Burning with Sweet Love

Message Manuscript for Pentecost 2019     Acts 2:1-21
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019

I attended the going away Shabbat service and luncheon at Agudath Achim yesterday for our friend Cantor Neil Schwartz.  He is moving to Dothan, Alabama to serve a congregation there. I had a conflict and was not able to be at the service until about midway through, so I was a bit disoriented when I entered the service, especially since I forgot to grab a yarmulke on my way in and had to go back out so as to cover my head.  It was a blessing to be in such a beautiful sanctuary and to actually be a guest and participate as a worshiper but I must say that it was difficult for me to know much of what was going on during the service. I was inspired and awed by the beautiful Hebrew music, the carrying of the Torah through the congregation, and the words of a devoted Cantor giving a farewell sermon to his congregation. I knew it was a place and service of worship but often wondered what was going on and what it all meant.    

As I reread the Acts 2 text yesterday, I understood a little more of what the crowd of worshippers at Pentecost must have felt like when they asked each other, “What does this mean?” As we gather together as a church today, we are much like that crowd in several ways described here in our text.

Pentecost-MosaicOne thing we can easily learn about that day is that the people gathered together were all bewildered by what was happening as the Holy Spirit showed up.  Wouldn’t we all be bewildered?  Imagine with me for a moment what it must have been like to hear that roaring wind coming out of nowhere as it rattled the doors, animated the curtains, ruined hairdo’s, and scattered debris across the room.  Then, all of a sudden, just as you were trying to adjust to the weirdness of the wind, you looked out and saw what looked like flaming tongues of fire above the heads of everyone around you.  Yes, that’s right you say to yourself and the other bewildered people near you.  Those are tongues and, yes, they are on fire.  What in the world is going on?  This has never happened at the Festival of Pentecost. Bewildered is what you are if you are there in that room, asking as each other they did, “What does this mean?”  They were looking for words to express what was happening, much as if people these days would say, “Wow, it was surreal.” Bewildered.

We too are bewildered and wonder what is going on when the Holy Spirit shows up. Let’s admit it. We non-Pentecostals get a bit confused and nervous when it comes to the Holy Spirit.  We aren’t sure what to think about it or even what pronouns it prefers.  What Oswald Chambers wrote about the church of his time could be said of us, “The Spirit is the first power we practically experience, but the last power we come to understand.” Like the crowd back then, we are often bewildered and unable to process and fully experience what the Spirit is doing and what it all means.  Perhaps we should be less bewildered and more receptive.

What we also see happening on that day of Pentecost is how the people there didn’t get stuck in bewilderment; they went on to be amazed and astonished.  Right there in the midst of their festival celebrating the giving of the Law to Moses and their ancestors, they were having their own kind of Mt. Sinai experience. God’s presence came down upon and within them and blew away any sense of normalcy, filled their bodies and souls with the very breath that created them out of nothing. It was now igniting them with God’s power. It happened just as Jesus had said. What Jesus kept talking about and promised would happen was actually happening. How amazing.

In our world of exciting experiences and constant entertainment, we have trouble being amazed anymore.  The things we use to entertain ourselves have conditioned us in ways that have skewed what it really means to be amazed and astonished. Who needs to be awed by God when we have Virtual Reality, the wizardry of Alexa, the genius of Google, and pending flights to Mars? Do we even get amazed by God anymore?  Do we truly reflect on just how amazing God is these days?  Have you allowed the majesty and awe of God to lift your soul to a higher place lately?  Do we entertain our imagination with thoughts of God, allowing ourselves to experience God’s transcendent reality in the particulars of our lives, circumstances, and world?  Wouldn’t it be great if we as a church refused to settle for anything less than being amazed and astonished by God’s deeds of power?  We may very well be positioned right now to do just that as we seek God’s direction for relocating our church.

There’s something else going on with the crowd in our text this morning, something that was vital for the sustainability of the church God was birthing.  In the midst of all the of the chaos of the rushing wind and noise, there was order.  People from different places (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs) and with different languages were all able to hear in their own language what was being said about “God’s deeds of power.” What was happening is just the reverse of what we heard about earlier in out reading from Genesis about the Tower of Babel. People who scattered with different languages were now being united by God’s unifying Spirit.  Yes, they were all still different looking and sounding and would go home still speaking the same languages. But now they had a new, common language, one spoken by the spirit of God, one necessary to unite, empower, and propel the fledgling church into the world.

We too, as a church today, can see and hear how the Holy Spirit unites us.  Or, at least, how the Holy Spirit will unite us as a church in the world today if we let it.  Consider with me for a moment what it would be like if we allowed the Spirit to bring us together in such a way that our differences were secondary to our union in Christ; to where we all hear and pay attention to what God wants us to hear “about God’s deeds of power” in the past, present, and future. When we hear and see God in this Spirit way, the boundaries and lines between us matter very little anymore. We learn that what we have in common is so much greater than what we don’t. Yes, we find that God wants us united if we are ever going to be the body of Christ in the world; if we are ever going to be a church aflame with the Spirit of God.

So let us now receive this uniting Holy Spirit and be bewildered, amazed, and astonished, having it be said of us what Gregory the Great was getting at when he commented about what happened at Pentecost,

“Outwardly, tongues of fire appeared; inwardly, their hearts were set ablaze; for when the disciples received God under the appearance of fire, they began to burn with a sweet love.”

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