‘WILDFIRES’ – a new series of Daily Inspirations for the season after Pentecost
This brand new series of reflections – which we’re calling ‘Wildfires’ – reflects on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, from the first verses of Genesis, to the last verses of Revelation. Often the ‘forgotten’ part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is there at Creation and also at the climax of the New Creation, co-equal with God the Father and Jesus Christ, revealing the reality of God’s presence and power to the world throughout history. In this season after Pentecost we’ll celebrate the Holy Spirit, and continue to welcome His presence in our lives today.
Monday 6th July – Acts 6:1-7 ‘Practically spiritual’
The spiritual life is often thought to exist ‘in another dimension’. And sometimes, it does. Miracles, prophetic words of knowledge, angelic languages – these are not ‘worldly’ things. But sometimes, we can fall into the trap of believing that unless it’s a bit weird or quite obviously ‘supernatural’, that the Spirit of God isn’t in it. We need to beware this line of thinking.
This lovely passage in Acts reminds us that the life of the Spirit celebrates practical gifts, and is well able to affirm them as God-given and extremely valuable for the kingdom. The ‘ideal church’ of Acts quickly gets its problems just like any other church. In this case, their social care programme – dedicated to feeding those in need – is not going well: some are being fed, others aren’t. And it’s causing arguments and allegations of discrimination.
The solution is wonderfully sensible. The apostles appoint seven new leaders to look after the church’s social care – which proves to be a spectacular ‘win-win’: both freeing up the apostles to focus on their core gifting, and blessing the practical care ministry, such that everyone is fed. The result, in fact, is not just practical benefit, but spiritual too – the church grows more quickly and reaches into new areas (v7).
What is notable in the appointment of the new leaders is that the first qualification is that they should be ‘full of the Spirit’. It assumes that they will have practical organisational gifts, but also looks for signs of spiritual maturity as well. The spiritual and the practical blend together for God’s glory.
Too often the church has neglected practical gifts. Yet the early church affirmed them. If you’re a gifted organiser, or good with your hands, or creative and artistic, these are God-given talents, which the Lord has given you for a reason. Rather than separating them from your ‘spiritual life’, it is far better to surrender them to God, that He might use them for His glory. That might be in the workplace, but it might also be in the Christian community. I couldn’t have survived the last few months without Jacob and Philip offering their technical gifts to create our online services. What a blessing they have been to us!
But there is a further encouragement here. As we grow spiritually, we might also find our practical gifting grow too. As we become more Christlike, so those Christlike qualities will enhance the things we’re good at. We’ll see things with God’s eyes, care for people better that we work with or serve as clients, understand our own fears and motivations. These all help us to be more fruitful.
We humans are a marvellous divinely-inspired concoction of body, soul and spirit. May God continue to grow our whole lives, that our practical gifts, surrendered to God, may be used for His glory – both this week, and beyond.
Saturday 4th July – Acts 4:23-31 ‘Spiritual grace for testing times’
True goodness unsettles people. It might seem a strange thing to say, but time and again it has been demonstrated in the history of the church. Jesus himself was of course the perfect example of this: but it didn’t take long for his followers to discover the same reality. Opposition to the early Christians began remarkably quickly – in today’s passage, Peter and John return from their first grilling by the authorities. What had prompted it was, of all things, an outstanding miracle. A man had been spontaneously healed, and Peter had spoken to the crowd which gathered about the powerful name of Jesus.
It is a sobering reminder that commitment to living a life of peace, kindness and welcoming the supernatural intervention of God is no guarantee that we will not face trouble. Shining the light of Jesus inevitably reveals darkness elsewhere, and there is in some humans a hatred of the idea that they might not be masters of their own destiny: that they might ultimately have to answer one day to a Higher Power, a Greater Being. We might obey the State, and be model citizens, in most things. But our truest and highest allegiance is to God, and powerful people in particular are prone to resent the idea that they can never ultimately control us, because our minds and spirits are free – with the implication that their power is limited, even puny, compared to the Lord of the Universe.
So perhaps it is not so surprising after all that Christians have often been seen as subversives, a threat to the natural (corrupt, human) order. Every time the power of God is revealed, the flaws of human power are laid bare, and it is this sense of losing control which led the authorities to try and force Peter, John and the early Christians to stop.
But where there is opposition, God’s grace is greater. That is also a common theme of the history of the church. And here in Acts 4 we see the believers not only unite in prayer but also experience the power of God again: ‘the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly’ (v31). God’s presence through his Holy Spirit was made all the more available to those under pressure because of their faith.
Let’s notice, though, what the believers prayed for: an end to opposition? An easy time from the authorities? Not a bit of it. They prayed for more miracles, more opportunities to share their faith.
The great encouragement to any of us facing opposition to our faith is that God will give us more grace, more love, more spiritual power: in short, more of Himself. The challenge is that He may not remove the opposition: rather give us grace to push through it and out the other side.
Today let us pray this grace for all those around the world facing these challenges. Let’s use Acts 4 as our prayer for them. And, if this type of challenge happens to be your situation too, take heart: God is with you in it. ‘When we come to the end of ourselves, we come to the beginning of God.’ Amen.
Friday 3rd July – Acts 2:1-21 ‘Weak made strong’
You knew we’d get there eventually. Day 29 on our journey through the Spirit in the Bible and, yes, we’ve finally got to the passage that you might have thought we’d cover on Day 1: Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit in a new and glorious way: on all people, for all time.
There’s so much we could say about this wonderful passage. How the manifest presence of God came to Jesus’ friends in wind and fire. How it ignited mission, and fulfilled what we looked at yesterday, as the gospel could now reach ‘to the ends of the earth’. How it came at just the right moment, when multitudes of nations were gathered and could take this good news back to their homes and neighbourhoods. How it was mistaken for drunken behaviour and ridiculed, as sadly it sometimes still is today. How it represented a ‘new law’ for God’s people, which is what Pentecost had traditionally celebrated. How it brought Joel’s famous prophecy (day 17) to life….
And we can celebrate all of those things. But today, I feel drawn to sharing what it meant for the disciples, and how that might speak to us. I’ve been reminded this week of something profound written about St. Peter by the great Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton (and please forgive the non-inclusive language, he was of his time):
“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”
At the heart of our story today is Peter, who stands up before the crowds as a person transformed. Chesterton is right to note that Peter is essentially someone like us, and that this is why he made such a great choice to lead in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus.
But this Peter has a new power inside him. He is no longer operating solely out of his human weakness, but in the power of Christ, which fills and equips Peter by His Spirit. Which means we can now look at Chesterton’s insight two ways: not just celebrating that God uses weak people (like us) to achieve His purposes. But also, since Christ indwells every Christian, then in fact every ‘weakest link’ is now far stronger than we could ever dare to imagine. Not our strength, but Jesus’.
Pentecost may have been a unique occasion, an unparalleled experience. But it speaks to a deeper truth for each of us: that the Spirit enables us to do things we could never have imagined possible. The Spirit is still enabling us today. What might that look like for you?
Thursday 2nd July – Acts 1:1-8 ‘To the ends of the earth’
In 1995, a man left his well-paid job in New York, moved to Seattle, and began a business operating out of the garage in his new rented home. He started by selling books in the newly emerging online market. The first book he sold was ‘Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought’ by Douglas Hofstadter. Catchy title, eh? Nevertheless, business boomed. Within two months, he’d sold books to all 50 states in America and to 45 countries overseas. And from there it just kept on growing…. For this was how Amazon started, and it made the man – Jeff Bezos – currently the world’s richest, on paper at least.
What starts small can sometimes grow in an extraordinary way. When Jesus left this world to return to his Father in heaven (today’s passage from the start of Acts), he left behind 11 leaders, a total group of 120, no money, and no buildings. In other words, not a lot to the naked eye. But his final words to them were clear: what he started would spread ‘to the ends of the earth’ (v8).
How? Well, if Jeff Bezos harnessed the power of the internet, Jesus’ followers were about to receive a totally different kind of power. They couldn’t earn it or create it, they simply had to trust, wait and receive (v4-5, repeated v8). Only when they had received it would they be empowered to take Jesus’ good news to those around them: first to the capital city, then to the rest of the country, and finally across the world.
It reminds us that the gift of the Spirit is not just for our benefit, but for those around us. Lovely as it is to experience the presence of God, His power equips us to serve, and especially to share what we believe. As we’ll see tomorrow, the disciples’ first experience of this demonstrated that probably more than they could possibly have dreamed.
Infectious faith is a work of the Spirit. It’s good to have a testimony, and to know what we believe. It’s good to be ready to share whenever the opportunity arises. But most of all, we need the presence and power of God: giving us divine appointments, the right words at the right time, and multiplying their effect in those we are sharing with.
It doesn’t mean being passive. But the great weight off our shoulders is that, ultimately, it’s not about us. It’s God’s work: we trust, we receive, we go – and we leave the rest to him.
Who do you know that God is at work in? Why not pray for them today? And pray for power to be God’s witness wherever you may get the opportunity. Amen, come Holy Spirit!
Wednesday 1st July – John 20:19-23 ‘Re-creation’
In this season of lockdown, it’s getting quite hard to remember what ‘mass gatherings’ used to look like, but one of the more unusual mass gatherings of people in the last couple of generations has been the popularity of re-enacting major battles. I remember watching one about 30 years ago in Suffolk – truthfully I can’t remember which battle was being re-enacted, but I do remember noticing that ‘dying’ in the battle seemed remarkably popular. Later, I wandered past the beer tent and realised why!
What we see here in today’s passage is a far more important re-enactment, one with eternal and global consequences. The Gospel of John is all about new creation, a re-telling of the story of Genesis. It begins in the same way: ‘In the beginning….’ In ch3, Jesus meets Nicodemus and tells him that he must be ‘born again’ i.e. re-created. And here, in John 20, the risen Jesus does something which appears quite odd: he breathes on his disciples. Again, in this season, we’re not too keen on anyone breathing on us, but bear with me, there is a vitally important reason here.
What Jesus does seems odd, until you compare it with Genesis 2 – we looked at it way back on day 2 of these reflections on 2nd June. There we saw God breathe his divine Spirit into human beings. Now, here in John – the ‘re-telling of Genesis’ – our risen Saviour initiates a new act of creation. When Jesus breathes on his disciples, he is effectively saying: ‘you are each God’s new creations now.’ What a thought that is!
When we become Christians we don’t just ‘join a religion’ or ‘try to be good people’. It’s far deeper than that. We start a new life: we become new people, filled with the Spirit of God. Through the work of Christ, God is creating a new humanity, able to worship and serve him, to be the pinnacle of His creation that we were always intended to be. Or as St Paul summarises elsewhere: ‘If anyone is in Christ: new creation! The old has gone, the new is here.’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)
It might not often feel like that, as we wake up wearily on a wet Wednesday in February, or struggle to say a few prayers before we go to sleep – but that is who we are. Jesus has put His Spirit in us, and we are made new. And we can observe that two consequences of this new life in our passage are peace (v19) and forgiveness (v23). Because we are at peace with God, we can be at peace with ourselves, with others, with our world.
Why not let that peace rest in your heart for a few moments now? You are Jesus’ new creation. Receive the Holy Spirit. Let Him fill you with peace today.
Tuesday 30th June – John 16:5-15 ‘The Divine Awakener’
I wonder if you’ve heard the phrase applied to someone that they were a ‘person of deep convictions’? Often it’s used in the context of someone who effected great change, based on their principles: a Nelson Mandela or an Abraham Lincoln. But you might use it to describe a very principled friend or colleague. The word ‘conviction’ in this case refers to deeply and strongly held beliefs that determine the way they live, things that seat deep in their heart.
We come across the word ‘conviction’ in the Bible too, and it means something similar. Jesus uses it here in this passage when he talks of the Spirit ‘convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgement’ (v8). Modern translations might render it ‘prove the world to be in the wrong’, but the idea is that, prompted by God’s Spirit, people come to a deep awareness of truths which cause them to live a different way.
In particular, Jesus says, these truths involve understanding that we fall short of being the people that God made us to be (sin), that this has eternal consequences (judgement), but that there is One who did not fall short and is able to sort things out on our behalf (righteousness – found in Jesus).
Although these are not easy truths to admit (especially in our modern culture) nevertheless without them the central act of the Christian faith – Jesus’ death and resurrection – makes no sense at all. Jesus dies for a reason: the ‘fallen-shortedness’ of every member of the entire human race for all of history. His righteousness wins for us what we could never claim for ourselves, and because of that we are forgiven, we are free, we become ‘new creations’.
It’s worth reflecting that whilst words like judgement might feel awkward for us, the fact that there will be a day when God puts everything right, when all the abuse and corruption and violence perpetrated by those who seem to have got away with it will be punished and dealt with, ought to bring us great comfort. What happens in this world matters profoundly to God, and He will make things right.
Jesus uses the word Advocate again here to describe the work of his Spirit, and we might like to observe that the Spirit can act as counsel for the prosecution as well as the defence, if I can put it like that. The Spirit defends our hearts, reassures us of God’s love, and helps us see through the lies of the enemy. But there are also times when we need to be reminded that God calls us to be holy, and to cast ourselves again on His mercy. That is conviction as Jesus describes it, and either way Jesus is glorified, since in both scenarios it leads us back to Him.
Whilst the word ‘convict’ is usually applied to an ex-prisoner, this passage reminds us that Christians are all convicts in a spiritual sense: those who have had deep truths revealed to them, but – praise God! – are no longer in prison.
Today, invite the Spirit to speak those deep truths to your heart again. And rejoice in your convictions!
Monday 29th June – John 14:15-27 ‘The Divine Advocate’
I must confess that I love watching legal dramas. There’s something about the intense atmosphere of a courtroom that draws you in. Something too about how truth is disclosed (or avoided), how arguments are massaged and presented, and ultimately, whether justice is served. Although many such dramas nowadays focus large amounts of time away from the courtroom – the preparations, the police interviews with witnesses, the personal lives of the protagonists – the key moment remains that time when the barrister (or advocate, to use another name for the role) gets to her or his feet, rustles their papers and addresses the witness. This is the moment when those of us watching at home sit forward on our chairs and draw a sharp intake of breath…
People need advocates. They need them in the justice system; but there are also other times when we might need them: to fight our corner, to defend those who can’t defend themselves. One of our good friends in London used to attend bankruptcy hearings with those being pursued for debt repayments, and his expert advocacy rescued dozens from destitution. An advocate is the sort of friend we need: full of energy, wise advice, and above all committed to us and our wellbeing.
There are lots of images for the Holy Spirit in the Bible, of which the most popular we have largely covered over the last few weeks: wind, fire, and water. The dove is also well-known, as shown at Jesus’ baptism or (by implication) in the famous story of Noah. But this passage gives us another unique image, and one which is particularly important because it is given by Jesus himself. How does Jesus describe the Holy Spirit? Here, as our Divine Advocate – in fact he’s so keen we absorb it that he tells his disciples twice – v16 and then again in v26.
Sometimes this word is translated ‘helper’ but that’s a bit cosy, the word is a little more dynamic than that. In the original Greek it’s parakletos, which is where traditional churches get the name ‘Paraklete’ to describe the Holy Spirit. (And old minister friend of mine grew up thinking that the priest kept saying ‘parakeet’ and spent his time as a child in church looking for a parrot flying round the building!) It literally means ‘one who comes alongside’.
Hence the modern translation of Advocate. The force of the meaning is of just the sort of good advocate we have described: energetic, wise and committed to us. And, uniquely, this Advocate does not just walk alongside us, but actually dwells in us (v17, repeated in v20). The Spirit’s heart speaks directly to ours, if I may put it like that. It is Jesus himself with us by his Spirit: loving us (v21), empowering us (v23) and teaching us all things (v26).
We often talk in church about whether we’re committed to Jesus. But this passage reminds us that the more important truth is that Jesus is intensely, eternally, absolutely committed to us. Just let that sink in for a while… What a thought to kickstart our week! Amen, hallelujah!
Saturday 27th June – Luke 11:1-13 ‘Ask to receive’
One of the huge questions people often ask about the Holy Spirit is this: if the Holy Spirit is given to all followers of Jesus (which it is), why does Jesus tell us to ask for it? Which is it? Is it automatic or only given on request?
This question has caused endless debates within the Church. So you will find, in the blue corner, those who advocate that we don’t need to keep asking because it is a once-for-all gift which we just need to cultivate. And, in the red corner, those who make much of the need to keep asking, that what we get at the start isn’t enough. Seconds away…!
As is so often the case, the argument tends to polarise towards either/or, when actually the bible seems quite comfortable with ‘both/and’.
(As an aside, you’ll find this a good rule of thumb in most debates about faith – the answer is usually not either/or, but both/and. We get into trouble whenever we try to ‘resolve it’ – far better to embrace both truths and live accordingly.)
The best way I can explain it is to think about birthdays. My son’s birthday is in a week’s time. He’s been asking for various things for his birthday, which is great, and Alise and I will love to buy those things for him (mostly!). But since he’s our beloved son, we would have bought him gifts anyway. He doesn’t only get presents because he asked! He is guaranteed to receive gifts – it’s just also nice for him to ask, so we know what to get.
Our Heavenly Father, God, looks at his children in much the same way. Note that this teaching on the Holy Spirit is set in the context of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray to a loving heavenly parent who is delighted to give good gifts to his children. So we ask for the Spirit (v13) as one of the good gifts, knowing that God loves to answer that prayer. He’s given us the Spirit anyway, but there’s no harm asking, is there?
And because, as we observed yesterday, the Spirit is a person, with a personality, we can also afford to be specific. Yes, we can pray for more of ‘the Spirit’ in general, just as my teenage son might say ‘just buy me stuff, dad’. Or we can pray that the Spirit fills us with peace, or joy, or gives us the gift of teaching, or discernment into a situation – the equivalent of a more specific birthday gift, like, say an Xbox game or Nike shorts.
So let’s rejoice that God gives the Spirit unconditionally to all who follow Jesus. And let’s also rejoice that we can keep asking, confident in the words of our master, Jesus: ‘How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.’
What good gifts will you ask for today?
Friday 26th June – John 4:19-24 ‘Spirit and truth’
‘May the force be with you.’ One of the most famous lines of cinematic dialogue, and one which certainly as a young lad in the playground I would happily shout at my mates as we ran around, pretending we were flying the Millennium Falcon or fighting Darth Vader.
Looking back now as an adult, I feel somewhat more ambivalent towards this phrase. Strange as it is to admit, it’s been hugely influential in shaping not just our media but also our religious culture. The tendency of the last 50 years or so has been towards seeing spirituality in terms of vague forces of good and evil which are unpredictable but can be harnessed by those ‘in the know’. The divine spirit is seen as a force, and naturally we want this ‘force’ (whatever you call it) to be with us.
Unfortunately, even Christians can be swayed by this way of seeing things – misunderstanding biblical images of wind or fire to give the impression that the Holy Spirit is really another force as well. In worship we have become increasingly prone to mistaking emotional highs for the true work of the Spirit, simply because we ‘feel it’. It’s the Star Wars Heresy (my name for it!) by another name.
Thankfully, Jesus sets us straight in this lovely story of his meeting with the Samaritan woman. There’s so much we could say about it, but today I just want to observe that the Spirit is not a force, it’s a person. And the great thing about that is that we don’t have to try and create situations where we can somehow feel a ‘force’ – if we want to know what the Spirit is like, we can look at the visible manifestation of this person (Jesus) and see. That’s so much better, isn’t it!
Since Jesus loves the truth, it follows that one of the most important qualities of the Holy Spirit is truth. And, as Jesus says in our passage today, real worship involves us worshipping ‘in Spirit and in truth’. The two work together – the Word of God and the Spirit of God. They both have the same goal in mind – to glorify Jesus in the world and in our lives.
They also work together in particular ways: Jesus tells us that the truth sets us free (John 8:32); St Paul tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). Both the Spirit and the truth lead us to freedom. Elsewhere, Paul also says that as our mind is renewed (truth) so we are able to offer our lives to God, which is our ‘spiritual act of worship’ (Romans 12:1-2). Spirit and truth working together to help us lead worshipful lives.
Spirit and truth, truth and Spirit. Two sides of the same coin (and who ever heard of a one-sided coin?). It’s what a real relationship with God looks like. Jesus the living word, dwelling in us by his Spirit.
What truth is the Spirit speaking to you today? May it lead you into freedom!
Thursday 25th June – John 3:1-8 ‘Born of the Spirit’
What do you think about when you hear the phrase ‘born again’. Sadly many of us tend to associate the phrase with one particular expression of the Christian faith, with (what might seem to us) the ill-fitting cultural clothing that comes with it. We may think of a fiery preacher in an expensive white suit yelling ‘you must be booooorn again’, or something equally memorable and unhelpful.
It is a great shame that the phrase has come into disrepute in recent years, because it’s one of the most important, dare I say it fundamental, phrases of the bible. And it wasn’t invented by Christians, not even folksy tabernacle evangelists. It was Jesus himself who said it. More than that, it wasn’t just something he recommended as a good way to look at the journey of faith: a nice idea we could use to illustrate a spiritual truth. He was far more insistent: ‘You must be born again.’
What’s the big deal? In the end it comes down to one of the great questions of life: how do we live the life that God wants us to? In the bible, the complexities of this question are neatly boiled down into one condensed but highly meaningful contrast: the flesh versus the Spirit. The ‘flesh’ is all about human effort: we live the life God wants by trying really hard – knowing all the rules and rituals, and then doing our best to follow them. This is how most religious worldviews operate, but there’s just one small problem – it doesn’t work. Our flesh is too easily corrupted, and even when we do the right things, we often do them for the wrong reasons.
The in-breaking kingdom of Jesus is totally different. When we follow him, his Spirit dwells in us and transforms us from the inside out. We begin a new life, indwelt by God. As our heart is changed and we develop Christlike virtues – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness – so we naturally ‘do’ the right things.
How can we describe this new life? Well, Jesus thought of one very good way: we are – you guessed it – ‘born again’ (v3, v6). Born of the Spirit (v5) i.e. to a new spiritual life, a God-infused heart which slowly learns to live as God wants. This is the Spiritual life, in the truest, most literal sense of the word. And, Jesus says, there is no other way: ‘no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless…’ (v5).
How can we tell where we are? Like the wind, we can’t ‘see’ God’s Spirit, but we can see its effects (v8). Take a few moments today to think about the ways you’ve changed and grown as a person as you’ve walked with God – that’s the effect of the Wind. And give thanks! Be encouraged that God continues to be at work in you.
And if you’re not yet sure about following Jesus, but would like to change, Jesus gives us the blueprint today. The great news is that it’s not about you, or your effort. It’s about having a heart which is open to Jesus, which lets him in to do what you can’t. Why not let God begin his new life in you today?
Wednesday 24th June – Luke 4:1-14 ‘Streams in the desert’
All of us, at one time or another, experience the wilderness. I remember just such a season back in 2002. I called it a season for ‘burying my face in the dust’. As I tried to articulate my thoughts, I wrote at the time that I was ‘easily broken, like a twig in a gale…. The world sits heavy on my shoulders; even gifts are burdens that weigh like boulders.’
Eventually I pulled through. My spirits lifted, not least with the arrival of a beautiful daughter, and a new calling as a father. Years later I was drawn back to today’s passage, and spotted something I hadn’t before. Jesus was ‘led by the Spirit’ into the desert (v1). In other words, his wilderness season was not a defeat or a mistake, it was part of his spiritual journey, one which God used to equip him for what lay ahead.
I too came to realise that what God had done in me was also significant in that season. It was undeniably painful, but also purifying. I learned my limits, but also my strengths. I had a greater capacity to empathise with others’ troubles. I was truly grateful at how strong and patient my wonderful wife was. And through it all, God had fathered me, and led me out the other side. Although, unlike Jesus, some of my wilderness season had been of my own making, nevertheless I could affirm that I too had been ‘led by the Spirit’ through the desert.
Desert seasons are horrible. Nobody asks for them. Few of us see the point of them until much later. And yet, God is in them. As Elijah found out all those years ago, God does some of his best work in remote places. He is found not just in the wind and fire but in the gentle whisper, the sound of drawn-out silence.
And after Jesus had undergone his own testing, he returned ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (v14). Note the change of language – before he was led by the Spirit; now he was empowered. That is often the outcome of a fruitful desert time. We may carry wounds: but these very wounds become our source of authority and gifting. The pain of loss turns into a capacity to counsel others. Our new-found humility enables us to carry responsibility better. Our learning of spiritual disciplines to counteract the desert experience become the practices which fuel our lives from now on. In other words: our weakness, surrendered to God, becomes our strength. We no longer live on bread alone – our physical capacities – but on God’s sustaining word.
Maybe this is a desert time for you. Take heart – God is in it. It may not feel like that now: but you will bounce back, in the power of the Spirit. ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
Tuesday 23rd June – Luke 2:25-32 ‘Moved by the Spirit’
I love this story. I make no apologies for including it in these daily inspirations. Simeon has got to be one of my favourite characters in the Bible. He only appears in this one episode, but what a cameo! A lifetime of faithfully walking in God’s ways crystallised in this one moment.
I don’t know if you’ve ever got up one morning with an idea that there was something you absolutely had to do. Or perhaps you pass someone in the street and know you need to talk to them. Or maybe in this season it’s a phone call you’ve got to make. And you discover to your surprise and delight that you called at just the right time, or the person you approached needed help, or that thing you ‘had’ to do was something you would have missed if you’d left it till tomorrow.
If you’ve had that experience, you may well have been ‘moved’ by the Spirit. Our God is a God who speaks. And still speaks today. So we shouldn’t be too surprised to get these ‘urges’ every so often.
But let’s notice that Simeon’s crowning moment is not the first mention of the Spirit in this passage. Simeon’s whole life was infused by the Spirit – the text says simply that the Spirit was ‘on him’ (v25). God can speak to anyone: but it happens a lot more often to those with whom He dwells all the time. The more we allow God to soak our lives, the more these ‘divine promptings’ are likely to happen. Like picking out your family in a crowd, it’s much easier to spot things you’re totally familiar with.
Simeon’s moment was also preceded by a prior revelation. He already knew that he would see the Messiah one day. One of the gifts of the Spirit is the gift of prophecy – the capacity to see what God is up to. And Simeon clearly had this gift: and he believed what God had told him.
So when he got the ‘nudge’ one day that he had to go to the temple, his lifetime of spiritual soaking and seeing led him to one simple act of obedience which changed the world.
You’re never too old to be used by God. That would be a fine summary of Simeon’s story. Or to put it another way: if you’re used to walking with God – such that the Spirit is ‘on’ you too – some days you get to notice a significant step that you’re being asked to take. What might that be at the moment? We might feel like the most unlikely people to be ‘moved’ by God – so it’s just as well that it’s not up to us! Perhaps our great and gracious God still has work for you to do?
Monday 22nd June – Luke 1:11-17 ‘Filled for fruitfulness’
‘Behold, I am doing a new thing! …Do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:19)
We use the word revolution a lot nowadays. But in truth, genuine revolutions are very rare. It may in fact be that we are living in one of those rare times, as the impact of COVID-19 forces us to re-imagine our whole way of life. Certainly this year we have witnessed a revolution in church life greater than anything since the Reformation, as large sections of the global church have moved online, and formed their community and mission in a completely new way. Whilst the change for some churches may prove to be temporary, for others, we may look back in decades to come and understand that something fundamental truly shifted in this season. Forced by circumstances beyond our control, nevertheless God birthed a great and unforeseen “new thing”. ‘Do we not perceive it?’
The prophet Isaiah also foresaw a ‘new thing’ – only this time its effects would only come to pass almost six centuries later. Many times over the vast intervening period, God’s people must have wondered – ‘is this the new thing?’ – only to witness so many false dawns. And then, suddenly, a faithful old priest wanders into the temple one evening and…. everything changes. A new prophet is coming, miraculously conceived, and uniquely ‘filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born’ (v15).
I do feel some sympathy for Zechariah’s incredulity. But, at long last, what Isaiah saw all those years ago was finally coming to pass. The Spirit was once again on the move, and the world would never be the same.
It is interesting to reflect on the significance of John’s early spiritual anointing. We might rightly draw the conclusion that, in the age of the Spirit, children are now included in the outworking of God’s purposes as never before. And many of us can testify that this is true. We might also see John’s unique anointing as a prophetic staging post to another child – John’s cousin – who is not just filed with the Spirit, but conceived by God the Holy Spirit six months later.
But today, let’s notice that John’s spiritual anointing was for a purpose. He was filled for fruitfulness. His task would be to ‘go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah… to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (v17).
We can sometimes caricature seeking the Spirit as some sort of sanctified ego trip, to feel something like a great big cuddle from God. And, occasionally, that is what we need. But most of the time, God draws near to us and fills us with His Spirit for a reason. We are filled for fruitfulness. God has plans for each of us, which He empowers us to fulfil by His Spirit.
Lockdown does not frustrate God’s purposes. We all still have a part to play. How is God filling you for fruitfulness? What is The Spirit empowering you for in this season?
Saturday 20th June – Zechariah 4:1-9 ‘Not by might or power’
The wind and the sun once had an argument as to who was the most powerful. The sun smiled: ‘See how I can dry up the desert.’ ‘Pah!’ scoffed the wind. ‘That’s not power! Look at what I can do to the trees, even entire oceans. See how they tremble when I blow.’ As they were arguing, a man walked below them, dressed in an overcoat. ‘Tell you what,’ said the sun. ‘The one who can get the overcoat off the man wins.’
The wind agreed straightaway: ‘That’s easy – I’ll go first.’ And the wind blew. And blew. And blew some more. The man was nearly blown off his feet, but every time the wind blew, he wrapped his coat more tightly round his body than before.
After an hour, the wind was exhausted. ‘My turn, I think,’ said the sun, who appeared beyond a cloud and shone bright and beautiful in the sky. Within minutes the man mopped his brow and immediately took off his coat.
We humans love to exercise power. ‘Might is right’ is an old saying, and tragically common in its application. We battle in relationships, in committees, in government, against nations. We lift weights for our muscles, and play Sudoku for our brain power. We talk about willpower, horsepower, firepower, superpower… even flower-power! You want get things done? You need power.
Or maybe not. Maybe in the crazy, upside-down, topsy-turvy kingdom of God, different rules apply. The prophet Zechariah was worried: how on earth was the temple going to be rebuilt? The Jewish exiles had returned to Israel, but they lacked the means to do what they believe God was calling them to do. They needed a plan, a strategy, they needed money and people, talents and resources… or did they?
God’s plan was different: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.’ Every true work of God is birthed in the realm of the Spirit. Sure, God often needs our efforts at some level. But if we make the mistake of thinking that it’s all about us, we’re in trouble. Psalm 127 provides a healthy corrective: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.’ Or as the teacher once said to a young preacher: ‘Never forget that it’s what God does between your lips and their ears that really matters.’
You may be facing a huge task or challenge, and you know your own resources aren’t up to it. Let this word be an encouragement to you today. There is another way. And our confidence is found in the last word of v6. Whose Spirit is it? The Lord Almighty’s. No human power even comes close.
Friday 19th June – Joel 2:23-32 ‘The Spirit poured out’
Have you ever been caught in a summer storm? The sensation of being drenched by warm rain is something extraordinary to experience. This week, MK has been hit by a few such deluges, and if you were lucky or unlucky (take your pick) to be caught in one, you’ll have some measure of the true sense of the word ‘downpour’.
What does it look like when the Spirit is poured out? How are we ‘drenched’? The prophecy given to the prophet Joel suggests that the most obvious mark will be an increase in direct communication from God himself. The sort of encounters usually reserved for ‘holy people’ like prophets – prophecies and visions – will now be commonplace for young and old, male and female: in other words, all of God’s people.
The church has largely had an uneasy relationship with this idea. Whether through fear of losing control or risk of this gift being abused, generally we have been more comfortable restricting the outpouring of this kind of spiritual anointing to certain ‘leaders’.
But this was not God’s intention. The kingdom is for the lost, the last and the least, and often it is those we least expect who become agents of God’s will. And not just in the pages of the bible. For example, some years ago one of our best friends ended up leaving London and becoming a missionary through a word spoken to her by one of the children she taught at Sunday school. The child, I suspect, was unaware of how God had used her, but the word transformed our friend’s life!
It is important, though, to set this wonderful prophecy of Joel in its proper context. The verses before and after vv28-31 describe what the true salvation of God looks like – both at a corporate and individual level. God’s favour is restored to his people, and ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ This is vital when talking of things like prophecy and visions, because it reminds us that God’s ultimate purpose is our salvation, in the broadest sense of the word: not just forgiveness of sins, but renewal and wholeness at every level – becoming the people God made us to be.
And as God draws us into this wholeness, as we truly recognise that He is our God and we are his children, so the Spirit is poured out into our hearts. The Spirit is not an impersonal force but a healing relationship of love. This guards against the sort of ‘prophecies’ that give such revelations a bad name. It also encourages us to trust that as we grow in our relationship with God, He really can, and does, speak to us with words, dreams and visions.
You may or may not have received something like this. But why not seize faith to believe that one day – maybe even soon – you just might?
Thursday 18th June – Daniel 5:8-12 ‘Infectious integrity’
Every year or two I go on a pilgrimage. Not the usual kind of pilgrimage, I must confess. Mine is to the Rembrandt rooms at the National Gallery in London. Mostly I go to gaze at the two self-portraits: one painted when Rembrandt was 34 and at the peak of his powers; the other a few months before his death aged 63, penniless and broken. The old Rembrandt almost fades into the canvas, and yet carries a new humility and compassion which touches me profoundly.
In the room you can also see one of Rembrandt’s most famous and greatest paintings, which depicts the scene described in our story today from Daniel 5. (You can take a look on their website here: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-belshazzars-feast) Like the story, it’s called Belshazzar’s feast, and perfectly captures the dramatic moment when the King sees the ethereal divine hand appear and is seized by terror (vv5-6). Here is a fantastic image of human pride and power laid low, humbled by the greater power of the Almighty. The most powerful man in the world at the time (not for much longer!) is revealed for the fragile human being he was.
King Belshazzar was a pagan, but what is remarkable about this story is how the terrified court quickly turns to an elderly Jew for help. Daniel had faithfully served Belshazzar’s father for decades, and had helped out King Nebuchadnezzar in a similar way in ch2. Although their worldviews were very different, Daniel’s spirit-filled wisdom was plain for all to see, and held in high honour even by a pagan court. By bravely living his faith out in the public square, Daniel’s infectious integrity had quietly exercised profound influence at the heart of power, and continued to do so. Through Daniel and others like him, God revealed his glory, such that even Nebuchadnezzar met with God in a deep and life-changing way (ch4).
The whole book of Daniel – including this story in ch5 – is a healthy reminder that when the Spirit of God is at work, the effects can be seen even among those who would not profess the same faith. They may describe it in different ways – ‘the spirit of the holy gods’ (sic, v11) – but they knew divinely inspired wisdom when they saw it.
Many of us today are very conscious that followers of Jesus are very much in the minority, that most of our colleagues, friends and maybe even family do not share our beliefs. But we can take heart from Daniel today that a deep spiritual life always speaks to those around us, perhaps in very unexpected ways.
And who knows, we too may be given opportunities to speak and to bring the presence of the true and living God, just as Daniel was. Thanks to the indwelling Spirit of God, we may be far more influential than we realise….
Wednesday 17th June – Ezekiel 36:vv24-28 ‘A heart of flesh’
How does a person become good? This fundamental question has been exercising humanity since time began. We are moral beings; we understand concepts of goodness and badness, we know that some lives are better than others, and some actions are better than others. But knowing something is one thing: doing it is a different matter!
Many huge brains have thought long and hard about this, and many societies have orchestrated elaborate schemes to engineer it. But it basically comes down to one of two options: either you try really hard to be good yourself, or someone else forces you instead (usually through a system of compliance and punishment). It helps if you have a clear and detailed understanding of what it means to be good – and this is actually harder than it sounds, it’s a massive problem at the moment in our post-truth culture. But assuming you know roughly what you should be doing, the usual ‘answer’ to being good is all about human effort – either self-motivated, or enforced by others.
But what if that doesn’t actually work? What if this whole endeavour is ultimately bound to fail? What if even the most perfect law can’t make people good? What then?
This was God’s dilemma with Israel. 700 years of trying, and the basic problem was the same. God’s people either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the right things consistently. And the bible insists that this is not the fault of a particular nation: it is the human condition. Hard as we try, no-one can be good all the time. And even those we call ‘good people’ are often driven by decidedly mixed motives.
A totally new solution is needed. The problem is not the law or our capacity to act – it is what’s inside us. If this isn’t right, then our actions (even our ‘good’ ones) won’t be either.
There’s much more to say about this in future daily inspirations. But for now, let’s be encouraged by this beautiful promise given to Ezekiel: ‘I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’ In other words, God says, you’ll start to feel what I feel, to be ‘soft’ to my love and my ways. But you can’t do it yourself. This is a work of the Spirit: ‘I will put my Spirit in you, and move you to follow my decrees.’
Today, let God fill your heart again. Ask Him for that new heart, if you haven’t ever done that before. And ask Him to move you, to show you where your heart needs to soften, to be moved to follow Him. And give thanks that it’s not how hard you try, but how much God’s goodness can transform yours.
Tuesday 16th June – Isaiah 61:vv1-3 ‘The year of the Lord’s favour’
A 30-year-old man arrives for weekly worship in his home town. He’s lived there since he was a child, worked in the town with his father, and no doubt most of his family are sat with him that morning. It’s his turn to read from the scriptures, and when the time comes he gets up and walks to the front. The eyes of everyone are fastened on him, and he begins to read….
It could have been any ordinary Saturday 2,000 years ago. A traditional community, a traditional synagogue, the familiar rhythms, the same faces, a particular quirk of the Nazareth reading rota (nothing changes – every worshipping community needs a rota!). True enough, the passage was especially stirring – Isaiah 61, one of the great prophecies about the liberation of Israel, the new and radical in-breaking of the kingdom of God: ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me…’
But no-one could have foreseen what happened next. ‘Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ Those words did not just shatter the peace of a quiet, conservative, rural community – they changed the world. The reader had just claimed that the anointed Servant of God promised 600 years ago by the kingdom of Israel’s greatest prophet was here – and not just here, was him!
And so an uneventful Saturday in Nazareth finds its way into the pages of Scripture – Luke ch4 – and heralds the start of Jesus’ public, Messianic ministry. Jesus claimed to be the fulfilment of Isaiah 61 – soaked in the Spirit, he was the One who would bring about God’s true purposes for humanity.
What is the kingdom of God about? Isaiah 61 is a pretty good summary. Ultimately it is about God’s favour freely given to flawed human beings. What does that favour look like? Just as the passage describes it: it looks like good news, healing, freedom, joy and praise. Those who were once beaten up and bowed down can now become a ‘planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.’
And this is what the Spirit of the Lord comes to bring – for us and for our world. It is good news! Our past does not have to define our future. What has bound us, or blinded us, or led us into mourning and despair can be put right. We can enjoy ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ – not just this calendar year, but every year.
Today, take a few moments to remind yourself of all the things that make what we believe good news. It could be the wonderful promises of this passage, the assurance of God’s unconditional love, or anything else besides. Jot them down if it helps. And let that turn our despair into praise.
Monday 15th June – Isaiah 11:1-9 ‘New shoots’
The opening chapters of Isaiah make for fairly sobering reading. Whilst there are the great prophecies we treasure and read at Christmas – the virgin birth of ch7, the ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ of ch9 – Israel is largely challenged by God for its lack of attention to Him and His ways.
Isaiah prophecies that other nations will overpower them as a result: and yet, studded amidst the calamitous prophecies of judgement, there is always hope. The nations surrounding Israel will likewise too be brought low eventually, their leadership judged for its pride and self-reliance: ‘See, the Lord Almighty will lop off the boughs with great power. The lofty trees will be felled….’ So ends ch10: what comes next? How will God’s people recover? These timeless words are what follows:
‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.’ (v1)
Renewal is coming! And note, it is not a brand new plan, rather the restoration and true recovery of an old one. A righteous ruler filled with the Spirit of God (v2-5), who will lead the people into the glorious future that God plans for His people (v6-9).
As we have seen over the last couple of weeks, the Old Testament had its fair share of Spirit-anointed leaders. The Spirit was apt to empower particular people for particular things, and, looking at v2, these famous characters all manifested some of the attributes of true spiritual maturity: Solomon had the Spirit of wisdom and understanding; Samson had the Spirit of might (though definitely not of counsel), David excelled in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. But none of them had the lot.
Until now. Someone new was coming. Someone who possessed all of these qualities, and more. Whose judgements would protect the poor and needy, and judge the wicked; who would be known for faithfulness; and ultimately who would usher in an era of peace and harmony.
God’s people had to wait 700 years for this person: Jesus, the true and righteous king. And whilst his gentle rule continues to extend into human hearts across the world, we too ache with longing for the final reign of peace promised in this remarkable chapter. It will come, as surely as the waters cover the sea. But, for now, we wait, and pray, and try to copy our boss as best we can. To grow in wisdom and understanding. To delight in God. To seek the peace and justice of this world.
The shoot of Isaiah has become a great tree, and we are branches grafted in. Today, let’s pray that our branch bears fruit, filled with the same Spirit that rests on him.
Saturday 13th June – Psalm 104:vv1-4,27-35 ‘The Spirit of renewal’
For most of us, this has been a spring like no other. The effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting, and its memories will live with us for the rest of our lives. And yet alongside the pain and the challenges of this season, for many of us ‘a spring like no other’ holds true in a different sense. The enforced quietness of the season has led us to connect with nature more than we’ve ever done.
Nature itself has benefitted hugely from the sudden ending of many of the unsustainable and destructive patterns of human living so affecting the planet. Add into the mix the sunniest spring since records began, and the result has been a unique cocktail of tragedy and beauty, of death and life, of disruption and renewal all at the same time.
BBC Springwatch has just finished, and perhaps some of you, like me, have been watching in wonder, and learning a lot at the same time. Nowadays we can explain much animal behaviour in terms of evolutionary adaptation, and that’s all well and good. But the Bible also points to a deeper truth, and one which we can also celebrate: that the natural world reflects the glory of God. Its beauty and power points to God’s beauty and power, and causes us to praise and worship. Time spent in nature is not just good for our physical and mental health, but our spiritual health too.
At its heart, nature is about irrepressible life. Having lived most of my life in urban London, I used to marvel at the flowers pushing up between the cracks of paving stones or attaching themselves to holes in walls as I walked around Streatham. Hard as we human beings tried to remove it, nature always found a way to push emerging life through the cracks.
God, too, ultimately is about irrepressible life – or ‘life in all its fullness’ as Jesus described it. That is His purpose for all of us: eternal, irrepressible life. ‘When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground,’ declares the Psalmist (v30).
Take a moment today to reflect on your ‘nature moments’ of the last few months. For me, it has been watching the flowering season of the glorious rhododendrons in the woods, and the pair of greater spotted woodpeckers using our birdfeeder. It could be anything: the blossom on the trees, the dawn chorus, a clear blue sky. And let that fill your heart with praise for the God who ‘stretches out the heavens like a tent’, who at His heart, is the giver of irrepressible, eternal life.
Praise the Lord, O my soul.
Friday 12th June – Psalm 51 ‘The Spirit of repentance’
King David was evidently a person of great spiritual anointing. As a young man, the Spirit came on him in power when Samuel declared him king, and the following 30 or so years of his life were marked largely by success and godly fervour. The ark (central to Israel’s worshipping life) was restored, enemies were subdued, and individuals were treated with remarkable grace and generosity of spirit for the time. It is safe to assume that the Spirit of God was much at work during this era – an assumption reinforced by the scene of David ‘dancing before the Lord with all his might’ (and not a hint of embarrassment) in 2 Samuel 6.
David was justly called ‘a man after God’s own heart’… and yet, suddenly, in his late forties he has a spectacular moral lapse. Adultery leads to murder, and David is broken. Psalm 51 is perhaps his most heartfelt Psalm, and speaks to many of us who are, perhaps, more used to life in the valley than the mountaintop. We love David’s effervescent Psalms of joy like 8, or 18-21, but Psalm 51 touches our soul, and gives us language to approach God when we know there is stuff in our lives that needs healing and renewing.
As we have observed before, the Spirit’s purpose is to glorify Jesus in the world, and that covers so many things: growing in love, learning the truth, empowered to serve – but also, when necessary, to convict us of selfishness, and stir in us a desire for purity. The word repent means ‘to turn around’ or to change: and the Spirit speaks to our hearts and places in us that desire for change.
In this case, a humbled David pleads with God to ‘take not your Holy Spirit from me’ (v11), and instead asks for a willing (v12) and steadfast (v10) spirit instead.
The good news of the Psalm is that the assurance of God’s forgiveness creates in David an overflowing of praise (v15) and witness (v13). His heart is restored (v17) and a new path opens up before him.
This too can be our journey. As the Spirit convicts us and leads us back to God, so we too find a new heart of gratitude, praise and willingness to share the goodness of God. We discover that there is hope, and that our loving God is still with us, deep in our heart.
May Psalm 51 be our prayer today.
Thursday 11th June – Ezra 1:1-5 ‘God at work in unlikely people’
‘This is what the Lord says to his anointed, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and level the mountains… I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.’
I wonder, who was that written about? It’s from the book of the great prophet Isaiah. Care to hazard a guess? I imagine most of us would guess ‘The Messiah’ or Jesus, maybe another prophet who was to come. In fact, it was King Cyrus of Persia – the most powerful human being in the world at the time, and ruler of a huge empire that included the conquered and humiliated nation of Israel. A sort of enemy, certainly not Jewish, and even more surely not identified as ‘one of God’s people’. Indeed, the prophecy (from Isaiah 45) continues: ‘For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me.’
It’s strange, isn’t it? That God would use a pagan emperor to achieve his purposes. And more than that, to call him God’s ‘anointed’ – that is the language of spirit-filled kingship. Given to a pagan emperor! And yet, in our reading for today, Ezra insists: it was God who ‘moved the heart of Cyrus’ to allow the exiled Israelites to return to the promised land; and even more, amazingly, to worship their God in the temple.
The Lord, as it has often been observed, moves in mysterious ways. And his Spirit can be at work in the most unlikely people. God took a Christian-murderer made him the world’s greatest evangelist (Paul). A disgraced exile who had difficulty speaking in public and made him the rescuer of God’s enslaved people (Moses). A hated Roman soldier to be the first to recognise Jesus’ divinity on the cross, and another one to be the first non-Jew to be filled with the Spirit.
The Spirit, like the wind, blows where it pleases. Which is great news for us. And great news for our friends and family. And, we pray, for our world too. God can be work, is at work, in ways we can’t predict. No-one is beyond His reach, and even when people still do not acknowledge Him, God is able to use them wonderfully for His purposes.
King Cyrus did more for God’s people than at least half of their actual kings. Let’s pray for our leaders, that God would do the same again today. And let’s also raise faith to pray for those we love, too.
Wednesday 10th June – 2 Kings 2:v1,vv9-16 ‘Pass it on’
On one of the shelves in my study is an old pocket bible. It belonged to the first person for whom I took a funeral. He died without next-of-kin, and the care home where he was a resident asked if I would like to have it, otherwise it would just be thrown away. I turns out that I am the fourth owner: the bible previously belonged to chap’s father, who was called Fred. Fred in turn received it from the Tabernacle Sunday School ‘on his promotion to the bible class’ in 1903.
As humans, it’s natural to pass things on. In fact, much of the time we can’t help but pass things on. Some of these things are good and healthy. Sadly, some aren’t: we need no reminding in the current season of what can pass between one human and the next.
Whilst most of us will have mementoes and keepsakes from people we’ve known and loved, often the things that ‘pass on’ to us are less tangible, but far more important. I have very few physical objects to remind me of my late mum, but the unseen things she gave to me – unconditional love, a listening ear, the value of gentleness, a love of music and books – are with me all the time, and have changed my life for the better. I hope that I can likewise pass these on to my own children, and maybe others too.
In today’s reading we see something else pass on from one human to the next – this time, it is the Spirit of God. The great prophet Elijah’s life and ministry is coming to an end, and his young protégé Elisha is about to take over the reins. As the two prepare to part ways, Elijah asks him one last question: ‘what would you like from me?’ Elisha’s answer is unusual but inspiring: ‘A double portion of your spirit.’ God is obviously pleased with this answer, as Elisha inherits exactly as requested.
Now whilst we must admit that the circumstances of this story are unusual – not many of us get taken up in a whirlwind to heaven – nevertheless, the process by which the Spirit ‘transfers’ from Elijah to Elisha is not so strange as we might think. It was the common practice of the early church to commission new leaders by laying hands on them, and likewise, the ‘laying of hands’ has typically characterised the Christian ministry of healing too. Whilst the Spirit is always a gift of God and cannot be bought, enhanced or manipulated by humans, it can be conferred prayerfully and under God’s direction between one human and the next. After all, the Spirit’s purpose is to glorify Jesus and when we pray for healing, or commission new leaders, Jesus is glorified.
Take a moment today to give thanks for those who have blessed you, who have conferred God’s grace to you, whose friendship and leadership have helped you grow in the spiritual life. And perhaps, reflect too on who you might in turn be able to bless. Pass it on!
Tuesday 9th June – 1 Samuel 16:vv1-13 ‘The heart of the matter’
For much of our driving lives, we’ve driven old cars. For the last 10 years, that’s been a pair of first-generation Nissan Micras. Fantastically well-made, almost indestructible cars. In fact, we’ve only moved on to something marginally less old because it was getting hard to find replacement parts. Woody (as we knew our last car) was just too ancient to fit the diagnostic tool at the mechanics.
Our kids became increasingly embarrassed about these beaten-up old bangers (as they saw them). Yet the point was: these cars might not look like much from the outside – but what was inside was brilliant. The engine, the gearbox, the heart of the car was superb, and was why we stuck with them for 10 years.
In contrast, we’ve just offloaded the best looking car we’ve ever owned. When we drove it away from the seller we were congratulating ourselves on a bargain… until we took it for its MOT a few days later and discovered it needed £1,000 of repairs. Bizarrely, it passed the MOT – it could still function on the road – but underneath the pristine exterior it was severely damaged.
This contrast is a perfect illustration of the difference between King Saul and King David. Why was David feted through history as Israel’s greatest king, yet Saul was seen largely as a failure? Both were anointed by the same prophet, both received the Spirit, both were chosen by their people. Both had their failures, too. And yet, one died in disgrace, the other became the ancestor of the greatest King of them all.
The answer is not what was outside. In any beauty context, Saul would win hands down: he was much taller and more physically imposing, and although David was ‘ruddy and handsome’, Saul was ‘as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel.’
It was what was inside that mattered. As we observed yesterday, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. For all his gifts, his physical attributes, his calling and even his anointing by the Spirit, Saul’s heart was never right. By contrast, it was David’s heart that set him apart. Inspired by God, Samuel saw in David the character of a true king: ‘People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.’ (v7)
So when the Spirit filled David (v13), it was working in tandem with a heart that was already in fine shape: brave and humble, merciful and generous, purposeful, rooted and secure. David knew who he was: a child of God, set apart for His purposes. God’s Spirit went deeper than surface behaviour to mould this heart yet further into one that was fully surrendered to God.
God never forces himself on us. He works with the grain of who we are, and how far we let Him in. The greatest work of the Spirit is not in the outward things: great deeds, miracles, heroic achievements. It is what goes on inside: the Spirit’s transforming work in the heart. The Spirit was the world’s greatest heart surgeon long before we invented the job.
May we too offer our hearts fully to God, to the Spirit’s transforming love and power, that it too may be said of us, like David, that we are people ‘after God’s own heart’.
Monday 8th June – 1 Samuel 10:v1,vv6-16 ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish’
Poor old Saul. One of the notorious tragic-comic figures of the bible. A man who never really knew who he was. Chosen to be king for his physical attributes – as if being tall and handsome was the best qualification for leadership! – we first encounter him wandering around the desert searching for his father’s lost donkeys. One senses that this sense of aimlessness was not lost on the marvellous writer of 1 Samuel, whose deadpan style reveals as much by what it does not say as what it does. I like to imagine them pursing their lips and raising an eyebrow as they write…
Nevertheless, Samuel finds Saul (v1) and – ignoring his protestations of unworthiness: ‘am I not the least of the smallest?’ (9:21) etc etc – anoints him king. Samuel declares that the Spirit will come upon him (v6) and it duly does (v10), confirmed by the fact that Saul starts to prophesy – a sure sign of spiritual connectedness.
What is interesting is that Samuel declares that being filled with Spirit will ‘change Saul into a different person’ (v6) – and we know that, for a while, it does. Saul makes an unexpectedly good start as king: he leads an army to rescue Jabesh and is filled again powerfully with the Spirit (11:6) In fact, he starts well enough for Samuel formally to lay down his leadership straight after that victory.
But, as we know, things go rapidly downhill from there. Saul never internalises his true identity: despite the early promise, he remains deep in his soul a lost young man wandering after his donkeys and hiding in the luggage (10:22)
This reminds us that our spiritual journey is a lifelong journey. Yes, we need the Spirit every day, every hour. But ultimately, it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish. We may look back at great seasons in our lives, but the question is always: what is God doing in me now? How am I growing? Where will He lead me next? Do I still know who I really am?
Saul’s spiritual awakening was not without its detractors. Those who knew Saul by reputation mocked his prophesying (v11-12). And we too must be ready to face those who will pooh-pooh our spiritual growth, or continually reduce the spiritual journey to one of human effort. What begins as a work of God must remain a work of God – as St Paul warned the young church in Galatia: ‘After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’
But the real issue was not those who teased Saul. When the freshly anointed, Spirit-filled Saul returns to his uncle (v14), he is unable to tell him the big news. And this is the heart of the problem: the problem of Saul’s heart. Saul’s spiritual journey remained skin-deep. He did stuff, but he never knew who he really was.
Today, let’s give thanks for all that God has done in us thus far. Let’s receive that precious truth that we are, and remain, God’s beloved children. But most of all, let’s ask for grace to keep on keeping on. To be led by the Spirit. To listen, and learn, and let God continue to work His will in us. After all, it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish.
Saturday 6th June – Judges 11:vv1-6,29-35 ‘Blessing versus bargaining’
In the lists of people’s ‘favourite stories of the bible’, the story of Jephthah is not likely to be one of them. And with good reason – it is a story of human brokenness from start to finish. Broken families, broken promises; and with tragic irony the one thing that apparently can’t be broken is Jephthah’s hubristic promise to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his door after his victory.
But hidden in the midst of this most starkly human of stories is a story of grace. And one very simple encouragement: God’s Spirit is a gift. We don’t deserve it; we can’t earn it. He simply, freely and gladly gives it to us. It is all the grace of God.
Why did God choose Jephthah? On the face of it, there is no good reason. His upbringing was traumatic. His current lifestyle – a violent gang leader – was repulsive. There is barely a less deserving character…. and yet God restores him and anoints him with the Spirit.
No-one is beyond the rescue of God. No-one is outside the reach of the kingdom of grace. But there is a warning here, too. The fact that the Spirit is a gift means that it cannot be bought, or earned, or bargained for. The tragedy of Jephthah’s story is that, having received this extraordinary gift of grace he then tries to bargain for God’s favour by making a daft, and ultimately gruesome, promise.
The point is, he didn’t need to. He already had God’s Spirit. He already had His forgiveness, His favour. And we too must never assume that the path to greater spiritual wholeness is to bargain with God. ‘If you do this… then I’ll do that…’ Rather, we live in a new reality. We are God’s beloved children, nourished by a Father who gives us all things. Jephthah never grasped his new identity as God’s beloved child, and the tragedy is that this needlessly cost him his own beloved child.
So how do we grow? We learn to become what we already are. We fix our eyes on grasping and internalising what God has already given us, that we are new creations, that – in Christ and through the indwelling Spirit – we already have all that we need. This wells up to become a spring of gratitude inside us, and fosters a surrendered heart, in other words a strong determination to keep offering all that we are to God, because it’s His anyway.
Wherever you find yourself today – whether facing Jephthah-sized challenges or not – take a moment to dwell on who you are. You are God’s beloved child. His grace to you is all gift. And let the gratitude of your heart be your offering.
Friday 5th June – Judges 6:vv11-14,34-35 ‘Mighty warrior? Who, me?’
History is full of unlikely heroes. This year we’ve all marvelled at the astonishing story of Captain Tom Moore, who started walking 100 laps of his garden two months ago and ended up being knighted and raising over £30 million. But even our ‘traditional’ heroes are often more unlikely then they seem. Read the following paragraph: who is this?
At the age of 7 he was the worst in his class. His school report declared that he ‘seems unable to learn anything.’ He was denied the secondary school of his choice by his father who considered him ‘such a stupid boy’. His father later wrote to him at college ‘Not only are you a complete failure… I see nothing ahead of you but failure.’ Who is this failure, hampered by a loveless childhood and a cold, disappointed father? None other than Winston Churchill.
The story of Gideon touches our hearts for many reasons. There is humour – Gideon means ‘mighty warrior’, but the bearer of this name is initially found hiding in the winepress. There is humanity, in Gideon’s very cautious response to his commissioning and the famous ‘fleeces’. There is also, ultimately, a happy ending (more or less), as Gideon’s tiny army miraculously defeats their adversaries. Along the way, we also encounter surely the strangest recruitment strategy in literature, as just 1% of Israelite army applicants were selected, determined by how they drank water from a stream.
But what we learn from Gideon is that identity comes before destiny. God calls us according to what He knows that we are, not what we see that we are. His Spirit looks inside our hearts and reveals our true identity. And from that, our calling. Gideon saw a frightened dropout; God saw a mighty warrior. And that should give us all hope.
‘Go in the strength that you have.’ This is a double encouragement. In human terms, God calls us to be ourselves. We don’t have to try to be someone else. In divine terms, us plus God is enough. When the Spirit finally comes upon Gideon, the strength that he has is more than sufficient to change the destiny of a nation.
Winston Churchill’s spirituality has always remained something a mystery. But like Gideon, his childhood did not determine his future. He believed he would one day grow up to change the destiny of a nation. Nevertheless, what took the remarkable Churchill decades, God did by His Spirit through Gideon in a matter of weeks.
‘Go in the strength that you have.’ Us plus God is always enough.
Thursday 4th June – Numbers 11:vv16-17,24-29 ‘Spread it around’
Leadership is a spiritual task. For all that there is a whole secular industry nowadays teaching leadership and management principles, the essence of good leadership – wisdom, humility, service, vision, empowerment – are things which reside in the nature and heart of God. It stands to reason, then, that the calling of true leadership is amplified and empowered by the Spirit of God.
This happens a lot earlier than we think in the bible. Well before King David, well before Gideon or Samson, or any of the Judges. You have to go back to chapter 11 of the book of Numbers. And, even more surprising, this gift of spiritual leadership was a corporate affair. No less than 70 people, along with Moses, were filled with the Spirit for the task of leadership.
The context? Moses is overwhelmed with the burden of leading God’s people. This has happened before (in Exodus 18), but this time, faced with another rebellion, Moses has had enough. ‘Kill me now!’ he says to God (v15), who wisely realises that this is a man at the end of his tether. So God provides Moses with 70 others to ‘share the burden of the people with you’ (v17).
What is fascinating is how God equips this leadership team: ‘I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them.’ (v17) The work of God needs the Spirit of God. Almost uniquely in the Old Testament, this work is shown to be something for many, not just for one.
And it is not limited to place, either. Two of the new leaders – Eldad and Medad – don’t get the memo, and miss the meeting. Yet, amazingly, they begin to prophesy too, out in the camp (v26). In a lovely foreshadowing of the sort of conversation the disciples have with Jesus, Joshua complains to Moses: it’s just not cricket! And, like Jesus, Moses says, effectively: ‘Calm down: you should be pleased. I wish everyone could receive the Spirit and prophesy!’ (v29)
The applications of this lovely story are numerous. We could reflect that leadership is a spiritual calling requiring spiritual equipping. We could rejoice that God is not limited to times and places, techniques and rituals. But let’s give thanks today that there’s plenty enough of the Spirit to go round. You might feel like Eldad and Medad – always missing the memo – but God doesn’t forget you. He can bless you and use you anyway.
Wednesday 3rd June – Exodus 31:1-5 ‘Surprisingly creative?’
If I was to ask you to guess the first spiritual gift mentioned in the bible, what do you think it is? Preaching? Prayer? Miracles? Leadership? No, non, nein and nej. It’s creativity.
You might be surprised to learn that the first person we encounter in the bible who is ‘filled with the Spirit of God’ is an artist, a craftsman: Bezalel (pronounced ‘bed-za-lay-el’). We meet him in Exodus chapter 31, and it is God himself who declares that Bezalel is filled with the Spirit (v3). In fact, just in case we found it too surprising – and perhaps, like us, many of Bezalel’s fellow Israelites did – it’s repeated by Moses to the people in Exodus 35.
The church has always had an ambiguous relationship with the creative arts. We might marvel at our glorious mediaeval church buildings, but too often the arts have either been hijacked for the glory of proud humanity (in the name of God, which is far worse) or treated as idolatrous and ignored altogether. The church where my father was a minister in the 1980s was one of those with all the heads and hands hacked off the mediaeval statues by Thomas Cromwell’s thugs.
As always, the two extremes – hubris and hatred – fall far short of God’s intention. As we saw in Genesis 1, God loves creating, it’s in his nature. No surprise then that his intention for humans – who bear his image – is just the same. We are made to create! And God loves that side of our nature. Whenever we create in God’s name, we are filled with the Spirit, and witness to God’s glory, just as good old Bezalel thousands of years ago.
And even if you’re not a natural artist, we all get to create – when we cook, when we clear up, when we mend clothes, or tend our gardens, or try our hand at painting or crochet or pottery, or perfect the cross court backhand or do keepy-uppies, or just doodle when we’re bored in meetings. We’re always creating. And God loves that about you. Even if (you don’t think) you’re very good at it.
In this season, many of us are trying new ways of creating, or investing more in the ways we already know. Keep doing that! It’s who we are. And, even more, it’s part of what it means to be ‘filled with the Spirit of God.’
What are you creating today? Take a moment to stop and just feel God’s pleasure. He loves it!
Tuesday 2nd June – Genesis 2:7 ‘The Breath of Life’
If Genesis 1 is the big picture account of creation – the grand canvas – Genesis 2 is more personal and intimate: the tender portrait of a loving God making and relating to human beings, the glory of His creation. In Genesis 1 we learn that God makes humans in his image, both male and female. God blesses them and gives them authority. But what we don’t learn is how God makes us. How is it that we can claim to bear God’s image? In Genesis 2, we get the answer: ‘The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into the man’s nostrils the breath of life.’
No other animal receives this particular intimate blessing: the very breath of God. And much as we can explain some of our human behaviour in evolutionary terms, necessary adaptations for our survival, or we can observe certain abilities which exist in certain species in the natural world, there remains much that is unique to humanity, or that we possess to an unparalleled degree. Our love of beauty, our capacity to organise, to create, to care for the vulnerable, to think objectively, to ask why…. This is what it means to be human; but even more, it is what it means to bear the image of God.
The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ‘ruach’. It means breath or wind. And it is this word ‘ruach’ which the writer of Genesis uses here. God breathes his ruach, his Spirit, his divine breath into us, and gives us life. Though the Fall shatters the perfection of our original nature – and scars the image of God in all of us – that divine breath, that ruach is still there. We are spiritual beings, trying to find our way home.
And the story of scripture from a human perspective is the story of how God, in Christ, is able to restore that true divine breath in all of us. Christ’s death and resurrection points the way to the renewal of all things, and since Pentecost his followers now receive that divine breath, that Spirit, in a new way. Through Christ, God can dwell in us again by the Holy Spirit, and his breath of life transforms us from the inside out. It’s a gift we don’t deserve, but God in his great love and mercy joyfully bestows it on us, and points us towards home.
Take a moment today to just stop and breathe. Imagine the breath of God filling your lungs. Become aware of His presence. Receive His peace. And give thanks.
Monday 1st June – Genesis 1:1-2 ‘The Spirit in Creation’
In 1998, Dame Judi Dench won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth I in the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’. Despite the fact that she only appeared in the film for 8 ½ minutes, her presence as the reigning monarch was felt throughout, and, being the supreme actress that she is, when she does appear she dominates the screen.
In some ways the Holy Spirit plays a similar role in Scripture. Appearing only occasionally in the text of the first three quarters of the bible (the Old Testament), nevertheless the Spirit’s presence is known and felt throughout – and when the Spirit does appear front and centre in the narrative, whether ‘coming upon’ a Judge or King, or rushing through the room at Pentecost, the power and glory of God dominates the page.
If Jesus Christ is the unquestioned ‘hero’ of Scripture, the Holy Spirit plays the decisive supporting role. This is true even at Creation. Whilst New Testament writers St John and St Paul make it clear that Christ was the ‘Word of God’ declaring creation into being through the narrative of the bible’s first chapter, Genesis 1:2 tells us that it was the Spirit of God which was hovering (or brooding, in the marvellous phrasing of the old translations) over the waters, making Christ’s creative word a powerful reality.
From the beginning, God has always been a Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit, a perfect inter-relationship of love and glory. People often mistakenly think that God started as one, then became two with Jesus, and finally three at Pentecost. But Genesis 1 tells us otherwise. And the extraordinary truth is that we are invited into that relationship: effective through the work of Christ and the indwelling witness of the Spirit. We get to ‘eat with God, and God with us’ (Rev 3:20), to share in this divine web of love forever.
In this season we will explore what that means, and I hope this journey will reveal new depths to you about God, and your life in and with Him. But today, let’s reflect a moment that the fullness of the Spirit was only revealed many, many years after creation, at Pentecost. In the divine will and wisdom of God, what had always been there finally became a visible reality.
The fact that we bear God’s image means that this too can be a reality for us. Gifts and talents, causes and opportunities, can still come unexpectedly to the fore later in our lives. In God’s economy, all of life can be used for His glory. How is God at work in you currently? Are there deep facets of who you are still being revealed for His glory? As the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of your life, where might God be saying: ‘Let there be light….’?
God is always making everything new. Amen, come Holy Spirit.
THY KINGDOM COME
Ascension Day (Thursday 21st May) marks the start of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, Archbishop Justin Welby’s call for us to engage in 10 days of prayer for God’s mission in the world, taking us up to Pentecost on Sunday 31st May.
There are lots of great resources to allow you to take part daily which are available below. Take a look and choose whichever fits you best! Simply click on the name of each to open it. Use more than one if it helps!
There’s a traditional Daily Prayer including Morning, Noon, Evening and Night Prayer…
…or a Creative ‘Novena’ daily resource which involves art and silence…
…an interactive and imaginative Prayer Journal …
and a Family Prayer Adventure Map with activities and prayers (note: this last resource is dated 2019, but the days can be done in the same order!).
There’s also a booklet with ideas for how to pray for our local schools.
PLUS the Archbishop is encouraging each of us to ‘Pray for 5’, so if you’d like to use this season to focus prayers in particular on 5 friends and family members, that they would know more of God’s love, peace, joy and blessing, that would be great. If it helps as an aide memoire, here’s a simple Pray for 5 Card to use.
Let’s get praying!
PREVIOUS ‘DAILY INSPIRATIONS’:
Our reflections for Easter Week can be found on our sister church website here.
To revisit our reflections for Holy Week – the 7 words from the cross – click here.
James Bryan Smith’s wonderful reflections on our life in Christ, inspired by his book ‘Hidden in Christ’ and based on Colossians 3:1-17, are now complete, but the full set of 33 days can be found in the Archive tab. His excellent podcast, ‘Things Above’, can be accessed here.
Wednesday, 20th May: Psalm 3 – The Shield
In the last few weeks, we’ve all learned some new words which have become key parts of our language. Self-isolating, social distancing, PPE… and shielding. The idea that we have vulnerable loved ones who we need to protect by restricting our own behaviour is one of the great sacrificial acts of service now being performed by millions around our country, and no doubt across the world.
Although the shield (in the classic sense we understand it) stopped being used in most forms of warfare centuries ago, the idea lives on, and we immediately know what is meant. Captain America has one, there’s a whole US TV series called by the name, and footballers are taught how to ‘shield’ the ball. A shield protects the person or object which is under attack.
But when we need protection, where do we look? In Psalm 3, King David is in real danger. His son has usurped the throne in a coup and David has fled for his life. He lacks allies and support – where does he look for help? ‘But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.’ (v3) David has nowhere else to turn: only God can protect him, shield him, now.
In these uncertain times, we too look around for protection. And to some degree, we can find it in the practical steps we can take to minimise the risk of infection. But life remain precarious: where can we turn for help? This Psalm encourages us that we have a better place to run, a deeper truth to receive, a bigger shield in play. God can be our shield.
It’s not magic, or a slot machine. We all know those who have caught COVID-19, and tragically many of us will know someone who has died of it. Our divine shield is not a guarantee of survival. But it is a source of confidence, of peace, of the hope that bigger things are at play. In the kingdom of God, sickness does not have the last word, even as Absalom’s armies did not in the time of King David. May we too, like David, declare this truth over our lives, and the lives of those we know, and may it cause us to find hope and peace today: ‘From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.’ Amen.
Tuesday, 19th May: Psalm 1 – The Tree
The bible is full of rich images of what it means to truly live in the abundant life of God. Psalm 1 describes one such (particularly good) image: the tree. Our lives were designed by God to be like a tree.
I must confess that I love trees. I love being close to them, just standing in their presence, admiring their size, their beauty, their dignity. Trees are one of the greatest parts of God’s creation. They heal, they shelter, they stand strong and firm in all weather. They just are. Or rather, they have been, they are and they will be. That sense of majestic permanence is part of their appeal.
God calls us to be like that: trees which reflect his glory. Psalm 1 shows us why and how. First, we need roots. This psalm places our roots firmly in the Word of God – v2 delighting in ‘the law of the Lord’ – and the Spirit of God. The biblical image of water in v3 usually connects with God’s presence, so this tree planted by a stream can easily be understood to mean one who is constantly refreshed by the water of God’s presence – his Spirit.
Second, we bear fruit. We all know that spring is coming when the buds appear on trees. In summer those buds blossom into leaves and even fruit. A tree ‘yields its fruit in season’ (v3). So should our lives. Nourished by Word and Spirit, we stand where we are and bear fruit for our Lord.
Finally, this Psalm contrasts the rootedness and fruitfulness of such a person with the alternative. Those who do not go deep with God ‘are like chaff that the wind blows away.’ (v4) Blown here and there by wherever the current of our culture leads, such lives ultimately cannot prosper. They may flower for a while, but the shaking of the wind proves fatal.
If you can, take a moment today to find a tree and spend time admiring it. God is calling you to be such a tree: rooted in his Word, nourished by his Spirit, fruitful, strong and dignified. You probably don’t feel much like that – none of us do – but by His amazing grace, that is what we can all become.
Reading Psalm 1 today, how might you keep growing into this beautiful calling?