Well here we are in the season of Advent, when, as we prepare to celebrate the salvation of God [that is, Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves!’] coming into the world as a human baby some two thousand years ago, we are reminded that the Spirit of God is at work in us, preparing us to receive that same salvation of God – Jesus Christ – on the day when he comes again.
We might be tempted to think that this work of the Holy Spirit within us is some great divine mystery which goes on without our awareness. After all, God is far beyond our comprehension. And yet, God’s ways are made known to us through self-revelation. Isaiah is given the insight, quoted by Luke, that this preparation goes on in the place where life is most marginal; where the ground falls away beneath our feet into a great depression; or circumstances tower over us like cliff faces crowding out our view of the sky. You see, in Isaiah’s vision, and in John the baptiser’s acting-out Isaiah’s vision, the exterior world mirrors – and so reveals to us – our interior landscape.
What, then, might we say?
Firstly, that the Spirit is found at work where we are most overwhelmed, most aware of our vulnerability and of our dependence both on God and on others (Luke 3:5).
Secondly, that the Spirit is at work through circumstances that are, in themselves, distressing, as is the process of refining silver (a process that involved fire) or of whitening cloth (a process that involved vigorous agitation with minerals and urine) (Malachi 3:2, 3), or painstakingly hard, as is moving earth (Luke 3:5).
Now, I am not saying that God sends us overwhelming circumstances for our own good, never giving us more than we can bear. Those are, in my opinion, misrepresentations of God and abusive to human beings. Life is overwhelming at times – indeed, much of the time – for a complex variety of reasons. What I am saying is that this is where the Spirit seems to have a preference to be at work – as has been true since the very first sentence of the Bible – which ought to be encouraging!
And thirdly, we might say that the Spirit is working in these places in order that together – as a community who need one another – we might journey out from all our grand achievements and self-confident hierarchies to meet Jesus arriving in our midst (Luke 3:1, 2, 6).
We see what it looks like for the Spirit to be at work in such places lived-out in the relationship between Paul, held in prison in Ephesus in Asia Minor, and the house churches in Philippi in Greece. They hold Paul in their heart, and together share in God’s grace. Prisoners did not receive food, or any other care, and were dependent on relatives or friends to visit each day to provide for their needs. Learning of Paul’s circumstances, the Philippians took up a relief fund and sent a few of their number to make sure that Paul had the practical support he needed. Paul responds to their gift with affirming words: not only has he been blessed, but through their choosing to bless the Philippian churches have experienced the kind of transformation Jesus will look for. Moreover, their actions both defend and confirm the gospel, to their neighbours in Philippi and Paul’s captors in Ephesus, who have surely wondered why a group of Greeks would go to such lengths to care for a Jew far away in Asia, who had visited their city for only a couple of weeks.
It turns out that not only do we get to see where and why – that is, to what end – the Spirit is at work; we also get to share in that work. We are empowered to be (at least part of) the how. So if we truly believed this, what difference might it make to how we live?
If the Spirit is habitually at work transforming interior landscapes, then our joining-in also needs to be a matter of cultivating habits, or core practices that help us to live into truth – even if we never see it fully realised. Two Australian friends of mine [Mandy Smith, who lives in the United States; and Michael Frost, who lives in Australia] have reminded me recently of the importance for discipleship of developing sustainable, communal core practices. One belongs to a local church that has adopted five habits, the first of which is to bless. To bless means to speak well of, to build up, to encourage. [In our particular tradition, there are those sacramental blessings declared by priests; but there is also that wider sense in which we are called to be a people through whom the world is blessed.] As a community, they have identified three simple ways to bless others – through speaking affirming words, through offering practical means of lightening their load, and through giving gifts (all of which we see in play in the account of Paul and the Philippians). But it is not enough to do these things haphazardly, or occasionally: if it is not my habit to bless my neighbour, then it is simply all too easy not bless them at all. So in order for blessing to become habitual, they have taken on the discipline of blessing someone three times a week. One of those people must be a member of their church – in this way, building one another up. One must not be a member of their church – in this way, ensuring that they look beyond themselves and blessing is released through the wider community. And the third blessing can be for either. Of course, the idea is not to restrict blessing to three times a week, but to establish a habit rather than an unsustainable goal that remains only an idea.
Everyone I know finds themselves overwhelmed, on a regular basis. Overwhelmed by bereavement, overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenting our children, overwhelmed by the challenges and pressures of work, overwhelmed by impossibly difficult decisions they have been called upon to make. And it is in precisely these places where the Spirit is at work, and invites us to join in – not as an additional burden on us, but as a means of sharing in God’s grace, or, generous gift.
And so I want to set a challenge this morning. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to bless three people this week – one, a member of this church; one, not a member of this church; one, your free choice. You might do so through speaking words that affirm them, or by doing something very practical for them that helps to lighten their load, or by giving them a gift for no reason other than to lift their day. And if you take up this challenge with me, let me know how you get on, and I will let you know how I get on.