Pentecost and the nearness of God
Pentecost and the nearness of God
A sermon by the Rev. H. Paul Canady III
Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, NC on the Pentecost Sunday
June 9, 2019
There was wind and there was flame and there was smoke and strange words being uttered that people could maybe understand and maybe not. Something magnificent was happening and people were confused and bewildered. They had recently seen God do something really amazing, but this? This made no sense whatsoever. The sharpest minds amongst the group may have known that the world, or at least their world, was going to change dramatically, but in all likelihood, they didn’t know how or why. And really, most of the assembled people had no idea what was going on. They would all have to wait until Moses came down from the mountain to hear what exactly happened and what message God had for the people so recently set free from bondage in Egypt.
God’s people, according to the 19th chapter of Exodus, were assembled at the base of Mt. Sinai. Tradition holds that this is the same location where Moses first encountered God in a Burning Bush a number of years back. This time Moses is encountering God to receive the Law, the Torah, God’s expectations and code for faithful living. God knew there were, like most humanity, a people prone to wander and stray, so God spoke to Moses who shared with the people what God would do for them and what God expected of them in return and what would set them apart from other peoples who followed other gods. Among the articles in this code of living, God said, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” This is a promise that God reiterates over 25 times in Hebrew Scripture. God even said to them, “Remember this day and celebrate it.”
So the generations to come after that event on Mt. Sinai celebrated the giving of the Law. And they joined that celebration with the spring wheat harvest. Jewish people then, as so many do now, believed that the Torah gives life to the soul, and knew that wheat means bread which helps give life to our bodies.
This Festival became one that Jewish people were supposed to go to Jerusalem for the celebration. It also became known as the Feast of Weeks. It is celebrated 50 days after the first night of Passover. It is also known as the Feast of Pentecost.
And that is why devout Jews from every nation under heaven were in Jerusalem on a day that happened to be 50 days after the Resurrection of Jesus. They spoke so many languages because they had dispersed around the known world, some by force several centuries before and others by choice. Some may have moved back to Jerusalem and remembered the language or languages of the places they once lived. Others may have been there for Passover and stayed for Pentecost.
In the same way that the Law came in fire and smoke to Moses, it now comes to this new generation, a generation who have heard directly from the Son of God that to love God and love neighbor are the two most important Laws and everything else flows from there. And this new reality and teaching comes to them in tongues of fire resting on their heads.
Exodus 19, when God begins to give the Law, also talks about God appearing in a might roar of wind, and the opening story of Scripture tells us that the very breath or wind or spirit of God moved over the face of the earth. Spirit, wind, and breath all have the same word in Hebrew: Ruach; and the Ruach of God brought order out of chaos and life where there was nothing.
Fire and wind are prevalent throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, which are the same stories that those gathered in the Acts 2 scene would have known. When the storyteller tells us that God is using fire and wind then we should realize that God is doing something powerful and new in that moment. The same is true of water, and the rest of this chapter of Acts tells us that about 3,000 people were Baptized that day, which no matter what the method, that’s a lot of water.
Once again, at a pivotal point in this fledgling faith movement, God does what God does best:
-- Show up unexpectedly
-- Show up with familiar symbols and in familiar ways
And this time, the fire and the wind didn’t symbolize a new law and a distant God. Nope. God’s relationship with humanity had developed quite a bit over the past 1300 years or so since Mt. Sinai. This time, it symbolized the renewal of the Law of love and life and that God is very, very present, visible, audible, even touchable. Jesus had been promising this Spirit, the Advocate as he calls it in today’s Gospel reading. He didn’t, of course, say where or when or even how. The Holy Spirit descended on him at his Baptism in the form of a dove. So if the disciples remembered that, maybe that’s what they were looking for.
But this moment called for something as unexpected as a burning bush or a shepherd boy being anointed as king of Israel or even as unexpected as God dwelling among us as a human.
It called for the Holy Spirit, present with God since before time, to show up in the context of an already-planned worship service. Acts doesn’t tell us who was leading this worship or who was even supposed to. But if we needed further evidence of the power of that Spirit, the first sermon given is by Peter, the very disciple best known for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and denying Jesus in his most critical time of need.
This Pentecost moment was a turning point not just because of the dramatics but because the Apostles were starting to understand what it means to take ownership of this Jesus movement and work to carry it forward. It can, if we allow it to, serve as a reminder of the nearness of God in both the powerful and the mundane. It should also remind us that God is literally just a breath away from us at all times. The fabric streamed through the Nave is intended to remind us of that nearness of God, the ability to just reach out and touch, to see the detail of God’s breath in our midst.
Like those first Apostles and converts, we are not meant to stay where we are and bask in that “God is near me” glow. Nope. We are meant to share that Good news in what we say, how we live, and how we respond to the events in our world. To love God and love our neighbor as if it will make a difference in the world because it does!
And like those early apostles and converts, we are called to trust in the Holy Spirit of God to help us see what God is doing in the lives of others so that the testimony of God isn’t just up to us to point out, but for us to witness and be renewed and strengthened in our own faith.
Those in the early church didn’t find life with the Holy Spirit to be all Sunshine and Roses. And Jesus never promised that. In fact, they found quite the opposite of both sunshine and roses. They were jailed, beaten, ridiculed, and ostracized by those outside their movement. They even found themselves with plenty to disagree about within their own ranks.
But they relied, as we all should, on the nearness of God for strength, for endurance, for the ability to see the next step in the journey of God’s salvation for all people.
God gave the first law to Moses on Mt. Sinai in the midst of fire and smoke and wind. It was a law that promised God’s protection and closeness as the Israelites made their way to the land long promised them. And though far from perfect, God’s people more often than not trusted God to care for them.
In the Pentecost moment after Jesus’s Ascension, the Holy Spirit comes in fire and wind to empower, embolden, and enlighten God’s people to line into the message of Jesus’ life and witness, most especially to love God and neighbor. Because we cannot love one without the other. And for those who put their trust in that Spirit, the movement started by Jesus grew and grew. That moment changed the world, and we are all here because of it.
So what is our fire and our wind? The Holy Spirit appeared in that Pentecost moment and hasn’t stopped leading and speaking ever since. What is God trying to get us pay attention to? What of the teachings of Jesus and of God’s faithfulness that needs to be renewed and reminded in our lives? In our community? In our world? How do we experience, witness, and share the very nearness of God which can and does empower us to change the world?