Sunday, May 19, 2013

"What Does This Mean?" - Acts 2:1-12 - Pentecost Sunday - May 19, 2013

To be honest, most Baptist are not celebrating or even acknowledging Pentecost Sunday.  Part of it is that many Baptist have struggled with the idea of the Church Calendar that marks the spiritual movement of the year. The second reason is that more than fair share of Baptist, particularly in the last century, have struggled with what to do with the Holy Spirit.  The Charismatic movement and an almost irrational fear of the potential of someone speaking in tongues or breaking out in expressive worship seems to have caused too many to try to push the conversation about the Holy Spirit to our congregational edges.  We can handle the grand story of the creative Father and the redemptive Son, but there is something uncontrollable about the movement of the Holy Spirit that can make those of us that desire control recoil and push back.  But in our desire for control, we can miss experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit alive and at work in our lives.  Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is the deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.[i] If the Spirit is one of God’s great gifts, we must not miss what God intends for us.  Come with me and look at the story of stories, where the power and presence of the Holy Spirit came to life in the midst of the first disciples and hear what their story can mean for us.

We join the Biblical narrative in the moments after the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. When we experience something that we have never seen before we struggle to describe with the words and images we know. If you had never seen a porcupine before how might you describe it to some else?  If you had never seen a baseball game or played golf before how comical might it be to hear you try to explain these games to others?  In the first few verse of Acts 2 we read the description of a violent wind coming from heaven, of tongues of fire floating above each of those gathered in the room. These strange and otherworldly images are Luke’s best attempt to explain what happens when the very presence of the Spirit of God fills the room and empowers God’s people. Should we be surprised that something dramatic happens when the Spirit of God moves? 

The disciples move from the Upper Room into the streets and begin to speak to the masses gathered from all over the world in Jerusalem for a religious festival. This band of fishermen, tax collectors, and other assorted followers were a part of something incredible. They had spoken Aramaic their whole lives. Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they listened as other languages tumbled from their lips. The crowd was bewildered – confused – even shocked – because they saw these simple Galileans speaking to them in their own language. How could these folks know all of these languages?  What was happening?  Scripture tells us that they were amazed and perplexed and they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some nickered from the sidelines and speculated these followers of Jesus must be drunk. Peter claimed center stage and tried to explain what is going on. He started with an obvious observation, but one that was directly to the point, folks, he argues, it is only 9 in the morning; it’s simply too early for them to be drunk.  But then he takes a moment of mockery and turns it into a pronouncement on what God was up to in their midst.

He cites the prophetic pronouncement of Joel.  "'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'  For Peter, the moment that they had been waiting for is not being realized. This is not the promise of the beginning of the end, but rather is the promise of the beginning of the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Those gathered in the streets would have heard this prophetic promise in synagogue schools when they gathered around the rabbi for instruction.  This prophet Joel described a coming climatic moment in history when the very presence of the Spirit of God would be poured out in their midst.  In the time of the prophets and even in the rabbinical teaching of that era they understood that God poured out his Spirit on a select few, prophets and priests who would speak to God for the people and speak for God to the people. The prophet promised a moment when God would no long speak to and through a select few – a mere handful – and would begin to speak through all of the people.

The Baptist Old Testament scholar J. Hardee Kennedy describes it this way; “The intimacy with God which hitherto had been confined to exceptional individuals will be shared by all of his people. Not scantily, but in abundant measure, the Lord will pour out his illumination and power.”[ii]  It was an incredible prophetic pronouncement because it meant that the mission of God in the world would then be invested in all of God’s people. In essence of what Peter wanted the crowd to understand is that the incredible – remarkable – almost unexplainable scene that they are witnessing is the promise of the pour out of God’s Spirit upon the people fulfilled. The moment they have been waiting for was here!

Joel was clear, and Peter was equally clear by citing the prophet Joel, that in this new era when the Spirit of God is poured out on all people and everyone would become a part of the story of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  There was going to be no room for boundaries. The Scripture proclaims that both the sons and the daughters will prophesy. In old fashioned Southern, “your sons and your daughters, they are goin’ to preach!” I recognize that some across the conservative Christian landscape would argue with me and would try to leverage Paul’s instruction to young congregations to justify the boundaries. But Paul was speaking into specific situations where cultural abuses triggered a need for direction and situational correction. But Paul’s instructions cannot undermine the power and significant of this grand declaration that the Spirit of God has come and all the old boundaries are to fade away. If we believe we are living in the last days, as most of my conservative brethren contend, or if we are living in the beginning in the beginning of the Kingdom of God as I believe, then we must together embrace the fulfillment of Joel’s prophetic promise. If we take the Bible at its word then we must cheer when Peter invokes the these prophetic words from Joel and makes clear that a new kind of Kingdom has been born and the Spirit of God has been set loose not on a select few, but in lives of all believers. The boundary of gender is shattered and the expectation is that God will use both men and women to proclaim God’s word.

But this breaking of boundaries is not just about gender, Joel sees that young and old will both be empowered by the Spirit for ministry. The young will see visions, and the old will dream dreams –both ways we see God speak with authority throughout the breadth of the Old Testament. Today we recognize those in our midst that are graduating from high school, college and graduate school. For far too often we quietly devalue our young adults telling them that they must wait until they are fully grown living in the midst of the “real world” to find their place in ministry.   We have been wrong. We must remember that the great prophet Elisha was called to begin his work in his youth. King David was called when he was hardly more than a boy. Deborah and Ester were in their teens when God called them to action.  There was no waiting until – the expectation was that God would speak to and through his people even in their youth. We need to be attentive to creating opportunities for our young to lift their voices and let us hear God speak to us through them. We see this lived out as David Paul begins his journey into ministry.  We see it lived in the plans to send Betsy Stewart to Canada to spend a season working as a part of the Matthew House staff.  We see it lived out as Ashton Adams and Ariel Hawkins return home as summer interns to explore their unique senses of call. We see it lived out as Corey Miles continues forward in the Peace Corp process.  God is loosed and at work in the lives of our youth and young adults.  Likewise Joel does not envision a retirement age for faithfulness. Our culture sometimes devalues those who are in the December of their lives. It is our loss. Those who claim hair of grey have much to teach us.  Without apology God speaks to and through those both in their youth and in their maturity.  Let’s destroy any boundary of age that devalues people and might limit how anyone might be used an instrument of God’s Spirit.

So, what does mean? It means that we must to be clear that Joel’s prophesy, and Peter’s sermon, were not design to serve as political rhetoric or social commentary on the nature of relationships and the desire for an equality for all. It was much more than that.  It means that the core pronouncement of this prophetic utterance was that in the last days – and in these first days - God will empower everyone for to participate in God’s redemptive purpose. The redemptive mission of God that was born in creation and fulfilled in Jesus now becomes the mission of the Church  God’s agenda is so big that there can be no boundaries that hold anyone back from offering their voice, the visions, and their dreams as instruments of God. The mission is young and old, male and female to join God in making it clear to everyone that there is a way to restoration, redemption, and a right relationship with God. Peter cries out, the day is here, the Spirit of God is poured out on everyone who is a child of God, regardless of their age, or their gender, or their social statues, so that the whole of the people of God will lift their voices in witness so that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. It means you have a place in the work of God. The Spirit of God is poured out for you. God stands ready to make us a part of his redemptive plan is we are willing – available – open for God to work in us and through us. The prophetic promise of Joel and the power of Peter’s first sermon are fulfilled in you! It means that the Holy Spirit has come that we might live in God’s power and do all that he calls us to do- and to become all he calls us to become – so that the world might see the testimony of God alive in our lives and that all that call on his name will be saved. Why would we settle for anything less?

[i] 2 Corinthians 5:5 NIV
[ii] J Hardee Kennedy, “Joel,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 7, (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1972), pp.75-76.

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