A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on June 12, 2011.
“If you can do it by yourself, it won’t be very big!” I still recall the very day my friend and mentor said that to me. It was my Pentecost moment and the message I certainly needed to hear as I embarked upon ministry.
Today’s text reminds me of that advice and how important it is to partner with God and anyone He places in my path who wants to make life better for all people. Let me tell you what I mean.
The story of Pentecost is familiar to most of us. During this popular and well-attended Jewish festival in Jerusalem, fifty days after Easter, the disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in many languages. This was followed by what is considered the first Christian sermon preached by Simon Peter, the leader of the apostles. In this sermon, Peter explained the connection between the long history of God’s work of redemption and Jesus.
One reason the disciples were given the ability to speak in a variety of languages, which amazed and perplexed just about everyone, was because of the large number of Jewish pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate Pentecost. In all likelihood, this festival drew the largest crowds to the Holy City because it occurred in late spring, providing good weather for traveling.
In many ways, Pentecost is like our Thanksgiving. It was a one-day celebration of the spring wheat harvest. Leviticus 23: 15-16 states, “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.”
Tradition has also connected this festival to an observance of the time Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, establishing a covenant between God and the Israelites. Perhaps this is true, but it appears the major emphasis focused upon expressing heart-felt gratitude to God for his many blessings, especially daily bread.
It was while Jesus’ disciples were gathered in a room near the temple that something remarkable occurred. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received power through the Holy Spirit. At this gathering during Pentecost, the Spirit came. Listen to Luke’s description.
“When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning, there was a sound like a strong, gale force wind. No one could tell where it came from and it filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. At this sound, the crowd gathered and was bewildered because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” Acts 2:1-8.
Luke goes on to record Peter’s sermon that day to the masses. He shared the story of Jesus with them and concluded by saying, “Let all of Israel be assured of this. God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” Acts 2:36.
Upon hearing this, the people asked the disciples, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, for all whom the Lord will call” Acts 2:37b-39.
Of course, not everyone embraced Peter or his message, but Luke records that 3,000 responded to Peter’s plea by being baptized. You can only imagine how that made him and the disciples feel. They had to be euphoric!
How does this story speak to us today? What is Luke’s message for us? Perhaps it is the same one I received years ago when I embarked upon ministry. “If you can do it by yourself, it won’t be very big.” Pentecost reminds us that the task Jesus has assigned us is too big for us to accomplish on our own. We must have help.
Whose help do we need? Like Jesus’ disciples, we need God’s help. We cannot do what He has called us to do, to be the presence of Christ in a broken and hurting world, relying solely upon our wisdom, strength and abilities. Even Jesus reached out to God repeatedly, so how much more should we?
Listen to the words of Jesus to his disciples during one of his resurrection appearances. “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” Acts 1:4b-5.
Perhaps you recall that Luke ended his gospel by telling his readers about Jesus’ ascension. What did he say about the disciples after Jesus had gone back to the Father? “Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple praising God” Luke 24:52-53.
I get the feeling the disciples were ready to hit the ground running and begin fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus knew they were not ready, though. This challenge was too big for them to tackle on their own and they needed God’s help. So, he told them to stay in Jerusalem until they received the gift God had for them, the gift of the ever abiding, empowering Holy Spirit.
It is not a good idea to run ahead of God. At the same time, it is not always easy to wait on God, either.
What, specifically, do we need God to help us do? There are many things, but I’ll mention one which I believe this text addresses. We need God to help us dream, seeing through eyes of faith what we can do to make life better for all people.
I am intrigued by the quote Peter used by the prophet Joel in his Pentecostal sermon. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out and they will prophesy” Acts 2:17-18.
The Holy Spirit needs to be an active part of formulating ideas and plans for utilizing our gifts and skills. The most noble and productive dreams originate in God’s heart. This is what my friend and the former pastor of Dalton First Baptist Church, Bill Wilson, indicates in a recent article he wrote, “Dreaming with God.”
Wilson writes, “I’ve made a transition in recent years in the way I think and talk about God’s will.
For many people, the will of God is a mysterious, elusive and frustrating concept. Too often, we have made it into a game that borders on God playing ‘keep away’ with us. We speak of God’s will as though it was something he hides or does not want us to know. Some confuse God’s will with luck or coincidence or happenstance. Others are sure that if they could just decipher God’s will, then their life or their family or their marriage or their church or their career would be straightened out and all would be well.
Like much of our confusion, our misunderstandings of God’s will for us stem from our lack of biblical literacy. The Bible is rather clear that God’s will is knowable and available to all.
Many a time, I have suggested to someone seeking God’s will that he/she take Matthew 5-7 and simply spend time reflecting on and doing the things Jesus explicitly speaks to in the Sermon on the Mount. Those pages are full of God’s will for his people. As the Lord’s Prayer suggests, God’s will is inextricably connected to God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. God’s will is bound up in all those things that bring God’s Kingdom to reality among us. If you are confused about this, then nothing about life as a Christ-follower will make sense to you.
I think our language proves to be a hindrance at this point. Thus, a few years ago I shifted to no longer talk about God’s will for people or a congregation, but rather to speak of God’s dream for us.
Before, when I would ask a couple preparing for marriage what they thought God’s will was for their life together, their eyes would glaze over and they would mumble some religious pabulum that nearly put me to sleep. Now, when I ask them to tell me about God’s dream for their life together, their eyes light up and they engage their imagination around the amazing possibilities God has for them. Same with congregations, clergy, deacon bodies and church staffs.
Talk about God’s will, and familiarity breeds a degree of contempt. Ask them what they believe God’s dream for their life is, or invite them to dream with God about their future, and energy emerges as they envision possibilities and activate a part of their imagination that has been dormant for far too long.
Healthy churches dream. Healthy clergy have visions. Healthy Christians have healthy imaginations. One of the most important conversations you will ever have with your children, your spouse, your congregation or any group seeking to live life with meaning and purpose is when you ask: What is God’s dream for us?”
Like Wilson, I hope such a conversation is a regular and deliberate part of your life but I, too, fear the pace of life is such that many of us neglect carving out time to think, dream and imagine under the Spirit’s guidance.
Is this true for you? How long has it been since you dreamed a new dream? If it has been some time, I wonder why? Are you too busy and preoccupied to dream with God? Do you think you are too old or ill-equipped to carry out a new dream? Have you been more focused upon God giving you specific answers to questions or direction for your life that you have neglected to explore new possibilities for meaningful service?
What is the lack of dreaming doing to you? What’s missing in your life because you have failed to dream new dreams?
What could a new dream do for you or those around you? What difference could it make in their lives and yours? I hope you will find out this week.
Yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story on the front cover of the sport’s page about Georgia State’s new basketball coach, Ron Hunter. For the last four years, he has supported a charitable organization called “Samaritan’s Shoes.” This group gives away thousands of shoes each year to children in Third World countries in an attempt to eliminate foot-borne parasitic diseases which cripple or kill one million people per year.
This organization was founded by Manny Ohonme, a Nigerian who grew up in a large family supported on one dollar a day. In spite of their meager circumstances, Manny’s mother encouraged him to dream and see through eyes of faith beyond his present circumstances to a brighter future for him and others.
When Manny was nine years old, missionaries came to his village and gave him his first pair of shoes. In his heart, he said he wanted to grow up and be like these missionaries, providing hope and help to those who are struggling to survive.
He wore those tennis shoes to learn how to play basketball and secure a scholarship at a college in America. Through hard work and discipline, he earned two degrees and landed a great job. In 2003, he founded “Samaritan’s Shoes” and fulfilled that dream he had as a nine-year-old boy to provide children all over the world with their first pair of shoes!
What is God’s dream for you? My Pentecost challenge to you this week is to spend some time alone with God contemplating this. Ask God to reveal that dream to you, as together you explore the possibilities. Then, ask for God’s help to pursue that dream. I am confident He is eager to do both.