Thursday, November 19, 2015
In Spring this year, I had a most marvellous experience, an encounter with Jesus such as I've never known before – or since, for that matter. I was out with the dog, a yellow Labrador retriever (somewhat more unruly than she still is) and coming down with a cold. The problem was, my Dad was soon to arrive and the last thing I wanted to do was to pass on an illness that he could well do without at his age and so far from home.
So, I started to pray, 'Lord, please take this cold away; I desperately don't want Dad to get it.' There was a check in my mind and I went off in a different direction, as my mind sometimes takes me. 'I've never known you cure a common cold, Lord, so how on earth will you get me out of this body when I die and put me in a new one?' Yes, my mind is often that weird. Actually, it's a question I've pondered on a number of occasions, and never with a satisfactory answer. Will God upload me somehow just as my body's last outward breath kicks in, store me in some vast, heavenly data bank, then download me into a new, everlasting model? Or will the essence of me emerge into a new realm, like a leaf bursting from a germinating seed? Who knows?
Anyway, as I gazed down the wooded path that stretched out before me, my mind flipped again. What will it be like to meet Jesus? I imagined him walking down the path towards me. I thought I wouldn't look down as though ashamed to be in the presence of one so holy because there would be something very intimate and welcoming about our meeting. And suddenly it was as though he was actually there. In my mind's eye, I looked on Jesus in wonder, and he looked back at me, smiling. I became captivated by that imagined smile, and understood in some measure the wonderful extent of his acceptance of me. I felt no compulsion that I should throw myself to the ground and worship. I was in the presence of a friend who loved me, and who had turned out especially to welcome me. He was delighted to see me and I was thrilled to see him. (In my mind's eye, I said, this was not a vision of Jesus.)
Then there was another change. For the next 45 minutes or so, I walked on in the almost tangible presence of Jesus—not in heaven but here on earth, there on that wooded path. What began as a flight of fancy was now an encounter with Jesus, and I revelled in the company I was keeping. I bet we've all thought or said, 'When I meet Jesus I've got a whole load of questions I want to ask him.' I found myself pushing that idea away. I didn't want to ask him anything (even though I have a whole host of questions), I was just enjoying being with him, walking along beside him: him, me, and an unusually well-behaved dog.
I've tried since to relive this experience, to invoke the same sense of presence, but I cannot. It seems to have been a one-off, special gift. Nevertheless, it helps me to understand the reality of his presence with me here and now, even when I am unmindful of it, and that I do not have to strive to get his attention. It enhances my sense of belonging to the family of God, and that I am welcome, any time.
I'm looking forward to meeting him for real.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
IntroductionThere is a restaurant known to me which, in the past, didn't fare too well. It wasn't very family friendly and the proprietors didn't really know how to get the best from it. Its customer base dwindled. So they sold it.
The new owners revamped the décor, introduced a new menu, and employed friendly staff. People discovered the place, enjoyed eating good food in very pleasant surroundings, and passed the word around. The restaurant started with two staff members serving from behind the counter. Within a year, custom increased so much that they've now introduced table service, employ 35 waiting staff, and are very busy most days, all day; so much so that it's as well to phone ahead and reserve your table.
It's a special place, and we enjoy going there. It's a roaring success—and all because of new owners who saw the potential, knew what was needed, the changes that had to be made and how to achieve them.
When a person becomes a Christian, something quite remarkable happens: The Holy Spirit comes to live within that person. He or she is “under new ownership”, and the One in charge sees the potential, knows what's needed, the changes to be made, and how to achieve them.
Today, I want to try
- to show the difference the Holy Spirit brings to the believer,
- to show the distinction the Holy Spirit confers on the believer, and
- to ground these points in the real experience of daily life.
I'll do this with three headings:
- The Transformation of the Spirit
- The Test of the Spirit
- The Tension of Life in the Spirit.
The Transformation of the SpiritPaul tells us there are two realms we can live in: the realm of the flesh, and the realm of the Spirit. When the word 'flesh' is used in scripture in this way it refers to our natural, sinful state, our fallen nature. Living in the realm of the flesh doesn't necessarily mean pursuing the “pleasures of the flesh”, with all the lurid connotations of that phrase. We don't have to do desperately wicked stuff to be living in the flesh. We can live fairly decent lives, even be church-goers, but have no real interest in God or in spiritual things.
Paul tells us that living in our natural state is not much use to us as far as God is concerned. Pandering to our natural tendencies leads us eventually to death, and I'm not referring to the demise of our mortal bodies, something we all must face. In our natural state, we can't achieve the requirements of God's law. In fact, we just can't please him.
By way of illustration, our dog is in kennels at the moment. It's not our dog I want to refer to but the person we initially contacted at the kennels. First of all, it was difficult getting through to her. When we got through we were assured our dog would be pencilled in for the dates we wanted. The person was away from the office but promised to call later to get all the details needed. Well, she didn't call. We tried several times to call her again but kept getting her message service. Texting achieved no response. Eventually, we spoke to someone else, only to find the first person had left the job only that day. We discovered our dog wasn't booked in, and others had called to complain that expected contact hadn't happened. This person didn't have her mind set on the job she was in. Her mind was set on the next thing. She'd turned up for work and gone through the motions but failed to do what was required of her. We weren't pleased, her other clients weren't pleased, and her boss wasn't pleased either. As far as her work was concerned, her head was somewhere else: she was living in the wrong realm!
God makes it possible for Christians to live in the realm of the Spirit. As Paul wrote, “You … are not in the realm of the flesh but in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.”
The Spirit within makes us alive to God, and releases us from the grip of our old way of life.
The Spirit brings us a new freedom. By following the Spirit we can to choose not to sin. Our free will hasn't been removed from us: the possibility of sinning remains, but Paul warns us that following our old ways will lead us to death. With the Spirit, we can live God's way, and we can please him.
Through the Spirit we're adopted into a new family, and have a new destiny. As verse 16 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.” We belong to God's family with full rights as though we were his natural-born children. We are God's children, not his slaves; we are fully accepted, not subject to an owner's whim. And all the blessing of heaven awaits us!
We have new life, new freedom, new family and a new destiny. What a wonderful difference the Holy Spirit makes!
The Test of the SpiritThe Holy Spirit isn't an optional extra. All who truly belong to Christ have the Holy Spirit. Conversely, as Paul tells us, any who don't have the Spirit do not belong to Christ; they're still in the realm of the flesh. This is a clear test and distinguishes not only believers from unbelievers but the Christian faith from all others.
We can expect the presence of the Spirit, and certainly the effects of the Spirit, to be tangible in our lives. How can we know we have the Spirit and therefore belong to Christ? How can we apply the test? In rehearsing the things that follow, I hope most, if not all, here will find encouragement and assurance in what I say. There may be some here who realise that, actually, they don't have the Spirit and they need to get right with God.
Here a three things to think about.
- The indwelling Spirit brings assurance of salvation. I'm sure we've all heard John Wesley's testimony of assurance: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This wasn't a special favour for John Wesley; we can all know this same inner witness, and know we are saved!
- I've recently read one of John Wesley's sermons in which he talked about this inner witness of the Spirit. He wasn't convinced by people who claimed this experience but whose lives didn't measure up. It's nice to know he agrees with me … As verse 5 says, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” So, we can apply the test by asking ourselves, what is my mind set on? Or, what am I living for? For myself, or for God?
- Perhaps closely linked with those questions, we can ask, is the Spirit's presence evidenced by the fruit of our lives? In Galatians 5 we read about the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is one fruit with many segments, like an orange, and all of these segments should be in each of our lives in increasing measure as we follow the leading of the Spirit within. We may need input from someone else on this one. Often, when we look critically at ourselves, we see only our short-comings whereas others can see the good things.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor 13:5). A little introversion is no bad thing. And it's wonderful to be certain of your salvation!
The Tension of Life in the SpiritAs Christians, we live with the 'now and not yet' paradox of the faith. We live in the realm of the Spirit but we are surrounded by people who don't. We are already adopted into God's family but the full benefit of that adoption lies in the distant future; and we have to wait patiently. Paul tells us that even creation itself creaks and groans, as though it were longing for the end to come and for all to be put right.
Paul acknowledges the problems of living in this world but gives us something to focus on that will keep us going. He talks of all that lies ahead far outweighing our present sufferings.
In Ephesians chapter 1, Paul describes the Holy Spirit as “… a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance …” Because we have the Holy Spirit, we can know that heaven awaits us for sure. For the believer, death is not something to fear. It's just the gateway to all that's promised us in the presence of God. Actually, one of the most formative experiences I've had was my father-in-law's funeral. He was a godly man. He knew where he was going, and was genuinely looking forward to getting there. Naturally, we were sorry for him to go but the thought of where he is now, for me at least, transformed a sad event into a deeply joyful experience! What wonderful prospects we have!
In the meanwhile …
… we have the Holy Spirit to help us in our present sufferings. Here's how the Spirit helped me through one particularly dark time.
One Sunday in September 2000, I stood in church, worshipping with my eyes closed. Suddenly, in my mind's eye, I saw myself inside a dark, cylindrical space. The walls were opaque and without texture or anything to grasp. There was complete darkness apart from a thin crack of light at the bottom where the cylinder touched the floor. As I'm not given to seeing things, this was a bit of a surprise, so I took careful note of the details. I had no idea what it meant at the time.
In November that year, my mother became unwell. In the following March, she was admitted to hospital. In October, she died from lung cancer. During her illness, I began an imperceptible descent into clinical depression. After about two years, I finally couldn't cope. I was off work for 13 weeks, and my GP put me on antidepressants.
By this point, I'd lost all interest in church but sometimes went for my wife's sake. I sat there one day wondering why on earth I was there at all. Does God exist? What is this all about? Have I wasted 35 years pursuing something unreal? I was ready to give up on faith completely.
In exasperation, I said to the ceiling, “Is God really there?” Then, I heard clearly in my mind, “I warned you this would happen,” and the picture of the dark cylinder came back into view. The image perfectly described my depression: isolating, almost completely devoid of light, nothing to get hold of. I broke down and wept, because now I knew for sure: God is real, and he loves me more than I ever understood before. And he had done something to make sure I didn't give up.
This was the turning point in my illness. It took two more years to climb out of depression but I knew God had hold of me, that he understood, and was with me in the depths of my circumstances.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul says. I'm nothing special. The same Holy Spirit is in every believer and stands ready to help us all.
Concluding ChallengeAll Christians have the Holy Spirit. There's no question about that. The question is, are you a Christian? Do you have the Holy Spirit? Are you under old or new ownership?
In Acts 1:8, Jesus promises his disciples, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you ...” The word translated as 'power' can also mean ability, energy, authority, strength. At the Spirit's coming, the disciple were transformed from people who ran for their lives into people ready to lay down their lives for Jesus. The Spirit puts a tremendous potential within us and we can achieve things we never thought possible. Let's allow the Holy Spirit in us to unlock that potential and revolutionise our lives for the glory of God.
Receiving the Spirit in the first place may be a one off thing but Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 to go on being filled with the Spirit. When was the last time you were full of the Holy Spirit? Go on being filled with the Spirit!
Life can be a struggle. There's no denying that. But God's Spirit stands ready to help us in all our weakness. Let's learn to face life's difficulties with confidence in the Holy Spirit, and with a solid and certain hope for the inheritance that lies ahead.