Romans 8:14-23 & Acts 2:1-21
At the risk of being cliche, I begin our story today with: “It was a wild and windy day.” I know, it is reminiscent of the poster-child for bad story starters, “it was a dark and stormy night.” Famous writer, Snoopy, began every one of his novels with this phrase. Fairy tale writers use, “Once upon a time.” These sometimes tired phrases tell us that a classic story is about to be told. And so it is today.
It was a wild and windy day. Passover, crucifixion, resurrection was seven weeks behind them. Now it is the day of the next pilgrimage feast, Shavuot, or Pentecost. Fifty days had droned by since that disastrous Passover. Now it is Pentecost and crowds are back in Jerusalem!
Here’s the wild part of the day. There’s a party going on out in the streets of Jerusalem. Loyal Jews have come from all over the empire to the city for the Feast. Pentecost, as a major festival day did not originate with the Christian church. It was a Jewish festival celebrating two things: first, the early grain harvest, and second, the giving of the Law. According to tradition Moses received the Ten Commandments fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt, fifty days after the first Passover.
Pentecost is a feast day. It is a reason to gather for worship and celebration. Friends are catching up who haven’t seen each other since last year. Extended families gather at grandma’s house. And the food. Oh, the food! The festivals are all about the food. And Shavuot foods center around dairy foods. Milk is considered to be a symbol of the Torah, which nourishes the people directly, as milk does for a baby. Popular Shavuot foods today include cheesecake, kugels, blintzes – creamy this, and cheesy that.
And the Jesus people are in a room praying. They can hear the voices rising from the street, smell all the wonderful food smells wafting through the windows on the spring air. But 120 people, Jesus’ friends, are … waiting. For what? Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem until the promised gift of the Holy Spirit would come. He didn’t say when, or how long to wait. They had waited now for fifty days, and another festival was upon them. Fear may have begun to prickle their skin as they remembered the last festival crowds at Passover. Their rabbi had been arrested, tortured and killed. Crowds and danger went together for this group!
Retreat to a room again. Try to stay under the radar. Don’t take any risks. Sit down and shut up – actually, sit down and pray! That was how they would observe Shavuot this year. They had not been out harvesting anyway. They had dropped out of life. Hidden in shadows, waiting. They were all still together at the place where they were used to hanging out. Hopeful? At least hopeful enough to keep waiting.
Now, here comes the windy part, and it’s wild, too! The room gets loud! Like a huge storm! Sounds like wind blasting pasts their ears fills the room. Lightning, fire…, some kind of light or explosion comes with it. It is like they are in the middle of a thunder storm, in their crowded room. And if you have every been close to a thunder and lightning storm – there is energy in the air. I remember reaching out over the edge of the Grand Canyon during an electrical storm and seeing sparks fly from our fingers! It is mother nature at her most out of control. Or the eerie energy experienced by the tornado chasers, following the funnel clouds in the green sky. I’ve seen that, too. These are the memories that come to mind when I think of that room full of Jesus people and the Holy Spirit. Mouths are open in awe and eyes open wide in wonder. The energy fills them. This is it – what they had waited and hoped for. They exploded into action.
Disciples pour out into the streets, perhaps looking demented. Hair standing on end from the electricity of the room. Speech pours out of them, telling everyone what had happened. And here is the weird thing. Everyone can understand what they are saying, no matter what language they usually use to communicate. They get it. They understand!
Let me tell you, this is a preacher’s dream. That somehow the words we speak could change the world, that the Spirit would break out and bring everyone together in understanding, no matter how different their lives had been before this. Human beings won’t do this on their own. It takes an intervention by the Spirit.
But before we find ourselves caught up in the spooky details of wind, fire and amazing speech, let’s remember that these phenomena are only a small part of this story. Just three verses, which are one fantastic opening sermon illustration! But it is just the introduction. It is the explanation which gets the focus. “What does this mean?,” is the question of the crowds (verse 12).
Amazed and perplexed, the crowds ask, “what does this mean?” The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered as “confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending.” They didn’t ask because they needed an interpreter, but because this whole thing seemed so crazy!
What does this mean? Let’s follow the action for our first clue. The Spirit’s possession impels them outside, into the streets. Where they had formerly prayed safely in their room, out of earshot or contact with others who did not follow Jesus, now they were out in the crowd, talking to everyone.
The coming of the Spirit is sure to get us out of our safe comfortable pews and our decent and orderly worship. Spirit sends us out into the crowded messiness of life. Here I am reminded of one of the phrases of our church’s mission statement: “We know that the Holy Spirit is at work in our world ahead of us.” Where? In the world. When? Ahead of us, before we get there. The Spirit impels us out into the places where she is brooding over the face of the deep, where Spirit is creating again, where Spirit is breathing new life.
What does this mean? The Spirit is for everyone. It is too easy for us who have been raised in Christendom to view Peter, or the pastor, as the resident expert, the resident Christian. But Peter calls on Joel the prophet to remind us that when the Spirit comes, God has no preferences. If we are used to thinking of any group as a better or more divinely-ordained voice for conveying the plans and purposes of God, God’s Spirit tells us otherwise. All flesh — boys and girls, young and old, free and slaves — whether they be women or men — are graced with the Spirit’s direct connection to preaching, visions, and dreams of God (vv. 16-21). This was institutionally unsettling back then and is institutionally resisted today. In this story, God shows no regard for our structures, hierarchies, or status quo. Unsettling is a mild description!
What does this mean? Pentecost is not a one-time event. Pentecost will happen over and over and over again, as God’s Spirit moves to create something new. These kinds of out-pourings happen over and over again in the book of Acts. And if you read church history, they have happened over and over again throughout the history of God’s people. Could a powerful new creation happen again today? When we are discouraged and mourning the decline of our historical churches and denominations? Could the Spirit come and breathe new breath into God’s people once again? Count on it! Not “maybe.” It will happen. Whenever, wherever the Spirit is moving, she will have her way – and that way is life.
What does this mean? That none of our ways are safe, secure and uninterruptible. This can be terrifying. It was for the first century disciples, hiding in their room, and it will be for us, safe in our churches. It reminds me of a story in The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. Poor Jill gets pulled into Narnia, is separated from her friend and totally lost in a land she has never even begun to imagine. Like us, I might say. Now she is desperately thirsty. Again, like us, I might say. She finds a stream, but stops dead in her tracks. Lewis writes:
But although the sight of water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason: just on this side of the stream lay the lion….
“If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
…For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink.”…It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl.
…The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
…“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
…It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn’t need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. [Lewis, C.S. The Silver Chair. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc: New York, 1953, pp. 16-17.]
There is no other stream than the one poured out on the disciples at Pentecost. Will we kneel down and drink? Even though it isn’t safe? Even though it seems crazy? Are we willing to risk a new Pentecost?