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Reviving God’s People

For as long as we can remember, the numbers of people coming along to churches and chapels on a Sunday to worship has been on the slide. Since the middle of March, they have been shut altogether but it has been a great encouragement to see many of you engaging online. Welcome one and all.
Of course, it was not always like that. There have been periods in our history, especially here in Wales, when church life took off. Hundreds of people flocked to hear the Christian message. Their lives were transformed, and large numbers of chapels were built to accommodate them. You can still see many of the buildings today used for anything from carpet warehouses to private houses or just standing derelict.
Max Boyce, the South Walian song writer has a poignant verse in his song ‘Ten Thousand Instant Christians’:
When He sees that empty chapel
With its locked and shuttered door
And sees that dusty Bible
Cobweb covered floor
The numbers slowly dwindling
Much fewer now each day
Calfaria now a bingo hall
I wonder what He’ll say
We have a word for such periods of rapid growth and take up of Christian faith: ‘revival’. In Wales, the great age of revival was nearly 300 years ago in the eighteenth century. Three figures stand out, Howell Harries, Daniel Rowland and Williams Williams who was responsible for many great hymns including ‘Bread of Heaven.’ Their preaching brought a fresh vigour to the message of the bible, one which disturbed many leaders in the church and eventually caused the new chapels to be established.
The last significant time of revival in Wales was in 1904- 5, a relatively short period in which it is said the miners sung hymns underground. Revivals have happened across the world in places such as China, Korea, and East Africa. After the fall of communism Moldova in eastern Europe, experienced a considerable period of revival based in its protestant churches. A few weeks ago, I shared a story from that revival about Valera, a former gangster involved with the Mafia, who was strangely moved by reading the book of Exodus in the old testament. This was the start of his journey to faith.
When historians look back at revivals, they often spot that they happened when life was hard for people and they were not hearing many messages of hope from their political or even church leaders. It that situation, it only takes a few charismatic individuals to whip up a bit of enthusiasm to have everybody flocking along. While we should acknowledge that revivals do often happen when life is tough; and the hearts of masses of ordinary people are yearning for something, we need also to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit taking advantage of the situation.
Today is Whitsunday and we remember events that took place on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover festival when Jesus had died. Jesus had been seen to be alive again by many proofs but as we recalled last week. He was lifted up in a cloud having told his followers to wait in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24.49) Now as the city was filled with people again for the festival, but they were sheltering together in one place, fearful of arrest, strange things happened. The room is filled with a rushing wind and they can see fire surrounding them and resting on them. When they speak, they find they can be heard in other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2.1-4)
This emboldens the disciples of Jesus. They go out and tell of Jesus, how he had been unjustly sentenced to death, but that God had raised him to life. This now meant that forgiveness of sins could be preached in his name; that Jesus had made a way for everyone to come into a relationship with God. Huge crowds began to gather. They had come from all over for the festival. They each heard Peter and the others speaking in their own language.
You may be very familiar with this story or perhaps this is the first time you have heard it. In a way, it is the story of the first revival. The Holy Spirit moves in to stir up the disciples. They are filled with a supernatural boldness to speak a message which by the grace of that same Spirit, the crowd respond to. 3000 of them join up and follow Jesus that day. (Acts 2.41) Those remarkable signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence do not stay around. We hear no more of rushing wind and tongues of fire, but the Holy Spirit clearly remains amongst his people. It is a revival moment that sees the church lift off after Jesus’ earthly ministry.
So what is this spirit? The Spirit does not make a first appearance at this moment in the story of the bible. In fact, it’s presence can be seen way back in the 2nd verse of Genesis which talks of a wind from God, ‘rhuarch’ in Hebrew, moving over the face of the earth. The voice of wisdom and prophecy in the old testament is occasioned by the Spirit. The Spirit is overshadowing Mary as she conceives Jesus. It speaks through Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna and to Joseph in dreams. It is present in bodily form as a dove as Jesus is baptised and drives him into the wilderness to be tempted. The Spirit has always been present, yet Jesus, especially in John’s gospel, speaks much of how the Spirit will not come until he departs; until he is glorified. The death and resurrection of Jesus release the Spirit to the world. We live in the age of the Spirit.
I have referred to the Spirit as it, but I am wrong, for we should strictly speak of the Spirit as he, as a personal one for the Spirit is no less than a form of God. He is the third person of what Christians call the trinity, God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. More of that next week.
What then of the Holy Spirit today? Is he still around and at work? Can we expect another revival along soon?
The Spirit is always around us and can be within us. He is the Spirit of the living God. Jesus once likened him to the wind, blowing where he wills with an element of mystery. (John 3.8) But he also compares him to water which we can drink. (John 7.37-39) The Spirit is with us, but do we want him within us? He longs that we drink from him as living water. Do you pray: ‘come Holy Spirit’. Do you drink freely of him? He never forces but waits to be invited. He does not seek to make us uncomfortable, he is the comforter, but we must be prepared to be moved by him much as when someone remotely operates your laptop.
What about another revival? I am sure there is part of us that would like that. The history of revival from the day of Pentecost on shows that certain key things are always present. Prayer: people will have been praying sacrificially as individuals and in groups for God to act. This is part of the waiting Chris spoke of last week. Repentance: If we want the Spirit of a Holy God to act with cleansing fire, we must repent meaningfully of everything in our lives which is contrary to his will clearly expressed in Jesus and the scriptures. Preaching: The message of the gospel needs to be faithfully expressed as Peter did back on the day of Pentecost. It’s no good missing bits out or trying to tweak it to make it suit what we think people want to hear.
In these hard times, we need revival, we need the Spirit of God in our hearts and lives. Let us resolve to pray, repent and preach that we may once again be fitting channels for the water of life to flow through us to water a thirst world; that God be glorified in us.
Jonathan Smith Pentecost 31st May 2020

Rev Jonathan Smith

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