The days between the Ascension and Pentecost are increasingly being marked in the Anglican church as a novena, or nine days, of prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Better late than never, I suppose, but as we seek to reflect and live out that period of prayer to which the first believers devoted themselves I sometimes wonder what we are expecting to happen. How will we know when the Holy Spirit has come? I reckon that when tongues of fire and strange languages broke out among them on the day of Pentecost it wasn’t just the onlookers who were amazed and perplexed. I’m sure the believers got more than they were bargaining for.
So we seek to sanitise the Holy Spirit. I can remember being part of a team planning a children’s Pentecost celebration in our cathedral, at which it was suggested that we might cut out thousands of little red, yellow and orange bits of sparkly paper and drop them from the roof onto the children gathered below, and set up some huge fans to blow everyone around. Having just written a book on how children can receive the Spirit and his gifts as well as adults can, I suggested that we might just pray for the children to be filled with the Spirit, a suggestion which went down like air con in an igloo. Symbolism is much safer if it protects us from the real thing. We want the Spirit, but we don’t want to be charismatic, for goodness’ sake!
So apart from tongues, what might praying for the coming of the Spirit result in? Ezekiel has a slightly different take, although one which potentially might be equally disturbing. This text is aimed at those languishing in Babylonian exile as a result of their idolatry, and as God puts his Spirit in them they can expect a radical turnaround. The ‘before’ picture is one of scattered people, far from home, with hard hearts, filthy from their rubbing up against detestable idols, the sort, for example, to which you sacrifice your own children. But the gift of the Spirit will bring homecoming, cleansing, a heart transplant, and a restoration of their relationship with God. So radical will this U turn be that people will even want to keep God’s laws, rather than regarding them as a bit of a killjoy nuisance.
Ezekiel’s vision of the work of the Spirit is essentially a moral one, after which polluted and compromised people will not only behave themselves but will even want to behave themselves. The naughty delight in sin will lose its appeal for them, and they will be 100% devoted to God.
So for what do we think we’re praying as we seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s church? Spectacular gifts? More position and power in today’s society? The ability better to serve the needs of our communities? More bums on seats? Ezekiel would tell us that God has different priorities, although none of the above is a bad thing for which to pray. Essentially, says Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit is in the business of bringing holiness. If you’re the kind of Christian who sort of enjoys a bit of sin now and again, and believes that God isn’t that bothered, be careful what you pray!