A Spirited Discussion— Waiting is Hard

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Here are some thoughts about Pentecost I recently wrote up for Missio-Alliance. See what you think…

In the process of figuring out next steps when it comes to evangelism and mission work, there is a tendency on most people’s part to look for new techniques, plans and processes that work, strategies whether long or short term that lead to success and so on. We like to be hands-on and feel like we are in control. But alas, when it comes to the work of God’s Spirit, we are not in control, and should not fool ourselves about that.

Look for a moment at the context of the first Christian Pentecost experience. What did Jesus tell the disciples before he departed— “WAIT in Jerusalem UNTIL YOU RECEIVE POWER FROM ON HIGH (or the promise of the Father)”. Waiting is hard, and it involves giving up control over the outcomes of evangelism and missions. Waiting can seem like a big waste of time. But as the Scripture say “unless the Lord build your house, vain is your labor”. Empire building by the dynamic efforts of human beings we see all around us in the business world, in the political world, but this is not how the Kingdom of God is built. The Kingdom of God is not the Tower of Babel. And Pentecost is Babel in reverse— it is top down, with the Spirit of God reversing those human attempts to create one world, one people, one language. Only God, and the moving of his Spirit can really do that.

In Acts 1-2, the disciples did what they could while waiting: 1) they got together and prayed. By the way, this meant they were submitting to God’s will not telling God what needed to be done, as if God was ill-informed about the situation. Prayer is never about alerting God to something, or using a cattle prod on God; 2) they appointed a new 12th disciple for the inner circle, but notice he had to meet strict criteria— they didn’t go with the ‘he’s a charismatic dude’ criteria, or ‘he’s verbally impressive’ or ‘she looks the part’ (see the so-called selection process criteria which led finally to the choosing of King David). The Eleven went with someone who had persevered and been with the disciples and with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, through all the tragedies and triumphs, and was still a disciple. 3) they went with the OT model of decision-making, casting lots, which presumably they would never need again once the Spirit fell on the church. At the end of the day, not any of these things produced the Christian movement. Nothing of consequence happened until the Spirit fell on all the persons in the Upper Room, and then they went out and shared the Good News with one and all.

Notice as well that the success of the early Christian mission depended on both the Spirit and the faithful proclamation of God’s Word. Not one or the other but both. As my old church history prof, Richard Lovelace, used to say the Word without the Spirit is like dry wineskins without the wine! No vivifying power at all! Whereas the Spirit without the Word, is like wine without anything to give it shape or preserve its effects, or contain it in a useful manner, or even make God’s will understandable.

If you are a student of revivals through church history, you will discover that one of the constants is that it involves both a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, and a faithful proclamation of the Word. While you can prepare yourself for evangelism by in depth study of the Word, and we should all do that, the Holy Spirit cannot be manipulated. One simply has to wait on the Spirit, pray for the action of the Spirit, seek the guidance of the Spirit as it leads one into all truth. And when the Spirit moves, it becomes very clear that this is not of our own doing. You can be ever so talented, ever so much in earnest, ever so appealing, ever so loving, but without the guidance, empowerment, work of the Spirit, nothing of lasting consequence happens. Nothing. Fads, trends, techniques, come and go, but the work of the Spirit is the sine qua non of mission and ministry. “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength….”

Consider for a moment the story of Jonah. He despised the Ninevites. Hate is probably not too strong a word judging from Jonah’s reaction to the Nineveh miracle in Jonah 4. He really didn’t want to go to Nineveh and proclaim repentance so that they could come into right relationship with God. But with great reluctance he went, he put his hand over his mouth (so to speak), and proclaimed ‘T’shuvah….’ Repent, and we are told that all of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes… even the animals!! I would have paid good money to see animals repenting….

You see the point however. This was not of Jonah’s doing, except insofar as he was a vessel for the call to repent. Jonah had absolutely nothing to brag about thereafter. It was not ‘his’ ministry, or ‘his’ hard work that got things done. It was the miraculous moving of God’s Spirit even in a foreign land, even with non-monotheistic people. Because after all, God loves all of humanity. Had Jonah tried to claim credit for what happened, this would be rather like Shakespeare’s quill pen saying “I wrote all those wonderful plays”. Nope, the pen was just the instrument in the Author’s hands.

I teach at a school that is well know for a famous revival that happened on campus some decades ago— at Asbury Seminary. It was a spontaneous thing, and what its precursors were is very much like what is described in Acts 1-2. It involved a lot of prayer and waiting, and did I mention waiting for the Spirit to fall, and more prayer. And then, surprisingly enough, something happened. A real revival of God’s people, a real pouring out of empowerment and love, and visions and transformation happened. We are still talking about that revival today at Asbury, and praying for another one.
There is a reason Jesus said— “wait in Jerusalem until…..” He knew the disciples would not get anything of lasting value accomplished without their being filled with the Spirit who inspires the true and effective proclamation of God’s Word. The Spirit is like that American Express Card commercial a while back— ‘don’t leave home without it’. It’s time for us to realize again, that we are not in control of mission, evangelism, ministry. This requires the falling of the Spirit, the leading of the Spirit, the empowerment of the Spirit, the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, for it is the Spirit who convicts, convinces, and converts a skeptical and fallen world… and indeed only the Spirit can bring about real transformation.

The question is— Are we waiting on the Lord with expectation? Are we expecting a transformation in our own lives by the power of God’s Spirit? Are we asking for empowerment and enlightenment and guidance and protection from the Spirit? Or are we rather trying to be in control of this whole thing called mission and ministry? Is it all about me? Paul had to learn this lesson the hard way. Notice what he says about himself in Gal. 2— “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” by the work and power of the Spirit. We have to come to the end of ourselves and our attempts to be in control of self and ministry, before we become fully available to be used by God’s Spirit. And this is a supremely difficult lesson to learn in the most narcissistic culture, America, that may have ever existed on earth.

Here’s a part of a poem I once wrote about Pentecost for your reflection—

The filigree flame of fire fell on the fellowship
Pursuant to the prayer and praise and paeans of the plaintiffs
Such that there was no room in the upper room,
And they fled like men fleeing a burning building.
But even the Temple courts could not contain the ebullience and effervescence
And so they were deemed drunk, tipplers before their time.
Yet all that they had imbibed was Spirit,
Which was so like fire in their bones that their wayward words
Leaked out in languages unknown to the speakers,
As if the babble of Babel had been set in reverse,
To unite a divided Empire that pretended Pax Romana.

Who knew the cost of Pentecost then or there,
Or the momentousness of the movement set in motion?
Who could have guessed the Guest who had inhabited them that day?
If possession is nine tenths of the law, then this magnificent possession
Became a magnificent obsession to lay down the Law and take up the Gospel,
And so tip the world upside down such that peace came from grace and truth,
Not law and order,
And testimony was borne not to a crime but to a crisis
Not to progress but to rescue,
Not to an Emperor, but to a Savior,
Not merely to the end of the old age,
But to the dawn of the new one.

Think on these things.