Texts: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39
The Day of Pentecost. A festival day; people in party clothes, national prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving; lots of food and absolutely no social distancing whatsoever. And then out of nowhere, the Holy Spirit of God arrives in a mighty rush of wind and fire. Glorious and terrifying.
This scene is difficult to imagine from the distance of twenty-one centuries, and with our minds hard-wired for reason and facts and not so much for the mysteries of God’s Spirit. If it’s any comfort, it wasn’t any more comprehensible when it happened. There was amazement, astonishment, bewilderment, perplexity, and some sneering. (God’s Spirit is always opposed!)
The Jewish holy day of Pentecost, is called Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks. It’s a double observance marking the end of the grain harvest in Israel, and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Coming seven weeks after Passover, this joyful festival is marked by feasting and dancing rather than lengthy religious rituals.
A prayer of thanksgiving was said for God’s Covenant Law given in the Torah. A prayer was given for the first fruits offering from the wheat harvest, which farmers brought to the Temple. Then people dispersed to their homes for the main event - the best food and drink to be had.
And so this is where the apostles were that Shavuot festival day, the first one after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Everyone in a very chill frame of mind. There was no reason to expect that the Spirit of God would show up just then and right there.
No one was thinking about how Jesus had spoken to the disciples about the Spirit’s coming to them after he was glorified. This promise of the Spirit’s arrival had occurred many months previously when the disciples were at the fall harvest festival Succoth. (It’s also called the Festival of Booths, and it’s traditional to eat outdoors in rustic booth-like structures.)
Around then, the subject of Jesus’s identity was an increasingly heated topic in Jerusalem. His brothers went to the festival but Jesus lingered in Galilee. He arrived later, in the middle of the festival and did pop-up teaching events in the Temple. People praised his spiritual insight, but Jesus replied that he only spoke what God gave him to speak, and for God’s glory only, not his own. He told them that anyone who spoke to glorify herself or himself was not to be trusted.
At that time, Jesus described the Spirit as an abundant spring of water cascading out from the hearts of those who believed in him as God’s message of deliverance. Such visions of water as Jesus described are from the prophet Isaiah. All are references to God’s giving, sustaining and renewing life in faithful people despite the most adverse of circumstances, physical and spiritual.
Jesus taught until the last day when unexpectedly, he called out to all listeners. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” All this had transpired publicly in Jerusalem. John says this was the promise of the Spirit. But, it seems that no one remembered.
If the ensuing history of human beings and God is any indication, it seems that we are not ever ready to see or to receive the Spirit. In fact, we seem perpetually to be looking the other way when the Spirit does arrive, with the result that we stand in the aftermath saying, O! M! G!* what was that? Everyone that is, except the people who have not forgotten the promise; have not forgotten the power of belief; have not forgotten the glory of God.
The witnesses of that Pentecost wind-event mostly interpreted it with explanations from ordinary human experience. Trying to name the spiritual force that was present, they cried out. This wild wind has stirred up an unholy crowd! They are drunk! Out of control! Reckless fire-setters!
Peter, on the other hand interpreted it correctly, reciting the spiritual history in Joel’s prophecy spoken in the midst of very bad times, fore-seeing new visions and fresh dreams. These were the last days of something that had to go. Something that become so hard, so broken, so firmly rooted inside of humankind that nothing less than the whole unleashed power of God’s Sprit could shake it loose.
Startled into action, the apostles found themselves pouring out stories of the majesty of God. Things they’d seen for themselves. Things they’d heard from other people. Things that just welled up from their hearts, unexpectedly broken open to sing God’s praises. They told outrageous hope, told blessing, told crazy mercy, forgiveness, and God’s outrageous restoration of life through Jesus Christ.
Every person there was able to hear the message in his or her own language. Why? Because, as Jesus said, when it’s the glory of God that’s surrounding you, it breaks right though all barriers of language, including those of age, gender, and culture. Just cracks things wide open and enters whether we’re ready or not.
The bible is packed with images of raging fire, pouring water, and restless winds. All of them refer to spiritual unsettling, deep-cleaning and renewal. God knows we need it.
Oh, it doesn’t feel safe when it happens. It isn’t safe really. When the Spirit is on the move, your world is rocked. That’s why the psalmist said that the glory of the Lord makes the earth tremble. Your only choice then is to hide in fear, or to stand there and sing from your heart. And if you choose to stand and sing, it’s a good idea to stand and sing with others.
The Spirit is here, upon all of us now, just as it was on a long-ago festival day in a common house in Jerusalem. Stirring people from illusion and dormancy. Unmasking all who come with any tale of glory apart from the one God speaks to us through Jesus Christ. Even here in our relatively quiet island communities God’s Spirit speaks. It calls us not just to be people of good will, but to be people who actively will the good even as the fury of destructive forces increases.
Beyond this raging, roaring time is something beautiful. Many will live to see that day. But all people who stand faithfully with God believe and see it already. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*OMG stands for “Oh my God!” People say this all the time, whether they believe in God or not. As Jesus rightly said, God finds a way to be proclaimed, even by those who do not believe (yet).
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.