Monthly Archives: June 2011
When I was training for the ministry, I remember bridling in one lecture at the assertion that when we chaired meetings, we had to stay neutral. Weren’t we there to give a lead? But rules of meetings took precedence over leadership, apparently.
I found myself in this position last week. I had to chair a complex discussion at my Addlestone church about some proposals to develop our relationship with the local New Frontiers congregation, Beacon Church. They had recently taken over from some Salvation Army people the running of a toy library that hires our hall. They also wanted to run their debt counselling service from our hall, and they suggested starting a post-Alpha course Bible study group on our premises.
This situation would be a problem for some Methodists. While Methodism and New Frontiers agree on core gospel issues, there are some areas of Christian belief where we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We are Arminian, New Frontiers have big Calvinist influences. We are egalitarian when it comes to gender relationships, they are complementarian. My friend Dave Warnock regularly documents these differences, especially the latter one, with some passion.
But despite the potential pitfalls, the story of last week (and the negotiations leading up to our Church Council) is one of grace on both sides. There had been a gap of several months between the old toy library finishing and it restarting, but during that time the rent to us had mistakenly still been paid. There were errors on both sides, and the new manager suggested that each party took a 50% hit. Our Church Council would have none of it. It decided to refund 100% of the overpayment, and calculated there had been a further overpayment which it wished to give back. We knew that although we were not rolling in money, the toy library needed not to be short of funds.
As to the debt counselling, my small and to some extent quite elderly congregation rejoiced that our friends wanted to use our premises. (Beacon don’t have any of their own, and we are located in a prime position in the town.) So yes, have the church hall free of charge for an experimental three-month period. Don’t start until you’ve publicised it properly, but this is a serious social need and if we were younger and fitter it is what we would have wanted to have done. If you can do it on our premises, then God bless you.
And the Bible study? We’re not there yet, because the exact proposals are not firm yet. However, Tom, the senior pastor, has assured us that he will run any study material past us first to ensure we are happy doctrinally with it, and is only too happy if the Methodist deacon and I participate in the group.
Neither side has changed its core convictions. If we debated them, neither of us would convince the other. We would both passionately cling onto what we believe, and to why we think the other party’s views are seriously wrong. However, grace and love can make a way. I hope that is what will continue to characterise the relationship, and will make for a positive witness to the community.
So I was sitting in that meeting straining at the requirement to be neutral. It had some advantages: it made me ensure I was as scrupulously fair as possible to all sides of the debate. But inside? I rejoiced when the Church Council voted as it did.
Being a good (neutral) Christian, though, I had to be sure I didn’t smile.
Yann Martel is the Canadian author who won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for his novel ‘The Life of Pi’. In 2007, he was invited, along with forty-nine other distinguished Canadian contributors to the arts, to the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons in Canada, where they would celebrate fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, the equivalent to our Arts Council. One artist for each of the fifty years that this body had been making grants to aspiring artists. Martel himself had received a grant from them when he was beginning as a novelist.
The Arts Minister, Bev Oda, stood up and gave a speech of less than five minutes. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, spent the time shuffling his papers and did not even acknowledge the artists with eye contact. After the speech, it was all over. There had been a reception the day before, when only twenty-five of the 306 MPs had attended.
Martel was devastated. What could he do? Doubtless these people, the Prime Minister, especially, were busy people. But they still needed stillness, and they needed something to stimulate their imaginations in that stillness.
He made a plan. He would send the Prime Minister a book, every other Monday, in the hope that he might read it. During an election period, he even sent an audio book instead, so Mr Harper could hear the book while travelling.
After sending the hundredth book, he gave up. Never had Harper acknowledged him. Only five times did he receive a three-line reply from the Prime Minister’s staff. In an interview with The Independent newspaper in February, Martel said,
“I can’t understand how a man who seems never to read imaginative writing of any kind (novels, poetry, short stories, high-brow, middle-brow, low-brow, anything) can understand life, people, the world,” … “I don’t care if ordinary people read or not. It’s not for me to say how people should live. But people who have power over me? I want them to read because their limited, impoverished dreams may become my nightmares.”
We are celebrating the end of Addlestone Arts Festival. We have enjoyed music, crafts, poetry and even valuation of antiques – although I confess I’m at something of a loss to understand how Bingo fits into an arts week! I imagine that many of our contributors have seen their art as more than entertainment. They have been glad to entertain us, I am sure. But I suspect many had a bigger vision than merely entertainment.
For example – we’ve had two Disney events. Don’t the Disney films try to take you into a particular world, and see life a certain way? Poetry – don’t poets want to engage our imagination to hear the world with fresh ears? The music about royalty encourages a certain understanding of national life. And so on.
So what does a Christian minister like me have to do with this? I had a failed attempt to learn the guitar some years ago. I can’t sing – although a friend of mine swears he could teach me. My art doesn’t get much beyond matchstick men, and I am embarrassed into inferiority by my eight-year-old daughter. I used to write the odd bit of poetry and song lyrics, but they tended to head in the pretentious/Sixth Form direction.
Where does that leave me? To advocate the historical position the Christian churches had as patrons of the arts? No – because we don’t have the money any more! Although when we did so, it reflected our belief in a good Creator.
It leaves me offering you something that I believe is rich beyond measure. In this year when we mark the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, think about the Bible as a work of art. It’s a compendium of sixty-six books, representing a wide range of literary styles, not only history and poetry but also some literary forms rarely seen any more. It tells of a God who not only speaks, but who sings, dances and tells stories. All these things combine to tell one great story, spread over centuries, if not aeons, that invites our imaginations to see the world differently from the culture in which we live.
So whereas Richard Dawkins urges us to see a universe that is pitiless, indifferent and lacking any basis for morality, the biblical story invites us to see a creation rooted in the work of a good, loving and purposeful God.
Or take the way our culture thinks that the leopard can’t change its spots. We see broken people causing damage and pain to others, and we say they can’t change. Yet the biblical story invites us into a kingdom where people are forgiven and transformed.
We live in a society where dreadful things happen to people and they say, “That’s unforgivable. I could never forgive them.” Yet the Bible invites us into a story where the one who was on the receiving end of the greatest injustice of all prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Or how do we view the future? As ending in death? As the chaos of environmental destruction? As something that science will solve, despite the fact that for all the advances it gives us, it also hands us other gifts such as the ability to cause mass destruction? Or do we think all our troubles will be alleviated by the next hot consumer product? The Bible invites us to imagine something much bigger, with a universe made new and freed from suffering.
A couple of minutes ago, I disparaged my artistic abilities. In truth, there are one or two artistic pursuits I enjoy. One – when I have the time – is photography. Another is writing. I belong to a group of writers who are Christians. Like most novelists, we know the truth of one telling approach about getting our message over:
Show, don’t tell.
In other words, don’t in your story tell people the message you want them to hear. Show it instead, by the nature of the tale. Now the Bible has its ‘tell’ moments, to be sure, but a surprising amount of it is more like ‘showing’ than ‘telling’. Jesus tells stories, like the parable we heard Ben read, and he invites us to see where we fit in the story. Who are we? Are we those who are ludicrously self-obsessed that the invitation to a banquet – yes, a banquet – means nothing? Or are we the people on the margins, not the folk you’d normally expect to be associated with God and religion, but to whom Jesus throws open the doors? Might there even be jazz musicians in the kingdom of God?
So at the end of this year’s festival, I thank God for the artists of all types who have both entertained us and also given us an illuminated commentary on life.
And I also commend to you the greatest Artist of them all, the One who invites us to improvise within his general script, the One who invites each of us to take a rôle in his story.
I don’t know whether he does, but we had jazz in church this week. My little church at Addlestone is used to hosting concerts in the annual Addlestone Arts Festival, but on Wednesday night we not only hosted a concert, we organised it as well – complete with a pre-gig supper for anyone who also booked that.
One of our church members, Phil Brown, is a jazz trombonist, who leads a band called the Phil Brown Swingtet. Jazz musicians don’t always feel comfortable in church, but we were glad to have Phil and his crew with us. Footage I shot with our Flip Mino can be found below.
I was asked to introduce the band with a short talk. I didn’t want to sermonise (and besides, I’m speaking on Sunday night at the thanksgiving service at the end of the festival – text to follow in the next day or so). That meant doing some research.
Firstly, I found a piece by a Christian jazz musician called David Arivett. He quotes some of the prejudice launched against jazzers. From the Women’s Home Journal of 1921 comes this tirade called ‘Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?':
“Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.”
And – perhaps even more worryingly because it comes from as recently as 2007 on an extreme fundamentalist website:
“Like the blues, boogie-woogie, and ragtime, jazz was born in the unwholesome and sensual environment of sleazy bars, honkytonks, juke joints, and whorehouses. The very name “jazz” refers to immorality.” This website goes on to list just about every negative quote on jazz that has ever been written and their main purpose for posting this is to “provide information to assist preachers in the protection of the churches in this apostate hour”!!!! Are you shocked yet? Read on, “the world’s music, in any era, has never enhanced the Lord’s message. The devil was not able to be as blatant in the jazz era as he is in the rock generation, but the same raunchy fellow is behind both styles. Both mediums represent classic worldliness.”
Worse is the thoughtless criticism that he quotes British Christian jazzer Mike Brett as having received:
“I feel that in many Christian’s minds Jazz is a dirty word, so I think for many years now it is music that has been ignored in the church. I have been taken to task for playing jazz as a Christian, the reason given is because of the unsavory and sinful places it has come from in past years. I have been told to get away from it and ‘Touch not the unclean thing.’ Yet the same people who have told me this might have an interest in things like photography which could be used for much more unsavory and sinful purposes like pornography…”
(Oh, and I cite that as one who enjoys photography.)
Well, yes, I know many jazzers have lived deeply broken lives. I recall the line in Steely Dan‘s song ‘Parker’s Band’ (about hearing Charlie Parker):
We will spend a dizzy weekend, smacked into a trance
However, Arivett develops some thoughts about a spirituality of being fully, physically alive that enables us to see things rather differently from these blinkered comments.
Elsewhere, in a sermon I found by Michael P Brown from Canada, we have an argument from history that effectively the roots of jazz are in the church. He refers to two groups of people that moved continent to the USA. One group willingly did so: they were Gaelic-speaking Scots, who brought with them their Presbyterian tradition of ‘line Psalm singing’. One person would sing a line of a Psalm, and others would respond and improvise.
These Scots, to their shame, were slave owners, and that is where the second people group comes in: Ghanaians, who were forcibly transported from their homeland to be slaves to the Scots in North and South Carolina. When the Scottish slave owners took their Ghanaian slaves to church, the Africans heard this call-and-response-plus-improvisation style of singing. They added their own rhythms. Out of that came spirituals, gospel music and eventually jazz.
So we took jazz back to its church roots on Wednesday night (without the slavery, of course). Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome the Phil Brown Swingtet:
My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
To which Mozart replies,
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.
So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.
Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!
But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’
And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.
All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).
Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.
Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.
This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.
The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.
Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.
I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.
But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.
So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.
The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.
What happens at the end of the sermon?
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)
What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.
Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.
So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)
We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.
By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.
But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.
I once had the privilege of registering a wedding for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”
When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”
“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.
We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.
In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.
All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.
Come, Holy Spirit.
“You’ve got to go to the Pirbright Scarecrow Festival, it’s amazing,” said one of the mums at school. It was on yesterday, and, well, Sally was right.
Over fifty scarecrows scattered around the village green and the church, the latter forming a tableau of the recent royal wedding. I think my favourite, even if not the most sophisticated scarecrow, was the ‘cartwheeling verger':
And here he is at Pirbright:
It was a great day. Lots of stalls, amazing sausages and burgers from Fulks the local butcher, music, ice cream, fun for children and adults.
The royal wedding was the theme – or, perhaps more accurately, the theme was ‘William and Kate’. Hence you also saw scarecrows of William Shatner, Willy Wonka, and my favourite, a bush with a speech balloon containing the lyrics to ‘Wuthering Heights’. Yes, the bush was called Kate.
And you know what: the church was the driving force behind it.
Evidently, the event has been going some years, but the way the programme was worded, you couldn’t miss the theme that this had begun from the parish church. They had corralled local businesses into supporting it in various ways, and many local families had made the scarecrows.
No, it wasn’t remotely an overtly religious event, but I wonder what goodwill they build up in the village by doing this.
There is no new sermon for tomorrow. Having to give up time yesterday to help nurse a son who had to come home from school mid-morning, I never got the new sermon finished. I ended up abandoning ship and lightly revising last year’s Pentecost message. After all, I’m in a new location, and furthermore not even at one of my two churches in the morning.
However, I did find a wonderful video for Pentecost on the web, which I’ll be using in the morning. My Facebook friends have already seen this, but here it is (again):
You can download it free in HD format here.
Meanwhile, in other news, headlines have been made here in the UK today by the publication of the annual Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Topping the news has been the knighthood for beloved entertainer Bruce Forsyth. Seventy-three MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, calling for him to be knighted. (He was appointed CBE in 2005.) This honour is for ‘services to entertainment and to charity’.
Now, I have nothing against dear old Brucie, and indeed I have a tenuous claim-to-fame link with him: we grew up along the same road. Not at the same time: he is about the same age as my father. He was a local hero due to that fact, even if a little scathing in his autobiography about the way the town declined in latter years, in contrast to how nice it apparently was when he lived there. In his light entertainment career, he has put smiles on the faces of millions. And never more for me than the classic time he first hosted Have I Got News For You in 2008:
However, contrast this with the announcement that founder of The Message Trust Andy Hawthorne has also been awarded an honour, the OBE. He can’t beat Brucie’s sixty years in show business, but he has put nearly twenty years into work in some of the most deprived estates, with difficult young people and prisoners.
The question I ask is, who has given more to society? Because for me it’s Hawthorne. I have no problem with a nation having an honours system, even if ours contains some anachronisms mostly associated with the monarchy and some remembered feudalism. If a society wants to honour those who have made a positive difference to them, fine. And perhaps that will include entertainment, and even sport, given the gongs also awarded for our cricketers thrashing a poor Australian team last winter.
But make a difference? I’m sure Bruce has raised a lot of money for charity, but Andy Hawthorne has got his hands dirty. To me, in kingdom terms, Hawthorne deserves the higher honour, hands down. At least he awaits a reward in glory. In the meantime, this is an area of British life that only reflects God’s kingdom extremely imperfectly.
What do you think? What would you do with the Honours system?
“We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away.”
It’s a line from Toy Story 3. I’m sure several of you have seen the Toy Story animated films. Young Andy has a collection of toys, such as Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. But in the third and final instalment, Andy is growing up and no longer needs his old toys. They end up in day care, where a bear threatens to put them out with the rubbish, and mocks them for believing in Andy’s love. He tells them, “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away. That’s all a toy is.”
Waiting. We see it negatively today. Waiting for something is a bad thing. That’s why we invented credit cards – to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Ask a child whether she likes waiting, and you can guarantee an answer beginning with ‘no’. That maybe a sign of what an immature society we now have, when that childish attitude is reproduced so frequently among adults.
In contrast, many of you from older generations know the benefit of waiting. You saved up, you waited for marriage and you stood firm in the face of pressure. You know that waiting can be a good thing.
Today, as we begin this new sermon series on the Holy Spirit, we find the disciples of Jesus waiting. In between the Ascension and Pentecost, they are waiting for the Holy Spirit. And while there is a sense in which we do not need to wait for the Holy Spirit any more, because all followers of Christ receive the Spirit when faith comes alive, we nevertheless go through periods of waiting for the Holy Spirit to work. So this morning’s theme of ‘Waiting for the Holy Spirit’ can still be relevant to our lives of faith today.
I want to suggest that when God makes us wait for the Holy Spirit, it is to focus us on what is important. How so? I find three ways in the reading.
Firstly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on our priorities. Listen again to the opening dialogue in the story:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Verses 6-8)
The disciples still think the Messiah came to sort out the land for Israel and to repel the Roman occupying forces. Jesus tells them basically they haven’t got the right priorities. Not that he isn’t interested in politics, but if their priorities are only about what’s in it for them, something is wrong. They need to wait for God’s priority of the Holy Spirit. Because living in the power of the Spirit will do more to bring in the kingdom of God than lusting after political favour.
Jesus tests our priorities by keeping us waiting. When we have nothing, know nothing, get nowhere and don’t have the foggiest reason why, he exposes our priorities and motives. They come to the fore, and Jesus says to us, “Are you concentrating on what matters for God’s kingdom?” The longer we wait for something to happen, the more we struggle with the life of faith not being full of zest, the more we find life in the church dry and difficult, the more Jesus asks questions of us. He wants to know who or what we are trusting in.
So think of those conversations we have about the decline of the church, when we reflect on the unbalanced age profile, full of older people and shorter on younger and middle-aged people. Jesus listens to those conversations where we wonder what miracle cure we might invoke. He listens when we consider trying the latest trendy religious idea that we’ve heard about.
And what does he say in reply? I think he says, you have your priorities wrong. You are not concentrating on the right things. You should be using the spiritual silence to wait and long for the Holy Spirit. He would ask us whether our priorities are to try something humanly clever, where the glory would go to us, or whether our priority is to wait in prayer, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit. Today should be a day when we decide that, however unpromising church life may be, we reject our lust for human priorities and say that we will not rush to solutions, we will wait on God for the Holy Spirit, because nothing matters more.
Secondly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on power. Jesus tells them,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (verse 8).
Here is a reason to wait: we don’t have the power, the Holy Spirit does. It is one of those humbling lessons for human beings.
In fact, I would say it is a much harder lesson for our generation than it was for the first disciples. Belief in God and a general dependence upon God was pretty well universal in their time. We live in the light of a western culture which over the last three hundred years or so has relegated God to the private sphere even when we do still believe in him. We have made science and reason the dominant powers and qualities. Many in our societies think they can provide the answers to everything, and this belief also infects people of faith. We come up with policies, programmes, techniques and reasoned statements.
And it’s not that science and reason are bad. We owe so much to them. Advances in medical knowledge have benefitted us all. Inventions in technology and communication have improved our lives. We should be grateful for innovations like these. We would not want to turn back the clock.
But any idea that science and reason are the answers to everything in life should be tempered by other considerations. These same disciplines have also given us the horrors of nuclear weapons and the devastation of environmental destruction.
And that is to say nothing about other aspects of power. Political power has the ability to achieve much good, but we also know its tendency towards corruption. So surely when Jesus says, “You will receive power” we should see that as good news. Because the power of the Holy Spirit is the power seen in the life of Jesus himself. It is the power best demonstrated in humility and human weakness. It is the power that works to bless the poor and needy. It is the power that raises up the humble and dethrones the proud. Uneducated fishermen lead a revolution, and the wealthy and educated establishment can do nothing to prevent them.
Now if that is the case, why on earth are we satisfied with the limited promises of human power? Why do we run the church on the same values as the rest of the world? Why in our inpatient hurry do we default to the ways of the world?
Often we take heart from the ordinariness and the frailty of Jesus’ disciples when we fail. But maybe we could see something else in their story. As well as joy and relief that we are forgiven like them, could not also be encouraged and challenged by the fact that these ordinary, mundane people were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
If that is the case, then why do we keep rushing into the ways of human power? If we want to work for God’s kingdom, then we need God’s power for that. If we don’t have that power now, then we hold back. We wait. We wait on God.
Which leads me to the third theme that waiting on the Holy Spirit means: prayer. If we need to align our priorities with God’s, and if we need to seek God’s power rather than ours, then our waiting needs to be characterised by prayer. We don’t just wait: we wait on God.
That’s what we see the disciples doing:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Verses 12-14)
They ‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ Here is true waiting for the Holy Spirit. Prayer.
Now this needs careful handling. The moment a preacher starts to emphasise prayer in a sermon, all sorts of things can go wrong. It can turn into a guilt trip. How easy it is to say that we don’t pray enough. And of course that isn’t just the congregation: that’s true of the preachers as well. We can impose guilt without offering positive hope, because we are often not up to much in this area, either. Besides, some listeners will say, “Are you suggesting I don’t pray? Of course I pray!”
So let me say this. I recall the words of a favourite Local Preacher in the circuit where I grew up. He was regularly the most challenging preacher to fill a pulpit there. When he said something to stir us up in a sermon, he often added this comment: “I never challenge you without first challenging myself.” Hence, what I preach here I say as much to myself as to you.
What I’d like us to notice is not simply that ‘they prayed’, but that ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (my emphasis). We’re not talking about a few short, simple daily prayers here: those first disciples made a radical commitment to prayer.
Now that will take on different forms in our varying circumstances of life. Depending on work, family life and so on, we shall each have different ways of demonstrating our devotion to prayer. But as R T Kendall says, “If we don’t have some system, we never get around to it.”
What is certain is that our attitude to prayer cannot be perfunctory. We look down on children’s prayers that sometimes don’t get much beyond “Lord, bless me and my family,” but in truth too many of our adult prayers are no deeper. It can be very telling what requests are put in a church intercessions book – and what requests don’t make it to the book. We want prayers for ourselves and our loved ones, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it feels little different from an adult version of that child’s “Bless me, bless my family” prayer.
The challenge is to go beyond – to be ‘constantly devoting [ourselves] to prayer’ in the waiting time. Prayer for the Holy Spirit, I would suggest. Because we recognise we cannot live by our priorities, and need to align our lives with the priorities of God. Because we also recognise the bankruptcy of depending on human power, and know that the only thing which will turn around our lives and our churches is the power of God, the Holy Spirit.
So can we make a simple commitment today? A commitment to wait for God, and to wait on God in prayer. A commitment so to pray that it is less about asking God to bless us than asking God to reorder our priorities after his, and where we ask him to help us lay down our reliance on human power in favour of the Holy Spirit’s power. Can we make a commitment to wait in prayer for the power of God, the Holy Spirit?
Because nothing less than that is needed for the health of our churches and our witness to God’s saving love in Christ.