Have you ever felt really dry in your faith life?
Have you ever felt that you were just going through the motions, turning up at church but not really getting into it, trying to read the Bible but your mind kept wandering? Forgetting to pray?
I think most of us have been through those dry times, those wilderness times. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit with us, we are like dry bones.
We would be like the skeleton of King Richard the Third, which was found a few years ago by archaeologists. They could tell who he was from the particular shape of his twisted spine, and how he died from the nicks on the bones, but the scholars couldn’t tell what he thought, what he did, what was important to him, from looking at the bones left behind after his death. Our dry bones can be a bit like that too, without the Holy Spirit. We need this extra dimension to be truly alive!
For some of us, being born again, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is a sudden and wonderful thing, a bit like what happened to the disciples in the acts reading. It was really obvious that something wonderful, something supernatural was happening. Not only were there tongues of fire on their heads,- a bit like Kevin’s hat – but they could speak in languages so that everyone there could understand! It was a really spectacular thing!
I didn’t have tongues of fire appear on my head when I prayed to be filled with the holy spirit. I was at an Alpha Holy Spirit weekend, and I had heard all about this Holy Spirit thing. I had met people who seemed to have an extra dimension to their faith, and mine seemed a bit dry, a bit lacking. I had been quite comfortable as an Anglican, going to church, but to be honest I probably got as much out of the morning tea afterwards as from the services. But I knew other Christians who seemed to be alive in another dimension, as if my life was on a black and white TV, and theirs was in a 3d movie! I started to want what they had.
When I was asked what I wanted to pray for at the Alpha weekend, I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Hoping, wondering if something would happen, if it was at all possible.
Then I felt a prickling feeling that took over and I fell to the floor, a huge feeling of warmth sweeping through me, and I couldn’t stop crying. The Holy Spirit was filling me up!
I’ve never forgotten that day. Many of you may have had a similar experience, a feeling of knowing the real supernatural power of the spirit flowing through you.
But there are many other ways the Holy Spirit can inhabit us. It doesn’t need to be sudden and spectacular. It permeates gently, coming in where we invite it.
It’s a bit like making candied orange peel.
First you have to rescue the peel from lunchboxes and plates – it’s bitter, leftover, but it’s got potential. Then you boil it in water to get rid of the bitterness, and scrape off the pith, then boil it in a sugar syrup. You let it steep in the syrup. Then you make a stronger syrup and repeat the process several times, until the peel is translucent, every cell filled with the sweet syrup, but still also tasting of itself. That’s why candied peel is so delicious!
Our lives can be like that too. We can be rescues from the scrap heap, bitter but full of potential, boiled and scraped, then immersed in the sweet syrup of the Holy Spirit. Heated then steeped many times until we are translucent too, with God’s love shining out of us.
With the real peel of course, you can then dip it in chocolate. I don’t think we can extend our metaphor that far…
One hazard of becoming born again in a sudden and spectacular way is that we can disregard the experience of those who have been steeped slowly in the Spirit for a long time, until they are completely transformed. In some Pentecostal circles, people refer to those who have been ‘born again’ as ‘becoming a Christian’, and see those whose journey is slower and less direct as somehow not Christians. Please be careful not to judge people that way – judge yourself, fine, but other people’s souls are God’s business.
Let’s go back to the reading from Ezekiel. The dry bones came together, were covered again with flesh and skin, but it was only when the Spirit blew life into them that they could come back to life and make a large army! What does an army do? Sit around and polish its guns? Well, sometimes. But an army is for action, for freeing others from injustice! If we have the Holy Spirit enlivening our dry bones, what are we for? Polishing our equipment so we look the part, or doing something useful for the kingdom of God!
The Lord said to Ezekiel, my Spirit will give you breath!
What is breath for? Living, singing, speaking!
Speaking God’s truth to all those who will listen.
That brings us to the Acts reading – the disciples were speaking in whatever languages the Holy Spirit gave them. And all the assembled crowd, from all those hard to pronounce places – well done Helen – could understand!
This is a message for us. We are to speak God’s truth, God’s message in a language that others can understand. Not churchy speak. Not jargon. Words like charismatic, salvation, justification, Alpha, these are technical terms. If we want to be understood we need to use the language God gives us, even if it might not be how we normally speak.
My husband and oldest son have been known to talk computer-speak. The words are all English words, they all have a clear meaning, but the way they put them together makes no sense to a non-computer speaker like me.
Do you know what I mean? I am seeing people nodding…
What Peter had to say to the crowd was interesting, in that it was not a recounting of the Gospel message. Rather it was about prophecy. Remember, the crowd were Jewish, some born Jews, some choosing to follow the Jewish religion. They were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. So Peter spoke in terms they understood. He went back to familiar prophecy from the book of Joel.
The Jews valued prophecy, they were aware of when it might be fulfilled, and to hear Joel’s words spoken in their context would have been very exciting! They were part of history, something was being fulfilled with them in the story!
Do you notice how God says ‘I will give my Spirit to everyone? Sons, daughters, young men, old men, men and women. Everyone. Not just Jewish people. Not just popular people, not just slim or attractive people. Not just intelligent people. Everyone. The unpopular, the plain, the dull-witted, the refugee, the outcasts, the successful, the failure. Everyone.
As a church we must be aware that the Holy Spirit is for everyone. This is a challenge to us when we talk of our faith to those who don’t know God yet. But we don’t need to go in dry, the Holy Spirit will give us the words to speak.
When we welcome newcomers and visitors to our service, again, may we be aware of the language we use, that the message is for everyone, and we mustn’t let the delivery of it put people off.
My friends, we can trust the Holy Spirit. As we heard in John’s gospel, it only speaks truth, and it will guide us into full truth. Isn’t it amazing that God does this? That God speaks to us and through us in this way? I feel so excited to realise that I am part of this wonderful kingdom, where God flows through all of us, and the Holy Spirit is part of our lives.
Often images of the Holy Spirit are gentle and peaceful, but I want to leave you with the image of the flames above the disciples’ heads. What do flames do? They need fuel, oxygen and heat to start, or so Nigel Latta told us in last week’s episode of his programme where he blows stuff up and sets it on fire. I have boys, of course we watch it!
What is our fuel? Our lives. What is our oxygen? The power of the Holy Spirit. And what is our heat source? The love of God.
May you burn brightly for the kingdom this Pentecost, and keep burning.
Let’s finish by singing along with this great song, Send the Fire!