“Come, Holy Spirit”
Sunday 12 January 2019
One Sunday, I was greeting people at the door of St George’s Church, Tamborine Mountain, following the Service. An elderly woman chipped me by saying that the Service had not been like any Church of England Service she had ever been to. I foolishly tried to point out that it was straight from A Prayer Book for Australia. Her reply was along the lines of “What’s that? I only know the Book of Common Prayer”. It seems that the last time she had gone to Church, only the Book of Common Prayer was used – which meant at least prior to 1978.
I should have taken a clue from the phrase ‘Church of England’. It is usually an indicator in Australia these days that a person who uses the term of themselves has not been very frequently to Church in recent times.
Another giveaway like that is the word “Christening”. It does not occur anywhere in the Bible, and these days, the use of the proper term, “Baptism”, has been reinstated in our Church vocabulary. When someone wants their child ‘Christened”, it is generally a safe bet that they are infrequent churchgoers.
The feast we celebrate today is the Baptism of our Lord – not the Christening of our Lord. The question that we have to consider today is: Why did Jesus see it necessary for himself to be baptised? In the account of the event that we heard from Matthew’s gospel, we are even told that John the Baptist “would have prevented Jesus from being baptised.”
So why did Jesus consider it necessary himself?
Scholars provide a great variety of answers to that question, but the one that I find most compelling is that it was so that his empowerment by the Holy Spirit could be clearly manifested.
The Holy Spirit is ubiquitous in this morning’s readings. The Holy Spirit is active as “spirit”, “voice”, “breath” and “dove”. Listen to the layers of the Holy Spirit’s presence:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations”.
“Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it”:
In the Psalm:
“The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters:
the voice of the Lord full of power,
the voice of the Lord full of splendour”.
Peter reminds us “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”.
And in Matthew:
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
The readings could not make it any clearer that Jesus’ life and mission is inspired by the Holy Spirit, driven by the Holy Spirit, empowered by the Holy Spirit. His life was one lived completely at the behest of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism is every bit as much about the role and power of the Holy Spirit as Pentecost.
Which leads us to ask: What about us? How do we allow the Holy Spirit who empowered our lives through Baptism to drive our existence? How do we even know what the Spirit might want us to be doing? Most of us are unlikely to be hearing heavenly voices giving us clear directions. If we do have them, there is probably a good case to ignore them as they are unlikely to be the “voice” of God.
It’s true that some Christians behave as if they have some sort of pipeline to the brewery and that they know exactly what God is wanting in each and every circumstance. But that is not the lot of the vast majority of us ordinary faithful followers of Jesus. For us, it is far more subtle and sometimes, it is far more difficult to decipher just exactly what the path is that the Holy Spirit is calling us along.
It is, it seems, that only through frequent and devoted times of prayer that we are ever going to be in touch with this great power that is the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. But it will not be in a manner whereby we can assert with certainty that we have fully grasped what it is that the Holy Spirit is calling us towards.
The Cistercian monk, Michael Casey writes: “By the action of the Holy Spirit the distance between us and God is bridged. We cannot accomplish this by our own resources; we are totally reliant on grace. Our task is to attain a state of active and receptive passivity, to allow the Spirit to act”. (Grace, p 132)
Just as the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism as complete gift, so do we experience the Holy Spirit in our lives as complete gift. We cannot make it happen! All we can do is, as Michael Casey suggests: “…attain a state of active and receptive passivity.” What is a state of active and receptive passivity but prayer?
Casey expresses this role again: “Our task in prayer is to provide a time and a place for the unexpected to happen and to push aside everything that causes our attention to waver. The Holy Spirit is the principal agent in generating prayer; we merely make room for the Spirit’s action”. (Grace, p 131)
The problem for us is that when we do try to pray in this way, we are flooded with distractions and concerns and struggle to attain any sort of stillness. St Augustine said that the Holy Spirit is present in our lives, but we are not present to the Holy Spirit. The spiritual masters would assure us that the Holy Spirit can live with our poor efforts. The Spirit does not need us to enter in some zone of perfect detachment in order to relate with us. The problem is often that, we become disheartened by our efforts and give up. The wisdom of the church is that we need to persevere, even when our efforts feel dry and distracted and fruitless. We are not to know what the Holy Spirit is able to do with sincere efforts at prayer.
Before we continue with our worship this morning, I invite you to sit in silence for a few moments and to open yourself in “active and receptive passivity”, as best you can, to the presence of the Holy Spirit within you. Again, some insightful words from Michael Casey: “Prayer is best when we are no longer in control of what happens; it is the Holy Spirit who is at work”. (Grace, p132)
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen