When you think of the Holy Spirit, what images come to mind? I would bet that the two images that you first think of are a dove and tongues of fire. The dove comes from Jesus’ baptism, where the Spirit descended upon him in a form like a dove. The tongues of fire come from our reading from Acts which tells us of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to be with the disciples.
Let’s consider those two symbols for a minute. Doves are considered signs of peace, they are docile and pretty. They do a good job at representing the comforting aspect of the Holy Spirit. Fire is not a sign of peace or docile, but the tongues of fire above the disciples’ heads were safely contained. No one got burned. Fire is bright, strong, and powerful, which could help to represent the powerful and inspiring nature of the Holy Spirit.
Fire and doves might the most common symbols for the Holy Spirit, but they are not the only ones. The Celtic peoples of Scotland and Ireland depict the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. The wild goose is better than a dove at portraying the untamable and unpredictable nature of the Holy Spirit. While doves emit a soft coo, wild geese are noisy and loud, often at inconvenient times. Wild geese are mean and are frequently considered pests by people. Wild geese are disturbing, disruptive, wild, untamable, unpredictable, and free.
The Holy Spirit as wild goose helps to get at the more uncomfortable aspects of the Holy Spirit. Yes, I did say uncomfortable and Holy Spirit together. This might sound odd, because we often call the Holy Spirit by the title “Comforter” but the Holy Spirit does much more than comforting the afflicted – the Holy Spirit also afflicts the comfortable when we are in places and situations in which we shouldn’t be comfortable.
We like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, Helper, Guide – and the Holy Spirit is definitely those things. But the Holy Spirit cannot be tamed and put into a box of our choice – the Spirit is wild and free and goes where God wills.
David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, says that “the crucified and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should look for no less in God's Holy Spirit.” He describes two paradoxes of Pentecost that I would like for us to contemplate today.
Paradox #1 – “The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.”
What do you mean, God the Spirit is not here to solve our problems but to create them? I would say that yes, God the Spirit does comfort us through our tough times but does not necessarily solve things for us. And in fact, the Spirit often times wants to shake things up. This is where the image of the wild goose can be helpful. The Holy Spirit makes noise, often at the most inconvenient times, and we are supposed to not chase the Holy Spirit away but to try to figure out why the Spirit wants to disturb us. The Holy Spirit comforts the afflicted – and afflicts the comfortable who need to change.
Human beings become comfortable and complacent, while the world changes around us. We need to grow and change and the Holy Spirit challenges us to do that.
After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples could have gone back to their former careers as fishermen, tax collectors, and so on. But they didn’t. The Holy Spirit came to them and would not let them go back to their old lives, but took them to new and challenging situations and places as they preached the gospel.
Paradox #2: “The Holy Spirit doesn't prevent failure but invites it. Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”
This is also hard for us to hear. I prefer the second way Dr. Lose put it – “the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”
God doesn’t solve all our problems for us. If God did, then Christians would have easy lives. But looking back through the history of Christianity and through our own personal histories, we can see numerous problems and numerous failures and setbacks. Christians have not always done the right things and have not always succeeded at what they have tried. I know that I have not always done the right thing, and that I’ve not always succeeded at everything I’ve tried - and it’s a safe bet that that’s true of everyone here in this congregation today. In the movie Apollo 13, Mission Control says that “failure is not an option.” Well, failure is not only an option but it is inevitable. Life is full of mistakes, accidents, failures, setbacks, things we would not have chosen for ourselves. The Holy Spirit strengthens us in these hard times, not just to get us through it but also to learn and grown from them.
It can also be helpful to think again of the image of a wild goose, particularly a young goose learning how to fly. Geese are awkward walking around on the ground. It is awkward for a goose learning how to takeoff, fly, and land at first. But the goose perseveres and become graceful and strong in the air – able to undertake extremely long journeys with its companions.
An interesting thing about wild geese is that they live and journey in companionship. Likewise the Holy Spirit is never alone but is in communion with the other aspects of the Holy Trinity – God the Father and God the Son. Likewise Christians are never alone, because we know that God is with us, the Holy Spirit is in us. And Christians have one another to journey with – we do not have to fly alone, and in fact, we do much better together.
I invite all of us this Pentecost today, to consider carefully (both for ourselves but especially as a church) - what problems the Spirit might be leading us to face, what risks we might have to take that might end in failure, and how we learn and grow from setbacks.
I’d like to end my sermon today with a prayer:
May the Holy Spirit bring us peace and comfort when needed, as well as very noisy reminders when we need to be less than comfortable.
May the church not try to tame the Holy Spirit and place God in a box of our choosing, but instead recognize the untamable, unpredictable, wild and free nature of God.
May the Spirit create appropriate challenges for us to undertake, that the world may become more and more the Kingdom of God that God wants.
May the Holy Spirit strengthen us through times of setback and failure, and help us to learn the lessons that God wants us to learn and find fulfillment in the journey.
Like a wind blowing where it will, and a wild goose flying where it will, may the Spirit move us personally and the church universally in whatever ways God wills us to be moved. Amen.