A sermon based on Numbers 11:23-29 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 8th, 2014.
I’ve experienced 2 earthquakes in my life. They both happened when I lived in Virginia. We don’t experience many on this side of the country, so whenever the earth begins to shake underneath our feet, we take notice.
I have some friends on the West Coast who tell me they hardly feel them anymore. For someone in LA, earthquakes come as a part of the package deal. But on the East Coast, they are rare and startling. They might not do much damage, but they do shake us.
After the 2nd of the two earthquakes, my fellow Richmonders shared pictures of the “extensive damage” it caused. One friend put a picture on Facebook of a single book on his shelf that now leaned gently to the right. Others around the city took pictures of plastic lawn chairs tipped over in their backyards—the extensive devastation incurred when earthquakes strike the East Coast. The caption on that picture was “we will re-build!”
I experienced my 1st earthquake back in 2004 before anyone could post such sarcastic comments on social media. My apartment began shaking and for a moment there it threw my roommate and I.
There were jolts in that earthquake—not just rumbles—and although nothing at all was damaged, it caused a surprising amount of anxiety for my roommate. Having the earth shake beneath his feet and not being able to control it—for those moments feeling out of control—was torturous to him. That earthquake shook his interior more than it shook anything around us. Right away, he started asking big questions—why would God do that? Why shake things up like that? What kind of God is this who can’t even control the earth when it quakes? For the very first time, he felt completely out of control—even if for just a few seconds. The entire world shook around him, and there he was, hopeless to do anything about it.
I was surprised by his questions—taken aback really. There at seminary—for 4 whole years, we pondered the vast power of God—we immersed ourselves in the bible and the bible full of images of chaos—stories of people in over their heads, caught in the middle of violent storms. The bible is chalk-full of people who plead with the Creator to save them over and over again from the recklessness of the natural world.
Most of the bible portrays God as an unpredictable and uncontainable presence, and the earth as a reckless and wild creation—one that often leaves humans stunned by its harshness—I wondered how after reading and studying scripture through these years my roommate could be thrown by a little earthquake. For my roommate that earthquake was a wake-up call—a rude introduction to the fact that we are a small part of a much bigger and more unruly creation than we’d ever choose for ourselves.
God’s power as well as the wildness of God’s creation is not something we can ever understand much less keep in check—and when we are reminded of that, it should surprise us and shake us awake every single time. What God creates is not ours to control.
The people were gathered together all in one place for the Pentecost festival, an old Jewish festival to celebrate that God had given the Hebrew people the Law at Mount Sinai. Moses descended from atop that mountain and delivered the 10 Commandments to the Israelites—the encapsulation of the Law.
But that year at this ancient festival, something unexpected and uncontrollable happened—something that shook them all awake. There was a howling and fierce wind that filled the disciples’ house. Something like fire seemed to light up each one of them. And all the people gathered outside for the festival heard the sounds of this mighty wind sweeping through the disciple’s household—the upper room they were still caged inside.
Luke, the author of Acts, uses words like “surprised” and “amazed” and “bewildered” to describe all those gathered around. Here they all were, celebrating something from their memory—an old promise delivered to them thousands of years ago. There was nothing new or unpredictable about it. But all the sudden, with this rush of wind, a blast of new energy, and something like flame illuminating each one of the disciples, something wild and unexpected was taking place.
Presbyterians are often pegged as the Frozen Chosen. Some of us, honestly, live into that label pretty well. We sing our songs stock-still and we are not ones to wave our hands in the air whenever we sing. So what happened at Pentecost makes us feel uncomfortable. There, I said it.
But as it turns out, there must have been a couple Presbyterians there that day. There were some who saw what was happening—the rambunctious noises, the chaos of it all—there were people there who thought it was all showy nonsense. For them, there was no category under which to put the disciples’ crazy and uncontrollable behavior, so they thought the only reasonable explanation was that the disciples were drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.
As a Presbyterian—maybe not completely frozen, but admittedly not entirely thawed out—I bet if I was there, I might have had the same thought. “What’s going wrong that the disciples are behaving this way?” That’s a question I would have asked if I was there.
“What are they under the influence of?”
I would see the disciples speaking in other languages—languages they didn’t even know—and the last thing I would ever think was, “God must be up to something.”
Just like many there that day, I too would come up with a way to dismiss the power of God’s presence. I too would come up with my own thoroughly reasonable explanation for it all. The disciples with all their gibberish were indecent and out-of-order, I’d say. Clearly inebriated. We’ll all just wait for the new wine to wear off, or maybe we’ll remove them from the premises, and then everything will be back to normal again.
Those who thought the disciples were drunk, didn’t have eyes big enough to see that God was doing something new right in front of them. They didn’t have any place in their heads to categorize what was happening.
“What’s the meaning of this? How can we ever make sense of this?” This was all too wild and untamed.
“It must be new wine,” I’d say.
One word about Pentecost. We usually get this wrong, so it’s worth pointing out.
Filled with Holy Spirit, the disciples began speaking in other languages.
Often we hear this and we assume that Holy Spirit filled them and they began speaking in tongues—the fancy word for it is glossolalia—the strange language that Pentecostals speak. But that not what’s happening here.
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, the list goes on, are all gathered for the harvest festival and they are all in one place, but each group is worshipping in its own native language—they’re not worshipping together as one body because the boundaries of language separate each from understanding the other. Holy Spirit changes this. She fills the disciples on that Pentecost morning and they begin speaking in the native languages of all the people around them.
So as Holy Spirit descends upon the crowd—as the disciples are filled with her, she gives them the ability to understand one another. And as Holy Spirit spreads out farther and wider among the crowd—like a wave rippling outward—uncontrollably blowing through the thousands gathered there like wind or flame—the news of the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ tears through the crowd like a torrent or like fire.
Once confined to a small group of disciples holed up in a tiny locked room, now the Good News can be contained no longer. It explodes outward. Where there was once nothing, now with Holy Spirit spreading among them all, the Church suddenly takes shape.
Pentecost is the Big Bang. That first moment—that miraculous morning when Holy Spirit rushes in and unfreezes those scared disciples, when the news of Jesus Christ—what was once silent and unshared now explodes outwards and begins a new creation—the church is now born and suddenly takes its shape.
That morning, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ is finally taken off ice and shared with the thousands gathered there.
Holy Spirit is wild and untamed, uncontrollable and bigger than we can ever imagine, and all the walls we used to hide ourselves in—all the containers we have that keep God’s wild power inside of—the Holy Spirit is here to burst them open and shake the Church into what God wants it to be. That’s what the Holy Spirit does! God’s ideas for us are expansive and explosive. God wants something much bigger for us than we’ve ever planned for ourselves.
Holy Spirit isn’t a violent presence, but neither is she a gentle southern breeze that blows through our hair. What she does is not always polite. She can shake the ground beneath our feet and cause us to change our stance, she can blow the doors of our church open and put a new word in us, a new word that we need to share with those out there. Holy Spirit can unsettle us and cause us to ask questions we never thought we’d ask, to go places we never intended for ourselves to go, to step out and speak words we never before were able to speak. Some may call her a rude interruption of business as usual. And to that I say, “Amen!”
What God creates is not ours to control.
The Big Bang of Pentecost?—it’s not a theory. It’s what God is doing—right here, right now.
Do we have space for Holy Spirit to shake up all the structures that we’ve built—to rattle the ground beneath our feet? Are we ready for that mighty wind to blow and do something brand new in, among, and around us?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful! Amen.