Sermon - Alan Ferguson
Our second reading this morning is from the book of Acts chapter 2, verses 1-4:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All 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. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
This ends our reading for this morning. God is speaking to us through these words. When God speaks the words are true, and we can trust them.
Let us pray.
May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer.
Today is Pentecost. We know Pentecost as the birthday of the Christian Church. It is the third High Holy Day of the year. It is a day of special meaning to us Christians. But do we really understand it?
What I knew of Pentecost was that the Holy Spirit spoke to the people in tongues that day. And, based on my upbringing, I understood “tongues” to mean basically undecipherable gibberish. It wasn’t until later in life that I came to understand that what it really meant was that they spoke in languages other than their own…languages that they had not trained in and that would have had no meaning to those speaking the words. Ah, but to those foreigners listening to the words, they were in their native languages and made perfect sense.
But, Luke tells us that those who received the Holy Spirit and “spoke in tongues,” were Galileans. Let’s start there. Gallilee was some three days’ journey from Jerusalem. And there were other Jews from the diaspora present as well. So, why were all of these foreigners in Jerusalem in the first place? That had brought them together on this particular Sunday?
The word Pentecost comes from the Greek pentekoste, which means fiftieth. On the fiftieth day after the second day of Passover, the Jews celebrated Shavouth, the Festival of the Weeks, the giving of the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It was this celebration that had brought the people to Jerusalem.
That’s my understanding of Pentecost, and it is from where this sermon is drawn.
Much has been said and written about the coming demise of Church as we know it. Indeed, as I talk with and listen to people from various churches and various faiths, I hear of churches that are dealing with dwindling memberships and attendance, of financial dire straits, and of the need to re-think how church is done.
Thankfully, things are a little different here in Mount Vernon. But we can’t take things for granted. We must think about our future, and plan for it. I think that the story of Pentecost can be instructional for us in that regard, and so I have spent considerable time thinking about what it is really telling us, or at least, what it is telling me. And, I think, it has set us on the right path.
On that day, the people were celebrating their harvest with a festival of long tradition. It wasn’t just by chance that the Holy Spirit appeared on that day. No, it was intentional. God knew that the festival would be taking place, and what better time to make His presence known? “I’ve got their attention,” He might have thought, “Now is my chance to really wow them!” So, as the Apostles were gathered in the Upper Room – the very same room where Jesus shared the Last Supper – God made His move.
First came the sound “like the rush of a violent wind.” This isn’t just a gentle breeze drifting through the trees. No, it’s violent. Recall the roar of the most ferocious winds you’ve ever heard…deafening, thunderous, blocking out even the voice of someone standing right next to you. Except…there is no wind! Only the sound. Stunned by this sudden noise, the crowd would have paused in silent bewilderment.
Next, there appeared “tongues of fire” with a “tongue resting on each of them.” While the sound is pretty easy for us to identify with, it’s hard to imagine this notion of tongues of fire. But, I think there is a way for us to relate.
Most all of us have experienced static electricity in our life. And, if you’re at all like me, you’ve likely noticed the flash or arc as the current discharges from point-to-point. Now, let’s take that to the next level. How about a Tesla coil, or Jacob’s ladder, from science class? Remember how the arc would jump from electrode to electrode, climbing its way up like a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky? Or, a Van de Graf generator…a steel ball that – when you approach it - causes your hair to stand on end? (I have to look really closely to see my hair stand on end, by the way!).
Now, imagine such a scene – absent the electrical apparatus – with bolts flashing out wildly, approaching each person in dazzling yet harmless ferocity! Okay, now the Apostles were really paying attention!
Finally, and inexplicably, they began to speak in languages that were not their own and that they had never learned. Imagine if each of us began speaking in Russian, French, Italian, Polish, and all the other languages of the earth that we had never learned – perhaps didn’t even know existed. Wouldn’t that be something to behold?
So, while all of this commotion was occurring inside the house, people from all around Jerusalem heard and wondered. They came from all areas and gathered around the house. And all could hear in their very own native language what was being proclaimed by the Apostles. For the first time, they were all on the same page!
Okay, so that’s one way to put the Pentecost into terms that we can at least identify with, just so we get a sense of the moment. Now, let’s look at how it all relates to our work, today.
I remember a poster in my ninth grade English class that I still see floating about today. The message is timeless: “I know you understood what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Communication, it is telling us, is a two-way street, with both a sender and a receiver. A message can be conveyed poorly, or received incorrectly, even when two people speak the same native language and come from the same location.
In the course of my life, I’ve had both cats and dogs as pets at one time or another. I’ve also been around other pet animals, such as horses, goats, rabbits and probably others. How many of you have been around various such animals? Then you no doubt agree that each type of animal accepts attention and affection on its own terms. Ever tried to teach a cat to fetch? How about to learn what you mean when you call out, “squirrel?” Some things just don’t work with cats. Similarly, few dogs will go nuts over catnip, or stand and stare at a pet bird for hours. I think of this as relating back to the example I gave of the poster. A cat is not prepared to receive messages – either verbal or physical – the way a dog does, and vice versa. We have to communicate with each on its own terms.
Now, let’s shift gears for a moment. How many of us have ever been around someone who was adamantly anti-religion, or maybe who we at thought was adamantly anti-religion? Ever been in a conversation where you mentioned church, God or faith, and felt a proverbial bucket of ice water coming down between you and another? At that point, communication seems to end, and sometimes animosity arises. Been there! And, again, I refer you back to that poster. What seems natural and meaningful to us, as active Christians, can easily shut down an otherwise productive conversation simply because the other participant isn’t prepared to hear things as we relate to them.
Maybe God had that poster in mind when He sent His Holy Spirit to the Apostles at Pentecost. God knew that a Parthian could not understand a Mesopotamian, nor could a Judean understand an Egyptian. This problem had to be overcome in the message of Jesus was to spread the way God intended. God gave the Galileans the ability to preach the gospel in other languages just for that moment, for that purpose.
And so we have the task of communicating in ways that others can receive and understand, if we are to spread the good news of God’s love and Grace. We can’t insist on “preaching” God or Christianity. That can be counterproductive. I think we have the best chance of talking about God and Jesus not through our words, but through our actions. Sure, we have to also let people know that our actions arise from our faith, but it’s the actions themselves that must be convincing. And our actions must be consistently in keeping with our faith.
I guess what I’m saying is that, by our daily actions, we need to cause others to want to be like us. We can’t be Sunday Christians, but everyday Christians. If our every action, our every decision, our every breath, our every word is centered on Christ, then, and only then, can we motivate others to join us. Actions do speak louder than words. To spread the word of Christ, we must also live in the way of Christ. It is through our actions - as well as our words - that all may understand the Good News of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God.