ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 25, 2013
1 Samuel 10: 1 – 8; 2 Samuel 6: 12 – 23; Matthew 1: 18 – 23
In 1949 George Orwell published “1984” which depicted a world dominated by government; a world where “Big Brother is watching you”. In the book one character explains, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” While the world hasn’t unfolded quite to the extent Orwell envisioned, many things are controlled by the powers that be. We have gun controls, smoking regulations, laws banning baby walkers, rules prohibiting the removal of weeds in our water way systems and even rules about certain styles of dancing. For all people “control” is a valuable commodity. Many jokes have been told about men who can’t relinquish the remote. Last Christmas I bought Terry a gadget that allows him to control household electrical devices from anywhere in the world through his iphone. I’m not sure how we lived before that. Some people like to be in control of them selves. Women go for surgery to control the effects of aging. Others won’t have fun for fear of looking silly. Some people ignore serious medical symptoms thinking they can dodge disease. Some people need to control other people. People get spy cameras to control what happens when they’re not at home. We can’t go through a drive thru without being told what kind of day to have. I once visited a friend whose husband was doing yard work. He came to have a coffee with us but before he could sit down his wife said, “What are you doing? It’s not your coffee break yet. Get back to work.” Churches have their own share of control issues. Very few embrace fresh ideas or change quickly, if at all. Pope Francis who seems to be a good leader and spokesperson has already closed the door on the ordination of women. In my first church there was a woman who chaired the Ladies Aid for 66 years. She was fearful that if she stepped down no one else would step up, and if someone did step up they wouldn’t do it “right”. For Presbyterians doing things decently and in order is essential; no one’s going to catch us speaking in tongues, swooning at the altar, weeping as we repent or, in some congregations, laughing out loud. The trouble of course is that life is not easily controlled. The spiritual aspects of life are even less regulated. God is autonomous. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable.
When it comes to the Spirit, the scriptures can reinforce our perceived need to keep our guard up. Saul was a tall, handsome youth from an unimportant family of the smallest clan (Matri) of the smallest tribe of Israel. He was sent by his father to search for the family’s donkeys which had wandered away. He brought along a boy. They searched without success, so the boy suggested they seek out a man who was a seer or prophet. Tradition held that when approaching a holy man, one would bring a gift and Saul lacked a gift. The boy however had a quarter which he gave to Saul. The previous day, Samuel the Seer, had been told by God that a young man from the tribe of Benjamin would show up and he was to be anointed as Israel’s first King. Samuel invited Saul for supper and to stay the night. The next day as they were leaving Samuel told Saul he had a message for him from God. Samuel took out a vial of oil and anointed Saul as the ruler of Israel. As King Saul would have complete control. Then Samuel gave Saul a sign as proof of his actions. He told Saul to go to Rachel’s tomb where 2 men would tell him his father’s donkeys had been found. Saul was then to go to the oak of Tabor where he’d meet 3 more men carrying 3 goats, 3 loaves of bread and a flask of wine. They would give Saul 2 of the loaves. Journeying farther, Saul would meet a band of prophets in a spiritual frenzy playing musical instruments. Samuel told Saul the Spirit of God would possess him also; he would enter into a spiritual flurry and “be turned into a different person.” (1 Samuel 10:6) A transformation would take place. In order for Saul to be a good and just King, he needed to be different – he needed to be a servant of God. So Samuel suggested Saul go with the flow and “do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you.” (vs. 7) He assured Saul he would meet him in a week.
When it comes to letting the Holy Spirit have free reign in our lives one of the things that scares us is this potential to lose control. Being whipped up into a spiritual frenzy makes us pretty uncomfortable. Over the years I have witnessed people speaking in tongues, “dancing in the spirit”, being “slain in the Spirit” and being caught up in Holy Laughter. One evening when I was a teen a man at a Bible study whom I didn’t know prophesied over me saying I would go into the ministry. That same man then went on to pray for a friend of mine I’ll call Keith. No sooner had the man laid hands on Keith than he began to shake and bounce. Someone said he had a demon and others were all over him shouting and praying. My friends and I took refuge in a corner. They bounced Keith up and down the stairs. At the first chance we headed outside – we wanted to high tail it out of there, but we also felt bad deserting Keith. Before long Keith and the group of exorcists came bouncing out of the house; Keith started climbing up the TV tower and howling. Somehow they got him down. The commotion continued until something in the atmosphere broke. Keith began to dance. It was a joyful unstoppable dance. The man in charge explained to us what happened. Keith eventually calmed down. He hadn’t a bruise on him. We went home. You may look upon such accounts as mass hysteria or concocted drama or the real deal. For me, it was a strange and frightening experience that I’ve come to accept at face value. Although I was grateful to have received a flattering word of prophesy rather than deliverance from an evil spirit, in honesty, I’d rather not experience it again. The idea of being caught up in a spiritual frenzy beyond our control is one of the reasons that we are ambivalent about the Spirit’s power. It is hard to go with the flow and trust that God is with us when we are faced with the possibility of strange and frightening spiritual experiences.
The truth is that the Spirit very rarely takes over our ability to choose yet sometimes we give way to the Spirit’s energy and let our guard down. The Ark of the Covenant was an ornate chest which housed The Ten Commandments. It was considered the dwelling place of God. Wherever the Ark was, God was present. The Israelites had carried the Ark while wandering through the desert and into battle against their enemies. At one time the Philistines captured the Ark; however, it brought them such bad fortune they returned it after 8 months. When David became King he brought the Ark to Jerusalem. It was a magnificent moment. The Ark was accompanied by priests and musicians. People lined the streets for the parade. Part way through an ox and a fatling were sacrificed. Caught up in the excitement and joy David, the King, stripped down to his tighty-whities and led the procession, dancing all the way. His wife didn’t try to hide her embarrassment over David’s vulgarity; in her view this wasn’t the regal behaviour of a King. David didn’t back down – he danced to honour the God who had appointed him as King. While David was in full control of his senses, he was also caught in the ecstasy of the moment. Imagine if our praise ever reached such heights that we all pulled off our clothes and danced in our undies! I know that’s a visual we could all live without. Why don’t we ever get as excited as David did? The thought of being so undignified offends and mortifies us. If that’s what’s at risk when one is moved by God’s Spirit, we’re quite determined to keep our composure. We put up our defence shields so the Holy Spirit can’t infiltrate our spirits or move us beyond our comfort zone.
Another thing about the Spirit that scares us is our fear of what God will ask us to do. If I do open to the Spirit will I be called to become a missionary? To give up all my physical comforts? Or leave my loved ones? After all – look at poor Joseph, called to disgrace himself, marry a woman and raise her son as his own. He was pursued by God in an unrelenting manner through dreams by angels with prophetic messages. Will God do the same to me? What choice will I have? What will it cost me?
We are leery of the Spirit yet the bottom line in life is that we have very little real control. We can choose a career but we can’t predict how it will unfold. We can raise our children with good values but we can’t make them follow them. We can be a faithful spouse but that doesn’t ensure our partner’s fidelity. We can eat well, but we’ll all die of something. In fact, the more we try to shape the outcome, the less we can ensure it. We can choose to go to bed but we may not sleep. We can read something but we may not understand it. We can take action but we can’t control how others will evaluate us. I can give a sermon, but I have no control over whether it will speak to your heart and bring you closer to God. Some things are simply beyond us.
Why not allow ourselves to be open to the mystery and miracle of Christ’s Spirit alive in us? Our God is one who knows each of us intimately, who lives in the midst of us and who is unfolding his plan in human history. We can barricade ourselves against the flow of the Spirit or we can choose to trust in God’s love and goodness. Our spiritual growth is often described as something we do by relentless discipline. Surrendering to the Holy Spirit, letting go of our self-consciousness and taking our chances are gifts of grace that make life full and make all things possible. By the Spirit we become “a different person” – a person of joy and freedom, of integrity and justice, of humility and love. Only as we lay ourselves bare to the unpredictable movements of the Spirit are we transformed into servants of God and signs of God’s power.
The Desert Fathers recorded the story of Abbot Lot going to Abbot Joseph and saying, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my fast, my prayer, my meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?” The elder rose up I reply, stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
p�Ycg����gte’>When we don’t allow the Spirit to rule our spirits, we deny his rightful place in our lives. By contrast, we honour the Spirit when we allow the Spirit to live in us. The life of the Spirit in us nourishes our spirits so that we produce what Paul referred to as spiritual fruit: “self-giving born of affection, exuberance for life, serenity, the capacity for calm endurance, compassion, virtuous actions, loyalty, power tempered by tenderness and the ability to direct our energy wisely.” (vs. 22 & 23) When it comes to the Holy Spirit, giving credit where credit is due is not merely a matter of recognizing the Spirit’s power or acknowledging the Spirit’s work. It’s living in reliance on the Spirit to be the people Christ calls us to be. It’s living with the awareness that we need the Holy Spirit, not only for our salvation but for the day in day out tasks required of Jesus’ disciples.
As we bring our series on the Holy Spirit to a close I hope we will always be receptive to the Spirit’s presence, breath, gifts, expansion, vision, forgiveness, adoption, sanctification, truth, power and generosity to all. I hope we will bear the fruit of the Spirit to the glory of God. And I pray we’ll invite transformation of the Spirit in our lives. I’d invite you to pray that prayer with me now as we listen to the following song…