Although this piece is about Pentecost, I am writing it on the Feast of the Ascension. This fact along with the Pentecost reading from Acts 2 brings Elijah to mind. Like Jesus, Elijah ascends into heaven. Unlike Jesus, he does not conquer death prior to his ascension. Like the followers of Jesus, Elijah has powerful experience of the Lord’s presence.
In 1Kings 19 Elijah has just accomplished the most powerful act of his prophetic ministry. On behalf of the one true God, Elijah has challenged the prophets of Baal, who enjoyed the favor of the king and queen. God vindicates Elijah’s bold fidelity and Elijah purges the prophets of Baal. Ahaz and Jezebel vow revenge; Elijah flees. He is now a fugitive from royal justice. This is an incredible reversal of fortune. This is not at all what Elijah anticipated or what he thought God had in store for him.
As he flees an angel gives him food and water to sustain him on a journey deep into the wilderness. After 40 days he arrives at Mt. Horeb. He is exhausted, hungry, scared of his enemies, and angry with God. God asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In the face of this question, Elijah’s anger spills over: The Israelites have abandoned God; I am the only faithful person left; I have been a bold and faithful follower of God, even to the extent of taking the lives of others and now the people have turned on me. This should not be happening to me!
The LORD tells him to stand in front of the cave. A strong wind tears apart the mountain in which he is hiding, but the LORD is not in the wind. Likewise, there is an earthquake and a fire. The LORD is not in either of these. Rather, the LORD comes to him in a still, small voice. In the presence of that small voice, Elijah is invited to voice his complaints and laments to God. He also receives comfort and direction.
Our reading from Acts 2 begins with the disciples gathered together as a body. Unlike those post crucifixion gatherings, this one is not tainted by fear. Instead, Peter and the other disciples are waiting to see what God has in store for them. Their expectation is buoyed by the knowledge that their Lord has been raised from the dead and has just recently ascended into heaven.
Into their joy and expectation, God appears with a loud noise and with tongues of fire; the Spirit descends on them. In contrast to 1Kings 19 the Lord is actually in the noise and the fire. Moreover, God not only speaks into them, God speaks through them to the entire throng of “devout Jews” gathered in Jerusalem, to each in their own language.
In both 1Kings 19 and Acts 2 followers of God encounter the living God in ways that are precisely suited to their situations. Just because God’s presence conforms to their situations, however, does not mean that these occasions are comfortable. The great noise of the Spirit at Pentecost and the quiet that follows the tornado, earthquake and fire of 1Kings would have been exciting, terrifying, disturbing and disruptive.
These two episodes remind us that to the extent we remain open to God we cannot predict or control with any precision the ways in which the Holy Spirit will encounter us. Our readings from John and Romans, however, indicate that we can be confident of things the Spirit hopes to accomplish in us through these encounters. Jesus promises that the Spirit will be both advocate and the Spirit of truth. There is a dual focus to the Spirit’s advocacy.
In our reading from John Jesus makes it clear that the Spirit will advocate on his behalf. The Spirit will continue to teach, to bear witness to, and to remind us about the truth, the truth who is Jesus. We need the Sprit to continue to advocate for Jesus because we are not yet able to bear all that Jesus, the truth, wants to teach us. The Spirit finds us whenever and wherever we are, when we are angry and exhausted like Elijah and need a quiet voice, when we are like Peter and the gathered body in Jerusalem and require a loud fiery sound.
In each of those moments the Spirit advocates for Jesus, helping us to bear more and more of this One who is the truth. One of the results of the Spirit’s advocacy for Jesus in us is that we become better witnesses to the world. In Acts 2 the Spirit does exactly this, speaking into and through Peter and the others to make them eloquent advocates for Christ.
In addition, Paul reminds us that the Spirit advocates for us. Perhaps because we cannot yet bear all the truth Jesus would like to impart to us, the Spirit has to advocate for us. The Spirit’s advocacy for Jesus seems to focus on leading us into a deeper, fuller, more truthful understanding of Jesus.
One of the results of this aspect of the Spirit’s work is to render us more authentic, more winsome, more compelling witnesses to Jesus. By contrast, the Spirit’s advocacy on our behalf seems barely articulate. The Spirit relies on inward groaning and sighs too deep for words. These seem to be prayers and longings on our behalf that we may only partially understand, but which are perfectly transparent to God. Nevertheless, these sighs too deep for words that the Spirit utters on our behalf effectively conform our prayers to the will of God.
As someone whose day-to-day work is bound up with words, both written and spoken, I am eager and excited about the Spirit’s advocacy for Jesus. By the same token, it is odd and profoundly humbling that this same Spirit also needs to supplement my prayers and longings with sighs too deep for words so that those prayers and longings can conform to God’s will. It is part of the surprising grace of Pentecost that the God who invites us to pray with hope and boldness also provides the Spirit to offer sighs and groans on our behalf to make those prayers effective.