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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Unforgivable Sin? (Mark 3:20-35)


Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” - for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Have you ever been embarrassed by someone in your family?  Embarrassed by something they’ve done, embarrassed by something they’ve said, embarrassed on general principle simply because you’re related to them and there’s nothing you can do about it?  Since today is Father’s Day, let me ask it a bit more pointedly.  Anyone ever been embarrassed by your dad?

I love to people watch, and airports are one of the great places to watch the human drama unfold.  You ever watch a family traveling together and realize that nothing is more embarrassing to the typical American teenager than their dad?  I don’t know what it is - wearing sandals and socks together, the fanny pack around their waist, the visor, the flip-up sunglasses, the shoulder bag that is actually the old diaper bag, or the guidebook in the left hand stuffed with maps and receipts - honestly, I just can’t figure out what these kids are embarrassed by!

OK, more truth-telling: if you are a dad, have you ever intentionally done something because you knew your teenager would be embarrassed or utterly mortified to be seen with you?  My theory is that fully half of the embarrassing airport dads you see have deliberately chosen their attire based on maximum embarrass-ability for their children.  Embarrassing your children is, after all, chief among a father’s God-given rights!  What’s family good for, anyway, if not embarrassing us?

No one can embarrass us quite like family can embarrass us, and in our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is proving to be quite an embarrassment to his family.  “But who is my family?” (v. 33) Jesus wonders aloud, and by the time it’s all said and done, Jesus will have forever given a new definition to “family,” at least how it’s accounted in his kingdom.  May we pray.

Jesus is ticking off religious people and embarrassing his own family.  Most concerning of all to religious people?  The common people love Jesus and his free-spirited style.  Consider: only three chapters into Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has not only preached that God’s radical kingdom of unconditional love is coming but has enacted what that kingdom will look like by driving out demons and healing all kinds of people who have been ill.  All of this has led him to become so popular with the crowds that it’s hard for him to enter the towns and even find time to grab a bite to eat (v. 20).  Let’s face it: Jesus is a rock star.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the people who doesn’t like Jesus.  The religious crew advances their own conclusions about him: Jesus is possessed.  They don’t like him or what he’s doing or what he stands for; the power within him must be evil.  “He has Beelzebul,” they say in verse 22.

Beelzebul is a deity worshipped by the Philistines whose name literally means “Lord of the Flies.”  In later Christian sources, it became another name for Satan or the Devil.  Jesus is in league with Satan, they say.  The religious people were so busy passing judgment - a favorite past-time of many religious people, by the way - that they are blind to the Holy Spirit in their midst.  They see and hear what Jesus does - and they are horrified because the work of the Holy Spirit fits neither their preferences nor expectations, and the only conclusion they can come to is that Jesus is possessed by the devil. 

“What’s become of our world?” they say.  “People being healed and made whole?  Sins being forgiven?  Reconciliation taking place?  Hope being proclaimed for all God’s people - including tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners?  Rules being put aside so lives can be transformed?  I don’t like it one bit - must be Satan!”  The Holy Spirit at work they decry as the spawn of Satan.

Jesus refutes this accusation with a parable that, in trademark style, uses his attackers own words against them.  “How can Satan cast out Satan?” he asks.  “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (vv. 23-24).  Being simultaneously filled with Satan and trying to cast out Satan would seem a counter-productive strategy, he argues.

Jesus’ ministry is about liberating people from the powers of sin and death promulgated by Satan, who rules in people’s lives simply by letting them run according to their own harmful desires, binding them, like Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with chains of their own making.  The genius of evil’s hold on our lives is that the only thing holding us in its clutches are our own desires.

Perhaps you have heard about Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which hostages bond emotionally with their captors.  Victims of Stockholm Syndrome often defend their captors, feel empathy for their captors, or otherwise see things from the perspective of the very people who are intent on doing them harm.  So it is for the hold of sin and death upon human lives.  We participate in holding ourselves captive and think we are getting just the thing we want.  We are getting the things we think we desire, and so we live in prisons of our own construction, willing contributors to our own captivity.  Without Jesus, our vision is distorted and we see the world from evil’s perspective, which is right where Satan wants to hold us.

In the parable, Jesus likens Satan to a strong man (v. 27), who has held people hostage, possessed by all manner of things that have prevented them from experiencing the abundant life God desires for them.  Yes, Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger.

“I have bound the strong man,” he says.  “I have bound the strong man, I have plundered his household, and the spoils and riches I have taken are the lives of the people who were under his control.”  Jesus takes that most precious possession - human lives - and says, “These no longer belong to you.  These belong to me now.”

God’s liberation movement takes place one-by-one, heart-by-heart, life-by-life, as the kingdom of Satan and this world crumbles and a new kingdom - the kingdom of God - is taking its place.  Jesus binds the one who had bound us, and sets us free, which is why we so often sing, “Satan had me bound, Jesus lifted me.”  And when Jesus lifts us, we catch a glimpse of the world that is no longer distorted by our self-made smog of sin and death, and we behold all that is around us through God’s eyes of love, and everything looks so different from the way we’ve always seen it, and for the first time in our lives, we are seeing the world clearly and truly as it really is.  That’s what happens when we stop looking through the eyes of the world and start looking through the eyes of the Spirit.

And yet, there were those in our text who did not see things this way.  They apparently included both the religious leaders and members of Jesus’ own family.  Both groups saw the work of the Holy Spirit and they attributed it to Satan, because they were still looking through the distorted eyes of the world rather than eyes of the Spirit.

Looking at the world in this way caused them, and us, too, to look at the things of God and think they are evil, and Jesus, in verse 29, had a stern and harsh description for such faulty perspective: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or your translation may say grieving the Holy Spirit, but either way, Jesus names it as an unforgivable and eternal sin.

If that doesn’t put us on notice, I don’t know what will.  I don’t know about you, but that makes me very cautious before I too quickly or readily label something or someone as evil, because if that’s the judgment I make and it turns out that I was looking through worldly eyes rather than spiritual eyes, and my vision is so distorted that I have named as evil what is actually the work of God, or if I have named someone as evil through whom God is at work, then I’ve committed a grave offense - an unforgivable sin, according to Jesus.
 
If we are so blinded by a worldview of sin and death that we think God and the things of God and the people through whom God is working are evil, then we have withdrawn ourselves from God’s family.  In the immortal words of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, “never take sides against the family.”  When we grieve the Holy Spirit, we take sides against Jesus’ family.

You see, family for Jesus is not a matter of biology and kinship.  When the crowd tells Jesus that members of his family are summoning him from outside (vv. 31-32), he responds with a rather shocking statement: “Who are my mother and my brothers? ... Look, here [these people seated around me, with whom I am united not by blood but in mission] are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister” (vv. 33-35).  Jesus’ family is defined primarily in terms of who does God’s will, not people who share similar DNA.

So much for “traditional family values,” a phrase as foreign to the ministry of Jesus as it is to the personal lives of politicians and pundits who thunder it across the airwaves.  And it’s just too much for some.  No wonder some people are bent on killing Jesus in this book!

The radical, barrier-busting, broad-reaching, grace-filled reach of God’s kingdom goes too far for the comfort and preference of some.  “Must be a demon,” they say.  “Work of the Holy Spirit?  Looks more like the work of Satan, to me.”

“Wait a minute,” says Jesus.  “That’s my family you’re messin’ with.”  Michael Corleone was right; never take sides against Jesus’ family.  When Jesus is talking about his family, he’s not talking about his biological family, he’s looking around the table at those who are earnestly following him and trying to pattern their life on him, which I certainly hope includes all of us, Jesus is looking us each in the eye and saying “You are part of my family.  And you are part of my family.  And you are part of my family.  And you are part of my family.”  In fact, right now, turn to the person on your right and on your left and tell them, “You are part of Jesus’ family.”

Jesus isn’t down on family here.  He’s not rejecting the family who were once his entire world.  Rather, Jesus is expanding the definition of family to be a web of relationships that opens up places at the table for a whole host of others.  Jesus is drawing his family tree with an increasing number of branches, branches that reach out to gracefully cover more and more people - you and me, included - in their shade.  This is, Jesus teaches, a view of life in the kingdom of God.

For Jesus, the home is simply too small a space to contain God’s family.  His own family have come out of their home and gone to where Jesus is, and are pleading with Jesus to come back home with them.  What they must now understand is that Jesus is adding members to the family left and right.  It’s not just about one mom and one dad and 2.7 children and a dog and a white picket fence.  Family is bigger than that, now.  His sense of family is no longer bound to the home, but to the will of God.

Further, he sets the example for us that our home, our family, is too small to contain God’s family.  As Jesus has lovingly and gracefully reached out to us and named us as brother and sister, as he has welcomed us into his new family, as he set for us a place at the family table, so too are we to reach out and embrace each other, and invite those who are still outside.  Our sense of family is no longer bound to our individual homes, but to embracing each other with the love of God, which is the will of God.

Jesus has already told us that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  A family - Jesus’ great big embracing family - won’t make it divided against itself.  We have to embrace each other with the love of God.  It’s the only way we’re going to make it, the only way God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In our text, they accused Jesus of being possessed, and perhaps he was - possessed not by Satan but by the Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit would be crazy enough to give Jesus the notion that love could bring together such a diverse and disparate group of people, make us his followers, and name us his family.  You’d have to be crazy to try a stunt like that!  Not only that, but Jesus keeps showing that love in word and deed through his whole life, and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep showing and sharing that love, even if it meant being killed.  Talk about crazy – Jesus is it!

What’s more, we’re just crazy enough to believe him.  Possessed by the Holy Spirit and crazy enough to believe that we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.  Jesus is creating a new family, and we’re in it.  “Who is my brother and sister?  Those who do the will of my Father.”  The Father’s will is that we love – at all times, in all places, to all people.  How well we do that will show whose family we belong to.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Call on Line One (1 Samuel 3:1-10)


Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.  Then the Lord called, “Samuel!  Samuel! and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”  So he went and lay down.  The Lord called again, “Samuel!”  Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  The Lord called Samuel again, a third time.  And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Many of you know and have interacted with Leslie Wilson, our office manager.  If you call or stop by the church office, hers is the face you’ll see and the voice you’ll hear first.

One of the things that I am personally most grateful for about Leslie is that if you want access to me, you have to go through her.  This is her role as a gatekeeper.  I have bad news for salespeople and solicitors of all kinds who “just want a minute” of my time – Leslie isn’t going to let you through.  She knows if you’re calling from a call center, she is trained to listen for that delay and click of a robo-call.  If someone calls or stops by and wants to speak to “The Reverend,”  “The Pastor,” or “Andrew,” clearly they don’t know me, and they don’t get in.

Sometimes, of course, this has humorous consequences.  Earlier this week, my good friend Pastor Mark Muckler from Mouzon UMC came by so we could head out to lunch together.  He rang the buzzer at the back door, Leslie answered the intercom, and goofing around he said, “Yes, Is the Reverend available?”  Leslie was on her way to go downstairs and answer the door to see who it was, and she said, “I’m gonna go see who it is and get rid of them – they asked for “The Reverend.”  I told you she takes her job seriously!

In today’s text from 1 Samuel chapter 3, God keeps calling, and calling, and calling, and can’t quite get through.  God is trying to get ahold of Samuel, and he keeps calling him by name, but we are told that Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and so he had no clue who was speaking to him.

But the problem clearly predates Samuel.  We are told in verse 1 that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  On top of that, Eli, the old priest, is going blind.   The symbolism is ripe for the kind of parody you’d see on Saturday Night Live.  A priest with failing eyesight!  C’mon, really?  No wonder visions were rare!

Enter Samuel onto the scene.  He is living with Eli, the old blind priest and serving in the temple because a few chapters earlier, his mother, Hannah, prayed for a son, and agreed that if God gave her a son, she would give the son back to God.  That doesn’t seem fair; shouldn’t the boy get some choice and some say-so in the matter?  Shouldn’t he get to grow up to be whatever he wants to be?  Maybe he wants to be a shepherd or a sailor or a tentmaker or a carpenter or something the world desperately needs - an honest politician?  Why should he be thrown into the temple and raised to a lifetime of service to God without even being consulted?  It’s so . . . un-American.

Hannah’s promise may appear rash or arbitrary, but it is akin to what we do in baptism, whether we are baptizing a child or an adult.  In baptism, we declare a life as no longer belonging to the individual, but to God.  When the water is poured and the Spirit is invoked, we may as well be stamping “Property of God” across the chest of the person being baptized.  Our baptismal liturgies confirm the call and blessing of God upon the life of that person.  When parents bring a child for baptism, they are proclaiming, as Hannah did, that our children do not belong to us, but are given to us by God, and we give them back to God for God to do in their lives whatever and however God desires.  Similarly, Hannah gave her son, Samuel, to the Lord.

By the time we catch up to the story in our text for today, several years have passed and Samuel is a young boy, no more than 12.  He is lying down in the temple in that place between sleep and awake, and a voice calls to him in the night: “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Obediently, if not somewhat begrudgingly, the boy jumps out of bed and says, “Here I am! You called me!” as he scurries into the room of Eli, the old, blind priest.  “Silly boy!  I didn’t call you!  Now quit bothering me and go back to bed!”

The scene is vaguely familiar to anyone with children in the home.  The adults are tired and the child won’t stay in bed.  In slapstick comic fashion, not once, not twice, but three times the child shows up in the adult’s room when he should be in bed.  But finally, the light bulb goes off in old Eli’s head, and to his credit, he finally seems to get it, summoning up the last bit of his mojo right near the end to do what he was supposed to be doing all along.  And yes, the gears in his brain are surely a little rusty; after all, God has to call Samuel three times before Eli remembers that the Lord sometimes does this sorta thing.  In verse 9, he says, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  They say even a blind squirrel still finds a nut every now and then.  Even a blind, old man whose spiritual sight dimmed long ago still discerns a vision from God every now and then.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread - but neither was completely extinct.

Many interpretations of this text set up Eli as both the foil and the fool, but let us not overlook the positive contribution to the story he makes.  Remember, Samuel hears God’s voice, but he does not recognize it on his own, he doesn’t know who it is, and he doesn’t know how to respond to it properly.  Dottering old Eli tells him all he needs to know.  His eyes were almost dim, but not quite - there was still enough of a flicker of God’s Holy Spirit within him to help young Samuel hear the call of God.

Eli tells Samuel to go back and lie down.  In other words, to be still, to be quiet, and in the dark.  He tells Samuel to go to a place where he can’t see or hear anything else, where there is nothing to distract him from hearing and responding to God.

So it is for us.  When it comes to hearing a word from God, sometimes we simply need to stop, and wait, and sit in the silence, and listen for God.  Sometimes we need to lie down in the dark and be still and discern what God is speaking.  For goodness’ sake, we need to stop making our own noise, too.  When the word of the Lord is far too rare and where visions are not nearly widespread enough, as in the days of Eli and Samuel, whenever there is the perception that God is no longer sharing a word or a vision, it is not that God has stopped speaking, but that humans have stopped listening.  The absence of a word or vision from the Lord has more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to speak.

Very often, listening for God requires listening to each other.  One of the oft-overlooked but crucial details of the story of the call of Samuel is that both Samuel and Eli had to listen to each other for God’s call to be heard.

I think one of the great disservices the church does to itself - scratch that - I think one of the greatest sins the church commits is that often we don’t listen to each other.  Hearing the call of God in the midst of a Christian community requires that we listen to each other, and when we don’t, the results are literally faith-shattering.

Let me give you an example from an article I read this week from someone describing what happened in a recent church service he visited.  You can read the entirety of the article on our church website.

“I was recently in a church service where the message of the sermon was about the intergenerational representation of congregations, and one of the points was that previous generations needed to be willing to listen to the stories and voices of the younger generations as well.

“Now at some point in the midst of this great message the children in the Sunday school class had been taken outside to play in the grass with some balloons, and you could hear their laughing and shrieks of joy and surprise outside the windows of the sanctuary.  What an appropriate backdrop for such a message!

“And then it happened.  An older gentleman in the congregation stood up, walked clear down the side aisle, opened the door to the church yard and told the children that they needed to quiet down because a service was taking place inside.  During a message about generations needing to be willing to listen to one another, some guy actually got up and told the younger members of the church to shut up.”

Aside from being a really mean thing to do and a complete missed opportunity, my guess is that was a congregation in which the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  I don’t even want to know how long it had been since anyone had sensed the Holy Spirit there!  But what happened in that church on that day could have been avoided by a close reading of this text we’ve been listening into today.  The success of the call of God in today’s text hinges on the willingness of the generations to listen to each other, and share with each other, and trust each other.

Young Samuel shared his raw, unbridled, experience of God; old Eli shared his mature, structured, understanding of God.  Both were necessary in the story in order to hear from God, and what I want us all to realize is that neither side had the totality of God’s interaction all to themselves - young and old needed each other.  The story is only complete because of what both brought to the table, and because they could listen to each other and trust each other, they were able, together, to discern the voice of God.  Eli and Samuel had to listen to each other for God’s call to be heard.

Friends, God is speaking all the time.  God is relentless in calling.  And here’s the great thing - all Christians are called into ministry!  Not just pastors and seminary professors and church officials and other so-called “professional” ministers.  All Christians are called into ministry!  Church reformer Martin Luther called this “the priesthood of all believers,” we Methodists refer to this as the “ministry of all the baptized.”  The terms are diverse but the sentiment is the same - all those who follow Jesus are called to be in ministries that further the cause of Christ, that promote healing, wholeness, and reconciliation, and that help bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

On a day like today, Missions Sunday, we are reminded in real and concrete ways that we are all called to be in ministry.  The financial commitments you have all made today and will make over the coming year provide the resources needed to support those who are making a difference in people’s lives - around the corner and around the world - in the life-giving name of Jesus.  And there are no shortage of hands-on opportunities to serve and engage in the reconciling ministry of Jesus - so many places where we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those around us in ways large and small, and I am so grateful to be the pastor of a church who cares so deeply and so passionately about those outside our walls that Missions is in our blood.

You may not have thought about it this way, but what we do in Missions is in response to the call of God on the lives of individuals in our congregation, and our congregation as a whole.  You see, the call of God to all people in every generation is consistent and simple:  First, listen.  Second, do.  That was how it happened for Samuel, for prophets and apostles and saints through the centuries and for us today.  First, listen - for the voice of God, for the instruction of God, for the call of God.  Second, do what God tells you to do.

The first task is to listen. In a world full of noise - much of it self-generated - one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can cultivate is simply to listen for the voice of God.

God is still speaking.  God is still calling us all by name.  The question is whether we are still and quiet enough to hear that call.  Are we listening to God?  Are we listening to each other?  God is speaking your name today, because God has a call upon your life.  When God calls our name, the response is still the same as it was for the boy Samuel in the middle of the night in the temple: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  If we’ll do that, the word of the Lord will be abundant, and as for visions?  There’ll be plenty.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Is That Fire On Your Tongue? (Acts 2:1-21)


When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopatamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Arabs - in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  And I will show portents in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood, fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Have you ever had the experience of receiving a gift and upon opening it, you have no idea what it is and no idea what it’s for - or even worse, you know exactly what it is and it is something you do not want?  How do we receive a gift that is either something we didn’t want, or something we don’t have the foggiest idea what it is or what it’s for?  Is it rude to look at the gift-giver and ask, “What is it?”

When we are giving wedding gifts, we always stick to the registry or give cash.  Having recently gotten married, I know that those are both gifts that are appreciated!  I never want someone to have to look at a gift I have given and wonder, “What is it?”

Asking “What is it?” is a theme in gift-giving, especially when it comes to gifts from God.  When confronted with new, perplexing, and even awesome gifts from God, God’s people have tended to ask amongst themselves, “What is it?” whether it was manna in the wilderness, or the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  We hear the wind, we see the tongues as of fire, but what is it?  May we pray.

Today, in this Pentecost celebration of worship, we are celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit.  You have heard the story read earlier from the 2nd Chapter of Acts.  The leaders of the early church were all gathered together in one place, and suddenly the sound of a mighty rushing wind like a tornado swept through the place, and tongues as of fire appeared to rest on each of them, and they poured out into the street, each of them speaking the Gospel in a different language.

We celebrate Pentecost as the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and appropriately enough refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church.  Churches the world over try to find ways to celebrate this new reality on Pentecost.  Some have birthday parties with balloons and streamers and ice cream and a big cake that says, “Happy Birthday, Church!” across it in red letters.  Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost, often emblazoned with representations of fire, wind, and a dove - all physical ways the Holy Spirit has appeared in the Scriptures.  Our worship service today is rich with symbolism to remind us of the importance of the day.  I have asked you all to wear red today to symbolize the Holy Spirit resting on us, we are gathered for worship outside to symbolize the reality that when the Holy Spirit came, the first thing that happened was the church left the building and went into the streets.  You have each been given a Holy Spirit ribbon, so that when you hold it up and wave it, it will appear that you have a tongue as of fire And after worship, we have our fire and ice picnic, and I know there are plenty of dishes that will give you a tongue of fire, plenty more that will help cool the flames, and plenty of normal picnic food, too!

The thing I love about all of these ways of celebrating Pentecost is that it seems the church is trying to find creative ways to recover and rediscover the importance of the Holy Spirit both in our theology and practice.  For the last 60-70 years in America especially, we seem to have downplayed the Holy Spirit’s role to the point that many Christians can’t tell you anything about the Holy Spirit.  This is both fascinating and tragic, considering that the Holy Spirit is God’s enduring, sustaining, presence on earth since the time of Jesus.  In other words, anything that we have known or experienced of God comes directly through the Holy Spirit.

In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God's activity among them, the Biblical writers were saying that it was like God's breath, like a holy wind. It could not be seen or held: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8). But the effect of God's Spirit, like the wind, could be felt and known.
The Holy Spirit first showed up among the first followers of Jesus as the rushing sound of a violent wind.  This is important.  Not a gentle breeze, not a pleasant zephyr - but a violent, hurricane, tornado, typhoon sort of wind.  The Holy Spirit is not a slight stirring of air that makes the windchimes on the back porch sing on a summer evening; the Holy Spirit is a mighty, powerful, take the roof off and blow your shed into the neighbor’s pool kind of wind. 

This is the messy side of God, the unpredictable side of God, the undomesticated God.  How often we try to domesticate the deity, asking God to bless our plans and fulfill our wishes, and yet the gHoly Spirit introduces us to a God who cannot, and in fact, will not be controlled.  The Holy Spirit comes to us in such a way that we recognize that God is not there to conform to our will, but that God desires to use us to accomplish God’s will.

Just take a look at those first followers of Jesus if you need further proof.  They received the Holy Spirit and they began speaking in other languages, telling God’s good news of salvation for all in the native tongue of people from all over the known world.  The crowd couldn’t believe it!  Verse 7 says, “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’”  Are they not backwater, uneducated, unsophisticated country bumpkins?  Are these not Galileans?

Yes, they are.  In fact, these are the same Galileans who were so obtuse as to not understand even the simplest teaching from Jesus.  These are the same Galileans who abandoned Jesus at the cross.  These are the same Galileans who, even after the resurrection of Jesus, were hiding out in a locked room with the lights off and the windows shut because they were afraid.  These same Galileans were now out, proclaiming God’s good news with boldness and imagination, speaking prophetically and clear.  What was the difference?  The presence of the Holy Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit, those early followers  of Jesus were fearful, suspicious, powerless, and pitiful.  But when they received the Holy Spirit, they were no longer just followers of Jesus.  When they received the Holy Spirit, they became the Church.  To this day, anywhere the Holy Spirit is poured out and joyfully, there God’s Church is found.

Friends, what a difference the Holy Spirit made!  They went out without abandon to share God’s good news.  All that fear and suspicion and pitifulness just didn’t matter.  So it is for us.  When you receive the Holy Spirit, the excitement can’t be contained, and you end up going out and doing all sorts of things you never would have, and that’s the beauty of life in the Spirit!  There isn’t a program or workshop or strategic plan out there than can top what the mighty winds of the Holy Spirit can do in the human heart, and nowhere is this more evident than in what happened in the lives of a bunch of rag-tag Galileans.

Yes, they had fear, but they also had anticipation.  If we have just fear, then we’re in major trouble.  But there is room for some fear and doubt if we’re also clinging to what God has promised, and are anticipating the pouring out of something better.

Sure, they were fearful and suspicious and pitiful, but what the disciples get right is that they do wait -as Jesus told them to - for the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t know what that meant and they didn’t know what it would entail, but they are obedient and they wait for the Holy Spirit.  And when the Spirit is finally poured out, they breathe deeply and take it all in, and they are changed.  And because of the Holy Spirit loose in their lives, the world around them can’t help but be changed as well.

I want you to notice what those first followers of Jesus did as soon as they received the Holy Spirit.  Their fear apparently gone, they unlocked the door and boldly went out to share God’s good news with the world.  The first thing they did was take a mission trip.  They didn’t build a building, they didn’t have a worship service, they didn’t create a budget, they didn’t have a stewardship campaign, they didn’t create any programs, and they most certainly didn’t form any committees.  They boldly went out in mission.  Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, their first priority became sharing God’s good news of redemption and transformation with the whole world, and they literally took their message to the streets.  The very first thing the Church did was to leave the building.  Having received the Holy Spirit, they were more concerned with sharing the good news that had been given to them with others than they were with taking care of themselves.

What the Pentecost story reminds us is not that the church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church!  Mission is to church as combustion is to fire!  The church doesn’t do mission, the church doesn’t have a mission; the church is mission.  The church exists - always has and always will - as God’s agent of healing and reconciliation in the midst of a hurting and broken world.  The early church understood this because it was filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit was the fuel for their fire, the breath of their life, the wind beneath their wings.

If you keep reading the book of Acts, you’ll see that those winds of the Holy Spirit kept right on blowing.  The wind that first blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, beyond their locked door and into the street with God’s good news kept right on blowing past barrier after barrier.  Throughout the book of Acts, barrier after barrier blew over.  Everywhere the Holy Spirit encountered a man-made obstacle, the Holy Spirit just blew right through it.

The wind of the Holy Spirit keeps blowing past every locked door the human mind can construct, bringing God’s good news to all people.  Every wall, every fence, every border, every distinction we create - all of these are no match for the relentless power of God’s Holy Spirit blowing into and through receptive hearts.

Tom Long tells the story of teaching 3 young girls in a small church he pastored the basics of Christian faith, and he got to the story of Pentecost.  “Do you know what Pentecost is?”  he asked.  They didn’t.  So he said, “Well, Pentecost was when the church was seated in a circle and tongues of fire came down from heaven and landed on their heads and they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world!”

He says two of the girls took that all rather calmly, but the other’s eyes turned as big as saucers.  When she could finally speak, she said, “Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday.”

He said, “The beautiful thing about that is not that she misunderstood.  The beautiful thing is that she thought it could have happened in our church, that God’s Spirit could have come even to our little congregation and given us a word to speak that the world desperately needs to hear.”

Could it happen here?  In our church?  Let me answer by way of another question: Are we fearful, or are we anticipating?  Are we ready to breathe deeply of the wind God is sending our way?  God has promised us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that gift is as close as our next breath.