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OK, let's do it up right. If this is the church's birthday, there ought to be a party, true? One would think that an observance of this magnitude would be noticed around town, just like Christmas or Easter. But I have had occasion to shop in several stores recently, and amazingly, not one of them indicated that there were so few shopping days till Pentecost! In fact, in all my years, the closest thing I have ever seen approaching even a hint that this special day was soon to arrive was one year in the nursery department at Home Depot where there were PENTAS on sale (and for those of you might not know, [and that included me until I looked them up] pentas are bushy, rounded evergreen shrubs with hairy, bright green leaves and dense clusters of many small, star-shaped, tubular flowers in shades of red, pink, purple or white.(1)) So the question must be asked, "How much does a PENTA COST?" [Ugh!] That is as close as we make it to any commercialization of the holiday. Happy birthday, Dear Church.
By the way, you will occasionally hear a preacher here or there on this annual observance refer to the FIRST Pentecost, meaning the one we read about in our lesson. Not exactly accurate. As you Bible scholars know, Pentecost was not originally a Christian observance. Ancient Jews celebrated the day as a spring harvest festival (Shavuot in Hebrew), the 50th day after Passover. When the holiday was centuries old, a religious "spin" was put on it, and Pentecost came to be the time to remember the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but from Canaanite days this season of the year was the time to celebrate the spring harvest. The festival was one considered so important that all Jewish men within traveling distance were supposed to worship in Jerusalem at the temple. And they WANTED to - it was like a Christian celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem. And, yes, it was PARTY TIME!
Pentecost was similar to our Thanksgiving, but one crucial difference between the Hebrew Pentecost and our American Christian Thanksgiving is that the pilgrims did not grow grapes! Pentecost was a festival of new bread and new wine! And while we do not want to make the forebears of our faith sound as though they were irresponsible, it is true that this festival was immensely popular and very well attended, not just because it was the religious "thing to do," but because this was the only day that a faithful Jew was allowed to drink to excess. In fact, some rabbis of the period taught that all of the Jewish men had to drink to the point of intoxication on this day as a sign of their gratitude to God for the gift of the fruit of the vine!(2) Hmm. Now do you see why I am surprised that modern commerce has missed this golden opportunity?
Our lesson from Acts, chapter 2, recalls the first Pentecost AFTER the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Just before he was taken up out of their sight, the Lord had instructed his disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait, which they had done. For ten days, off and on, they had been having a prayer meeting. No doubt, they reminisced. They talked about the three incredible years they had traveled the countryside with this most amazing man any of them had ever known. Then, just seven weeks ago, they had experienced the emotional roller coaster ride of all time, first seeing their hopes dashed in the horrifying crucifixion of their teacher, only then to be shocked by his resurrection from the dead. Then, for 40 days, there were occasional visits from their risen savior, but those visits ended when he bid them farewell and disappeared from their sight one final time.
To be painfully honest, up to this point, scripture portrays the disciples as pretty much clueless...bumbling fellows who never seem to understand the Lord's teachings and who appear hopelessly taken with themselves and their private concerns. Even in the account of the Lord's ascension into heaven, they were still asking Jesus if he was about to throw out the Romans and give Israel back to the Israelites! The apostles do not seem to understand much at all. To their credit, they knew enough to do what they had been told: Go to Jerusalem and wait. Now, it was about to pay off.
Pentecost. It began at daybreak with the sound of the ram's horn being blown and a priest standing on the city wall waving a loaf of bread in each hand. The city was full of the sounds of laughter and celebration, and everywhere you could see the reunions of old friends and families meeting for the festival.
No doubt, there was a sense of anticipation in the Upper Room. After all, it was a holiday. But I doubt that any of our friends envisioned what they were about to experience. Suddenly, the room was filled with the sound of a mighty wind. Tongues of flame danced over their heads...wind and fire, ancient signs of the presence of God. It was the coming of the Holy Spirit among them that Jesus had promised. Too bad nobody had a cell phone to get some pictures or a first century version of YouTube so we could all check it out. In their excitement, they all began to speak at once creating a cacophony of sound such as would be heard at a United Nations celebration. Their gathering looked like a fiesta - no problem - remember, this was Pentecost! No wonder some passers-by thought it was some hearty party.
Not so, said Peter. He defended the group's honor by protesting that it was still only 9:00 in the morning, and even on Pentecost they had not had time to get drunk. He stood and preached from the window of the upper room to the people gathered in the streets below him:
Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through 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, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.'Interesting that Peter should hark back to Joel on Pentecost, of all days. After all, Joel's prophetic ministry came in response to a terrible plague of locusts that had come over his country, devouring and devastating everything in its path - there would have been no harvest to celebrate.
Then again, perhaps Peter is wiser than we give him credit for. He and the people who hear him preach know very well that Joel's message was that the coming of the locusts was God's wake-up call to a disobedient nation. Joel's theme was the coming "Day of the Lord," and the judgment that would ensue. Now Peter was issuing another wake-up call in Jerusalem.
You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know--this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power...This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.(3)For what it is worth, Joel's call worked. The locust plague did indeed get Israel's attention. The people repented, changed their way of living and began anew. The locusts were finally driven off, and the people experienced a time of fruitfulness and abundance. And on Pentecost, people responded to Peter as well - 3,000 souls answered the call of the Gospel that day. Powerful preaching. Powerful message. Powerful God.
Both Joel's and Peter's sermons noted that there would come a time when God's Spirit would come upon the people in a special way. For Joel, it was sometime in the future. For Peter, it was right then. This was the was the birth of the church.
No doubt you have heard Pentecost sermons lamenting the fact that the church of 2011 does not seem to experience the powerful movement of the Spirit that Peter and his friends did so long ago. If only we would pray more, or worship more, or study more, or give more. If only... If only... Well, the truth is that the Spirit has been with us and IS with us still, enabling us to accomplish some wonderful things.
The church has given and still gives the world ideals... ideals like religious and political liberty...ideals like racial unity, social justice, and human brotherhood. Through the work of the church and the convictions which have come from her, the most sinful of the world's economic and social and political evils have been driven to defeat or shamed into hiding. Who led the battle against human slavery in this nation in the last century? Who has been in the forefront of America's quest for racial equality? Who has been most vocal in its concern for peace among nations? The church and her people have been the conscience of the world. Happy birthday, Dear Church.
The church has provided bold messengers...the first pioneers and adventurers into the dark and neglected areas of the earth - the William Careys, the David Brainards, the Hudson Taylors, the David Livingstons - not simply for the sake of pushing beyond frontiers but that the people who live there might come to know the fullness of God's blessing in Jesus Christ. The messengers of the church - not the military, not the magistrates, not the merchants - have always taken the lead in the civilizing and enlightening work of the world.
The messengers of the church, not medical people as such, have been the first to go into all parts of the earth with the science of sanitation, nutrition, and physical healing. How many hospitals are named "Baptist" or "Methodist" or "Presbyterian?"
Not professional educators but the messengers of the church have reduced languages to writing, established schools, and set up printing presses for the distribution of the Word of God. The first Sunday Schools were established, not simply to teach Bible stories to youngsters, but to offer what was then the only opportunity for them to learn to read and write. Public education in America grew out of the selfless work of the church.
Not social reformers but the messengers of the church have taken the lead in the fight against poverty, famine, and plague. The church has elevated the status of women, created new conditions for childhood, established orphanages, day care centers, asylums, homes for the aged and others who need help.
History offers no parallel to the unselfish and uplifting work of the church whose birth we celebrate today. There is no question that what goes on in parliaments and congresses, in council halls and chambers of commerce, and in the highest courts of the nations is always of importance to humanity. But when the world is out of joint, when people's minds are disordered and their hearts are failing them for fear, then the thing of supreme importance is the living church, with all of her sanctuaries of worship and her avenues of service, where men and women come to have their faith strengthened, their thoughts clarified, their ideas uplifted, their convictions born, and their characters created. The church, for all her faults, is the institution of supreme significance and value in the world through the ages.
But for all the good works the church has offered through history, those pale by comparison to the one thing that the church uniquely did and continues to do - it has introduced the world to Jesus Christ. It is the church that first introduced you and me to the Savior. It is the church that preserved those magnificent words, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It is the church that taught us, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." We know Christ because the church brought us to him. The church gave us a right start, and the church TRIES to keep us on the right road.
Pentecost. The birthday of the church. And just as the 4th of July is the birthday of our nation and an opportunity to recall our marvelous heritage, so Pentecost is a wonderful annual reminder of this marvelous gift of God to the world called the church.
Perhaps you have been saying to yourself that you have been needing a deeper relationship with God. Then let today be the beginning as you recommit yourself to God's church and the ministries that have been so important to so many for so long. I promise, you will be blessed.
1. Plant Encyclopedia, via Internet, http://homearts.com/affil/gardb/plants/pentlanc.htm
2. Roger L. Ray, Sermon via Internet, "The Church Aflame," Lectionary Homiletics
3. Acts 2:22-24, 32-33