During my senior year in High School, I took a choral class to finish out my requirements for graduation. I recall spending most of the time sitting in the back, laughing and goofing off but then as Christmas came near something unusual happened. Our teacher, the high school choral director, had us learn the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Its soaring words swept me away. The sheer majesty and beauty of its drama overwhelmed me.
I know this happens to many people when encountering something as grandly majestic as Handel’s Messiah and especially the “Hallelujah Chorus.” There is both beauty and truth in the music and the words (the text taken from the King James translation of Holy Scripture). I think, both then and now, what I felt was “the Spirit of the Lord.”
This sense of “the Spirit of the Lord” being upon me was all the more amazing because as a high school senior I was in my agnostic phase of life. With some friends, we fatuously proclaimed that we didn’t believe in Christmas because of the insult to Joseph. We thought we were wise and sophisticated when the truth was the opposite. We were juveniles living with a coating of arrogance as a mark of our ignorance.
A brief digression is in order here because there is evidence of Handel being similarly overcome when we wrote the Messiah. Reporting on the story behind Handel’s Messiah, Dr. Jerry Newcombe offers some significant background. He writes,
“In his book, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh Handel tells how Handel barely ate during the 24 days he wrote Messiah. At one point, the composer had tears in his eyes and cried out to his servant, ‘I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.’ He had just finished writing the Hallelujah Chorus. Amazingly, Messiah came at a time in his life when the 56-year old Handel was facing bankruptcy and complete failure. Also, some Church of England authorities were apparently critical of him and his work.” (The story behind Handel’s Messiah - The Christian Post)]
Today, something similar happened. In the ordinary quiet of my writing table, I relived this feeling upon reading the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) lectionary text for this week. The “Spirit of the Lord God was upon me” as I read the magnificent words of the Prophet Isaiah! (The full lectionary text is longer – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – but I invite us to settle on the soaring opening four verses.)
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance [vindication in CEB] of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:1-4)
With the best of intentions, it is easy to operate as a functional agnostic even while you are a believing Christian. We can even pray to God, work for the Kingdom of God in justice and mercy, and worship with consistent regularity, all the while we operate with a deist conception of a god who created and left or an agnostic belief in divine absence. How do we do so? By failing to trust, obey and live in connection with the Holy Spirit.
Love, Justice and Mercy
In a famous sermon John Wesley preached at Oxford University in August of 1744, he complained of nominal Christianity.
“May it not be one of the consequences of this that so many of you are a generation of triflers; triflers with God, with one another, and with your own souls? For how few of you spend, from one week to another, a single hour in private prayer? How few have any thought of God in the general tenor of your conversation? Who of you is in any degree acquainted with the work of his Spirit? His supernatural work in the souls of men? Can you bear, unless now and then in a church, any talk of the Holy Ghost?”
Wesley always ties his understanding of the Holy Spirit moving in the lives of men and women with his “holiness of heart and life.” The “Spirit of the Lord” propels us to acts of love, justice, and mercy. Just look at how Isaiah 61 unfolds in verse 8. “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” (Isaiah 61:8)
Now, take in the full impact of verse 11. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)
We who are preparing for the coming of the Savior and Lord have much to learn from Holy Scripture, as well as from spiritual and moral giants like John Wesley. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, both progressive and evangelical theology have split apart the vibrant sense of the Holy Spirit active in someone’s life and the ongoing work of love, justice and mercy. The Advent texts for the third Sunday argue passionately against such separation.
What are we anointed for?
Isaiah tells us in unambiguous and revelatory exuberance that we were anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance [translated as “vindication” in CEB] of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
The Epistle lesson in the Common lectionary for the Third Sunday of Advent is matched with Isaiah 61. This lesson cements and completes Isaiah’s teaching. Look how an effusive sense of joy and the presence of the Holy Spirit is linked with doing good and resisting evil. “Don’t suppress the Spirit. Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)
Recall as you read that scholars think Thessalonians was one of the earliest letters of Paul. It was probably written in a time of great persecution (possibly even when Nero was Emperor).
It is time again to preach a doctrine of the Holy Spirit present and active in our lives and the life of the church. It is well past time to connect the anointing of the Spirit with deeds of love, justice and mercy. What better time to do so than at the start of the Christian year? The Advent journey to a Bethlehem stable and beyond is the work of the Holy Spirit. I think both the shepherds and the wise men felt the Holy Spirit upon them. It is truly said that “one mark of the Holy Spirit in a life is a supernatural ability to love.” (A Firm Foundation: Hope and Vision for a New Methodist Future; by the Wesleyan Covenant Association)
The Holy Spirit is upon us! Let Holy Scripture have the last word.
16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit. 20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-23)