Sunday Sermon – January 13, 2019

The Holy Spirit and the Treasure Box
First Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
By The Rev. Dr.  Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL

13 January 2019


May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and Our Redeemer. Amen.


Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  The event marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, where God commissions him to begin his life and work as the Son of God and Savior of the World.

One of the most remarkable features of this event is the dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove.  The outward and visible form of the dove serves as the symbol for the inward and spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will be the divine force and energy which will empower Jesus to fulfill his vocation. One might think of the Holy Spirit as the divine integrating force that brings our doing, thinking and feeling into the fullness of our unique personhood. And, after the gift of the Spirit is given to Jesus, the scene is completed with God’s declaration to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  In you I am well pleased.”

The Baptism of Jesus shows us the new role that the Holy Spirit plays with respect to its relationship with individuals.  The Old Testament describes the Spirit as coming upon a person for a specific task, like when Yahweh needed a king or a judge or a prophet to do something, but the Spirit would then “depart them” when the task was complete or when they exhibited unfaithfulness.  What is different in the New Testament, however, is the permanent indwelling of the Spirit in believers. As Paul writes in (1 Cor 3:16.) “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in your midst?”

When the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence within us, it works to unify our body, mind, and soul.  The Holy Spirit works to restrain us from sin, regenerate our brokenness with grace, and empower us for service.  This is why Peter and John travel to Samaria once they learned that people had come to believe in the Word of God and were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  The process of their new Christian baptism was not complete until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The work of the Holy Spirit, however, is not confined to the one time event of Baptism.  Indeed, the gift of the spirit is present with us always and everywhere and we highlight the permanent and active work of the Spirit in all the sacraments of the church.  

For example, last week, during the Baptism, we celebrated the signature event of the Holy Spirit, when we acknowledged that the person was  “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In Confirmation, we recall this initial reception of the Holy Spirit and ask that the person might be renewed and sent forth in the power of the Spirit to perform the service God sets before them.

When we commit sins after Baptism, it is the Holy Spirit at work within us that helps turn us back to God, and approach God in humility and repentance.  The Holy spirit is also the primary agent at work in reconciliation. For example, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest absolves the penitent by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In marriage, which is a new form of life for those being joined together, we invoke the gift of the Holy Spirit on the new union that transcends the two individuals being joined together.  At the wedding we pray that the power of the spirit pours out an abundance of blessing on them and unite them so that they may become one in heart and soul, live in fidelity and peace, and obtain those eternal joys prepared for all who love God.  

In ordination, which again, is a new station in life, the Holy Spirit is invoked to fill the candidate with grace and power to make them a deacon, priest, or bishop in the church.

For the ministry of the sick and healing we pray the Holy Spirit to sanctify the oil and the priest prays over the person, “As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil, so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit.”  

In the Eucharist we ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts so that we may perfectly love God and worthily magnify his Holy Name.  We also ask God to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ.

Finally, in the Burial Office, though not technically a sacrament, the final role of the Spirit is revealed. It is at the time of death that we lean why the permanent indwelling of the Spirit in us is so important and why God will not remove it. In that office we acknowledge that it is by the power of the spirit that God will raise us from death into new life.

In short, the Holy Spirit is given to us permanently in Baptism, but its power is continually activated and strengthened again and again throughout our life and is especially focused as we participate in the sacraments of the church. It is up to us not to ignore the Holy Spirit and to open ourselves up to let it work its power in us.

As I was preparing to write this sermon, I remembered an event that happened in my life, which helps me think about the permanent working of love and abiding nature of the Holy Spirit.

About 15 years ago, a short time after my grandmother had died of cancer, my mom presented me with a gift that my grandmother had left for me.  I was surprised to be given a gift from my grandmother after she died. I unwrapped the package and discovered an old shoe box from the 1970s. I was very perplexed.  What could possibly be in this old shoe box I wondered? I remember diligently cutting through the scotch tape which had secured the lid to the box.

When I finally got all the tape off and lifted the lid to the box I was astonished to see what I found in there.  I had been given what my grandmother had called her treasure box. A treasure box is a box my grandmother kept for each of her three children and her six grandchildren.  Her treasure boxes were repositories for memorabilia and keepsakes she had from each of us throughout her life.

When I opened up my treasure box, I found a record of my past.  My grandmother had my baby pictures, some of me alone and some of me with her when I was first born.  There were pictures of me in there with my parents, then long since divorced, that I had never seen before.  She had all of my K-12 school pictures, birthday cards I had sent to her, art work I had made for her as a child, the thank you notes I had written over the years, and newspaper clippings chronicling my various athletic and academic achievements.  

One of the favorite things I discovered, were the letters I had written to her when I was a cadet in basic training at the Air Force Academy.  As I was going through that 6 week program, my grandmother sent me a note and a clipping from the comics everyday through the mail. She wanted to make sure I had a little bit of fun and humor in my life each day in the midst of basic training.

As I sat down and looked through the box, and reread our old correspondence and looked at the pictures, I cried.  It was the first time I had allowed myself to cry for my grandmother after she had died. I didn’t cry at her bedside in hospice or at her memorial service.  But, going through that box had an overwhelming effect on me. Each item in that box was a connection that we had made with each other over the years. Perhaps it was having 30 years of memories presented to me in one place that illustrated to me in a new way the nature of the love my grandmother had for me, and reminded me of my love for her.  And, perhaps, it wasn’t until after she died and I looked through that box, that I truly understood how much.

In many ways, I think, we are God’s treasure boxes.  Our lives are records of the work of the Holy Spirit.  If we cut through the tape and we open up ourselves inside, we might see the Holy Spirit depositing cards and letters and pictures from God into the shoe box of our souls.  

If we stop to have a look inside, we might see pictures of people and places and events where we felt connected and recognized God’s actions in our lives.  We might see God’s answers to our prayers written to us as letters. We might see a wealth of notes and cards and newspaper articles where God has connected with us and empowered us to service through all his sacraments of grace.  

For every sin confessed, every praise, thanksgiving, petition and acknowledgement made, every beauty appreciated, every friendship experienced, God responds to us.  And with each response the more our souls become filled with the record of God’s love that has been made permanent with each of us.

Sometimes we forget how much we have already invested in our relationship with God and God’s investment in us.  It is easy to overlook or forget the conversations we have had with God in the past, the prayers and offerings we have made to him, and the grace and healing that he has offered to us.  But, if we stop and reflect on the history of our relationship we’ve had with God at this point in its totality so far, we might be overwhelmed and see it all in a new light.

We will see where God has protected us, redeemed us, and cherished us.  We will see his daily efforts to get us through difficult times. We will see how he reminds us to keep a sense of humor.  But perhaps most importantly, embedded in all the notes and the photos and letters and art work from God, the singular message we receive will be clear,  “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”