This Sunday, I get to preach in a sermon series on prayer.
The Christian playwright Murray Watts tells a story of how in his early days in the profession he was waiting at a bus stop with his fellow playwright and actor Paul Burbridge. Fed up with waiting for a bus to come, they decided to pray for one. While they closed their eyes and prayed, a bus came … and went past. Watts says that has always been a reminder to him of Jesus’ words to ‘Watch and pray.’
So how do we pray when it comes to intercession – that is, praying for human need? Our passage gives us some answers, but some of what it says doesn’t always correspond with the way we typically pray, either on our own or in Sunday services. It may be that these verses provide a corrective to the ways we often pray.
There are three questions I think this text will help us with. They sound obvious questions with obvious answers, but I’d like us to pause and hear the answers that are actually given, rather than the ones we would give us a reflex response.
Firstly, how do we pray?
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone (verse 1)
What do you make of these different words Paul uses for prayer here? ‘Supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings’ give us a range of prayer.
Supplications are usually prayers for ourselves. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for things for ourselves. Perhaps we think it’s selfish or greedy. Maybe you’re like me and when you were a child your parents didn’t have much money, so you got used to the idea that with your earthly parents you asked for little or nothing, and then you transferred that over to your relationship with your heavenly Father. In my case, it took some special experiences of answered prayer in my early to mid-twenties before I could begin to feel confident that I could ask God for big things for myself in prayer. I’m still careful and wary of my motives, especially when I want to ask for something I think I will like. Habitually I make major purchases a subject of prayer, and if it something that appeals to me – such as a new computer – part of my praying is to ask God to show me whether this is something I really need or whether I am just lusting after the latest technology. I certainly prayed before buying the iPad you have seen me using lately.
Prayers [and] intercessions probably go together. These are our requests for others. When we intercede, we are the go-between person, connecting those in need with God. It is a priestly role, representing human beings to God. However much some of our other Christian friends may call some of their ordained people ‘priests’, the New Testament sense is that all Christians are priests. We have the privilege of representing people to God, and representing God to people.
If that’s the case, then intercession is a privilege. We are invited into the throne room of God with our prayers for others. Yet if you’re anything like me on this one, sometimes the regularity and even the monotony of intercession make it dull. The sense of privilege gets worn away over time. So let’s pause for a moment and remember what a remarkable privilege it is. As the old hymn writer put it:
Large petitions with thee bring
Thou art coming to a king.
And linked with that sense of privilege, let’s note that the last word used in the ‘how’ of prayer is thanksgivings. Is this something we overlook, too? Intercession is linked with gratitude, because God answers prayer. Oh, I know we sometimes struggle to see the answer, and we often have to wait for him to do something, but answer he does and when he does it is only right to bring our thanksgivings as well as our requests.
This is something that Knaphill has tried to build into its practice of prayer. The church has a prayer chain. If someone has an urgent need of prayer, it is circulated around the people on the prayer chain and they will pray. But we also ask the person requesting prayer to let us know what God does in response to those prayers, so that we can report what happened and give thanks to God for all he has done.
Probably the only area of weekly public intercessions that includes thanksgiving is when we thank God for the departed in Christ. That’s good, but there is so much more to thank him for, when we consider all he has done for us in response to our prayers.
Secondly, who do we pray for?
for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions (verses 1b-2a)
How many of these people are Christians? Few indeed. We are to pray ‘for everyone’ – and Christians are a minority. We are to pray ‘for kings and all who are in high positions’ – well, in the days of this letter very few Christians held high office. But we seek the same amount of blessing for those who do not know Christ, or who are yet to know Christ, as for any Christians in need. It is the job of the Christian as part of mission to bless the world. We are not simply to rail against the aspects of life that we do not like, even if there is a place for a prophetic word against sin. We are also to bless those we believe to be outside the kingdom of God. It is like the days of Jeremiah. When some of the population of Judah was carried off to pagan Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Jeremiah wrote them a letter, in which he told them to bless the place to which they had been taken (Jeremiah 29).
So can we ask ourselves, how can we bless the world where we live? Much of that will of course be by practical action, but it needs to be done on a foundation of prayer. Are there neighbours or colleagues we are praying for? Do our friends know that if they are in trouble, we would be willing to pray for them? Think: what might happen if your friend suddenly realised that Jesus had shown up in her life?
But as well as the general everyone, let us also think about the specific kings and all who are in high positions. Now we often pray for such people in our public intercessions. We pray for the needs of the world, we pray that rulers and governments will act with justice and for the sake of peace. All of that is good and I would not wish to stop it. However, Paul has other things in mind.
Note how this is linked with the reference in the next verse to ‘God our Saviour’. Not only is it true that God is our Saviour, Paul is reminding Timothy that these kings and rulers are not saviours. Some of them expected to be acknowledged as saviours: think of the claims to divinity by Roman emperors, for example. This, then, is prayer that puts things in perspective – God’s perspective. Today we have other people and forces in society who want to claim that they can ‘save’: think of the inflated promises made for consumer goods, to take one example. Intercessory prayer that remembers God is our true Saviour dethrones these idols from their pedestals.
We need to dethrone these pretenders to the throne of God in our own lives, of course, and it is also a vital task for Christians to pray that idols will come crashing down in society. In that respect, is it too irresponsible to wonder whether the financial woes of the last five years have at least in part been a bringing down of false economic gods that have wrongly laid claim to our worship? Does prayer not begin to clear the ground, spiritually speaking, for what God wants to do in truth and love in a society?
And that leads to the third and final question: why do we intercede?
Again, it probably seems like there is an obvious answer. We want things to get better. We want people to be healed. We want to see justice and peace.
Well, yes indeed to all those things! They can all be signs of God’s kingdom, and therefore such prayers are consistent with the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. But Paul goes further:
so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (Verses 2b-4)
The part about leading ‘a quiet and peaceable life’ is probably there because the early Christians were a small and insignificant group of people, often not from influential strands of society. They could not hope to make a big political difference in their culture – and remember, it wasn’t a democracy as we know it, anyway. The best they could hope for was the chance to live undisturbed by persecution. Millions are the Christians today for whom that is also true. They need our prayers.
Beyond that, the ‘why; of prayer goes to another kingdom of God theme: the spread of the Gospel. ‘God our Saviour … desires everyone to be saved,’ says Paul, and he goes on in the remaining verses to talk about the key rôle of Jesus as mediator between God and humankind. Paul wants Christians to pray for those in authority so that the climate will be right in a society for the unfettered spread of the Gospel.
Now there are certainly Christian traditions that pray regularly for the Gospel to reach more people at home and abroad. The trouble is, it’s not one of our strengths. You rarely see anything like that alluded to in official liturgical intercessions, and it doesn’t always come naturally to our lips when our preachers construct extempore intercessions, either. It has slipped off our radar – which is all the more strange when you consider how concerned we become about the decline in church attendance and membership. Wouldn’t you think that one thing we would want to pray for was for more people to start following Jesus Christ and becoming part of his community, the Church? This is something we need to recover.
Certainly we need to lead by example by including this in our weekly public intercessions, and – I would suggest – in our Thursday morning prayers here. But then we also need to follow through in our own private devotions. I don’t know what you include in your private prayers at home – I hope you do pray regularly! One thing we could include is a list of people we know who do not yet know and follow Jesus. Should we not be consistently praying for such people, that the Holy Spirit will be at work in their lives to show Jesus to them?
It is said that the famous evangelist D L Moody had a long list of people he prayed for. By the time of his death, all but two of them had found Christ. I wonder whether he went to his death sorrowful about those two.
If so, he needn’t have despaired. After he died, both of them became disciples of Jesus.
Friends, the question of people becoming committed Christians is a spiritual issue. It will not be solved simply by adopting a programme or a set of techniques. It needs to be handled spiritually, and that at very minimum means prayer.
In fact, what of value does happen in the kingdom of God without prayer? Let us commit ourselves to it.
Via Internet Evangelism Day’s Facebook page: Internet World Stats have published details of Facebook usage statistics around the world. Not only that, these same statistics also mention general Internet usage in the nations of the world.
Of particular interest to me are the United Kingdom stats, which can be found on the European Union page. As of June last year, 82.5% of the population had Internet access. As of August last year, 44.6% were Facebook users.
OK, so some will have opened accounts and either not used them or only used them sporadically, but how much more convincing do churches need that an Internet and social media presence and strategy is no longer optional, it is central? It isn’t enough to say that these statistics don’t reflect the much lower usage among members of an elderly congregation, even when that is true, because such thinking openly betrays the lack of missionary thinking. Is the Internet just a glorified internal communication tool for the church, or is it somewhere to interact with the world in the name of Christ and with the love of God?
Both my churches here have Facebook pages that I set up. At present we don’t use them a lot, and I have to remember to put updates on them. Mostly there is the automated feed of my blog posts through them, but we could think of more, I’m sure. Similarly, Knaphill has a website. Addlestone used to, and is in the process of designing a new one.
The church needs to recognise that people are living a large amount of their lives online today. I don’t simply mean the minority who live almost exclusively online to the detriment of face-to-face relationships: I mean that millions live online in extension to the rest of their lives.
So thank God for initiatives like CODEC and others, such as the forthcoming Open Source evening at the Pentecost Festival (which, sadly, I can’t attend). We need to take what comes out of these ventures and translate them into mission in the local church.
All of this may be obvious to readers of this blog. You come here, either because you visit the site, you get the email updates, you follow it in a feed reader or via my Twitter stream or on Facebook through my account, the blog page, or one of the two churches above. But others need convincing, and this is something we need to communicate passionately and eloquently in our churches – not so that our online usage is a mere digital church notice sheet, but so that we genuinely and conversationally interact with a massive section of the population that we say we want to reach.
One or two of my church leaders recently wanted to think about streaming a video feed of church services online. It isn’t going to prove practical since there are too many hurdles, such as child protection, data protection, the number of personnel to do it effectively and possibly the cost, too. However, nothing could delight me more than that they are thinking imaginatively and not letting the old “We haven’t done it before” slogan prevent them coming up with ideas. What a great bunch of people they are to work with, especially in this culture.
I’m on leave this week, hence a few more opportunities to blog than usual. So yesterday I visited another church, out of the area. (I’m not giving any clues about its identity.) The welcome was warm, friendly and appropriate. The minister was a thoughtful, clear and challenging preacher. But one thing I witnessed led to extra exercise for one of my eyebrows, and it’s this.
The organist. No, this is nothing to do with the old ministers’ joke, what is the difference between an organist and a terrorist? The answer is, you can negotiate with a terrorist. By no means all church musicians are like that, and at Knaphill I am blessed with a godly organist and worship group leader.
The organist yesterday was competent. The music was played competently at a decent, consistent tempo. What could possibly make me wonder?
It was the choice of music before the service. My eyebrow started to get in training for next year’s Olympics when I realised the organist was playing John Lennon‘s ‘Imagine‘. That’s right, the one with the line, ‘Imagine no religion.’ Now I’ve blocked that from funeral services I take, something I don’t often do, but I even barred it when I once took the funeral of a woman who had danced with the Beatles at the Cavern in her youth. (We had ‘Twist and Shout’ instead as we left the chapel.)
Then having settled down again to talk with the people next to me in the pew, my eyebrow sprang into action again. George Benson, but sadly not from his jazz guitar phase. No: ‘The Greatest Love Of All.’ And that contains the line, ‘Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.’
I find it hard to think that the musician would not have known the lyrics. One time a dodgy choice maybe, but two before the same service? Perhaps the thought was, the music is nice but as I’m just playing this instrumentally and we’re not singing the contentious words, it’s OK. However, this service had a number of visitors present, and it could have been predicted there would have been on this occasion for certain reasons. I wonder how they reacted. With a smirk, maybe?
I wouldn’t want any of this to outweigh all the good things from that service, and there were many. The sermon ended with a moving video, and I happen to know there are many good and kind-hearted people in that congregation. The minister is not just a good preacher, but a good person.
However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pastor had a quiet word with the organist afterwards. I think I would seek a diplomatic conversation if this happened in a church.
But maybe I don’t know all the facts, and perhaps I would be wrong in talking to the organist. What would you do?
Sally Coleman and I seem to be interested in much the same things right now. Not only have we both written about theology in the last couple of days, she has written about healing and now here am I doing the same.
We’ve just started running the DVD course ‘Letting Jesus Heal‘ from the Christian Healing Mission at Knaphill. Now before I go any further, I should make full disclosure and say that I have known John Ryeland, the director of the CHM, for a good number of years, and indeed went to school with his wife Gillian! So you can accuse me of bias if you like.
However, I want to commend this course enthusiastically, based on the first two weeks of the six. What I like about the teaching here is that John combines a faithful openness to the power of God to heal with a quiet, gentle approach. In style this is about as far removed as you can get from the hyped-up school of healing ministry so prevalent in some places. It is therefore both safe and ideal for introducing an expectancy that God will work in a context where people might be nervous of showmanship, noise or manipulation.
Not only that, one thing I deeply value about John’s teaching is that he opens people up to the belief and experience that God is speaking to us much more than we realise. How often do we think that God is not speaking to us, or just does not speak to us – especially in contrast to other Christians who, in the words many years ago of Gerald Coates, ‘have more words from the Lord before breakfast than Billy Graham has had in a lifetime’?
Eighteen months ago, I heard John give his teaching on ‘Encountering Jesus‘ and had a simple but profound experience of Christ in relation to some serious pain and disappointment in my life. It forms the second session of the healing course, and while I obviously cannot share any confidences, I know that a number of people heard Jesus speak to them on Wednesday night in the course.
If you are looking for something to encourage people in the area of Christian healing, then, I recommend you take a good look at this course. And if you’re not far from Knaphill, feel free to drop in on us next Wednesday at 8:00 pm.
I don’t do 5:30 am. Although I had to, today. Easter Day began with a 7 am ‘sunrise service‘ at Bisley Clock Tower, the highest piece of land locally. It’s part of the National Shooting Centre, so what better place to celebrate the resurrection of the Non-Violent One?
We gathered to sing three traditional hymns that we couldn’t include in the later 10 am All Age Communion, all to the accompaniment of a melodica. During the hymn before my talk, I felt prompted to change what I was going to say. Working from Matthew 28:1-10, I spoke about the women, the angel and Jesus. The women are the first apostles – they are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Effectively, they are the apostles to the apostles. You would not have chosen women as witnesses in the first century if you wanted to be believed – this is a hint of the account’s veracity. And God is always choosing unlikely people as his witnesses.
As for the angel, I loved the piece where – after rolling away the stone, he sat on it. The very object that had contained the imperial seal of Rome. For the Resurrection shows God’s conquest of all powers and authorities. Whatever we see today in terms of opposition, the Resurrection guarantees that principalities and powers will be ‘sat on’!
And Jesus – whereas later I was to talk about meeting him, now I emphasised him going ahead. Not only is the risen Lord always with us, he also goes ahead of us. Wherever we have to go in our life’s journey, we can find that Jesus has gone ahead of us to meet us there.
From that service to Addlestone for an 8:30 am communion, singing our hymns to the backing of CDs ripped to a laptop. And then it was back to the church building at Knaphill, where our wonderfully creative all age worship team had devised a service featuring scents and spices, an earthquake sound effect, drama, dance and Noel Richards‘ recent Easter hymn ‘Because He Lives‘. Back in February you could email Noel for a free MP3 of the song – not sure if that offer is still available, but in case it is, the link is here.
By the end of the morning, I was exhausted. No stamina, me. I didn’t go to the united service in the evening. But it struck me that on the original Easter Day, at least two disciples moved from exhaustion to energy – right at the end of the day. I’m thinking of the Emmaus Road story. Cleopas and his companion are downcast, discouraged and without hope. But when they recognise the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread, they hurry back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, late at night – even though they have invited the stranger (Jesus) in, because it’s late and you shouldn’t be travelling. The Good News that Christ is risen gives new energy – may it do so to us, too.
Notwithstanding the question I raised the other day about when the Last Supper happened, we celebrated a Christianised Passover at Knaphill tonight. We used this order of service, where one of the things I value is that it takes seriously the wide experience of human suffering. In particular, it does not gloat over the suffering of the Egyptians at the time of the original Passover, and uses that as a stimulus to pray for all who suffer. It also made links towards the end with where Christians see elements of fulfilment in the Passover themes.
We added in some hymns and songs – ‘The God of Abraham Praise’, ‘Thank You For Saving Me’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘And Can It Be’.
I’m grateful for a great team of people who made it work – those who planned, those who cooked (our lamb meal was Shepherd’s Pie – a bit of artistic licence there, and our apple-based dessert was a flapjack recipé that contained apples), those who set things out and cleared things up.
What did you do for Maundy Thursday? What do you recommend? Have you participated in a ‘Christian Passover’?
The World Evangelical Alliance is demanding a halt to the Iranian government’s crackdown on Christians, reports Christian Today. Not that the tyrants in Iran will listen, but what concerns me is this. Our major denominations will speak out on Iran if it’s about their presumed nuclear power/weapons escalation – and that’s right. They will speak out and seek donations to care for those affected by an earthquake in that land – right again, very Christian to do so for a land so hostile to our faith. But why not on this issue – at least, so far? (I have googled to see if I can find any statements, but have been unsuccessful in my search.) Perhaps they will. I hope so.
One of my churches here hosts an Iranian church. (We are not the only Methodist church in the UK to do so: Hexthorpe Methodist in Doncaster also does this.) My Iranian Christian friends tell me they hear of this persecution on virtually a daily basis back home.
There must be something we can do to raise a voice for our brothers and sisters.
We’re starting a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount at Knaphill in the morning. During the service, I’m giving a five-minute introduction to the whole ‘sermon’, which I reproduce below. The next post on the blog will be the initial sermon from the series, which is on the Beatitudes.
Before we get into today’s first sermon in the new series in a few minutes’ time, I want to offer a brief introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not a complete explanation of it, and the themes, but I hope what I can do in this little slot is a modest amount of scene-setting for the next few weeks, without stealing the thunder of any other preacher.
I want to do this by looking at those introductory two verses that come before the Beatitudes, which we’ll think about in the sermon proper later. Here are verses 1 and 2 again:
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
Did you notice that contrast between the disciples and the crowds? Jesus sees the crowds, but tries to get his disciples away from them for some teaching. However, if you were to skip to the end of Matthew 5-7, you will find the crowds still there, roaring their approval of Jesus’ teaching.
So who is this teaching for – the disciples or the crowds? I think it is for the disciples, but Matthew reminds us that we shall always have to live out Jesus’ teaching before the crowds. The Sermon on the Mount is instruction for Christian disciples, but however much we may want to do things in quiet isolation, the world will always be watching us. As we ‘come apart from the crowds’ on a Sunday morning, then, we are doing so to ready ourselves for living out the teaching of Jesus in full view of the world.
Next, I invite you to notice the mountain. Jesus goes up a mountainside – hence ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. Whenever Jesus goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something important happens. There is a revelation of Jesus. The climax of the temptations is when the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain (4:8). On another occasion, he heals people (15:29). The Transfiguration happens on a mountain (17:1ff). And after the Resurrection, Jesus gives the Great Commission on a mountain (28:16ff). So when we read here that Jesus went up a mountainside, we should be ready for something important, something close to the heart of Jesus. We are not about something incidental or trivial here. What Jesus is about to teach is serious and important.
Don’t forget too that Moses was known for receiving revelation on a mountain – Sinai. But here, Jesus gives revelation on a mountainside. This is one hint about the stature of Jesus, particularly that he is the ‘one greater than Moses’ who was prophesied in Deuteronomy to come. Another hint of this comes in the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is the first of five big blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. This is all building up Jesus’ authority. He’s more important than the person who shaped the Israelite nation. No wonder there will be passages in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said … but I say to you.’ He is outranking Moses and all the teachers of his day. He is claiming a higher authority than all of them.
And then he sits down to teach. This was the posture of an authoritative rabbi. In our culture, someone stands to deliver important teaching. Not in first century Judaism. Everything here is screaming that we had better take notice of this man and what he is going to teach.
So I invite you to embrace these coming weeks in this spirit. Anything Jesus teaches is important, but this seems to hold a special status, even among his teaching. He is telling us how to be disciples in the sight of a watching world.
That has to be important, doesn’t it?
If I were ever to be on a TV show, I think Grumpy Old Men might suit me. Not that I would ever be famous enough to be invited, but I can be the sort of person who thinks that Ebenezer Scrooge was given an unfair press. It’s not simply that this is the time of year when Debbie gets out all the Singing Santa toys that she and the children love (and which can drive me mad), it’s this Second Sunday in Advent.
You see, the grump in me wonders why it got changed in the current Lectionary. You used to know where you were in the four Sundays of Advent. The first Sunday was about the Advent Hope – not just Christ’s original coming but the promise of his appearing again in glory. The second Sunday was about the promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament prophets. Sunday number three introduced you to the man with the extreme diet, John the Baptist. Then on the fourth Sunday it’s the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary.
What went wrong? How come we now get a reading about John the Baptist this week as well as next week? Some of it has to do with the moving of Bible Sunday into October, although I’m not sure which came first. Perhaps a grumpy old man like me should appreciate two weeks’ worth of his fire and brimstone preaching, but actually I miss the emphasis on the prophets.
And no, it’s wrong to see the prophets as a job lot of grumpy old men. In the short term, they did warn people about the consequences of sin. But in the long term, they held out the hope of God’s future. In Isaiah’s case, that included the hope that God would send his Anointed One, that is, the Messiah.
So, then, what does this passage from Isaiah point us to in the hope of the Messiah’s coming? I want to take Isaiah’s original intentions and give them a distinctively Christ-centred flavour.
Firstly, let me take you to the manse Debbie and I had in the circuit before last. Known among local Methodists as ‘the Frost manse’, because David Frost famously lived there as a boy when his father was the local Methodist minister just after World War Two. The house had begun life, though, as the admiral’s house for the nearby Chatham Dockyard. Thus, although it was terraced, it was a large house. The downstairs study which Paradine Frost, David Frost’s father, had used when he was there, had by our time been converted into a huge kitchen. There was ample space not only to cook but also to seat several people around a dining table for meals.
There was a large window from the kitchen looking out onto the garden. Unfortunately, it didn’t let in much light, and we had to turn on the lights earlier and more frequently than might have been expected.
Why was this so? Because a large tree stood not far outside the window. Far enough away for the roots not to affect the house, but near enough to darken the kitchen. Eventually, we asked the circuit if they could send in a tree surgeon, which they did, and we gained more natural light when he had reduced it to a stump.
Isaiah begins by talking about a stump:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Verse 1)
‘The stump of Jesse’ is a tragic statement. You will remember that Jesse was the father of David, and all Israel’s hopes had been in him. Yet this seems to suggest that David’s line has failed, even to the point where his father is named instead of him. The great tree has been cut down to a stump. ‘The stump of Jesse’ implies human failure and sin. Time after time, Israel and Judah had been let down by her kings.
Yet, says Isaiah, ‘from the stump of Jesse’ shall come ‘a shoot’ ‘and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. From a long line of human failure, God will grow his purposes. From generations of sinners, God will bring his Messiah. From iffy patriarchs whose morals crumbled under pressure, to Rahab the prostitute, to King David the adulterer and murderer, the ancestral line of the Messiah is filled with broken sinners. Within the purposes of God you get Moses who murdered a man and ran away, then protested when God called him that he couldn’t be a public speaker. You have Gideon, who was fearful and full of doubt. There is Jeremiah, who may well have suffered from depression, yet only Isaiah exceeds him among the prophets.
And so that is the first theme I want to take from Isaiah – the hope of the Messiah is one of God working through sinners. God’s purposes are accomplished through a people that one video clip I saw the other day called ‘The March of the Unqualified’.
This Advent, then, be encouraged by the prophetic hope that whatever your failures, whatever your weaknesses, whatever your disappointments, God is capable of working his purposes out through you. If you think that your sins have disqualified you from God and that you have shrivelled from a tree to a stump, then know that God is able to develop a shoot from your stump and a branch from your roots. The God of grace and mercy has come to shine his light into the world even through a cut-down stump.
Secondly, if there’s one thing I get very little of as a parent of young children, but which I would like to have more of, it’s rest. While – as I told Knaphill last week – I begrudgingly rely on an alarm clock in the morning, there are times when it’s not needed. We have two small human alarm clocks, and one in particular. Rest is something Debbie and I envy in others.
But the trouble with words is one of multiple meaning. Think of how you look up a dictionary definition for a word, only to face a range of options. And ‘rest’ is one such word. In the way I have just used it, the connection is with sleep. But ‘rest’ can also mean ‘stay’. I’d like to combine the two meanings of rest into one, of course: stay asleep!
But it’s this second meaning of ‘rest’, that of staying, which Isaiah uses here:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Verse 2)
It’s not simply that the Messiah will have the Spirit of the Lord, it’s that the Spirit of the Lord will rest – that is, stay – on him. Generally in the Old Testament when the Spirit of God comes upon someone it is a ‘tumultuous and spasmodic’ experience. The Spirit usually comes dramatically, but only temporarily.
Therefore it’s a big thing for Isaiah to speak about the Spirit resting on the Messiah. Here is the one on whom the Spirit will come and remain. The Messiah will have God’s Spirit permanently. And when John the Baptist says that Jesus is the one on whom he saw the Holy Spirit come and remain, he is making a big claim – a claim that here indeed is the Messiah.
What does this resting of the Spirit upon Jesus mean for us? It ushers in the New Testament era of faith, where the people of the Messiah may receive the same gift. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the coming of a new age, the age of the Holy Spirit, where Jesus, who received the Spirit permanently, gives the Spirit to his followers in the same way. There may still be dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit does not generally depart from a person any more. The Spirit may become distant when we grieve him by our sin, but the intention of Jesus in the messianic age is to give the Holy Spirit as a permanent endowment. In this way, Advent and Christmas look forward to Pentecost!
So be encouraged. Just as the Christ child is called ‘Immanuel’, God with us, so he comes with the promise of God being with us – ‘even to the close of the age’ – because he who receives the Spirit permanently gives the Spirit in the same way. Do not think that God has deserted you. As one Christian scholar puts it, even doubt ‘is a time of “disguised closeness” to God’. Or as the liturgy puts it, in a dialogue between minister and congregation: ‘The Lord is here.’ ‘His Spirit is with us.’
So far, then, we have good news twice over: firstly, that God works even through sinners and failures to bring his messianic purposes to fruition. Secondly, that the Messiah receives the Spirit permanently and gives the Spirit in a similar way to his disciples, so we may know that God is always present with us, even when we can neither see nor feel him. I want to draw out a third strand of this messianic hope before I close.
Just as we’ve thought about the word ‘rest’ as having more than one meaning, this third thought also depends on a double entendre. Not in the sense of a rude joke, but because biblical words are often so rich they convey multiple meanings.
There is one such word in our passage, and Isaiah uses it more than once: righteousness: ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor’ (verse 4); ‘Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist’ (verse 5). Isaiah uses the word ‘righteousness’ of the Messiah here in terms of who he is, and what he does. Isaiah uses ‘righteousness’ for the Messiah’s dealings with people, and for the society he creates.
It’s a many-layered word, and at the heart of God’s righteousness in Christ is God’s covenant faithfulness. In covenant faithfulness through Jesus, God will make people righteous with him. Ultimately, we know he will do that through the Cross. But this righteousness is not just a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Day of Judgment. God’s righteousness is also about the transformation he wants to bring to people, to societies, to the world and even to all creation. God’s righteousness is about personal and social salvation, personal and social transformation.
If this is what Jesus the Messiah came to do, it crosses the boundaries we sometimes erect in the church. On the one side we have those who say personal conversion to Christ is the be-all and end-all of faith. They say that society will not change until people are changed by God. On the other there are those who are almost cynical about personal conversion and say the big thing is social justice. Yet the righteousness of the Messiah doesn’t allow us to split personal conversion and social justice and play them off against each other, supporting our particular favourite. Jesus has come to call people to personal faith in him, and to share in his project of transforming the world.
And if that’s the case, woe betide us if we reduce Advent or Christmas to gooey sentimental thoughts about a baby. The baby who came did so through God’s purposes of using weak, sinful people. The baby who came would receive the Spirit in full measure and permanently, and came to give the Spirit permanently to those weak sinners that God delights in using. And the baby who came gave the Spirit to weak sinners to bring them to faith in him and to empower them to work for God’s kingdom.
The prophets don’t let us settle for a half-hearted, diluted hope. Let’s make sure we drink their hope neat.