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The Descent of the Holy Ghost
It is that "bodily shape" that creates all the difficulty in some lumbering and wooden minds. How to connect spirit and body is the profound and insoluble problem. Some persons can believe in matter; they think they see it. Others have a dim notion of the possibility of there being a force in creation that might be called Mind or Spirit. But how to connect the two, how to get the Holy Ghost into a bodily shape, that is the puzzle, the problem, the impossibility. Yet that connection is plainly declared in this text if words have any meaning. The terms are very explicit and vivid: "And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove." In that event the problem would seem to be solved; solved by illustration, it not by exposition.
The whole Trinity is here. Let us count the persons indicated in this twenty-second verse: "And the Holy Ghost" that is one "descended upon him " that is another "and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son " that is a third. Here is the threefold action of a threefold Personality: the descending Holy Ghost, the baptised Christ, the approving Father. We cannot get away from the Trinity unless we get away from the Bible. It is not necessary that we should explain it, or understand it, or have even the dimmest conception of its possibility. Some things we are bound to accept without handling. A man might handle the earth, but he cannot lay his fingers on the sky. All things do not come into possession through pen and ink, or through a process of handling and counting. All the greatest blessings we enjoy come without explanation of a human kind; yet their coming is indisputable; yea, their coming marks the vital point of the day and the vital point of all destiny. We only know God when he puts himself into relation. He must be in the dove, or in the man, or in some shape, before we can know fully and impressively that he is, and that he is near. We have no mental room for the Infinite; we lack space for that accommodation: but when God puts himself into visible shape, when he comes to us in the person of his Son, we see him through that living medium. We shall miss the true point of the Incarnation if we stop only at the bodily or physical appearance and presence of Christ. All things physical are emblematical. All stars are but an index. They are not the text, they are not the body of the poem; they mark its lines: the poem is spiritual, metaphysical, wordless, and it comes to us through any medium that we can best appreciate or comprehend. God must become man before we can know him with any sense that warms the heart, enlarges the understanding, and brightens the outlook of the mind.
We shall have to face one difficulty, and that is the difficulty that some persons can only think of one bodily shape. But all bodily shapes are available to God. "Body" becomes quite a large term when God interprets it and utilises it. In the text it was the bodily shape or a bird. It seems to us sometimes as if some birds required but a touch from heaven to turn them into angels; they have such beauty, such voices, and they are altogether marked by such qualities that it would be easy to some minds to conceive that a mere breath from the mouth of God might transform them into celestial visitants. They are more than birds. Not to the bird-fancier, the bird-dealer, but to the man who listens to the gospel poured out of their throats. In the text the bodily shape was that of a dove, so soft, so beautiful, so gentle, so emblematic of peace and serenity. God chooses his mediums and his instruments, and whatsoever they may be when he takes them up for his use, they all become beautiful by his habitation of them.
Are we willing that this descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove should be simply a point in ancient history? Are we still reluctant to give modern enlargements and interpretations to the spiritual ministry of God in his own creation? The truth is, that the Holy Ghost is coming down always in bodily shape; only we deprive ourselves of celestial visions by talking about the New Testament as a book a thousand years old and more; whereas we should accept it as an indicator, as a book pointing to events that are now taking place, to descents which are the true creators and sanctifiers of human history. The Holy Ghost sometimes descends upon us in the form of a little child. All the little children are heavenward-bound. No one ever went to hell out of a cradle. "Suffer the little children to come unto me," said he who was man, woman, and child in one; "for of such is the kingdom of heaven." When the disciples would inquire as to ecclesiastical status, and especially with regard to ecclesiastical primacy, saying, "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus took a little child, and said, "He is." There is nothing greater in heaven than the child-heart. All the rest is decoration; all the rest is of the nature of embroidery, fringe, accident, detail. Heaven is childness. Yet we are prone to think of the child as another element in statistical inquiry. We call him part of the population, and allow the little wave to fall into the great sea without special reckoning and individuality and care and love, speaking for the bulk of mankind. Yet that child is the Holy Ghost in bodily shape. You could see it if you looked well into the eyes; you could hear it if you listened to the mighty throb of that weakness. Why let things pass by you without catching their apocalyptic meaning, their highest references? Why live in dry, dull, bare commonplace, when you might be living in a continually opening heaven?
Sometimes the Holy Ghost descends upon us in bodily shape in the form of a man, a great teacher, a great prophet Who is the great prophet? Not the fortune-teller; the after-teller is the real prophet. Any mind of an audacious turn can make a bold dash at the future; but he is the real prophet who post-tells, who reads you the writing of moss and lichen on the old wall, who takes you down to the rocks, and reads you all the stony eloquence millions of ages old. Sometimes the man is not only a prophet, but he is a reformer. He says, This is out of square, this is not plumb; here geometry has been violated; there the foundations are out of course. He has an uneasy time of it. No man likes to be told where he is wrong. It is in human nature, whilst protesting modesty, to be drinking in whole rivers of flattery. We are liars. Why not see God in man? Why not know fully and graciously that humanity is God's dwelling-house, and that the poorest, meanest cripple that halts from one step to another is part of the mystic building? Why keep your theology in a book two thousand, five thousand, years old, when you might have it newly written for you according to the old pattern every morning in every life? Until we realise these great conceptions of childhood and manhood we shall not begin the right work of education, reform, or progress. So long as the metaphysic is wrong the concrete must be false. Wrap nothing up; let us have no veneer and covering and bandaging. We are wrong until the heart is right.
Sometimes the Holy Ghost descends in the bodily shape of events, and how have events been treated by modern men? As wholly secular. If the pulpit so much as referred to them, it would lose its dignity. We have made a special department in life of the treatment of events, and we have taken care that the Church shall have nothing to do with them, the pulpit shall ignore them; whereas these events are divine incarnations, writings of human history, the things that ought to constitute the texts of the pulpit. But the pulpit will not have it so, and therefore the pulpit is becoming effete. We leave events to the newspaper; we leave events to the fireside; we leave events to constitute the investments of liars and persons who act from sinister motives, as well as to persons who do their very honest best to interpret them in their largest and truest sense. But who can instruct the Church? Who can make the Church other than the most grievous, blind, halt, maimed old grandmother? Who can waken up any preacher to read the events of the day? Yet there is God in every one of them; here rebuking, there approving, yonder shaping, and over the whole adjusting, balancing, weighing, and working them out to holy and blessed issues.
Here, then, we come face to face with the perpetual Incarnation, the daily, unceasing descent of the Holy Ghost. Yet we cannot get men to believe these things. They will believe whatever was written two thousand years ago. Man loves antiquity; he loves superstition; he loves the anonymous. That man rightly interprets God who sees him in the precious inspired Scriptures, the beginnings of things, the outline and the symbol of ever-evolutionising history. We might have had a stronger faith if we had been more wise and pious in our treatment of the things that are happening round about us every day.
Descent descending from heaven. The earth needs the heavens. The old earth wants something which it has not got. Its very weeds want to be paradises. Its beginnings are full of pain, and the cry of the earth is, When will it come the light, the morning, the joy? I cannot thus be left alone, I was not meant to be solitary; I am part of something else: where is that something? what is it? when will it come? Oh, nameless Force, descend upon me! Let the heavens withdraw from the earth, and what is it? An ice-heap. Let the heavens come to the earth, and what is it? A garden. Children run out to play in the sunshine, not knowing in words, but feeling in soul, that heaven is come down to make holiday for them. The sun governs all things. As we have often had occasion to say, the sun is your tailor, the sun is your house-builder, the sun spreads your table. You did not know it, but then you did not know God. The earth needs the descending heavens, in warmth, in growth, in comfort. Man needs the descending heavens in sympathy, in special inspirations, in particular and immediate qualification for the discharge of solemn trusts. Sometimes a man may not awaken until the finger of God touches his eyelids. Sometimes, having awakened out of the physical sleep, he shrinks from the age he lives in; it is so crooked, so tortuous, so perverse, so loath to listen to anything of the nature of purity, righteousness, and noble exhortation; and he cannot go out to his duty until the Holy Ghost descends upon him; then he is a thousand legions, then he will never strike his battle-flag until the victory be won.
Some men are more spirit-gifted than others. Some men have hardly begun their manhood. They are dealers of a low type. The true business man is a truly inspired man, just as much so as any prophet, according to the level he lives upon. But some men are mere hucksters; it is give and take. I do not call them business men. I hold that the title "business men" means education, sagacity, statesmanship, power of arrangement and adjustment and government. There are some men who have not begun to be. They have never prayed; they cannot sing. All beauty is wasted upon them; the gilt is gilt, not gold; the colour is a violation of whiteness, a staring challenge to dull eyes; not symbolism, not poetry, blushing before their very sight. They are animals. Never take the clue of your life from them. They will always tell you how not to do a thing; they will chill you like icebergs. Other men have hardly any body; they are all soul, all spirit, all sensitiveness. They feel that a thing is coming; they know it is in the air; they see it in flashes of the face, in kindlings of the eyes; they know it by the tips of the fingers of those who touch them. Man is not one and the same; he requires definition, according to personality and environment. Some men have fire, genius, sight; it is a great gift of God; it is the pledge and seal that the Holy Ghost has descended out of heaven upon them, and that they are approved by the Father, ruling all the household of mankind. We should hail such men; we may not understand what they are talking about, but we feel that they have brought with them fragrance from an upper garden. They may often bewilder us, but we feel that the very bewilderment is part of a higher education; it lifts us up, it never drags us down. Christ was full of the Holy Ghost. In him dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. It was in his cloak. Said one, "If I may but touch the hem of his garment I shall be made whole." It was in Christ's hands. Oh those wondrous hands! We shall one day come to believe more in manual healing. One day the true healing will be in the true touch. There is healing in some hands; they are mother's hands, they bring us nearer to the heart, they talk masonically. Christ's hands have healing in them. "He laid his hands upon him"; and as for the children, he laid his hands upon them and blessed them. It was in his voice. Some men who went to arrest him said, We could not touch that man: never man spake like this man. On another occasion, all the people wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his lips. They were old words, but never so spoken; the words had been written upon the scroll until the ink had become yellow with age; but uttered by Jesus they were new words, syllables of fire, glints of light. We might have more light. Jesus came to give us life, and to give it to us more abundantly, like wave on wave, so that we not only breathe, but fly, and burn, and go upward to meet our kindred in the skies.
Christ's spirit, or genius, or divinity, was in his Beatitudes. He blessed whom none had blessed before. Other men had been blessing riches and honours, crowns and thrones, and glories of many kinds and degrees; but Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, and the meek, and the merciful, and raises them all to heaven. The Deity of Christ was in his welcomes. Were ever such welcomes breathed? Broad as the firmament, generous as the all-inspiring air. Read his welcomes if you would take the measure of his soul. Yet at last he was forsaken. Said he, "My God, my God! why hast thou forsaken me?" That only the body might be killed; that only the flesh might be dishonoured in the final blasphemy. Was he forsaken? Say, is the sun forsaken when for a moment he is eclipsed. Not a beam of him has been shorn. His centre has not been changed. He is still the sun. The eclipse will pass. The sun will abide.
Almighty God, help us to hear all thy truth. Give us the hearing ear, the understanding heart, lest we reject any portion of the counsel of heaven. Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. We want to hear every tone of thy voice. Not one word of thine would we allow to fall to the ground. We want to hear thy commandments. The thunder and the lightning and the great earthquake shall not keep us back from the commandments of God. We want to hear thy beatitude, thou lovely One, fairest among ten thousand, whose voice is music, whose eyes are morning. We would hear the commandments and the beatitude, the great law and the tender benedictions. We would keep company with the prophets and with the minstrels, and with the apostles and with the evangelists. We would hear all their utterances, and treasure them in our hearts as revelations from heaven. Forgive us wherein we have neglected one portion of thy Word, or cultivated one at the expense of another. We have lost the proportion of faith; we have heeded not the balance of thought; we have not known all the way and all the counsel of God. Dost thou not speak in great thunder, and hast thou not also a still small voice? Are not thine the torrents and the cataracts, and are not thine also the rills and the streams that make glad the city of God? The Lord give us fearlessness of soul that we may pursue our quest after truth amid all dangers, difficulties and perils, and when the voice is harsh and terrible may we still listen to it, for in the judgments of God there is no want of music. Find a way for thyself into our hearts; abide in our judgment and in our conscience; accept the sovereignty of our will. These prayers will be prevalent because we baptise them with the blood of atonement. We offer them all at the altar of the Cross, we make them mighty in the name that is above every name, in which name the universe evermore bows its knee before God. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Luke 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13