“The Spirit is indeterminate. The Spirit is invisible. The Spirit is an ineffable mystery.” Am I the only one that finds this language annoying? I don’t want a mysterious cloud, or a dancing flame, or a phantom presence. I want more. I want something I can put my hands around, and hold tight–something that has some weight, and a hard edge. If you have something with weight and a hard edge you can accomplish work by its possession. You can break things on it. You can smooth something out. You can hammer something in. You can use it to prop open a door, or hold papers down on your desk. I want a Spirit that in a few windy seconds can still upload a new language in my right cerebrum? I’ll take Spanish please, with a decent accent and a real knack for rolling my “R’s”. Got it? Not likely. From what I can tell the Spirit isn’t taking any orders–this is yet another Sunday when the stuff we read is more fantastic than the stuff we experience. What can you do with an invisible, indeterminate Spirit who is presently, it seems, on the down-low?
Beyond a Spirit I can touch and use, I want a Spirit I can say something about. I’m a preacher for goodness sake! We make our living waxing poetic about all things divine. So give me a creed about the third member of the Godhead that is always true, and always plain and easily understood. Something more than “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.” I believe in a ghost?! With no weight or hard edges? My parents always told me that ghosts weren’t real. Tell me instead that the Spirit is X, and is made out of Z, and the Spirit does Y, and furthermore the Spirit will always be X made out Z and do Y. Tell me that you can find the Spirit here, and not there, and if you say the right things, or the rub the lamp three times it will grant you a wish. Tell me something, anything! Instead we content ourselves with mysterious axioms “God is nigh and hard to grasp.” Instead we quote verses like John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes[‘whence’ and ‘whither’?!]; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I imagine the writers of the Bible themselves would share my frustration. Sometimes the Spirit comes right along and thumbs its nose at the letter of the Law and the anger of the prophets. At other times it seems the Spirit is the Law and the prophets truest champion. There are some stories about the Spirit that are truly liberating and speak to the best of what religion brings to the betterment of the world. There are other stories that are perplexing and downright disturbing. Not every action of the Spirit is Sunday School worthy you know. Not every Spirit Bible lesson ends with cutting out construction paper tongues of fire and attaching them to a head band.
There is one story, for instance, in 1 Samuel 11 where the Israelites are threatened by the Ammonites and the Spirit’s lead is downright peculiar. The Israelites try diplomacy and ask for a pact to be made between the people groups. The Ammonites are amendable to the idea, but they require one troubling concession: every Israelite must gouge their right eye out as a sign of Israel’s humiliation in front of powerful Ammon. The Spirit of God is not amused. It descends upon Saul and he becomes the de facto champion of God’s people. Only one problem: Spirit-led Saul is every much as oppressive as the Ammonites themselves. He takes two oxen and chops them into pieces and parades them around to all the tribes of Israel as a threat to those men who do not join Saul’s army. Is heavy handed military conscription a work of the Spirit? Do it or else?! Likely there were some who would rather lose an eye than engage in high casualty hand to hand combat. Nevertheless the text records that “Terror from the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.” Did the Spirit-led man cause this? Did the Spirit fall on Saul so that the terror of the LORD could fall on all others? Apparently so. Nobody ever hummed that Holy Ghost chart topping single in my Christian house. No wonder some early disciples of Jesus taught us to allegorize the Old Testament.
God knows we could use some allegory when it comes to Jephthan and Samson. Jephthah once again battles against the Ammonites, but he makes a rash vow and has to kill his own daughter in the process. Samson?–well, who has the time? It’s embarrassing really. The text must implicate the Spirit on a hundred occasions–“The Spirit of God fell upon Samson”–over and over again! I’d be keeping that quiet if I was God. What is the Spirit of God doing? Which Samson does the Spirit fall on? Is it the one I learned about in Bible class who had super strength and was a Houdini-like escape artist and a lion tamer? Or did it fall upon the Samson I learned about after I was old enough to read his stories on my own (the unedited version–the director’s cut)–the one who was an insalubrious he-man and a flash point for unrest. The stories from Judges have no shame in how they present the Spirit-led champion of Israel, who by the way, did a lot of ‘spirited’ thinking, but hardly ever with his mind. His Spirit-led idea was to alienate his parents by marrying a Philistine in a short skirt who was more loyal to her own people then she was to his twenty-inch biceps. His Spirit led wisdom was to work for peace by being a braggart and a provocateur. Didn’t Samson know that the favorite headline of every tabloid is the big mouthed strong man whose career is ended by a weakness for the wrong woman? The rag papers loved our Spirit-led Samson.
Indeed they did. The book of Judges makes no effort to present Samson as an attractive hero. He is incapable of getting out of his own way. He repeatedly makes the same testosterone soaked mistakes. He’s a body building womanizer who probably spent a solid hour each day combing his lovely locks that dipped down to the small of his back. He’s a frat house hero not a children’s Sunday school hero. Yet the book of Judges makes is painfully clear that this very Samson was driven about by the “Spirit of Yahweh.” The Spirit of God came down upon him! Sometimes I wonder why we’re still worried about who the Spirit falls on. If it fell on Samson it could hardly do worse now!
I have to confess that I don’t know what to make of it. It’s Pentecost, I have twenty minutes in the pulpit, and I have a Spirit I can’t lay my hands on and a Spirit whose past actions I can’t explain. It’s Pentecost and this whole bit is out of my control. It’s Pentecost and I don’t have a single pound of weight, or one hard edge to cut mustard. Is this really the Spirit that the early Christians waited for and attributed mighty miracles and gifts to?
There are, of course, other words about the Spirit that came down to early Christians: “But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse. A twig shall sprout from his stock. The Spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him. He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, nor decide by what his ears perceive. Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land (Isa. 11:1 ff.).” This seems so opposite of the Saul/Jephthah/Samson stories–stories about power and strength, and macho bravado and poor decisions. Here is a prophesied Spirit-led person who will exercise godly wisdom and careful discernment for the weak. Why the disparity?
There is one common thread between the muscle bound judges and the predicted Spirit-led prophets–protection. Saul, Jephthah, and Samson tackled the external threats that presented themselves to the people of God. The shoot from the stump of Jesse protected the people of God from internal threats. The shoot from the stump of Jesse protected the people of God from themselves. The danger consisted in the creeping erosion of the spirit of the Law that aided the people of God in their compassion for the weak. A spirit that needed continual regeneration as it was always in danger of perversion by corrupted power. As the Spirit of God protected the Israelites from external threats with the likes of Samson, Jephthah and Saul, and established the Israelites as a people, the nation grew in its power and expanded its territory. It became a kingdom. It developed an aristocracy that practiced cut throat power brokering and was mired in political intrigue. Suddenly the thing protected became the thing that needed protecting from. So the Spirit removed itself from the aristocracy and took up residence in a group of gadfly prophets who clamored for real justice in the gates of holy Jerusalem. They defended the poor by asking those in power to look beyond a person’s circumstance–what can be seen by the eyes and heard by the ears–and instead to understand the forces at work that dehumanize and oppress. The prophets were a check and balance in the economy of the people of God. So much so that many of the aristocracy sought to have the prophets killed.
Then the murderous aristocrats self-justified. They said just look with your eyes and listen with your ears. You will know all you need to know about the poor. They are sinners. Like the Turkish family who came this past week for food. For seven years I have known them. When it was her turn to use the pantry the mother would hold her son out of school so he could come and translate. He was thirteen when he started coming. He was so good at begging for his parents he could have sold me a used car on the spot. He came to our country when he was seven. He dropped out of high school because of gang violence. He is twenty now and working on his degree at Boces. He can’t pass U.S. history and reading (apparently those aren’t subjects the members of his household are very knowledgeable about). Most of his friends who are like him take and sell drugs. He tells me he has no bad habits, for he is a good Muslim. His dad is a day laborer. The son confessed to me that this past week his father worked three days for a landscaper in Patchogue. Upon completion of his work his father went to the man to collect his money. The man refused payment. The landscaper said “What are you going to do?” The answer: nothing. What could be done? If he complained then those he complained to would look with their eyes and see a whole fleet of trucks with the landscaper’s name, and expensive equipment, and a thriving business and a man with a broken down twenty-year-old minivan and a gaggle of hungry children and a high school dropout son. If they listen with their ears they would hear the exchange of commerce and a well spoken defense and the pleadings of a man who speaks hardly any English. What could be done? He counted it a loss.
The son is a sinner and a lawbreaker. He drives without a license. I’ve been doing it for years, he said. I’m scared I will be caught. His mother does not drive, and his dad is gone all day. He tells his mother no, but she pleads with him. His younger brother, who has severe hearing loss and a club foot, and his younger sister depend on him. He does what he can. If you just use your eyes and ears it’s hard to see and hear.
It had to be confusing for those early Christians. What is this Spirit? It’s so frustrating. You can’t lay hold of it, and it has no hard edges. What work can it do? We have a powerful empire holding us under its thumb, what good is a ghost? Maybe if it gave us a few hundred Samsons, fifty Jephthahs, and a baker’s dozen Sauls we could make hay. There would be a few things we’d have to brush under the rug, or hide away in the closet (some frat house behavior), but it would be worth it to stop the Romans from gouging our eyes out.
As it turns out the Church has had its share of Samsons, Jephthahs, and Sauls. Some will argue they were necessary–perhaps they were. The Spirit is a mystery. But along with the frat boys came the legacy of the shoot from the stump of Jesse. This champion of Israel did not take up weapons of war against the nations, but rather shined a light into the darkness. It created a new mandate for the amelioration of society, and promoted a new social order that so confounded Rome that it laid bare the imperialist’s own shame and sinfulness, and without compulsion, thousands of its citizens turned to the God of Israel (see Isa. 61:6). Exemplary justice, and the practice of mercy became the most effective means of foreign diplomacy. Not bad for a ghost you can’t touch, without any weight or a single hard edge.
The Holy Spirit will always transcend the church, as it protects it both outside and in. It will always frustrate our pulpits, confuse our creeds, and chastise our leaders. So be it. The shoot from the stump of Jesse is not interested in our comfort, or in providing us a useful tool to carve out our kingdom. The shoot from the stump of Jesse is after justice for the poor and weak–the real Spirit of the Law. May we see with more than our eyes, and hear with more than our ears. For God is nigh, and hard to grasp, and you do not know whence He comes, or whither She goes.