What a great title, of course it is from scripture, Ephesians 5:14, where it was equally a great comment within the text. It is a quote from earlier scripture, possibly Isaiah 26:19, 60:1 or Malachi 4:2. Jesus himself in John 5:25 said the dead will hear … and those who hear will live.
So I love it when what you are supposed to be reading turns out to be something else. Sermon three of the John Wesley collection is a sermon by Charles Wesley, go figure. There is a difference in language and tempo, and also I had up to this thought John would’ve had them squirming in their seats. Charles takes squirm to a whole new level.
I can’t imagine this sermon being preached in the quiet voice we so often hear from the pulpit, there is an energy to it that means as I read aloud I was moving with the words, it was impossible not to. He was trying to waken the dead in the congregation and so I suspect rather than this being an academic exercise at the university chapel. He was trying to bring those people to Christ. I imagine him animated and flushed at the exertion and afterwards, emptied out. So to the sermon..
- The Sleepers
He begins by describing the sleepers. Straight away you get images of darkness and death because when we sleep we are in darkness, so profound. He names the spiritual rebirth as that of a sanctification of body, mind and spirit, total newness. Spiritual darkness is indeed a natural place for humans who don’t have Christ living in their hearts. Just as light penetrates our very being so darkness can enfold us, drag us ever into the dark pit of hopelessness and despair. Just as Christ burst forth victorious so we can burst forth from the darkness into the light. But sleepers are unaware of this, they are ignorant of their fallen state.
He talks of spiritual sickness, an inward illness that on the surface is healthy. I once baked a meat pie and forgot about it, a week later came across it and decided to see if it was okay. The pastry was fine but under the pastry there was a positive petri dish full of bugs wishing to do me harm. I didn’t eat it. Under the surface of a “good but worldly” person is a petri dish of sin. Outwardly they appear to do good things. I am again reminded of my family member who does good out of duty, not love.
Spiritual ignorance is the next point, people are wallowing in sin, enjoying wallowing in sin, always looking for the instant gratification of the world, moving from one thing to the next, always busy, never still. When asked if they believe in God these people laugh, intellectually agreeing that there is a God but hoping there isn’t because they’d have to change their ways. They think there is a whole pile of rules they have to follow, they don’t know that the rule book is thrown out, that it is a compulsion to follow Jesus’ way, it is impossible to do otherwise once reborn. When transformed by the Holy Spirit it is impossible for us to want to go back to our old ways, the magnetic pull we had for those things is gone and we are away from them and we do not think of them, they are gone.
Lukewarm Christians with a foot in the world and a foot in Christianity are quiet inoffensive creatures following the rituals and traditions of the church unthinkingly, equally they might be fanatical with lots of arm waving, long prayers and full of scriptural (book learning) knowledge pointing out their righteousness as a basis for God’s acceptance of them. But delve deeper into their faith and they run back to worldly. Their faith wavers with life, they are the ones who cry out, Why is this happening to me? And expect an answer. They are not at peace and content to live with unanswered questions. I once brought some of my people to an art house movie and they didn’t get it because there was no happy ending, the film closed with strands unanswered. I listened to their complaints and it boiled down to – they wanted to know what happened next to all the characters. They were left with unanswered questions and it made them uncomfortable. Life is like that, stuff happens, stuff done to us and stuff we do ourselves. I have been struggling with a habit from my past, not that I am in that habit but how do I get out of a situation without returning to default. For over a year I have been wondering “What if …?” I was content to stay with the what if and work out what to do when the time came but I was given a beautiful God given answer, I didn’t seek it, it was a gift. God knows it is one of the things I struggle with most but he also knows that I am not ignorant of it or indifferent. He knows that I was prepped to act in a certain way a long time ago and it is a struggle not to return to default, so after lots of talking to him about it, he gave me an answer, in a dream he put forward a scenario and then gave me the words to use. God is good all the time.
His next point is that of spiritual powerlessness, he speaks of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 and I quote from the song:
Never-failing Love If I sang the songs the angels sing, If I grasped the depths of everything, Though the mysteries of this world were mine – I’m nothing without love. I could give to every child in need, I could save the planet from our greed, I could stand for justice till I bleed – And never know His love Love is patient, love is kind, Not envious or boastful; Humble, pure and undefiled, Rejoicing in the truth. I could give my money to the poor, I could preach the gospel door to door, Even save a thousand souls or more – And still not know His love Love is trusting, quick to mend, Protecting and forgiving, Persevering to the end – This love will never fail. When the finest words have passed away, And the best we have is yesterday, There is one thing that is here to stay – His never-failing love, His never-failing love. Stuart Townend & Mark Edwards, Copyright © 2011 Thankyou Music
I love his phraseology of “it will cut no ice with God” and then goes on to describe them as Ezekiel’s dry bones. I wonder at this point, is this when the shuffling started? Is this when people started looking at the neighbours in the pews and wondered if it applied to them? He tells them and we still hear from him today – if you are not living in the Spirit you are dead! Tough words for a congregation to hear, would those people turn up the next week? Sometimes I think I am mad because I know what he means, I know what it is to live in the Spirit but no one today talks about it so violently. I feel the violence but feel compelled to join a congregation where they are, where the least of them is. There is nothing to be gained by me explaining in slow motion detail how I was transformed because it could alienate those who did not have such a violent conversion. There is a sensitivity needed, it is not about handling people it is about allowing them to find Jesus for themselves in their own time within the framework of church life. I was in another town this week two hundred miles away and the topic of church came up and I could see the personality of the person shrink away from it. Now I know this person would be able to cope with what life has thrown at her if she accepted God’s love but if I came at her with tales of transformation and Holy Spirit she would never try to find him and I would never do that. What I hoped I showed her was an acceptance of the situation because I was at peace and maybe she will go seek him and see how he can help her.
The eighth point on sleepers is that we are all sinful and sinners because of Adam. We were separated from communion with God because Adam sinned. We have corporate liability for this, we cannot blame Adam because we cannot know we wouldn’t behave exactly the way he did. In fact we do. Whether it is to be mealy mouthed about someone, or pass on gossip in the name of church news, or show ourselves as being more righteous than the next person, or we take more than we actually need. An aside here for you to think about – if greed is a sin and our bodies are the temple for the holy spirit to live in why are there so many obese pastors, ministers and priests? If we are born of the Spirit why do we as members of the congregation take more than we need? Because we have sin in our lives. Both Wesley men said those who are born of the Spirit do not have sin but as they grew older and without youthful exuberance and maybe more being and less doing they changed their view somewhat. John Wesley particularly must have known that his parsimony over money had its root in his childhood – why was he not healed of it?
The sleepers have to wake up, the realisation that their life is a shadow of what it could be and this can only be done through Jesus Christ our Lord. Because our ability to be awake is not of us it comes from God. We are alive not because we are strong or powerful, no we are alive because of the Lord’s strength and power, we are vessels for him to use.
Wesley says that sleepers lack spiritual awareness. In this world today people believe they are tapped into some spiritual claptrap potential, that self is core and keeping self happy is key. We who smell the sweet aroma of the fragrance of Christ – to them it passes them by unrecognised, they don’t understand what they are missing so hang their hat on a reiki chair or meditate to a living god in India.
So finally we come to point I dispute. Wesley says that the spirit cannot move in a sleeper’s life. But this is not so, the Godincidences that we encounter involve those people. We recognise God’s hand in situations where a sleeper wouldn’t but that does not negate God’s hand, rather it makes a stronger impact. I can honestly say that when I began preaching I was only preaching to half the congregation, I didn’t care if the men in the congregation heard or didn’t hear, I actually didn’t give them a thought. Not out of some blatant hatred, just I didn’t know them, I avoided them and they were not part of my life. I talk about this openly and it shocks some people because how can you preach to only half the congregation? I am healed of this now, but it took God using a seeking man to see that my role was to preach the Good News to all, not just women. This man did not know God and he also was unaware of my feelings towards men. He asked for my help to find Jesus and we spent a lot of time together in one week a couple of years ago. God broke down all my self made rules of never talking to a man, never hugging a man, never engaging with a man and listening to a man. Now as a result of this I also had to work through some boundary issues which was good too because it helped in my everyday life. Because of God using this man who no longer lives in Scartaglen I became freer to share the good news and it was like a tap that had been running slowly suddenly became a torrent. The Spirit well and truly set me free to do God’s work.
- Rise from the Dead
Wesley roars at the congregation – wake up rise from the dead because God is speaking to you through me! Can you imagine the waves of wriggling people in their Sunday best finery?
Stand up he says this very moment. There really is no time to lose, once a call has been placed on your life you must surrender to it. We all have that call and now is the time to call on Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, the Spirit will give you the faith to do it.
He gets personal, there is one person here to which I am speaking. Oh the blushes and flushes, the tempo here would be one of calm quiet voice because now Wesley has caught a glimpse of what is to be achieved this day. Many souls are to be saved this day but he must pry open the hardened hearts so he gets personal. He talks to one person. Now this one person could be everyone, or it could be everyone who thought they were on firm ground. He was not content to let the squirmers squirm. He wanted the complacent, the ones who thought “Oh what a pretty sermon, I wonder if it will be mutton for lunch”
He goes on to describe the urgency and immediacy of turning to Christ. He know the Spirit lives in him and he desperately wants everyone to know that joy. Is your lamp ready? Is it full of oil? Do you think like a Christian? Are you really a Christian? Are you aware of Jesus in your heart? Have you received the Holy Spirit or does this question embarrass you because you don’t know if there is a Holy Spirit? Do you desire God above all else?
- Christ Will Give You Light
Know that you will not seek Jesus in vain, there is no one on the blacklist, everyone is invited. It is not like a wedding where if you invite so and so you cant invite her or him. I was arranging to go for lunch with someone and then two more people came into my head so I invited them all and then someone else wanted to meet so I invited them. There should have been five for lunch. There were two because two parties would not go to lunch together. Jesus isn’t like that, he doesn’t say he won’t eat lunch with us, he not only eats with us but provides the food. We have been given free gifts that we must use for his glory. He gives us faith to believe, he gives us the ability to trust in him wholeheartedly, oh he gives us many many gifts. The gift of mercy. The gift of grace. When we submit to Christ it is like our birthday opening all the presents. All free. All God given. All precious.
Wesley pontificates for a further fifteen points. I personally would leave it here. My reasoning, if the person to whom he personally speaks, gets it. He needs to act then, lest the moment disappears. But for the congregation back then they got another ten minutes. He didn’t know the phrase ‘less is more’
The points made are: the promise, God is light, your calling, the greatest gift of all, accept this message, this is eternal life, the spirit of Anti Christ, Equivocation, Anglican doctrine, widespread apostasy, Pharisees and Sadducees, even here, punishment and a final exhortation.
We don’t talk about punishment nowadays….