Sermon delivered by Howard Batson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on September 27 2009.
Acts 2: 1-13
The Bible in the form of mass printing hasn’t been around all that long. Of course, the Word of God has been around, but the accessibility of every home having a copy is really a recent phenomenon – really for only about 500 years, every since Gutenburg invented the printing press.
Before people had their own Bible, how did they come to know about Jesus? Before there was a book in their hands? How did people in the Middle Ages, or what we have termed the “Dark Ages,” experience the Word of God, the presence of His story?
Our medieval forebearers had access to the stories of God. But it wasn’t really in a book. It was the cathedral itself. Here the paintings, the murals, the sculptures, the icons, the stained-glass windows (notice our stained-glass windows tell a story, too), the drama and the pageantry of the Lord’s Supper, the painted domes – all told the stories of faith.
Cathedrals were the center of community life, the very soul of its village. These were harsh times, and simple survival was a full-time occupation for most people. Religious faith was not a mere convenience or habit. It was the main support system in the lives of struggling, frightened, powerless men and women. The cathedral offered comfort, beauty, and security for everybody who entered her doors.
In a work by a Harvard scholar named Diana Eck, Encountering God (Boston: Beacon Press 1993), we find some surprising things about religion in the medieval church. In those days, the liturgical calendar did far more than determine what biblical texts were going to be read each Sunday in church. Rather, the sacred calendar shaped the daily lives of people. Festivals, saint’s days, holy days – all lived and breathed in the world of the medieval church. It was the church’s job to see that the marking of those days remained the dominant guiding force in daily life.
Professor Eck discovered that Pentecost was one of the most unique and creatively celebrated days in the church’s calendar. In 10th-century Rome, for example, the church really knew how to throw its own birthday party. In order to make the coming of the Holy Spirit a dramatic, dynamic event for the congregations, leaders of Pentecost services involved architecture, not just anthems.
The custom of painting heavenly scenes on the great domed and vaulted ceilings of cathedrals served not only to inspire the devout with blessed visions. It also disguised some discreet trap doors. These small openings were drilled through the cathedral ceiling to the rooftop. During the Pentecost worship service, some hapless servants would be drafted to clamber up on the roof. At the appropriate moment during the liturgy, they would release live doves through those holds into the cathedral. From out of the painted skies and clouds on the cathedral ceiling, swooping, diving symbols of a vitally present Holy Spirit would descend toward the people below.
At the same moment, the choirboys would break into the whooshing and drumming sound of a holy windstorm. Finally, as the doves were flying and the winds were rushing, the ceiling holes would once again be utilized as bushels upon bushels of rose petals were showered upon the congregation. These red, flickering bits of flowers symbolized the tongues of flame falling upon all who waited below in faith.
They called these opening to the sky in medieval churches “Holy Spirit holes” (Holy Spirit Holes, Homiletics, May 26, 1996)
Have you ever heard of them? I hadn’t before I came across Eck’s work. Imagine the mystery, the majesty, the power such a service would bring into the hard-bitten lives of those Christians. Imagine how close and how involved each believer must have felt in receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine the same kind of Spirit-breathing, breathtaking power and vitality blowing down from the ceilings of our churches today? Can the Holy Spirit get through the fire-code crawl spaces, the acoustic-tile ceilings, and the rows of fluorescent lights to even find its way into the sanctuaries of America? Do we miss those Holy-Spirit holes to celebrate Pentecost like a real, medieval cathedral?
What happened on those medieval Pentecost Sunday celebrations was spectacular. But even live doves, rose petals and all, were nothing but a shadow of what really took place that day in Jerusalem.
1. They had to be expecting something. But they could not have known what to expect. They had to expect something, because Joel had said it. The prophet Joel had said when we enter the age of the Spirit, the age of God’s outpouring, “‘It shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour forth my spirit upon all humankind, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy. After your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. Upon my bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth my Spirit and they shall prophesy.
The prophet had spoken of the age of the Spirit. It’s going to come. God is going open the windows of heaven and pour forth His presence, His Spirit, upon all of us. And the sons and the daughters will be empowered to preach, Joel says, to tell the gospel of good news. “I will pour forth My Spirit in those days.”
They had to expect it because, first of all, Joel had spoken of it.
2. They had to expect it because John had spoken of it.
In Luke’s first volume, in Luke 3, John the Baptist says, “As for me, I baptize you with water” (v. 16). Remember, John’s baptism was a simple baptism that foreshadowed the New Testament baptism because his was a baptism to repentance. “I baptize you with water, but one is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; and He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
John had said there would be a relationship between Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and fire. He had predicted this baptism of the Spirit.
3. Most importantly, Jesus had spoken of this Holy Spirit day, this Holy Spirit baptism.
Jesus said to them, “You are witnesses of these things,” speaking of His crucifixion and His resurrection and the proclamation that would lead to repentance. “You are witnesses of these things, and behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you, but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). He told them, “You are going to be clothed with the very power of God.”
In our sermon series on Acts, we have seen the promise of Jesus when He told them in Acts 1:5, “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And He tells them in verse 8, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses.”
Joel had spoken of it. John had proclaimed it. And Jesus had advised, “The Spirit is coming to baptize you, with power and with fire, and you will be My bold witnesses.”
Look at Acts 2:1
And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
Look back at Acts 1:15. Most scholars agree that He is speaking of the “all” here as the 120 gathered together when Peter gives his speech.
It’s a fitting time for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The disciples knew their need. They were nothing without Christ. He had ascended. He had left them. He had given them a promise of His presence through the Spirit. He’d given them a promise of power to be witnesses. And they needed to witness.
So they were expectant. They were praying. They were ready.
Pentecost means “fiftieth.” It was fifty days after Passover. You remember Passover – that greatest celebration of all Jewish celebrations – which acknowledged that when the Death Angel came through the land of Egypt that it passed over the firstborn of the people of God.
Seven weeks after Passover, fifty days. Mid-April was Passover, and Pentecost was early June. It was a time of year for traveling to Palestine, the time of year for a Jewish feast that would draw great crowds – maybe two, two-and-a-half million people in the city. This Pentecost was originally the Feast of the Firstfruits. It was the day when the first fruits of the wheat harvest were given to God.
I. The Spirit was heard.
On the morning of the day of Pentecost, in the year of our Lord’s Passion, the house where the disciples were sitting together was suddenly filled with what seemed like a gale of wind from heaven. What was received at Pentecost was something that was audible – something that was heard, experienced as sound.
And on this day of first fruits, they had the bestowal of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of 3,000 souls on this day – 3,000 people proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus Christ, making first fruits greater than ever before, the greatest harvest ever.
This violent wind, this rushing noise was something of God. It was something from heaven. Luke does the best he can in trying to record what happened from a human perspective. “It sounded like a sudden violent wind, and it filled the whole house,” Luke writes.
The word in Greek used for “spirit” is the same word for “wind” or “breath.” This baptism for which the disciples had waited was the very breath of God blowing upon them, the wind of God.
Remember what Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going; so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The wind of God is a powerful thing. The wind, said the prophet Ezekiel, was the Spirit of God. The prophet Ezekiel proclaimed to the wind and called it to blow upon the dead bodies in the valley of his vision. It was the breath of God that breathed upon them and filled the dry bones with new life. Listen to the words of Ezekiel in 37:9:
“Then God said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.’”’ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army… And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,’ declares the Lord.”’”
Ezekiel saw the valley full of bones. And God commanded Ezekiel to call upon the breath of God, the wind of God, the presence of God’s Spirit. And the bones came alive again in Ezekiel’s prophecy.
II. The Spirit was seen.
Not only was the presence of the Spirit audible, but the presence of the Spirit was visual.
“And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.”
Fire – already representing the presence of God.
A bush that burns before Moses. “Take off your shoes; you are on holy ground” (Exodus 3:2).
God is also the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel at night. God is the consuming fire on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:24). Hebrews 12:29 declares “Our God is a consuming fire.”
Matthew and Luke report that John the Baptist had foretold the arrival of one who would baptize not only in the Holy Spirit, but, as we saw earlier, Luke said “in fire” (Luke 3:16).
Fire, as well as the wind, is the emblem of the Spirit’s power. God, Himself, in the representation of the fiery tongue, was on them, in them, upon them. They were submersed in God. They were baptized in God.
Notice the miracle that took place. “They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.”
In verse 5, notice that there were Jews who have come there from every nation under heaven. From the far-flung lands were the Jews of the Dispersion lived, great numbers had come to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. And they were astonished as they heard the loud praises of God uttered by the disciples in inspired language. Visitors from the lands east of Palestine knew Aramaic, and those from the lands west of Palestine new Greek. Their Galilean accent was easily recognized. But it wasn’t Aramaic or Greek to which they were limited. For just a moment, these disciples seemed to share a mastery of most of the tongues spoken throughout the known world.
Here in Acts we don’t have that speaking in tongues or Holy Spirit language that we have in 1 Corinthians. Rather, what seems to be happening here is that by a particular presence of the Spirit, the disciples were able to speak in languages understood by the people. There is no better way for the message to start, for the church to begin proclaiming the message, than to be able on that first day of proclamation to reach all people from all parts of the world as they come to Jerusalem for Pentecost. Indeed, it’s a miracle.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to learn another language, to try to speak in a language you’ve learned secondhand to someone who uses that language as their own native tongue. Let me tell you – mistakes are rampant, and it’s almost impossible to learn on short notice. Do you know how long missionaries study Japanese before they can ever be effective preaching the gospel in that tongue? Even multimillion dollar corporations have a hard time with translations.
In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
And when the Pope visited Miami, and American T-shirt maker printed shirts promoting the Pope’s visit. Instead of the desired “I saw the Pope” in Spanish, the shirts proclaimed “I saw the potato.”
Or the sign in a Paris hotel elevator, translated as “Please leave your values at the front desk.”
Or the translated warning to motorists in Toyko: “When na passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.”
When translated into Chinese, the KFC slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off.”
Or the advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist: “Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.” I’m sure the intended word was “methods.”
Enough said. Even the big dollar boys can’t always give an accurate translation.
But on this day, the Spirit of God poured out. The disciples who had never spoken those languages before were articulately preaching the gospel in the tongue of every part of humanity known to that day – those who had gathered in Jerusalem. Verse 6, verse 8, verse 11 – three times we are told the disciples spoke in the peoples’ own language. They are astonished.
In verse 7, they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Why, these are Galileans.” Remember, for Peter the Galilean accent had been recognizable all too well.
In verse 11, “…we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”
“What does it mean?” they ask in verse 12. “They preach in our tongue.” And some people even said, “They’re drunk. They have had way too much of the sweet wine” (verse 13).
It gives Peter an opportunity to preach the gospel, we’ll see next week beginning in verse 14.
I want to ask you a question. Does our church need a Holy Spirit hole to open outward and skyward to the Divine? We do. We need to open ourselves up to the rushing mighty wind of God. We need to be reminded that no image or icon, no petal or flame can domesticate God’s Spirit.
The problem is you can’t always control the wind. It may blow your ship into new seas, to new places. You may take some new risks. You might do what you’ve never imagined yourself doing. You might become someone you’ve never imagined yourself being.
Does our church need Holy Spirit holes? Yeah. All churches do. Open them up and let the mighty wind of God rush in. Let the flames, like the rose petals of the medieval cathedrals, fall.
What about you? Are you willing to yield yourself to the Spirit? Are you willing to be a Holy Spirit hole in your church, in your home, in your work place, in your school? Are you willing this morning to become part of the presence of the Holy Spirit among this, God’s people at FirstBaptistChurch?
O God, send us your mighty rushing wind. Send us your tongues of fire, that we can preach the Word in boldness.