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.