Asbury and the longing heart
Wednesday, 22 February 2023 10:47 pm
Revivals have been well documented and studied, notably by Australians such as Stuart Piggin. Reading their work and reflecting upon it, it would seem most unwise to dismiss the idea and concept as a merely human obsession or imagination.
Even apart from, of course, the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, it would be difficult to read the Bible and dismiss revivals or anything similar as some whacky idea of the loony Christian fringe. For instance without even doing a search, my mind goes readily to Nehemiah, chapter 8, many centuries before the first Christian Pentecost as well as the earthly life of Christ himself:
Neh. 8:1 … all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel.
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law …
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground …
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.
… 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month … 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
Is there not a fervour in that report? An enthusiasm, a passion, a heartfelt longing, a patience for God to come in blessing, a hunger for God’s word, a thirst for God’s revelation of himself? And to biblical accounts such as this may be added nearly innumerable accounts of such divine moments through the centuries since Christ. The reports from Asbury, though early days yet, bear enough resemblances to that history that a wise servant of God would at the very least reflect, wonder, and cry out to the Lord.
One of the common grounds for cynicism of such reports is the evident desire or even seeming obsession with the thought of revival. And to be sure, there are those Christians who seem thus consumed. Some of us want revival in the hope of gospel work becoming easy, which might be one conclusion from reading documented recountings. That’s understandable on several levels, if not a little obsessive at times. It’s understandable, let me suggest, because Gospel work is indeed hard. Not least it's taking territory for the Kingdom of God from the kingdom of Satan. And so it has always been hard, be it from state persecution, cultural resistance within (church too slow to adapt) or without (people too satisfied / materialistic / career driven / pleasure seeking), dwindling churches. Reflecting back on three decades of pastoral ministry, I know that exhaustion. In terms from a parable of Jesus, we who serve the Gospel are labourers who have borne the heat of the day (Matt 20:12). It is hard.
And so when we read or hear about times or places of refreshment, with numbers of people touched by God, repenting of sin, worshipping and praying wholeheartedly, staying long into the night, evidencing a new sense of the Father’s graciousness and/or renewed passions for service ... well, who wouldn't feel some combination of envy, discouragement, longing, imagining? Surely, Lord?! Do it in our day, in this place. Such are among the prayers and cries of pastors, in whatever terms or metaphors they variously might use.
For some with such longing in their hearts, revivals on the other side of the globe become like a spiritual gold rush. Some will quite literally sell all they have so they might travel to the 'field' to make their spiritual 'fortune'. I noticed a reference to such a case with Asbury on Facebook just the other day. It likely represents many many others unnoticed to most. One is readily reminded of the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price (Matt 13:44-46). But is Asbury the Kingdom of God? A meeting with Jesus? The end of the disciple’s longings? Probably not. So yes a bit of perspective is much in order. As long as one acknowledges further perspectives, such as that it may be a beginning for some, a strategic rekindling for others.
Then on the other 'side' there are still those who regard all exuberance with suspicion or scepticism, believing it can only distract from ‘the main game’, with froth, bubble and shallowness. Caution is good at times, and such concerns deserve a patient hearing , welcome or not. At the same time though human emotions, planted in us by none less than the Creator himself, have throughout history featured prominently in movements of all kinds, certainly including not only large revivals but many a private moment when nearly any person finds truth, hope and salvation in the gospel of Christ. The revivals of history have been nothing if not times of fervour and passion.
Again others are sceptical if not downright cynical of anything that isn't bearing fruit in evangelism and / or social justice. Afterall, they reason, Christianity is nothing if not a force for changed behaviour in the service of others toward a just and life-giving world in which Christ is known. It's not about us. Are we not blessed to be a blessing? Biblically there surely is something deficient in any movement that claims to be of Christ yet remains seemingly forever focused inward only and never outward. And yet ... yet it remains undeniable that a sound stable and fruitful Christian life is sustained, fed and deepened by times apart from service, for refreshment, renewal and rekindling. Indeed is that not the very path we take in a season such as Lent? Perhaps Lent began just a little early at Asbury this year?
So our prior expectations or assumptions will colour our reactions to this as to any reported public outbreak of spiritual fervour. And such is evidently the case here and now. Responses and commentary on Asbury have varied widely, even in these first days and weeks. From joy in answered prayer welcoming a move of God's Spirit, to shaking heads and "knowing" eye-rolling glances. From "Hallelujah" to "oh not again". From renewed divine love to another round of scepticism. And it was ever thus.
Might I suggest some guidelines at least? Wherever one may stand, humility is surely the right posture. Before God, before people, before the world. Beside this sits patience and a waiting spirit. Time may not be the only thing that "tells", but disciples must learn that God's Spirit is rarely in a hurry, whether to revive, chastise, reveal, expose or correct. Is this the next time of Heaven's refreshing? Or is it the latest quasi-spiritual fad? Cliched I know, but time indeed will tell. As we wait, watch, listen, guiding thoughts might include these:
- The history of revival reveals both telling patterns (some observed at Asbury) and also distinctive forms or themes, of the place, the moment, the time;
- Documented revivals have ranged from country or continent wide to isolated villages or even streets, from months or years in duration (though rarely if ever more than a generation) to just days or weeks, from high profile to known only to the immediate few, from the 'usual suspect' locations to the Australian outback or the Arctic.
- There are reasons to hope this is a work of God. But it may not prove so. The more we long for and seek revival the more the risk our longings become human-centred. How so? Here are some possibilities:
- It has been said that "you can't whip up a revival, you can only pray it down". That thought has come to me often and history bears it out. But yet either whipping up or praying down may risk becoming 'transactional' (a human formula to control God)
- When longing for something one is heavily invested in, it's tempting to claim it prematurely. e.g. By listing "the marks of true revival" and ticking boxes hopefully.
- Those of us who emphasise observable fruit of whatever kind may be at risk of something loosely akin to salvation by works; where spiritual renewal in the Father's love becomes optional and only human striving essential.
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” ... They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
(Acts 1:7,8,14 NIV11-GK)