Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 25:1-15
Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

It will be that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

It may seem hard to believe but there are thousands of different languages around the world. Some of them are spoken by only a few thousand people. More than two thousand languages are endangered, which means so few people speak the language that it may disappear. They don’t all have a system of writing, but thousands do. The rest are verbal. I am sure many of those languages have similarities, but it can be difficult for people to understand each other.

My mom and dad came to visit us when we lived in England. We went to a restaurant similar to Denny’s one day while we were touring the country. The waitress approached our table to give us the specials of the day and my mother could not understand a word she was saying. My mom said, “Could you speak English please?” The waitress answered, “I am. It is our language, you know.” They say that the Americans and the English are separated by a common language and at times that is very true.

One of my favorite books is Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.” Adams has created a funny and incredible universe where people can travel from planet to planet and even galaxy to galaxy. If we think we have trouble with languages, imagine what kind of trouble that they can get into! They have an advantage, though. The travelers wear a “Babelfish” in their ear that automatically translates any language so that strangers can understand one another. It isn’t quite so simple in the real world, though with the internet it is getting much easier. There are apps for your phone that will help you communicate when traveling, and other websites that can help with translation. Unfortunately, those apps and websites are only as good as the languages that have been inputted into the system, and there are still many languages that are not available.

We don’t hear the story of Babel on Pentecost this year, but it is the reason why our languages are so confused. Man had settled together and founded a city. Together they decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven; it is typical of human nature to try to become like the gods. The Lord God Almighty saw that they could accomplish great feats together and so He confused their language and sent people to the four corners of the world. Archeologists have recently identified what they believe could have been the original tower and it is interesting to note that it is dwarfed by the amazing skyscrapers of today.

The problem was not that they were able to build a tower that would reach into heaven: that is impossible. Heaven is not a place we can identify in relation to the world. We have sent rockets to outer space, even cameras to the far edges of our universe, but they will never reach heaven. The problem in Babel was that the people thought they could become like God. Though the language has been confused, human beings have never let that stop them from accomplishing great things. Even in the ancient world people were able to communicate with people of other nations; in today’s world we have seen how small the world has become.

This Sunday we are celebrating Pentecost, the day when God overturned the judgment at Babel. Though they once were divided by different languages, God gave them a new language which would draw them together: the Gospel. The words might be different from nation to nation, but the Gospel is the same everywhere. Jesus Christ died for the sake of the world so that all who believe will be saved.

I have been reading a series of books by Jodi Taylor called “The St. Mary’s Chronicles.” The books are fantasy sci-fi style historical fiction and revolve around St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, a place where historians do a different kind of academic research. It isn’t ‘time travel,’ these historians ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time.’ They travel to the most exciting times and places throughout history to observe and document events and try to answer unanswered questions without changing a single moment which would upset history. They also try not to die in the process. Their escapades are thrilling if not a little insane, and in the end they see history from a whole new point of view.

If I had the opportunity to “investigate a major historical event in contemporary time,” I think I would choose Pentecost. There are certainly plenty of moments during Jesus’ ministry that would be exciting to see firsthand: the feeding of the five thousand, the transfiguration, the raising of Lazarus. However, I think I would like to see this incredible moment when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. What were those tongues of fire? Would I have recognized God’s hand in the event, or (like so many that day) would I think the disciples were drunk? What did it sound like? Was it chaotic or more like an orchestra?

In the Old Testament lesson we see that Moses was overwhelmed. He was leading a million people away from slavery into an unknown Promised Land. He only knew what God had told him and that God was faithful. He did not know when they would arrive or what they would find when they got there. The people were tired. They were hungry. They were scared. They wanted to go back to the place Egypt, despite the reality that they would go back to being slaves. They remembered having food to eat and water to drink. In Egypt they had roofs over their heads and they did not have to walk endlessly through the desert. Slavery seemed the much better choice. They complained, and Moses did not know how he, one man, could possibly handle the people any longer.

God told Moses to gather the elders of Israel. When they were gathered, He took the Spirit that rested on Moses and divided it among the other elders. He gave them the authority to lead the people, to share in Moses’ responsibility. He took some of the burden from Moses and laid it on others. This act of mercy meant Moses would have to let go of some of the control, but Joshua was not ready for Moses to do this. The problem was not that Moses had helpers, but that God had appointed helpers that were not on Moses’ list. The Spirit also fell on some men who had not come to the gathering. “Tell them to stop,” Joshua told Moses. Moses was not bothered by this development because he knew that it came from God. God is in control, not Moses. As a matter of fact, Moses would have preferred for every Hebrew to prophecy for the Lord.

I had a conversation with a friend a number of years ago about the Holy Spirit. She insisted that all people had the Holy Spirit. She conceded, perhaps, that it might be only believers who have the Holy Spirit, but continued to insist that Old Testament believers had God’s Spirit just as we do. I think she confused the idea that we have spirit as well as flesh with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. There were certainly people throughout the Old Testament who were equipped with God’s Spirit. Saul, as king, had God’s Spirit until God took it away and anointed David. The judges and prophets had God’s Spirit. The elders found in today’s Old Testament lesson were given God’s Spirit so that they could help Moses.

The disciples had first received the Holy Spirit on the night of the Resurrection. Jesus had breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit in that breath, just as the elders had received on that day in the wilderness. Others in the Old Testament had also experienced the help of God’s Spirit. The Spirit breathed on them was enough to help them learn and understand what Jesus taught them for forty days, and to patiently wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ gift. They waited and they prayed until the right time.

While there were those in the Old Testament who were equipped with God’s Spirit to do His work, I think there is a difference between what happened in the camp of the Israelites and what happened with the Christians at Pentecost in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit rested on those who were called in the Old Testament, but Luke tells us in the passage from Acts that “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit...”

The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, not just as a breath like they experienced seven weeks ago, or like it came upon those in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit came into the world in a new way. They were not just kissed by the Spirit. The Spirit did not just land on them. At Pentecost they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled. God was no longer going to work at them from the outside, pushing, leading, guiding; now He would move them from within. They would not just learn God’s Word in their heads, it would be written on their hearts. The words they spoke, though in their own voice, would be God’s Word as He spoke through them. At Pentecost the hope of Moses was fulfilled.

Why were the people in Jerusalem? The Jewish people celebrated the Feast of Weeks fifty days after Passover; this festival was also known as Shavuot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest. They gave offerings from the first fruits of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for His blessings and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly calendar. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.

The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.

The Old was great. The New is greater.

Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. They brought with them offerings of wheat, figs, olives and grapes to praise God for His goodness. I imagine it was an exciting time, but also a confusing time. After all, though they were Jews, they lived in foreign lands and knew foreign tongues. They may have been familiar with Hebrew from the scriptures, but Hebrew was not the commonly spoken language of the day.

Some of the listeners were perplexed, others were amazed, and some just thought it was drunkenness. Peter stood up before the people and explained that this was the fulfillment of the hope of Moses, 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 in their own language was a most miraculous thing, especially since most of the disciples were uneducated laborers who probably knew Aramaic fluently, enough Hebrew for worship, and perhaps just enough Greek necessary for business. Those disciples barely even understood the message they were giving with their own tongues! But Jesus sent the helper, the Spirit of God who gave voice to what they knew to be true in their hearts and the words to make it understandable to others.

The Jews had other festivals during the year, including Sukkoth or the Festival of Booths. This was another harvest festival, but while Shavuot celebrated the first fruits in the spring, Sukkoth was in the fall and the people thanked God for His abundant generosity at the harvest. The adherents built small booths, or tabernacles, to represent God’s protection. They lived and ate in the booths for seven days.

Today’s Gospel lesson took place on the seventh day of Sukkoth. Jesus was watching a ritual during which great quantities of water were poured over the altar. The water ran off of the altar, onto the floor and it flowed out of the temple into the valley below. This was not originally part of the festival designated by God, it was a pagan ritual that the people had adopted so that they might feel assured of God’s provision and blessing on their winter planting. It was not an act of faith or obedience; they acted as if they thought God did not know they needed water to live.

Jesus saw this ritual and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” When we drink of the water that comes from God, by His Holy Spirit, living water will wash through our lives into the world. The promised Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost; He comes to us at baptism and continues to come to us as we live our lives of faith. The Spirit does not come for our own assurance or benefit, but so that the living water of Christ might flow into the world. We use our gifts to share the message which Christ came to give: forgiveness. He sent the disciples, and so now sends us, to take that message into the world so that the world might be saved.

As we look at the motley crew of disciples that Jesus called, we know that He didn’t choose people who were equipped to continue His work. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Others may have been fishermen, too, although we don’t know the occupation of all the disciples before they met Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector. Simon was a Zealot and possibly a warrior, passionate about defeating the Romans. Judas may not have been a criminal, but he certainly had scandalous intentions. They weren’t schooled in religious teachings, although I am sure that they all had learned enough at the feet of their mothers and in the temple or synagogues. They weren’t trained to be preachers or teachers. They probably knew as much about the scriptures as the average Christian knows today. They were no different than you and I.

Yet, they were called to do great things! I doubt any of them could have imagined where their lives would lead after meeting Jesus Christ. We may never accomplish as much as those disciples. Very few of us will be involved in the establishment of new churches. I don’t think many of us will ever say that we’ve been the hands through which God healed someone who is sick or raised someone through the dead. Most of us don’t even think we can speak well enough to share the Good News with our neighbors. The scriptures tell us the disciples did all those things. The church grew in number and geographically. People were healed and raised. God changed the world through that motley crew of people.

There is a popular saying among Christians, “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.” The origin of this saying is unknown, or rather, it has been credited to several different people. There are certainly scripture texts that suggest this very thought. It means that God will provide whatever you need to do His work. Sadly, many people think they are unqualified to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, to be His servants, to share His Gospel. There seems to be people who are more able to preach or teach or serve. They are. But that doesn’t mean that God has called each of us to do His work. We, too, receive the gifts necessary for whatever opportunity God will send our way. We are all unqualified by our own power or gifts. It is God’s power and His gifts that make us His witnesses in the world in word and in deed.

Though we were not there on that Pentecost nearly two thousand years ago, and we’ll never get to “investigate the event in contemporary time” we benefit from the experience as much as they did. The Holy Spirit fell for all Christians as a promise of God’s continuing ministry with and through us today. We won’t see flames of fire or hear the chaotic symphony of all those voices, but we have been given the same Spirit and gifts they received.

Ultimately, Pentecost is about God establishing a new, more intimate relationship with His people. His Spirit would no longer rest upon specific people who are called to do specific works. Now He fills all His people to restore us to Himself and make us inheritors of His Kingdom, calling us to use our gifts to share the Gospel with the world. God confused the language at Babel, but when we receive the Holy Spirit we are taught the eternal language that saves.

The psalmist lists his hope for a relationship with the divine. He does not want to be put to shame. He does not want his enemies to triumph over him. He believes that those who trust in God will never be put to shame, but the treacherous enemies will. The psalmist hopes that God will show His ways and teach His paths to those who believe. He wants to be guided in truth and to be taught by the only one in whom we can have hope. He hopes God will remember His mercy and love. He hopes God will forget his sin. “Remember me according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh.” His hope is based entirely on God’s goodness. The psalmist goes on to describe the reason we can trust in God. God is good and upright. He instructs, guides and teaches His people in the right way. His way is loving and faithful. He takes care of those who live according to His Word.

Jesus said that if we believe in Him, He would give us living water that will flow from our lives. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, to live and work to God’s glory. As believers, we live in Christ, baptized into His body. We are joined with other believers by the power of the Holy Spirit as He moves in our lives. God has blessed us so that the living water will flow through us into the world. Our Father gives us the greatest gift when we believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. He has given us His Spirit so that we can join in the work of sharing His mercy and grace. The Living Water flows from us so that others will be able to drink from the fountain of life.

Will it be easy? Of course not. The disciples learned immediately that there would always be someone unwilling to believe that God is at work. They will blame and accuse; they will harass and threaten. Some Christians will even die at the hands of those who want to degrade and shame God’s people. But we know that even if we do face the terror of persecution, God is on our side. He will not let us be shamed; He will be faithful to all His promises. He’ll guide us, teach us, and encourage us. He will give us the power and strength. He will give us the words. He does all this from within, dwelling in our hearts as His Living water flows from us into the world. And in that day when we no longer live in this world, whether we die by natural causes or at the hand of an enemy, God will be waiting to take us into eternity to live with Him forever. Our death will not be our shame; it will be our greatest moment of glory.

Today we recall the Pentecost when the church was born, how by His Spirit the body of Christ is manifest in this world. Ever since that day in Jerusalem, Jesus has continued to give the Holy Spirit to those who believe so that we too might have the voice to speak and the words that will bring salvation to others. In the beginning, there was some confusion. Some even thought they were drunk. Things are not much different, for there are many who consider Christians nothing more than silly storytellers. And yet, Jesus has promised that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Every day people hear the message that we take into the world and miraculously, some believe. The miracle is not in our ability or in our words, but in the Holy Spirit who gives faith to those who hear with a humble heart.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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