Sunday, June 4, 2006

Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; And thou renewest the face of the ground.

It is impossible to discover the exact number of different languages that exist in the world. The best estimates place the number between 3,000 and 8,000. There are several difficulties found in this task. First of all, those who would try to count the number disagree about what makes a language. During my research I found that some count different dialects as unique languages while others do not. So, to that linguist the language of a New Yorker would be counted differently than that of a Southerner. One list claimed there were one hundred and sixty five unique languages in the United States. As a great melting pot, the U.S. does include people from an amazing amount of different cultures. Those cultures bring with them the remnants of similar languages, and though they might have some differences they are generally the same.

Think about the Spanish language. When my children were in Elementary school, they went to a school that was establishing a Spanish Immersion program. The teachers each had a unique heritage one came from Spain and another from Central America and spoke slightly unique dialects. They were not teaching a different language, but they had their own perspective. Since the immersion programs emphasize every day language rather than book learning, the teacher's dialect became part of the education.

Of course we have all heard the joke that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. Both countries insist that English is their language, and yet the differences are sometimes extreme. I remember one day when my mother visited us in England and we were at a restaurant having lunch. My mother did not understand what the waitress was trying to say. She said, "Speak English, please." The waitress answered, "I am. It's our language, you know." So, it is difficult to come up with an exact number of languages around the world.

There are legends in every nation concerning the advent of language how it came to be and how it was changed. Of course, one of the greatest stories is found in the scriptures the Tower of Babel. There are similar stories in other faith traditions. In the story the people were trying to build a tower to heaven. When the tower grew too large, God sent a catastrophe to destroy their work and He sent the people to the four corners of the world, scrambling their language so they would not be able to understand one another and thus be unable to build another great tower.

Some of the ancient legends, particularly in Jewish history, number the languages to seventy. There is a legend about Joseph that says the other leaders in Pharaoh's court were jealous of Joseph. They told Pharaoh that Joseph should not have so much power since he was a slave purchased with a few coins. They demanded that he be demoted if he could not speak the seventy languages of the nations. It is said the angel Gabriel himself came to teach Joseph the languages.

There is another legend that says that on the day the Divine Law was given to Moses, seventy tongues of fire fell from the sky, one for each nation in the world. All the nations could understand, but only one nation promised to keep the Law Israel. This brings us to Pentecost. The festival for the Jews had several purposes. First of all it was the feast of weeks a celebration of the first fruits. The people went to the temple to offer the first grain from their harvest. It occurred fifty days following the Passover, and thus was also connected with the giving of the Law. It was said to have taken Moses and the Hebrews fifty days to get to Mount Sinai.

This was a significant time for the Jews and Luke's language reflects much of the symbolism that would have been apparent to the people of his time. Perhaps that's why Pentecost seems to have little significance for us today. Most modern Christians flock to church on Christmas and Easter, recognizing the importance of these days to our faith. Yet, our churches on Pentecost are half empty.

After all, it is summer and families have much more important things going on. We are caught up in the excitement of weddings and graduations. We are on vacation so that we can enjoy our well earned rest and relaxation. Many people take a break from church during the summer. They sleep in on Sundays or go play golf while the weather is nice. Teachers that willingly teach Sunday school during the nine months of the school year need some time away. Even Sunday school is shut down for three months to give them time off.

There is another reason Pentecost is not a popular church holy day in this modern age. For many people, faith is personal. It is about the relationship between Christ and the individual. Christ is a friend. He dwells in the heart. It is about God and I, or perhaps more to the point about Me and God. Yet, as we've heard for the last few weeks, faith is not just about the individual. While faith is a personal gift, and our Christian journey is about our relationship with God, it is also about more. It is about the whole Church, the community of God's kingdom, the body of Christ.

Ask many Christians about their faith and they will be able to tell you the date, time and circumstances of their conversion. Ask the same Christians about the birthday of the Church and they will probably not know very much about Pentecost. Surely they know the story from Acts, but it would be difficult for them to identify the day on which we celebrate this important event.

Yet, the message for this day is not about the individual. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus promises His followers that there would be someone, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, sent to the believers to testify on His behalf. Then the believers are to testify also, to take the message to the world. The Holy Spirit was not going to be sent for judgment or deliverance, but so that those who experience and witness the mighty works of God will know Christ. In other words, Pentecost was the beginning of an eternal revelation of Christ.

The disciples who were there that day, those who received the Holy Spirit, were the first fruits of Christ's message and work. Jesus told them that He did not tell them everything because He was with them. But He promised that when the time was right, the Advocate would come and tell them everything. They could not have the whole message of Jesus when He was in their presence. Some of the things they learned from the Spirit were too hard for them to receive on their own. However, Jesus' ascension to heaven made it possible for the Spirit to come and dwell in their hearts. If Jesus stayed, the Advocate could not come. The faith could not spread beyond the small group of people who could follow Jesus Christ in flesh. With the Spirit, the message could, and would, be taken to the four corners of the world.

So, like that day when the divine Law was given at Sinai, God showered tongues of fire on to His messengers. They spoke in languages they did not know to people who could hear them perfectly in their own languages so that all the nations of the earth could hear the Gospel and be saved. At Sinai only one nation received the word and believed. At this Pentecost only one nation received the Word Israel. They had been scattered. They lived in every nation of the known world and they traveled back to the Temple in Jerusalem with their first fruit offerings. They were there the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they heard the Gospel. The confusion at the Tower of Babel was overcome by the power of God and the anniversary of the Law was overshadowed by something better.

Jesus tells us that when the Spirit comes, He will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. The Advocate would testify about Christ and would help those who believe to be witnesses. The word that is used in this passage is "parakletos," apparently a legal term. The Holy Spirit would be an advocate, a lawyer so to speak, for Christ. He would first of all help the disciples remember all that Jesus taught them. By His power they would remember who they are and whose they are even in the midst of troubles and difficulties. He is a vital link between Jesus and the body of Christ, binding us together with Him and with one another.

John tells us that the Spirit will come to testify about three things, to prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment. The Spirit testifies that sin is not about those things which go against the Law, but rather the sinners are those who do not believe in Christ. The Spirit testifies that Jesus has gone to the Father and in being received at the right hand of God He is proven to have been righteous. The ascension is the vindication of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the proof that Jesus did not lie when He said He would be going to the Father because He sent the One He promised. Finally, the Holy Spirit testifies to the end of evil. Jesus overcame sin, death and the grave. The ruler of this world no longer has power over God's people.

God did not send the Spirit for judgment or deliverance but so that those who experience and witness His powerful acts will know Him. If this is the case, it seems odd for us to hear the Psalm for today which offers a very strong statement against the sinners and the wicked. The psalmist writes, "Let sinners be consumed out of the earth. And let the wicked be no more. Bless Jehovah, O my soul. Praise ye Jehovah." Yet, this is not necessarily about judgment. It is about salvation! In verse 30, the psalmist writes, "Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; And thou renewest the face of the ground." The Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost like tongues of fire and as they received the power of the Holy Spirit they spoke God's Word to those who could hear. At that moment, the disciples were created recreated to be witnesses of the Gospel. All that they were was consumed by that baptism of fire and they were made new in, with and for Christ.

The Psalm speaks of creation, but Pentecost was a new beginning. Just as the receiving of the divine Law at Sinai was a new beginning for the Hebrews, so too was the receiving of the Spirit a new beginning for the body of Christ. At our baptism we receive that same baptism as God's Spirit takes up residence in our hearts. Though it is a personal moment, it is also a moment when we become part of the whole.

While the festival of Pentecost is a time of new beginnings, we often look at it in terms of completion. When Jesus ascended to heaven, His work was complete, so He sent the Spirit to continue working with the disciples who He sent out into the world. It is as if the Incarnation is over and now we have everything for which we have waited. Yet, Paul writes, "For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth?" We live in hope. We aren't complete. We have been recreated, but we still live in the shadow of the Law. We are saints and sinners, sinners and saints. It does not help that we live in a world to which we have become foreigners, outcast by our faith yet still drawn to live according to the ways of those around us.

That's what happened to the Hebrews when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took them into exile. They were far from home a long time, living amongst people who seemed to have much more powerful gods than the God which they worshiped. After all, if God were almighty, would He have allowed strangers to devastate His people? They did not see the destruction and exile as a way by which God was turning them back to Him. They lost hope and the assimilated into the culture of the world around them. In essence, everything they were died and they were left like dry bones in the desert. For the children that were born in exile, Jerusalem was not even a distant memory. They only knew the world in which they lived. It was a time when God's people forgot who they were. But God would not let them go.

The lesson from Ezekiel is about God's promise of restoration. God tells the prophet to speak to the dry bones, to speak life into the bones, to speak God's Spirit into the bones. This was not about bringing physical life back to the people, it was about bringing hope into their hearts. They thought they had nothing left for which to live. Even the Temple, where the God of their fathers dwelled for generations was in shambles. They were looking for hope in Babylon, turning to the ways of the other gods. God sent Ezekiel to prophesy to the people, to give them something for which they could hope. They would be restored to Jerusalem, the Temple would be rebuilt and they would live once again as His people. There would be life in the nation of Israel.

That's what happened on Pentecost. The disciples were left alone on the day Jesus ascended to heaven. After ten days they may have even been losing hope. After all, Jesus was gone and the promise had not yet come! They hadn't written down everything Jesus said and His words were becoming more distant, His voice harder to remember. They saw the feast celebrations that filled the city around them, remembered the importance of that day for their forefathers. Perhaps they even considered returning to the faith from which they came. They were already falling into the busy-ness of doing church as we saw last week.

But God said, "I have spoken and I will act." This is the promise found in the story of the dry bones, but it is also the promise found in Jesus' words and in the story of Pentecost. God promised to bring new life to His people. He promised to send the Spirit upon all flesh so that sons and daughters will prophesy, young and old will see visions and dream dreams. Jesus promised an Advocate who would teach them the truth and who would help them to live in that truth. The Spirit would not come to judge or deliver, but would come to fully reveal the glory of God in Christ Jesus and declare to the world the Gospel. He came to be the bond that holds God's people together, both with Him and with one another.

Paul writes, "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." Here we see the imagery of the Pentecost celebration once again. Believers have the first fruits of the Spirit. The harvest has not yet happened. It is the thing for which we hope, we long patiently for the day of Christ when we will be received fully. We are saints, but we are also still sinners. Through our baptism we are renewed daily as we hope for that which has been promised.

There might be thousands of different languages all over the world. Some of those languages belong to just one nation or just a few people, but for them it is the way which they can communicate. It is impossible for us to every really know how many languages there are. We do not even know how many different languages were represented at that first Pentecost. Luke lists many of the nations that were there that day, as Jews from all over the known world came to celebrate the Law. Perhaps on that day God brought down seventy tongues of fire again, just as He did at Mt. Sinai. It didn't matter to the listeners if the speakers were using an unknown dialect of their tongue they heard and understood what the Galileans were speaking.

We do know that on that day those who accepted the message of Christ were baptized and were added to the number of believers. They called on the name of the Lord and were saved. Just as God promised through Joel, just as Peter said in response to their doubt. The Word of God spoken through the prophet disciples was spread to others and the numbers of Christians grew.

Did faith bring the good life? No. Many of those early believers and believers throughout all history faced difficulties. We might face the impossible. Ezekiel was faced with a most difficult question from God. "Can these bones live?" Ezekiel did not see how it was possible, but he did not want to doubt that God could do such a thing. He answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." We may face such difficult times, thinking that the situation we face is impossible, and even while we do not want to doubt we can not respond positively to God's question, "Can these bones live?"

We do not know God's mind, but the Spirit does. So, as our Advocate, the Spirit intercedes for us with God. We do not know how to pray, it is one of the consequences of our humanness. It is like we are trying to talk to someone who is speaking our language, but we come from two different worlds. We speak the language of God, but we have a different dialect. We say, "Please speak my language, God" and He answers, "I am. It is my language, you know." We have so much to learn. But we have the Advocate who will continue to teach. He will help us to remember all that Jesus taught. And when words fail us, He will intercede for us. We can rest in that promise because we know that the Spirit knows God's mind, and God knows what is best for us.

Even though it is summer and there are a million and one reasons to do something else on Sunday, it is my hope that more Christians will realize the importance of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. It is on Pentecost fifty days after Easter that the real Jubilee occurred. On Pentecost we received the promise of Christ, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth who would be a witness to the mercy and grace of God. It was on Pentecost that Christians were bound together into one body all Christians from every time and place. It was on Pentecost that God's Word was written on our hearts, when we were given the gifts we would need to continue the work of Christ. Without Pentecost, there would be no Church.

So, let us sing praise to the God of creation who continues to create and recreate all that is His. Let us thank God for His goodness. May the fire of God consume that which is evil and wicked in our midst and restore us as people of hope, living patiently as we wait for the Day of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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