A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 12, 2011.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21
Have you noticed lately that we’re having some mighty stormy, mighty weird weather?
As a recent issue of Newsweek magazine reports, even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence that something significant is going on with our weather. During an average April, 135 tornadoes touch down somewhere in the United States. But in April 2011, more than 600 tornadoes roared across our countryside. And on April 27 alone, 190 tornadoes struck somewhere in the United States, the most ever recorded in a single day.
In the month of April, more than 350 Americans were killed by tornadoes. 65 of those died on April 27 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. April 2011 saw the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes in 85 years in the US. Then, on May 22, a mile-wide tornado of unimaginable power ripped into Joplin, Missouri, killing 130 people. In all, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have whipped across our country in the last year, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage.
And that’s just our tornadoes. We could also talk about the wettest April in the Midwest in 116 years, or the driest April in Texas in a century. And here we are in North Carolina in early June, already suffering from mid-90 degree heat when our high temperatures normally run in the low 80s.
Now, thanks to smart phone and internet technology, we can watch lots of amateur recordings, complete with colorful commentary, contributed by storm chasers and others who find themselves in the pathway of tornadoes. Several days ago I sat mesmerized in front of my television watching various and sundry recordings of these meteorological marvels. And I listened to people scream and shout as the tornadoes wreaked havoc right in front of their eyes.
If people in ancient Israel had access to similar technology, we’d have some spellbinding recordings to watch! Imagine what an amateur photographer could have captured the day God descended to the top of Mt. Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments.
On the morning of the third day, we read in Exodus 19, there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of the trumpet so loud all the people in the camp trembled….Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder (vv.16, 18-19).
You can’t help but notice in scripture this common pattern that when the God who made heaven and earth shows up, he reveals himself in stormy weather. So, for example, in 1 Kings 19 the Lord directs the prophet Elijah to stand on the summit of Mount Horeb so that God might pass by in a great wind, then an earthquake, then a fire, and finally a still, small voice.
Psalm 104 says of God,
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
You set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
You make the clouds your chariot,
You ride on the wings of the wind,
You make the winds your messengers,
Fire and flame your ministers….
(You are the God who) looks on the earth and it trembles,
Who touches the mountains and they smoke (vv. 2b-4, 32).
In the New Testament, as Jesus describes the end of the age when he will return for a second time, he says “there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues….There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves…for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:11, 25-26). Later, when Jesus is crucified, we’re told the sun stopped shining, and a great earthquake struck Jerusalem, splitting the curtain of the temple in two and breaking open tombs.
So, we shouldn’t be too surprised when God brings out the fireworks again on the Day of Pentecost. We’re told in the book of Acts that Jesus’ disciples and just over a hundred other believers were assembled in one place in Jerusalem. They weren’t partying like most of the thousands of Jews from all over the world in town to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Pentecost. In those days Pentecost was a holiday designed for celebrating both the early harvest of the fields and the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
But those Jews who happened to be followers of Jesus weren’t celebrating. No, they were waiting and praying behind closed doors, for what they really didn’t know.
You see, fifty days earlier on the day we Christians now call Easter God raised Jesus from the dead. Soon after Jesus appeared to his disciples and remained with them for forty days, teaching them further about the Kingdom of God. On the fortieth day, Jesus took his leave from the disciples and ascended into heaven, instructing them not to leave Jerusalem until they had been “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So for ten days, the 120 believers Jesus left behind had been sitting on their cans in Jerusalem, depressed about the departure of Jesus and utterly clueless about what would come next.
Then, without any warning, stormy weather descended upon Jerusalem. Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now some commentaries at this point wonder aloud if wind and fire actually appeared on the scene, or if this was just a metaphorical way of describing the grand entrance of the third person of the Trinity known as the Holy Spirit. Since God has already made a habit of showing up in stormy weather, my personal vote is that the wind and fire were real. The ruach (Hebrew for “wind” or “breath”) of God blew through the Upper Room with gale force winds, and the change that occurs next is simply breathtaking.
The followers of Jesus began to inexplicably speak other languages they have never even heard, much less learned. And the Jews in Jerusalem began to gather around them like they were some kind of freak show. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Maybe you’ve heard the following riddle: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.
Now, in those days, the punch line would have been “Galilean”. The Galileans were not only notorious for being poor with foreign languages. It also helps to remember that the last time one of Jesus’ followers was described as a “Galilean” was when Peter was in the process of denying he even knew Jesus. Now, this same Galilean and others with him were talking about the mighty deeds of God and the Son of God with startling courage and clarity in roughly 15 dialects they previously didn’t know.
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Here we run headlong into the human tendency to find a simple explanation for a complicated mystery. The perplexed Jews were contending that these loquacious Galileans were drunk, even though it was only 9:00 o’clock in the morning and most people hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet! That’s what we human beings do when we encounter what we don’t understand. We settle for some convenient explanation that sounds remotely possible so we won’t have to wrestle with the mystery that stares us in the face.
David Tullock has written, “There is no event in New Testament life that is more mysterious than the coming of the Holy Spirit, yet we are restless with its mystery. There is something about it that unsettles us so much that we think that we have to package it in a formula or a certain emotion. No day in the life of the church exposes our lack of trust more than Pentecost.”
David Tullock speaks a deep truth here. I have been wrestling with the events of Pentecost as a Christian disciple and preacher for more than 30 years and still don’t pretend to understand them. And if I’m not careful, I will explain it away in cheap explanations that are no better than, “It must have been the new wine.”
One of the things that both awes us and frustrates us about weather events like tornadoes and thunder storms is they are well beyond our control. We can predict a tornado is coming, and warn others that stormy weather is on the way. But at the end of the day, we cannot control what tornadoes and thunderstorms do, or when they do it. We are essentially powerless before these forces of nature. And we don’t like that, so we try to find a meteorological explanation for tornadoes and thunderstorms that will make them less mysterious and threatening. But a simple explanation didn’t work on the first Day of Pentecost, and it won’t work now.
Jesus was no weatherman. But a long time ago he told a man named Nicodemus, a brilliant teacher of the law who also was very uncomfortable with mysterious, uncontrollable religion, something you and I should always remember—“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
When we are filled with the Holy Spirit of the original Pentecost, we dive headlong into a mystery we can neither understand nor control. It’s not just the Pentecostal wind and fire and tongues that are mysterious. It’s that Peter, who was forever putting his foot into his mouth, or worse yet, denying he even knew Jesus, suddenly transformed into Billy Graham and preached a masterpiece of a sermon—with no formal seminary training or even five minutes of preparation I might add —that God used to lead 3000 Jews to Jesus on the spot. The strategy to start the church around the likes of Peter should never have worked. But it did. And it still does.
But when you think about it, that’s what stormy weather does. It changes and rearranges things and people in dramatic and unpredictable ways. After the winds died down in Tuscaloosa and Joplin, people who grew up in these towns suddenly couldn’t find their way around because all the familiar landmarks were gone.
And the same was true on the Day of Pentecost. After the wind of God’s Spirit exploded on the scene, the landscape was forever changed. Suddenly, there was a new game in town called the church of Jesus Christ. And that new game, that new reality, is still breathing the breath of God to this day in ways we cannot understand or control.
For the last few months, I have been talking a lot about spiritual formation. Try as I might, I have not been able to reduce this process to a formula or program we can roll out and do in three easy steps. I shouldn’t be surprised because the Spirit hasn’t worked according to any easy formula in my own life. Yes, there are disciplines we can regularly practice that create a friendly environment for the Spirit. But what the Spirit does, and when he does it is beyond our control.
This much I know. If you will invite the Spirit of Jesus Christ to come into your life and wait patiently and prayerfully like those early followers of Jesus, his spirit will blow into your heart, blast out the cobwebs of your life and rearrange the landscape of your soul. He will do it not to make you a more spiritual person. He will do it so that you, too, can share the good news of Christ in a compelling way that will draw others into a relationship with Jesus.
My friends, I hope you don’t mind. But I’m praying that God’s stormy weather is on the way for my life, your life, and for this church. So, hold on to your hat, and let go of your soul. And watch what only God’s Holy Spirit can do!