I’ve been reading lots of stories on social media this week about how gyms across the country will this week put away all the extra equipment they’ve had out for the past two weeks as people’s New Year’s resolutions to get fit pretty abruptly fall by the wayside. The rhetoric surrounding New Year’s resolutions is the idea of ‘new year, new me,’ it’s a desire for transformation. But what we often find is that changing is hard.
I don’t know if any of you made New Year’s resolutions and if so, how well they’re going thus far, but as we begin a new series in our morning services, exploring the glimpses of the living God in the early life of Jesus, this offers us the opportunity to reflect on what habits and spiritual disciplines we might want or need to cultivate that can help us to encounter God every day.
If you want to know what a lifetime of spiritual discipline looks like, Simeon and Anna are a good place to start. They are remarkable for being unremarkable; two ordinary people through whom God revealed the extraordinary; they both get their first glimpse of the living God in the flesh and both speak out about how this child before them will bring about the salvation of the world. They are two people just like us who dedicated their lives to God and who exercised spiritual discipline in response to divine encounter, which led to continued divine encounter. That’s not to say their example isn’t intimidating! We read in verse 37 how Anna never left the temple, but prayed and fasted day and night. That’s a pretty serious commitment.
You may remember that a few months ago I made a pretty big commitment of my own. I joined the Community of St Anselm, which is a modern monastic-style community based at Lambeth Palace, led by Archbishop Justin Welby. One of the main elements to the community is having to follow a Rule of Life which contains no fewer than fifteen parts to it, in fact there are so many parts to it that I cannot remember what they all are off the top of my head. But one of the aspects to the Rule of Life is about welcoming the work of the Holy Spirit within us. It states:
We acknowledge that God calls us holy though our experience says we are not. In humility we say our ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ and choose to act in obedience to Him whose Word changes our reality.
Transformation without the help of the Holy Spirit and his sanctifying work in us is futile. It’s God who brings about lasting change within us. The impressive spiritual discipline shown by Simeon and Anna is not of their own making but is the work of the Holy Spirit in them, drawing them into deeper intimacy with God so that they are more familiar with his voice and his presence and so can respond faithfully to him. If we want to go deeper in our relationship with God, the first thing is to be filled; to give our ‘yes’ to God and allow him to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that he might begin that sanctifying and transformative work in us. Your past isn’t going to count against you. God offers each and every one of us the opportunity to be filled.
It is from that place of being filled by the Holy Spirit, that Simeon and Anna live lives of worship. For Anna, we see it in the discipline of her unceasing worship in the temple; for Simeon, we see it in his trusting in the promise that he will see the Messiah thus keeping close to God so that he is ready and willing to respond to the Spirit’s prompting.
Their exercise of spiritual discipline is quite different from how we might perceive spiritual discipline. The word discipline doesn’t necessarily conjure up the most positive of images. One of the reasons why I wanted to join St Anselm was because I thought it would be spiritual boot camp. I thought the best thing for my spiritual life would be to have a restrictive experience where my incessantly chatty inner monologue and easily distracted mind could be squashed under the weight of a Rule of Life which made anything other than prayer impossible. Then, and only then, would I learn to pray properly and graduate from being a Christian Level One and finally progress onto Level Two.
The problem is, I found the exact opposite. When you try to cultivate spiritual discipline without being filled with the Holy Spirit, your discipline is dependent on yourself. But this isn’t the motivation of Simeon and Anna’s disciplined lives. When you are filled with the Holy Spirit, spiritual discipline is not about restriction but about freedom. The Rule of Life we community members try to follow is not there for us to measure ourselves against and to see our shortcomings. Rather, the Rule of Life opens up ways for us to encounter the living God and in drawing near to him, we find mercy not punishment, we find the God who wants us to be free to worship him without fear. We need to be filled so that in our spiritual discipline we can be free to worship the living God rather than punish ourselves with our self-imposed restrictions.
Without this freedom, the Christian life is more of a slog– and it is a bit of a slog sometimes. Simeon is given a promise for which he has to wait an awfully long time. In a time and place where wannabe messiahs roamed the land promising everything and delivering nothing, Simeon waits on the Lord. And then, finally, it happens, something stirs his insides and this is it! The Messiah he’s been promised he will see has arrived. He races to the temple and – oh, it’s a baby. If I was Simeon and I had been promised that I would see the Messiah, I’d probably be expecting I’d get to see the Messiah being, y’know, Messiah-y. And yet God honours his promise to Simeon in a much more amazing way as he gets a glimpse of the salvation of all nations. When we are able to be free in our discipline it allows us to set aside our expectations of what we think God should do and, instead, we become open to God’s unexpected glimpses, which are always far more incredible than anything we could ever have expected.
It’s not easy. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes life is bitterly disappointing. Imagine Anna, in a culture where women were raised to be wives and mothers, she gets married, her life trajectory seems set, and then it’s gone. But she keeps going, she keeps pursuing intimacy with God because she is free to worship, and that’s how you keep going with spiritual discipline when times are hard or mundane or busy. It’s a response to the God who is unchanging rather than being dependent on how you’re feeling that day. When we make spiritual discipline dependent on restricting ourselves to a standard we’ve imposed rather than a response to God, we lose the constancy spiritual discipline gives us to get through whatever life throws at us.
As part of St Anselm, I have to wear this cross. It was very strange putting it on for the first few weeks but now it’s a habit. If I forget it, I notice it; but what I don’t notice is how often I grab hold of it throughout the day and how the feel of it in my hand reminds me that God is with me. Spiritual discipline enables us to encounter the unchanging God and we don’t experience that through restriction, but through freedom. We need to be filled and we need to be free.
And finally, we need to remember that we are forgiven. Let’s hear those great words of Simeon’s song again:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.
I love this passage in Luke’s Gospel which, for me, is one of the best passages throughout scripture. The glimpse of the living God we see is the God who has saved us. And there is no salvation for us without the forgiveness of our sins. And this revelation of God affirms that in the most wonderful way. Because here is God as a tiny baby, fragile and vulnerable, which resonates perfectly with our own fragility as human beings. When it comes to spiritual discipline, we will mess up, we will make mistakes. But we are forgiven. When we fall short, God doesn’t flounce off in disgust, instead he offers us his forgiveness. What we need to do is accept it for the gift of grace that it is and allow ourselves to be forgiven.
It’s counter-intuitive but sometimes we like to hold onto our guilt and our shame because maybe we don’t feel like God has ever truly forgiven us. Or maybe we’ve been holding onto those things for so long that we don’t know who we are without them. Maybe we hold onto them because we feel we deserve punishment rather than mercy.
But look at this glimpse of God seen here as a baby presented in the temple. This is a God who knows, a God who understands, this is a God who gets what it’s like to feel pain, and this is a God who loves you without condition, who wants you to draw near to him and encounter him day after day after day. This is a God who has revealed himself to you because he longs for a relationship with you. He has forgiven you, so allow yourself to be forgiven, show yourself the same mercy he has shown you.
Let’s be filled by the Holy Spirit so that we may be transformed; let’s be free in our spiritual discipline so that it comes from a place of worship rather than restriction; and let’s every day choose to be forgiven and so live each day with the living God who loves us and shows us his mercy. Be filled. Be free. Be forgiven.