Sermon for Pentecost 2016

Acts 2:1-21

We Lutherans don’t talk about the Holy Spirit very often. We speak of the Spirit on Pentecost, and we might speak of the Spirit on Holy Trinity Sunday, which is coming next week, when we try to describe the mystery of the triune God. We speak of the Holy Spirit when we talk about baptism—whether it’s the baptism of Jesus or the baptism of one of our own, and we speak of the Holy Spirit when we confirm the baptismal vows that have been made on behalf of our children, as we are going to do today. All in all, though, that doesn’t add up to a lot of times during the church year that we speak about the Holy Spirit. And I think that, for us, the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable. As I was proofreading our PowerPoint slides today to make sure the words of the hymns got typed out correctly, I noticed how emotion-filled many of these lyrics about the Holy Spirit are. And as a generalization, we Lutherans are not good with expressing our emotions in public. If we find that we are being swept along with what a pastor is preaching, and we may feel an urge from the Holy Spirit to stand up and shout things like, “Amen!” or “Preach it, sister!” or something along those lines, an even stronger repressing feeling comes over us that says, “No, that’s not how you behave in church!” It’s not just a Norwegian/Scandinavian thing—my German mother has imprinted on me over the years what is and is not proper behavior in church on Sunday mornings, and that’s a difficult thing to overcome. The Holy Spirit often has a huge cultural wall to overcome in us to get us to reconsider deeply held ideas.

Another thing about the Holy Spirit that makes us uncomfortable is that the Holy Spirit never shows up on our schedule. I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been ready to start writing a sermon on Thursday, and I get no word from the Holy Spirit until Friday night. To be fair, that might be more of my problem than the Spirit’s, but that’s a story for another time. Sometimes a change of scenery will work—there have been times when the Holy Spirit shows up when I’m sitting in a coffee shop or walking the dog—and then there have been other times when the Spirit shows up in the place where I least expect it to, and when I don’t have a pen to write down the inspiration that the Spirit has given me, and so I desperately try to get whatever it is stuck in my head so that I can remember to get it down on paper later. The Holy Spirit just doesn’t show up when it is convenient or safe for us, and so perhaps we don’t talk about the Spirit often because, in our highly scheduled lives, we just don’t want to think about dealing with the disruption that the Spirit could cause.

In the story from Acts that we hear today—and every year on Pentecost—we see the Holy Spirit causing disruption in the lives of the disciples. We who are church 2000 years after the events described today hear the word “Pentecost” and automatically think, “Oh, the coming of the Holy Spirit!” But it’s important to remember that this is not what Pentecost originally was. Pentecost was a Jewish festival that is described in Exodus 23, and it was another name for the agricultural festival celebrating the harvest of the first fruits of the field. This festival, along with Passover earlier in the spring and the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, that is, the final harvest of the crops, was one of three times in the year where all Jewish men were commanded to go to the temple and appear before the Lord. This is important for us to understand as we hear today’s story from Acts, so that we understand why all of these Jewish people from different nationalities were in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples.

So, let’s pick up that idea of Pentecost as the festival of first fruits. There’s an idea that’s widespread in the church that Pentecost is the birthday of the church, and I don’t think that’s a very good way to look at this day. The idea of a birthday is a very static idea; it’s a day that the person whose birthday it is can’t even remember, after all, and simply takes his/her parents’ word that this was the day when he/she made an appearance into the world. But, if we look at Pentecost as a day of first fruits, then we can remember the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon those first disciples of Jesus, and know that those disciples, and even the 3000 that were baptized that day, were only the first of many more to come. Over the 2000 years since then, many more people have come to know the love God has for them through Jesus Christ; have known the Holy Spirit walking beside them, encouraging them and comforting them and advocating for them in all that life brings to them. And we ourselves, 2000+ years later, know that we are part of that history, and that many more in the future may look back at us as a kind of first fruits of whatever the Lord is going to bring through them. When we look at Pentecost in this way, we know that not only was the Holy Spirit active on that day long ago, but that the Holy Spirit continues to be active within us today and will continue to be active long after we are gone from this earth.

And when the Holy Spirit is active, the Spirit disrupts our lives, causes us to behave in ways that our upbringing would suggest might not be proper, and causes us to dream dreams, see visions, and speak of those dreams and visions to the world. It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to disrupt our society by speaking and working for God’s vision of peace and justice for the world that God has created; to advocate for those who are suffering injustice because of our sinfulness and cause our culture to question its assumptions. It is the Holy Spirit who, when we are in despair and when we are suffering loss, reminds us to look at the suffering of Jesus on the cross and tells us that Jesus is with us in our suffering and weeping along with us. It is also the Holy Spirit who gives us hope and who reminds us that Jesus will come again one day, and there will be no more mourning or weeping or crying or pain, for God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Is it any wonder, then, that words describing ecstatic emotions are associated with the Holy Spirit? When I think of this vision that the Spirit points us towards, tears of joy well up in my eyes. To think that, 2000+ years later, the Holy Spirit still gives us the privilege of proclaiming to others the good news of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ, to give others the vision that God has for God’s creation, is simply awe-inspiring. And that it all started with the gift of giving the first disciples the ability to speak one another’s languages shows that the Holy Spirit wants this for all peoples. What we see on that first Pentecost is not a wiping out of differences between peoples. Those first disciples did not suddenly stop being Galileans, and the peoples that they spoke to did not suddenly stop being Parthians, or Medes, or Elamites, and so on. God does not want everyone to be the same. God loves the diversity that he has created, and wants us to love it, too. And so, the Holy Spirit gifted those first disciples to speak one another’s languages, to cross those boundaries, and bring that diversity together as one, unified in love for one another.

Today, Nathan will be affirming the vows that his parents made on his behalf when he was baptized, and he will be confirmed in the Christian faith. Many people understand confirmation to be a sort of graduation from the church, and after two years of instruction, it’s an understandable assumption. But it’s wrong. Confirmation is not graduation. Confirmation marks a faith that the Holy Spirit has been at work in this young man and will continue to be at work in him as he continues through his life. Confirmation places new responsibilities on Nathan as he journeys through this life with the Holy Spirit by his side. He will vow to continue living with God’s faithful people, here at Hope and wherever else life may take him. He will vow to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through both word and deed, working to break down the boundaries between peoples and learning to speak and act so that those who do not know Christ will want to know Christ. He, too, will be first fruits of the Holy Spirit working through this congregation, and he will listen for the call of the Holy Spirit as he uses the gifts which God has given to serve others in this life.

It seems like a tall order, doesn’t it, Nathan? There will be times when you won’t want to do all of this, and there will be times when you want to do this and you will fail. But, here’s the good news: you’re not in this alone. The Holy Spirit will always be with you, urging you to look to Christ for forgiveness for the times that you fail. And God will be with you in the people around you. Look for God in their faces, and receive encouragement and love from them. And, when you wander away and then hear the Holy Spirit calling you to return, know that you will always have your family in Christ to welcome you back.

With such great good news as this, is it any wonder that our words to describe the work of the Holy Spirit are emotional and ecstatic? Today I pray that the Holy Spirit would overcome our German and Scandinavian heritage and that we would let the emotions that the Spirit brings sweep over us. Let us sing and praise God with loud voices! Let us say, “Amen! Hallelujah!” when the Spirit moves us! Let us dream those dreams and see those visions, and not be afraid to speak them to one another and to the world! Let the Holy Spirit move in us mightily, so that we might be a force for God’s work here in Powell and wherever else the Spirit leads! Amen.

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