The Day of Pentecost
TEXT: Acts 2:1-21
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. (Acts 2:2-4)
Do you know what a chocolate stirring stick is?
It’s a cube of milk chocolate on the end of a short stick. I think it comes from Starbuck’s, or someplace like that. Once, I was gifted with one, as a stocking-stuffer at Christmastime.
I love chocolate. So, on Christmas morning, when we were all gathered round the tree, unpacking our stuff, I pulled this thing out of my stocking with tremendous appreciation. Then—immediately—I unwrapped it and took a bite out of it. I thought it was a chocolate lollipop. But everyone else in the room burst out laughing. See, this is supposed to be for making a hot drink. You’re supposed to swizzle it through a mug of hot liquid until the chocolate dissolves …
How was I supposed to know that? But I’m still getting teased about it, years later!
Have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever unwrapped a gift, only to discover you don’t have the foggiest idea what it is—or what it’s for? You open the box and there it is … But is it a pencil sharpener or a coffee grinder? A tire-pressure gauge or a meat thermometer? Earrings or fishing lures?
There is something of the same uncertainty and confusion about Pentecost—but in a much deeper sense. You surely know the familiar story from chapter two of the Book of Acts. The leaders of the early church were all gathered in one place, when—suddenly—there was the sound of rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appeared on every disciple’s head, and each one of them began proclaiming the gospel in other languages. Here, at Pentecost—in dramatic fashion—something amazing has been given to the church, a gift from God.
And the gift is still being given. But when we open it up, what exactly is this gift? What is it for?
The gift, of course, is the Holy Spirit. To be a part of the church is to say, “We have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But when you take the wrapping paper off and lift it out of the box, what exactly is this gift of the Holy Spirit? What is it for? And what does it look like, for us?
Well, it may not look exactly like the description in the Book of Acts. As Luke reports it, it’s a remarkable story, isn’t it? You can’t help but be fascinated by it: the power of the wind blowing like a hurricane through the congregation; tongues of fire scorching the disciples’ hair …
Some people hear this account, and they say, “Oh, I know what the gift is! The gift of Pentecost is the gift of energy and excitement in the church.” Pentecost is God’s way of shaking the dust off a staid institution, blowing the cobwebs out of the sanctuary, and pumping a high-voltage burst into the Body.
Well, if that’s the gift, God knows we need it! Some energy and excitement in the church! I think that would be a great thing.
I have to confess something here. When I’m not behind a pulpit, where there’s enough nervous energy happening to keep me standing upright, most worship services bore me to sleep. Especially the sermon part! To those of you who find yourselves nodding off on Sunday mornings, I say this: brothers and sisters, I know how you feel!
Even the most gifted speaker usually cannot keep me interested for more than about 10 minutes. After that, I’m fidgeting and squirming in my seat, pinching myself and trying not to snore! And I know I’m not alone in that.
Yes, indeed. If what we get as a gift at Pentecost is energy and excitement, God knows we need it! Too many of us, I think, experience church life as just being heavy and dreary. If we’re not talking about the stewardship program and how to balance the budget, we’re twisting people’s arms to volunteer for some kind of job. And when we aren’t struggling with that stuff, we’re trying to face staggering problems in the world—things like: war, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, human trafficking, environmental crisis … the list goes on and on, and it begins to weigh us down.
Wouldn’t you like to be lifted up? Wouldn’t it be great to see the life of the church flying like a flag in the powerful wind of the Spirit, full of energy and excitement? Maybe that is the gift of Pentecost!
But wait a minute. Those of you who’ve read the Book of Acts—or who are reading it—have you ever noticed where this story about Pentecost is positioned? It’s sandwiched in between two other stories. On one side is the story of the selection of an apostle to replace Judas. And on the other side is a story about the early church breaking bread, listening to the teachings of the apostles, and trying to take care of the poor in their community.
In other words, the story of Pentecost is positioned between some pretty mundane stuff: right between the election of officers and a description of program development—programs of Christian education, worship, and service. Right between institution and mission.
First of all, at the end of chapter one of Acts (1:23-26), we read that Matthias was chosen to join the 11 remaining disciples; it’s like there was an election to fill a vacant position on the church board! Then, right at the beginning of chapter two, we plunge into this amazing, dramatic, high-energy story of Pentecostal ecstasy, culminating in some 3,000 people joining the church.
And then? Well, then—right at the end of chapter two—ordinary, everyday church life resumes: listening to sermons, praying, breaking bread. There’s still the occasional burst of energy—some miracles, some wonders—but mostly, it’s life as usual, after the Christian model: sharing, fellowship, caring for those in need. Stocking the Food Bank shelves. Sitting in committee meetings. Washing dishes. Making coffee. Visiting the sick, the lonely, the forgotten.
Whatever it is that we’re given at Pentecost, it does not lift us out and up over these earthbound realities. It drives us more deeply in.
Some have suggested that maybe the gift we receive at Pentecost is the gift of power. After all, Jesus did say to the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8a). And if it’s power we receive on this day, then God knows we need that, too!
It used to be that the church had a certain kind of clout in the world, when it was viewed with respect and prestige. But gradually, it has been pushed to the sidelines. As one grandparent said, “There was a time when nobody would dream of having soccer practice on Sunday mornings. But that’s just normal, today.”
I remember hearing that, many years ago, it was not uncommon for the Canadian Prime Minister to call on the Moderator of the United Church to ask for his advice. It’s hard to imagine that happening today.
So maybe, just maybe, the gift we get at Pentecost is the gift of power—and God knows, we need it! But wait a minute. Pentecost may give us power, but it’s not ordinary power, not clout like the world’s power.
If there is power at Pentecost, it’s more like the power of Jesus—because it looks like weakness and vulnerability.
Getting back to our reading from the Book of Acts, did you notice what the people of this world did when the church displayed its Pentecostal gift? They poked each other in the ribs and said, “I don’t know about you, but to me, they look like they’re drunk!” That’s a strange kind of power!
When all is said and done, the gift that we get at Pentecost is not simply an adrenaline rush. It’s not the superficial gift of energy and excitement. And it’s not the kind of power that the world regards as power. No. The gift we get at Pentecost is the one gift we most desperately need. It’s the gift the world most desperately needs—whether the world knows it, or not.
Strangely enough, the gift of Pentecost is the gift of speech. It’s the gift of something to say. It’s the gift of a word—a Word to speak in the midst of this world’s brokenness and tragedy and sorrow. And it is unlike any other word.
Did you notice what happened to the church when the Spirit was given? It stood up and it spoke. It moved from silence to sound. The church spoke—and the whole world heard the good news in its own languages. As Luke quoted 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 …” (Acts 2:17a).
Your sons and your daughters will have a Word to speak—a Word proclaiming that life is stronger than death, that hope is deeper than despair, that every tear will be wiped away, and that—through the power of Christ’s resurrection—death and pain will be no more. That Word is our gift to speak to the world.
How many of you have heard of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross? She was a Swiss-born psychiatrist who conducted extensive research on dying patients, and wrote a well-known book called On Death and Dying. It was a ground-breaking work, and it truly revolutionized the way health care professionals dealt with end-of-life issues.
Anyway, while Dr. Kübler-Ross was doing her research, she went from room to room in the hospital, interviewing people who knew their deaths were fast approaching. She wanted to understand what terminal patients were experiencing—what their mood was like, what they were feeling inside.
She discovered that some of the patients she visited were considerably more at peace than others. Specifically, she noticed that these patients were more tranquil after one particular maid had cleaned their room.
One day she approached the maid and asked, “What are you doing with my patients?”
The maid, thinking she was being reprimanded, replied, “I’m not doing anything with your patients.”
Dr. Kübler-Ross assured the maid that she was not being scolded; in fact, it was just the opposite. Whatever the maid was doing seemed to be helping the patients come to terms with their mortality. The doctor wanted to grasp the source of this comfort.
And here’s what the maid told Dr. Kübler-Ross. She said, “I’ve had two babies die on my lap. It hurt so deep I could hardly stand it. But even in the midst of my pain, God did not leave me. You know, God lost a Son, too. And God gave me strength. That’s what I tell them. God will give you strength.” *
There, my friends, is the gift of Pentecost: a Word to speak to the world’s deepest pain—a Word of good news and hope that is unlike any other word. So, I guess the question for us is: do we have a Word like that to speak—a Word that our neighbours are longing to hear?
I hope we do. I think we must believe that we do.
We are children of God. We are branches of the True Vine. Together, we are the Body of Christ. We are members of Jesus’ crew—and if we’re willing to set sail, the wind of the Spirit will propel us onward. We will be Jesus’ witnesses in the days and years ahead—not just “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,” but in whatever locality we find ourselves, and in the lives of our friends and neighbours, and even “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b).
That’s why power has been given to us. Let’s not hesitate to use it.
*From “Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It” by Gregory Knox Jones (quoted at http://www.foresthillspres.com/resources/VIEW%203-15-12.pdf)