Reviving the Spirit

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 17, 1999
Martin Luther King Day

Words of Welcome

Good morning! Once again I'd like to welcome you to our service this morning. I must tell you that the whole time I was preparing today's service, I was humming and singing the songs we'll be singing today. In fact, I've been humming and singing ever since I attended a revival at the Faith Chapel Assemblies of God Church here in Bridgewater on Monday. I have always wanted to attend a revival, and even though the experience was very different from what goes on in our faith tradition, I enjoyed the spiritual power that was present in the revival service. Today I'd like to bring a little bit of that spirit into our church. Don't worry, I promise I won't speak in tongues! My conversational Latin is getting rusty anyway.

However, even though we have a different view of some of the Biblical prophecies than our Pentecostal brothers and sisters, we have plenty of reason to celebrate the power and the joy of God's spirit moving in our church. Now that we are in the winter season, when our spirit is often at a low ebb, it is a good time to revive our spirit by remembering the divine source of our faith, and by opening ourselves up to the spirit of God moving among us. And so today, in this special service, we are going to get the spirit moving in our church! Later in a service the children will help us to revive our spirits. And I hope that by the time you head home today, you will have something to hum and sing about.

Meanwhile, please open your spirits and your hearts to experience something of the power of God's spirit speaking in his Holy Word. I am going to read to the last chapter of the book of the prophet Habakkuk. This is a prayer of praise for God's power in bringing about justice and righteousness in times of oppression and sorrow. Habakkuk lived in a dark time of wars and empires; the stark, even violent imagery of his prayer reflects that. On a purely literal level this prayer is a difficult one for our modern sensibilities to hear. So as you listen to this prayer, when it speaks of plagues and pestilence, swords and destruction, it may help if you raise your mind above these earthly calamities, and think instead of the calamities that you have experienced in your own soul: the times of pain and loss, the times of conflict and despair, the times when you were ready to give up hope.

And as the physical calamities described in the prayer call up these spiritual struggles in your soul, feel the even greater power of God moving within you to overcome through the power of the spirit all that would otherwise overwhelm you. Feel the tremendous power of God's spirit, at first bringing discomfort, uncertainty, and perhaps even fear as you confront the changes that you may need to make in your attitudes, the difficult issues you may need to face, and the adjustments that may be necessary in your way of living. And then, feel that same power of the spirit bringing comfort, new purpose, and new joy into your life.

Habakkuk 3:1-19 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.
Renew them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
His splendor was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden.
Plague went before him;
pestilence followed his steps.
He stood, and shook the earth;
he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled
and the age-old hills collapsed.
His ways are eternal.
I saw the tents of Cushan in distress,
the dwellings of Midian in anguish.

Were you angry with the rivers, O Lord?
Was your wrath against the streams?
Did you rage against the sea
when you rode with your horses
and your victorious chariots?
You uncovered your bow,
you called for many arrows.
You split the earth with rivers;
the mountains saw you and writhed.
Torrents of water swept by;
the deep roared and lifted its waves on high.

Sun and moon stood still in the heavens
at the glint of your flying arrows,
at the lightning of your flashing spear.
In wrath you strode through the earth
and in anger you threshed the nations.
You came out to deliver your people,
to save your anointed one.
You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness,
you stripped him from head to foot.

With his own spear you pierced his head
when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,
gloating as though about to devour
the wretched who were in hiding.
You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the great waters.

I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
nor cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Lord Almighty is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights.

The Power of the Lord our God

When I read this passage, I feel a tingling in my spine at the power of the words. There are great forces at work: forces of destruction, disease, and depression arrayed against us, and even greater and more powerful forces of truth and justice, hope and love overcoming all that is evil and destructive. All of these forces are far greater than we finite human beings can handle. If we had to take them on alone, we would have no more chance than if we were to jump into the cone of an active volcano, or fly a spaceship directly into the sun.

Sometimes we feel that way about the forces we face in our lives. Sometimes the forces of financial reality press in on us, and we struggle and wonder whether we will be able to keep a roof over our heads; whether we will be able to take care of our families. Sometimes the forces of physical sickness press in on us, and we struggle through setbacks in our health, trips to the hospital, through pain and discouraging limitations in what our bodies can do. Sometimes the forces of emotional upheaval press in on us, as relationships with our loved ones become strained or we lose someone we care very deeply about. Sometimes we feel that we will not make it through--that we will be crushed by life's load.

And then we read passages like this one from Habakkuk, and we realize once again that the power of God's spirit is more powerful than even the strongest and most frightening of those evil influences on our lives. We realize that whatever may happen to us financially, whatever may happen to us physically, whatever may happen to us emotionally, we have an infinitely powerful friend to turn to who can help us spiritually through all the challenges and struggles we face.

Our Evangelical brothers and sisters see this power manifested in physical healings, in speaking in tongues, and in other outward signs and wonders. Personally, I do not discount those things. Of course, there are plenty of "spiritual healers" out there who are simply out to make a name--or a buck--for themselves. Still, I believe that the Lord is every bit as able now as he was in Biblical times to work miracles on the physical as well as the spiritual level of existence. Wherever there is faith in the Lord and in his ability to bring about what would be impossible for mere human beings, there is the potential for wonders of healing.

And yet, these physical signs and wonders count for little by themselves. Our bodies may last seventy, eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years; our spirits last forever. It is good to heal the body; it is far better to heal the soul. The purpose of this physical world and the purpose of our physical bodies is to serve as vessels of the spirit of God. Our bodies are meant to be tools in our hands as we build God's kingdom within us and around us. Each one of us has been created to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit, spreading the love and light of God to all the people around us.

Let us rise now and express our longing and our thankfulness for that spirit of God.

Responsive Reading: Psalm 51:10-17

Hymn: Amazing Grace

Matthew 10:5-20 Jesus sends out the twelve

Jesus sent out the twelve disciples with these instructions: "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals, or a staff; for workers deserve their food.

"Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as wise as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against people; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. Because of me, you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

Living in the Spirit

This reading from Matthew both promises and illustrates the power that can be within each one of us if we are willing to live from the spirit of God--if we are willing to give our lives over to the purposes that God has in mind for us. We may not personally face some of the dangers and persecutions that the Lord's disciples did. But we can be inspired both by the disciples and by present-day disciples of the Lord who have faced the powers of this world and have overcome through the spirit.

One of those disciples who is a continual inspiration to me and to millions of others is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose faith and power we celebrate tomorrow with a national holiday in his name. I remember the first time I listened to Martin Luther King giving his "I Have A Dream" speech. I wish I could say that I was there with the crowd, or even listened to it as it was given. But I was a bit young at the time. Instead, I watched it for the first time on video in a carrel in the audio-visual department of the Western Washington University Library. There could hardly have been a less inspiring setting. Institutional chairs and furniture, headphones, and a small-screen TV. But as I watched and listened, the words stirred me to my soul. The power of God's spirit speaking and working through that spirit-filled human being leaped out from the poor and scratchy rendition in that little cubicle.

It is the same power of the spirit that can shine out in our lives--lives that often seem poor and scratchy themselves in comparison with great historical figures like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Theresa. Some people may be destined to show forth God's spirit in great and world-changing ways. They are called by God. But we are also called by God to show forth God's spirit in our own ways, and among our own people. We are sent out in this world by God, and if we will open our hearts and minds to the Lord, then the Lord will give us the words to say and the things to do to express the spirit of God's love and understanding to the people around us.

Let us open our hearts and minds now as we turn to the Lord in prayer.

Prayers for the Gift of the Spirit

Faith: An Experience of the Whole Person

As we move along in this service, we will use more than our vocal chords to express the Lord's spirit in our church. The children will help us to get the rest of our bodies involved in expressing the joy and power of the spirit. Sometimes we adults need children to get us fully involved, body and soul, in the goodness of the life that God gives us. We tend to think that faith is a matter of mind and perhaps even heart; children know, not intellectually, but physically that what is in their minds and hearts must be expressed in their bodies. Faith--real faith that comes from the power of the spirit--is an experience of the whole person.

Emanuel Swedenborg, who gave us the basic theology of our Swedenborgian faith, knew that religion and faith must involve our whole selves: heart, mind, and outward action. I would like to share with you a brief reading from Swedenborg's book Apocalypse Explained about spiritual power as it is expressed in our bodies.

Apocalypse Explained #79 Spiritual Power

Our body expresses all of its power through our hands. Because of this, whatever our mind wants our body to do, our arms and hands do it. This is why in the Bible, "arms" and "hands" symbolize power. But this kind of power is material power; when we exercise it, it is the action of our physical abilities.

Spiritual power is wanting good things for other people, and wanting to give to others what is our own as much as we are able. Spiritually, our hands represent this kind of power--and touching someone with our hands means communicating and passing on this power to another person.

The Healing and Attracting Power of the Spirit

There is tremendous power in our hands--probably much more than we realize. Our feet may get us places, but when we get there, it is our hands that do whatever our feet carried us there for. We also express our deepest and most gut-level feelings toward others through our hands. Uncontrolled anger, rage, and frustration are all too often expressed in physical violence against others. Our hands can become weapons to inflict pain and even death on another person. This is an expression of the power of hell working through human hands.

But our hands can also express the tenderest of love and thoughtfulness for others. We show others through a hug, a touch, a pat on the back that we care about them, that we love them and value them as people. Or we use our hands to make something that we know another person will enjoy, and we express our love in that way. Every day we use our hands to do our jobs, contributing our ideas and energy to the people of our communities in a thoughtful and useful way.

When we express the spirit of God through our hands in these and many other ways, there is healing in our touch. There is healing for those who receive the hug or the pat on the back, for those who receive the gift we have made, or who benefit from the work that we are doing. As we express God's spirit in our lives, we are building day by day the kingdom of God both within ourselves and among the people in our families and our communities. We bring about new strength and new growth both in ourselves and in others--and that strength is physical and spiritual at the same time.

And when we live from the power of God's spirit, there is an even greater effect than healing, as wonderful as that is. There is a tremendous attractive power in the spirit of God working through our lives. That attractive power is the power of God's love, which brings people closer to each other and to God wherever it is expressed. When we express God's love to the people around us, we draw them closer to us--and more often than not, they respond by opening up their hearts to us as well.

If we show others the love that comes into our souls from God, then whenever we bring people together we are also bringing people closer to God. God is love; and wherever love is expressed, God's Holy Spirit is coming into our world with power and joy. Amen.

Music:  Velvet and Diamonds (the star filled sky)
 © 1999 Bruce DeBoer 

©Robert Meyers 
The Frost Of Dawn