Notes from the sermon by Graeme Hay 8th September 2019
Creation Season part 2:Air
Creation: Fearfully and wonderfully made Air and Breathe
Today is the second in our four-part series on Creation: Fearfully and wonderfully made and I am considering Air, or more particularly Breathe. We’ll look briefly at what and why we need air and breath but I want us then to consider God’s breath and Spirit and how or if we need that.
What is Air? I can’t see it, touch or feel it, but I know it’s all around me and without Air I would die. Technically it is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide and about 0.03% other gases. Air’s value to us is that we need to breathe it in order to live. When we breathe our diaphragm lowers, our chest cavity expands and our lungs take in air: but our bodies only really need the oxygen which is absorbed into our blood, and carbon dioxide is expelled when we breathe out. Breathing is a reflex action which our bodies perform naturally and without us having to think about or tell our brain to do. But we can override the system and actively manage our breathing.
For example let us all (who can or would like to take part) see who can hold their breath the longest: i.e. who has the biggest breathe! When I say so I’d like you to stand then take a deep breath and hold it for as long as possible: when you can’t hold your breath any longer please sit down (i.e. don’t collapse) and the last person standing, literally will have the biggest breathe.
Now let’s have a go at slowing our breath to reduce our breathing rate. This time we’ll take a big breath and exhale it as slowly as possible: it may help to gently whistle as you exhale or to imagine you have an eyelash on the end of your finger and you’re trying to blow it off.
Now another aspect of Air is Wind. You cannot actually see ‘Wind’ but you can certainly see its effect and outcome. When I was preparing this talk the sun was shining and I thought it would be lovely to sit on my balcony and enjoy the sun’s warmth. But it was windy and as soon as I sat down my papers and books where blowing around out of my control and I had to go back inside. More dramatically did you see the pictures of the effect of hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas this week?
The Bible sometimes uses the image that God’s Spirit is like breath or wind in order to help us understand some aspects of what God is like, how God works, who God is.
“Ruach” is the Hebrew word the Jewish Bible uses for ‘wind’ or ‘breath’. It is not just the actual physical thing but more significantly the POWER encountered in the breath or wind: this power is seen as motion and action or the ability to set other things into action. “Ruach” is used to describe the power of God’s action in the world: so the power of God in creation in Genesis as ‘God moved over the face of the waters’; or the power of God at specific times such as in Luke when the angel Gabriel visited Mary ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you’.
In the biblical account of creation ( which I believe is meant to give spiritual meaning and not be a literal record) in Genesis 2v7 we read “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”. God the Creator is our source and the sustaining power of our world and lives.
I was able to be present when each of my parents at different times in hospitals took their last breath and died. On each occasion their medical care was superb, but their bodies were worn out and I was alongside them as their physical strength failed, their breathing slowed, then stopped. Their physical bodies were still and their souls were at rest.
I was also privileged to be at the births of both my children: when the babies emerged into the world and took their first gasping breaths and amazingly their bodies started moving and each of their fabulous lives truly started.
The idea of God breathing creation into being is recorded more poetically in Psalm 33v6 “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of God’s mouth.” The psalm continues to suggest our rightful response to God’s power, verse 8 “Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the people of the world revere God.”
In the more philosophical narrative of Job , when Job has been beset by horrendous calamities, in reply to his friend Zophar’s explanation of why these events occurred, Job himself is able to offer an understanding Job 12v10 “In God’s hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all humankind.” Whether in good times or bad times God gives us breath and we can see our lives as ‘being in God’s hand’ not necessarily to prevent harm happening but surely to be with us in our difficulties and offering support and comfort.
We are given a different image of God breathing life into worn, dried-out bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the valley of dry bones. In the prophecy Ezekiel was shown a valley which was covered with dry lifeless bones and asked if the bones could be made to live. Ezekiel 37v5-6 “This is what the Sovereign LORD says ( to the dried-out bones): I will make breath enter you and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
We are given a reason why God has created us, his amazing people, called to follow the way of Jesus, in Isaiah’s prophecy and the well-known passage about the Suffering Servant, which we take to be a foretelling of the life and ministry of Jesus. Isaiah42v1 “Here is my servant whom I uphold, I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations….He will not shout or cry out…A bruised reed he will not break…He will not falter or be discouraged til he establish justice on earth.” Isaiah42v5-6 continues “This is what God the LORD says-God who created the heavens who gives breathe to its people… I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness: I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those that sit in darkness.” Notice that in these few verses we see reference to God the Spirit being both a presence (upon the Servant) and an enabling force (upon the people).
So what is different about breathing air (which everyone does) and receiving God’s breath or Spirit? Is this something I can do? Is it reserved only for ‘special people’? Is it real and for now?
In John’s gospel Nicodemus, a religious man who knew the ancient Hebrew texts and was following God’s rules, came to Jesus questioning the new things God was doing through Jesus and what this new kingdom Jesus was showing was about. In reply Jesus said John3v8-16 (parts) “The Spirit gives birth to spirit…You must be born again. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit…For God so loved the world that God gave the one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God doesn’t force people to receive his Spirit we need to choose to open our lives and let God work in our lives so that by the breath of God’s Spirit we grow in God’s grace.
This leads us nicely to today’s gospel reading. We are right at the point of Jesus resurrection, the stunned disciples, still in fear of their lives, are cowering in an upper room and the risen Jesus is with them . Overjoyed with his presence Jesus shares his peace with them and then empowers them with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit; John20v21 “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. With that Jesus breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” God offers us a new, special presence to help us live more loving caring lives as we follow the example of Jesus life; to grow in God’s peace and share our experience with others.
What is Air? I can’t see it, touch or feel it, but I know it’s all around me and without Air I would die. Now another aspect of Air is Wind. You cannot actually see ‘Wind’ but you can certainly see its effect and outcome. So it is with God’s Spirit or breath. We can’t see it, we can’t usually feel it physically, but wow as a Christian do I need God’s Spirit or presence with me to help me to live as I’d like to.
AS Jesus promised to his disciples in that upper room after his resurrection, we are able to receive the Holy Spirit, and we need the Holy Spirit to empower us to live loving, caring lives and to share the Good News of God’s continuing presence that is still with us today with others around us.
Not just so we here at church can be blessed, but so that others near us and around us can be blessed too. Remember the promise from Isaiah’s prophecy? “… I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness: I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those that sit in darkness.”
As we receive God’s Holy Spirit we should expect to develop and demonstrate some of God’s good qualities in our lives. In the Bible some of those qualities are described as “fruits of the Spirit”. Do you remember Heston’s challenge to Kid’s Church last week? Can anyone tell me some or all of those fruits? Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Wow would I like more of those qualities in my life!
So we’ve had a whirlwind tour through the Bible and looked at various images describing God’s action in creating and empowering by the Spirit’s breath: in Genesis breathing new life into being; in Job giving breath and holding us in his hand; in Ezekiel breathing and giving new life to old dried-out bones; in Isaiah Spirit anointing and empowering; and in John’s gospel Spirit giving us new life to receive a spiritual birth and the resurrection Spirit breathing life into us to share Jesus Good News with others.
We probably spend most of our days (and nearly all of our nights) not being aware or controlling our breathing. It’s regular, natural and normal. But there are times (maybe under pressure or stress) when we are very aware of our breath and the air we need. Eg as we’re gasping for breath after we’ve walked upstairs, or run for a bus: or when we’re anxious and tell ourselves “BREATHE”.
If you’re like me you probably spend most of your time unaware of God beside us in our daily lives, alongside us in the nitty gritty of daily routine. But we might remember to send up an arrow prayer for help when a friend asks, or when we face a difficult situation. When we take time to read God’s word, the Bible, and when we come to church to share in communion and fellowship with others we soak in God’s presenceand breathe more deeply of the Spirit among us.
As I close we are going to spend a short time together with an opportunity to actively manage our breathing and invite God, by the Holy Spirit to be among us and enable us to rest in God’s presence and receive again from the Holy Spirit. We’ll be quiet in prayer as I will simply ask God to grace us with his presence.
Let us pray. As we pray allow God by the Spirit to come and grace us with gifts of the Spirit.
Holy Spirit breathe LOVE on us, take away dislike and scorn.
Holy Spirit breathe JOY on us, take away despair and sorrow.
Holy Spirit breathe PEACE on us, take away conflict and strife.
Holy Spirit breathe PATIENCE on us, take away irritation and exasperation.
Holy Spirit breath GOODNESS on us, take away badness and corruption.
Holy Spirit breathe KINDNESS on us, take away cruelty and cold-heartedness.
Holy Spirit breathe FAITHFULNESS on us, take away deceit and hypocrisy.
Holy Spirit breathe GENTLENESS on us, take away harshness and anger.
Holy Spirit breathe SELF-CONTROL on us, take away thoughtlessness and rashness.
Holy Spirit as we rest in your presence grace us with your gifts.
Pause for time to rest and receive from Holy Spirit.