Over the 34 years that I have been preaching I will sporadically get a question about how I prepare to preach a Sunday sermon. I am a manuscript preacher. I labor over language. I attempt to craft my sentences to convey the message I feel has been put upon my heart. As I stand at the door after the service to greet I have had, on occasion, people say, “Have you ever thought about maybe just letting the Spirit lead you on Sunday morning when you preach?”
Somewhere along the line we got the idea that the Spirit of God only moves on Sunday…and only for about one hour. But my experience is that the Spirit of God is alive and well every day. Here is my answer to people who say, “Have you ever thought about getting up there on Sunday without notes and letting the Spirit of God lead you?”:
“I believe the Spirit of God was active three months ago when I thought about a sermon title, direction and scripture for this particular Sunday and the Spirit is helping me on Tuesday before I preach as I begin to think more seriously about the sermon and on Wednesday and Thursday as I begin to do research and make notes and on Friday when I sit down to put words to paper and on Sunday morning when I stand up here to preach. Please don’t limit the Spirit of God’s presence to Sunday between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.”
Recently a friend asked me if I get inspired by the Spirit of God throughout my day. “Yes!” I said. “Will you raise your hand next time so I know when it is happening?” she responded. I loved that question. It was an awareness-heightening question for me. I pose it to you today. “Do you get inspired by the Spirit of God throughout your day?” If so, I invite you to simply raise your hand or pat your head or shout “Amen!” when it happens to you. Who knows…it might even happen here on Sunday morning between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.
Now on that first Pentecost, nobody needed to raise a hand so that others would know the Holy Spirit was in the room. Let me back up a bit. Actually it wasn’t the first Pentecost. Pentecost is a Jewish festival day, also called Shavuot. Pentecost is the Greek translation for Shavuot. Pentecost happens fifty days after Passover. It commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses, which tradition says happened fifty days after the Exodus. Moses receiving the Torah was a founding moment for the Jewish faith. It said to them, “We are a people…God’s chosen people.” The Book of Acts takes an origin story…a story of liberation from oppression and adds a new dimension to it. The voice in this story isn’t Moses. It isn’t Jesus. It is the Spirit of God.
Okay, back to the story. The Bible tells us that the “believers” were all together in one room and there were about 120 of them. Outside the streets were teeming with the residents and pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the festival. The people in this room were hiding out…hiding from the empire.
After all, this was the group of post-resurrection followers of Jesus who had watched the violent crucifixion of their leader by the empire. They had weathered the devastating betrayal by their inner circle. They had just gone through an all-member council meeting to find a replacement for Judas. “Now,” they thought, “order has been restored and we can get on with the work of bearing witness to the gospel of Christ. Do we have a motion to adjourn?”
And that is when the Holy Spirit showed up as an agitator…a pot stirrer. She rushed into the room like the sound of a violent windstorm. Tongues of fire rested on the head of each person in the room and they all started speaking in other languages. We make this sound so lovely but it was not. The people there were not comforted by what was happening. The words used to describe it denote that it happened without warning and it had a violent feel to it. Our translations of the Bible have domesticated this story. It was a fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping moment…when time slows down and you can feel yourself tossed about and smell the smoke in the midst of the turmoil. We have been taught to think of it more like the arrival of a heavenly dove gently descending from on high. Instead, think of tornado force gale winds blowing into that room….driving them out the door…propelling the church into being. The scripture says that this gathering started indoors but the Spirit literally pushed them out into the street, right into the midst of the Jewish festival. They were hiding out and suddenly they were in the street amidst the food and the music and the festivities….right out in the public square…into the very place they were hiding from….
The scripture tells us that at this time Jerusalem was filled with resident immigrants from the whole Mediterranean basin. Their homelands were the ones that encircle Palestine and their mother tongues were as varied as they were. The Spirit of God deposited these 120 followers of Jesus out into the streets surrounded by the diversity of the city….not the elite of the city…no….these were the dregs of the city…the rejected….the unwanted.
The people on the streets were as baffled by what was happening as the 120 people blown out the door. Those on the street are described as bewildered, amazed and astonished by what they witnessed. Again translations have made these words docile. The spectators witnessed an uproar that confused them, blew them away, left them completely disoriented. You see, it turns out that just as the Spirit of God won’t be tamed into appearing only into our well-ordered and planned worship hour, she also doesn’t like to be trapped indoors either.
So Peter, filled with the Spirit of Pentecost, begins to preach in the public square, using the words of the prophet Joel. “When God pours out the Spirit everyone shall prophesy…everyone…everyone….sons and daughter, old and young, slaves, both men and women…the rejected ones will become the voice of God’s Spirit,” he preaches. Peter is on fire. He is rocking this.
What Peter is telling us is that when the Holy Spirit shows up no one is exempt. We all have a direct connection to the prophecies, visions and dreams of our God. What does that look like? It looks likes the Spirit moving over the abyss and creating the universe…it looks like the wind that separated the waters of the Red Sea so that freedom was possible. It looks like the burning bush that spoke to Moses and gave him his marching orders. It looks like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites to the Promised Land. Wind and fire. On Pentecost wind and fire come together…creation and liberation join hands….pushing us, challenging us, demanding something of us…..founding a new reality. Everyone is pushed out into the world…impelled, driven to prophesy to the empire without fear. This is as unsettling now as it was then. We like order and calmness but order and calmness will never save us.
My friends, we are in need of Pentecost right now….today and Tuesday and next week and next month…in this sanctuary but more importantly in the public square. I could regale you with all the reasons we are in need of Pentecost right now….all the reasons we need to quit hiding in our sanctuaries or in our living rooms watching the bad news on our television screens and shaking our heads and thinking, “Someone needs to do something about all this violence, greed, intimidation and hate.” I could tell you about the latest mass shooting or our dying oceans….but you know….you already know.
Pentecost isn’t a once and done event. It is an everyday possibility. They were all gathered together and they were praying for things to change…fervently and earnestly they asked God to come into their midst…and God showed up on the wings of fire and wind….the Spirit blew into their midst and differences were bridged and people heard and understood each other in new ways. While we are wallowing in discussions of left and right, conservative and liberal, truth and alternative facts, immigrants and citizens our sons and daughters are prophesying that all are created equal in God’s image….that we are better together….that love is love…that only love can drive out hate.
Many Christians refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church. Again, so tame. We think birthday cake, everyone singing “Happy Birthday”, presents, laughter, ice cream…so domesticated. The reason we call it the birthday of the church is because, like Moses receiving the Torah, what happened on that particular Pentecost was a founding moment. The difference is that the Spirit of God wasn’t saying, “You are a people. Here is your story and here are the laws that govern your community.” No. On that day of new beginnings…fifty days after the crucifixion of Jesus….the Holy Spirit said, “I am founding a universal community where everyone is brought together and you can speak to anyone. You are no longer separated. I have removed the boundaries that divide you. The context is now changed. See all these people in the streets that look different than you. They are your family now. Tell them about love…a love so deep it would lay down its life for its family.”
You are my brothers and sisters and I need to tell you that the Holy Spirit will not be contained to a day of the week or to a sacred space or, for that matter, to one Sunday a year. She will blow us right out the door because just as the Holy Spirit can’t be contained, it won’t let you hole up with just “your people”. Our community is wider than we know or can imagine and I can guarantee you our community is wider than we are comfortable with. As William Barber says, “the real miracle of that day was that people got together who would have never gotten together otherwise. And those people changed the word. We need Pentecost again! Amen.