Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, Acts 2:1-21
I have a colleague that likes to travel and is currently in Rome at a world-wide, Charismatic Catholic convention. In a recent Facebook posting he comments, “What an astounding, amazing service. It combined two and a half hours of worship (in English, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese), testimony and much, much speaking in tongues even incorporated into the more formal portions of the mass... How cool is it to ask the Polish young men behind us if they can help the Peruvian women next to us while talking with the Irish ladies in front and sitting next to Italians. Revival is coming, I’m convinced.”
In some respects, his present experience sounds not so dissimilar to what we read in our Pentecost text from the book of Acts today. At that particular time in history, Jews from all corners of the Diaspora (displaced Jews living outside of Judea) had come together for one of the three compulsory religious festivals of the year, the Feast of Weeks (also known as the Day of the First Fruits, Shavuot, or Pentecost as it is referred to in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). The Old Testament and the Jewish historian Josephus give of a picture of what this festival entailed. Both local and foreign farmers came to present food offerings to the priests. As they did they were to recite the liturgy of recitation, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” Deut 26:3, after which he would continue reciting in Hebrew, “‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7 Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. 9 And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ In this liturgy, the worshipers would remember who they were, where they had come from, and how God had delivered them in the past.
There was one hitch however…increasing numbers of Jews living outside Judea did not speak Hebrew (or not very well at least), and as a result the priests would often have to prompt them with their recitations. This caused no small embarrassment for those making the offering, and in time the priests took over the roles of reciting the liturgy in the Hebrew language. Increasingly many of the worshipers were not only displaced from their homeland, they were finding themselves as strangers and foreigners in their worship experience as well. This was about to change as the Holy Spirit came upon the believers on the God-ordained day of Pentecost.
“When the day of Pentecost had arrived”, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples who had gathered to pray for this very event. Often prayer and providence go hand in hand in the Bible. Luke mentions the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind (perhaps not so unlike what the people in Three Hills might have heard earlier this week during the tornado), and tongues as of fire came upon each of them. This was to be a new identifying feature of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity’s work and presence. Although as we read earlier in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, not all people would receive exactly the same gifts and abilities, all believers would in fact receive some gift for the common good, and here the believers received the gift of tongues so as to communicate the wonders of God to the worshippers of the many nations gathered in Jerusalem. Here was a clear and strong message that God desired all to hear the good news of gospel of Jesus, and through this supernatural gifting of either speaking or hearing (or both), that is exactly what happened.
The response of the people is two-fold. Oftentimes skeptics say that if they were to see God do a bona fide miracle, then they would believe. I’m not sure what one would call this event if not a miracle, and yet not all automatically become believers and followers of Jesus. The first question many ask seems reasonable, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? As implied in other NT texts, the Galileans didn’t have a reputation of being the “brightest lights in the socket”, so this event represented a miracle to the “second power” as unlearned people began to speak languages from all the countries of the known world (at least as far as they were concerned). Some seek an explanation, “what does this mean?”, but others simply dismiss it as early morning drunkenness (I wonder if 9 o’clock worshippers had a practice of coming to Temple drunk at such religious festivals?) The fact that these virtually illiterate country bumpkins had just proclaimed the wonders of God in at least a dozen foreign languages was undeniable. Their conclusion that this must be the result of an early morning binge…seems a “bit of a stretch” (especially for those who were purportedly much more intelligent than these simple Galileans). It takes more than miracles for some people to come to faith, and there are times when people will believe anything rather than confront the truth about God (and themselves).
The others must have believed that divine intervention might very well be at work here, but they still didn’t know how to interpret these revelations, or what they were to do in response to them. The verses that follow see Peter delivering his very first sermon, and after he is finished, 3000 come to faith and were baptized. The words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled in their very hearing that day. The commission the disciples had just received at the ascension of their Lord only days before was being fulfilled as these Jews from all corners of the Diaspora would take this gospel message back to their own people from Rome to Asia (and all points in between). When we were in Cappadocia, Turkey in 2009, we saw cave churches that may well have been started by those attending this very feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection.
For those of us not at an international Charismatic meeting in Rome surrounded by worshippers from all corners of the world, events like Pentecost might seem a bit “long ago and far away” (when was the last time you saw something like hillbillies with fire on their heads preaching the gospel in unlearned languages, let alone 3000 people coming to faith in one day). Most of our congregations are shrinking, and many us have trouble communicating the gospel in our own language let alone foreign ones (should anyone even care to listen).
The truth is however, because of the Holy Spirit’s coming at Pentecost, and because of Jesus’ commission to his disciples to take the gospel to the ends of earth and that He would be with them to achieve this mission, you and I are believers today. The fact that we are is proof positive that we ourselves have that same Holy Spirit working in and through us today. We can know also that the same Spirit that gifted those first disciples, has gifted us as well. Not necessarily with tongues of fire and speaking unlearned languages, but with gifts of teaching, service, encouragement, helps, evangelism, missions, etc.
As one reads through the book of Acts, although many of the accounts are extraordinary like the one we heard of today, the early church was not without its challenges as well. Even amidst those challenges however, the Spirit of God came upon those in Jerusalem, Judean, Samaria, and all those hard to pronounce regions in Acts chapter two (and to us here in Viking Alberta, and my colleague in Rome). I join in his prayer for revival, both in my life and in yours, and for those who as yet are not believers. Come Holy Spirit. Let your mighty breath revive us, and set us on fire for you. Amen