A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 23, 2010.
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
No, Christians didn’t begin Pentecost. Pentecost started as a Jewish festival, and it’s quite possible the Jews borrowed the tradition from some other form of religion. That’s the way religious traditions are, you know. They are often passed from one faith expression to another, and then re-made into the image of whoever wants to use it. That’s true of a lot of our Christmas traditions, and it’s true of Pentecost.
The word Pentecost literally means “The Fiftieth.” Penta means five, of course, as in pentagon or pentagram. So Pentecost was the Jewish festival which fell fifty days after Passover. Because it comes so close to our month of June, the weather is actually better than for Passover, which comes earlier in the spring. And if anyone knows how unpredictable and violent weather can be in the spring, it should be those of us who live in Arkansas.
Travel was always dicey in those days and in that part of the world. Weather, bandits, you name it… whenever you left home you took your life into your own hands. Better to travel in groups and in the best weather. And because the weather is more favorable at Pentecost, Jewish pilgrims had come from all over for the festival.
Luke tells us there were Parthians and Medes gathered in the Holy City… Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt and parts of Libya. And Rome; don’t forget about those folks who have come over from Rome. Even Cretans and Arabs are there. Just about every known ethnic tribe is represented in Luke’s lineup. It was Luke’s way of saying they had come from all over! Red and yellow, black and white.
All gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate their common faith. And they all brought their own languages and ways of looking at things. For many of them, the surroundings would have been unfamiliar, the food different, and the local customs strange. But they were more than willing to put up with the inconveniences of travel so they could be there to celebrate the one thing they did have in common: their faith.
But isn’t it true, when you do get to travel, that you’re willing to put up with some inconveniences? If you have the opportunity to go to England, for example, you’ll try the kidney pie, won’t you? Or in Scotland you’ll taste the haggis. No? Okay, no haggis. Still, there are some things you will tolerate in order to do what you really want to do. And what these people from all these different parts of the world wanted to do more than anything else was be in Jerusalem for Pentecost.
Whether any of these travelers have been to Jerusalem before, they have now come to celebrate this wonderful festival. Little did they know they would be involved in the birth of a new religious movement. Chances are, they were totally clueless as to what had happened some fifty days before. They hadn’t been around to witness the trial of the young Nazarene, had not heard of his violent death on a cross. And certainly they had not gotten wind of a resurrection taking place.
Wind? Did we say wind? Yes, I think we did. Little did they know that God’s Spirit was going to come swooping down on them in the form of a violent wind. Little did they know their tongues would be as fire as they spoke to one another in their native languages, yet could be understood by those who by all intents and purposes shouldn’t have been able to make out a word they were saying.
I confessed this once in a sermon to you, but it’s been a long time so I’m going to say it again, if you don’t mind. There was a time I thought that Easter was enough. One unique affirmation the Christian faith has always been able to make, different from all other religious expressions, is that our Founder, our Lord, does not have a marker next to his grave. He is risen, the grave could not hold him. I used to think that Easter, the empty tomb, was enough all by itself. But over the years I’ve changed my mind. Easter needs Pentecost, for Easter would not be completed without Pentecost.
I don’t know if Fred Craddock was the first one who got me thinking about this, but he certainly made an impression on me about it. This is what he says:
Without Pentecost, Easter reminds the church that Jesus has now gone to be with God and his followers are left alone in the world. Without Pentecost, Easter offers us a risen Christ whose return to glory leaves the church to face the world armed with nothing but fond memories of how it once was when Jesus was here. But with Pentecost, Easter’s Christ promises to return and has returned in the Holy Spirit as comforter, guide, teacher, reminder, and power. With Pentecost, the church does not simply celebrate but participates in Easter. With Pentecost, the risen Christ says hello and not good-bye to the church.1
Easter needs Pentecost. And so do you and I.
So did the disciples. Luke tells us that when Jesus was ascended (we read this last week, if you were here and you remember), the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. We didn’t talk about this then, so let’s do it now. Why were they so overjoyed? I mean, their Friend and Master had left them. How do you feel when someone you love has left? I don’t think joy is a word you would use, is it?
Perhaps it had to do with Jesus’ promise. He said he would come again, in the form of Spirit… to encourage and guide them. They were left by Jesus, true. But he also had left with them an expectation of what was yet to come. What if Pentecost had not occurred? What if the Spirit, the Wind, Jesus promised them had not come? How long would it have taken before the Jesus followers became discouraged?
It happened in the church at Thessalonica. This was some years later, and Paul had ministered to the church there, promising those folks that Jesus would come again soon. When it didn’t happen, and their friends and loved ones started dying, they wrote Paul. What will happen to these who have parted from us? they want to know. Paul wrote to assure them that they had died in Christ. They would be the first to see his glory. They were not to worry.
When expectations don’t occur, people become disillusioned. When life does not turn out to be what you wanted it to be, don’t you become discouraged? Has that ever happened to you? It has to me.
My guess is, there been times in your personal pilgrimage of faith when you felt defeated. Personal circumstances had beaten you down. Perhaps people you trusted had not proven faithful to that trust. The journey of life had reached a dead-end, and the path was so tight there wasn’t even enough room to turn around, much less go in a new direction.
Have you ever felt that way? And just when it seemed you couldn’t take it anymore, the Holy Spirit of God came, and like that vision in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, breathed new life into your dry and brittle bones, and you knew that life as God had created it to be was worth claiming once again, was worth asking for, was worth seeking.
That is the Pentecost experience. We are Easter people, yes, but even with Easter we still need Pentecost.
Luke describes it this way… “…suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
You know what I think he is saying? I think Luke is telling us that he really can’t find the words to describe it. Not fully. Not really. The words simply don’t exist. The greatest imagination in the world couldn’t convey the full meaning of what happened in Jerusalem that day when all those people from all over the world – red and yellow people, black and white – came to celebrate the presence of God.
I think what Luke is trying tell us is that, while God may have given us the gift of his coming Spirit, God has not necessarily given us the words to describe it. Luke’s just doing the best he can, bless his heart. There’s a great and deep emotion in this story, and despite his best efforts Luke hints that he hasn’t even begun to tell it the way it really was. He simply can’t do it. So, we’ll have to settle for his human description of what was most undoubtedly a very un-human experience.
Wind and fire. That’s the best Luke could do in describing what happened that day. Wind and fire.
Borrowing from Luke’s imagery, I’d like to offer you this… What if someone were to come running into our sanctuary and yell, “Fire!” What would we do? We’d fall all over each other trying to be the first to get out of the building. Well, I believe, on this Pentecost Sunday, that’s what God wants to do… enter this place and yell, “Fire!” so we will indeed run out of here, scurrying this way and that way. But not out of fear; out of the kind of joy Jesus’ disciples had when they headed back to Jerusalem the day of Jesus’ ascension. God wants us to run from this place telling others of what God has done for us. But instead, we quietly and meekly go our way, with our heads down, keeping our testimonies to ourselves.
When it comes to how we respond to Pentecost, we’re like a woman I once read about. A wealthy family from Massachusetts used to take a month’s holiday every summer to the coast of Maine, taking their maid with them. The maid had an annual ritual at the beach. She wore an old-fashioned bathing suit, complete with a little white hat, and carried enough paraphernalia to open a notions counter in a dime store. She would settle herself on the beach, cover every inch of her exposed flesh – what little there was! – and journey down to the water’s edge. There she would hesitate while taking deep breaths and working up her courage to enter the icy-cold water. Finally, she would daintily extend one foot and lower it slowly into the water until she barely had her big toe submerged. Then she repeated the act with the other foot. Then, having satisfied her minimal urge for a swim, she would retreat to her chair and umbrella and spend the remainder of the vacation curled around a book.
Unfortunately, that’s too often the way we respond to Pentecost. And do you know why? Because we weren’t there for the first one. If we had been, we would have witnessed the fire, as one minister puts it, that “melts chaos into communion.”2 …the kind of fire that opens the ears of those who listen to what we have to say, the kind of fire that fills our hearts – yours and mine – with passion for telling others about Jesus. We would have heard the wind, strong enough to knock us off our feet. And our lives would never again be the same.
If you want to experience the same old same old, leave today with your head down and keep your testimony to yourself. Go ahead. But I have to tell you, there are plenty of people out there – red and yellow, black and white – who need what you and I can offer them in the name of Jesus. The choice is ours as to what we will do. So how will we respond?
Lord, send us from this place as Easter and Pentecost people. Come, Holy Wind. Come, Eternal Fire. Give us the passion to share our faith, and then the faith stand back and watch what you will do. In the name of our risen Christ we pray, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), pp. 298-299.
2C. Welton Gaddy and Don W. Nixon, Worship Resources for Christian Congregations: A Symphony for the Senses (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 1995), p. 219.