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Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Answer is Blowin' in the Wind (Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday)


When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

As band geeks in high school, every fall we played in the pep band for the football team.  The band sat in the section closest to the cheerleaders.  We had our own cheers custom-tailored to our rivals – some a bit bawdier than others that I won’t repeat here – although, as the worst team in our division, it’s funny that we were trash-talking anyone, and of course, much like your high school, we had several different spirit cheers.

I do remember several times, as the cheerleaders were getting ready to start a particular cheer and asking, “Hey band, are we on offense or defense?”  There were times when they didn’t know a tight end from an end zone, a touch down from a touch back, a fourth quarter from a fourth down, but what they lacked in information, they made up for with spirit.

Which would you rather have – the right information, or the right spirit?  Nothing wrong with good information, but when God wanted to start the church, God didn’t give us a set of answers; God gave us the Holy Spirit.  May we pray.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.

Have you ever had the awkward occurrence of receiving a gift from someone, and upon opening it, you have no idea what it is or what do you with it?  The giver is so excited for you to have it, and they ask, “Well, do you like it?”  And you say, “Like it?  Why, how could I not love having – one of these.”  You want to say, “Thank you; what IS it?”

Asking “What is it?” is a theme in gift-giving, especially when it comes to mysterious and perplexing gifts from God.  We celebrate Pentecost as the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.  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.

Pentecost is a radically important day.  In terms of our salvation, Christians have focused on other days in the salvation story.  Perhaps they focus on Christmas, when Jesus was born, God-in-flesh, true God from true God, light from light eternal.  Yes, we weep at the cross on Good Friday.  Yes, we are all rightfully dazzled by the empty tomb at Easter, but the story is just getting started there.  Where the story really kicks in is today, when the gift of the Holy Spirit is given and received at Pentecost.

Unfortunately, most Christians don’t give the priority to this day that are received by Christmas and Easter.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t understand the Holy Spirit, or we do and we’re scared, or we don’t want to be labeled religious fanatics.  Perhaps it’s because Pentecost, always 50 days after Easter, always coincides with the end of school and the beginning of the summer travel season.  Maybe it’s because the world hasn’t figured out how to commercialize Pentecost the same way it has Easter and Christmas.  No new outfits to buy, no Pentecost baskets to fill with candy, no Pentecost tree to put up and decorate, no hours at the mall waiting in line to buy Pentecost gifts.

And that’s okay.  The only gift you need to be concerned with on Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Here’s what you need to know about the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is a gift.  The Holy Spirit is God’s active presence among us.  Everything we know, and think, and experience, and feel about God is made possible through the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, as gifts of God tend to be, is a surprising gift.  On that first Pentecost, the first followers of Jesus, about 120 of them, were gathered somewhere in Jerusalem.  It was a clandestine meeting – location unknown, no printed agenda, no list of attendees – not because they were trying to keep secrets, but because they were trying to keep from being killed.  The last fifty days since the empty tomb had been a roller coaster of emotions: encounters with the risen Jesus as he walked with them on their journey, and continually made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.  Ten days ago, Jesus blasted off into the clouds saying something about not leaving them alone, but as so often happens with Jesus, no one understood what he was talking about.

When Pentecost came, no one was thinking of the Holy Spirit.  A spirit of fear and timidity, a spirit of second-guessing and confusion about what to do next, perhaps a spirit of despair or agitation that things hadn’t worked out for them quite the way they had hoped.  Pentecost began with a gloomy gathering of frightened Jesus followers, and I guarantee you that starting the church was the last thing on their minds.

However, God had other plans.  Thank God that God always has other plans.  As they were all gathered in one place, God sent the Holy Spirit, blowing through the room as the sound of a mighty, rushing, violent wind, appearing as tongues of fire that appeared to rest on each one.  No small thing that God’s Spirit appears as wind and fire – two elements with a mind all their own, and when you put them together, you get wild fire.   The Holy Spirit does what it will without our permission or control.  Locked doors are blown open and cold hearts are strangely warmed when the life-giving Spirit of God blows through the place and what will happen next is anybody’s guess, but we know it will be big, and we know it will be from God.

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. "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).

The Holy Spirit isn’t a cool breeze.  It’s a hot wind.  It’s like those afternoons you go outside in late July or early August, and it’s already hot out, and you see the trees rustle at the edge of the yard and you think, “Oh good, a breeze,” and it hits you, and it’s anything but refreshing as you feel like you’re standing in a hair dryer – yes, the Holy Spirit is kind of like that.

The wind of the Holy Spirit has fire in it; it’s supposed to be hot!  Hot enough to burn off the other spirits that want our attention, that want to fill us and rule our lives – burning away the spirits of rationality, or pride, or selfishness or criticism or negativity.  The Holy Spirit whooshes into our lives and burns these things away like a holy fever, flushing them out of our system and igniting the things of God – letting those fill us, instead!

In another church, I had been preaching on the Holy Spirit one Sunday when a lady came out the door – a lifelong church member, and one of the grumpiest, most negative, critical people you could imagine – and she sneered on her way out, “I don’t believe in all that Holy Spirit business” and I was thinking, “Lady, I’m glad you told me, because, wow, I never would have guessed that on my own!”

You can’t harbor a negative spirit and the Holy Spirit at the same time.  Being filled with one evicts the other.  You see, the Holy Spirit is a unifying spirit.  The Scripture says that “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) when the Spirit came.  “One place” is not only a common location, but a unity of heart and mind.  It’s one of the reasons we’ve gathered in one worship service today instead of two – our way of being “together in one place.”

The Holy Spirit unites us, forms us into a family of faith, people from different backgrounds, with different preferences and perspectives and opinions.  Unity is not the same thing as uniformity; unity doesn’t mean that we all think and act exactly alike.  And yet, the Holy Spirit helps us realize that what unites us is infinitely greater than whatever might divide us.

Friends, we’re all on the same team.  We are bonded together in a unity of heart and purpose.

John Wesley said, “Though we may not all think alike, may we not love alike?”  And that’s hard to do.  Impossible for us to do on our own, actually.  But thankfully, the Holy Spirit is not only a unifying spirit; the Holy Spirit is an empowering spirit.

On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, past their fear, and into the street, proclaiming the good news of what God was doing with such power and clarity that tourists from around the world each heard the Gospel proclaimed in their native language.

They had started the day in fear and doubt, but then, the Holy Spirit got loose, whooshing through and anointing people left and right, and before the day is over, the fledging disciples will have started the church and with such power that it grew from 120 to 3000 members in one day.  Some sneered and accused the disciples of being filled with spirits rather than The Spirit; there will always be those who are resistant to the subtle and not-so-subtle incursions of God among us.

If we’re not careful, it’s easy for us to end up there, as well.  As the day of Pentecost began, those early followers of Jesus were fearful, suspicious, powerless, and pitiful.  The Holy Spirit changed all that.  The Holy Spirit gave them power and boldness to be about God’s work in the world.  When they received the Holy Spirit, they became the Church.  To this day, anywhere the Holy Spirit is poured out and joyfully received, there God’s Church is found.

How about us?  How about you?  Do you want to receive the Holy Spirit in the same way?  I hope so, but know what you’re praying for.  Remember, the Holy Spirit comes not as a cool breeze, but as a hot wind – fanning the flame within us, burning away our plans and igniting something that is both bigger and godlier.  Hot enough to make us uncomfortable with some holy discontent, strong enough to blow us out of our comfort zones, because God still has work to do, and is inviting us to complete it.

Pentecost witnesses to the reality that the Holy Spirit can be poured out on anybody – old and young, male and female, simple and sophisticated, saint and sinner, insider and outsider, like us and unlike us – doesn’t matter.  The Holy Spirit is indiscriminately poured out, and all who receive it dream dreams and see visions, of what can be and what will be as God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

When we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, we are giving up control and predictability, but we are opening up to God sized-dreams and visions being accomplished through us.  I’ll run that risk any day.

Tom Long tells the story of teaching 3 young girls in a small church he pastored.  He said, “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.”

The Gospel can be just a story about what God did through some people we don’t know in a distant land a long time ago.  But it can be more than that, too.  For those who are full of the Holy Spirit, the story isn’t finished yet.  The next chapter is about what God will do through us.  Faithfulness isn’t about knowing exactly where the wind will blow.  Faithfulness is, when the wind of God’s Spirit does blow, having a heart that’s open enough to get caught in the flow.

If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, whether for the first time or yet again, I’m going to give you an opportunity to invite the Spirit into your life.  You know, one of the great things about Pentecost is not that it happened just once, but that it happens again and again.  It is still happening.  The winds of the Spirit are still blowing, landing upon hearts that are open to receive.

If you want to receive the Holy Spirit, I invite you to open your arms in a posture of receptivity and repeat after me:

Come, Holy Spirit.  Fill my heart.  Kindle in me the fire of your love.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Burn away my agenda, burn away all other spirits.  Lead me beyond my comfort zone, and fill me with what you want.  I give my life to your control.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Fill our church.  Unify us.  Empower us.  We joyfully receive you today. We love you.  We’ll do what you want.  We’ll go where you lead.  We want to be part of your love story for the world.  Write the next chapter through us, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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