I am experimenting with trying to put things a bit differently..less of the usual exegesis and a bit more testimony in Sunday sermons. In some ways our congregations have us trying all sorts of approaches with them in the first few years of preaching, as curates. It could be a bit disorientating, really. I was very struck by the ease with which Pete Broadbent taught andpreached at Spring Harvest in France. He was very much himself and God used him and so I come back from my holidays feeling a bit more released to wonder whether perhaps the first thing I sometimes hear and the direction I am led to take, might be where I need to go. Often first thoughts are forgotten in all the reading around and study as I exegete Bible passages before preaching, hoping to come up with some new, interesting angle, when in actual fact a congregation might just need to hear first things first.
As we begin a new series in church about deepening our relationship with the Holy Spirit, I am very keen to use Gareth Robinson's 'We see love,' from his album 'You make everything work out.' It has that simplicity about it which so effectively conveys the message of the gospel and the impact of the Holy Spirit, particularly.
Here's a sample of Gareth's tune
When I was a younger Christian I was quite unsure about the Holy Spirit. I understood there was Father God, to him I prayed 'Our Father who art in heaven.' In fact, that prayer gave me his location too – he was in heaven, I was on earth. Emm – to a young Christian this seemed a long way off.
I understood about Jesus – this God/man who calmed storms, multiplied loaves, healed people and told me that though I was not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his table, I would hear his voice, but how? I knew I should read my Bible... but when I did (and not very often as a child), I read about people in the Bible who had no Bible to read!
They still heard the voice of God, felt the leading of Jesus.
I was intrigued.
The problem was that when it came to the third person of the trinity I was introduced to a ghost, albeit a Holy Ghost but a ghost nevertheless and I was not very sure I wanted anything to do with a ghost!
My sister Anna and I reflect on how as children we would share a bed to tell stories before falling asleep and budge up against each side to leave room for Jesus and God - I know – weren't we cute... ! ...but we never left any room for the Holy Spirit.
Even though we were brought up as Christians, no one really spoke to us about the Holy Spirit, church just seemed to mention a ghost every now and then – too spooky when you're a child.
It wasn't until I encountered Christians living what they called a Spirit-filled life that I began to wonder about the power of the Holy Spirit for my life.
I began to want to know better the person of the Holy Spirit and all this was finally helped by my attending Alpha in my twenties. After much resistance, ...why was the curate of my church asking me to attend Alpha? – I was already a Christian wasn't I? I gave in. And when it came to the Holy Spirit weekend, and our introduction to this person of the trinity, I was still unsure but then I had an encounter with the person of the Holy Spirit that changed my life forever and is the reason I stand here now. I had to find out more and more and more about this beautiful person of the trinity – this beautiful person of the trinity who brought God from heaven to earth. This beautiful person of the trinity through whom I would better listen to Jesus' voice.
Ralph Martin writes in 'Hungry for God' that if you lock a person in a cupboard with a copy of the Bible they could not come out not believing in the power of the Holy Spirit. So I began reading the Bible, not in a cupboard, (!) in a new way, paying attention to the way in which people came into relationship with God, reading Acts particularly over and over again for the various ways in which this happened when church seemed to teach me it was all about being Christened and confirmed.
The Alpha course taught me that the Spirit-filled life should be as normative an experience for Christians today as it was for those in the early church. I also learned that you can never be too much of a Christian to attend Alpha...! With God there is always more. We need to ask ourselves as I do whether there is perhaps more of ourselves we can surrender to God, more we can ask for from him for:
"Which of you who are parents, if your child asks for something to eat, would give him a snake or a scorpion instead? If we who are so limited know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will God our Father give the Holy Spirit to us if we just ask him!"
The Bible is full of people who had encounters with the Holy Spirit that changed their lives. Take Paul for example. As Saul, the Pharisee, he thinks he has all the answers, he thinks he knows God, more resistant is he than I was to Alpha. He has God all sorted out until he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, hears his voice and is later filled with the Holy Spirit (as Ananais lays hands on him.)
Paul will go on to say in his letter to the Ephesians that we are to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. ...and for that to happen we are encouraged to continually ask.
I have just been to France on my holidays and there I listened to Baptist preacher Malcolm Duncan one morning who asked us all to hold our breath. How long could we last? He asked ...not long. The Spirit of God is like breath, we need him so much - the Hebrew Ruach for the Holy Spirit is also the word for breath. Where there is breath there is life – creation was God-breathed, the scriptures are God-breathed, Jesus blew on his disciples and said "Receive the Holy Spirit and life was breathed into those bones in a valley who went on to become a great army in Ezekiel. We are to pray for the Holy Spirit each day even as we thank God for the breath in our bodies that gives us life – it is only by God's power that we have breath in our bodies at all. We need breath for our physical life. We need the Holy Spirit for our Christian life.
There are many images describing the Holy Spirit, breath, wind, fire and water. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit is a force or an energy. He is the comforter and about the Holy Spirit being a person, the Bible is very clear. He has wisdom to give us, many things to teach us and can be grieved by our attitudes. He empowers us for service, to heal and pray and minister to one another in Jesus' name.
There are just two aspects to this relationship with the Holy Spirit I consider currently. The first is that Ezekiel proves that we can know all about God but what we must really do is be in relationship WITH God. The second is that we need him as Paul communicates.
Ezekiel is brought to a valley and shown a whole heap of dry bones. As Ezekiel speaks out the bones become people once again but they are not yet spiritually alive, they need the breath of God inside them for this to happen. Ezekiel gives this command for them to be filled with breath as the winds blow over them and now they truly live. This illustrates for us that we can study God's word and listen to a thousand sermons, like Saul before he became the Spirit-filled Paul, we can know all about God, we can be very educated about God but we are asked moreover to know God in the Hebrew sense of the word 'know' – where know always means intimate. In other words we are to be in relationship with God!
Relationship is made possible with God through the Holy Spirit – my discovery to the childhood mystery that just so happened to occur in my life through Alpha. I can know God and Jesus through the Holy Spirit in my life and so can you 'I will put my Spirit (breathe) in you, and you will live,' God says in Ezekiel.
This vision of Ezekiel's marks a future hope for his people – they are in exile, taken over, far from home, they have drifted away from God and lost all sense of purpose. They are dry – all dried out and we can become spiritually dry too unless we remember that just as we need breath for our bodies, we need the Holy Spirit for Spiritual growth. We can lose motivation, closeness with God, neglect our bibles, resist invitations to make community as I did putting off Alpha for all those years. We need to learn to thirst for God's Holy Spirit just as we have learnt to hunger for the bread that is Jesus. The revival of life to dry people comes through the Spirit.
Are we living but not fully alive in the sense of that fullness of life we hear about from Jesus?
How can we get ourselves into a position in which the refreshing wind of the Holy Spirit can blow over us?
How can we be more open to the Holy Spirit?
Ezekiel’s words are universally fulfilled on the day of Pentecost – God put his Holy Spirit within the lives of all believers. God’s Spirit has been released upon us, but equally true is that the Holy Spirit is a gentle person and God does not force Himself upon us. How welcoming are we of God’s Holy Spirit into every aspect of our lives?
When bones are revived, when the Spirit blows, when we pray prayers to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit, we will find that God will bind us more perfectly into the kind of community that Paul dares to dream the Corinthians might become. It can happen slowly, incrementally and as quickly as a road to Demascus conversion and sometimes both ways in the same life-time but very often it begins one person at a time, one person risking a little more and witnessing to those around them what is on offer, just as those Spirit-filled Christians witnessed to me, just as John Wimber witnessed to Nicky Gumbel inspiring him to further develop the Alpha course and remain a perpetual curate rather than become vicar to his own church.
Gypsy Smith, the British evangelist of the last century preached to audiences of hundreds of thousands. After listening, his congregations would still ask him how they could experience what he had experienced, how they could know what all those people encountering the Holy Spirit in the Bible had experienced. His reply was this
“Go home. Lock yourself in your room. Kneel down in the middle of the floor, and with a piece of chalk draw a circle around yourself. There, on your knees, pray fervently and brokenly that God would start a revival within that chalk circle.”
When we live in the power of the Holy Spirit, in relationship with Him, seeking after him, praying for his presence... do we ever pray to the Holy Spirit? ...we will more obviously become the kind of people Paul dares to dream we can become.
Understanding ourselves as a part of that living body that Paul describes, realise we are people into whom the gifts of the Spirit have been breathed. If we are not exercising our gifts, we are not flexing those muscles we have been given as a part of that living body, we are bone again in a valley. We must pray instead for the breath of life to energise us into service, the Spirit can form us from dry bones into a living, vibrant army. God put flesh on our bones and will breath his Spirit into us as we ask. Let's draw some chalk circles, jump straight into them and ask God to start a revival right there.
We can then start getting on with the rest of it...from this place of empowerment.
First things first!