Sunday, May 31, 2009

Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

And ye shall know that I am Jehovah, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, O my people.

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 legends in every nation concerning the advent of language, including the story found in the scriptures about the Tower of Babel. Despite the large number of languages we know to exist, some of the ancient legends claim that there are seventy different languages. In one such legend, it is said that the leaders in Pharaohís court were jealous of Joseph. They insisted that Joseph should not have so much power since he was a slave purchased with a few coins and they demanded that he be demoted if he could not speak the seventy languages of the nations. The legend claims that 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; it is said that seventy tongues of fire fell from the sky so that each nation in the world could understand Godís Law. In the end, only one nation promised to keep the Law, and that was Israel.

The festival of Pentecost for the Jews had several purposes. First of all it was the feast of weeksóa celebration of the first fruits. The people went to the temple to offer the first grain from their harvest. The timing of the festival mattered because it was also connected to the Law given at Sinai. They believed that it took Moses and the Hebrews fifty days to get to Mount Sinai, so the festival occurred fifty days following the Passover. Pentecost was an agricultural festival, but it was also a festival about Godís Word. I suspect that at the celebrations, the Hebrew legend of the giving of the Law was repeated by storytellers as the Hebrew people remembered that they were the only ones who honor God with their righteous obedience to His Law.

Pentecost for modern Christians is an agricultural celebration or to remember the giving of the Divine Law at Sinai, but it is about first fruits and words. It is about God giving His Holy Spirit to His chosen people and laying His Word upon their hearts. It is about renewing a people who were dying in their own sin, giving them new life and calling them to take that life into the world so that others might see God glorified in their lives and believe.

Conviction and condemnation is so powerfully manifest in the lessons for this week. Sunday is Pentecost; it has been fifty days since the resurrection. This is the day the disciples were waiting for in Jerusalem, the promised day when the Advocate would come to help continue the work of Jesus in and through the lives of the disciples. It was ten days following Jesusí ascension and the disciples were waiting prayerfully as they had been told. We often think of the disciples in saintly terms, as if they were perfect and incorrupt just from knowing Jesus. However, they were ordinary men. They were just like you and I. They suffered the same fear, doubt and pain that we experience when things donít seem to be going our way.

The disciples were left alone on the day Jesus ascended to heaven. I wonder if they were 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. Did they wonder if they could ever enjoy the feasts again? They may have even thought about abandoning the cause, joining in the feast around them, returning to their old ways. They were already falling into the busy-ness of doing church as we saw in last weekís story.

But God said, ďI have spoken and I will act.Ē This is the promise of Pentecost, a realization of the promise given in the story from Ezekiel. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, they took the Hebrews into exile. Godís people were far from home a long time, living amongst people who seemed to have much more powerful gods than the God which they worshiped. They felt abandoned. 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 they assimilated into the culture of the world around them. In essence they 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. During the exile, God's people forgot who they were. But God would not let them go.

The lesson from Ezekiel is about Godís promise of restoration. God tells the prophet to speak to the dry bones, to speak life into the bones, to speak Godís Spirit into the bones. Ezekielís message was one of hope. The people thought they had nothing left. 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 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.

Todayís Old Testament lesson is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. He gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. While I doubt that this will literally happen in our seeing, this is what God does every day with His Word. He speaks His word into our lives and brings to life those who are dead in their sin. He puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in Godís promises. God promised to bring new life to His people. Jesus promised that the new life would only come if He left, but He promised to send an Advocate.

When I hear the word advocate, I think that it refers to someone who speaks for the underdog. There are those who have no voice in this world, or have voices that can not be heard, who need someone to speak for them: the young, the unborn, the persecuted, the dying. It is good to stand for justice and to help people who can not help themselves. Sometimes that means giving them what they need, but sometimes it does mean being a voice that can be heard for their sake. It is easy to assume that the strong and powerful do not need an advocate.

However, in this passage, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as an advocate bearing witness for Jesus. Why does Jesus need an advocate? Who is more powerful than Jesus? Who is more able to defeat the wicked and stand against injustice? Who is able to restore and heal and transform the world? There are none more able than Jesus. Yet, He tells us that heíll send an advocate to be His witness. Even more amazing is that He says that we will also bear witness, be advocates. We will be advocates for Him? What can we possibly do? We can stand up for Jesus, to speak on His behalf. We can tell the world what He has, can and will do. Jesus canít be everywhere at once. He canít take care of every minute detail of life of every person in the world. He has, however, sent an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us how to be advocates for Jesus. With His help, we can stand up not only for Jesus, but as Jesus in this world. We are His voice. We are His hands. We are His witnesses.

Our task as advocates is two-fold. We speak about Jesus, witnessing to the world about the grace and mercy of God. We also act in Jesusí stead, sharing our resources, time and talents. It is not necessary to give everything away, but God calls us to be good stewards of what we have been given. Everything we have belongs to God, and He has Ďhiredí us act with Him in the business of the Kingdom. It is not our task to tell others what they should be doing. We become advocates because we have been given the Holy Spirit to teach us and lead us in the ways of righteousness. With His power, we are the voice and hands of God. On that first Pentecost, the disciples were the first to receive the gift. But they were not the last, as God has continued to issue His Spirit to those who hear the Word and believe.

Did everyone believe on that first Pentecost day? As the tongues of fire landed on the disciples and they started speaking in languages that they could understand, the people listening were amazed and perplexed. But not everyone came to believe what they were hearing. In verse 41 we hear, ďThey then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls.Ē But some just thought it was silliness due to drunkenness.

Peter stood up before the people and explained that this was the fulfillment of the promise given through the prophet Joel, that the Spirit would come upon all people and they would do amazing things. Certainly, the fact that people from all over the world could hear the message of forgiveness in their own language was a most miraculous thing. The disciples were uneducated laborers who probably only knew Aramaic fluently, enough Hebrew for worship and perhaps just enough Greek necessary for business. They barely knew and understood the message they were giving in their own tongues! But Jesus sent the helper. The Spirit of God gave them voice to what they knew to be true in their hearts and the words to make it understandable to others. The Advocate made them advocates for God.

Pentecost is a time of new beginnings. We see new beginnings in the texts for today. The story from Ezekiel is the promise of a new beginning to the exiled people of God. Jesus promises a new beginning to the disciples, a new life of speaking Godís word into those who are lost and dead in their sin. Those who hear and believe are given a new beginning, a new life in Christ Jesus.

In the Psalm we are reminded of the creation, Godís good creation. As Godís advocates we are given everything we need to share Godís grace with the world. We are given the words and language we need to share the message. We are given the resources to share with those whose needs are so great that they canít hear. God does not expect us to do it alone. He has given us all of His creation to continue the work of reconciliation that Jesus began. And all of creation longs for the day when Godís promises will be fulfilled because when we failed, we took the whole world down with us.

Paul writes, ďFor we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.Ē The creation suffers because of our sin, not only because we abuse and misuse the things that God has so graciously given to our care. The creation suffers because we suffer. It is broken because we are broken. And it longs for the day when it will be made whole again. The promise has been fulfilled and has yet to be fulfilled. We have the first fruits, so it is up to us to begin reconciling the world and one another to God. We canít do it alone, which is why God has sent His Spirit to help us. And we wonít finish the job, thatís up to God. But we know that He will do it in His time and in His way. He will make us whole again. Until then, we groan along with the entire creation for God to bring new life and a new heaven and a new earth as He has promised.

Will everyone believe? No, unfortunately there will always be those scoffers who think we are drunk on wine or hanging on to myths and fairy tales. Many people are not willing to just believe based on the oral testimony of Christians or the written testimony found in the scriptures. They seek physical proof of the existence of God. We can see the truth of God in everything around us: in His creation. Psalm 104 speaks of Godís mighty hand as He made everything and set the waters in motion. The psalmist gives praise to God for the animals, the earth and the heavens.

Though this evidence will do nothing to change the mind of one who has judged that God does not exist, creation does provide constant reminders to those with faith that God is very close and active with His people. I find it impossible to walk out my door without seeing the hand of God in the landscape, people and circumstances that come my way. We can hope that one day they will see it, too. And hope is very real; it is not about the wishes and dreams of foolish children. Hope is the expectation of fulfilled promises. Since the promises have been given by God, and God is faithful, He will be faithful to His promises. They will know that He is God one day.

Which language will we use? Iím pretty much limited to English unless God does a miraculous think like He did for the disciples on that first Pentecost. But even if the words I always speak are one simple language, I have been given a new tongue, a new thing to say. Godís Word is unique. It is different than what the world has to offer. I hope that at every opportunity I use those words I have for His sake and for the sake of those who have yet to hear to the Good News. We remain in this creation because there is still work to do. The living dead still walk the earth. And God is more patient than we are. He will wait until every last person for whom the promise is given hears and believes.

We live in hope. We arenít complete. We have been re-created, but we still live in the shadow of the world. But God has called us to be advocates, His witnesses in the here and now. So, as advocates for the one true and living God, we sing His praise, glorifying Him before the world. Thousand by thousand, or one by one, the dead will hear and they will be raised. They will be restored by His mercy and transformed by His forgiveness. Godís Word will give them life and they will be re-created into something new, receiving the first fruits of the promise. And then one day we will all see the fulfillment, no longer caught between the already and the not yet; no longer living as saints and sinners, but fully adopted as Godís children and resurrected into the glorious creation God intends us to be.

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