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In a way, that might be considered surprising. As you Bible scholars know, Pentecost was not originally a Christian observance. Ancient Jews celebrated the day as a spring harvest festival, 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. 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:
Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say...this is what was spoken by the prophet 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."Visions and 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.
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him...God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.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 sermon 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. At such a moment, incredible things occur. And they start with visions and dreams.
One of my cyberfriends has reminded me of a National Geographic special that aired sometime back which featured a man (whose name I cannot remember) - a senior citizen, in his 70's or 80's - who climbed a mountain in Antarctica. When he made it to the top and was asked if he had anything to say to those watching, he replied, "Dream big, and dare to fail."(3) That will preach. You do not often hear Richard Nixon quoted from pulpits, but he once said our people need "the lift of a driving dream."(4) That will preach, too. If God's Pentecost gift to the church is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to new visions and dreams, we ought to get on with it.
Does the church have enough dreamers? We do have lots of wonderful things - great facilities, wonderful programs, gifted, dedicated people. But do we have that "lift of a driving dream?"
I look around at the American church, and it certainly appears that the congregations where great things are happening are those which are not afraid to dream...filled with folks who know that dreaming is not a waste of time but at the very heart of who we are and what we need to thrive. Dreamers do not focus just on what is, but imagine what can be. Dreamers do not say, "We've never done it that way before," they say, "So what? Let's give it a try." Dreamers do not squash creativity or quench the Spirit when someone shares a new idea by first naming every reason why it will not work. Instead, they say, "Well, let's see what we can do!" Dreamers are never satisfied with just staying in the harbor, they are always pointing to and longing for the horizon.
It has always been that way. It happened in the days of Zwingli and Luther and Calvin. They dreamed. It was called the Protestant Reformation. And the church was changed. It is happening today in the church in third world countries. Where the Holy Spirit of God has been let out of the attic, the winds of God are blowing. People come by thousands to worship in Africa. In Korea there exists the largest church in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people in one congregation. They cannot build churches fast enough. People sit in trees in Africa, and in Korea they worship in shifts. People dream...and the church is being changed.(5) What is YOUR dream, YOUR vision?
Leaders in the church do well to spend more time dreaming, seeking the vision God has for us here in this place at this time in history. Concerned to serve rather than BE served, to minister to rather than BE ministered to, to feed rather than BE fed. Then we share that vision with our people, leading them to more prayer, to seeing the vision, adding to it, and all of us coming together to work to see it become a reality. What is YOUR dream, YOUR vision?
There is nothing quite like the "lift of a driving dream." When we have a vision, when we know who we are and where we want to go, it guides and sustain us. It keeps us going when the going gets tough. Without it, we drift without an anchor, we wander in the wilderness. As the writer of Proverbs has it, "Where there is no vision (or dream), the people run amok."(6) What is YOUR dream, YOUR vision?
Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke so powerfully of dreams. "I have a dream..." he said.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed --- "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."And that dream lifted him, lifted his people, lifted us all. His dream changed our world. What is YOUR dream, YOUR vision?
Another dreamer who was a powerful influence on King also had a dream. He could envision a whole world of faithful followers: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."(8) They murdered the dreamer, but not his dream. He lives on in us, empowers us. And what a lift it is when HIS dream truly becomes OUR dream. What IS YOUR dream, YOUR vision?
I recall another National Geographic TV Special, this one about eagles living on cliffs. It is always windy there and all the eagles have to do is stretch out their wings and the wind lifts them. They could stay like that all day. On Pentecost we are reminded of the Spirit, who comes like a mighty wind, to empower us with VISIONS AND DREAMS. What are yours?
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. Brian Mangan, via Ecunet, "Bottom Drawer," #1175, 5/14/97
4. Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 05 18," #90, 5/13/97. Much of the "dream" allusion comes from Bass' insightful note.
5. Janice W. Hearn, Sermon via Internet, "Messiness Is Next to Godliness," Lectionary Homiletics
6. Proverbs 29:18
7. Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. Source: Martin Luther King, Jr: The Peaceful Warrior, Pocket Books, NY 1968
8. Matt. 28:19-20