As a small child, I had a tricycle. But when the time came to graduate to a bike, I never had one. The owner of the local cycle shop wouldn’t sell bikes with stabilisers. He said stabilisers were harmful to children’s attempts at cycling proficiency. So because I had a bad sense of balance, my parents never bought me a bike and to this day I still cannot ride one.
Only later did I learn that my parents couldn’t afford a bike for me and that my poor sense of balance helped them save face, but my wobbliness was a self-evident truth.
Just as we need balance to become a cyclist, so we need balance in the life of the Spirit before God. It’s easy to be an unbalanced Christian. We have to hold together various paradoxes to have a truthful relationship with God, but some of us wobble to one side or the other.
To give one example: God is both awesome in holiness and intimate as a friend, but it’s easy to tilt to one side at the expense of the other. Some so stress reverence before a holy God that they fail to hear the good news of God’s passionate, personal love for us. But some emphasise that intimacy with God to such an extent that they become matey with God and miss the importance of his terrifying holiness.
This week’s Psalm is also about balance. It calls us to hold together two different approaches to God in order that we might have a healthy posture before him. They involve on the one hand a downward move and on the other an upward move.
First, the downward move: we call this humility.
My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. (Verse 1)
Let’s make clear what we don’t mean by humility. We don’t mean the kind of debasing ourselves that sees ourselves as worth no more than a worm. We are not looking at the Uriah Heep notion of being ‘very ‘umble’. We are not referring to models that elevate the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. There is good Christian reason for omitting the infamous verse from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate.
There is nothing bright and beautiful about these ways of conceiving humility.
Nevertheless, it is the opposite of pride to pursue ambitions beyond our abilities and callings. The RSV doesn’t say ‘My eyes are not haughty’, it renders the text, ‘My eyes are not raised too high’, and that’s the danger. The naked running after personal ambition in order to elevate ourselves is rampant in our society, and something Christians need to guard against. It isn’t just those in the office environment who climb higher by grovelling to those above them and treading on those below them. It also happens in the church. I know of two sad cases where ministers sought preferment beyond their capabilities, and their ministries were derailed by alcohol – in one case temporarily, in the other case permanently.
How can we judge our gifts with humility, then? Paul has a helpful approach in Romans 12. Significantly, it falls between his call for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and some descriptions he gives of the use of spiritual gifts. His link between the two is to call us to think of ourselves with sober judgement (Romans 12:3).
There are various practical ways in which we can come to a sober judgement of our gifts, so that we do not raise our eyes too high and then fall. One way would be this: there are various tools available that will create an inventory of our likely spiritual gifts. They usually come in the form of a questionnaire. You can find various examples on the Internet. Two of the best known are the Spiritual Gifts Inventory from Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and the SHAPE test from Saddleback Church in California. None of these tests is perfect, but they will get you started. They can be useful material for a home group to use and discuss.
And that leads to the other helpful way to approach this: ask your friends and family what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Again, it can be useful to do this in a small group. I have been in groups where we have written down not what we think our own gifts are, but what we think the gifts of the other group members are. If several people in the group start to spot similar abilities in you, then this is something to take seriously.
Ultimately, a sober judgement of our gifts that takes us away from selfish forms of ambition and pride is the way of peace. When we serve according to our abilities, we have the peace of knowing we are where God wants us.
Remember, it is about serving rather than ambition for ourselves. Our ambition must be for the glory of God, not ourselves. If we strain for things beyond us for the sake of our own advancement, we shall only know strife and cause strife. If we humbly accept the limits and extent of the gifts God has given us and use them for his praise, then that will bring with it the peace that comes from contentment.
So we move to the second element in our paradox, from the downward move to the upward move. If humility means a certain growing down, our second element, maturity, is about growing up.
How is this psalm about maturity? Because the writer speaks of being ‘like a weaned child’. Not a child, but a weaned child. This is not an image of being infantile, this is a picture of growth. A weaned child has come off the breast milk and is progressing with solids. Such a child is maturing physically.
Therefore the psalmist holds before us the need to be mature disciples. But what is it to be mature in Christ?
We hear a lot about the existence of mature and faithful Christians, when all we mean is that certain members have been in the church for many years, and turn up most Sundays. However, such people are not necessarily faithful or mature. They are simply regular. They may display signs of immaturity, throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want, for example. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty such people in over twenty years of ministry.
No: a mature Christian is a growing Christian. Mature Christians are those who are never satisfied with the level of their spiritual lives. They want to know God’s will more deeply, and follow Christ more closely.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews got frustrated with his readers about this very issue. He told them that they should have progressed in spiritual terms from milk to solid food – it’s a similar image of weaning a child. But they hadn’t, and thus were more likely to succumb to the pressures coming on them from outside the church to compromise their faith, especially about the superiority and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Thus it is not an option for the Christian to mature, it is a necessity. Growing in grace is not merely for the keen Christians, it is for all who might be disciples.
That’s why I was saddened to read in our Family Friendly church questionnaire last autumn about the number of members here who don’t engage regularly with the Bible outside of Sunday services. I’m not saying that daily personal Bible reading is a religious panacea, not least because I have known church members elsewhere who have been avid daily Bible readers who have been among the nastiest of Christians. But it is one key discipline among many we need to practise for the sake of growth. It is part of our feeding and our exercise.
But one sure sign of the immature Christian is the person who forever demands to be fed spiritually and makes little effort to feed themselves. Remember that although Jesus told Simon Peter to feed his sheep, it is also true that the Lord our shepherd in Psalm 23 simply takes the sheep to the green pastures: the assumption is that the sheep get on with feeding themselves.
If we listen to the Apostle Paul, we will learn that the function of church leaders is not to keep administering baby food, but to see to it that the church family grows up. So in Ephesians 4 he says that the purpose of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to see the whole Body of Christ grow up. And in Colossians 1 he says that his aim as an apostle is ‘to present everyone mature in Christ’.
But, you may object, I aim at growth but I fail regularly. How, then, would I encourage us to live?
I would point to the words of the late Brennan Manning, who said in his classic book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ that the Christian life is like a ‘victorious limp’ (chapter 10, passim). In particular, he says this:
The mature Christians I have met along the way are those who have failed and have learned to live gracefully with their failure. Faithfulness requires the courage to risk everything on Jesus, the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout our lives.
The image of the weaned child as one of growing maturity speaks to us on many levels. The child will fail regularly, but the parent lifts them up, dusts them down, and encourages them to keep trying – whether it is attempting to walk, to climb, or to learn another life skill.
The weaned child is growing, and knows that a lot more growing is needed. Think how a child looks forward to when it will be taller than its parents. It will take time, but the child expects to grow.
It is a mystery to me why some Christians therefore seem to give up on the spiritual diet and exercise that are required for growing in grace. I am bemused by those Christians who tell me they should just be concentrating on ‘consolidating’. Believe me, there are only two choices in the life of the Spirit: growth and decline. Would the church not be healthier if we were all aspiring, like a child, to be taller?
But the progress from infancy to childhood is bumpy. Eugene Peterson says,
The early stages of Christian belief are not infrequently marked with miraculous signs and exhilarations of spirit. But as discipleship continues the sensible comforts gradually disappear. For God does not want us neurotically dependent upon him but willingly trustful in him. And so he weans us. The period of infancy will not be sentimentally extended beyond what is necessary. The time of weaning is very often noisy and marked with misunderstandings: “I no longer feel like I did when I was first a Christian. Does that mean I am no longer a Christian? Have I done something terribly wrong?”
The answer is, “Neither: God hasn’t abandoned you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You are being weaned. The apron strings have been cut. You are free to come to God or not come to him. You are, in a sense, on your own with an open invitation to listen and receive and enjoy our Lord.”
Your duty in this is to attend to the diet and exercise that bring growth. My duty as your minister is to be a little like your personal trainer at the gym, advising you on the best ways to achieve fitness.
So we’re back to this question of balance. Some Christians can think altogether too much of themselves and need a dose of humility. Using our gifts requires sober judgement and a commitment to God’s glory, not ours.
But other Christians either don’t want to grow or belittle themselves as if they were no more than worms. To such we hold out the possibility of, and the need for growth in grace, by adjusting their spiritual diet and practising spiritual exercises.
Where does each one of us need to adjust our balance?
The pastor of a Christian Science church was talking to a member of his congregation. ‘And how is your husband today?’
‘I’m afraid he’s very ill.’
‘No, no,’ corrected the pastor, you really shouldn’t say that – you should say that he’s under the impression that he’s very ill.’
The woman nodded meekly. ‘Yes, pastor, I’ll remember next time.’
A few weeks later, the pastor saw her again.
‘And how is your husband at the moment?’
‘Well, pastor,’ she replied, ‘he’s under the impression that he’s dead.’
It isn’t long in life before a bright beginning is touched by suffering. A child is born, and discovers pain. Even Prince George will find that out. A wedding and honeymoon is followed by the reality of each partner’s frailties. Someone is converted to Christ, but then learns it isn’t a rose garden.
Meanwhile, we have people who want to play pretend about suffering. They want to act as if it doesn’t exist, or they demand it be magically removed from existence in an instant. Maybe they even try to get round it in a religious way by saying that the body doesn’t matter, it is only a shell for the real person. That isn’t a view you can take while still believing in the New Testament, with its strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body.
The first thing our Psalm of Ascent this week does is be frank about the reality of suffering.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Verses 1-2)
The Scriptures do not get into philosophical discussions about the existence of suffering and belief in a good and powerful God. They simply enter the story of suffering, and describe that narrative. Our Psalmist here is in deep suffering – he cries ‘out of the depths’. While there are great accounts of deliverance from suffering in the Bible – the Exodus, the healing miracles, and so on – we are not presented with faith as a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Faith enters human suffering.
And so, before anything else, simplistic and obvious as it might sound to some of us, we need to embrace the reality of suffering and stop playing games. Henri Nouwen wrote,
Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
Are there areas where any of us is pretending? Are there times when – much as we believe that God heals – he is in truth going to take us the long route to wholeness? We like to believe that if God works a miracle it will be a great testimony, and it certainly can be. However, are there times when we say that, but what we really want is a short cut out of our personal difficulties rather than the testimony? Could it be that God will also bring glory to his name when he takes us on what seem to be detours rather than the direct route?
For me, that was true in one particular instance. In my first year at theological college, I suffered a collapsed lung. My lung had previously collapsed three times a few years earlier, and I had only avoided surgery then when the consultant was inconveniently on holiday. But on the weekend when it happened to me at college, the father of a student friend was visiting. My friend’s Dad was known for having a healing ministry. Surely he would pray for me and I would be healed. But he had left to go home a few minutes before I got back from A and E. This time, I had to have the operation. It meant a week and a half in hospital, a month’s convalescence at home, and three months before I was back to anything like full strength. But God used that experience so that when I visit people in hospital, I have a way of identifying with them and a reason to bring them a word of hope.
That leads to the second piece of frankness in the Psalm: we hear about the reality of God. The Lord is addressed throughout the Psalm. The Psalmist cries out to him (verses 1-2); he acknowledges and relies on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness (verses 3-4); and the Lord is the reason to wait and hope (verses 5-8).
God is there. God is present. God is even in the depths. The Old Testament describes a God who hears his people’s suffering, even if he does not always act on it as quickly as his people would desire him to do. But the cry of suffering reaches him, and he liberates his enslaved people from Israel. He brings them back from exile in Babylon.
Not only that, the same Old Testament begins to describe God as being involved in his people’s suffering, even functioning as some kind of representative or substitute. I really don’t think you can avoid reading passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that way.
What the Old Testament doesn’t have, but which we have, is the filling out of that belief in Jesus, who came as a servant, lived among the poor and suffered death on a Cross.
Ours, then, is the God of the depths – even the depths of Hades. In Christ God stands with us in suffering and he stands for us in suffering. And in doing so, he shows supremely the divine answer to the Psalmist’s cry for mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The merciful God is the One who enters the depths of human suffering, who drinks the cup to its dregs.
As Eugene Peterson puts it,
God makes a difference. God acts positively toward his people. God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily in fits and starts. He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.
He goes on to say,
And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering, for we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering and lost. God woos the rebellious and confused. … Because of the forgiveness we have a place to stand. We stand in confident awe before God, not in terrorized despair.
Suffering is awful, but it is not the final word. God has seen to that in Christ. At the Cross and the Empty Tomb we find that God has the last word. God has not stayed remote and sent us a philosophical answer to our suffering. Instead, he has got his hands dirty. He has come alongside us, and also in his suffering he has accomplished what we cannot do for ourselves due to our sin. He has provided for forgiveness and so we can serve him with reverence (verse 4), or ‘stand in confident awe before [him]’, as Peterson put it.
Now this leads us on to the third and final piece of honest faith in the face of suffering that the Psalmist models for us, and that is the reality of waiting. Hear how he uses words about watching, waiting and hoping:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Verses 5-8)
In the Old Testament, the words ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are very close. There are passages where in one Bible translation the English word used may be ‘wait’ and in another English Bible it may be ‘hope’. You could say that the faithful disciple of Old Testament days waited in hope. Certainly when we face suffering we often need to wait, and our waiting will have meaning and significance if we can wait with hope. That is what we do as New Testament Christians for sure, living in some respects between the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Day.
But what do we do while we are waiting hopefully? The Psalmist suggests we apply for the job of nightwatchman:
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Verse 6)
In my home church was a gentle, devout Jamaican Christian called Clarence. He was employed as a security guard. Anyone less likely to tour a building site at night accompanied by fierce Rottweilers you would find it hard to imagine. But for most of the time, he told us, he was able to sit in the site office. Each night he would take his Bible and his Moody and Sankey hymn book, and study his faith. He may have been the most unlikely candidate for the job, and heaven knows how he got it, but he used his waiting time fruitfully and every morning, the dawn came.
So it is for us. We are on the night watch in our faith as we wait for God who is with us in our suffering to act on our behalf. What we think should not take him a trice is something he chooses for reasons only he can see to take longer about resolving. Meanwhile, in the darkness we wait.
But … we wait knowing that the dawn is coming. Hence we wait in hope. And during that waiting, it would be good if we put the time to good use, as Clarence did.
How can we use our waiting time? We too can certainly take advantage of opportunities to deepen our faith, too. We can express our trust, even if at times it is a bemused trust, in the God for whom we are waiting. We can share our hopeful waiting with others who are also struggling, so that we may encourage them. Such people can be found both inside and outside the church.
I’ll give the final word again to Eugene Peterson:
The depths have a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and hoping by which God is given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and salvation.
I have several friends who are authors. Some are journalists, others are playwrights, some are ghost writers for famous people who cannot write sufficiently well for their books, still others are novelists (everything from historical romance to science fiction) and some write non-fiction titles.
If I have learned one thing from my friends in the writing trade, it is a principle they all hold dear:
Show, don’t tell.
If they want to get a point across, they show it rather than telling it. They do not lecture you; they do not give you philosophical principles; instead, they describe, or they tell a story.
So it is with the Psalms. As songs, they are works of art, like books. While they contain great spiritual truth, they tend to show it rather than tell it.
That certainly happens in today’s Psalm. The Psalmist does not give us a host of reasons as to why we should consider ourselves servants of God; instead, the servant-master relationship is shown. It is described.
And perhaps that’s important when for us the notion of being somebody’s servant is not one we readily approve.
So first of all in Psalm 123, servants look up.
I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy. (Verses 1-2)
Servants metaphorically ‘look up’, because God is enthroned in heaven, not in Jerusalem, the place to which they are heading on pilgrimage. However grand the Jerusalem Temple was, Jewish thought always understood that God was not restricted to a building, nor was he specially present in a holy building in ways that he wasn’t elsewhere in creation. It’s something we who end up venerating church buildings would do well to remember.
But there is a deeper reason in the ‘looking up’. Eugene Peterson puts his finger on the problem:
Too often we think of religion as a far-off, mysteriously run bureaucracy to which we apply for assistance when we feel the need. We go t a local branch office and direct the clerk (sometimes called a pastor) to fill out our order for God. Then we go home and wait for God to be delivered to us according to the specifications that we have set down.
We are so used to being consumers that we treat religion like that. Just as we are used to buying goods and services, and then complaining when they do not meet our expectations, so we treat God. Unless he does what we want, when we want and to the standard we want, we will demand our money back. The title of the Billy Connolly film ‘The Man Who Sued God’ is not so far off the truth of our behaviour. And if pastors don’t meet our expectations, we’ll get rid of them. If churches don’t provide all we want, we’ll move.
But our posture is one of looking up, not looking down. We are the servants, not the masters. And as I said, we don’t like that. We would rather give the orders than be subject to them. My Mum’s uncle told his children that the reason they should work hard at school was so that they were the people who gave the orders, rather than followed them.
Furthermore, servanthood is associated in our minds with some awful things, especially if servants are actually slaves. We might celebrate the abolition of the slave trade, but it still exists and does wicked things to people. If that’s what being a servant entails, we don’t want it.
And this is where the second description of servants comes in: servants seek mercy.
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
3 Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt. (Verses 2b-3)
If you are a servant, then you certainly want a merciful master. And thankfully the testimony of the Scriptures is exactly that about God. Some may fear that being a servant puts us at risk from a despot of a God, but it is not the experience of God’s people down the centuries. Again, hear what Eugene Peterson has to say:
The basic conviction of a Christian is that God intends good for us and that he will get his way in us. He does not treat us according to our deserts, but according to his plan. He is not a police officer on patrol, watching over the universe, ready to club us if we get out of hand or put us in jail if we get obstreperous. He us a potter, working with the clay of our lives, forming and reforming until, finally he has shaped a redeemed life, a vessel fit for the kingdom.
The God described in Christianity is the God Jesus alluded to in the character of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. His younger son has asked for his share of the inheritance – effectively wishing his father to be dead. He squanders money, and is so desperate when it is all gone that he ends up with the pigs – a truly awful place for a good Jewish boy to be. Any respectable father in that culture would have had crossed arms, waiting for his son to return home and grovel, so no wonder the errant son plans his humble speech. But his father does what was considered inappropriate by looking out for his return, and undignified when he runs towards his son.
Tony Campolo tells a story in one of his books where he has travelled from his home state of Pennsylvania to Hawaii and is on jet lag. As a result, he finds himself in a diner at 3 in the morning. The only other customers are a group of local prostitutes. He hears one, named Agnes, say that the next day will be her birthday, but she also says that she has never had a birthday party in her whole life.
So Campolo had a word with the diner owner. He discovered that Agnes and the other prostitutes came in every night, and asked if they could have a party for her the next night. The owner’s wife agreed to bake a cake, and it was all set up.
Agnes turned up at about 3:30 the next morning to the biggest surprise of her life. She even asked if she could take the cake home quickly so that others could see she actually had a cake before anyone else sliced it up.
At the end, Campolo found himself offering to lead a prayer. The owner of the diner said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
Campolo replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
“No you don’t,” said the owner. “There’s no church like that. If there was I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
But this is the God of the Bible. He is full of mercy. He throws parties for those who have completely messed up. There is no fear in being his servant when this is the extent of his mercy.
And that takes us to a third and final description of servants in this psalm: servants are downtrodden.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
4 We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud. (verses 3-4)
That doesn’t sound much like good news, does it? But put it like this: the servants who know their God is outrageously merciful can bring their downtrodden status to him. For a merciful God is one who is on the side of such people. And even if you don’t start off in that category, it’s possible to end up there, purely by being a disciple of Jesus Christ: at times that will earn you the ridicule and contempt of which the psalmist speaks.
We don’t know why the psalmist and his friends were on the receiving end of contempt. It may not so much have been simply because they were part of the people of God, but it might well have been because the people of God were not doing that well in the world. It reads as if they were suffering oppression at the time. Maybe they were being mocked, because that meant it didn’t look outwardly as if they were living under the favour of God. As Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ says to God at one point, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
Those downtrodden by life may cry out to the God of mercy and he will hear them. The suffering People of God may cry out as servants to their master and he will hear them, too. If that is where we find ourselves in life, there is a God enthroned in heaven who will help, normally using human agency to do so.
What might we do about it? Well, remember that this is one of the Psalms of Ascent, sung by pilgrims on their way to the Jerusalem Temple for a great feast. They would surely have brought their troubles to God in prayer – just as they were already doing in the words of the psalm. They would have entered into worship, and thus experienced a little of God’s perspective on life. They would have made sacrifices, prefigured the great sacrifice God would make in due time for them through the offering of his Son. This God would in Jesus Christ endure contempt and ridicule himself so that the lowest strata of society could experience his merciful love.
What does this mean for us now? I think it has to turn us into the kind of ‘church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.’ There is a call for us to show God’s lavish love to those rejected and sidelined by society. If those who endure contempt today are to know about a merciful God, then we have to demonstrate it to them.
That gives us plenty of scope in the wider world. You probably don’t need me to give you too many examples from the news, and I invite you to get involved by supporting organisations that demonstrate God’s love to the broken.
But I also suggest we need to put this into practice close to home and not simply give money to bodies that will do this for us at a distance. We should put out our best biscuits, regardless of who is in the house. If the nice biscuits are only for those who know how to behave, what are we saying about the Gospel? People with troubled backgrounds need to be as welcome as anyone else here at KMC.
I wonder whether people would experience us as the kind of ‘church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning’, as Tony Campolo describes. Or would they react like the owner of the diner, saying, “There’s no church like that,” all the while secretly wishing there was?
When I was a child, one of the great parts of preparing for our family summer holiday was Dad’s planning of the journey. He would pore over maps, come up with a route and then ring the RAC to see what they thought. There was no chance in those days to go online and find out up to date information on road works or local hazards, so he made use of his RAC membership in this way. Armed finally with Dad’s plans and the RAC’s advice, we would set off.
On one occasion, we were heading to Willersley Castle in Derbyshire for our holiday and were driving up the M1. Dad had said something about us going via Nottingham. Mum had dozed off, but suddenly woke up and saw an exit sign for Nottingham. She screamed in panic, and Dad – who was in the middle lane – suddenly veered left across the other traffic to take the exit. Somehow nobody hit us.
And it wasn’t even the right exit for Nottingham. We needed the next one.
As we spend the summer meditating on the Psalms of Ascent, we are reflecting on ‘journey’ psalms. These are the psalms of the Jewish pilgrims as they travelled from wherever they lived to Jerusalem for the great feasts. We, too, as Christians are on a journey to Jerusalem for a great festival. However, our travels will take us to the New Jerusalem in the New Creation, for the great feast of God’s kingdom.
And like the child frustrated on a long journey, from time to time we cry out, “Are we there yet?” knowing full well we aren’t, but impatient for the glories of what awaits us.
So the Psalms of Ascent are there to be sung on our journey, too, and to sustain us in our travel to the light and beauty of God’s kingdom. None of us should speak in this life as if we have arrived: to become a Christian is not that at all. It is to have joined the pilgrims on their travels to Jerusalem.
There are dangers on the journey. It might be the panic that led to my Dad’s sudden left turn to Nottingham. Or it might be other things. One of my favourite places is Lee Abbey, a Christian retreat and conference centre in North Devon. The most direct route there involves 25% (1 in 4) hills, one of them combining the extreme gradient with a hairpin bend.
Go beyond these fair shores and you will of course find far greater challenges than those which challenge my modest driving skills. Some of my sister’s exploits when she spent three months working with a missionary hospital in Rwanda are in a different league. A combination of poor roads, over-filled vehicles and driving skills that make Italian drivers look a model of restraint might about cover some of her stories.
The Jewish pilgrims faced travelling dangers, too. Their feet could slip, and a sprained ankle when needing to walk miles with no cars and no NHS would hamper all the ambitions of pilgrimage and risk further damage to the ankle bones.
By day there would be the high temperatures if they were walking in the middle of the year. My own visit to Israel-Palestine was in July one year, and the temperatures Andy Murray and the Centre Court crowd experienced last Sunday were as nothing to what we endured, needing to drink six litres of water a day to stay hydrated.
Then there were the cold nights under clear skies. Not for those ancient pilgrims the pollution that keeps heat in, but a contrast to the day and little prospect of somewhere to sleep under cover. Wild animals would lurk; perhaps the travellers took turns to stay awake by a camp fire and guard everyone.
We face other dangers on our pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem. The attacks that would derail our journey to the Kingdom are different. There are both temptations and assaults to knock us off course.
The temptations might be summed up in the classic New Testament unholy triad of the world, the flesh and the devil. ‘World’ here does not mean creation in general, which is good, it means the prevailing culture that lives in disregard of God and his ways. So it involves all those temptations to go along with popular values, whether they are godly or not. It might mean the way we are tempted to allow ourselves to be absorbed into Surrey values of continuous acquisitiveness, the accrual of more, the necessity of taking several foreign holidays and driving a ‘Chelsea tractor’. Follow the world too keenly and we lose our passion for God and his Christ.
Similarly, the ‘flesh’ does not mean that our bodies are bad, but it does refer to a couple of things. One is our general sinful nature, our predisposition to selfishness, which can manifest in characteristics such as the whole culture of entitlement. I’m reminded of the old slogan that ‘sin is a little word with ‘I’ in the middle’.
And the flesh can also be about those ways in which good bodily desires take over and dominate. Appetites of all kinds are necessary in the ways they alert us to physical needs. But when we allow them to dominate, we end up as slaves to them, rather than servants of Christ.
The devil? Although I struggle with those Christians who see Satan behind every bad thing, I believe those who dismiss his existence are equally naïve. Jesus acknowledged the presence of an enemy of our lives, and we must beware the ways in which he tempts us by asking us to make a deal with sin.
But it is not only temptation to sin that threatens to take us off course. As well as sin, we have to cope with being sinned against – the violences done to us that we do not deserve. The enemy laughs at our pain, and further when those assaults raise questions in our minds about the goodness or even the existence of God.
Where, then, do we look for help in staying en route to the New Jerusalem? The Jewish pilgrims looked around. Perhaps when you hear those famous opening words of this psalm,
I lift up my eyes to the mountains –
where does my help come from? (Verse 1)
you think that the mountains were where they found help. Aren’t the mountains a sign of the grandeur and power of God?
Well, in some parts of Scripture they are, but not here. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the mountains and their foothills were anything but. They were bandit country. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
And hear also what Eugene Peterson has to say about them in this psalm:
During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practised on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil. There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road. Do you fear the sun’s heat? Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god. Are you fearful of the malign influence of moonlight? Go to the moon priestess and buy an amulet. Are you haunted by the demons that can use any pebble under your foot to trip you? Go to the shrine and learn the magic formula to ward off the mischief. From whence shall my help come? From Baal? From the sun priest? From the moon priestess?
Is it possible that today we too go to the wrong spiritual sources for protection from the dangers of our journey to Jerusalem? I think so. The Christian who spends more time in the horoscope column than the Scriptures. Those more concerned to follow the latest guru who has been interviewed by Richard and Judy, or promoted by Oprah Winfrey. The believer who takes more guidance from friends at the health club or the school gate rather than the accumulated ancient wisdom of the Church. The church member who seeks security more in received financial wisdom than in Christ. All too often we look to our mountains instead of to the Lord.
Because that is where our help truly comes from:
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth. (Verse 2)
Not from the hills, but from the Lord. He has the power to keep us on the road. It is to him that we should turn.
How, then, does our Lord keep us on track or even put us back on the road?
Taking first the question of how our own sin (‘world, flesh and devil’-caused) takes us off-road, we remember before anything else how astonishing the forgiveness of God is. Our Father is not grudging in forgiving us; he is the Father who throws lavish parties with feasting for returning prodigals. What could be more wonderful for getting us back in the right direction, aligning our lives with the life of the world to come?
And accompanying that is the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. God’s commitment to us is that he will always set us back on the road through forgiveness, and he will give us the strength to stay on the road.
But what about the way we get knocked off by what is done to us? How often are we discouraged by the rude interruption of suffering, and the seismic jolts of untoward life events? Some of us question God’s existence, and so the journey becomes pointless. Some of us don’t do that, but we wonder about God’s goodness, and whether we want to move closer to him.
In response to that, I want to share with you something that struck me recently when I was reading an old John Ortberg book. He talks about the way God pays attention to us. He describes the number of times in the Gospels that something happens for good because Jesus ‘saw’ someone. He refers to the so-called Aaronic blessing with which we shall conclude Holy Communion this morning – the same words we use to bless babies who are baptised:
The LORD bless you and keep you,
The LORD make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you,
The LORD look on you with kindness and give you peace.
If God’s face is shining on us and he is looking on us with kindness, then surely he is paying attention to us.
“But,” we say, “God is silent in my suffering. I can’t hear him saying anything to me.”
Might that mean, then, that what God is actually doing as he pays attention to us is simply listening? The best listeners are those who are not thinking of how they will reply while the other person speaks. Could it be that God knows we still need to pour out more of our pain to him before he says a word? Perhaps, unlike the husband who hides behind his newspaper when his wife begins to speak, God is quietly giving us his attention, ready to speak when necessary. Maybe this is his ‘watching over you’ that the Psalmist describes (verse 5).
I venture to suggest, then, that while God does not stop harm coming our way, he ‘will keep [us] from all harm’ (verse 7) and ‘watch over [our] coming and going’ (verse 8) by keeping our spiritual lives with him. The God of Psalm 121 is the God of assurance. Wesley said we not only need to be saved and can be saved – even saved to the uttermost – we can also know we are saved.
And this God – the God of assurance – is the God of Psalm 121, the God who sets us back on our eternal journey.
During my first sabbatical, I went on a creative writing course. The timing was rather iffy – it was a couple of weeks before Debbie was due to give birth to our daughter, our first-born. I was allowed to sit in the seminars with my mobile phone on the desk, switched on. The one occasion it rang was on a morning when I knew Debbie was seeing the midwife, and I rushed out to answer the call. Other participants on the course said I was as white as a sheet – although surely budding writers could have come up with a more original image!
Fortunately, baby Rebekah was too busy inside the womb enjoying Debbie’s cravings for Cadbury’s Crème Eggs to consider a minor inconvenience like birth. And so I got through the whole week, learning from writers who specialised in a wide range of fields, from journalism and radio to – er – romantic fiction. (Not quite my favourite genre of literature.)
But it was the romantic novelist whose input stayed most with me, and I say this not only as a man (who would not like such books) but also as someone who rebelled against the teaching of English Literature at school. Far too girly and nothing like as useful as science, I thought then.
No: the romantic novelist taught us some important elements about how to tell a story well. You had to have an introduction which got you into the problem that the story was to solve. Most of the book was about the tension of trying to resolve the problem. Finally, it is resolved and at that point you finish the story quickly rather than stringing it out. She also introduced us to the ‘back story’ – that is, the lives of the characters before their appearance in the story.
I share all this, because when we come as we always do at the beginning of Lent to the account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, we often speak of it as a story in its own right. However, it is not. The signs are there at the beginning and end of our reading. We begin with Jesus returning from the Jordan (verse 1), which tells us this is following on from what we have just read, and we end with the devil departing from Jesus ‘until an opportune time’ (verse 13).
In other words, this is an episode, not the whole story, and it has clear connections with what surrounds it. So this morning I want to explore the temptations within the big story of Jesus and the Gospel. We’ll take four key elements of the episode and set them in a bigger context.
Firstly, I want us to consider the role of the Holy Spirit in the episode and the bigger story. Our reading begins with Jesus ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ yet ‘led by the Spirit in the wilderness’. Is that what we expect the Spirit-filled life to look like – a wilderness time? The relationship so far between Jesus and the Spirit has been warm. He has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and he has just been baptised in the Jordan, where the Spirit has descended upon him. Yet for all these positive experiences of the Holy Spirit, now Jesus finds that the same Spirit leads him in the wilderness, that is, in a bleak and parched place.
What’s more, Luke’s language is forceful. ‘Led by the Spirit’ is a rather weak translation, and it makes us think of the sometimes fuzzy or sentimental ways in which Christians say they ‘feel led’ to do something. But the word Luke uses means ‘to be thrown out’. It conjures up the hurling of a ball – say, like a cricketer fielding on the boundary and vigorously flinging the ball back to the wicket-keeper. Jesus is ‘flung’ by the Spirit in the wilderness.
How can this be so? How can the wilderness be in the purposes of God? Isn’t the Holy Spirit the ‘Comforter’? Don’t we just expect warm, glowing experiences of God when the Spirit is present in fullness?
Apparently not. Wilderness experiences can be just as much a part of the Christian pilgrimage as the dizzy, thin-air ecstasies of the mountain-top. To get the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land required a time in the wilderness. When Israel rebels some centuries later and is unfaithful to the Lord by worshipping idols, the prophet Hosea says that God will woo his people in the wilderness. It can be in the wilderness seasons of our lives that God strips things away from us so that our devotion to him is renewed. The comfortable things on which we rely, the good things which we have elevated too highly in our lives – these he puts aside for a season so that we may remember who our first love is.
Perhaps that is one of the purposes of a Lenten exercise – to consider again the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as being worthy of devotion before and above all else. How dangerous it is when faith becomes corrupted into a hobby.
And that leads us to our second theme, namely that of self-denial, seen in the way Jesus fasted during the forty days (verse 2). Those of you with good memories will remember the days of an annual event in churches called ‘Self Denial Week’. For one week, we lived differently. Now I think those events can be helpful, but only if they are signs and symbols of a wider commitment to self-denial. Jesus didn’t simply fast for forty days and then think, “Great, now I can get back to self-indulgence.” Nothing of the sort. He rebuffs the first temptation to turn stones into bread (verse 4). He refuses to worship the devil (verse 8), because that will subvert all he has come to do. He will not go for the spectacular show-off event of diving off the Temple like a religious stuntman (verse 12).
Why? Because all three temptations go against his core mission, which is based around denying himself in order to love and serve others. This is what he came to do. Oh, we see plenty of evidence that Jesus enjoyed life. Religious killjoys can take no true inspiration from him. However, from the Incarnation to the Cross, his is a life and ministry of self-giving.
Does this have an application for us? Although people are having to be more careful financially in the last five years, it is apparent that our culture is based not on self-denial but on self-fulfilment. We are our own gods. Our politicians encourage our belief that the economy must always grow. As one Christian website put it the other day,
Every day, we are bombarded with the message that equates the “good life” with the “goods life.”
And whatever difficulties we are facing, the fact remains that we live in the wealthiest county in this country. At my first staff meeting in this circuit, one of my colleagues asked this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Because it might be. And it might be that part of our witness involves self-denial.
Thirdly, I want us to dwell on that repeated title for Jesus, Son of God. Twice the devil begins a temptation with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ (verses 3 and 9). If? Jesus has just had a profound experience of the Holy Spirit at his baptism where he has heard a voice from heaven referring to him as God’s Son. The work of the Spirit in his conception is a sign that he is the Son of God, according to Gabriel at the Annunciation. If he is the Son of God? He is the Son of God! The wider, big story is there in those words!
Yet here is the attempt to undermine the core of the story. If. It’s like the snake in Eden asking, “Did God really say …?” Here is an attempt to slice the ground from under the feet of Jesus, just as the enemy does with us. Just enough of a voice to make us disbelieve what God has said and done. That’s all it takes.
Now for us it can’t come in terms of ‘If you are the Son of God’, because none of us can be Son of God in the unique way Jesus is. But the devil can do it in a way relevant to us. ‘If you are a child of God’; ‘If you are a Christian’, and so on. It can be in the form of, ‘Are you really a child of God? Are you sure that God loves you? Someone like you? If you were a real Christian, you wouldn’t have done that.’ Does that sound familiar? Subtly we have been switched from focussing on the love and grace of God to majoring on our failures.
So beware of that voice – not a still, small voice but a quiet, insidious voice. Jesus at his baptism had not simply been reminded of his unique divine status, he had been reminded that he was loved with an everlasting love before he had even set out to begin the ministry for which he had come. And God wants each one of us to know that we too are loved with no strings attached. He loves us first. He loves us because he loves us. This is the foundation of anything and everything that we can do in a spiritually healthy way as Christians: knowing that we are loved unconditionally by the Father.
Fourthly and finally, battle is joined over the Scriptures. Every time Jesus is tempted, he squashes the attack with his Hebrew Bible: ‘It is written’ (verse 4); ‘It is written’ (verse 8); ‘It is said’ (verse 12). The devil cottons onto this, and even tries quoting Scripture in the final temptation (verses 10 and 11).
Again, we need to see this as a thread in this episode that is seen in the bigger story. The early chapters of Luke’s Gospel have been stuffed full of quotations and allusions from the Hebrew Bible. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the central event in the biggest story of them all, the story of God’s redeeming love. Not only that, I believe Jesus is very intentional about the particular verses he quotes in response to the temptations. I don’t think he sits there simply thinking, “What verse would be good to use here?” Every verse he cites comes from Deuteronomy, a book centred on Israel’s own wilderness experience. He sees the temptations in the framework of the bigger story, too. It’s the devil who can’t quote anything that parallels the big story that is going on here. His quotations come from elsewhere in the Scriptures, they are random quotations, fine in their place, but irrelevant to notion of God’s people and God’s Son in the wilderness.
Perhaps this illustrates the dilemma we can face as Christians. We know the Bible is our source book, our supreme insight into God’s ultimate authority in Jesus Christ. Yet we also know how it can be misused, and have probably done so ourselves, unwittingly at times. Sometimes we have been Pharisees, quoting Scripture rigidly, and hurting people with it.
I believe that if we set ourselves to follow not only a disciplined, regular reading of Scripture but also disciplined methods of doing so, we shall have more of a chance of using Scripture spiritually and responsibly. It will not be for everyone to use the academic disciplines that preachers and ministers deploy, but there are age-old, tried and tested methods known in Christ’s church. Yesterday at Addlestone we had a half-day of prayer, and during that time I taught two of them. One is called Ignatian Bible Reading, which involves a sanctified use of the senses and the imagination. The other is called Lectio Divina, where we read the text, meditate on it, pray through what it is saying to us and then seek to live out the text. The great spiritual writer Eugene Peterson has said of Lectio Divina that it is
A way of reading that intends the fusion of the entire biblical story and my story.
And if indeed the temptations of Jesus are an episode in the bigger story of redemption, then would it not be good in all that we do this Lent to seek to find where our story fits into the big story of God’s saving love in Christ?
The late Steve Jobs famously insisted that the same design standards be applied to those parts of an Apple product that no consumer would ever see as were applied to the outer parts, which gained admiration for their style.
Something similar is true of the Christian, and certainly of those of us called to the daunting task of leadership in the church. Gordon Macdonald makes a similar point in a recent book, using a similar analogy:
David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.
In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline” (italics mine).
The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline. It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.
Macdonald’s book is appropriately called, ‘Building Below the Waterline: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership‘. The quote above is from the introduction (page 1). By the end of the first chapter he’s making the large claim that almost all Christian leaders agree that they need to carve out one to two hours a day for this work of nurturing the spiritual centre.
There seem to be some other books in recent years that take a similar tack. Ruth Haley Barton’s ‘Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry‘ is one. Pete Scazzero’s ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality‘ and ‘The Emotionally Healthy Church‘ are two more. In the last few decades, Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen have been voices callng in the wilderness, pleading with us to take this seriously, rather than concentrating on the latest techniques and plans to grow your church. Might it be that at last their cries are being heeded?
So – two questions:
1. What do you do to nurture the hidden parts of your spiritual life?
2. Are there any other authors and books you recommend on this subject?
… is to be a fashion consultant. Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Pastor Ed Young Junior‘s Pastor Fashion. Oh yes. The man who brought you the book Sexperiment now tells you all you want to know about skinny jeans and testosterone. Is there a connection?
I just missed these classes at theological college. I took the trivial stuff like biblical studies, doctrine, church history, pastoral theology and missiology. Eugene Peterson, you got it so wrong.
Meanwhile, Erwin McManus launches a fashion range, but he seems to be doing it for more arty reasons. Apparently, he says,
This is an incarnation into the world of art, story, and creativity.
At least if you read the whole of this interview with him, one of his motivations is job creation.
A Baptist friend of mine said to an Anglican friend, “You are off duty today.”
“No,” replied the Anglican, “I am a priest. It is who I am.”
He did not mean that he never took time off. He meant that to be a priest was about who he was.
In that light, it’s interesting to watch this video interview with Eugene Peterson, where he says,
‘Pastor’ is not a job description; it really is a life that is shaped in a certain way
and goes on to say that you should not treat his books (or anybody else’s) as a manual for pastoring, because it is the most context-specific of all jobs.
Watch and enjoy.
‘Ello. I wish to register a complaint.
Anyone who ever followed Monty Python’s Flying Circus will soon recognise those words from the famous Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese’s character Mr Praline has bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop but it proves to be dead. The pet shop owner says, “He’s not dead, he’s resting.” Exasperated, Mr Praline eventually declares the animal to be “an ex-parrot”.
The Dead Parrot sketch came back into my mind as I re-read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. A friend of mine rewrote it as The Dead Church Sketch. So for the part of the sketch where Mr Praline complains that the parrot is not moving and he is told that the parrot has been nailed to its perch, we instead hear the excuse that the congregation has been nailed to the pews.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet encounters a vision of a ‘Dead Church’, or Dead Israel to be more accurate. A Dead People Of God. He is taken back and forth among the bones to make it clear that the people of God in exile in Babylon are ‘dead’. Spiritually dead.
The vision is appalling and offensive. You didn’t leave dead bones out in the air: the Jewish custom was (and still is) to bury the dead within a day or two of the death. And contact with dead bodies made a Jew ritually unclean, so to leave them out like this for so long increased the number of people who would be made unclean by coming near them.
More offensive than the implications for Jewish ritual law is the message of the vision: the people of God are dead.
Somewhere among our struggles for the future of Church is a similar fear. Declining church numbers. The lack of under-40s. Does The Future Have A Church?
The historian Callum Brown said in his book The Death Of Christian Britain that he could envisage the disappearance of Christianity from this nation. Ten years ago Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor spoke of our faith as having been ‘almost vanquished‘.
We’re beginning to look like a pile of dead bones out in the air.
Might we turn on to Ezekiel again and see whether God might bring a similar message of hope in the face of devastation to us?
Three times God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. The first occasion is this:
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
To dead bones comes the promise of life. Life will enter the dead by the breath of God, that is, his Spirit. It’s the same word in Hebrew for wind, breath and spirit. Just as the Spirit brooded over the waters at creation and God put his breath in the man so that he might have life, so to have new life – spiritual life – requires the breath or Spirit of God.
Somebody once said that if the Holy Spirit were taken from the Church, ninety-five per cent of all activities would continue just the same. Was that person right? Instead of defining the Christian life as life in the Spirit, we have defined it by busyness and by whether the church has a full and varied programme of activities.
In my last circuit the ministers had to give reports to every Circuit Meeting on the ‘new initiatives’ in each of our churches. Healthy church life was
measured in new programmes and projects, not in signs of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson says,
Along the way the primacy of God and his work in our lives gives way ever so slightly to the primacy of our work in God’s kingdom, and we begin thinking of ways that we can use God in what we are doing. … [I]t turns out that we have not so much been worshipping God as enlisting him as a trusted and valuable assistant.
[Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p 124.]
The Old Testament calls God the Helper of Israel. Some English translations of the New Testament call the Holy Spirit the Helper. But this should not be taken to justify that subtle shift from utter dependence upon God to regarding him as an accessory. When we treat the Spirit of God like that, we end up as dead bones.
Ezekiel calls us, then, to receive the life of the Spirit and stop depending upon our dead ways of doing church and being Christian. We fill our empty lives with busyness and possessions, when the only fullness that will satisfy is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Some will object and say that throughout the Old Testament the Spirit was only given to certain people and at certain times. In our era, living after Pentecost, the Spirit has been given to all who believe and we who have faith in Christ have already received the Holy Spirit. In response I offer a favourite story.
The evangelist D L Moody was once taken to task for the way he preached on Ephesians 5:18, where Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’. Moody pointed out that it could be translated, ‘Continue to be filled with the Spirit’, and accordingly encouraged his listeners to be filled again with the Holy Spirit.
Afterwards, a minister berated him, saying, “I received the Holy Spirit at conversion. Why are you telling me to be filled with the Spirit again?”
“Because,” said Moody, “I leak.”
Have we leaked the Spirit? Are we living by faith in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit? How many of us can honestly say, “Yes”?
The second prophecy. Ezekiel sees some movement:
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
‘But there was no breath in them.’ Devastating. That which the bones most desperately need – breath – is still absent. What next?
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
‘Prophesy to the breath.’ And if the breath is being summoned prophetically by Ezekiel, then we have here something like that ancient prayer of the Church, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’), so often used at ordination services. In our terminology, Ezekiel is praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It’s an ancient prayer that has come back in popularity in the last twenty years or
so, largely thanks to the late John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement.
Again, certain people will object. They will again say we are living in a post-Pentecost world where the Holy Spirit has been given and is already present. Why say, “Come, Holy Spirit” when the Spirit is here anyway?
Because we are distinguishing between the general presence of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s particular actions and interventions. We are not simply seeking the general presence of the Holy Spirit, but the manifest presence. We need to experience the Spirit at work in our lives and in our midst. Dry bones need to know that the breath is coming into them.
But how do we know when the Holy Spirit has manifestly come? In the Book of Acts there seems to be a common denominator of bold speech in the name of Jesus. It may be the gift of tongues, it may be preaching, it may be courageous testimony.
Other occasions in church history have seen obvious signs that the Spirit was at work. We think of Wesley having his heart strangely warmed and also the dramatic effect upon listeners to his preaching as they sensed the gravity of their sin before God and their need of salvation. We saw it a few years ago with the dramatic phenomena of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.
There are, then, clear signs in history of the ‘manifest presence’ of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit also comes quietly, and it is not for us to choose whether the mode of his coming is quiet or dramatic. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – his work in us to produce Christ-like character – is a slow process, just like the growth of ordinary fruit. There may be few outward, visible signs when this work begins or continues.
What matters is that we are open to God to do his work in and through us as he sees fit, and not be limited by our restricted vision, our fears or our prejudices.
We recognise that we need the Spirit’s empowering, and refuse to be complacent. The Holy Spirit may be ‘the Helper’, but he is not our ‘Santa’s little helper’. He is one Person of the Trinity. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we are saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, in whatever way you see fit, and to do whatever work you see fit.”
Can we pray that? We need to.
The third prophecy:
The story so far: Ezekiel has seen the deadness of God’s exiled people. He has firstly been summoned to prophesy their need for the breath or Spirit of God. Secondly he has prophetically called on God’s Spirit to fill them.
But what now? The loss of hope still needs addressing. It’s no good bringing God’s people back to spiritual life if they are still left in their sense of despair. So this is how the vision concludes:
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am theLord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Ezekiel addresses ‘the whole house of Israel’ and he brings them good news. Their new life in the Spirit will involve being placed on their own soil again.
But for that to mean something for us as Christians, it needs translating. Although Christianity has continuity with the Jewish faith, it does not share the promise of physical land.
Our inheritance is both now in Christ and future in heaven. If the Spirit of God places Christians ‘on their own soil’ now, it may or may not indicate a revival of Christianity in our land. But it will mean renewed confidence in Christ. It will mean a sense of hope about our faith that goes beyond the personal hope of glory. It will mean being positive about Christ rather than forever being on the defensive. It will mean boldness to speak of Christ even when we might face opposition, because we know the Holy Spirit will give us the words. It will mean finding ways to live for one another and not for ourselves, as the Early Church did soon after Pentecost, in defiance of our consumerist culture. It will mean the Sermon on the Mount becoming a lived-out reality now.
Are we seeing these things now? How do we measure up? For however far we fall short of these signs of the Spirit, that is the indication of how much we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So let us pause. If we are not showing all the signs of life in the Spirit that Jesus would wish us to then now is not the time to rush on. Let us stop and drink from the rivers of living water that he gives us.
Perhaps you’re like a guy called Charlie. He worked in a laboratory. After a Christian meeting he asked the visiting speaker this question: “It says of the early disciples that people took note that they had been with Jesus. How come no-one says that about me?”
The preacher prayed with him. Nothing spectacular happened at the time.
But a few days later, one of his work colleagues said to him, “Charlie, what happened to you the other night? You’re a different kind of Charlie.”
For those of us who want to be a different kind of Charlie, this is the hour. Come, Holy Spirit, breathe life into us. May we be planted in the soil you have prepared for us.
 Deuteronomy 33:29; Isaiah 41:13-14; Hosea 13:9
 Where others say Comforter, Counsellor or Advocate – John 14:15, 25; 16:7.
This weekend, we start a new sermon series for Lent and Easter, in which we meditate on the characters who inhabit the Passion and Easter stories. I get to begin with Judas Iscariot.
Miss Duffell was my English teacher. Despite my goody-goody image at school, she was the only teacher I ever wanted to wind up. It wasn’t the way she tipped her cigarette ash into her coffee cup when having a discussion with pupils at break time, it was the fact that she taught English Literature. To my teenage male way of thinking, that was the most useless, irrelevant subject in the curriculum. Especially if you favoured the sciences, as I did.
It was only when I reached adulthood that I saw the worth of all those essays where we had to write character studies of people in the plays we were studying – Bluntschli in ‘Arms and the Man’, Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and so on. When I began to understand the power of the narrative in the Bible, then I started to appreciate the value in appreciating the characters. I learned that we might identify with a person or see ourselves in opposition to them, and through either reaction be caught up more in what the message the author of the story had for us. I might also end up going further than the original author intended, of course!
It’s with that experience in mind that I begin this new sermon series about the people we encounter in the gospel stories of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. If reflecting on a character in a novel or play can have a powerful effect, how much more so when we dwell on those we find in the Holy Spirit-supervised words of Scripture? Especially when we also believe that the same Holy Spirit is here to help us hear, understand, believe and respond.
So this morning I have not given myself an easy task by starting with Judas Iscariot. As with several people in this series, there were several Bible passages I could have picked. But these verses from John 13 get us to the core of what I want to share about him.
The first reference to Judas in this account comes in verse 2:
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Our first reflection, then, is on Judas and the devil. Nothing like starting with a difficult and contentious theme, then!
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
Although I know it is difficult for some people to believe in ‘the devil’, I cannot disbelieve in ‘his’ existence, given Jesus’ belief in him. I cannot reduce Jesus merely to a child of his time, however much he constrained himself in the Incarnation. He is still Lord, and what he says, goes. So rejection of the reference to the devil prompting Judas Iscariot is out for me.
But on the other hand, I know too many Christians who make too much of the devil. One Anglican rector friend of mine used to put every mishap and setback down to ‘the devil’, as if by a reflex reaction.
So when we read John’s careful words that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ (my emphasis), let us take particular note of that word ‘prompted’. It is not that the devil made Judas do what he did, but that he had sown thoughts in his head. Judas could then choose what he did about those promptings. Although John clearly portrays demonic activity at work here, human responsibility is still in play. We cannot absolve ourselves of our actions by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Neither could Judas.
We may find ourselves under pressure to sin through persistent temptation. In one respect, we can do nothing about that. It is the lot of all people. Being tempted is not a sin: Jesus was, especially in the wilderness. But in another respect, we sometimes lay ourselves open to those promptings, those temptations. We put ourselves in situations where we know we could be vulnerable to our weaknesses. The devil will exploit that. We deliberately sail close to the wind. The devil will exploit that. Later in this sermon, we’ll see how Judas did precisely that. But for now, let’s simply note that while yes, the devil prompts us with temptation, we still have a responsibility for our actions and we need to do what we can to put ourselves at a distance from circumstances where we know we are weak.
The second reference to Judas comes in the second half of the reading, in the conversation Jesus has with his disciples which begins with him saying,
I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ (Verse 18)
It continues with Jesus’ troubled admission that one of the Twelve will betray him, and when pressed about who that will be says,
It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. (Verse 26)
So this second reflection is about the astonishing fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with his betrayer.
I have often heard people observe, then, that Jesus even gave the bread to Judas at the meal where he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They then take it that we should not be judgmental (fair enough, in one sense) and that there should be no boundaries at the Lord’s table. However, that last statement is patently incorrect from a biblical point of view. Paul was at pains in 1 Corinthians 11 to remind his readers that self-examination was important before taking the bread and wine. Lax discipline at Holy Communion is not good practice.
I would rather see Jesus’ sharing of table fellowship with Judas this way. My current reading is the memoirs of a man who has written more profound books in recent years on what it means to be a pastor than anyone else I have come across. His name is Eugene Peterson, and he is better known for the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. In his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he talks about how when he began the Presbyterian church in Maryland that he went on to lead for thirty years, his early vision was to gather together a group of visionary Christians who were all passionate for what it really meant to be disciples and to be church in a New Testament sense. Instead, he found himself with a rabble, rather as David did at Ziklag when he was on the run from King Saul.
And I observe that I have seen some friends fall away from faith over the years. Each time, they have been those whom I might consider the least likely. In at least two cases, it was weakness to sexual temptation that began their decline. It reminds me that Paul warned his readers in 1 Corinthians 10 that any of us who believe we are ‘standing’ in faith should beware lest we fall. It could be you. It could be me.
Therefore, when we too come to eat bread with Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ ‘leave no unguarded place’. Let us not simply be aware of our weaknesses so that we do not put ourselves in places where the devil might prompt us with temptation. Let us also positively ‘put on the full armour of God’, those godly qualities that are the very opposite of sin.
So what was Judas’ particular weakness? We get a hint later in the story, and this is my third reflection on him. After Jesus tells him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (verse 27), we read how the disciples misunderstood (verse 28) that statement:
Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (Verse 29)
Anyone who has read John’s Gospel cover to cover rather than in short segments will go back to chapter 12, when Mary anoints Jesus with a pint of expensive nard. There, Judas objected that the perfume would have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor, but John reports that Judas didn’t care about the poor: he looked after the disciples’ common purse and wanted to dip his hands into the cash (John 12:4-6).
Judas’ weakness, then, was money. Here is where he failed to guard himself against the devil’s promptings to temptation. Here is where he thought he could stand in faith, but fell. No wonder his reward from the enemies of Jesus was thirty pieces of silver. That would have attracted him.
When the great contemporary spiritual writer Richard Foster wanted to publish a book about the major sins, is it any accident that he wrote about the ‘big three’? He called his book, Money, Sex and Power. These, he said, were the areas of human life with the greatest power to bless or to curse. Perhaps it is no surprise that monastic orders have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience – in direct contrast to these three great temptations.
And perhaps for some of us the way to avoid our weakness will be by a strategy of avoidance. A friend of mine knows that he is incapable of drinking alcohol in moderation. If he has one drink, he will end up having a lot, and getting drunk. So his strategy is to be teetotal. In doing so, those who choose to avoid weaknesses can also be witnesses to a world that believes you can’t be happy unless you’re smashed out of your mind, sleeping around, buying all the latest consumer goods or climbing the greasy pole at work.
However, avoiding our besetting sins is not always possible. And we can also be good witnesses by facing temptation and avoiding it. That, though, requires not a spiritual gung-ho attitude but prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit and fellowship. And by ‘fellowship’ here, I mean deep Christian relationships where we regularly hold ourselves accountable to one another. It’s exactly what some of John Wesley’s small groups did. They talked each week about which sins they had been struggling with.
There are similar approaches today. We can form ‘accountability groups’. We can do it in other ways, too. One way that people facing the temptation of internet pornography cope with it is to install a program on their computer called Covenant Eyes which reports to a friend the details of every website the person looks at.
Fellowship is more than camaraderie at the Christmas Bazaar. It’s a vital tool in avoiding the trap that snared Judas.
But, of course, all of this is to some extent rather gloomy. Temptation, sin, avoidance. All necessary to consider for Christians, but is there any good news here? I believe there is, and it comes in the fourth and final reflection. Allow me to introduce it with an illustration.
When I was young and suffering bullying at school, my Dad tried to teach me some Judo. He had learned it in the RAF, and had kept his instruction manual. He argued that the virtue of Judo was that it was not itself violent, but you used your opponent’s strength against them in order to win.
In the light of that, consider Jesus’ words at the end of our reading:
Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. (Verse 31)
Isn’t this what is going on here? Even the evil power at work as Judas gives in to his weakness and responds to the devil’s prompting is something God uses against his enemy for good, to win the victory over sin and death. Judas does not have the last word. Jesus does – in the forgiveness of sins through the Cross, and in the new life of the Resurrection.
Yes, here, in the murky, shabby story of Judas God the Father works his Gospel. He does not inflict violence, but he uses the violence and betrayal rendered against his only begotten Son to bring the salvation of the world. It is the truth of which Paul was to write,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
In ‘all things’, even the treachery of Judas, God works for good. In ‘all things’, even the darkness of Calvary, God works for good.
And in all things today, God still works for good. The friends or acquaintances who betray us – God can turn it for good. The evil that affects us – God can even use that for good, as he uses the enemy’s force against him.
Allow me to conclude with a story. Members of the Church Council have already heard this, so I hope they will excuse hearing it again. Tomorrow, I return to a previous circuit to conduct a funeral. Sid was a proud Welshman – and his pride was not always his most attractive feature. He was married to Rita, an East German Lutheran Christian, whose response to Sid’s fierce Methodism was to vow never to become a Methodist, otherwise Sid would have won, in her words.
When I arrived in the circuit, he had just retired from a career in the Army and then some years in Civvy Street. That army background made him stiff and – yes – regimented. On one occasion when I had prepared an act of all age worship only to find the Junior Church not ready for it and going out after the second hymn, I received a stern lecture!
One thing Sid had never done, despite a lifetime in Methodism, was make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I told him that one day he would have to get off the fence.
Well, one Saturday night he did. Sid and Rita attended a concert by a Christian band and choir. He heard one of the musicians give a testimony, and he suddenly thought, “If it can be true for him, it can be true for me.”
The next morning at church, he took Holy Communion for the first time. The look of joy on his face as he knelt at the rail and looked at me is an image that will remain with me for ever.
In the wake of that commitment, he started to soften. He lightened up. He began to forgive, and to become more humble.
In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his health declined fast. Yet during his hospitalisation and treatment, he renewed his commitment to Christ, thanks to the witness of another Christian patient at the hospital.
Tragically, he had become alienated from one of his two daughters a few years ago, due to a terrible misunderstanding in a phone conversation. While he was in hospital, his other daughter said to him, “Dad, if you’re a Christian you’ve got to put things right with my sister.” The daughter in question lived in Germany, and Sid picked up a hospital phone and rang Germany. On his knees he sought reconciliation.
Sid’s suffering and death also led to another reconciliation – between his wife and the next door neighbours. When I visited, one of them was in the house, offering comfort.
The last sentence Sid uttered to his family was this. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I’m glad I’ve got cancer.”
I don’t know if I could ever say that, but I will say this. That is the testimony of a man who knows that the Judas in his life – in his case, a terminal disease – was something that God was using to overcome evil with good.
For the Judases of this world and the devils do not get the last word. God does.