Oi! Come, get your needs met!

Christopher Seaman, 9 May 2021

Isaiah 55: 1–11; Acts 10: 44–48; John 15: 9–17

‘Ho!’ cries the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading today. ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts.’ It’s a dramatic start, isn’t it? ‘Ho’ is a call to attention; we would probably say, ‘Hey!’

I wanted to know what the word was in the original Hebrew, so I got online and I heard a rabbi reading it in the original Hebrew, which started, ‘Oi!’ – which I think’s a lot better than either ‘Ho’ or ‘Hey’. It’s a call to attention.

Now I wonder why Isaiah began like this. Well, picture this for a minute, the scene. You’re in the High Street in Winchester, it’s quite busy, not too busy, and you think, ‘I’ll just check my smartphone for any headlines. And you take a quick look and the headlines say: ‘Covid Totally Eliminated Worldwide’. Yeah, right. Then you see a friend in the distance. ‘Hey’, you shout, ‘Have you heard the good news?’

So the voice of the prophet Isaiah calls out to us down the centuries, down the millennia, reaching us today with good news: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come!’ Thirst. The idea of thirst, not just in the Bible but in poems and all kinds of things, is used to describe needs that have not been met, unmet needs. ‘My soul is thirsty for God’, wrote the Psalmist.

Well, since all these lockdowns, we’ve all been painfully conscious of unmet needs. We can’t go and see friends and family. We can’t have people in the house. We can’t hug people. We can’t experience Church in the way we used to. The list goes on. But you know, even without lockdowns, we all have unmet needs anyway. Some of them are visible and public: a bereavement, a big illness, the loss of a job. Then there are those more private needs that only our closest family and friends know about. Then there are the needs that only we ourselves know about, the ones we never tell to anybody ever. Then there are the unmet needs that we don’t even know about ourselves, even with the help of the best psychiatrist in Harley Street. But God knows them. Isaiah believed that, or he wouldn’t have said, ‘Ho! Come, get your needs met here.’

Then Isaiah goes on. He says something I find slightly uncomfortable; I don’t know whether you will, probably not: ‘Why do you labour for that which does not satisfy?’ he asks. I expect we’re all very familiar with the picture of the ‘God-gap’, the ‘God-hole’. We all have a ‘God-gap’ in ourselves that only God can fill, an empty part of ourselves. It’s God-shaped, only God can fill it. But we all keep trying to fill it with other things: work, hobbies, family, people, sport, music (I’ve shoved all nine Beethoven symphonies in there several times) – all good and wonderful things in themselves, but they’re not God-shaped. They don’t quite do the trick.

But ‘Ho!’ cries the prophet Isaiah, ‘Come and get your needs met’. Do words and promises like this sometimes seem to mock us? ‘I’ve tried, I’ve really tried hard’, we may say. We all have our own story, our own journey, maybe our own dark places. Some of us may even feel that we’re stuck in a vicious circle of prayer not being answered – a real ‘spiritual lockdown’. Some, like one or two of my friends, may not even quite be so sure what they believe any more. But, surely, there must be some way forward for us, a clue somewhere to find our way out of a spiritual lockdown.

Well, as it so happens, both our other scripture readings could give us a clue, a possible route for slowly emerging from our own spiritual lockdown. The dramatic story in Acts which we heard earlier tells how a Gentile group in Caesarea had a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, changing their lives and filling them with great joy. Why? Because God the Holy Spirit is definitely ‘God-shaped’, and would have fitted their God-shaped gap perfectly.

Some people would say that God had to do dramatic things like that to get the Church started, but once the engine of the Church was ticking over nicely it didn’t need a starter-motor any more, so we can’t expect much from the Holy Spirit nowadays, can we? Well, I think that’s nonsense. From what Jesus said, and from the experience of many Christians, some known to us, the Holy Spirit is very definitely active in the world today, in big ways and in small ways.

We all remember the parable that Jesus told about the child asking his father for bread and not being given a stone. Then Jesus went on and said, ‘How much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’ And I sometimes wonder what would happen in a church if every one of its members prayed for the Holy Spirit every day. It’d only take a few seconds, and Jesus does encourage us to do it. Well, maybe we’ll see, who knows?

And then, there’s another clue for a possible way forward out of a spiritual lockdown, and it comes in our gospel reading. Jesus said, ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete’. (Whenever I hear the word ‘joy’ I think of an ancient vicar I saw getting up into the pulpit, with a miserable expression on his face. Poor chap, he had a face like a coffin. And he got up and he said, in a very slow and depressed way, ‘Today I’m going to speak to you about Christian joy’.) If you asked people what was the purpose, the aim of Christ’s teaching, what he was aiming at, many would say, ‘To help us become better people’. Well of course there’s a great deal of truth in that, but it’s not what Jesus is saying here in the gospel reading. He’s saying that the purpose of his teaching is to give us joy. And at the heart of his teaching is the commandment ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’.

So it may be that if we pray for the Holy Spirit every day, however briefly, we may find it easier to reach out to other people, or find new ways of being more Christ-like towards them. As I keep saying, who knows? But I do know that many of my friends have found that one way out of a spiritual lockdown has something to do with other people and what we may be able to do for them.

Many of my friends have found that one way out of a spiritual lockdown has something to do with other people and what we may be able to do for them.

And if we try to do that, maybe we will be answering the call of Isaiah, echoing to us down the centuries and down the millennia, reaching us today: ‘Come, oi, come! This is how you get your needs met!’

So let me finish with part of the beautiful prayer of St Francis of Assisi:

O Divine Master,
grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.