A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on January 27, 2013.
O Lord, our God, we pray today for the full measure of your spirit. Come to us, surround us, and fill us with your gifts to satisfy our needs this day. We pray that you would come to us in this world of chaos, with all of its conflicting claims of truth, and its pressures to conform to someone else’s opinion. Come to us as the spirit of truth and bring to us the gift of discernment that we might see the heart of Christ in the midst of this world. We ask that you would also bring to us the gift of spiritual wisdom that we might see where the footsteps of your son, Jesus, lead. Above all, may we recognize the claim of Christ upon our lives and live solely for him. In this world of sorrow, we pray that you would come to us as the spirit of all comfort. Fulfill the promise of Jesus and come to ease our grief. Come relieve our fears and remove the sense of guilt from our hearts so that we might be at peace with you. Lead us as we are beset by things we cannot control and powers that threaten us. Replace our spirit of timidity with a spirit of boldness, and by your strong arm may we overcome and be victorious in all things. So that we do not trust in ourselves but in you, grant us a spirit of humility and grant us that spirit by teaching us to pray as Christ teaches us: Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
“The hidden spring” of spirituality is the second feature of human life which, I suggest, functions as the echo of a voice; as a signpost pointing away from the bleak landscape of modern secularism and toward the possibility that we humans are made for more than this.
–From Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N. T. Wright
A story that I occasionally use at funerals is about the ambassador from Holland during the period when European powers were exploring trade and attempting to make colonies in other parts of the world. The ambassador from Holland told the king of Siam what they did in the wintertime in Holland. When the canals would freeze, they would strap skates on their feet and skate across the surface of the water. Of course, if you lived in Siam and had never seen ice and had no concept that water could freeze and become solid, this sounded like insanity so much so that the king had the ambassador locked up and thought that he was not all there. That is the best I can say. He just could not believe it.
It wasn’t in his experience base and because it wasn’t in his experience base, he assumed it had to be something made up, something that could not possibly be true. This is the way many of us are. If it is not something that we have seen or heard ourselves and if it is not something we can touch, see or smell, we have our doubts as to whether or not it is real. All it takes is a story like that for people who have experienced ice to know that our experience cannot, will not, and does not define reality.
There are a lot of things that are real that we have never seen. Have you ever seen a quark? When I was growing up and we studied science, we learned that an atom was made of neutron, proton, and those little electrons circling around in what looked like a 3-D solar system. Now we find out that there are other particles in there. All of us today would believe that everything we see and all the air around us is made up of atoms and molecules. We have never seen them but we trust them to be real. A few people may have seen pictures in an electron microscope, but most of us have never seen one of these things. Our limits of experience do not define what is real. What we can see and what we can touch does not define what is real.
Therefore, a lot of people are skeptical about the things of the spirit. If you start talking about the spirit, people think you are talking about something that you made up, but the Bible is absolutely confident about the spirit. It begins with the spirit. In Genesis 1, it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the spirit of the Lord hovered over the deep.” Near the very end of Revelation, four verses from the end, it says, “The Spirit and the bride say ‘Come,’” let all who will come, and they announce the great victory of God at the end of time and over all things. In between, it is the spirit that gives life to Adam. It is the spirit that allows Ezekiel to be set down in the valley of dry bones and for bone to come upon bone and for life to come again. The spirit directs the instruments of God throughout scripture.
The spirit overshadowed Mary and she gave birth to the Christ. When Jesus came into Nazareth and read from the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, it says, “As was his custom.” He read from that portion that said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Everywhere we turn in scripture, there is the spirit.
With all the great passages of scripture that deal with the spirit of God, why on earth did I pick a passage of scripture from Isaiah that never mentions the spirit? There is the point. It does not mention the spirit.
There are a few passages of scripture that we could describe as cartoons. They are verbal pictures of situations that are so silly as to want to make a person to laugh in order to make the point in scripture. One of the most familiar ones to us would be Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He said if you have a 2 x 4 stuck in your eye, how could you see the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye. It is a word picture of something that is absolutely silly. If you had a 2 x 4 in your eye, could you even look at another person’s eye let alone try to get the speck out? What we have here is a verbal cartoon where Isaiah, under the leadership of the spirit, is making fun of a situation. How on earth could a craftsman take a piece of wood, cut part of it off, burn it in a fire to cook his bread, and then take another part of it and say, “I am going to heat my house,” then take another part of it and carve it into a statue and bow down and say, “This is my god.” It is supposed to be funny. We all see the irony of it and we recognize that it is just silly.
While none of us would have an idol in our home that was there other than a souvenir, the truth is that many of us worship what we think is real life. Whenever we talk about real life, it is always about the things we can handle, buy, sell, trade, collect, own, and touch. These are the things we think are real life and they are no more the definition of reality than the silly statue that someone makes with their own hands out of wood. They cannot even see the ridiculousness of saying, “I made this by myself and I call it a god.” The things we can see are not the limits of reality. The spirit is alive and at work in the world.
If we were to look for a New Testament verse to go along with this cartoon from Isaiah, I would choose these verses from 2 Corinthians 4. Paul says, “Because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen for what can be seen is temporary and what cannot be seen is eternal.”
When the wood is burned up to make bread, it is gone. When it is burned up to warm the house, it is gone. You can take the idol and throw it in the fire and it would do the exact same thing as the other portions of the wood, and it would be gone. The things we think are real life and the things we want to collect and own, and the things that seem so incredibly important and are the ultimate attention of our lives can all be gone tomorrow. Where are they? They are temporary and they are not real, but the things of God where God is at work in the world last forever.
There is a great story by the British pastor Leslie Weatherhead. He is walking by a park in London and he sees a boy with a kite. The string goes up into the sky and the kite is flying so high and so far that the string seems to just go up into the sky and disappear. He stopped and asked the boy, “How do you know it is still there?” The little boy thought for a second and said, “Because I can feel the pull of it.”
This is what we discover in life. There are times when God pulls and pushes on our lives. If we try to explain it to somebody, they think, Well, that is just weird. How on earth could somebody believe that when they cannot see it? Yet those of us who have felt the pull of it know it is real.
I was at a ministers’ conference this week and one of the other ministers told a story and I thought, I needed that for Sunday. That just captures what I want to say. He and his wife were touring in Moscow. There is a bridge by Christ the Savior Cathedral where citizens come. When they get married, they bring a lock and lock it on the tree as a symbol of their love and then they throw the key in the river there beside where the bridge is. He said the cathedral was so beautiful and he was struck by what was going on. He engaged in a conversation with a woman who was just standing there and happened to be next to him. As they were talking and looking at the cathedral, he said to her, “Do you believe?”
She said, “Oh yes, I believe, but I am really not sure about this Jesus stuff.”
He was so surprised that he did not know how to respond. He let it pass for a second, and when he turned around, she was gone. He said, “Here I am a pastor and she was doubting Jesus. It was a perfect opportunity to say something to her and I didn’t say a word. I felt awful.” All he could think about was this woman and his failure to have said something.
The next day, the tour had moved on to a totally different section of Moscow. They were eating lunch on the second floor of a restaurant and he said, “I looked up and there was the woman. Not only was she there, but she was coming across the restaurant toward me.” He got up and as she got to him, she embraced him. She pulled back and said, “I have been thinking about you every since yesterday.”
He looked at her and said, “I have been thinking about you.”
They began to talk and exchanged addresses. Now he and his wife are going to Hamburg, Germany to visit this woman so they can talk. The thing that struck me the most was when he was done he said, “Out of ten million people, I run into her and she runs into me.”
You can think, This is one of those great coincidences. He should have bought a lottery ticket that day. You can make a coincidence out of it, but what you cannot make is the compulsion that two people both feel drawn back together to finish this conversation about Christ. No statistic can make that happen, and he said, “I have come to expect things like this from God.” For those who will open themselves to the spirit and allow the invisible hand of God to lead, guide, and direct, we have come to expect these things.
I know a family who talks about God sightings. Occasionally at the dinner table, they will talk about the God sightings for the day, and what else could it be other than the invisible hand of God moving them toward something. Isn’t this the ultimate in what is real and what is eternal? Isn’t this more than anything we could own that would rot, rust, burn, be destroyed, or be lost? This is what is real.
We have a couple who are our friends and, occasionally, the husband gets focused on things that irritate him. When he does, his wife will often kid him in an effort to try to get him to change his focus away from frustration and anger. She will say, “You are just a sad little man. O there you are, my sad little man.” It would be hard to hear that and not begin to laugh.
In the passage in Isaiah, it talks about sad little people who can take something like a block of wood and think they can make it into a god. Is it any more sad when we take the things that everyone else has told us are the most real, that are totally devoid of the spirit of God, and somehow hold them up as the focus of our lives and say, “This is the ultimate, this is the most, this is the best, this is everything.” That is a sad little life. It is a sad little life that does not open up to the possibilities of the experience of my friend in Moscow who says, “I have come to expect things like this from God.” Do any of the treasures of this world or any of the things that we worship provide that same kind of spirit? The answer is no. We are confident that the ultimate reality in this world is the spirit of God alive and at work, moving and shaping, doing things that we could not expect. Instead of a sad little life, it opens us up to abundant life in the spirit of God through our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.