I once met a Muslim who asked me that question, “Do Christians believe in God?” The reason he asked this question was because the Christians he’d met were ones who only spoke about Jesus, and when they used the word ‘Lord’ it seemed to him they were talking about Jesus only.
Do we have to believe in God to be a Christian? Well, of course we do! It’s at the heart of our faith – Jesus himself said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” You can’t do that, without believing in God, can you? But I wonder, do some of us believe in him without actually knowing or experiencing him? If we’re to know God in, or through, Christ, we have to experience him as, Jesus did, in the down to earth, everyday, business of life.
If you agree with me, then nothing should interest us as Christians more than the religious experience of Jesus. Let’s forget for a moment what he taught and did, but focus on what happened to him, on his experience.
In seven verses (9-15) of the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark pares everything down to give us a powerful story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among us. In those verses he describes events which, are reflected in the experience, the lives, of every one of us, the highs, lows and the humdrum.
There’s the glorious ‘high’ of his baptism in the Jordan, with the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and when he heard the voice of God his Father affirming him in his love.
Can you picture that scene? Can you imagine the joy that must have shown in his face. Presumably his religious experience before his baptism by John must have been relatively normal, but now he was at a phenomenally significant turning point.
Have you ever been to a baptism, when something a little different happens. When God seemed to be there in a special way? Yes, I know, it could be just a psychological reaction on the part of the person being baptised or someone in the baptism party– though what’s wrong with that? But it might be something deeper, what is called a theophany – God showing himself to a human being – mightn’t it? If God is God, and he loves his children, why shouldn’t we accept the possibility of a specially chosen close encounter with him?
Aren’t such ‘highs’ part and parcel of our ongoing experience as we grow in the Christian life? We should thank God for those glimpses, those mountain-top experiences, those wonderful answers to prayer.
But then, after that high came a dreadful ‘low’ – quite literally a desert experience. The idea of God meeting his people in the wilderness runs like a thread through the Old Testament: there’s Moses, awestruck at the burning bush; Israel dwarfed by the desert vastness of Sinai; dejected Elijah, too, at the ‘mountain of God’. Jesus’ desert experience was, quite explicitly, an experience of Satan, the enemy of God, a time of testing and temptation. And it wasn’t just a brief skirmish; it lasted nearly six weeks. Imagine that! Six weeks is a long time, as any parent knows in the summer holidays! I don’t think that the word torment is an exaggeration for this experience of Jesus.
In preparing people for their baptism, or their child’s, it’s essential to warn them that a spiritual ‘downer’ may happen afterwards. No ‘high’ can last for ever. We teach that the Christian life is an ongoing battle, and that the power of evil is a constant reality. And we need to remember that it was the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism who then “drove him out into the wilderness.” The low times in our spiritual lives aren’t signs that God has gone away and abandoned us. For reasons he alone knows, he sees fit to put us through the mangle – to parallel Jesus’ experience. Yes, it can be wonderful to experience the reality of God in our lives, but it doesn’t always seem that way!
We have the highs, the lows and then we come to what I called the humdrum, a return to normality “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In a word, he got on with the job his Father had given him to do, proclaiming God’s kingdom and gathering followers. The high had been enjoyed; the low had been endured; now it was time for the steady task of service.
As it was for Jesus, God calls his people, us, to work, and we shouldn’t let the highs or lows distract us from that basic fact. Anyone who suggests that the living of our Christian lives should be at a constantly high-octane intensity or excitement, has blinded themselves to both scripture and experience.
After his time in the wilderness, Jesus, this time in the words of Luke, “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The Spirit again! The same Spirit who filled Jesus with exultation at his baptism – the same Spirit who drove him out into the desert – that same Spirit now empowered him for his day to day ministry.
The message couldn’t be clearer. Don’t delight in God only in the highs, when the Spirit is so excitingly obvious. Don’t cry out to God only in the lows, when the Spirit seems depressingly absent. No, expect him to be there also in the ordinary business of life, equipping, guiding, and enabling by the same Spirit. The experience of God can be quite routine. If our spiritual antennae were really sensitive we’d be able to receive this message every waking day, every hour, every minute. “Seven whole days, not one in seven.” Yes, Christians do believe in God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.