Sunday, May 15, 2005

Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (24-34, 35b, NIV)
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

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

The craft stores and other retail markets have been stocking some of their shelves with red and purple merchandise – purses with feathers and glitz, hats and all sorts of paraphernalia to make them wild. The reason for this line of merchandise is that there is a growing phenomenon of older women boldly proclaiming that life begins at fifty. The group is called “The Red Hat Society” and is open for all women who are willing to take life a little less seriously and to have some fun. Though women of all ages are welcome, those who are under fifty are like novices and are asked to wear pink hats until they have reached that special age.

I think that the reason the Red Hat Society has gained such notoriety is because many women are tired of thinking that their life ends at fifty. If you go into a party supply store, you’ll see a huge section of goods for a fiftieth birthday. The decorations are not festive, they are dark and depressing. The streamers are black and the plates say “over the hill.” Wall hangings include tombstones as if reaching that birthday is the end of the world.

Yet, fifty is an amazing number. In the same party supply store, the decorations for a fiftieth anniversary are golden and the celebration is a renewing of the love which the couple has shared for so long. Ironic, isn’t it? A fiftieth anniversary for an elderly couple who have nearly reached the end of their physical lives is celebrated as the beginning of a new life and yet the person who has reached fifty years is treated as if they are dead.

So, the Red Hat ladies celebrate their lives with a little silliness and enthusiasm, not willing to give into the stereotype that life ends at fifty. For many people, it is actually a time of renewal. By fifty, most mothers have seen their children off to college or their own individual lives. Many people have a change in career, leaving behind the jobs of youth for more distinguished work. There are physical changes that occur in both men and women, some of which can be quite upsetting. Yet, those changes can be freeing, giving the individual a new start. So, fifty is significant because it can be a time of renewal and change.

There is biblical foundation for such thinking. In Leviticus 25, the LORD instructs the Israelites to count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years and to set aside the next year as special time. “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.” In that fiftieth year, all slaves were freed and all debts cancelled. It was a time of renewal and change, a new beginning for everyone.

Pentecost occurred seven weeks plus one day after Passover, the fiftieth day. It was a day of Jubilee for the followers of Jesus, a time of renewal and change. They were set free from the bonds of this world and immersed into the kingdom of God when the Holy Spirit came upon them like fire.

The Pentecost experience must have been incredible. The followers of Jesus were together still constantly in prayer as we heard in last week’s lessons. They had been told to wait in Jerusalem until the promised gift arrived. Ten days later when they were together, a mighty wind began to blow and tongues of fire fell from the sky. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they began speaking in many different languages.

I wonder if the disciples were getting impatient. Ten days is a long time when you are waiting for something. Ask any child who is waiting expectantly for Christmas or their birthday and they will tell you that it is forever. It feels like it is never going to happen. Sometimes the waiting becomes so overwhelming that we are sure we must have missed it. Jesus was not always obvious with His work. He often hid the meanings of His sermons in parables and asked for healings to be kept secret. Perhaps He’d sent the Spirit and they missed its coming!

But God did not leave them orphaned as He had promised. On that day He came in power and rested upon each of those believers, making them new. They were baptized in the Spirit so that they would have all they needed to continue Christ’s work on earth. On that fiftieth day, they world was changed forever as the Spirit came to dwell among men and the kingdom of God was made accessible through faith.

There are those who think that the Red Hat Society is just silliness. It seems like they are nothing but a group of drunken women out of control. Many of the witnesses to the Pentecost miracle had the same reaction. Some of the people were amazed and asked what was happening, but some mocked and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Yet, they were speaking in many foreign tongues, sharing the Gospel in the languages of the visitors. The disciples would have spoken Aramaic and Hebrew and they might have had rudimentary knowledge of Latin and Greek. But it is unlikely that those fishermen and other followers would have know enough of the other languages present to be able to speak the life giving words of Christ that the foreigners would understand.

It was the Holy Spirit speaking through them into the hearts and minds of the listeners. The miracle at Pentecost was both vocal and auditory – the words were spoken and heard and lives were changed.

This day was not only the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to His disciples in those final moments of His life on earth, but it was also the fulfillment of prophecy. Peter quotes the passage from Joel about how in the last days God will give His voice to His sons and daughters and they will prophesy. This was not a gift that would be kept for only an elite few, but it would be given to all who believe. We have to understand prophesy, however. All too many now believe that prophesy means predicting the future and that humans can be trained to be prophets and they are teaching people to speak words from God. These words are often cryptic, based on dreams or visions and then interpreted to fit into the events of the day.

But those first followers did not prophesy in such a manner. They spoke the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the hearts and minds of those listening. They told of God’s mercy, grace and the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus. The promise found in Joel shows the purpose of the prophecy, “And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Those first Christian prophets did not point to the future, warn the wayward listeners of impending doom or predict the end times, they pointed directly at Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises.

I’ve always worn red hats, ever since I was a teenage girl, long before I heard of the Red Hat Society. I’ve not yet reached that special age, but I don’t intend on putting my hats away for the next few years. The popularity of the society has made it an exclusive privilege for some women. Yet, many young women love the bold and flirty merchandise that is coming out of the group and they are unaware of the rules. They want the glitz and glamour now and they are having great fun creating their own purses and hats with the feathers, flowers and beads.

All too often, the prophets who have attended those special schools also think of themselves as an exclusive, elite group. Their ‘words’ are more powerful, more real and more true. They will not hear what others have to say, especially if there is a question about the validity of their prophecy. There is a very real fear of competition because if a prophet’s words are proven false, then they have no authority in what they believe is their gift. But can a gift be learned? We certainly can learn how to speak different languages. We can even go to seminary or bible college learn how to preach or minister to the needs of the world. But we can’t learn ourselves into having gifts that God has not given us.

Paul tells us that we can’t even confess faith in Christ without God’s help. “…and no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit.” Even the disciples, who’d spent three long years learning from Jesus, could not say that Jesus is Lord without the power of the Spirit. Even to the moment Jesus was taken into heaven, they were still seeing the work of Christ through their own eyes and expectations. They were anxiously awaiting a kingdom that would not come because it was not what God intended. In those ten days while they were constantly in prayer waiting for the promised Comforter, they still did not know what to expect. It was not until the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them that they could prophesy with power.

The gift at Pentecost was not only the Holy Spirit, but each individual was given very specific gifts. The same is true of all Christians. When we are baptized, God gives us all we need to continue His work in this world. Paul tells of many different kinds of gifts and services, but as Christians we are joined together as one body by the power of the Holy Spirit. God gives us these things. He makes them work in our lives and through our lives. He does this for a purpose. Unlike the gifts given to a birthday girl at her sweet sixteen party; the gifts God gives are for the common good. If I am given the gift of prophecy, it is not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of all. If I have wisdom or knowledge, it is for the sake of the body of Christ and the world.

Not all Christians will have all the gifts. But every Christian will have at least one. That is why Paul refers to the Church as the body of Christ and Christians as the parts. “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ.” We are made one in Christ, each with our own individual gifts. Paul also says, “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The Spirit from which we drink is the gift Jesus promised. The work He does in this world through His Spirit is to quench the thirst of those who are thirsty for the Living Water, which is Jesus. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the listeners to come to Him. He was in the Temple during Sukkoth, or the festival of Booths. It was a time to thank God for His abundance at the harvest. The adherents built small tabernacles – booths – to represent God’s protection. They lived and ate in the booths for seven days. Other rituals accompanied the celebrations, including a ritual of libation of water onto the altar. Though this was not originally part of the festival, it had become an important aspect to the people as they sought God’s blessings for their winter planting.

Jesus spoke to them on the seventh day, when great quantities of water would have been poured over the altar. The water ran off the altar, onto the floor and it flowed out of the temple into the valley below. This was not an act of faith, defined by God to be part of the celebration, but a pagan ritual that the people wanted to give them assurance that God would meet their needs. It was as if they thought God did not know they needed water to live.

Jesus saw this ritual and cried out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, from within him shall flow rivers of living water.” John finishes this passage with the promise of the Spirit, the Spirit received at Pentecost. The Spirit comes from Jesus, into our hearts and into our lives. But it is a living Spirit, like flowing water. It is not meant to be hidden away in our hearts or behind the walls of a church building. God gives us the gift of His Spirit, and the gifts that come with His presence in our lives, to be used for the sake of the world. It is living water that flows, into and out of our hearts.

So, on this Pentecost Day, as we celebrate the birthday of the Church, let us see what good things God has given us by His Spirit. What gifts do we have that we can share with others? Where does the living water flow and how is God quenching the thirst of the world through you and the body of Christ of which you are a part? When you were baptized, you too received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit and the gifts that accompany His presence. On that day you were made new. It was your Jubilee Day, when you were set free from the world to serve the Lord. You were renewed and changed for the sake of God’s kingdom in the world.

You may not be a prophet, but all Christians are called and gifted to prophesy – to speak the word of God that points to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – through their own individual gifts so that the world might hear and believe and be saved. While Christianity is a rather exclusive group – only those who believe in the name of Jesus are saved – all are welcome to become part of His body. Let us go out and let the Living Water flow from our hearts so that all might hear, believe and be saved. Thanks be to God.

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