(Preached at Alger First UMC on 5/24/2015)
Pentecost Day, Year B. Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-35; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Come Holy Spirit. In the midst of difficulties and challenge may we witness to the love of Jesus. In the midst of uncertainty and fear, may we know your wisdom guiding us to the Father. In the midst of our relationships, may we know the fire of your love burning in our hearts and radiating through our lives. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts please you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Speak through or in spite of me to these, your people.
I think one of the first things we have to do today is figure out what Pentecost actually is. That might seem pretty straight forward since we normally think of the Scripture passage I just read as being Pentecost, that’s it. But Pentecost did not originally belong to us Christians. Pentecost was originally a Jewish holiday. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, it’s normally called Shavuot (shah-voo-awt) in the Hebrew. It’s celebrated fifty days after the Passover, which is why it’s called Pentecost in Greek, because Pentecost just means 50 days.
Now Shavuot was one of three pilgrimage festivals for the Jewish people. Passover and Sukkot are the other two. And these are called pilgrimage festivals because in ancient Israel, these were the days that God called each family in Israel to travel to Jerusalem and bring in the first fruits or gatherings from the harvests of their fields as offerings to God.
Now today, it’s not a harvest festival anymore, but the Jewish people still celebrate it. It has become a day to celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai. If you don’t know what the Torah is, Christians normally think of it as the first five books of the Bible, sometimes we call it the Jewish Bible, and we think specifically of the 10 Commandments that God gave Moses and Moses gave to the Israelites. But Torah is really more than that. For the Jewish people, that was only the beginning of this covenant relationship. So on Shavuot, they celebrate when God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, knowing that this was really the beginning of their covenant relationship with God, where God said “This is how I want you to live as my people.”
I mentioned earlier that Shavuot or Pentecost is 50 days after the Passover. In Deuteronomy, we can see God telling the Jewish people to mark this whole period as sacred and holy, similar to how we view Lent. With this, God completely bound Shavuot together with the Passover. And I think looking at this relationship can shed some light on what Pentecost should mean to us today.
In case you don’t know, Passover, just like Shavuot, was also a harvest celebration at first, but it is also the day our Jewish brothers and sisters commemorate and celebrate their escape from Egypt. The Egyptians had been oppressing the Israelites and forcing them into slavery for hundreds of years. But then God called Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and eventually into the Promised Land. This is the biggest, defining, watershed moment for all Jewish people. This is what formed them as a nation and what continues to give them their identity today.
While this day is incredibly important for our Jewish sisters and brothers, when God had them link Passover to Shavuot or Pentecost, I believe that he was saying that the work of freedom is not done on Passover. They’d left Egypt, but they weren’t completely free yet.
You see, on Passover, the Jewish people remember when they gained their physical freedom from slavery in Egypt. They physically left Egypt. But on Shavuot, when the Torah was given to them through God and Moses, they were freed spiritually. The sense here is that now, their exodus is finally complete. They are now completely free.
This is when Israel became God’s people, God’s nation. When they enter into this covenant, they are finally completely and utterly free. They have now completely escaped their masters in Egypt, they are totally free of all oppression and hurt and pain and worthless toil. They are freed and set loose to do what they were created to do: the will of God. And they remember all of this on Shavuot, or Pentecost. Make sense?
So now, keep all that in mind as we talk about what actually happened in the Scripture passage for today, the reason that today is such a big day for Christians everywhere. On Pentecost Day, all of the disciples, not just the 12, but probably around 120 followers of Jesus, were all gathered together. Last Sunday, we remembered Jesus ascending into heaven and telling them to wait in Jerusalem. So that’s what they were doing, they were waiting there for whatever it is that Jesus had promised them, and they’ve been waiting for 10 whole days.
All of a sudden, the wind started howling like a tornado and blowing into the room, making their hair fly everywhere, blowing the food off the table, blowing papers everywhere. It was the same wind that God breathed out over the newly created Earth at the beginning of time; the same wind that God had breathed into Adam and Eve to give them life; it was the same wind that parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape through; it was the same wind that gave life to the dry bones right in front of Ezekiel’s eyes-it was the breath and the wind of God, the Holy Spirit.
Then they saw something that looked like miniature flames of fire, it must have been bizarre. And the little flames came down and came to rest over each one of them. With that, the community was filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them. And it wasn’t the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues like we understand today. There were people from all over the ancient world gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, with all different languages represented. The disciples were speaking in all of those different languages so that their message could be understood.
Now I’m sure the question everyone was asking was “What does this mean?” And I think to see what this event really means, we have to look back at the two Jewish festivals I talked about a few minutes ago, Passover and Shavuot.
Most of us probably know that Easter happened at Passover, that’s pretty clear from the Passion narratives. At Passover, God freed the Israelites from oppression and slavery in Egypt and enabled them to leave their former masters. So when Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and rose again on the weekend of Passover, God was drawing a parallel there. God was saying “You are now freed from the prisons of sin and brokenness and defeat. Jesus’ death and resurrection has given you freedom, you are now free to leave your masters of doubt and anger and greed and lust and selfishness. They don’t rule you anymore-You. Are. Free. But I think the feeling is that our redemption story is not done yet. We might like to celebrate Easter and think that that’s it, but I think it’s more like Part 1 of our redemption.
Now the Christian Pentecost happens at the same time as Shavuot, like we’ve already talked about. And what I think this says is that just like Shavuot completed Passover, Pentecost completes Easter. Remember, at Passover the Jewish people celebrate their physical freedom from slavery, when God made them physically able to leave their slave masters. And Shavuot is when they gained their spiritual freedom, when they were finally set free by the Torah to live as God’s people. This is what’s happening here. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit frees us and empowers us to be the body of Christ. We are not just freed from the prisons of our own selfishness and brokenness, we are freed from them SO THAT we can be the body of Christ and live as God’s chosen community, dearly and impossibly loved, empowered and freed to do whatever God is calling us to do.
See, what’s happened here is that the Gospel itself has been freed and set loose. The message of our ultimate freedom and redemption and hope and help and power in Jesus Christ is not constrained by anything anymore. The Holy Spirit has set it free. That’s why the disciples are speaking in all kinds of different languages. The Holy Spirit has filled them and given real power to their message that it can’t possibly be contained by any language or ethnic or racial or socioeconomic or any other kind of barrier that we can put against it.
So the question we have to ask now is “From what do WE need to be freed?” Because we all need to be freed from something. Maybe you feel the sting and slight panic of debt and you don’t know how you’re going to get free from that. Maybe you’re feeling the pang of loneliness and you feel like it’s holding you captive and keeping you from enjoying life. Maybe you’re dealing with pressing medical concerns with yourself or your family and you have no idea when it could end, and it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel is so far away, that you’ll never find it. All of this and more can hold us captive and keep us in prisons of doubt and anger and fear and loneliness and worry. But Pentecost gives us a message of hope in the midst of that, because at Pentecost, we learn what it is we really need to be freed from.
At Pentecost, we are freed from our small conceptions of who God is and how God works. So often we try to trap God in this neat little box and we try to keep God there. Maybe it gives us comfort, maybe it just gives us something to be mad at when things aren’t going right-we can yell and scream at this God-in-a-box when we feel trapped and imprisoned because that God isn’t doing anything. So we might say: “Where are you God? Why aren’t you helping me here? I’m drowning in debt, my marriage is falling apart, people I love have died, I can’t seem to stay out of the hospital and the doctors aren’t really doing anything. God, you don’t care about me, you’re too busy saving the world from real problems like hunger and poverty and corruption in third-world countries that of course you aren’t going to help me with my debt or our my health or any of my other problems, my problems are too small.”
But the message of Easter and Pentecost is that God does care and that God does come and help. The Holy Spirit came to that community of disciples, only 120 of them. That’s not that many people. And the Holy Spirit came to each one of them. Those flames of fire came to rest over each individual person-there were 120 flames of fire for 120 disciples. The Holy Spirit comes to each of us and sees us and all of our problems and doubts and worries and sees all of the prisons that each of us are caught in and offers freedom for each one of us.
And when this happened, this God broke out of every box we could possibly keep God in. God saw our boxes that we worship and said “That’s a cute little box. But look around you. Hear the wind? That’s me. See the fire? That’s me. I am in you and all around you and I will not be contained by any constraint or box you might try to keep me in.
Pentecost also frees us from our incredibly small conceptions of what the community of God is supposed to look like. The disciples were comfortable with each other because everyone around them looked like them and believed like them. Now they are the ones trapped and confined in this box. But they like it there. Even though this box is their prison, they like it. It’s nice and comfy, they’re insulated from change. But the box couldn’t keep out the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit came upon them and filled them, they began speaking in all these different languages of people who didn’t look or believe like them. They invited Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, Arabs. They invited them all to believe in the Gospel message and be saved because the community of God welcomes anyone who wants to change their hearts and lives and be set free from their prisons by the blood of Jesus Christ. This box exploded and the church was set free.
The Holy Spirit breaks through any box that we try to imprison ourselves in. This means we are called to be free from the prisons of discrimination. We are called to invite everyone, even if they look different from us: Black and white, Latino, Asian; rich, poor and middle class; conservatives AND liberals; straight AND gay. The community of God looks different than anything we could imagine and the Holy Spirit calls us to be free from the walls that we put up around ourselves to keep everything and everyone looking the same. We are called to invite everyone in.
At Pentecost, we are also freed from the doubts about this church here. When we’re faced with concerns and worries and doubts about not having enough money or funding or time or energy, it’s easy to doubt that this church can have any kind of effect on this community. This church has such a great history of international missions. But it’s easy to think that those days are behind us and that we’re not even able to have any kind of impact in this Village. Now, we’re working on the Community Outreach Center and a lot of big projects are done on that building-the foundation is laid, the pipes are in, the floor has been poured, all of that and more has been done. But it’s easy to get discouraged and worry about whether we’re actually going to finish it. It’s easy to put this congregation in this box. But the Holy Spirit calls us to be free from those doubts and worries. The Spirit calls this congregation to be free from this box because the Spirit takes away any need to be worried.
You see, now, we have such a great opportunity to fulfill Christ’s call to our own community with this Community Outreach Center. The Holy Spirit has called us to this community, this Village of Alger. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit freed God from the box we try to keep God in, we have been freed from the box we try to keep the community of God in. And now, the Holy Spirit has freed this church from the box that insulates from our community. I can hear the wind blowing, I can see the little flames landing on each person here. I can see the freedom found in the Holy Spirit extended out into this community. And I can see a village changed for the better, with each person having felt the grace of God extended from this church. Isn’t this something that you want? Isn’t this something worth fighting for? This is what we are called to. This is what the Holy Spirit is pulling us toward. May we follow this Spirit. May we allow ourselves to be blown by the wind and feel the heat of the fire pushing us forward. May we see the places the Holy Spirit is calling us to and may we go to those places and do what we are called to do. May we offer the freedom found at Pentecost and free this community from their doubts, their worries, their pain, their loneliness, their anger, and any other prison that holds them. And may we stay open to the moving of this Spirit.