Filled with the Holy Spirit
The late, great John Prine has a wonderful song entitled “When I Get to Heaven.” Part of the lyrics read: I wanna see all my mama's sisters 'Cause that's where all the love starts. I miss 'em all like crazy Bless their little hearts!
John Prine is my man, as you know, because he knows about life and love and family. I want to see all my mother’s sisters: that is, all my aunts, my relatives, my family, because that’s where all the love starts.
That surely was the case that day when Mary left her home in Galilee, in the northern part of the county, the rich, fertile, and beautiful land where Jesus would later grow up and launch his public ministry.
She left there and walked around the Sea of Galilee, down the Jordan Valley to Jericho, and up that famous Roman road into the hill country—the rocky, sandy, and largely barren hill country—to the home of her cousin Elizabeth.
Elizabeth lives in the shadow of Mary. Mary was the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth was the mother of John, who said, ‘I must decrease while Jesus must increase.” Elizabeth is largely forgotten after she gives birth, while Mary begins her centuries long climb to global prominence.
Is there a more well-known female celebrity in the history of the world than Mary the mother of Jesus?
Elizbeth appears only here in the great drama of redemption. In one chapter of one book of our testament to Jesus. She quickly fades from view. She exits stage left and never returns. But Elizabeth has her own claim to fame. She can be an inspiration to us today and a source of direction and disposition and discipleship.
Elizabeth is the first woman named in the gospel accounts. Elizabeth is the first one to refer to the unborn baby, Jesus, as Lord; and, for our purposes today. She is the first person to be described as “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
You and I today can also be named in that long history of the Christian community. You and I can privately and publicly call Jesus Lord and Savior. Most important, you and I today can be filled with the Holy Spirit.
What is the filling of the Holy Spirit?
The most powerful Christian movement in the world today centers on a certain understanding of this phrase. The Pentecostal Movement takes its name from the Day of Pentecost as described in Acts chapter 2. There, the disciples are all together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing might wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them, and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues….
Speaking with other tongues is the key phrase here. It was this experience that ignited a store front revival in 1906 on Azusa Street in California. Thus, was born the Pentecostal or charismatic movement, with its emphasis on a second experience of grace, speaking in tongues, miracles of all kinds, and words of prophesy.
In 1958, in Pittsburgh, at a retreat at what is now known as the John Cardinal Wright Retreat Center, a group of Duquesne University graduate students prayed to receive the gift of the spirit; and thus, was born the Catholic version of the Pentecostal movement. The center of that movement moved to Notre Dame University. When I was there as a student in 1979, my tutor Dr. Ed O’Conner, was the papal liaison with the American Catholic Charismatic community.
Today, it is a global movement. It is the fastest growing segment of the Christian community.
But is this what is meant by being “full of the spirit”—to speak in unknown tongues, to perform miracles, to have ecstatic experiences in public and private worship?
There is another tradition of the spirit-filled life in Holy Scripture.
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She is the first person in the Gospel to be described that way. She does not get the attention given to Simon Peter and the disciples in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
Elizabeth needs our attention today.
Many important women are ignored. Often they are unnamed.
This week an art exhibit opened on Roosevelt Island in the East River of New York City. The artist is Amanda Matthews of Lexington, Kentucky. She created five large sculptures of the faces of five women. The lead face is that of journalist Nellie Bly. She died in 1922 at the age of 57. She was the first investigative journalist, rising to fame with her 1887 book Ten Days in a Mad-House about the institutionalization of mentally ill people. She was 23 years old!
CBS interviewed the artist, Amanda Matthews. This is what she said: “There is only one female celebrated with a sculpture in the whole state of Kentucky. That is a horse owned and ridden by a Confederate general.”
Much like the Bible. Few women rise to notice: Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Hannah, Deborah, Bathsheba, and Esther in the Hebrew Bible; and Mary, another Mary, and Lydia are among the very few given a name in the Christian testament. And Elizabeth. She is mentioned only here, in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.
The majority of female characters in the Bible are unnamed:
- the women who protected their babies and children when the man Herod set out to kill them;
- the woman who sought to touch the hem of the garment of Jesus;
- the woman who brought her last dime as an offering in the temple;
- the woman who talked with Jesus at the well in Samaria;
- the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus on his last trip up to Jerusalem.
Then we read this, after the notice that Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and buried it: And the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw how and where the body of Jesus was laid; and they returned and prepared spices and ointments, then rested. Then on the first day of the week, very early in the morning they came again to the tomb…and they found the stone rolled away. They entered the tomb and did not find the body of Jesus.”
The man is named; the women are not. This is the way of the world, even the Christian world.
I am glad to be preaching in a church started by women, led by women, and served by women. I use the language of Paul to say: Gail planted, Julie and Mary watered, and I am here today to cultivate that same field.
I am thrilled that founding pastor Rev. Gail Coulter is in the sanctuary today. I honor her as a gifted woman of God, as a women filled with the spirit. I am delighted that in my absence a few weeks ago, the Rev. Marcy Mynatt took to the pulpit—actually, this beautiful black grand piano—and preached a terrific sermon (which I have watched from start to finish). I am glad to name the women that have been full of the spirit, that have served the people of God, that have preached the gospel of God.
And I am glad today to elevate Elizabeth to the premiere place designated for her, as a woman filled with the Holy Spirit.
Mary was the young woman of Galilee. Gabriel appeared to her and promised that she would bear a son who would be great in Israel. We know him as Jesus.
Mary went to visit her relative. She is named a cousin of Mary in the King James. But the word is generic and may signal a more general relative. Elizabeth lived in the hill country around Jerusalem. Her husband was a priest and served in the temple in Jerusalem.
Mary was a virgin, and she became pregnant. Elizabeth was older, and she also became pregnant. Elizabeth was past the age of child-bearing but evidently not past the age of love-making! Have you ever heard a sermon on that kind of sex?
I’m not sure whether the Elizabethan miracle described in this chapter was that she got pregnant or that she was still sexually active!! Either way, something good happened.
Elizabeth is a role model for older, sexually active women; she is a role model for raising a child of importance; and she is a role model for being filled with the Holy Spirit. Which of these do you want me to speak about today?
We all can’t be sexually active. We all can’t raise a child of influence. But we all can be filled with the Spirit of God!
Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit when he predicted the birth of his son whom we know as John the baptizer; but Elizabeth was filled with the holy spirit as a pregnant woman.
John was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit; but Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit as she carried her baby to term.
Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit as he was coming up out of the baptismal waters. A voice came from heaven saying, You are my believed son in whom I am well pleased. But Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit as she nurtured her child and said to him over and over again, “I am well pleased with you, little one.”
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit as the baby kicked in her womb, as she welcomed into her house a long-time-no-see cousin, and as she talked with her pregnant cousin about babies and bodies and being a mother.
Here is my point: sometimes we associate the filling of the Holy Spirit with public things, with religious things, with church things: prophetic speech, amazing deeds, and speaking in tongues. I do not demean this.
But let us not forget the more ordinary ways in which we express the fullness of our spirituality. Even in the most earthy of all things: conceiving a baby, carrying a baby, delivering a baby, adopting a baby, feeding a baby, and caring for a baby.
These things are at the center of God’s plan for the world. These things are the core of the incarnation. These things make all other things possible, including holy things, sanctified things, religious things.
Ordinary things, like bathing a baby, and preparing a meal, and washing the clothes, and sweeping the floor, and buying the food—these also demand a fullness of the Spirit of God, a spirit of humility, of gentleness, of patience, of hope, of love.
Walk in the spirit, Paul writes to all of us. Then he spells it out: the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control.
If I must choose between speaking in tongues and telling the truth, I will take the latter. Which do you prefer, public prophecies or private peace? Which does our church need the most, sensational events or self-controlled saints? What does Providence need: a mesmerizing preacher or a congregation of folk who sing for joy and live in hope?
I want to be full of the Spirit of God, don’t you? I want God to control my life, my words, my deeds, my ambitions, my desires, my habits, my speech, my thoughts. I want to be full of the Spirit of the living God.
I may not speak in tongues, but I can welcome the stranger. I may not perform miracles, but I can tell a friend about Jesus. I may not predict the future, but I can give generously to those in need.
Paul the great spirit-filled apostle put it this way: Now brothers and sisters I do not want you to be ignorant of spiritual things…by one Spirit we are all baptized into this fellowship…by the same Spirit we are all given these diverse gifts….and by the Spirit there is a more excellent way: to love one another! Love is kind, is not easily provoked, does not seek her own way. Love rejoices in the truth and not falsehood. Love never fails, but prophesies do. Love never ceases, but tongues will. Love never fades but knowledge does.
You want to be full of the spirit? love one another.
In the end, what matters is faith in the living God, hope in the purposes of God, and love for the people of God. The greatest of these is love. Be filled with that Spirit. Love one another. It is the Holy Spirit of God.