I only preached on this passage back in October when I visited a church in another circuit and this was the Lectionary Gospel passage. Tomorrow I preach on it in a sermon series for Lent based on selected incidents from Holy Week.
One of my cousins married the daughter of a captain in the Army Catering Corps. The father of the bride said he would therefore organise the food at the reception. And so, on a cold February day, we trekked after the wedding ceremony to the barracks in Aldershot. As we arrived, the usual champagne flute glasses were offered, along with plates of vol au vents. As we ate these appetisers, we waited for the call to the main course.
It never came. The vol au vents were the meal.
Some of us later decamped to my aunt and uncle’s house, and to compensate for our hunger we ordered in fish and chips. Just as we were tucking in, there was a ring at the doorbell. In came the bride and groom. “Fish and chips?” they said, “Great! Can we have some?”
It wasn’t exactly the image of the wedding banquet that we expected. The nearest I have experienced to that was at another friend’s wedding where there was at least a full roast meal. However, as I went along with my plate taking my food, I was told by a member of the catering company, “Only two potatoes, sir.”
I can’t quite imagine God (or the king in the parable) throwing a banquet for his son where there was a strict rationing of the food. Although I have to say I harbour strange thoughts at communion services where we thank God at the end that we have had ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ when that ‘foretaste’ consists of no more than a miniscule square of white bread and a tiny sip of sweet wine. It is the merest of mere foretastes!
In the parable, I am sure the king is sending out invitations to a lavish banquet, just as I am sure that the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace last year for ‘Wills and Kate’ was rather more than a selection of ready meals from Asda. The invitation is to something generous, swish, and – in the best sense of the word – tempting. It is to come to the table of the abundant God. Oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered – the best of the herd have been prepared (verse 4). Nothing less will do.
The question arises, then, what will people do with an invitation to such a feast?
But in normal circumstances that seems such an easy question to answer. The shock in this parable – and I never tire of saying that we need to look for the shocks in the parables of Jesus – is what happens in response to the invitation.
In the first instance, the king sends his servants ‘to those who had been invited to tell them to come’ (verse 3). It sounds like this is a group of people who have already received an invitation. But the nature of the invitation is different from our culture. In our society, when we receive an invitation to a wedding, we are told the date and time as well as the location. But these people have not yet been told the date and the time. They have been invited more generally. Now the servants go with the word that the date and time have been set, and they are to attend.
I therefore take these people to be the ones who expect an invitation. Given that this parable occurs in the midst of the tension being racked up between Jesus and the religious establishment, I take it that these are the people in the firing line here. They are the people who would expect an invitation to the great messianic banquet of God’s kingdom. They are the people who would expect not only to be invited, but to be sitting in the places of the greatest honour. They are the people who consider themselves uniquely favoured by God. And yet they are the ones whom Jesus says have effectively trashed the invitation.
What had they done wrong? If we are talking about the Pharisees, we are considering a group who honoured the Scriptures and cared passionately about the holiness of God’s people. Yet this had distorted into the erection of barriers to decide who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Conveniently, they themselves were ‘in’.
If we are talking about the chief priests and the teachers of the law, we are considering a social class who had ingratiated themselves with the ruling Romans in order to protect their own status. To do that, they had made their religion in their own image, to justify their actions. It’s not dissimilar from what many Christians do today. It’s remarkable how many Christians of a certain political persuasion think that Jesus would vote in a rather similar way to them. The Guardian carried an article about this very phenomenon at the beginning of this week, which even showed a photo of Argentinean football supporters holding a large photo of Jesus, who by sheer coincidence was wearing an Argentinean football shirt. Not that we would ever claim that God was a perfect English gentlemen. Oh, no. Not us.
These, then, are people who use God and religion to their own ends. If we use faith as a way of justifying ourselves and fortifying our own positions, rather than seeing it as bowing the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord, then we can be sure that Jesus sees us as one of those who have scorned the invitation to the great banquet. Because the way to accept is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, in both word and deed. People who seem the most ‘religious’ may in fact be those least likely to follow Jesus. For ourselves, we need to ensure that we don’t substitute religion for discipleship, and that in sharing the Gospel we don’t just assume that the ‘nicest’ people will be more disposed than others to the Good News.
The second wave of invitations goes out. Rather than send his servants to the usual suspects, now the king commands them to ‘go to the street corners’ (verse 9) and invite anyone, whether ‘good or bad’ (verse 10). The implication of this for Jesus’ critics is scandalous. He wants to invite into the kingdom the very people who had been kept out by their rules. Those with a blemish. Those who didn’t fit. Those whose reputations brought shame rather than honour.
Applying this to us, no longer are we necessarily talking about taking the Gospel to the obvious candidates, to the people we think would have the most chance of fitting in with the church culture. One church I served appointed a married couple from another church as the cleaners. When this was done, somebody remarked that these people didn’t look like conventional churchgoers. The husband had long hair – even though he was in his fifties. They weren’t the most cultural of people. They were deeply working class. But the depth of faith this couple and their teenage daughter had shamed many established Christians. They had, as it were, come to the banquet from the street corners.
I have seen other people ostracised in churches who have had deeper faith than the clean, eloquent types who typically fill our pews. Not that there is anything wrong with being clean or eloquent, but too often we miss the fact that Jesus by his Spirit is going ahead of us to the street corners and wooing people we wouldn’t even think of with his grace and love. It’s our calling to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing. As we do, we become the servants of the king, carrying the invitations to the great banquet.
Around the 1970s, when the so-called Church Growth Movement was at the height of its popularity, one of its most controversial beliefs was the idea that the best way to make churches grow numerically was to attract more people of similar social background. The idea was that people like to mix socially with others who are similar to them. Apply that to the church, and you have more chance of seeing growth. Many people criticised it, because the Gospel is not only about personal reconciliation with God in Christ, it is then also about reconciliation between human individuals and groups who would previously have shown animosity to each other. Not only that, it contradicted the teaching of this parable that involved taking the Gospel to people beyond the usual boundaries of those who normally embrace it.
Yet despite this, many churches persist who are monochrome. Same culture, same race, same economic background, similar interests, and so on. Yet the Gospel says that the banquet is not just for people like us. It is for all.
We’ve had two shocks so far. The expected guests at the wedding say ‘no’, and come under judgment, rather than blessing. Then, the invitation is extended to people you wouldn’t expect to be in attendance at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. It would be like the Queen throwing open the grounds of Buckingham Palace to the Occupy Movement.
But there is a third and final shock. A man turns up who is not wearing wedding clothes. Just as we dress up for weddings, so did people in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Furthermore, kings would provide wedding attire for their guests. This man has no excuse. In the words of a hymn we shall sing tonight at the ecumenical Lent service, ‘All are welcome in this place’. However, with the Gospel offer of grace comes in response the Gospel demand of discipleship. Does the man turn up for a free lunch? If so, he’s in for a shock. The Gospel is a free lunch – we are freely forgiven in Christ and have just to accept the gift by faith. But that free lunch is given us not only in love but also to build us up for the calling of discipleship.
The other day, somebody told me a story about not being allowed to go to Sunday School one week as a child because she was in her ‘play clothes’, not her ‘Sunday best’. This isn’t about the physical clothes we wear, it’s about being ‘clothed with Christ’. We are clothed in his righteousness that is our forgiveness and declares us to be in the right with God through his death in our place on the Cross. But we are also clothed in Christ in that we begin to take on his righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Our worship and gratitude in response to God’s free grace is shown as we actively co-operate with Christ’s work by his Spirit in our lives to make us new people, to make us more truly into the character that is fit to be at the king’s banquet. Of ourselves we are not fit to be there at all, and we only enter by grace. But we stay as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more into the image of the King’s Son.
You may be the sort of person who doesn’t notice that the clothes you have been wearing have become dirty, and it takes someone – perhaps a loved one – to point this out. Similarly, it is possible not to notice the bad habits or compromises that sneak into our lives. Someone may need to point them out lovingly to us. It may be our reading of the Scriptures or our participation in worship of fellowship groups that reveals the truth to us. However it happens, our calling is to be present at the wedding feast of the King’s Son when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. And for that reason, it’s time to dry clean our clothes, so to speak, to accept the invitation on Christ’s terms and to be part of taking his invitation to all who will receive it, whether they fit the commonly accepted stereotypes or not.
Friends, the wedding feast awaits. It’s time to get dressed.
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I never thought I’d be using Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, as an illustration of the difference between talents and character, between the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. But the graduation speech at Princeton University shown above is certainly an example. He might seem a surprising choice, given this recent article about Amazon’s ruthless business methods and this one about the effect of their low download prices on musicians, though. Surely the difficult decisions that individuals have to make in favour of kindness need also to be made corporately.
Yet sin will always be a problem. This is where it becomes more than an issue of choice: it is about needing to co-operate with the renewing power of the Holy Spirit in all areas of life. And that is not an instant thing. It is acquired with practice, as Tom Wright argues in Virtue Reborn. Bit by bit, we train ourselves to behave and react differently, until holiness becomes more of a habit. It takes time to acquire Christlike habits. Perhaps that is why Paul refers to ‘the fruit of the Spirit’: fruit doesn’t just appear, it takes time to grow.
Bezos’ speech above is only short and cannot cover all bases in twelve minutes. A longer exposition might explore a relationship between gifts and character, such as using gifts with character. It might also take on the thought that although gifts are given, we still need to work on crafting them. But whatever the failings of Amazon as a company, his call at the end of his speech to students to make a difference in the world with kindness is a welcome one. It might not be what we expected from a billionaire entrepreneur, but it is a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.
Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.
The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!
As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.
What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.
Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.
In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.
Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.
How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.
What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.
Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai. God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.
The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.
Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.
Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.
So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.
Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.
The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.
Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly
‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’
In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?
But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.
For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.
This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.
That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.
We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.
In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.
Yes, come Holy Spirit.
 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.
 Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.
 Witherington, p135.
I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)
So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”
And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)
The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering. My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it.
And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians.
Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.
I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.
I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?
The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’
So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.
As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”
Three times a year, I need to meet some people in London. I have a standing arrangement to travel with someone to that meeting. We catch a train together from Chelmsford station.
One of those meetings was due on Wednesday. I arrived at the station, and bought my ticket. My friend was not in the ticket hall ahead of me. That was unusual, but I was early. I climbed the stairs to Platform One. We nromally catch the 10:40, but I was so early that I got to the platform just before the 10:27 service. In the absence of my friend, I let it go.
But he wasn’t there for the 10:40, nor the 10:46. I kept looking down the stairwell from the platform. No sign of him.
With the 10:58 imminent, I rang Debbie to get my friend’s office number and called him there. While doing so, the 10:58 came and went. That was the last train that would get us to the regular appointment in London on time. Eventually, someone from reception found my friend, who told him that the meeting had been postponed for a fortnight. (I had not received an email telling me of this change.) Despite all my waiting, my friend was not coming. I returned to the ticket hall, explained the situation, received a refund and came home to reshape my day.
Waiting is one of the great Advent themes. We wait, wondering whether the Messiah will come. The Jewish people waited for centuries. They are still waiting.
We who believe the Messiah did come and that his name was Jesus are also still waiting. We await the appearing of the Messiah who promised to return. We have been waiting for two thousand years.
People mock us for it. In 1975, I loved the song ‘I’m not in love’ by 10cc.
I went to buy the album it was on: ‘The Original Soundtrack‘. Some of the content shocked me, not least a song called ‘The second sitting for the Last Supper’.
It contained words that deride the Christian hope:
Two thousand years and he ain’t come yet
We kept his seat warm and the table set
The second sitting for the last supper
Isaiah 64 speaks of waiting – waiting for the God who has not shown up. How do we live with the need to wait? Isaiah cries out to God in terms of the need to remember. What do waiting, Advent-hope people ask God to remember, as they struggle with the waiting?
Remember Your Works
Here’s the problem: the prophet longs for God to come down in mountain-quaking, fire-making, enemy-quaking mode (verses 1-2). After all, he’s done it before (verses 3-4), so why not now? All is quiet on the God front, and that isn’t good. You’ve parted the Red Sea, sent fire from heaven when Elijah asked for it, helped your people in battle and many other things: why do you seem to be so inactive now?
And don’t Christians feel similar at times? We think back to the wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles. We remember an angel rolling away a stone for women to see that God by his Spirit had raised Jesus from the dead. We recount church history, with its highlights of revivals like the Wesleyan one, where preachers could thunder on Sunday and politicians would then resign on Monday. We see church growth in other parts of the world, but decline in the West. And like the prophet, we think, God you have done these things in the past. You are even doing them elsewhere on the planet today. So why not here and now?
This, then, is part of the tension that comes when we are in a ‘waiting’ phase. It is something that turns us to urgent prayer. We know that God has a track record. We know what he is like, because we know what he has done in the past. And we plead with him to renew his mighty works today.
The late Pope John XXIII knew this approach to prayer. He gave this famous prayer to Catholics:
“Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen”
Naturally, I wouldn’t go with the Mary language, nor to a lesser extent with the Peter language. But when he begins that prayer with the words, ‘Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost’, then I hear the kind of Advent waiting that turns into passionate intercession.
And I suggest that is one of the things to which God calls us this Advent: prayer from the heart. Prayer where we don’t just moan all the time about the state of the world – we’re too good at that as Christians – but deep, meaningful prayer, because what really matters is for God to work as he has done in the past. Not necessarily in the same way – it would be presumptuous of us to expect that – but with the same intensity.
A waiting time need not be idle time for Christians, especially not waiting-for-Jesus time. This Advent, let us remember God’s works and turn that remembrance to prayer as we wait.
Remember Your Ways
Next, the prophet recognises that those who remember God’s ways do what is right, but when there is a sense of God’s absence, it is easier to do wrong (verses 5-7). It’s almost as if we bring the childish attitude of trying to get away something if we think no-one’s looking to the spiritual life. If we think we are waiting around for an absent God, who knows what we might do? It’s as old as Eden, where the serpent speaks when God is not walking in the garden.
Turning waiting time into idleness is a way of fertilising the ground for sin. Maybe the classic biblical example of this is King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The text of that story tells us that it happened at the time of year when kings normally went to war. While I’m not trying to justify war in noting that detail, the thing to be aware of is that David was at home instead, idling away his time, when he saw Bathsheba bathing naked. From there came adultery, the murder of his lover’s husband and the death of the baby that was conceived.
But what about the positive side, that those who remember the ways of God ‘gladly do what is right’ (verse 5)? The way to cope with the waiting time is to remember God’s ways. What is God like? What do we know of God’s character? What are God’s traits? If we had to give a character description of God, what would we say?
I hope we might come up with a list that recalls how the ways of God are the ways of love, holiness and sovereignty, of grace, mercy and justice. And if we want a clearer picture of these ways in action, we need only reflect on the life of Jesus, who said that if we had seen him we had seen the Father.
So if just thinking about the qualities of God is too abstract, think about the life of Jesus. Then imagine how we would behave if he were physically present. I know many people didn’t behave well in his physical presence on earth, but some of that was to do with not believing his claims to be the Son of God. We might fail like the disciples did, but the gist of the issue is this: what will we do with the waiting time?
If we use it for idleness, the end result is most likely sin. If instead we meditate on the character of God, our motivation may well be different. I am not recommending we become frantic with church duties, but I am saying that remembering the ways of God will give us focus and direction for holy living as we wait for the coming of God.
And that makes Advent rather like Lent – which, historically, it has been for the Church. The Advent waiting time is a preparation time that includes penitence for our sins. It is about purification for the coming of the King. Advent preparation is less about tinsel, trees, presents and daily chocolates than about holiness. It’s what we do when we use the waiting to remember the ways of God.
Do Not Remember Our Wickedness
So far, we’ve thought about two appeals for us to remember God, and their consequences. Remembering God’s works leads us to intercessions; remembering God’s ways motivates us to holiness.
But what if the boot were on the other foot? Do we want God to remember things about us? Isaiah 64 says, no! In fact, we want God to forget rather than remember. It would be so easy for God to remember our sin, and Isaiah is forthright about it. Yet he appeals to God on the grounds that we are his people and so God is the potter and we are the clay: God can mould us. Therefore, he pleads, may the God who can mould and remake us not remember our iniquity forever (verses 8-9).
So if Advent waiting calls forth prayer and holiness from us, it also leads us into God’s mercy. The Advent season leads us up to the extravagant sign of God’s mercy: the gift of his Son. In four weeks, we shall see mercy in a manger. Graham Kendrick imagines Mary looking down at her newborn son in his song ‘Thorns in the straw‘:
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky
A thorn in the straw. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Advent is leading up to these things. We are waiting for the mercy of God in Christ. For in Christ God will choose not to remember the iniquity of his people.
And we extend that into the present and future. In a day when we wonder about the future of the church, we affirm that we shall wait prayerfully for the God of mercy. When we wonder about the future of our society and of the world, we wait prayerfully for the God of mercy.
Indeed, the two earlier responses come into play here as we long for God’s mercy in Christ for ourselves, the Church and the world. One is that – as I have just said – we wait prayerfully. We bring ourselves, the Church and the world to God in prayer as we seek mercy. We confess our sins. We even identify with the sins of others, as Christ did on the Cross and as biblical saints did to a lesser degree in prayer. Daniel, for example, identified even with the sins of earlier generations as he interceded for the people of God. Waiting for the mercy of God means praying.
But it also means holy living. We can’t wait passively for God to come with mercy. We can’t just pray and put all the responsibility onto God, as if to say, ‘It’s your fault, not ours, if the church or the world goes down the tubes.’ We anticipate the mercy of God for the world by holy living, which is not severe living but a merciful lifestyle itself.
There are those Christians who pray and do not act. They become hyper-spiritual, substituting vivid imagination for the word of God. They become harsh towards the world.
And there are those Christians who act and do not pray. Cutting themselves off from the source of spiritual fuel, they dry up and become harsh towards the church.
Neither of these groups reflects the merciful God for whom we wait at this Advent season. Intercession and holy living are the ways in which we wait for the God of mercy.
One of the, er, pleasures of being a parent to tiny children is the current devotion to Barney The Purple Dinosaur videos. The current favourite on heavy rotation is Barney’s Good Day, Good Night. Much of it is harmless fun and subtly educational, encouraging good behaviour mixed with a lot of gentle demythologisation (there isn’t a man in the moon and there are no such things as ghosts).
It also contains a song about how children are growing every day. One interesting line thrown in is how they are all growing friendlier day by day. A quick Christian retort to this would be that this involves a lot of post-Enlightenment mythologisation – the myth of progress, to be exact, and that this is totally inadequate. As one teacher put it, “Anybody who doubts the doctrine of original sin hasn’t taught a class of five-year-olds”.
But maybe there is more at stake here. The line also sits with values in the videos where goodness is taught by presenting virtually faultless children. Perhaps the producers don’t want to induce negative copycat behaviour. But it reminded me how refreshing it is that the Bible paints most of its heroes, warts and all. Only one is presented as perfect, and yes, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are to imitate him. Which is more realistic, the values of Barney or the Bible?
| You scored as Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan. You are an evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition. You believe that God’s grace enables you to choose to believe in him, even though you yourself are totally depraved. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives you assurance of your salvation, and he also enables you to live the life of obedience to which God has called us. You are influenced heavly by John Wesley and the Methodists.
Well that result at least is a relief for a Methodist minister!