May 20, 2018

click here for the bulletin

Sermon

May 20, 2018 Sermon - Brad Brookins
00:00 / 00:00

05-20-18

Acts 2. 1-21            

              

…a Mede, an Elamite and a Christian walk into a bar…

 

Sometimes the story we are given for a particular Sunday is just too big.  It’s not that it’s too long; it’s just more than we can handle in one day.  Pentecost is one of those days.

So what I’m going to do this morning, with a little help from my friends, is give you the first half of the Pentecost story and then circle back and pick up two details that seemed to me this week to be especially relevant for us.

Acts 2.1-6   When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Acts 2. 7-13  Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 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—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

Acts 2. 14-21 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

 “In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

   and your old men shall dream dreams.

 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

     and they shall prophesy.

1And I will show portents in the heaven above

   and signs on the earth below,

     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness

   and the moon to blood,

     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

 

Luke says the perplexed people in the street hear the surprised people in the house speaking in several different languages about “God’s deeds of power”.  I wish Luke had told us which “deeds of power” they were describing.

Somebody I read this week suggested they were probably talking about what was happening in the church in those very early days.  That makes some sense to me.  This confused little band had witnessed much in the weeks prior to this day.  I imagine they had stories.

So if we widen our gaze a bit, this author said, and look at what’s happening on both sides of this story, we might see something interesting.  So let’s do that.

Immediately before this Pentecost story, at the end of chapter 1, Luke records a plain old congregational meeting—just like the one we have here every January.  They had a slot to fill on the church council, you see.  Judas had left the band of disciples and so they were down to 11; and 11 wouldn’t do.  There were 12 tribes of Israel and Jesus had chosen 12 apostles; Peter was sure 11 wouldn’t do.

So, at a duly called meeting of the congregation,(though probably without the requisite 3 weeks written notice, multiple reminders printed in the weekly bulletins and multiple emails sent to the entire congregation),  Peter convened the church in the upper room where they had been staying—possibly the same upper room where they had celebrated Passover with Jesus.

Two names are submitted in nomination for the position of apostle—Matthias and Justus.  They pray for God’s guidance and then—they roll the dice or flip a coin, or something like that.   They  “cast lots”, Luke writes. 

The lot falls on Matthias and he becomes an apostle; and everyone praises God for this mighty work—this clear example of God’s presence in the fledgling church.

On the other side of Pentecost, at the end of chapter 2, the growing congregation gathers again for a little preaching, some bread and wine, and what would eventually be called a good, old fashioned potluck supper. 

I say “eventually”, because here everything is new; these folks are making up this church stuff  on the fly.  But God is with them; of that they are certain—just as you are certain on any given Sunday when you go down to our brunch and see all that food set on the table.  If that isn’t a “mighty work of God” I don’t know what is.

As they gathered around their table, Luke says, “Great awe fell on everyone and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles”. 

And that is precisely the point.  Pentecost—with the mighty wind, the tongues of fire and the foreign languages was a “mighty work of God” to be sure.

But so was that congregational meeting to elect a council member.  And so was the communion service and the potluck that followed.  The simplest of our endeavors when blessed by the Spirit of God—and most everything we do around here is enhanced in some way by the Spirit, everything bears witness to the mighty works of God.

And I think you can prove this.

I want to hear how many of the every-day mighty works of God you can bear witness to in the next 2 or 3 minutes; the mighty works you see happening here in this building or in Mt Vernon or Mt Horeb or other places close by.  I’ll give you 20 seconds to think about it while I get  a microphone…

 

And here’s one more thing to keep in mind before we move on:  you don’t have to have fire shooting out the top of your head to tell people about the mighty works of God—I don’t see anybody getting singed this morning.  And you don’t have to speak a foreign language, either.  English works just fine.

Red and gold and white ribbons work just fine, too; as do our hand made banners and our songs written and sung from the hearts of our own people.

And another thing, while I’m at it:  For the church to even be here after 2000 years—with its record of glorious accomplishments and in spite of its many, many astounding blunders—or for this congregation to “be the church”, the body of Christ in Mt Vernon after 100 years—this all by itself is a mighty work of God; to be remembered and celebrated.

This is why we share the bread and wine at the table every Sunday and why we load the kitchen with food every Sunday.  The mighty works of God never cease.  Neither should our celebration, or our invitation for people to celebrate with us—which brings me to the second thing I want draw your attention to today.

“…how is it that we…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…how is it that we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

That’s an impressive list of peoples and countries, don’t you think?  Luke frames it this way on purpose—the young church is realizing that their message is for the whole world.  They won’t hunker down in Jerusalem; they’re going to spread—like a wild fire driven by a hurricane force wind, till the ground shakes and the mighty works of God are known in every corner of the earth.

But there’s something more to this story—something I learned just this week, that makes Pentecost an even mightier work.

Two of the nations on Luke’s list—the Medes and the Elamites had been essentially extinct for several hundred years by the time he wrote this story.  Not only were there no Medes or Elamites in Jerusalem on Pentecost, there were no Medes or Elamites anywhere in the world on Pentecost.[1]

This isn’t a mistake on Luke’s part.

It turns out, you see, that what they were preaching on Pentecost was not just for every place, it was also for every time.  The mighty works of God are not only for every one who is; they are for everyone who was and everyone who will be, as well.

Luke is opening the door wide into the future—into our time, you see.  He’s charging the church—our church, to speak to everyone. Because everyone, without exception, is included in this list—

Medes and Elamites, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims, Jews and Hindus, conservatives and progressives, atheists and agnostics, queer people of every sort and straight people of every sort, black, brown and white people, women people and men people, old people and young people, Republican people and Democrat people.

No one is excluded.  Everyone needs to hear.

Now, a lot of these are people we don’t know how to talk to; or don’t want to talk to.  A lot of these people speak religious and political and cultural languages we don’t understand—and they can’t begin to understand us.  These conversations have to penetrate barriers that are completely impenetrable.

Which means, of course, that what we have to do is impossible.

But that impossibility is irrelevant.

Because Pentecost!

The wind blows, the building shudders and shakes loose our tied up tongues.  We’re talking the “mighty works of God” here, people. 

That’s what a conversation at Thanksgiving with your weird uncle is—a mighty work of God.  That’s what a conversation with someone whose politics and morality disgust you is—a mighty work of God.  That’s what Pentecost is—whenever it happens.

A Mede, an Elamite and a Christian walk into a bar…that’s Pentecost.

 

All those early Christians did, you know, was  gather in a room, sit, pray and wait.  Pentecost happened to them in God’s own time.  I doubt they thought they were ready.  But when it happened, they were.

All we do is gather in this room on Sunday mornings, sit, pray and wait.  Pentecost—a little less flashy, perhaps, happens to us too, in God’s own time.  We don’t think we are ready either—until we need to be; and we discover we are. 

This is God’s mighty work, remember.  The violent wind, the shaking building, the fiery tongues—all the Spirit’s doing, not ours.  Reaching across barriers, showing kindness, generosity, patience, forgiveness—and courage in the face of evil—these are Pentecostal gifts.

Pentecostal gifts for the repair the world—one damaged relationship, one broken promise, one wounded and wasted soul at a time.

 

A Mede, and Elamite and a Christian walk into a bar.  Brace yourselves.  There’s no telling what might happen.  Amen.

 

 

 

[1]                                                                                                                               1. “A Night at the Burlesque”, Thomas G Long

Bible Study

5-20-2018

Text and Questions

Here is the full text for this week’s Pentecost celebration.            

Acts 2. 1-21

 

            1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

            5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

            14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

   and your old men shall dream dreams.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

     and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above

   and signs on the earth below,

     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness

   and the moon to blood,

     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

Pentecost (in Hebrew called Shavout) is a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest.  It occurs every year 50 days after the second night of Passover.  This year it began on Saturday evening, May 19, and ends Monday evening, May 21.  Sometime in the 1st or 2nd century AD, (or there abouts) the holiday began to be associated with the giving of the Torah, the law of Moses, on Mt Sinai—which traditionally occurred 50 days after the exodus from Egypt.

In Bible times, Shavout was one of the three Jewish pilgrimage holidays—festivals when Jews from around the empire were encouraged to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the faithfulness of God and to reinforce the bonds of their scattered community.  This is why it is not a surprise, as the Acts 2 story has it, that there were large crowds in Jerusalem representing nations from near and far.

 

1.       This question will encourage you to look at this story from a different angle, if not in a whole new light—always a good exercise for understanding the Bible:  Describe what happens in this story without using the phrase, “the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples”, or any similar religious language.  What happens to the people in the room?  What happens to the people on the street?

2.       If you read this story carefully, you will probably notice several details that seem implausible.  That is not to say they didn’t happen, only that they feel unusual, at best, if not unlikely.  Make a list of those details that seem to stretch your imagination.

3.       In Hebrew and in Greek there is one word that is translated, depending on the context, as wind, breath or spirit (“ruach” in Hebrew;  “pneuma” in Greek).  Can you think of any other  places in the Bible where wind, breath or spirit are important elements of a story?   Can you find any parallels in those stories (particularly in what God is doing in the story) to what is happening in this Pentecost story?   (Hint: see Genesis 1:2;  2:7;  8:1;  Exodus 14:21,22;  1 Kings 19:11-18;  Matthew 3:16;    John 3:8; 20:22 among others) 

4.       When and where have you witnessed a “violent wind”?  How did it make you feel?  What makes this “violent wind (spirit/breath)” holy?

5.       In vs 8-11 Luke lists 16 ethnic groups or geographic regions, representing the entirety of the empire.  The young church, much to their surprise, discovers they have a message for the whole world.  Two of these groups, the Medes and the Elamites, had been essentially extinct for several hundred years—that is to say, there were no Medes or Elamites living at this time.  Including them was not accidental on Luke’s part.  What is the significance of telling people who no longer exist about the “mighty works of God”?  If the gospel is addressed to those no longer on the scene (Medes and Elamites) and to those currently on the scene (everybody alive at the time), to whom else might it be addressed?

6.       Which “mighty works of God” do you think the disciples were speaking of?

7.       Peter seems to suggest (v. 16) that it is easier to believe the prophecy of Joel is being fulfilled than to believe people can be drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.  Do you agree with him?  Why or why not? (This is not a silly question).

8.       Vs. 17-18:  “all flesh, sons and daughters, young and old, slaves, men and women”.  On all of these God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit”.  Compare this to the list of 16 in vs 8-11.  Do you see a pattern developing?  What is the church learning about its mission?  What are the people in the street learning about what God is up to?

9.       For extra credit, and a bit of fun (this is not a question), here’s an example of a New Testament writer (Luke, in this case) playing with an Old Testament story (the Tower of Babel story from Genesis 11. 1-9:

 

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  Genesis 11: 1-9)

 

In the Genesis story, all the people of the earth speak one language and attempt one “mighty work”—the building of a tower to heaven.  God thwarts their effort by turning their one language into a babble of many languages. 

 

In the Acts story God accomplishes one mighty work—pouring out the Holy Spirit “on all flesh”, and turns the babble of many languages into one message:  the gospel of salvation for all the people of the earth. 

 

Like the Medes and Elamites detail, this also is not accidental on Luke’s part.  It is, rather, some pretty fine story telling.