The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words to express. Ohh…
That’s the true gift of Pentecost, isn’t it? Yes, today we commemorate and celebrate how the people of God were surprised by the mysterious and radical arrival of the Holy Spirit. Yes, this is the day we claim as the beginning of the Church, the first time the body of Christ is made visible in believers after Jesus ascended into heaven. But more than that, this is the day we express our gratitude for the Holy Spirit’s presence among us now, voicing our hopes, dreams, regrets, and longings in God’s ear on our behalf.
You may remember that last week, before he ascended, Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to be with them. They didn’t know what he was talking about. Of course, they seldom knew what Jesus was talking about. So they had no idea of the magnitude of the gift of having an Advocate. But besides their absolute ignorance about who the Holy Spirit might be, Jesus hadn’t given any indication of a timeline when that Spirit might come, nor any indication of how it might happen. So odds are, they did not anticipate anything special happening today.
Because we know this story, we may forget that the disciples were not gathered together in the marketplace to experience the coming of the Holy Spirit. No, they were gathered together in Jerusalem with faithful Jews of every culture and land in order to celebrate God’s generosity at a Jewish harvest festival called the Festival of Weeks. I doubt that anyone anticipated God would show up in a new and startling way. They might have stayed home if they had known. But there they all were, expecting to worship in the same way they had worshipped at every other Festival of Weeks they’d ever attended.
My hunch is that very few people here today are expecting anything unusual to occur during this worship service. If you realized that it was Pentecost, you may have come this morning anticipating that some people would wear red, and that the sanctuary would be decorated with geraniums. You may even have remembered that this is the day many people dread being assigned to read the lessons because there are all those crazy nationalities listed in the text from Acts. But beyond that, I’m guessing you aren’t on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s coming next. You may just be settling in for your sermon nap.
Watch out! Because it was at just such a time that, suddenly, that the Holy spirit turned the world upside down! There was a sound like a rushing wind blowing through the room and the disciples saw something like flames of fire appearing above each of their heads! Then they began to testify in languages that were foreign to them, but meaningful to others who were gathered there. No one knew what to make of this, except to guess at the obvious possibility that the disciples were drunk, never mind that it was only 9 a.m. Or maybe 9:15.
I once knew a pastor who began every worship service by praying, “Dear God, let something happen today that is not printed in the bulletin.” I know a lot of other people who would never be brave enough to pray that. Are we willing to risk surrendering our own desire for control by preparing to be surprised by God again? If we no longer expect God to do anything new in our worship or in our lives or in our world, then we are worshipping a dead God, and we might as well go home now. But make no mistake, it is a dangerous thing to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It leads to all kinds of shenanigans.
Don’t forget that on that first Pentecost, Peter had to explain to the crowd that the disciples were NOT drunk, as the people supposed. Are we ready for our conduct and our stories to be so counter-cultural that people will wonder what we’ve been drinking? Peter quotes the prophet Joel to explain what happens when God pours out the Spirit on all flesh: sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free people all see visions and dream dreams. No longer is it up to the preachers to see God. Everyone will glimpse images of the kingdom. All kinds of people will have direct access. I’m not sure if Peter thought that explanation would clear up any confusion in the room, or if it actually did. I don’t know if it’s a comfort or a warning, but the whole event of Pentecost–wind and fire and multilingualism and Peter’s explanation of it all–leave me wondering that most Lutheran of questions, “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?”
At this time I invite you to please turn to page 1162 in the very back part of your red hymnals. This page contains Martin Luther’s explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, which you may or may not have encountered or memorized in confirmation class. The third article of the Creed is the one in which we talk about the character and work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s read this aloud together. “I believe in the Holy Spirit….”
How easily that trips off our tongues. But what does it all mean? Let’s read together the way that Martin Luther explains it:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
The Holy Spirit is busy! This vibrant, active Breath of God is empowering us, gifting us, teaching us, forgiving us, and all the while, giving us the faith to believe any of this! Faith itself is not something that comes from within us, no matter how intentional we are. Faith is a gift. And it is not given once and for all at our baptisms, never to be attended to again. Nor did all of this happen once in a marketplace long ago and far away. It happens now:
The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words to express. Ohhhh…
No, if we believe what we just read, we are claiming that The Holy Spirit actually keeps on fanning the flames of our faith, keeps on sending us ideas and experiences that allow our relationship with God to keep growing and changing and expanding as we mature. Faith in God comes from God and is sustained by God. It may not make logical sense. But then again, maybe it doesn’t have to. The creation and nurturing of faith is God’s work, not ours. We have a very limited scope of what is possible. And that perception is rooted in a very finite view of what we know or think we know. The Holy Spirit, like the wind, goes unseen everywhere and does all kinds of remarkable work, regardless of whether we understand it or not.
We may not understand what happened on that first Pentecost, or what it has to do with us today, but maybe we don’t have to. We do know Holy Spirit is at work in us and among us. Though Peter tries to explain what happened when he and the others were filled with the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, even the disciples didn’t comprehend it all. They simply participated in God’s larger and more inclusive vision of the world as the Spirit gave them ability. And I believe that the Holy Spirit is doing it again.
I believe that without our understanding it, the Holy Spirit is blowing through this community. I believe the Holy Spirit is working through ordinary people again to fulfill God’s mission in the world. It might sound daunting. All we are told, and maybe all we need to know, is that we are called to share the truth that is in us. We are sent to spread the word that God is a loving God, a uniting God, a strong God. But that’s all the disciples had on that first Pentecost too. And God worked through them.
Because God loves the world, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will change our fumbling words into an intelligible and helpful message to others too. Or maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t change our words at all, but instead changes the ears of the hearers, moving them to listen and comprehend beyond our own capacity to speak. Or maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t change words or ears, but somehow opens the hearts of the people who gather around us, so that they are moved to ask questions about God and God’s people. It’s not our job to comprehend how the Spirit is poured out on the people. It is both our privilege and our calling to speak of God’s deeds of power using whatever gifts we have been given by the Holy Spirit!
The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words to express. Ohh…
We conclude our services each week with, “Go in peace and serve the Lord,” or some variation. As God sent Jesus, and as Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, so now the Holy Spirit sends us. Dear God, let something happen today that is not printed in the bulletin.
~Pastor Susan Schneider