John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
If you’re waiting for a baby to be born it’s very hard to imagine what he or she will look like when the time comes and you finally get to hold them in your arms. That’s part of the miracle of parenthood; getting to hold a tiny, fully formed human being who, a few minutes before, it was impossible to picture in any but the vaguest and most general way.
Before Matthew was born we were invited to attend the 12 week scan at the hospital. ‘Bring your older children with you,’ the midwife advised, ‘They will love being able to see the baby inside you. It will help them to relate better to what’s going to happen because the baby will seem more real to them.’
So we all went along, expecting to see a clear picture on the monitor of Matthew lying inside Helen’s womb. But no such luck. We were living in Wigan at the time, and the hospital seemed to be operating with secondhand ultrasound equipment passed down by a hospital that had now got more up-to-date kit. The monitor was black and white, and extremely fuzzy and none of us could make out anything at all.
‘Look! That’s the baby’s head,’ said the radiographer, pointing to an indistinct blob. But none of us were convinced.
In contrast, when our daughter Jenny went to have her 12 week scan for Erin, my elder granddaughter, the picture was so sharp and clear that we could even count the fingers when she posted the photograph of the scan on Facebook. Admittedly Erin looked more like a miniature version of The Jolly Roger, but everyone could see that there was definitely a baby growing inside Jenny and that she had arms and legs, and so on, and was apparently sucking he thumb.
We no longer have to wait until the mother is groaning in labour pains before we get to see who’s coming. Mothers and fathers still have to hope the baby will be all right, but in these days of scans and tests we can see the baby before he or she arrives and, as Paul remarks, ‘hope that is seen is not hope’.
Nonetheless, in Paul’s day the analogy held good. An expectant mother was someone who was hoping everything would be all right. Likewise, says Paul, the Spirit helps us where imagination fails. When we can’t put our most deeply felt prayers into words, the Spirit intercedes for us. Perhaps the sighs of the Spirit here are not just an echo of the groans of a woman in labour but also a reference to speaking in tongues. Be that as it may, when we can’t even give any shape to our unconscious fears and aspirations, the Spirit searches our hearts and knows what we are feeling. We, and indeed the whole of creation, have not yet become what we are intended to be because we are still waiting to realise our true potential when we are adopted into God’s being, presumably beyond death or at the end of time, but in the meantime the Spirit is there to help us.
When we think of the Spirit as an advocate, I guess we usually think - like St Paul - of the Spirit advocating our cause before God. As we saw in the dramatic reading earlier, the word ‘advocate’ suggests that the Spirit might be like a defence lawyer pleading for a suspended sentence, or a fundraiser advocating a project to a charitable trust and trying to get a big grant to keep it going in hard times, or a passionate campaigner promoting something close to their heart, like peace or justice or an end to hunting baby seals.
But John thinks of the Advocate coming to us from God to keep us in touch with Jesus, to keep reminding us of his call to us in the way that Jesus was able to do himself when he met people during his earthly life. It’s a bit like having a voice in our head constantly saying to us, ‘What would Jesus want me to do?’ So, it is the Spirit of Jesus at least in the sense that it pleads his cause. The Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak the words that Jesus would want it to say to us.
But the Spirit does not come to advocate for Jesus so that we will have a nice warm feeling inside or know what to do when we’re in a tight corner. It comes to give us the words to say when we testify for him in a hostile and alien world.
The coming of the Spirit confirms three truths which Jesus says we might not otherwise have understood: that sin is not about what we do but about what we believe, that being put right with God - or made righteous - is about putting our trust in the saving power of Jesus’ death, and that Jesus’ death turns upside down the values of the world. The forces that seem to rule our world - greed, naked self-interest and hedonism - have already been overcome, despite every appearance to the contrary. This inner and unshakable conviction is ours because we have the Spirit of Truth to guide us into all the truth, and this truth is what can inspire us to keep on testifying for Jesus in our own words and actions every day.