May 28, 2023
Rev. Scott Landis
Pentecost is frequently referred to as the birthday of the church. It’s the day the Spirit was given indiscriminately to all the Jews gathered from the countries surrounding Jerusalem. It was a time of unity as those gathered heard the gospel spoken in their own native language. And was is a time of celebration as the church launched from its relative small beginnings of individual house gatherings to – as it says later in the chapter – an evangelistic explosion where more than 3,000 people believed after Peter preached his sermon. Indeed, God was birthing something new.
This was and is all very exciting, but it is important to note the original reason for this gathering. They didn’t put up billboards or send out messages to announce that Peter was in town and would be preaching so, y’all come. No this was Pentecost – one of three major Jewish festivals.
As New Testament professor Jeremy Williams reminds us, Shavuot or “The Festival of Weeks” occurs seven weeks after Passover and on the 50th day thereafter, hence its Greek name Pentecost. This is one of the three main festivals on which many Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the other two are Passover and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles). Pentecost is a harvest festival where families brought some of the first fruits of their fields in gratitude and anticipation of God blessing the remainder of their harvest. (Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 26:5-11). This made Pentecost already symbolically rich for its focus on the beginning of a bountiful ingathering, but in the book of Acts’ what was reaped was not produce, but people.
What happened on the day of Pentecost came as quite a surprise. In fact, what occurred was so unbelievable that many thought there had to be alcohol involved. They gathered to offer their gratitude to God. They prayed for another year’s bountiful harvest, and they sought a blessing on their lives, their families, and the land to continue to produce what they needed to survive. But God had something much more dramatic in mind. Here’s where it got interesting.
It seemed that out of nowhere a gale force wind swept through the place where the pilgrims gathered.
We know something about that here, don’t we? It wasn’t until I moved to Kihei that I gained a real appreciation for this phenomenon. It seems like out of nowhere, AND at almost any time, the trades can begin with a vengeance – almost like flipping on a light switch. It’s really bad when you’re out on a canoe, but it can also be a shocker when you’re sitting in your living room or on the lanai. Whoosh!
That’s what they experienced – but even more. After the wind came, the Galilean Jews began telling of the mighty works of God – in the mother tongues of all those gathered from the surrounding countries. Nobody knew what was going on – neither speakers nor listeners.
It took Peter’s bold preaching to explain, “these folks are not drunk” he said – “no this is what the prophet Joel said would happen.” Then he preached a compelling message. They were convinced by what he had to say. They believed in the message and their lives were transformed.
I wonder, could something like that happen … today? Is it still possible to be “Drenched by or wind-blown by the Spirit” … today? Does God still have the power to lavishly anoint folks indiscriminately with the Holy Spirit … today? Or have we so boxed in our expectations of how God acts — how God shows up in our world that such spiritual explosions of this nature are no longer possible? [pause]
Even in biblical times God appeared to be almost totally inactive now and again. You may remember those haunting words in the book of Samuel when God called the young boy who was serving Eli, the High Priest. The bible records, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. Why? Because no one ever expected God to show up. [pause]
When I was in college back in the early 70’s a friend invited me to come to his church. Seemed like a good thing to do since I was exploring my own faith and a nagging call to ministry I could not ignore. He took me to a storefront church on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. He told me he was a member of the Assemblies of God. I had no idea what that was but, heck, it was church. I was always eager to see how others worshiped. Wow! Talk about a surprise.
This was North Philly. A very dangerous area of the city so they told us they had to “lock the doors” after most had gathered. That should have been my clue to get out of there as quickly as possible. But I didn’t. So, we sang a few songs, offered a few prayers – and I quickly noticed this was not like the Congregational church I grew up in. There was something going on and I became a little nervous. Very soon the service took off. The singing got louder and more animated. Folks began raising their arms and clapping and some were literally dancing in the aisles. I recall the preacher inviting us into what he referred to as a “Shout Prayer.” And shout they did. In full, unrestrained voice. And then I began hearing what appeared to be gibberish coming from the mouths of those near me. And I began to pray under my breath, although no one would have heard me anyway, “Lord, please, let me get outta here alive!”
What I didn’t know was this was their experience of the Holy Spirit blowing into the room and into their lives. But the people in my worship experience did not speak in known languages. They spoke in what they called a prayer language – or what biblical scholars refer to as “glossolalia” – or tongues as the bible records. I thought they were crazy. But they … they were having a genuine experience of God’s lavish anointing.
Now, this may not be your cup of tea. It may not be the style of worship most comfortable to you nor is it where I find I want to hang my hat. But I learned something after I reflected on that experience. Something I’ve never forgotten – especially long after I intellectualized the whole thing using words like “glossolalia,” and “baptism in the Spirit.” What I realized is, God will show up in whatever way God wants. No matter how we try to control God or box God into our stated “Order of Worship.” God’s Spirit will continue to blow through our lives and through our churches. IF - we live in expectation that God will show up.
This constitutes a major part of my prayer as I prepare for worship each week. I pray that I am given the grace and ability do my part to the best I can – but I also ask God to “show up” and surprise even me in ways I least expect. [Pause]
Professor Joy J. Moore recently asked her students a question about what happens to the church when we no longer expect or desire God to show up and lavishly anoint or bless our gathering. One student responded, “then the church becomes little more than a reunion – a nice social gathering in a place where we do not live to meet people we know in a building we all admire and then leave until next time.”
People of God – that’s no way to live and it is certainly no way to be the church. We must live as if God will show up and inspire us individually and collectively as we surrender our lives to the one who calls us by name. Just as the trade winds blow through our homes and may rattle the windows and knock over our pictures - when we least expect it, we should anticipate God’s Spirit to blow into our lives and stir things up – challenging us to go into the world to offer hope and love in a time when that is so badly needed.
Pentecost is indeed the birthday of the church. It was the beginning of something brand new in the first century, but remember it was a pilgrimage to celebrate the beginning of God’s blessing. Imagine what God will do if we open our hearts and lives to allow God to cultivate all the rest that God has in mind for us. If we allow the Spirit to blow through our lives there is no telling what might happen.
As we sang earlier:
Spirit of the living God - Fall afresh on me.