Then I got to thinking, what might the person writing the topic be needing? What might the need be behind the desire to hear a sermon on being led by the spirit of God? Were they not feeling God enough in their life? Do they wish others would be led by the Spirit of God some more? Do we experience God consciously enough in our lives? Do we long for that inspired clarity? How long do we have for this sermon?
The very first sermon that Jesus preached was about being led by the spirit of God. You remember what happened. In the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the very first thing we hear Jesus publicly say is, “The Spirit of God is upon me.” He’s quoting from the 61st chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah. I can just hear people beaming that this is Mary and Joe’s boy. They were all ready to write a great headline about how local boy makes good. Jesus read on and said, “the Spirit of God is upon me. God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives and to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor.”
People loved it when folks read the sacred scriptures. They were all a twitter and would have tweeted their favor if they had the technology at hand. Jesus got in trouble with the application of the scripture. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Uh oh.
In other words, “the Spirit of God is on me to actually do what the good book says, so let’s release a few captives. Let’s let people see the truth. Let’s clothe the naked, heal the sick. Let’s reform our health care system. Let’s shut down our prisons. Let’s feed everybody. And while we’re at it, let’s erase all debts and proclaim the year of jubilee (after all that’s what Isaiah’s talking about).” “The year of the Lord’s favor” is a land reform where debts are relieved, sins are forgiven and slaves are set free. “Let’s move from the heady words rolled up in some scroll, like they were gonna break. Let’s give them wings, set them free and make some real change for a change.” Jesus was led by the spirit of God to say these things. The townsfolk were also led by a spirit, a spirit of fear; of misunderstanding; ignorance; of violence. And they drove him out of town for being so audacious as to claim to being led by the spirit of God.
Annie Dillard wrote about the implications of being led by the Sprit of God:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” -Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk
We hear TV preachers talk about being led by the Spirit of God. We see and hear them talk about how we need to give sizeable bucks because God’s spirit told them to ask for it. We’re leery of these things—these slick pitches.
So how do you know when someone is speaking from God? How do you know if someone is being led by God’s Spirit?
Andy Loving, a Baptist Peacemaker from Louisville, Kentucky was posed a related question. He’s a financial planner as well as a community organizer. When asked, “How do you know if your idea is authentically from God?” He said, there are three criteria. First, does it seem impossible? Second, is there a high probability of failure? And finally, is it incredibly good news? If it meets all three of these criteria, then chances are you’re being led by the Spirit of God.
Are there ideas that you have that seem impossible, have a high probability of failure and are incredibly good news? If the incredibly good news is compelling enough and it won’t let you go, chances are you’re being led by the Spirit of God.
Now the Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about making claims about the leading of God’s spirit. He was viewed suspiciously by many people, and rightly so.
We know that Paul had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus as he was persecuting the Christians. As a recovering Pharisee, as a recovering murderer, as a recovering exclusivist, as a recovering racist, as a recovering hypocrite, Paul became one of the most important and influential leaders of the early church. If God can change Paul, then there’s hope for the likes of us.
Paul had a different viewpoint of his life now that he embraced the Spirit of God. He still loved his Hebrew Bible, but he interpreted it differently because of his conversion experience. We are the same way. We look at the world in a different way because we have been confounded and changed by the renewal of our minds.
Paul supported letting anyone into the church as long as they sought to live a Christian lifestyle. He vehemently fought against those who would require that the males be circumcised in order to show salvation. Paul was not about to get into litmus-testing. He challenged the Jerusalem Church to believe the Great Commission: "Go ye into all the world and preach my Gospel to every creature." The Greeks were a different color, spoke a different language and were just plain dissimilar. If Jesus’ message is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we must not let petty differences divide us, especially when the dignity of fragile people is at stake. His main thrust is summed up in Galatians 5:1: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery."
Think about this: We were once collectively:Paul was out there starting churches and facing persecution on behalf of the Gospel. There were plenty of theologians and healers out there. How was he different? How could he convince folks that he was being led by God’s Spirit and not some other spirit (or spirits for that matter)?
Slaves to traditionalism,
slaves to homophobia and compulsory heterosexuality,
slaves to misogyny,
slaves to judgmentalism,
slaves to family rules and the exhortation to "not rock the boat",
slaves to the agendas of the exclusivists trying to deny us a place at the regional or denominational tables,
slaves to our checkbooks and our datebooks,
slaves to our jobs,
slaves to this economy,
slaves to our mortgage,
slaves to our 401K (or 101K as the case may be),
slaves to our “security”,
slaves to the constant fear of terrorism.
slaves to the belief that war ends war.
But Jesus has come and said, there is a bigger picture. There is a grander scheme. There is Good News to be embraced and bad news to be overcome. God's way is a way of freedom and liberation. If you focus on that, this world will be a better place, and we will make a place for, grant salvation to, a world in need.
Well Paul did what a good logical person would do. He wrote letters, some of which we have. In the letters he made a case for the proposition that he was being led by the Spirit of God. He said in essence, “you will know a tree by its fruit. You will know that I am from God because my message is consistent with God’s message.”
He then outlined what being led by the spirit looks like: Folks led by God’s spirit experience Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. In a world with so much self-interest and violence, to truly live in love, in joy, in peace, to have patience, to be consistently kind, generous and centered takes a power beyond ourselves. When we unselfishly experience these things, then we are tapping into a bit of our God nature. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates these fruits of the spirit. He says,
“What happens when we live God’s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal communities, not needing to force our way of life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (Gal.5:22, 23)
That sounds good to me. If we could all just live like that then everything would be fine, right? But there are other forces out there. Paul talks about them as the ways of the flesh. Like a good Greek philosopher he juxtaposes them to the fruits of the Spirit. In reality what Paul calls flesh, we might better call the ways of the world. Paul’s list includes, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and a bunch of other things.” (Gal. 5:19-21) Paul lists nine fruits of the Spirit of God and over 15 other spirits. Again, I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it:
“Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”
My friends, when we pay attention to then Spirit of God, we see not only the world more clearly, but we see ourselves more clearly. The scales come off of our eyes and we cannot deny our place nor our next steps. When we listen to God’s spirit and are led by God’s spirit, folks had better watch out because we are about to harness ourselves to a mighty force of power. And it is always a force for good. Be led by the spirit of God and you will bear fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and gentleness. And we sure need a whole lot more of all of that in our world. Imagine if we were all led by the spirit of God. Imagine that. And then make it so for you, for God’s spirit is waiting for each of us with incredibly good news.
And here’s the really good news. We don’t need to do the leading. We don’t need to manufacture the fruits of the Spirit. They are there inside us, sometimes overshadowed by other spirits, but they are there nonetheless. What we need to do is awaken to the fruit of the Spirit that is around and in us. Cling to love, generosity, gentleness, kindness, joy, self control, patience, faithfulness and peace. When we do that, then we become attentive not only to God, but we unleash our imaginations and respond—not out of guilt, but out of vision. And in the process, we spread Good News.
May we be so audacious to say along with Jesus, “the Spirit of God is upon me. The Spirit of God leads me. And the scripture is fulfilled today.”