A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 23, 2010.
Pastor Larry Bethune once wrote of a church member who claimed she regularly received letters from God and oddly she would bring them to church to read them to whomever she could get to listen to her. Over the many years she was there, she read letters from God about how hot the Cold War was (remember the Cold War?) and she claimed the arms race was ticking steadily down on the doomsday clock (not to worry, you can relax because scientists recently moved the hand of the clock back from 5 to 6 minutes before midnight). God wrote her how the homeless were growing in number. But God also had other things in mind in her “letters from God.”
God once wrote her how the church needed to straighten up and study the Scriptures more and come to Bible study on Sunday mornings – all that was understood because this woman was the Sunday School Director – it made perfect sense God would expect her to tote the message to the church as it was one of the duties of her job!
Like most of us at one time or another, Pastor Larry claimed he wished God would drop him a line every now and then, or at least give him a call or appear out of thin air to talk for a while. Even an angel on his shoulder or a burning potted plant would be nice, he claimed.
Go ahead and confess, haven’t you ever wished God would write you a letter every now and then? We’re in a time of intriguing conversations about our church these days. If God took the time to drop us a note, what would God write if God were doing such things? Maybe a simple but direct answer from God in prayer would be enough. The United Church of Christ has a lovely slogan that I think has effectively communicated this very thing: God is Still Speaking. That’s a lovely confession that shines a light on our text from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.
But don’t you think this account of the Spirit’s activity is something a little over the top? I mean filling the room with a howling wind and tongues of fire descending on everyone’s head is probably dramatic overkill! No matter how you read this amazing story of the eruption of the raw unleashed power of God, no matter what you do with the exotic nature of this story, before whatever it was that happened that day happened, we can all agree the followers of Jesus were tucked away like little puppies hiding under the couch afraid to come out and live faith boldly. Luke tells us they were all gathered together. That seems like a polite way of saying they were uncertain, afraid, and burrowed deep into their sense of fear and trepidation.
Now there’s mystery about this invasion of God’s Spirit and none of us can explain in certain terms because the nature of the Spirit is elusive … invisible, yet real, like the wind that blows through the trees or your breath that unconsciously flows in and out in constant rhythm as your brain gives it direction. In Hebrew the word ruach, which we translate “spirit,” is also the word for “wind” and “breath.”
Luke tells us those timid disciples were super-charged with energy. “They moved from a fearful few to a fearsome force.” They had seen Jesus speak with authority and heal wounded folks with power and now it seemed they were filled with this same, mysterious power. Power overflowed them as they spoke as though the very same power that filled Jesus filled them too. In short, after this experience, they did the things Jesus had done.
The gift of the Spirit on this day we call Pentecost is the gift of the Spirit to any one of us bringing us new life. The spirit-breath of God comes in the form of energy and vision. But there’s more … that same Spirit brings not only new life, it brings a new community.
Maybe the whole scene we read is so bizarre it’s just too much to comprehend. How about a modern-day playful teaser of the miracle at Pentecost? Imagine what it would be like if, in a single moment, everybody (young & old, female and male, rich & poor, parents and kids, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Baggers & Libertarians, fundamentalists & evangelical charismatics, Jews & Muslims, heterosexual & homosexual, poorly educated and highly educated, red, yellow, black, brown & white, blue-hairs, pink-hairs, Peter Pan cuts, comb-overs and no-hairs) EVERYBODY! – what if everybody in a single moment could really hear one another and accept and embrace one another? And what if in that moment NO ONE reacted with shame or condemnation? What if judgmental words like approve & disapprove, good or bad, right or wrong, left or right, were not expressed and all of us listened so completely we heard and truly understood one another?
The people caught up in this Spirit firestorm at Pentecost asked, “How is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
They spoke different languages. They wore different clothes. They ate different foods. They had different colored skin. Some of them came from nations that had sworn themselves as enemies to one another. But the God of Pentecost swept all those differences aside and brought all these people together in the gospel. All those important differences were of no importance to God. The “roll call of nations” is usually taken to mean that people from everywhere were there. People of every tongue and tribe, we would suggest. The fractured, alienated peoples of the earth, broken into so many different languages and cultures after the debacle at Babel were healed when the Spirit descended at Pentecost. That’s usually how we interpret this story.
But Tom Long, Professor of Preaching, has pointed out that this Pentecost assemblage was not only a diverse ethnic gathering … Medes, Persians, Elamites, Cappadocians, Phrygians … but a historically impossible gathering as well!
These Medes would have had a tough time getting to Jerusalem from Mesopotamia, not only because they had to travel hundreds of miles but because they would have had to travel a few hundred years as well. The Medes had been extinct as a nation for at least two centuries! And those Elamites? They’re mentioned in the Old Testament in Ezra 2, but not again. The Elamites were lost in the past. See? We not only have a gathering of people from the north and the south, but also from the living and the dead.
Professor Long suggests a reporting of Pentecost as something like this: “You should have been there! We had a huge number of visitors for the service. Some were all the way from Montana! Some were from San Antonio and Houston and even some from Dallas, not to mention a whole van load of Assyrians, a couple of Babylonians and even a nice little Hittite couple.”
This strange playful story is Luke’s way of saying that when God’s Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, it was poured not just on a few, but on us all. The Spirit was given not just to the people who happened to speak Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek and happened to be living in Jerusalem in the first century. The Spirit was given to people of every century and every place. We were all there! The ancestors whom we lovingly remember as well as the ones we’d like to forget … we were all there together, all made one in God’s Spirit and empowered to “be the presence of Christ” in our communities.
Carlyle Marney claimed that the activity of Pentecost means revolution, conversion and change. Pentecost is the ever-constant sign that God is present in the world working out the redemption of all creation. Pentecost means change and that can be unsettling to those of us who want everything to remain constant and unchanging. Pentecost means being seized by God, surprised by God, controlled by God. Pentecost means letting go and letting God, even when there’s a sizable amount of risk involved. Even when there’s a chance we will suffer for our faith.
All of us need the power. Too often we live depleted and sorrowful lives. Our lives are filled with the dreariness of trying to give birth to a vibrant and dynamic life and instead we sense in our hearts groaning too strong for words. That too is the work of the Holy Spirit, the one who takes even our groaning and interprets them to God who can then love us and hold us until the storms pass. On this great birthday of the church, when the Spirit turned that tiny band of believers into world changers, the Spirit is ready to bless and lead us.
May it be, O Lord, may it be. Believe in God and believe in God’s Spirit who is with us to blow in our midst to bring life and community to this place. Amen.
 Thanks to Larry Bethune, pastor University Baptist Church of Austin, for this story, “Show Us God,” 6/7/92
 George Mason, “The Breath and Breadth of God,” Wilshire Baptist Church, 5/31/98
 Thanks for Nathan Stone, “Learning to Listen,” preached at Lake Shore Baptist Church, Waco, 6/4/95