It's funny - when I was preparing the order of service for this morning, I knew I wanted to preach on the Spirit and God revealing himself to us through it. I'd read through both of the readings a few times, and looked at my commentary, and I was sure that was the theme I wanted to bring out of the readings. They seemed to shout "Spirit!" at me. When I started to write this sermon though, I looked again and found that the Spirit is only mentioned twice in the Gospel reading and not at all in the Genesis one. I still believe it's underlying and connecting the two though. As God's agent of change and revelation, the Spirit is of course working throughout the Bible, but there's more than that in this case, I'm sure.
Let's go back to the passage in Genesis to start with. I don't believe in the Creation as described in that passage and the text following it in a literal sense. Some of you may, and some others may not. That doesn't bother me - but I'd like you to just imagine it in a literal way for a moment. When I was a teenager, I used to go on holiday with my parents to North Wales most years, and there was an old coal mine we went to a couple of times called Big Pit. As well as going round the museum, we went down the mine itself, complete with miners' helmets and lamps. Half way through the tour, the guide asked us to stop for a minute, and turn our lights off, to see what real darkness was like. These days, almost wherever we are there's some light - but there's very little indeed when you're three hundred feet down a coal mine. So, imagine the blackest, inkiest, darkness you can. Now imagine that that darkness isn't just in a mine shaft, or in a room, but covering the whole earth. Picture yourself slightly above the earth, which is covered in water. You can't see anything whatsoever - not even your hand in front of your face. You can hear, though - you can hear wind sweeping over the sea, all around you. I find that quite a dizzying thought.
Now do your best to imagine the voice of God himself saying, "Let there be light." And then light, crashing in from every direction. Not the feeble light of a torch or bulb, but the pure light of God. It's showing the earth for the very first time, ever, but our eyes can't take it all in, and we have to squint to see anything at all.
As I said, I don't believe it actually happened like that, but it's still an incredible image, and a very humbling one. What can we possibly mean to a being powerful enough to create the universe and then light it for all to see? Incomprehensibly, we mean enough to God that he sent us his own Son and the Holy Spirit to illuminate our souls as clearly as light illuminates the world.
So, what of our Gospel passage? It's a passage of revelation by and about the Holy Spirit. First, we get the image of John the Baptist, apparently coming out of nowhere and telling people that if they repent, their sins can be forgiven. Now that's a message which is fairly familiar to us by now, and but here's a less familiar one: "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me." How often do we hear something like that today? Can you imagine any world leaders doing that today? "You may think I'm great - but my successor is going to be so good, I'm not good enough even to be on his back benches!" John went on to say: "I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit." It's hard to imagine for sure how we'd feel if we were there at the time - and it gets even harder soon afterwards - but I think that would sound pretty remarkable. Scratch the word "baptise" here and think about being immersed, or drenched with the Holy Spirit. Now that's an idea I can really get behind.
So, after John's revelations, Jesus himself arrives, and the most important revelation of all occurs. As he comes out of the water after being baptised, the heavens are torn apart. The Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove - and then the voice comes: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." As I said, it's pretty difficult to imagine how we'd have felt if we'd been there, but I imagine my expression would have been something like this: (Stand with mouth open) Wow. But let's not miss the message just because the messenger is so incredible. This is a revelation directly from God, and it's telling us that he has sent his Son to earth, in human form. When that's put together with what John had said about "the one who was to come after him" baptising people with the Holy Spirit, that's not just amazing, it's an event to change our lives, forever.
Much as I love my twenty-first century lifestyle, in some senses I envy the people who were there that day. They had it easy - a voice came from heaven. That's pretty hard to fool yourself about. But how many of us have maybe heard God talking to us through the Spirit, but not been sure enough of it to act on it? I know I have - and other times I've acted on it and still not been sure whether it was the Spirit or just a flight of fancy.
I don't have an easy solution for this. If there were some simple way of hearing the Spirit clearly and being certain of whose voice we're hearing, I'm sure we'd all have heard about it by now. That doesn't mean we should give up though - on the contrary, the harder the task, the harder we should try.
The most obvious way of hearing the Spirit is to be quiet to start with. Now, I've read in some book or other that men are generally incapable of talking and listening at the same time, whereas women can usually do it quite well. Regardless of how true that is between humans, I'm certain that when it comes to the Spirit, we should focus our full attention on God. Since I've started preaching, I've become more and more confused about what prayer is really all about, but one thing I'm certain of is that it's a way of opening ourselves to what God wants us to hear and do. We tend to think of prayer as us talking to God - praising him, thanking him, asking him for forgiveness and for his blessing on ourselves and others. I think it's at least as important to think of prayer as letting God talk to us, even if we may not hear an actual voice in our heads. One of the miracles of the Spirit is the way it can fill our minds without us understanding in the slightest how it's done it.
Of course, prayer isn't the only way the Spirit can talk to us. I know that my own call to preach came not in any individual moment of prayer, or what any one person said to me, but as a sequence of events. A couple of years ago I became a steward at Tilehurst, and I believe one of the reasons for that was so that I would be at various services which otherwise I wouldn't have attended. For three or four weeks, every evening service felt like it was pointing me towards preaching. I've no doubt it came across to others differently - that's another of the miracles of the Spirit - but it got to the stage where I couldn't ignore it any longer.
That's where Christian fellowship plays a part, too. We need to be quiet in order to first hear the Spirit, but we then need to talk about it for confirmation and encouragement. In fact, if I hadn't told anyone about what my call, I might have let the matter slip by, and gradually convinced myself that I was making it up. It can be very hard for us to talk about the most personal aspects of our faith with others, even with other Christians, but I believe it's incredibly important to encourage each other. If you discuss your feelings with someone else, not only are you likely to benefit from their thoughts on the matter, but you may well encourage them to speak out about their own calling, whatever that may be and however much they've doubted it before.
We must believe that the Spirit is still at work in our world though. It's hard enough to truly hear what God wants to tell us when we're listening, but if we don't even believe there's anything to listen for, it's nigh on impossible. We may not get to see and hear heaven tearing apart, the Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice of God coming down from the sky, but we can draw our faith from those who did. We can see the effects of the Spirit in the world today - just look at those whose lives are transformed by it, and who in turn transform the lives of others. We may not be called to something as obvious as that, but I believe we are all being called - and that each call can change the world, one bit at a time.
St Ambrose had this to say: "Remember that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness, the spirit of holy fear. Preserve what you have received. God the Father has sealed you. Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has given you the guarantee of the Spirit in your heart, as you have learned from the apostolic teaching."
I couldn't agree more.