Here we are, all together. Women and men. Black and white. Older and younger. All together in one place. Just like the followers of Jesus in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.
And just like them, we are a half-hopeful and expectant people, -- a people whose lives deal us good days and bad days, joys and struggles -- but a people who gather in community longing for we-know-not what. A people who wonder, when we join in worship, whether God might reach out to us. Whether Jesus is present among us. Whether the Holy Spirit still wanders through the human story.
Now: Imagine. Imagine a wind rushing down the center aisle of the sanctuary, a strong wind, a wind like a gale force. Imagine this wind tumbling throughout the sanctuary, so that the lights above us sway, the glass in the windows buckles, the pages of our bulletins and books fly out of our hands, our clothing swirls around our bodies, and our flower arrangements tumble to the floor.
And now, Imagine: Fire! Fire that does not burn or consume, but fire that spreads around us, flames surrounding our communion table, bursts of light encircling each of us. “What is this that burns and yet is not consumed?” Where have you heard that before? In the story of Moses and the burning bush, of course! Moses is out tending his sheep and minding his own business when he comes upon a bush on fire, the means by which God has chosen to communicate with him, and he says to himself, “I need to stop and see why this bush is not burning up” (Exodus 3:1-15). Imagine this building, flames pouring out the windows and through the roof, but nothing being destroyed. Would the passers-by wonder, “Why is that building on fire and not burning up?”
Wind and fire – we would pay attention, would we not? We would be curious, probably fearful, perhaps awe-struck. If a strong wind blew through our pews, we would not be able to continue with the service as we are accustomed to doing – sedately, quietly, even somewhat ponderously. We might start running around trying to put things in order, but we would not just sit here. If bursts of flame surrounded appeared above our heads, we would not nod and go out – we would cry out in wonder and astonishment.
Wind and fire – signs of the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the day we celebrate as Pentecost, the day we celebrate as the birthday of the church. The day when God comes upon us to enliven and to encourage us and to teach and to renew us for life as God’s people. The day God comes among us as the Holy Spirit to rouse us to new life in Jesus Christ.
How do we, today, see the movement of the Holy Spirit among us? Does the Spirit speak to us, 2,000 years after the Spirit’s dramatic arrival in Jerusalem? Does the Spirit call our names, encircle us with energy, fill our hearts with fire? We mark the day with red -- we have red paraments in the sanctuary today – red fabric on the communion table and on the pulpit and lectern, and arrangements of red flowers. The Bible is opened to the second chapter of Acts, and some of us even remembered to wear red today. But that’s all pretty tame, very Presbyterian decent and in order, in contrast to wind blowing things away in the sanctuary, and fire setting it all aflame? We don’t feel the rush of the wind and or see the bright burn of flame.
Or do we?
One of the most interesting things about the account of Pentecost in the book of Acts is its emphasis on communication among all peoples. On language – all sorts of languages – and on inclusiveness – all sorts of people. Listen to what’s going on, 2,000 years ago:
Jerusalem is filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, there to celebrate the Feast of Shavuot. Shavuot marks the day on which God gave the law the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to the Jewish people, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is a feast of God’s self-revelation through the law. (Isn’t that interesting? Pentecost is a feast of God’s self-revelation through the Spirit, and happens on the anniversary of the gift of Torah. In the Jewish school in which I taught, everyone celebrates Shavuot by staying up all night to read all the way through Torah together. Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers – all night, every word, in Hebrew. That makes for some sleepy students the next day! But it also makes for students who know that God has come among them, revealing Godself and calling them to be more of who they are, to be the people God longs for them to be.)
Back to the first Pentencost: Jerusalem, where the Jewish people gathered to celebrate their great annual feasts, is filled with Jews from all over the place, which means that it is filled with people speaking different languages, the languages of their native homes towns and nations. People crowded into streets and lodgings and shops, noisy and happy people, but people who need to communicate with gestures and body language as well as with words, because understanding is difficult to come by.
And then - that rush of wind and burst of fire? The astonishing arrival of Spirit in the midst of the people. And what happens? The Galileans, the disciples of Jesus, begin to speak and preach of God’s mighty works – and everyone can understand them! It seems that everyone hears the words as if in their own native languages. Complete clarity of communication, of revelation. Everyone can understand, everyone is included, every sort of person is included in the Spirit’s movement. As Peter says, more or less quoting the prophet Joel,
“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.”
Every kind of people. Gender, age, nationality, ethnicity – the distinctions we so often make? Where the Spirit of God is concerned, all are included.
You can’t miss it, this movement of the Spirit, this expansiveness of God’s embrace, as the Bible recounts it. The Bible’s story of the human family begins with two people, Adam and Eve, and slowly expands – to include a few more select individuals and their families and tribes – Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his descendants – until God forms a nation, adheres a people together by God’s self-revelation in the law, in Torah. And then – and then Jesus comes, and discovers in himself a ministry expanding to all sorts of people, Jew and Gentile alike. And then – and then on Pentecost, God and Jesus send their Spirit and God is revealed in a way that all can understand. All individuals. All nations.
That’s the beginning of the Spirit’s movement that we see in today’s story from Acts – that we are all here, all of us different and yet together, all of us included, all of us called to engagement, all of us roused to renewal. That’s the beginning of the Spirit’s movement to form the community we call church.
But wait – hasn’t the Spirit been present all along? Our God is a Trinitarian God, a Creator-Son-Spirit God. A God who has been there, here, since Before. A God whose Spirit has been and continues to be ever-present.
And just as we are reminded of the Spirit’s presence winding through the human community by our passage from Acts, so we are reminded of the Spirit’s presence nurturing the earth by our Psalm of the day:
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
The earth, too, is called to renewal by the Spirit. The earth is created when the Spirit is sent forth.
Psalm 104 is a joy-filled hymn of creation. A psalm that reminds us that God has made all things, that God delights in all things, and that God renews all things. That the Spirit of God is intimately engaged in all creation and renewal: in the earth and the sea, in all the creatures that creep upon the earth and fill the waters, in all nourishment and fulfillment. Listen: “when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust [but] when you send forth your spirit, they are created.” The same Spirit that arrives in a rush of wind and fire and mingled voices on Pentecost was present at the creation of the earth and pours itself into the constant renewal of all the earth and of our lives.
Now, you might recall that we are doing a little formational work with the Psalms this month – with the prayerbook and songbook of the Bible. As the Acts story of the first Pentecost reminds us, faith, Christian faith, is in one sense the learning of a language – the language of God’s revelation, of God’s people, of God’s relationship with us. And the Book of Psalms is one of the most comprehensive introductions to that language. It’s filled with the music of praise, the songs of lament, the melodies of history. Does the Spirit blow through our lives? If we pray with the Psalms, it surely does.
Last week, I sent you off with Sunday’s psalm and asked you to try three ways of praying with it on three different days. Perhaps during the coffee hour some of you will share with me how that went?
This week I invite you, once again, to three readings, this time of our passage from Psalm 104:
On the first day, read through portion of the psalm in your bulletin, slowly, reverently, thoughtfully.
One another day, read it through again, maybe silently, maybe out loud, and look for a word or a phrase that catches your attention. Manifold. Rejoice. Praise. Leviathan. Send forth your spirit. Any word or phrase at all. Let the Spirit speak to you as you read or listen for a word or phrase that catches your attention.
And on a third day, sit down for a few minutes and ponder your word or phrase. What comes to mind? What memories? What daydreams? Wishes? Hopes? Just take some time with your word of phrase and see where the Spirit blows.
Because, yes – the Spirit still blows. The Spirit still sets the world afire. The Spirit still draws the human family together. The Spirit still rouses us to renewal, in this building and out among the people of God - who are all people.
We come to church so that we are reminded of the Spirit’s movement among us – today, with red in the sanctuary, with songs of the Spirit, with prayers calling us to see the Spirit at work. We pray with Scripture so that we learn to recognize the activity of the Spirit – so that we see God’s delight in creation and know that it is, all of it, wildly and joyfully, birthed by the Spirit. And then we go into the world because we have worshipped God in community and praised God in prayer and are compelled to by the Spirit to share – God’s wisdom, God’s goodness, God’s grace. Amen.