Great Spirit, Wild Goose of the Almighty
Today is Pentecost: the day we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit, appearing as flames, onto the disciples. Here is the sermon given by me, the Licensed Worship Leader at ChristChurc, at our online service.
When we were packing up to move to France we tried to be as organised as possible, putting things into boxes marked “Kitchen”, “Study”, “Bedroom 1” etc. This meant that when we arrived, the removal men would put the boxes into the correct rooms and thus unpacking would be so much easier. Of course, this system only works if 1) the removal men looked at the labels on the boxes and 2) if they agreed with us on which room was, for example, “Bedroom 1”. Which, we discovered as we found clothes in the kitchen and mugs in the bathroom, they either 1) didn’t, or 2) didn’t!
As human beings we love to categorise, to organise, to file things away, because if we can categorise something we feel that we have it under control. If we can label our belongings “Bedroom 1” or whatever, then things feel clearer. If we know what it is, we know where it belongs. There. It is what it is. I understand it. It is where I want it, it will behave how I expect it to.
And we try to do this with God. We try to label him so we can understand him – and there’s my first mistake. I’m using the masculine pronoun – because: why? I suppose because we have to choose one or the other, as it seems rude to refer to God as “it”! Some priests I know will alternate between the feminine and the masculine pronoun (but I think that just gets confusing!), others use “she” to be deliberately thought provoking and challenging. I use “he” because most other people do – but in so doing, am I already limiting my mind to thinking about God in one particular way?
Maybe we try to label God because in this way we can, in some measure, feel we can “control” him. If we call him “Father” then this tells us that God is like this, and not like that… But the problem lies that for others “Father” can have a completely different nuance, which tells them that he is like that, but not like this. The Early Christian fathers struggled with this problem. As they tried to put into words the beliefs of the early church, they also struggled to describe the triune nature of God – the Creator, the Saviour and the Comforter.
As time went by, every generation tried to find a way that spoke to them about the nature of God, and we too feel the need to try to find ways to label God – Father, Mother, Creator, Provider, Sanctifier…then we have to add Jesus to the mix: Shepherd, the gate, our brother, Saviour, Lamb of God, the way, the light…And then comes the Holy Spirit – the most dynamic of all, that side of God which cannot be pinned down… But still we try to do it, we say the Holy Spirit is like this or this…. To say “There. I understand God” But, of course, we only understand God from our perspective of what the image means to us, and this can – and does – lead to misunderstandings, and schisms as different factions say “He is like this” and others say, “No, he is like this”.
The futility of this is never clearer than if we look at the dichotomy between two images widely used to represent the Holy Spirit: the peaceful dove and the burning fire. One representing something which you could hold, trembling and soft in your hands, the other something which is never static, always moving, and dangerous to try to touch. What does this tell us about the nature of the Spirit?!
It all becomes a bit of a wild goose chase.
And there I pause, having chosen my words carefully.
A wild goose chase.
You see, the early Celtic Christians living in the wilds of Scotland, and Ireland, they understood the Spirit to be like a wild goose. Not for them a gentle cooing dove, predictable and soft. No, the Spirit was a glorious wild goose: dynamic, free, and utterly, utterly uncontrollable. They would see these geese flying overhead, riding the wind, with a raucous noise that called to the spirit within them, and they saw the Holy Spirit of God.
As one commentator writes: Wild geese are, well, wild. That is, untamed, uncontrolled. They make a lot of noise, and have a habit of biting those who try to contain or capture them. That has been the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit through two thousand years.
Time and again when theology and God have appeared to be firmly in the control of hierarchies and religious establishment, the Spirit of God has broken free – and has often bitten those who tried to prevent it happening."
The Holy Spirit is a dynamic force, teaching us again and again that God is not to be kept, labelled, put in a box and only brought out on Sunday. No, he is moving, he is calling, he is leading us forward. The Spirit surprises us and disturbs our plans.
Earlier, I used the phrase “a wild goose chase” – an expression which means a search for something unattainable, or a pointless quest for something that does not exist. Yet, if the Holy Spirit is the Wild Goose that we are following…well, then everything changes. We are no longer looking for something unattainable, but instead we are being led further onwards, stretching ourselves to do things that we never dreamed we could, to be people that we never imagined we could be. Things that seem foolish to us become wise in the sight of God Almighty as we trade worldly security for radical obedience, judgment for mercy, and our life for His life.
To ride the wind with the Wild Goose is to embark on an adventure within the upside-down Kingdom of Heaven that will lead us to unexpected and undreamed of places . We see this in the reading from Acts, as those disciples who had been confused and lost, became men and women of strength and courage; we see it in the reading from Corinthians where we are promised that the Spirit will bestow gifts on us, on the Church, that will give us the means to leap and dance forward along the path God has set before us, ever challenged, but supported, and loved, and led forward.
I recently read a book, a little in the genre of Dan Brown, where there is a discovery that is going to “rock the Church to its roots”. It was a little predictable, but I felt the author had some understanding of how radical Jesus’s teachings were, when he wrote “Jesus challenged the comfortable, and comforted the challenged”.
It is the same today: We are the comfortable who are challenged, challenged to go out and be filled with the Spirit, to love justice and mercy, to walk with God. But we are also the comforted – because the Spirit is also the Comforter, the strengthener, the bringer of peace. Like C. S. Lewis’s Aslan, the Goose is good, but He is not safe, and if you’re a Christ follower, He lives inside you and remains famously intolerant of a world where love and mercy are lacking and oppression and hatred are the status quo.
In a moment I’m going to end this sermon with a piece of music, taken from an album called “The Snow Goose”. The album was inspired by the novella of the same name, written by Paul Gallico, a beautiful, heart rending story of how a recluse who had shut himself away from all human contact, learned what it is to love, and to sacrifice for the good of others. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. The piece of music I’m going to play tells of the last flight of the snow goose before it flies into the maelstrom. It is a piece that draws us forward, into a yearning to say Yes, I will go where you lead me.
It is a piece that tells us that Jesus didn’t redeem us and send the Holy Spirit to us just to lead us gingerly on the path of safety, but to have this beautiful, Wild One lead us boldly striding in the way of brave. Like a wild and unpredictable goose, the Holy Spirit sweeps in unexpected, astonishing directions.
Are you with him, my brothers and sisters? Are you ready to let God out of the box that we try to squeeze him into, and instead to let him lead, inspire, and take you into the wild, joyful and surprising life that he has for you?
As you listen, there will be images and words – I hope that they are words that will enable you to joyfully join the Wild Goose, the Spirit of God, as he burns into our hearts and to offer yourself to the glorious adventure that lies ahead.
Great Spirit, Wild Goose of the Almighty Be my eye in the dark places; Be my flight in the trapped places; Be my host in the wild places; Be my brood in the barren places; Be my formation in the lost places.