Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 9 January 2022.
• First Reading: Isaiah 43: 1-7 (Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine)
• Psalm 29
• Epistle: Acts 8: 14-17 (Placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit)
• Gospel: Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 (Heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him)
I wonder whether anyone here has resented or desired a gift given to or an ability enjoyed by a brother or sister.
Sibling rivalry can be intense and our literature and drama have plenty of it. Taken to extremes it has a name to show an ugly reality: fratricide. The rivalry of Cain and Abel comes early in the Old Testament.
But in the church we also have something similar with our spiritual forebears and cousins, the Jews. In Isaiah, we have a lovely and glorious promise to the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon, where they had hung up their harps while their captors demanded entertainment; ‘Give us a song!’
We are very free in taking to ourselves the promises given to the Jews in the Old Testament, but perhaps slower to accept the rebukes and words of judgment.
But there is something here which applies especially to the Jews and which as far as I can tell has only been fulfilled in our days.
‘I will say to the north, give up, and to the south, do not withhold.’ The regathering of Israel in the Holy Land in the years following both the end of World War 2 and the collapse of the Soviet Union is remarkable and precedented only be the return of the Jews to their land after their exile in Babylon.
What we can receive is that sense of God’s personal and passionate commitment to each of us by name for this is expressed by Jesus in His High Priestly prayer in John 17.
But it is based on the same principle that those who have put their lives and souls into the hands of God really are accepted by and received in Him, and no one will take them away, even in times of war, famine or pestilence.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told how Peter and John were sent to Samaria, where the gospel had been preached and people had received it, but had not received the Pentecostal filling with the Holy Spirit which was now usual wherever the gospel was preached.
The point was that just as faith in Jesus was personal, so was Jesus’ response to that personal faith and the believer would expect to be filled with the Holy Spirit in turn.
At Samaria this had not happened and the apostles wanted to resolve the matter, so Peter and John were sent out.
Again they also expected that any believer should be released in the power of the Holy Spirit and they prayed accordingly. This was not to be some mark of a special blessing – rather it was to be part of the normal spiritual life of the believer and the life of the Christian community.
If anything, it is the lack of this reality in today’s church that is the exception and perhaps we should wonder why.
The gospel starts with the story of John who was proclaiming that One would come to baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His message was to the whole people of Israel and any who came would hear his message. If John was scary then look out for the real thing. This One would come and there would be no mistake. Each person who heard Him would be presented with choices and central to these was the matter of believing and receiving, or of rejecting and playing safe.
But then Jesus came and submitted to John’s baptism of repentance at the start of His ministry. Although sinless Jesus was starting off on a road to the cross where He would personally carry the burden and condemnation of the sins of the world. ‘He who knew no sin’ would become sin, utterly and totally and without qualification.
And in anticipation of this, Jesus was publicly acclaimed by God by word and by the bestowal with the Holy Spirit.
If Jesus was going to need the Holy Spirit in His ministry, then all who follow Him definitely need it in their lives in the world.
Part of the mystery of Jesus is that the fulness of God separated itself from the Glory of God and of heaven and accepted the full limitations of a human life.
God in Jesus retained His being of the Father and yet lived within all the temptations of the human life.
This did not stop Him from praying or serving God in His ministry. It did not strip Jesus of His identity as the Son of God.
But it did point to something else.
What God gave to Jesus at His unblemished baptism of repentance, He desires to give to all who follow Him. It is a gift and not a wage or proof of worth or works.
Rather it is an enabler of the believer and disciple in any age in living as God always wanted him or her to do and what Jesus had taught us to do.
Are we under a sense of frailty and moral and spiritual failure? Welcome to the human race.
Do we desire to live in the same spirit that endowed Jesus? For the assurance that our prayers and devotions before God are heard and heeded? For the sense of His comfort when all else is falling apart, and we are beset by doubts and even personal unworthiness? For the strength to serve Him more deeply?
This is where we also come to ask to be filled and refilled and refilled again and again, with the fulness of the Holy Spirit. Jesus needed Him – and so do we.