One of the interesting things about the beginning of St. Luke`s Gospel is how no less than FIVE times, he tells us that the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of the principal characters. So he tells us about John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and of course the passage we heard this morning… the Visitation to Mary. In her fear and scepticism she is told, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you” (1.35). Now the thing I want to invite us to get hold of this morning is that no matter how miraculous we might regard the events we hear about in say, Luke`s Gospel…. The underlying conviction is that we`re talking about God in the midst of our human lot. These are real people and real flesh and blood events with God in the midst. THIS is what Luke is trying to tell us when he speaks of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, we might regard for instance the births of Joh and of Jesus himself as providential or significant, but they are perfectly natural. They may have been very unlikely but they weren`t exempt from weaning, crying, crawling and all the other activities associated with childbirth, growth and development. And again, Luke is saying “God is IN all of this”
What this means is that there is absolutely nothing in us and nothing about our lives which is inaccessible to or incapable of holiness… Nothing that can`t become a reflection of God`s life and love. As someone has said “The long, complex and often painful process of growth; infancy to childhood to parenthood and then on to old age is embraced and given meaning and dignity” (Eugene Peterson) because God`s Holy Spirit is there in the midst. And this is important because there is a tendency of some in the Christian family to associate the presence of the Holy Spirit with things that are essentially `other` worldly; with something beyond our ken and certainly out of the reach of mere mortals.
Sometimes I find it quite frustrating to hear part of the family speak of the work of the Holy Spirit as if this were the preserve of some (usually them) spiritual elite. It seems to me things are made all the worse when we confuse and overly identify the presence of the Spirit with particular cultural and indeed personality traits such as being an extrovert. Now whilst this is mostly trivial and often just a sign of immaturity I think it becomes harmful to the life of faith because as I say, almost by default we place things we regard as `spiritual` in opposition to the fleshly and the ordinary and then because our lives are a bit chaotic and untidy we start believing that we haven`t got the correct pedigree to be in on this `God thing`.
So, what do we do? I suppose the first thing to say is that there is nothing new in this. St. Paul wrestled with these things and a severe case of spiritual one-upmanship in his Letters to Corinth … which is well worth reading if ever you feel intimidated by those who seem to specialise in `compulsory joy`. But secondly, this is why when people ask me about the Holy Spirit, for what it`s worth I always say we`re simply talking about `practical God`. To believe in the Holy Spirit is to affirm that God is with us… and to recognise that life is filled with moments, events, places and people where the living God is seen and experienced as exactly that… the living God.
As I`m always saying, this is not something you can control or manipulate. You can`t; drum it up by the force of your personality or the loudness of your praise band or indeed your pipe Organ. Jesus told Nicodemus “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 1.8). And so it is with you and I. All we can do is pray, “Come Holy Spirit” and be attentive and open… and yes, often wait. To pick up Jesus picture of the wind… those of you who have had the privilege of sailing know what this means- you hoist your sail.
But if as I say this is so `practical` what example can we use to illustrate this? Well look for a moment at the Old Testament Reading this morning. (2 Samuel 7) It tells the story of King David who has reached a point of consolidation in his reign. He`s sitting there in his palace and enjoying all that he`s achieved. And like many people who`ve reached a certain comfort he thinks… “I think I`ll do something religious”. Totally the wrong way round- but forgive me being a bit facetious.
Anyway David sees that the Ark of God, for want of a better phrase; the sign of God`s presence with his people is housed only in a tent. So he calls in the Prophet Nathan and says “I`m going to do something for God” and he makes plans to get the builders in. Nathan, of course thinks “great, the King`s taking his faith seriously; Ah! happy days”. And in a sense, why wouldn`t he? It seems like what today we might call a `no-brainer`. But after a good night`s sleep Nathan returns to David and he takes away the planning Permission. All David`s enthusiasm for God receives Nathan`s wet blanket. You can read the story for yourself but essentially David is being told that the Lord God is far more interested not I what David can do for him….. but in what HE can do in and through David.
And here`s our practical point. It all boils down to choices….the everyday decisions that we make, in matters large and small. It strikes me as so ironic that we live in an age where `choice` and the ability to exercise it has been exalted to one of life`s highest virtues and goals but sadly; and the casualties are all around us…. We simply don`t know how to go about making good choices.
What really concerns me though, is that as people of faith we seem little better. So for instance, it seems we`re far more comfortable with asking God to get us out of situations we find ourselves in rather than asking whether we should have taken that particular path in the first place. I`m generalising crudely, of course but if we`re going to think `practical God`; if we`re going to take the presence of God the Holy Spirit seriously then we could do a lot worse than remember Nathan`s wet blanket.
We could pause long enough to ask “What kind of person will I become by taking this or that path?” “What understanding of God am I demonstrating by how I choose today? Mean, fundamentally am I acting and choosing in manner that demonstrates that I entrust myself to him? “What is coming to birth in me?” and “Are my decisions consistent with being what Mary calls “the servant of the Lord?”
Again, this isn`t an exact science… it`s a relationship. Discerning what we call `the will of God` is a lifetime`s activity and there are all manner of things we could reflect on. We`re not, for instance talking about `walking on egg shells` or living a life of fear and anxiety…. But at the same time the Lord expects us to act responsibly. In Matthew`s Gospel we hear him say ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.`(7.13) No, at its heart I think we`re talking about a quality of response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
So what we have here is the way in which sometimes the way forward seems obvious… a `no-brainer`. But David`s experience teaches us that THAT is often the point at which we need to pause. THAT, it seems to me is when the Holy Spirit is made known. We`re invited to beware living our life on `automatic` … and to recognise that as David did, even our best and most apparently `Godly` intentions can be flawed. More often than not it`s not what we imagine doing for him but what he wishes to do in and through us…. that matters. Again at the point of decision it helps to ask, “What kind of person am I becoming in taking this particular path?” And importantly, “Will the path I choose it leave me more or less open to the work of God`s Spirit in and through me?”