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Pentecost on Steroids

San Williams

June 12, 2011
Acts 2:1-21

06-12-2011 SermonCommon wisdom has it that a whisper will command more attention that a shout. An understated opinion carries more weight than a rant.  A dispassionate voice is more apt to get a hearing than is a fiery sermon.  While these statements are largely true, we can safely say that Luke didn’t get that message. He tells the Pentecost story in as noisy, boisterous, and flamboyant a style as you can imagine—violent winds, leaping flames, babbling tongues, noisy crowds, people sneering and jeering, Peter shouting, images of blood, fire, and smoke.  Luke’s boisterous depiction of Pentecost makes us want to turn down the volume or, better yet, tune in to the quieter, gentler sounds of the Spirit. 

Something more like what we sang in our Act of Praise this morning:  “Spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free.”   Or as we sometimes sing, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.”  Songs like that are much more soothing that what we heard from Luke.

Actually, we may prefer the way John, in his Gospel, depicts the coming of the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus speaks of the Spirit that he will send as an Advocate, a Comforter, a Helper.  And when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, it’s done in a more orderly fashion.  Jesus quietly enters the room where the disciples are huddled, and he greets them, saying: “Do not be afraid” and “Peace be with you.”  Then he breathes the Spirit on them. We can almost hear the disciples singing quietly, “Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.”   

I recently heard someone describe the Holy Spirit as a gentleman who only comes when invited.  That sounds so Presbyterian.  And truthfully, most of us, most of the time, experience the presence of God’s Spirit in subtle, quiet, reassuring ways.  In all likelihood, our experience of the Holy Spirit is more akin to a Hawaiian breeze than a Chicago gale.

But Luke is all about the Chicago gale. Luke’s Pentecost reminds me of how I feel when a car pulls up beside me at a stop light, windows down, radio turned up full blast, woofers sending vibrations for half a block. Like a movie director, Luke employs special effects—clanging noise, tongues of fire.  He uses full stereophonic sound—rushing winds, a cacophony of languages, the crowd sneering and jeering, and Peter shouting above the roar.  Too, Luke brings along an unwieldy cast of characters—the  disciples, of course, but also Jews from every nation, a few disruptive ruffians, and Peter, who finds his voice after being humiliated by his betrayal of Jesus. Adding to the dramatic effect, Peter shouts out words from the prophet Joel—apocalyptic words about the moon turning to blood, a darkened sun, fire and smoke.  Surely the soundtrack would resound with blasting trumpets, clashing cymbals, pounding drums.  Welcome to Luke’s summer block-buster! 

Who knows what really happened at Pentecost?  The question is, why did Luke tell the story with such attention-getting drama?  This much is indisputable:  Luke wants to tell the story of the birth of the church in a way that will connect it to the whole biblical drama, beginning with creation.  Luke opens the story of Pentecost with the eruption of sounds from heaven, and of wind, all of which takes us back to the first chapter of Genesis.  On the very first morning of all mornings, the Spirit, the Breath of God, swept across dark waters. Well, Luke is telling us, the wind of creation is, once again, bringing something new to life.   

And Luke’s setting for the outpouring of the Spirit is itself significant. Luke locates the event in the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which was associated with the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai.  See, Luke declares, the God of Sinai and the law is acting again.

Then, when Luke tells of the diverse people from many nations who hear and understand in their own languages, we flash back to the biblical account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. Recall how Babel is associated with the confusion, strife and warfare that have plagued and divided nations and peoples from the beginning.  Now, Luke declares, the Spirit of Christ, the gospel of reconciliation, can reverse our inability to understand one another, and free us to live in peace.

Finally, Luke brings his narrative to a soaring conclusion by connecting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to Israel’s prophetic hope for a new creation. These are the days envisioned by the prophet Joel, Peter shouts, the days when young and old, men and women, begin to dream and see visions about a world that can be transformed into a Kingdom of peace and justice. Even should the sky turn dark and the moon drip blood, the great and glorious day of the Lord will prevail and liberate the creation from all its groaning.  Yes, let’s give Luke five stars for his highly symbolic narrative, one that creatively connects the birth of the church to larger biblical story and hope.

But there’s another reason why we Christians today need to pay special attention to Luke’s pyrotechnic version of the story. Luke tells the Pentecost story with great  dramatic effect—all because Luke really wants us to sense a momentous truth.  Sometimes a truth is so compelling, so transformative, that what’s heard in a still, small voice has to be shouted from the rooftops; what may have been experienced in black and white is projected in bold Technicolor.

Look, something happened to the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Somehow the compassion and love that they had known in Jesus was experienced as alive in them.    We don’t know, and will never know exactly, what happened at Pentecost, but thanks to Luke we can sense what a momentous, world-transforming truth it conveys.  It is the truth that the Spirit, the Breath, the presence of God which we celebrate in Jesus, has not abandoned us.  Jesus had promised his disciples that he would be with them always, and through the gift of his Spirit, Jesus has kept his promise.  

Such conviction, such confidence and faith, are exactly what the church needs today. In a time when skepticism toward all things religious is at an all-time high, we need a jolt to wake us up to God’s redemptive purposes in the world.  We need a jolt to awaken us to the reality, power and goodness of God. In short, we need Luke’s jarring account of Pentecost. 

Friends, your experience of the Holy Spirit, like mine, may be mostly in the form of quiet encouragement and gentle guidance, but, in whatever form, God is pouring out his Spirit upon us. Listen carefully and you can hear the sound of it whispered in hospital rooms, or as a kind word spoken to a stranger, or a word of forgiveness uttered to a friend.  Open your eyes and you can see the spirit in the faces and deeds of a congregation seeking to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  Open your hearts and God will fil them with love.

Now let’s stand, open our mouths and invite the Spirit to teach, excite, engage and delight us.