A thoughtful member of Shepherd of the Valley's call committee asked me a great question: What is the Holy Spirit?
It was the first time I remembered anyone ever asking me that, even in seminary.
I grinned from ear to ear and gave an answer that was not nearly as good as the question, but apparently not too bad either, since I'm here.
I was so appreciative that a Lutheran would inquire about the forgotten member of the Trinity.
For five hundred years and six bazillion pages of theology, we have mostly avoided this
The Holy Spirit is too elusive and unpredictable for established western tastes.
We tend to be much more comfortable with a tangible God in flesh and bone and stories
from long ago—that feels more real and manageable.
The Holy Spirit gets associated with people who wave their hands and shout and show emotion, which in plenty of Lutheran circles is like sex, only more sinful.
Studying the Holy Spirit is like tracking an invisible virus that might mutate at any time; it defies our dearly held and guarded addictions to being right and being in control.
So we tend to stick with the Other Two.
But even as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit takes center stage.
At the baptism of creation, the Spirit—the wind from God—swept across the face of the water.
No cell phones were present to record this.
At the baptism in Ephesus, the people talking to Paul said, We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit; maybe they were Lutherans.
At the baptism of Jesus, no one else saw the Spirit either.
Only Jesus saw the heavens torn open and the dove descending.
The voice from heaven didn't introduce Jesus, but spoke only to him.
You are my Son, the Beloved...
In Mark's gospel, no other human being will recognize that Jesus is God's Son until he's dead; only God and the demons know.
The dove is an undercover agent, God coming down on the down low.
There is no app to track the invisible Spirit's whereabouts or activity.
God is up to things that we know nothing about.
This is both our fear and our hope when we pray.
The Spirit, by the way, helps with that too, translating our words and worries into music
that moves God's heart.
And God, who searches the heart, know what is the mind of the Spirit, Paul explains.
God hears our prayers, but the response may not be exactly what or when we want, as
the baptism of Jesus showcases.
It is not only the Voice informing Jesus that he is God's Son, the Beloved, which would be enough.
It is also God answering a five hundred year old prayer.
Please keep this in mind as you lift your own prayers that seem to be going nowhere this week.
Keep praying for peace and wisdom in our shaken, polarized nation.
Keep praying for sanity and civility and trustworthy political leadership.
Keep praying for public health and safety along with a just, robust economy.
Keep praying for loved ones who keep hurting and failing.
Keep praying for those whose desperation spoils into violence.
Keep praying for those whose grief and anger and pain will not subside.
Keep praying for those with whom you cannot in good conscience agree.
Keep praying for the situations that aren't getting any better any time soon.
As you do, please also give thanks for the people in our congregation and beyond who
pray for you and those you add to church prayer lists.
Your voice is part of a chorus of saints and sinners carried home by the Spirit, the unseen
messenger, the undercover agent, the poster child of the faceless mystery.
And remember the details in the scene only Jesus saw:
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and Spirit
descending like a dove on him.
It was the answer to Isaiah's prayer.
Having returned from exile, the nation was struggling.
The rebuilding of the temple was failing, and so was the economy.
Corruption, poverty, and social inequalities and injustices were getting worse.
Malaise, cynicism, and despair were setting in; hope was petering out.
Competing visions for the future collided with nostalgia for a more glorious past that was more wishful memory than hard-nosed history.
The nation seemed to be spinning its wheels in quicksand, gunning harder and going under.
Third Isaiah, voice of hope, whose beautiful, joyful oracles we read during Christmas,
finally lost it.
He looked to the empty sky and prayed:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would
quake at your presence—so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Come down, here, God and scare the world into shape!
Isaiah watched and waited, and the seamless sky remained closed.
Did God hear his prayer or care at all?
Isaiah was long dead when the prayer was answered, in God's time, in God's way.
Mountains and nations did not quake, but shepherds did.
The heavens were torn open, and God did come down—not as fire and fury, but as a bird of
peace that immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness for tempting by Satan.
God heard and honored and remembered and responded to Isaiah.
Prayer is not a letter to Santa or an order at Starbucks, but it does make a difference.
Prayer is the outpouring of a child's heart to her wise, loving parent.
Prayer is the tear-streaked negotiation of a child's face pleading with Mommy and Daddy.
God receives it and responds, but we children don't always know when or how.
The Spirit doesn't always appear or show God's hand or explain God's rationale.
No, we cannot track the Spirit, but the Spirit tracks us.
That's the promise of baptism that we share with Jesus.
That is God's strange, beautiful answer to the end of Isaiah's long, exasperated prayer:
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all
the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
"Yes," God says.
"You are my daughter, the beloved.
You are my Son, the beloved.
I won't remember your sin and I won't forget your prayers.
The Spirit that you might forget about won't let me ever forget about you."