John Donne, ‘Nativity’ (1610)

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

‘On Not Losing the Plot’; a sermon on Luke 24:44-53

When I was reading through today’s gospel I found myself thinking of a few sayings we have in the English language, all of which seem to cluster around the same set of meanings. I’m thinking of sayings like, “We seem to be losing sight of the big picture here”, or ‘I can’t seem to see the wood for the trees”. Sometimes we shake our heads and say of someone else, “He seems to have lost the plot!”

Well, there are times when churches can lose the plot, too. We can get caught up in doing ‘the things we’ve always done’ – holding worship services on Sundays, running a Sunday School, baptizing and marrying and burying people, holding Bible study groups, and trying desperately to raise enough money to pay for it – and we can lose sight of why we’re doing these things. What’s the church actually for? Why is it important that it exists? Why does God think it’s important? If we can’t find an answer to that question that goes any further than “Because it’s always existed and we like it that way”, we probably won’t have very much motivation for making sure that our church does the work Jesus called us to do.

So we need to recover the plot – and today’s Gospel for Ascension Day will help us.

Actually, in today’s gospel we’ve come full circle. This is where we started the Easter season six weeks ago – in the upper room, with the risen Jesus and his astonished disciples. You see, Luke’s not too worried about chronology. If all we had was the Gospel according to Luke, we’d assume that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension took place on the same day! He begins chapter 24 with the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning and finding the body gone. Then he tells the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, and how Jesus came and walked along with them without them recognizing him. When they got to Emmaus and invited him for supper, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They ran back to Jerusalem to find the eleven apostles in the upper room, very excited because the risen Lord had apparently appeared to Simon Peter. And while they were still speaking with each other, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you”, he said, and showed them his hands and feet. They couldn’t believe it, until he took a piece of broiled fish and ate it in their presence.

Then comes today’s gospel. Jesus explains to them how everything that has happened to him has been in fulfilment of the scriptures. He commissions them to be his witnesses, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip them for the task ahead of them. And then – on the evening of the same day he rose from the dead – he leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. You see: the whole forty days of Easter is compressed into a single day!

Did it actually all happen on a single day? Probably not. Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. The first chapter overlaps with Luke 24, and in Acts chapter one Luke tells us quite clearly that ‘After his suffering (Jesus) presented himself alive to (his disciples) by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3). So Luke is well aware of the extended chronology of the Easter season. Nonetheless, in his Gospel he’s giving us the big picture, so he squeezes it all into a single twenty-four-hour period, so that we don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel. First, he gives them an overview of what the past was really about. Look at verses 44-46:

Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day”.

We’re used to the idea that there are all sorts of prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so it’s easy for us to lose sight of the fact that until Jesus came along, no one had put two and two together quite like that before. What I mean is that Jesus joined together two strands of Old Testament prophecy that hadn’t been joined before. The one strand was the idea that God was going to send a Messiah – a king like David, who would lead his people in battle, destroy their enemies, and then set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, with its throne in Jerusalem. These prophecies are expressed in passages like Psalm 110:1: ‘Yahweh says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”’. God would give his chosen king the victory over Israel’s enemies, and Israel would be free and safe again, as it was in the days of King David.

The other strand was the idea of God’s Suffering Servant that we find in the second part of the Book of Isaiah, where we run into a mysterious figure who will suffer because of his faithfulness to God – but in some strange way, God will use his suffering to bring healing to his people. Isaiah says,

‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4-5).

Jewish people today don’t read that text as referring to the Messiah. They never have. They’ve always understood it as referring to the nation of Israel as a whole: somehow the nation has a vocation to be faithful to the Lord through suffering and to help bring healing to the world. But Jesus seems to have initiated a startling new way of reading this passage – a way that led to the entirely unprecedented conclusion that the Messiah would not defeat the Lord’s enemies, but be killed by them. But somehow, through his death, God would win an even greater victory.

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer…” (v.46). Of course he is; that’s what the whole idea of God becoming a human being was all about. This whole world that God created and that God loves is now shot through with human suffering. Some of that suffering is caused by human sinfulness: war and injustice, cruelty and oppression, violence and selfishness and greed and prejudice. But some of it is caused by natural forces: earthquakes and diseases, and natural disasters like this massive forest fire that’s afflicted the folks from Fort McMurray this past week.

How can God be a God of love and hold himself aloof from all this suffering? If he truly loves the world, surely he has to come into it and share in its sufferings. We humans don’t tend to trust people who shout advice to us from the safety of the command post. We trust leaders who know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and who have the scars to prove it. Jesus shows us a God like that.

Luke loves the idea of Jesus reaching out to suffering people, especially the victims of prejudice and injustice. Luke’s gospel stories especially focus on Jesus’ care for the lepers and outcasts, the Gentile soldiers and the tax collectors, the shepherds and children and women – people who were seen as being somehow on a lower level in the society of his day. Those folks are often ‘despised and rejected’ by others, and ‘acquainted with grief’. Jesus enters into their suffering; like them, he is despised and rejected by the leaders and the powerful people of his day. But he is faithful to God in his suffering, even going so far as to forgive those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

And God is faithful to Jesus; he vindicates him by raising him from the dead, and our reading today ends with him ascending to heaven, the place of authority. He isn’t ‘going away and leaving us’; he is being honoured by the Father and assuming the title that Peter gives him in Acts 10:36: “He is Lord of all”. This is the big picture of Luke’s gospel: Jesus has come among us and lived out the love of God for all people, including the weak and the outcasts, the poor and the rejected. And in the end, love is stronger than death; the love of God wins the victory over death, and the risen Jesus, the Lord of love, is the true ruler of the world.

So what’s the church called to do? Surely we’re called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re not called to separate ourselves from the sin and suffering and messiness of the world. We’re called to get involved in it, reaching out to all people, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve it or not. And we’re especially called to reach out to those who are rejected by others. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you who some of those people are today! We’re called to suffer with them, even to die with them if need be, all the while reaching out in love and forgiveness to those who persecute us. And we’re called to believe that God will be faithful to us in our suffering; that he will not abandon us, but one day will raise us up with Jesus.

So Jesus gives his disciples an overview of what the past was really all about – what his life and suffering and death and resurrection really meant in terms of God’s love for all people. And we as a church need to ask ourselves: how are we fulfilling that mandate? How are we intentionally getting involved in the lives of ‘the last, the least, and the lost?’ How are we embracing the pain of the ones God loves, and bringing them a sense of the healing touch of God? How am I doing that? How are you doing it?

But Jesus also looks ahead and gives his disciples a sense of what the future is going to be all about. Look at verses 47-49, where he says,

“…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”.

They are witnesses. They’ve seen God’s love at work in Jesus, reaching out to everyone – young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sick and healthy, worthy and unworthy. They’ve seen Jesus’ faithfulness and how it led him to the cross. They’ve seen him alive again. Now they’re called to spread that story.

Why? Not because it’s a pretty story, but because it has the power to set people free from guilt and sin. We live in a world that’s not very big on forgiveness. This is a ‘one strike you’re out’ kind of world. Social media is everywhere: if politicians make one mistake, they’re finished. We live in a highly competitive economy: if we don’t measure up, we’ll be fired and replaced. And we live in a world of perfectionistic relationships, where people are quite ready to replace us if we don’t live up to their expectations.

Some people think God is like that, too, but Jesus wants them to know that he’s actually not. Jesus talks about a father running to meet his prodigal son and welcoming him home, even after the son has rejected his father and wasted all his property. Jesus reaches out to guilty and unworthy people and assures them that God forgives them and welcomes them when they come home to him. As we’ve seen, he even goes so far as to forgive those who murder him – demonstrating by his actions that God is a God who loves even his enemies.

We’re often told that we live in a world which has lost its sense of guilt and sin. That may be true, but I’m absolutely sure that the people in our world have not lost their sense of failure, of not measuring up to what’s expected of them. I know I haven’t lost that; have you? I suspect not?

Jesus wants to introduce people everywhere to a God who loves them as they are, who reaches out to them and forgives them. And so ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (v.47). Proclaimed by who? By the church, of course. And who is the church? I am. You are. Everyone who follows Jesus and loves him is part of the church. And this is the job Jesus has given us: not just to live his love, but to speak about it too. He doesn’t say that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be demonstrated, but that it is to be ‘proclaimed’. Announced verbally, that is!

So again, we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing at fulfilling this mandate? Witnesses are people who tell others what they have seen and heard and experienced. What good news about Jesus have we experienced, that we would like to share with others? Who have we told about it?

Maybe you think “I know I should do that, but I don’t really know how, and I’m scared of getting it wrong”. Excellent! Then you’re in exactly the right place spiritually to become a better witness! I have two encouraging words for you.

The first is, you can learn to get better at it. It’s not a complicated thing, being a witness. Many people have done it before you. You don’t have to worry about offending people or putting your foot in your mouth; you don’t have to be scared that your friends will think you’re weird. You don’t have to go out onto street corners and preach sermons through bullhorns, if that’s not the temperament God has given you. God can teach you to be a witness in a way that feels natural for you, in a way that fits the personality he has given you. If you’d like to learn more about that, please come and talk to me. Believe me, nothing would delight me more than to help you learn to enjoy being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus!

The second encouraging word is, you’re not alone. God has a gift for you. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (vv.48-49). You know what that promise is about, don’t you? It’s our theme for next Sunday: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every follower of Jesus has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who connects us to God and fills us with the love and power of God. And when it comes to this work of being witnesses, the Spirit has a special role to play.

First, the Spirit goes before us, working in the hearts and minds of receptive people, preparing them to receive the good news of Jesus. We saw this two weeks ago in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit worked in the life of Cornelius, the Roman soldier, leading him to turn away from the worship of the old gods of Rome and to long to know and love the one true God, the creator of the world. By the time Peter got to Cornelius, he was more than ready to hear about Jesus. And the Spirit still does that kind of thing today.

Second, the Spirit guides you and me. If we ask him to lead us, and then stay attentive to his voice, he will give us the nudges we need toward the people who are ready to find out more about the good news of Jesus. We saw that last week in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit guided Paul to go across the Bosporus to Philippi, where Lydia was ready to hear the gospel message. Again, the Holy Spirit has not stopped doing this. I’ve had many experiences of being led to the right person at the right time, just when a word of witness was needed. If you ask, the Spirit will guide you.

So, brothers and sisters, we don’t need to lose the plot. We’re about following in Jesus’ footsteps as he reaches out to everyone with the love of God, especially the last, the least, and the lost. We’re called to do that naturally, as a part of our daily lives. We’re about being witnesses, sharing the good news that God forgives us and welcomes us into a loving relationship with him. We’re called to pass that invitation on to others so that they can know God for themselves. And we’re not left alone to do this by ourselves; we’re not smart enough or strong enough for that! No – God wants to pour out his Spirit on al flesh, and that includes us.

That’s the plot: that’s what church is all about. Now let’s make sure these things are front and centre in our life as a congregation, and in our own daily lives as well. Amen.

The Easter Story – Then and Now (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

Can you imagine for a moment what it felt like to be in the shoes of the followers of Jesus – Peter and John and James and Mary Magdalene and the rest – on the evening of Good Friday?

They had all come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah – the King like David – the one God was going to send to Israel, the one who would drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The old prophecies had said that the Messiah would defeat his enemies through the power of God, and so they had followed Jesus confidently, knowing that when they got to Jerusalem there would be a showdown, and that he would be victorious.

But something had gone horribly wrong with the plan. Jesus had not defeated his enemies; he had been crucified by them. This was not something they had been expecting. In fact, in their minds, this could only mean one thing: they had been wrong about him. He was not the true Messiah after all! They had wasted the last three years of their lives on an imposter. The best thing for them to do was to keep their heads down in the city until the dust settled, and then slip off quietly back to Galilee, resume their lives, and chalk this one up to experience. And so they hid behind locked doors in the upper room, biding their time.

But then the stories began to come in.

Some of the women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to finish the job of anointing the body of Jesus (which the arrival of the Sabbath had interrupted). Tombs in those days were not like graves today – they were family affairs, usually caves in which the bodies were kept until they had decayed and all that was left were bones. Then the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, and that particular place in the tomb would be available for another family member when it was needed. That’s why John’s gospel specifies that this was a ‘new tomb in which no one had ever been laid’ (19:41), made available to Jesus by a rich man who had been one of his secret followers.

But as we read in our gospel this morning, when the women reached the tomb they got a shock; the huge stone across the entrance had been rolled away, and when they looked in, they saw that the body was gone. So they ran to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them about it. In John’s gospel we read that Peter and John decided to investigate; they ran back to the garden, and one of the women, Mary Magdalene, followed them. Peter and John found everything as Mary had said – the body gone, the linen cloths lying where it had been, with the turban for the head lying a little way away, neatly folded. Puzzled, not knowing what was going on, but beginning to hope, Peter and John slipped away.

But John’s gospel tells us that Mary stayed at the tomb, and so she became the first person to actually see Jesus alive after his resurrection. I want to point out to you that if a fiction writer in first century Jerusalem had been making this story up, there are two details he would definitely have left out. First, in the culture of that day women were considered to be unreliable witnesses; their evidence was inadmissible in a court of law. So if you were making this story up and wanting to convince people that it was true, you definitely wouldn’t have a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Secondly, you definitely wouldn’t include a story about how sometimes people didn’t recognize Jesus at first; you would want to get across the idea that there was absolutely no doubt about his identity.

The gospel writers, however, were not quite so creative with the truth as some modern skeptical scholars would have us believe. They tell us that a woman was the first witness of the resurrection because they knew that that is, in fact, what happened. And they also tell us that when she first saw the risen Jesus, she didn’t recognize him right away. She wasn’t alone in that. There was something very mysterious about the appearance of the risen Lord, and people didn’t always grasp right at the beginning that it was him. This was the story that the witnesses remembered, and because they were honest, they told the truth.

So Jesus appeared first of all to Mary by the tomb early on Easter morning. Later in the afternoon two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away; they were talking sadly about what had happened, but then a stranger came and joined them as they walked along the road. He asked them what they were talking about, and out came the whole story. “How dull you are!” the stranger said: “Don’t you know the scriptures predicted this?” And he proceeded to give them a guided tour through all the prophecies and explained how they had been fulfilled in Jesus.

Eventually they reached their destination and invited him in for a meal. There he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they realized it had been Jesus all the time. He vanished from their sight, but they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, went to the upper room and told the disciples “We’ve seen him!” The others said, “Yes, we know – he’s appeared to Peter as well!” – a meeting we know nothing about beyond the fact that it happened some time during the day. But as they were talking together, to their amazement Jesus appeared among them. They were afraid, and some found it hard to believe, but when he invited them to touch him and asked them for something to eat, they realized it was true.

And so it continued for the next six weeks. Sometimes Jesus appeared to individuals, sometimes to groups; at one time, to a group of more than five hundred of his followers. Sometimes the appearances were in Jerusalem, sometimes back in Galilee. Sometimes people recognized him right away, at other times it took longer. It was wild and unpredictable and scary and exciting; the disciples knew that God’s power had broken into their world as never before. The story of Jesus wasn’t over after all: in fact, it had only just begun!

If it’s true, what difference does it make for you and me?

Well, the early Christians believed it meant that God had made Jesus the true Lord of all. We read about that in our first reading this morning. When Peter was sharing the Gospel with the household of Cornelius the Roman soldier, he began by saying,

“You know the message (God) sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

‘Lord of all’ in the time of Jesus was a title that already had an owner – Caesar, the Roman emperor. It was one of his official titles. But the early Christians were impudent enough to steal it from Caesar and give it to their carpenter rabbi from Nazareth. And they liked to quote a verse from the book of Psalms and apply it to Jesus. It says:

The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).

Peter quotes that verse in a sermon he preaches in the second chapter of Acts:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”’.

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).

Now it might seem strange to us, at the end of a week in which we’ve seen fresh examples of the evil power of human beings to inflict murder and terror on one another – it might seem strange to us at a time like this to assert that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And of course the early Christians weren’t blind to this reality. By the time the Book of Acts was written many of the early apostles had given their lives for the cause of Christ. Most of them had not been supernaturally delivered, either. They were well aware that the powers and authorities continued to rebel against the rule of God. But in the face of this fact they continued to assert two things.

First, they continued to assert the Lordship of Jesus. But they remembered that when he had walked the earth he had refused to exercise that Lordship by force. He had told his disciples to love their enemies, pray for those who hated them, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil. And then, on the Cross, he put his own teaching into practice. As they nailed the spikes into his wrists and feet, he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing’.

So the early Christians expected that if they followed Jesus as Lord, they would suffer for their loyalty to him. This wasn’t a strange thing to them. This is what happens when the love of God invades a world dominated by the forces of greed and power. Jesus himself had foretold it. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). When Jesus spoke those words, ‘taking up your cross’ meant being executed by the Romans as a threat to the state. Jesus warned his followers that this would happen to them, and so they weren’t surprised.

But the second thing the early Christians continued to assert was that in the long run, everyone would be answerable to Jesus, God’s anointed king. Less than forty years after the death of Jesus, Paul said,

‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).

In other words, the one who will have the last word is not Caesar, it’s not the dark and shadowy leaders of terrorist organizations or the kings of multinational corporations. All of the powers and authorities of this world will on day have to give account to the one God has appointed both Lord and Messiah. As we say over and over again in the Nicene Creed – so often, perhaps, that we don’t notice it – ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

So the resurrection means that God has made Jesus Lord of all, and in the end, everyone will be answerable to him – which is good news, because he is a just and merciful lord, not a cruel tyrant. But there’s one more thing we need to say about what the resurrection means to us: it means that Jesus is on the loose.

They tried to nail Jesus down, but they couldn’t do it. Love is stronger than death. The power of God is stronger than all the hatred of human beings. And the risen Jesus has not abandoned us; he is still at work in the lives of people who follow him.

But you can’t summon him up like a genie in a bottle. He’s not under our control, so that we can produce him like a conjuror’s trick. When we read the stories of the risen Jesus in the gospels and the Book of Acts, it’s quite clear that no one really knew when he was going to show up. People could call on his name, but they could not make him answer. He was the one who was going to take the initiative. He was the one who would decide what he was going to do.

And the same is true today. Some people tell stories of dramatic experiences of the risen Lord, but most of us come to know him in quieter ways. He promised his followers that after his resurrection he would be present to them in a new way – by giving them the Holy Spirit of God to come into their hearts as the living presence of God in their lives. That experience – the inner presence of the Holy Spirit – is the way that most of us Christians today come to know the risen Jesus. That’s what Peter was talking about in the sermon I quoted from earlier on, when he said,

“Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

Please don’t think that because it is quiet and less tangible than a bodily resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit is somehow less real. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the testimony of Christians that the presence of the Spirit is one of the most real things we experience in our lives. We hear his voice speaking to us in the Scriptures and in our hearts. We sense his guidance in those gentle ‘nudges’ that we follow sometimes, and find that he’s got things for us to do. We sense his presence when we gather with sisters and brothers to worship God. When we do the work of sharing the good news of Jesus with others, we usually discover that he’s been there before us, working in their hearts and arousing an interest in the person of Jesus. And when he asks us to do things we expected to find impossible, we find instead that there’s a strength greater than our own, helping us to do more than we thought we could.

Jesus is alive. He gives us his Holy Spirit. We can’t control him or pin him down. He goes ahead of us, surprising us and delighting us, challenging us, and leading us to do the will of the Father. In other words, the story that began on that first Easter morning is not over. It continues to this day. God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus who we crucified, and one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The God Who Suffers with Us (a sermon for Good Friday)

The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel has written a powerful book called Night, in which he tells the story of his childhood experiences in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald. He was not quite sixteen in the spring of 1944 when the Gestapo arrived to deport all Jews from his little town in Rumania. On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were segregated and Elie never saw his mother or sister again. In the book, he describes in harrowing detail the sufferings of the inmates at the camp. Perhaps the most awful experience of all was when the guards first tortured and then hanged a young boy. Just before the hanging Elie heard someone behind him whisper “Where is God? Where is he?” Thousands of prisoners were forced to watch the hanging (it took the boy half an hour to die). Then they were compelled to march past, looking the dead boy full in the face. Behind him Elie heard the same voice asking “Where is God now?”

It was experiences like these that led a group of learned Jews in Buchenwald to put God on trial for neglecting his chosen people. Witnesses were produced for both the prosecution and defence, but the case for the prosecution was overwhelming. The judges were rabbis. They found the accused guilty, and they solemnly condemned him.

Seventy years later these questions about God and suffering have not gone away. Today many people in the world live in enormous suffering.

Some of this suffering is inflicted by human beings on each other. The most recent example, of course, is the savage brutality of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria; we’ve all seen the stories of merciless killings and beheadings, torture and rape and all sorts of atrocities. But this is just the latest case of our inhumanity to each other; the last thirty years have given us many more. All too often, the response has been more violence: people killed by the so-called ‘armies of freedom’ in bombings and military campaigns intended to stop people being killed by tyrants and dictators. But at the end of the day, people are just as dead.

Some suffering we inflict on ourselves. For instance, those who choose to drive too fast endanger their own lives – and, unfortunately, the lives of others as well. Those who abuse alcohol and other drugs cause themselves all kinds of suffering.

But there is a huge pool of human suffering which seems to be completely outside our control. We think of the earthquakes and other natural disasters in recent years, and the millions of lives that have been devastated. We think of the deaths each year from cancer and other deadly diseases. We think of children born with conditions like cystic fibrosis, condemned to short lives full of pain and suffering. And we’ve only skimmed the surface of the enormous ocean of suffering in the world today.

To thinking Christians, this fact of human suffering is the most difficult challenge to the truth of the Christian faith. You’ve heard the question many times, I’m sure: ‘If there is a loving God, then why are these things allowed to happen?’ Some of the most talented thinkers and writers in Christian history have struggled with this question, including in our own day C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey.

I’m not going to attempt to give a comprehensive Christian view on this subject, but I do want to point out to you today that the story of Good Friday is very relevant to this question. On Good Friday, as the Apostles’ Creed says, Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. And if, as Christians believe, God has come among us as one of us in Jesus, then this changes our view of how God relates to us in our suffering.

Let’s explore that thought for a few minutes. Some religious traditions have a strong doctrine of a god who is totally removed from the sufferings of the world. On this view, God is devoid of emotion and untouched by pain and grief. Some of the Greek philosophers took this view. Their reasoning was that if we can make God sad, then in fact we can control God, and this can’t be true. And it has to be said that some people today take great comfort in this idea that God is far above all the dirt and pain of the world, unaffected by it in the light and peace of heaven.

Other religious traditions have seen suffering as a punishment sent by God because of human sin. The idea might be that suffering in general is a punishment for the sinfulness of humanity as a whole. Or it might be that particular cases of suffering are seen as punishments against specific individuals because of their sins. This idea is very common today. You still hear people say, “What have I done to deserve this?” The assumption behind that question is that bad things are sent to us by God as a punishment for our sins.

Some people have abandoned faith in God altogether. They cannot believe in a God who stays safely in heaven and refuses to do anything about all this suffering. This view is sometimes called ‘Protest atheism’.

But the Christian faith has a different angle on this. As I mentioned, it flows from our belief in the Incarnation – the idea that in Jesus, God has become a human being and lived and died as one of us. If this is true, then God is not far removed from the sufferings of the world. In fact, God has firsthand experience of suffering.

Let’s think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings Jesus experienced in his lifetime. There was doubt from the beginning about who his real father was, and sometimes this fact was thrown at him as an insult by his enemies. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working class family and no doubt experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father, Joseph, at a very young age, and so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family, who even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

This death on the Cross was the height of God’s identification with us in our suffering. Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

But not only was there the physical pain, excruciating as it was. It went further than that. Like us, Jesus also experienced a sense of the absence of his heavenly Father in his sufferings. As far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus had never felt this before, but on the Cross we hear him crying out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So even in our sense of abandonment by God we are not alone; Jesus has tasted that experience too.

No, the suffering of Jesus on the Cross does not explain human suffering. But it does reveal God as willing and able to allow himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

Some of you may have read Joni Eareckson’s books telling of the work God has done in her life since the day in 1967 when she broke her neck in a diving accident at the age of seventeen. She has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair and was often tempted to abandon her faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilised in a Stryker frame with no control over any of her bodily functions. Then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realisation was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her.

Many years ago I came across a little story called The Long Silence. In this story, at the end of time billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped an angry young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture and death!” In another group a black boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no other crime but being black”. In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault”.

Far across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or she had suffered the most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! “Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges. Let him be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be horribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it”.

As each leader announced their portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. But when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

The writer to the Hebrews says ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

We began with the story of a dreadful hanging in a concentration camp, and the question of an anonymous spectator, “Where is God now?” But I didn’t finish the story. Elie Wiesel recounts how, when he heard that question, he heard a voice within him answering “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows”. And when we ourselves suffer, it is the weakness and scars of Jesus that strengthen us, because they tell us of a God who suffers with us.

In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott says,

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark over human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours.

I wonder if you know this poem by Edward Shillito? He was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and, in many cases, severely traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. Here it is:

If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn though the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Note: I received a more than usual amount of help with this sermon from John Stott’s excellent book The Cross of Christ.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ (book review)

51bca9zR2xL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An excellent book for the most part. Dave and Jon Ferguson focus on the parable of the Prodigal Son under five headings or ‘awakenings’ – the Awakening to Longing, to Regret, to Help, to Love, and to Life. Also running through the book is the idea of the Thirty Day Wager: the daily prayer ‘God, if you are real, make yourself real to me’.

The five sections of the book each include several chapters built around the theme of the five awakenings. But there are also daily resources – a question to ponder, guidelines for journaling, and a prayer based on variations on the wager. I understand there are also DVD resources available.

The book is enriched by many stories of people who have experienced God’s help in their lives. Refreshingly, not all of the stories have happy endings (a couple of the cancer patients died, for example). The book is also permeated throughout by a sense of God’s grace – reaching out to people in their brokenness and failure with the opportunity for a fresh start.

I think this would make a fine resource for people who are not yet believers, and also for Christians who long for a deeper sense of God’s presence in their lives.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ on Amazon.ca.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ web page.

‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’

Our gospel reading for tonight gives us the beginning of the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. In John’s Gospel it takes place after the footwashing, so we know for a fact that Judas was one of the ones whose feet Jesus washed. But John’s account of the Last Supper does not include the moment when Jesus took the bread and wine and gave them the new meaning as his Body and Blood, so it’s not clear from John whether or not Judas participated in the first Eucharist. Luke would seem to indicate that he did; in his gospel, after Jesus has shared the bread and wine with his disciples, he says “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:21-22). Mark, however, places the conversation we read in tonight’s gospel before the sharing of the bread and wine, seeming to suggest that Judas had already left when the first Eucharist was celebrated, and Matthew seems to agree with this timing. The best we can say is that it’s not clear exactly when Judas left the Upper Room, or whether or not he participated in the first Eucharist.

The truth is, there’s a lot in the story of Judas that’s not clear, and that comes as a surprise to some people. To them, the lines have been drawn. When Mark records Jesus calling his twelve apostles, the last one is named as ‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’, as if that false treachery was part of his character from the beginning. John tells us in his gospel that Judas was the treasurer of the apostolic band; he kept the money purse, ‘and used to steal what was put into it’ (John 12:6), and when Mary of Bethany poured the expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet to show her love for him, Judas was harshly critical of her. So it seems on the surface to be quite clear: Judas was a thoroughly bad man, and he had been from the beginning. A betrayal was necessary, Judas was foreordained to be the betrayer, and that was that.

The truth, however, might not be so clear cut. It’s important to remember that everyone who wrote about Judas in the New Testament had an excellent reason to hate his guts! No one reports the story from his point of view. Peter’s denial of Jesus is also a kind of treachery, and it’s clear that Peter was completely overcome by what he had done. But no one describes Peter in the lists of apostles as ‘Simon Peter, who denied him’. That’s because people knew and were sympathetic to Peter’s point of view; they understood his fear, and they also knew that he had repented and been forgiven by Jesus. But no one really had access to the inner workings of the mind of Judas, so no one could tell the story from his point of view.

In fact, many things about Judas are a mystery. He’s called ‘Judas Iscariot’, but we don’t really know what ‘Iscariot’ means. Some people think it means ‘from Kerioth’; there were at least two towns named Kerioth at the time, one of them in Moab, and the other not far from the Judean town of Hebron. If the second was Judas’ home town, then he would probably be the only member of the twelve who was not a Galilean. But some people say that the name is derived from the word ‘sikarios’, which means ‘dagger-user’ or ‘assassin’.

The truth is that we just don’t know. We don’t know where he was from, and we don’t know how he became interested in Jesus or why Jesus chose him as one of the Twelve. But he’s in all the apostle lists. Mark’s is the earliest; he says that Jesus ‘went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons’ (Mark 3:13-15). He then lists the Twelve, ending with ‘and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’.

It’s inconceivable to me that Jesus’ call to Judas was insincere. Jesus may sometimes have been hard to understand but he was not deceitful; if Jesus called Judas to be his follower, his disciple, and his missionary, then I think we have to take it as given that Jesus saw the potential in Judas and hoped he would fulfil it. Certainly by the time of the Last Supper Jesus knew who would betray him, but I don’t think we have to assume that he knew that right from day one.

It’s very interesting to me how the arrangements for the Last Supper are described. William Barclay points out in his commentaries that in order to have the little conversation with John and Judas that tonight’s gospel describes, those two must have been reclining on either side of Jesus. Remember that in those days people didn’t sit on chairs at the table as we do today; the table would have been a lot lower, and the dinner guests would have been reclining on little couches, leaning up on one elbow and reaching for the food with the other. John would have been sitting a little in front of Jesus, so that he could lean back to speak to him. Judas would have been on the other side of Jesus.

What an extraordinary thing! The two seats closest to the host would have been the places of highest honour at the feast. We would expect those places to be given to two of the three leaders of the apostolic band: Peter, John and James. And John does seem to have been close, but the other place had been given to Judas. We know that Peter was not in that place, because we read that Peter ‘motioned to (John) to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking’ (John 13:24). Jesus then said – and I think we can assume that this was a whisper – ‘ “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”. So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot’ (John 13:26). Note: it doesn’t say ‘He passed it to him’ but ‘he gave it to him’. So Judas must have been sitting next to Jesus.

Barclay understands this placement at the supper table as being Jesus’ last appeal to Judas. Jesus’ words recorded by Luke – “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22) – are not words of judgement but of sorrow. Jesus loved Judas as much as he did the other apostles, and he knew how this betrayal would end up for him. He longed to spare Judas that sorrow, and so he honoured him at the Last Supper with a seat next to him. Even now, he hoped that he could dissuade him from doing what he did.

But it was not to be. Judas had made the arrangement with the authorities, money had changed hands, and the die had been cast. They wanted to arrest Jesus, but in a lonely place where there was no crowd around. To make that work, they needed someone on the inside who knew where Jesus would be, and could lead them to him. And that’s exactly what Judas did. He knew Jesus was in the habit of going to Gethsemane, so he left the Upper Room, went to fetch the authorities, and took them straight to the place. And in a world where not everyone would have seen the face of Jesus on an Instagram post or a TV screen, he pointed out the right person to the guards by greeting him with a kiss.

Afterwards, as we know, he regretted his action. Matthew tells us that Judas repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the authorities, but they dismissed him contemptuously. So he threw down the money in the Temple and went out and hanged himself. Then the priests, suddenly developing a conscience, decided that it would be wrong to use blood money for the Temple treasury, so they went out and bought a field with it, which soon got the name ‘Field of Blood’. Luke, however, tells the story quite differently in Acts; the way he recalls it, it was Judas who bought the field, and then went to inspect it, he had a disastrous fall there, and all his bowels gushed out – which was why the field was called ‘Field of Blood’.

In other words, like everything else about the story of Judas, his end is unclear to us! If Matthew’s version is truer to the facts, then it would seem to indicate that Judas hoped he could dissuade the chief priests from having Jesus crucified; when it became clear that he could not do this, he fell into despair and went out and committed suicide. In his mind, changed feelings would not have been enough; if he couldn’t save Jesus from death, then Jesus was lost and so was he.

But I want to end by raising the question: was Judas automatically a lost cause? If he had held on for a few hours, until after the resurrection, and seen that no, it was not the end for Jesus, would there have been hope for him as well?

I think we have to say ‘yes’. After all, that’s exactly what happened to Peter. Peter also was cut to the heart by what he had done when he betrayed Jesus. Matthew tells us that after the cock crew Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26:75), and Luke’s wording is similar. Mark says ‘He broke down and wept’ (Mark 14:72). We can imagine that his sense of guilt over what he had done was just as strong as Judas’.

And yet, Peter was restored. No doubt the other apostles were struck by the irony of the fact that he had loudly proclaimed that even if everyone else fell away, he wouldn’t – and then he had fallen away. But Jesus made it clear by his actions after the resurrection that he had forgiven Peter, and Peter never forgot that.

The tragedy of Judas is that he refused to believe in that possibility. To him, it was all over; he had sinned in the worst imaginable way, and there was no possibility that God could forgive him. Judas was lost, not because he betrayed Jesus, but because he just could not believe in the possibility of grace.

Many people today have the same problem. They believe firmly in the principle of justice. Good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished. They know that they have committed many bad deeds – maybe, in some cases, particularly heinous ones. If they are believers in God, they know that God is a righteous and holy God. And so they are afraid.

They have forgotten those famous words of John Newton:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound), that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’.

Some people are offended by that word ‘wretch’. Their offence betrays the fact that they don’t understand the good news of Jesus. The good news tells us that Jesus died for sinners. We are all sinners, so we all qualify. Peter qualifies. I qualify, you qualify. And so does Judas.

Grace was reaching out to Judas. Sadly, Judas could not bring himself to believe it; he punished himself, rather than accepting God’s forgiveness. Tonight, let’s not make the same mistake. Whatever we’ve done, let’s not believe that it’s too awful for God to forgive. After we’re finished weeping bitterly, as Peter did, let’s come to Jesus, the friend of sinners, and receive the grace and forgiveness offered to us. And then let’s pass it on to those who sin against us as well.

‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ (a sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

For some reason I was never a big fan of the character of Superman. I never read his comic book adventures when I was a boy, and I never went to see any of the Superman movies, even though they were very popular and got a lot of attention. But I know the story, of course – the story of how he was born on the planet Krypton and was sent to Earth in a rocket by his scientist father, minutes before Krypton was destroyed. On earth he was brought up as Clark Kent by a farming family, but as he grew up he was gradually seen to have what we would describe as supernatural powers. At a young age he decided to use those powers to benefit the whole of humanity, and the rest, as they say, is history – or, at least, comic-book history!

Superman can do amazing things because he’s not from earth and he’s not really one of us – he comes from ‘Another Place’. And I think a lot of people see Jesus in the same way. He comes among us as a human being, but he’s not really a human being – he’s the Son of God, a divine character. So it’s possible for him to do all sorts of things that we can’t do – he can work miracles, he can read people’s minds, he can live a perfect life without sin, and so on. In fact, he has an unfair advantage over us, and so he’s not actually very useful to us as an example, and all the biblical themes about the imitation of Christ aren’t really very helpful. How can we imitate Superman, when we weren’t born where he was born and we don’t have the same sort of nature as he does? And how can we imitate Jesus when he’s not a real human being with the same struggles as we have?

But the problem here isn’t with Jesus – it’s with our ideas about Jesus. Real Christian theology stresses that when God decided to become one of us in Jesus, he wasn’t just play-acting. He took on a real human nature, with all of the limitations of that nature. For instance, he didn’t start out knowing all the stuff he was going to be taught in school; he had to grow and learn, just like other children. Luke emphasises this aspect of Jesus’ life; in chapter two of his gospel we read that ‘The child grew and became strong’ (v. 40) – in other words he didn’t start out strong, he grew strong with time, as other children do. And later on in the chapter we read that ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in years’ (v.52). Once again, he didn’t start out perfectly wise – he increased in it as the years went by.

The story of the baptism of Jesus, which we read this morning, continues this theme. It’s interesting to me that when Luke tells the story he doesn’t actually give a lot of attention to Jesus’ baptism itself. In fact, he doesn’t tell the story of the baptism at all; he tells us what happened after the baptism. Look at Luke 3:21-22:

Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

It’s interesting to me that in his story of the baptism of Jesus, Luke doesn’t actually tell us the story of the baptism of Jesus: he just mentions it in passing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that water baptism is unimportant; we know that Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples in water, and we know that the early Church followed that command. But in this story, Luke is not stressing the water baptism. What interests him is something else: the fact that after Jesus was baptized he received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luke has set us up for this. Earlier, in the first section of today’s gospel, he says that all sorts of people were asking whether John the Baptist was the long-promised Messiah, but John denied it, pointing out that there was a crucial difference between him and the Messiah who was still to come. Look at Luke 3:16:

John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to submerge, or fill, something. A ship that has sunk and is sitting on the bottom of the sea, surrounded and filled with water, has been ‘baptized’ in the literal sense of the Greek word. So what John is saying is, “Yes, I have the power to plunge you down under the water as a sign that you have repented of your sins, but the real Messiah will do something even more wonderful than that – he will plunge you into the Holy Spirit until you are completely immersed and filled with the Spirit’s power”.

But before Jesus can do this for us, he has to experience it for himself. And so after he has received John’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him and fills him, and from that moment on he is completely dependant upon the power of the Holy Spirit. The next thing that happens is that he goes out into the desert for a time of testing, but it isn’t just his choice to go there and it isn’t just his own human resources that help him get through that time. Luke 4:1 says, ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil’. And when the temptation is over, the Spirit continues to fill him and lead him. Luke 4:14 says, ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee’.

Do you see the picture Luke is giving us here? It isn’t Jesus as Superman who can do amazing things because he comes from ‘Another Place’. It’s Jesus the first Christian, the model disciple, the truly human one who has come from God but who nevertheless needs the help of God to be able to do what he is called to do. So God sends the Holy Spirit to fill him and equip him, and because of the Holy Spirit he’s able to do what God asks of him on a daily basis.

And because of this, Jesus really is a useful model for us. He shares our human limitations, and so before he attempts to do anything for God, he first of all prays and is given the supernatural help he needs in order to do it. And this is where we must start in the Christian life. If Jesus is the model disciple, then we need to follow that model. If Jesus needs the power of the Holy Spirit, then so do we.

“Well, that’s all very well for Jesus”, you say, “but obviously God gave him the Holy Spirit because he was special, because he was the Son of God. How does that help me? I’m not the Son of God, so God isn’t going to give me the Spirit, is he?”

Ah, but he is! That’s exactly what Luke is saying here! Remember what we read at the beginning of the section, when John said about Jesus, “I baptize you with water, but… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v.16). This is the special characteristic of Jesus’ ministry: he is the one who takes his followers and plunges them into the Holy Spirit until they are completely filled and immersed in the Spirit’s power. In fact, the gospel of John goes so far as to tell us that during his lifetime Jesus didn’t actually baptize anyone in water, although he commanded his followers to do that. Human beings can baptize people in water, but there is only one person who can baptize someone in the Holy Spirit, and that’s the only baptism he administered to anyone.

Luke continues this story after the resurrection of Jesus. He says in Acts 1:4:

While staying with (the disciples), (the risen Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”.

And in verse 8 he goes on to tell them,

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

How was this promise fulfilled? Acts chapter two takes up the story:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2:1-4).

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were both written by the same author, who we know as Luke – possibly Luke the doctor who travelled with Paul in the later chapters of Acts. Luke has told the two stories – the story of Jesus and the story of the early Church – in the same way. Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and given the power to do and say amazing things. His mission meets with success as many people hear him and follow him, but he is opposed by some powerful people. Eventually he is arrested, and then follows the story of the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way, the early Christians in Acts 2 are filled with the Holy Spirit. They are ordinary people like us – Luke stresses this, telling us a few stories of their doubts and failings and character flaws – but the Holy Spirit gives them the power to do and say amazing things. Even though most of them are uneducated, nonetheless they travel around spreading the gospel and planting churches. Luke is especially interested in Paul; he too has a conversion experience and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles. His mission is successful as people turn from idols to worship God in Jesus, but he is also opposed everywhere he goes by people in power. Eventually he is arrested in Jerusalem, just like Jesus, and when the story ends he has been taken to Rome to be tried before the Roman Emperor.

So the pattern Luke gives us is that you don’t have to be ‘from somewhere else’ – you don’t have to be Superman – in order to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus also fills us today. The difference is that the people in the Book of Acts knew it. They knew they were totally dependent on the Holy Spirit’s power. They had no organisation, no salaried employees, no sophisticated business plan, no huge advertising budget. They had no reputation in the community to build on – no one knew who they were from a hole in the wall. All they had was a message full of hope that had changed their lives, and a vibrant experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And apparently, that was more than enough.

It’s often been said that if you took the Holy Spirit away from the Book of Acts you’d have nothing left; everything the early Christians did was totally dependant upon the Spirit’s power and guidance. When they wanted to have an outreach event to share the gospel with the city, what did they do? Answer: they prayed that God would give them boldness to proclaim the message, and that he himself would stretch out his hand to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name, and this is how God answered their prayer:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

In Acts 13 when the early Christians were planning new evangelistic work they didn’t have visioning meetings or hire specially trained evangelists; they fasted and prayed together, and while they were praying the Holy Spirit guided them:

While they were worshipping the Lord and praying, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

But the power of the Holy Spirit doesn’t only have to do with the proclamation of the gospel; it also concerns our efforts to live the sort of life that Jesus asks of us. Paul tells us about this in Galatians 5:16: ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. In verses 22-23 he goes on: ‘By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. He calls these things, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, it’s the Holy Spirit who plants them like seeds in our lives, and it’s the Holy Spirit who helps them grow.  It’s not a matter of gritting our teeth and trying to be like Superman by our own unaided strength. It’s a matter of being filled with the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus and who helps us to live as Jesus lived and do the things that Jesus did.

Is this for real? Does this sort of experience of the Holy Spirit still happen today? Yes it does, although it happens with incredible variety. Some Christians experience dramatic ‘baptisms in the Holy Spirit’ with deep emotion and perhaps miraculous signs like speaking in tongues. Others have quieter and more gradual experiences, but you can tell by the way that they live their lives that the Holy Spirit is truly at work in them helping them to live out the message of Jesus. What they all have in common is a deep awareness that this is not about human strength or skill. The Christian life is not difficult; the Christian life is impossible, unless the power of God fills us and gives us strength and wisdom. But on the other hand, this means that we’re not limited to our own puny wisdom and strength. Church history is full of stories of seemingly insignificant people who were used by God to do amazing things, despite their weaknesses.

So this is for you and me today. Luke tells this story because he wants us to be included in it. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus at his baptism can also fill us and set us free. He can grow his fruit of love and joy and peace in our lives and he can help us do the work Jesus calls us to do.

How do we receive this gift, and how do we grow in our daily experience of the Spirit? There is no human program for it, no infallible formula. There are no magic words. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind – he blows where he will, and you can’t control him. Yes, he works through water baptism and through our faith, but he’s not tied to those things. He doesn’t come in answer to a magic spell, like at Hogwarts.

We can’t control the Holy Spirit, but we can ask for him. Let me close with these important words of Jesus:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).

So let’s ask him, and keep on asking, until we receive the gift the Father promised. And when we have received him, let’s pray daily that he will fill us, and then let’s consciously walk in step with him, so that God can work through us to bring salvation and blessing to the world.