A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 12, 2011.
Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21
Let’s take a moment and try to put ourselves in the sandals of Jesus’ followers. They have lived with him for the better part of three years, have heard him tell his moving and powerful stories of how God chooses to work his grace in the hearts of his followers, a message that is so radically different from anything they’ve ever known or heard before. They have watched as Jesus healed people of their infirmities, and even, on occasion, raised people from the dead. They’ve marveled at his abilities and have been humbled at the thought that not only has he chosen them to be his companions, but has said to them all along that when he is gone from them they will do what he has done. Imagine!
Of course, they never really thought he would leave them. They believed he would be with them forever. After all, didn’t he always talk about forever, about eternal life? Why would he leave them?
But now, that time has come. He is no longer with them. They were there in Jerusalem when he confronted the forces of Rome and the established religious order. They saw him put on that terrible cross, and then saw the scars in his hands and on his side as he presented himself to them, risen from the dead. They knew that what he himself had done for others had now been done for him. Jesus was alive. And for a little while – about forty days, we are told – they were able to be with him once again, as if what had happened on that cross had… well, had never happened.
Except, of course, even though he is once again alive, they could never forget those terrible days in Jerusalem. But even now they had to admit that Jesus is different somehow.
If it is indeed true that major events in life, both good and bad and maybe in-between – major surgery, a catastrophic illness, the death of a loved one – shape you and change you, at least to a certain extent, then what Jesus endured on the cross, and his coming back to them, surely did change him somehow. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it. It would take a dozen lifetimes to figure out just what it all means, but still, he is alive… to them and to the world. But mainly to them.
However, now he is gone… back to the Heavenly Father. They are left to look at each other and wonder what it all means.
What do they do now?
Again, put yourself in their place. What do you think you would do?
Luke tells us they returned to Jerusalem. They had been on the Mount of Olivet, a favorite gathering place for Jesus and his followers, but they knew they couldn’t stay there, especially since Jesus has left them. So they go back to Jerusalem. They join up with the larger group, which includes Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers. No doubt, there are others, too, the ones not included in the group of disciples. I mean, she’s not named by Luke, but do you think Mary Magdalene is not there? You can be certain she is, wondering what she’s going to do next, drowning in the deep, deep absence, that vacant place, she feels in her heart and soul.
You’ve probably been there. You’re in a waiting room, maybe at the hospital. You are waiting for word about your loved one. What do you do? You can sit there and twiddle your thumbs or think deep thoughts. Or, if it’s a true emergency, you find yourself too numb to do that sort of thing. You just sit there in a stupor. Somehow you know that regardless of the outcome, life is going to be changed, different from the way it has been. As we said, these kinds of events shape us that way… sometimes for good, sometimes for… well, not so good.
So what do you do? You pray. You pray hard. Your first inclination is to pray that your loved one will be all right. But in your heart of hearts you know the answer to that prayer is in the hands of others and definitely not in your own. You depend on the capable hands of the medical staff, to be sure, but above all you put your loved ones in the hands of God. There’s simply nothing else you can do.
That is the answer to what Jesus’ followers did in Jerusalem. They prayed, prayed fervently. Luke says they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer…” An overstatement? I mean, constantly, as in all the time? Well, consider this… There’s a lot at stake for these people, and the only thing they can do is pray. Yes, constantly.
The question is, what do you pray for in circumstances like that?
Janet’s family had a housekeeper named Ethel who worked for them for many years. One time she was in Chicago and went to church with her cousin. That particular church had the custom of calling on visitors to lead them in public prayer. Any guests here today? Want to give that a try? Okay, okay, we won’t put you on the spot with that one.
Ethel told us about it later, and admitted she was as frightened as she could be. Who wouldn’t be? This is the way she put it.. “When I stood up, my thoughts sat down.” But, being the trooper she was, she gave it a try anyway. She said, “Lord…” and then she heard all the people in the church begin to offer their own prayers aloud. Instantly, she realized they weren’t listening to her pray, they were doing their own praying. Not all her thoughts sat down, let me tell you, because she simply waited until their collective praying began to die down, and then she said loudly, “Amen!”
Do you think that maybe that’s the way Jesus’ followers did it? Aloud, all together at the same time? Or did they have a list of prayer concerns, the way we do on Wednesday night? They didn’t have missionaries to pray for, nor those in the military. Nor did they, at that time – or at least, we don’t think they did – have a group of homebound folk, if for no other reason than they hadn’t yet formed themselves into a church. They were simply followers of Jesus, Jesus who is no longer with them – not in the flesh anyway – and they don’t know what else to do but pray. When they were all gathered together in one place, when they were not, they prayed. Constantly.
But again, what do you pray for in a time like that? “Prayers that they not be found and arrested? Prayers for safety if they were found? Prayers that Jesus would keep his promise by returning soon? No doubt… [there were] lots of questions about what was coming next.”1 Did they pray about all that?
Well, first of all, realize that at this point there is no thought in their minds of establishing a new religious order. They may not even have it in their minds to begin a new movement. They’re just following Jesus and doing what he has told them to do. They’re just trying to live the way he lived, as hard as that could be sometimes. No doubt they’ve seen and heard Jesus pray many times. Right now, all they’re doing is trying to be like him.
They have not rejected their Jewishness, and don’t intend to. So when the Feast of Weeks, in the Greek referred to as Pentecost, comes around fifty days after Passover (hence the name Pentecost), they use it as an opportunity to come together. And that’s when it happened. There was first the sound, like a violent, rushing wind. Luke doesn’t say there was literally a wind, but there was the sound of it.
We’ve witnessed that around these parts this spring, haven’t we? If you’ve ever been in or near a tornado, you never forget it. It was the spring of 1974 when our daughter Emily was a baby, not yet a year old. She and I were home in our apartment – she was sleeping and I was studying – while Janet was at work in the seminary clinic. When Emily and I made our way to the neighbors’ house, where they had a basement, I saw the yellow sky and heard the train coming through the trees. Yes, it does indeed sound like a train. Was there a train in Jerusalem the day of Pentecost?
Divided tongues, Luke calls them “as of fire,” rested on each of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, he says, and they began to speak in other tongues. We got just a taste of that earlier, didn’t we? Pretty interesting, if not weird, stuff. Definitely a game-changer.2
Wind and fire. Is that what they had been praying for all this time? Wind and fire? I doubt it. They had no idea how the Holy Spirit would manifest himself. And I doubt that any of us have ever asked for that around these parts either… because if that were to happen, we wouldn’t know what to do with it if we received it. It would probably scare us to death. We’ve got enough trouble replacing roofs and air-conditioning. Imagine what wind and fire would do.
Perhaps we should look at this way… Prayer is really nothing more than holding God to his promises. Prayer is really nothing more than waiting for God to make the next move. Nothing more? My goodness, that’s enough, don’t you think? That’s what the disciples were doing in Jerusalem, isn’t it? Jesus had told them to go back and wait, and that is what they did. And while they waited, they prayed. God would have to make the next move. Well, guess what. God did. God did indeed.
So what is God’s promise? It is the coming of the kingdom. The disciples don’t have a clue – not yet, anyway – as to what the kingdom is. Not that we do, of course, but we do have more hindsight than did they, at least at this point in their journey.
What did Jesus tell them the kingdom is? He said it is greater than anything they can imagine… like a treasure unexpectedly found buried in a field, like a pearl of great price. The kingdom, Jesus told them, is worth giving up everything for it – everything – even life itself. Jesus has promised the kingdom to them, and now, on this day of Pentecost, Jesus has delivered.
Unless you just did it aimlessly and without thought, you prayed for it earlier in the service. Thy kingdom come, you said, thy will be done, you said. Did you mean it? Did you really and truly mean it? Was that your way of holding God to his promise? If so, you better get ready for wind and fire because God might just give you what you pray for this day of Pentecost.
Why don’t we wait and see what God promises us. And in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt at all for God to find us in prayer.
Lord, bring wind and fire, whatever that means for us and to us. And when you do, find us on our knees. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Jim Honig, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, May 31, 2011, p. 19.