luke, the “good news” of salvation which John continued to preach. This is good news for us also who make sacrifices to save ourselves, who think living righteously will save us, who believe our sins are forgiven, but who are still restless nonetheless. To us also, transformation by the Spirit is the “good news” of salvation.

“Come Down, O Love Divine” is a hymn about the salvation through the Holy Spirit. Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote the music specifically for these lyrics, and even the music tells us about salvation. Note that there is no time signature. The time signature measures out the beats of a song, regulating the rhythm so it is familiar and pleasant to the ear. The music is telling us that salvation in the Spirit happens in God’s time, not ours. We can’t rush it, we can’t slow it down, and we can’t stop it.

Next notice that the melody seems to wander. It is unpredictable and meandering. Those of us who have been on the Spiritual journey for some time know that the path of salvation takes unpredictable turns. In the third stanza of the hymn, a note outside of the key signature appears. The key signature is the arrangement of notes that sound good together. A C-natural note surprises us because everywhere else it appears as a C-sharp. Again, the music reminds us that the Spiritual journey of salvation includes surprises.

And finally, once we reach the end, looking back—or listening back—we discover we can in fact discern some regularity. Despite the absence of time signature, the wandering melody, the surprise appearance of the C-natural, at the end a pattern emerges. When we are saved by the Spirit, some things will only make sense at the end.

And that’s just the music! Now we consider the verses.

Verse one reads: Come down, O Love Divine; seek out this soul of mine, and visit it with your own ardor glowing. O Comforter, draw near; within my heart appear, and kindle it, your holy flame bestowing.

Those who are saved by the Spirit discover a fundamental Christian truth: We cannot make saving changes in our lives by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. Saving changes come with the Spirit. All we can do is what verse one models for us: Ask for the Spirit to come and to kindle the fire within us, and then wait until she does.

A helpful image might be a forest fire started by lightning strike. We cannot make it happen, but we know when it does.

Slide1

Verse two reads: O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming. And let your glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

The fire of verse one is now focused, burning away earthy passions. It’s like incense which burns away to ash but renders a sweet aroma in its place. Just so, the Spirit burns away that in our lives which is unpleasing to God, purging us to God’s greater delight. Remember John’s image of the thresher.

I enjoy watching a fireplace fire burn. It starts with my configuration of the wood, but then it evolves. The wood is transformed very gradually till it arrives at its end. Our opening hymn describes this process as occurring “until the earthly part of me glows with God’s fire divine.” (“Breathe on Me, Breath of God”) Just so, this evolutionary transformation will occur throughout our lives until we reach our end.

And a by-product of our transformation, according to the hymn, is that the light of this fire illumines our path. As our lives change under the influence of the Spirit, they take direction. God leads us by this light step by step.

A helpful image might be a person walking through a cave with torch. As the torch burns down, it leads us out of the darkness.

Slide2

Verse three reads:  And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling. For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

As the Spirit saves us, step by step, we discover a longing for God, a longing for God’s kingdom, or for “heaven” if you like. Our desire for justice, peace, and reconciliation grows. And we come to accept that these things are beyond human explanation, “outpassing the power of human telling.” Human definitions and means to justice, peace, and reconciliation are inadequate for those being saved by the Spirit.

In a word, salvation wrought by the Spirit occurs through love, where “Love has created a place.” It is there where the Spirit works, and it is there we find our salvation.

This week I came home to the aroma of baking bread. Immediately I discovered I was hungry for bread! Jesus promised that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This image of the Spirit’s awakening within us a hunger for righteousness is part of the fruit of salvation in our lives. As the Spirit increases our love for God, our love for neighbor increases also. And this hunger will be filled.

Slide3

This hymn has offered me a special gift as a pastor and a preacher. To be reminded that the Spirit saves, not the pastor and not the preaching, has given me a prayer. With a slight change of words, I share it with you: “Come down, O Love Divine; seek out these souls of mine, and visit them with your ardor glowing. Amen.”

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