“We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away.”
It’s a line from Toy Story 3. I’m sure several of you have seen the Toy Story animated films. Young Andy has a collection of toys, such as Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. But in the third and final instalment, Andy is growing up and no longer needs his old toys. They end up in day care, where a bear threatens to put them out with the rubbish, and mocks them for believing in Andy’s love. He tells them, “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away. That’s all a toy is.”
Waiting. We see it negatively today. Waiting for something is a bad thing. That’s why we invented credit cards – to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Ask a child whether she likes waiting, and you can guarantee an answer beginning with ‘no’. That maybe a sign of what an immature society we now have, when that childish attitude is reproduced so frequently among adults.
In contrast, many of you from older generations know the benefit of waiting. You saved up, you waited for marriage and you stood firm in the face of pressure. You know that waiting can be a good thing.
Today, as we begin this new sermon series on the Holy Spirit, we find the disciples of Jesus waiting. In between the Ascension and Pentecost, they are waiting for the Holy Spirit. And while there is a sense in which we do not need to wait for the Holy Spirit any more, because all followers of Christ receive the Spirit when faith comes alive, we nevertheless go through periods of waiting for the Holy Spirit to work. So this morning’s theme of ‘Waiting for the Holy Spirit’ can still be relevant to our lives of faith today.
I want to suggest that when God makes us wait for the Holy Spirit, it is to focus us on what is important. How so? I find three ways in the reading.
Firstly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on our priorities. Listen again to the opening dialogue in the story:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Verses 6-8)
The disciples still think the Messiah came to sort out the land for Israel and to repel the Roman occupying forces. Jesus tells them basically they haven’t got the right priorities. Not that he isn’t interested in politics, but if their priorities are only about what’s in it for them, something is wrong. They need to wait for God’s priority of the Holy Spirit. Because living in the power of the Spirit will do more to bring in the kingdom of God than lusting after political favour.
Jesus tests our priorities by keeping us waiting. When we have nothing, know nothing, get nowhere and don’t have the foggiest reason why, he exposes our priorities and motives. They come to the fore, and Jesus says to us, “Are you concentrating on what matters for God’s kingdom?” The longer we wait for something to happen, the more we struggle with the life of faith not being full of zest, the more we find life in the church dry and difficult, the more Jesus asks questions of us. He wants to know who or what we are trusting in.
So think of those conversations we have about the decline of the church, when we reflect on the unbalanced age profile, full of older people and shorter on younger and middle-aged people. Jesus listens to those conversations where we wonder what miracle cure we might invoke. He listens when we consider trying the latest trendy religious idea that we’ve heard about.
And what does he say in reply? I think he says, you have your priorities wrong. You are not concentrating on the right things. You should be using the spiritual silence to wait and long for the Holy Spirit. He would ask us whether our priorities are to try something humanly clever, where the glory would go to us, or whether our priority is to wait in prayer, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit. Today should be a day when we decide that, however unpromising church life may be, we reject our lust for human priorities and say that we will not rush to solutions, we will wait on God for the Holy Spirit, because nothing matters more.
Secondly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on power. Jesus tells them,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (verse 8).
Here is a reason to wait: we don’t have the power, the Holy Spirit does. It is one of those humbling lessons for human beings.
In fact, I would say it is a much harder lesson for our generation than it was for the first disciples. Belief in God and a general dependence upon God was pretty well universal in their time. We live in the light of a western culture which over the last three hundred years or so has relegated God to the private sphere even when we do still believe in him. We have made science and reason the dominant powers and qualities. Many in our societies think they can provide the answers to everything, and this belief also infects people of faith. We come up with policies, programmes, techniques and reasoned statements.
And it’s not that science and reason are bad. We owe so much to them. Advances in medical knowledge have benefitted us all. Inventions in technology and communication have improved our lives. We should be grateful for innovations like these. We would not want to turn back the clock.
But any idea that science and reason are the answers to everything in life should be tempered by other considerations. These same disciplines have also given us the horrors of nuclear weapons and the devastation of environmental destruction.
And that is to say nothing about other aspects of power. Political power has the ability to achieve much good, but we also know its tendency towards corruption. So surely when Jesus says, “You will receive power” we should see that as good news. Because the power of the Holy Spirit is the power seen in the life of Jesus himself. It is the power best demonstrated in humility and human weakness. It is the power that works to bless the poor and needy. It is the power that raises up the humble and dethrones the proud. Uneducated fishermen lead a revolution, and the wealthy and educated establishment can do nothing to prevent them.
Now if that is the case, why on earth are we satisfied with the limited promises of human power? Why do we run the church on the same values as the rest of the world? Why in our inpatient hurry do we default to the ways of the world?
Often we take heart from the ordinariness and the frailty of Jesus’ disciples when we fail. But maybe we could see something else in their story. As well as joy and relief that we are forgiven like them, could not also be encouraged and challenged by the fact that these ordinary, mundane people were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
If that is the case, then why do we keep rushing into the ways of human power? If we want to work for God’s kingdom, then we need God’s power for that. If we don’t have that power now, then we hold back. We wait. We wait on God.
Which leads me to the third theme that waiting on the Holy Spirit means: prayer. If we need to align our priorities with God’s, and if we need to seek God’s power rather than ours, then our waiting needs to be characterised by prayer. We don’t just wait: we wait on God.
That’s what we see the disciples doing:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Verses 12-14)
They ‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ Here is true waiting for the Holy Spirit. Prayer.
Now this needs careful handling. The moment a preacher starts to emphasise prayer in a sermon, all sorts of things can go wrong. It can turn into a guilt trip. How easy it is to say that we don’t pray enough. And of course that isn’t just the congregation: that’s true of the preachers as well. We can impose guilt without offering positive hope, because we are often not up to much in this area, either. Besides, some listeners will say, “Are you suggesting I don’t pray? Of course I pray!”
So let me say this. I recall the words of a favourite Local Preacher in the circuit where I grew up. He was regularly the most challenging preacher to fill a pulpit there. When he said something to stir us up in a sermon, he often added this comment: “I never challenge you without first challenging myself.” Hence, what I preach here I say as much to myself as to you.
What I’d like us to notice is not simply that ‘they prayed’, but that ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (my emphasis). We’re not talking about a few short, simple daily prayers here: those first disciples made a radical commitment to prayer.
Now that will take on different forms in our varying circumstances of life. Depending on work, family life and so on, we shall each have different ways of demonstrating our devotion to prayer. But as R T Kendall says, “If we don’t have some system, we never get around to it.”
What is certain is that our attitude to prayer cannot be perfunctory. We look down on children’s prayers that sometimes don’t get much beyond “Lord, bless me and my family,” but in truth too many of our adult prayers are no deeper. It can be very telling what requests are put in a church intercessions book – and what requests don’t make it to the book. We want prayers for ourselves and our loved ones, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it feels little different from an adult version of that child’s “Bless me, bless my family” prayer.
The challenge is to go beyond – to be ‘constantly devoting [ourselves] to prayer’ in the waiting time. Prayer for the Holy Spirit, I would suggest. Because we recognise we cannot live by our priorities, and need to align our lives with the priorities of God. Because we also recognise the bankruptcy of depending on human power, and know that the only thing which will turn around our lives and our churches is the power of God, the Holy Spirit.
So can we make a simple commitment today? A commitment to wait for God, and to wait on God in prayer. A commitment so to pray that it is less about asking God to bless us than asking God to reorder our priorities after his, and where we ask him to help us lay down our reliance on human power in favour of the Holy Spirit’s power. Can we make a commitment to wait in prayer for the power of God, the Holy Spirit?
Because nothing less than that is needed for the health of our churches and our witness to God’s saving love in Christ.