A sermon by Harry Goodhew
Do you remember the old ‘counting out’ game we played when we were children: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief?
Probably the only trade listed there that might send a young person to consult the internet is “Tinker”: someone who travelled around repairing pots and pans. Not much to be found today in modern societies but in bygone ages very were important.
God greatly blessed the world through one of those callings. John Bunyan, the 17th century Bedfordshire tinker was the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress a book, which at one time, was only outsold by the Bible itself. Out of his own spiritual experiences Bunyan fashioned a tale that has for centuries provided spiritual guidance to millions. He was a master of creating characters and scenes that lodge permanently in one’s imagination. I’d like to share one of those images with you this morning.
On his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City Christian enters the house of the Interpreter who shows him pictures of persons whom he will encounter and who will either assist or impede his progress. One picture which I value (and I give it to you here in Bunyan’s language) is that of “a fire burning against a wall and one standing by it, always casting much water upon it to quench it; yet did the fire burn higher and hotter”
Christian asked to be instructed as to the meaning of this.
The Interpreter replied. “this fire is the work of grace that is wrought in the heart; he that casts water upon it to extinguish and put it out, is the devil: but in that thou seest the fire notwithstanding burn higher and hotter, thou shalt also see the reason for that. So he had him about to the backside of the wall, where he saw a man with a vessel of oil in his hand, of the which he did also continually cast (but secretly) into the fire”
When Christian asked once more what all this meant he was, in effect, given two answers. The first was that Christ, continually, with the oil of his grace maintains the work that he has commenced in the heart regardless of whatever the devil may do. Thus, again using Bunyan’s own words “the souls of his people prove gracious still”
The second answer relates to the fact that Christ stands hidden behind the wall. The Interpreted said, “this is to teach thee, that it is hard for the tempted to see how this work of grace is maintained in the soul”.
The whole story of Pilgrim’s Progress would dispel any notion that Bunyan thought that Christians had no responsibilities for their behaviour on their spiritual pilgrimage through life. But he was thoroughly convinced, and rightly so, that salvation, from start to finish is a work of grace and sheer unmerited mercy flowing freely and alone from the hand of God Almighty.
Let’s consider further this generous and sovereign work of God.
When Jesus talked with the Pharisee Nicodemus he made it abundantly clear to that teacher in Israel that to see the awaited “Kingdom of God” one needed nothing less than to be born from above. The following conversation also makes it clear that this “birth from above” is the work of God’s own Spirit. It is mysterious and it is sovereign. It is like the wind that moves the leaves and branches of a tree. Its comings and goings are mysterious. Humans do not control it. But its effects are obvious: branches sway, leaves move. The conversation then flowed on to the account of the brazen serpent lifted up on a pole in the wilderness for the cure of bitten Israelites. If they looked believingly they were healed. The cure was mysterious and sovereign but it was associated with the need to look at what God had provided. Then Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. Behind the conviction that one needs to look, the desire to look, and the act of looking that brings life, is the breath of God, the Spirit, who imparts life to whomsoever he will.
Like me, you can probably recount incidents of that Divine Spirit breathing His life giving breath in the most unlikely places. One such is Stephen Longu whom we met again recently in Malawi in Africa. At one time the leader of African Enterprise an influential mission agency in Africa and now, in retirement, an occasional evangelist with them, he was once a vicious, angry and murderous young gang leader, who had been abandoned on the streets of an African town by his teenage mother when he was 5 years of age along with a younger brother and baby sister, to care for. Years later, on the verge of committing mass murder that Sovereign Spirit breathed on him and he was changed.
Spiritual life is the life of the Spirit of God in the heart and mind. It is a work of God, and in Bunyan’s picture, it brings with it the never ending supply of grace that maintains God’s child whatever the outward circumstances of life may be. The Interpreter was giving Pilgrim a picture of the source of Christian life, and the power that maintains it in the face of all challenges.
In 1 Corinthians 6:17 St. Paul writes: “But any one united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” An old Christian writer reflecting on these words once wrote:
We, every one of us who believe on the name of the Son of God, are “joined unto Him, one Spirit”. Our contact, our union, our embodiment, is such as to be rightly described in the holy Word by that surprising phrase. And is not light thrown upon the phrase by the remembrance that the Spirit who has given us our Life, who has imparted to us Christ, is indeed the Spirit of Christ, not only in the inner relations of Deity, but in the blessed Incarnation of our glorious Head? He who is Himself thus doubly united to Christ – if I may express it so – can He not indeed with richest and holiest fullness pour into us Christ’s members the power and virtue of our Head? Indeed He can. And we therefore, the favoured members, will bear that fact in wondering and loving memory. We will cherish it in our heart of hearts. We will use it in our hourly life. Having the Spirit, we will remember how fully and truly by the Spirit we possess the Son. And in weakness, in sadness, in temptation, under the burdening (burthening) sense it may be of spiritual decline, we will without delay or misgiving use our wonderful treasure. We will by the Spirit enjoy our possession of the Son, not after the hour of need but in it. With such a Bond to such a Head, why should we for one minute walk in failure? Nay, “when we are weak, then we are strong;” in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11)
Though the language is old in its form, the truth it so expressively unfolds for us is as up to date and relevant as this very moment. Whether a believer lives in the first century or the twenty first century the truth is the same: Christ is our Life by the Spirit. He is by the Spirit your Life and my Life. Let’s rejoice in so rich an endowment.
According to His gracious promise Jesus said he would not leave his followers as orphans when his physical presence was removed. He would send Someone to play the same role as Paraclete, Advocate, and Comforter that he had done while he was with them. He has kept His word and given us His Spirit to be Advocate and Comforter for us. So St. Paul can write to his friends in Galatia and say: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit”. Let us daily and hourly look to the Spirit who lives in us to produce the fruit which he alone can cause to grow, namely “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.” So, let us live and walk by that same Spirit.