This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Yallourn Parish meeting at Yallourn North Uniting Church on Sunday 17th December 2017, the Third Sunday in Advent in Year B.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Luke 1:46b-55
Last week when I spoke about God’s word spoken through Isaiah to the exiled Judahite and Israelite nations I said that that passage, found in the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40, was an inauguration text. I said that God had set aside a new prophet for a new message, and we were coming in at the very beginning of that story. Today’s reading from Isaiah 61 serves the same purpose in scripture and history. Today we heard how God was again speaking to a people in distress, and the message of God was hope. Last week we heard of comfort and assurance, this week we hear of activity and remembrance. You are not forgotten by me, says God, now go and gather the lost whom you have forgotten.
“The spirit is upon me because God has set me apart to do the work of God” says the prophet. Unlike last week’s initiation where overheard God speaking to the angels, and the angels speaking to the prophet with a “tell them this” message, today’s reading began with the prophet himself speaking as if he has already received the message. That’s fine, and you’ve probably seen that already, it’s no big deal that we miss out on Heaven’s conversation today. But what sets this inauguration apart is that this prophet claims to have the Spirit upon him. Usually prophets were not anointed, but in a way this prophet claims to have been. Anointing was for priests and kings, ordination and coronation involved oil, but prophets usually announced themselves simply by beginning to speak. We heard last week how John the Baptiser seems to appear out of nowhere, the same was true, pretty much, of the Israelite and Judahite prophets back in the day, with no activity of the temple or the palace. In other words, the Spirit’s presence was conferred by Godself as the evidence of God’s appointment. That doesn’t mean that the rituals of coronation or ordination are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God, we do still need kings and priests, but the work of a prophet is something different. Prophets belong to God in a special way, they do not owe tenure to any parliament or synod.
This may sound inspiring, and it should do, but it is also heavy with meaning. Quite simply if you do not have the Spirit, and the Spirit is a gift of God which cannot be earned or acquired through study or seniority, then you are not equipped for the work of God. I believe that this is true for all Christians and Jews, not just those called to the unique office of prophet. I do not claim to be a prophet in the way that John the Baptiser or Isaiah were, but I hope that you recognise that what I say is said because of the Spirit of God working through me as a preacher and in me as a Christian. Without the Spirit you cannot do the work of God. You can do public speaking, you might even be able to preach a decent Bible study. You can do pastoral visiting and listen attentively to the sick and lonely. And those are good things. But without the insight of the Spirit those jobs will always lack something, they will be incomplete as ministries.
And, of course, the reverse is true. If you have been equipped by the Spirit to do the work of God, but you do not do the work, then what use is the Spirit to you? Maybe some people are not doing the work of God because the Spirit is not with them, and that is the evidence that the Spirit is absent from their lives. I don’t care if you don’t speak in tongues, there are other signs of God’s individual presence. But if you don’t do anything as a disciple, then I wonder about your relationship with the saviour.
No Spirit of God, no work of God. Without the Spirit we can do nothing. But no work of God, no Spirit of God? If your faith is not seen in action aligned to the mission of God, then what evidence does the world and the church have that you are with God at all?
So, as a pastor-teacher here, and someone you have chosen in the short-term at least to fill a leadership role, what am I looking for? How do I know that you are each and all a Christian?
When I was a primary school teacher I used to write two names on the whiteboard at the beginning of each lesson, and these were our learning friends. One was W.A.L.T., and the other was W.I.L.F. “WALT” told us “we are learning to”, and “WILF” told us “what I’m looking for”. For example: We Are Learning To…use adjectives. What I’m Looking For…is good describing words. It was very clear to the pupils, be they grade two or grade seven, what the lesson was about. Just so, I want to be clear for you today. As the one acting in the role of your “Minister”, W (am) ILF?
Isaiah, and Jesus who quotes him later and at the outset of his own ministry, offers that God’s work is good news to the oppressed, bandaging for the broken, liberty to the captive, release for the imprisoned, declaration of God’s favour to the abandoned, and comfort for the mourning. That sounds like a pretty clear “WILF” on God’s behalf, so let’s go with that, and make that our “WALT”. In Isaiah 61:8 God’s own voice declares repair and restoration of that which was destroyed and thought lost forever. God through Isaiah promises restoration of what was stolen, full restoration with the right of inheritance. Isaiah has great cause to rejoice in God who has called him and equipped him with resource and blessing and joy. Isaiah among the Israelites has been restored and healed, perhaps he has been among the first to have been so and now he is telling his story to encourage those awaiting the Spirit’s arrival in their lives. The blessing of God is natural and once the channels are unblocked what should flow naturally, God’s favour, will flow in abundance.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, 24 we read Do not quench the spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets…. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this. As I hope you’ve already picked up, but now I’m going to say it blatantly, the work of the Spirit is to make us more like Jesus. Jesus was the one who was most guided by the Spirit, so if we are guided by the Spirit and attentive to God’s “WILF” and “WALT” then we’ll be more like him. Through all Jewish history the prophets were the custodians of the nation’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams. When the actions of the people lead the nation away from these great thoughts, the work of the prophet was to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back. As Christians we don’t have a nation in the way that the Jews do, we have a Kingdom which is made evident in the work of the Church. The Spirit moves on some people to speak out, and the Spirit moves on all people to respond, to draw the Church back to the hopes, desires, and dreams of God and the Christians who have gone before us.
Turning briefly to the Christmas story I want to suggest that the evidence that Mary the Virgin and John the Baptiser were doing God’s work was that the Spirit was with them, even though the work they were doing was new. In Christian tradition God had not spoken to the Israelites through a prophetic man for over four hundred years, until suddenly John appeared in the wilderness quoting Isaiah amongst the other prophets, yet denying the charge of being a new Elijah. He didn’t fit the preconceived idea, and his style was four hundred years out of date, but the Spirit was all over him so whatever he was doing and saying it must have been God. And think of Mary, God had never sent a messiah before, so Mary’s pregnancy was unique; it still is. Yet hear her song of “tell out my soul” and look at the life of the boy-became-a-man born from her womb. Do you see the Spirit of God upon her, upon Jesus, in this new thing? Then it is God, and “WALT…do something new”.
How do we know that God is speaking through the voices of the people on the margins of our tradition, our society? How do we know that this message is true if it comes without precedent? We look for the Spirit.
Again, in Mary the Spirit was seen in her celebration and her song of worship and delight filled praise; so much so that her very presence caused the prophet John to leap in praise in utero. In John the Spirit was seen in this leap, a second trimester foetus who prophesies to the coming Christ.
In John the Spirit was seen again in his proclamation of the message of God in accordance with the Jewish tradition. The great test of any prophet is found not so much in what he says but in whether what he says will happen does happen. That Jesus came and was seen to be all that John had foretold and more is evidence that John was a man sent by God.
I have no doubt that the Spirit is with this congregation, by which I mean the whole Yallourn Parish. God is with and on and in each of you people here this morning, and those who are sometimes here but not today. And with the mob at Morwell listening to Cathy Halliwell this morning. And with Cathie. I know these things because I have seen the Spirit at work amongst you in your care for each other and for the care-needing people of your towns. I do not believe that we are in danger of losing the Spirit or of disappointing God, but I hasten to add that we can never take our ministry for granted. We are engaging in a work which is a privilege, and if we lapse then that privilege will be taken from us and given to someone else. Let’s not allow that.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, to do God’s good works. Thanks be to God.