This is the text of the message I presented to KSSM on Sunday 9th June 2019, the Day of Pentecost.
Genesis 15:5-11, 17-18; Tobit 2:1-5; Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost. Pentecost is one of those tricky days when a preacher could say so much that he ends up saying nothing at all. More than once I have been in church on a Sunday when a lay person gets up to preach and he takes every opportunity to say everything he knows in that one sermon, such that three sermons were probably preached and none of them were particularly good. I don’t say that as a slight on lay people, I’m a lay person myself and have been for over forty seven years. No I’m speaking as someone who might easily have said so many things today, and who has had to discipline himself to keep it down to one sermon and one and a half hours. So, if I don’t mention your pet Pentecost topic today that’s okay, come back next year.
The other thing about Pentecost, other than that there is so much to say about it, is that there is an obvious story. Wind and fire, indeed tongues of wind and fire, and speech, and 3000 saved in one sermon. A good preacher might just read Acts 2:1-21 and say “okay, youse all know how it goes, that’ll do” and end it there. What a blessing it is for you that you don’t have a good preacher, you have a great preacher, so I’ll be here and you’ll be there for longer than five minutes…far longer than five minutes.
I am going to begin today by talking about Shavuot, the Jewish festival of weeks and the reason why so many people were gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The significance of Shavuot is laid out by God in Leviticus 23:15-21 and basically it is a harvest festival, which later in Jewish history became associated with the giving of law at Sinai. Seven Sabbaths and then the day after the first blade of the harvest was celebrated at Pesach (Passover) the Jews celebrated a festival of new grain with a wave offering. Food was prepared at home and brought to the gathering, with ritual involvement from the priest before it is consumed, and no ordinary work is done. Shavuot is one of three regalim, pilgrimage festivals (alongside Pesach and Sukkoth), hence the crowds in Jerusalem on that day, although from the language the writer of Acts uses it is likely that many of the foreign Jews listed as present in Acts 2 probably lived in Jerusalem as expats.
In the Hebrew tradition known as Jubilees Shavuot is considered to be an eternal festival, it has always been celebrated in Heaven, and Noah was first to celebrate it on earth. The events of Genesis 15 where God promises a natural heir for Abram and the land that Abram then occupied and much more would be for his descendents, and Genesis 17 where the same promise is repeated to the renamed Abraham occur in the same Jewish month. And it’s also in Jubilees that we read the tradition that Moses received the Law on the fifteenth day of the third month. The story of Exodus chapters 19-24, are summed up in Jubilees 1:4 where the presence of God looks like burning fire on the top of the mountain. As Christians we look back to the fiery bush where God’s spirit had been on Moses, and the anniversary day of the fire circling Mt Sinai, where in Acts 2:4 Ruach haKodesh was on everyone in the room and the fires burned on (but did not consume) their heads.
Shavuot has been celebrated by Jewish people throughout history: it isn’t some random Bible demand that was later forgotten. We read in Tobit 2:1 where Tobit, an exile celebrated the festival in his home in Nineveh and where with his son Tobias, Tobit shared the plenty of his table as an act of rejoicing. There is a direct comparison between Tobit 2:2 and Deuteronomy 16:11. We also read in Tobit 2:4-5 and this is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:8, where love for people comes before the ritual requirements of the festival. Tobit and Tobias go and rescue an abandoned corpse, (think about what you’ve been told about the Good Samaritan story and how the priest and Levite each avoided the dead man beside the road), and Paul delayed his departure from Ephesus until after Shavuot because an important task has been assigned to him by God. Paul is a Pharisee and he makes the important rabbinical legal decision that it is more important to obey God’s direct instruction to stay and minister than it is for him to acknowledge the generic obligation to travel to Jerusalem for Pesach. By making and then recording his decision Paul shows us that the festival was still happening in his day, and that he’d have gone, except that God specifically told him to stay where he was.
So, with the history of Shavuot in mind, and remembering that everything we read from Acts this morning occurs on the day of anniversary of all of that, let’s earwig in as Peter preaches Joel. The traditions of the rabbis and their commentaries on history and interpretation of scripture suggest that Galileans are ignorant: hence the comments in Acts 2:7. Think of that also with the point made by Peter in Acts 2:18 that in the world to come (The Messianic Kingdom of God which is what Joel was prophesying), the Spirit will be poured out even on female slaves. God has no favourites and there is no hierarchical list with the undeserving missing the cut: no, instead of that every person gets all that God offers. And, get this, this news is proclaimed to every nation under Heaven, since all are present (metaphorically speaking), and not only does every nation hear the gospel, every nation hears the gospel in its own dialect. Whether you say pater or whether you say abba everybody says “Father”: that’s the point.
Pentecost is a story of wind and fire, of what the Spirit brought and did. God came close and the city was impacted, impacted by preaching and language yes, but that’s just the evidence. The true impact was Presence and that is what the Church needs more than human activity. The life-giving Breath of God, which blew across the shapeless void before Creation, is now present in sound and fire in a room filled with scared little weird guys. And like Adam the spirit is breathed into the disciples of Jesus, who filled with life (just as the pile of dust was in making a man), come to life and declare the glory of God through testimony. When Jesus said to Nicodemus you must be born again in John 3:5 he also speaks of the breath of God (ruach) breathing where it does, the wind is blowing where the wind blows. It is not we who breathe the Spirit but the Spirit who breathes us, as if we are bellows and God is the one pumping. We breathe to live when it comes to air, but we live to breathe when it comes to Spirit, we live when we are being breathed, our purpose in God is to bellow the Spirit.
Pentecost is a new act of creation; not the act of another Creation, but another act of Creation in that the second one is like the first one, not a new one to replace the old. Got that? Pentecost is God again being God, because God is always God. The point of telling the Adam and Nicodemus stories today is because we are not spiritually alive without the breath of God any more than we can be alive physically without continuously breathing air. The activity of the Spirit’s breathing us is an eternal activity: God does it and God is always doing it. This is why “you must be born again”, not because if you aren’t born again you’ll go to Hell, but because if you aren’t further born you won’t be further created: you won’t actually exist in spirit, only in body. So, again, this is what it means to be born again: it does not and never did mean for Jesus that you convert to Christianity through some verbal formula beginning with “repeat after me, ‘Dear Lord Jesus…’”. It does mean and always did mean for Jesus that you are regenerated by the filling of God, which comes through Baptism in the Spirit (complete immersion in fluid, in this case the fluid is wind and fire). Again, it’s not about praying a “Sinner’s Prayer” on the way in, nor is it about “Speaking in Tongues” on the way out of some specific and mystical experience designated as “altar call”. Of course it can happen in church, and the front of the hall is just as good as the back, my point is that that’s not the formula that Jesus told Nicodemus, so we don’t have to use that formula to be effective. There is no matching formula for baptism in the Spirit like the one for baptism in water because it is God’s Spirit who does it, and God’s Spirit does what God’s Spirit does.
You all know that sometimes I like to speak about what the Bible doesn’t say, or what God doesn’t require: but why don’t I just focus on what God does say? Fair question; but sometimes as pastor I need to speak on God’s behalf to correct error, I need to expose the lie, or the half-truth, so that the truth is made plain. So here it is more plainly: the altar call style of conversion is effective, it works, God honours it, and if you were saved like that then you are saved. But it’s not the only way. To say that someone else’s conversion is not effective because it didn’t look like yours is not right. In fact it’s wrong. In fact it’s rude, and it may even be blasphemy, but we’ll stop at rude at this point. The Bible says that the Spirit moves; so whether you believe in The Bible, or whether you believe in The Spirit, you must accept that ultimately God does whatever God does, and God cannot (and indeed will not) be predicted. I don’t need to add “whether you believe in the Bible and the Spirit” because if you do believe in both then you already know that God is sovereign and resists all boxes.
One my commentators (Boice) observed that it wasn’t just fire that was seen on Pentecost Day, but tongues of fire. Why tongues: because your tongue (along with your larynx) is the hardware for speech. To speak is to exhale (breathe) and to use your tongue; and when there is a tongue of fire then the glory and witness of God is what you speak. Fire is a specific symbol and sign of God’s presence in the Hebrew Traditions, think of the fire pot moving between the slain animals in Genesis 15:17 marking God’s activity (by God’s presence) in declaring a unilateral covenant with Abram. Think of the pillar of fire ahead of the Hebrews in the wilderness, and then enveloping the sacred mountain where only Moses (and only by invitation) was allowed to approach the presence of God.
This is what I long for and what I desire for you: the presence of God is what Pentecost is about. It’s not about whether you speak in tongues; it is about is whether God breathes you into life and breathes life into you, and whether your tongue speaks of God’s flame of warmth and light. Are you close to God? That’s the point of Pentecost. Are you close enough to God that when God moves you are disturbed and made to move too? That’s the point of Pentecost. Are you moving toward and alongside The Father, (abba, pater, bapa, otosan, alab, vader, otec, dad) and looking forward to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God where everyone lives secure and happy in God’s household? That’s the point of Pentecost: so let’s do that.