Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

                                                                                                    Acts 2:1-21

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. And on this day when you look around, you will see symbolism that evokes one aspect of the remarkable event that happened on the day of Pentecost. On our bulletin cover you see flames that have come down from above. On the banner behind me that Jean Adams made for Good Shepherd, you see the words, “Receive the Gift of the Spirit” surrounded by tongues of flame.

It’s not surprising that flames of fire are associated with Pentecost. After all on that day what appeared like tongues of flame were distributed on the disciples’ heads as they were filled with the Holy Spirit. But while we usually focus on the flames, that wasn’t really the most significant thing that happened – the thing that called attention to the outpouring of the Spirit. In our text we hear, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”

We learn that there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind and this sound filled the house. I think for the rest of my life when I read about this sound, it will always call to mind the experience here in Marion on May 8, 2009 when the inland hurricane passed through. While the force of the wind was impressive, what really caught my attention was the sound. It was blowing so hard that the wind made a constant whirring or buzzing sound.

When it comes to Pentecost, we often focus on the flames. Yet this is not what got the attention of the people in Jerusalem. We hear in our text, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together.” It was the sound that prompted these pious Jews to come together where the disciples were.

The fact that God used a sound like a mighty rushing wind to announce the outpouring of the Holy Spirit should probably not surprise us. After all, the Hebrew word for Spirit – ruak – can also mean wind. In fact when Jesus spoke to the Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit he said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus’ words remind us that wind is rather mysterious. You can’t see it and yet there it is physically acting upon things. You can’t see it coming. You can’t see where it is going and yet there is no denying its presence. And of course our Lord does so in order to illustrate the fact that the work of the Spirit is mysterious and not easy to understand. Yet this does not change the fact that the Spirit is present and at work.

The Jews who came together because of the sound of the wind were bewildered. But it was no longer the sound that had their attention. Instead they said, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” The disciples were from Galilee. They were not the kind of people you expected to speak languages from all over the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. Yet here they were speaking in all of these languages as the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to do so. As our text tells us, they were declaring the mighty works of God.

We focus on the flames of Pentecost rather than the sound of the wind because the flames are easier for us to understand. At least we can draw flames. How do you depict the sound of a rushing wind? And that difficulty illustrates the challenge that Pentecost – and the Holy Spirit himself – present for us.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. This means that while there is one God, the Spirit like the Father and the Son, is distinct and able to interact with the other persons of the Trinity. This in itself blows our mind. And then on top of that, at least when we think about the Father and the Son, we have some basis for understanding what this means. After all, we have experienced fathers and sons. But “Spirit” – that is a different matter.

And then Pentecost too presents challenges. It all seems anticlimactic. Jesus Christ has died on the cross for our sins and risen from the dead. His saving mission for us is completed. He has ascended into heaven. And then, ten days later, along comes Pentecost. Today, it’s often an afterthought in the Church. Families gather to celebrate Christmas and Easter, but who does that for Pentecost? After all, what’s the big deal?

Before Jesus ascended he said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” He told them to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

When God poured forth the Holy Spirit, it was impressive. Yet even at that moment, unbelief was still able to reject the Gospel. The response of some that day was to say, “They’re drunk.” But Peter stood up and declared that nothing could be farther from the truth. He said, “For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” 

Peter declared that the outpouring of the Spirit was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel and a sign that the last days – the end times had arrived. He went on to announce that the Jesus Christ they had crucified had been raised from the dead. More than that, he had ascended into heaven. And the proof of all of this was what was happening on Pentecost. Peter announced, “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 yourselves are seeing and hearing.”

It is easy to look at the events of ten days ago and conclude that the Lord Jesus has abandoned us. After all, he ascended into heaven. We don’t see him anymore. But the day of Pentecost answers back that this is all wrong.

Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins in order to win forgiveness for you. He rose from the dead as he defeated death and began the resurrection of the Last Day that will be yours. And now the ascended and exalted Lord has poured forth his Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ for his Church. The Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit creates faith in Jesus. The Spirit strengthens faith in Jesus. The Spirit prompts and moves the Church to tell others about Jesus.

When Peter had finished speaking, those who heard it this were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Pentecost makes us think about our own baptism. In the water of baptism the Holy Spirit was poured out on you. As Paul says in Titus chapter 3, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” In Baptism the Holy Spirit has applied Jesus Christ’s saving work to you. How do you know you are forgiven? You’ve been baptized!

But Pentecost teaches us that the Spirit does more than just make sure we are forgiven. He is the power from on high that enables us to live as those who are in Christ and to tell others about Jesus. The apostle Paul told the Romans, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” As the Spirit comes to us through the Means of Grace he leads and enables us to turn away from sin. He gives us strength to put do death the old man – to crucify him – so that the new man created by the Spirit lives in the world sharing love in word and deed with others.

And the Spirit provides the power by which we are able to speak about Jesus Christ to others. In the book of Acts this is in fact the primary thing that Luke highlights. Where the Church is slow in speaking the Gospel the Spirit prompts – and even forces – the Church to speak Christ beyond the narrow circle she had drawn. 

The Holy Spirit continues to do this in the Church today. The question we must face is whether we are stifling the Spirit. When we find ourselves in conversations and settings, and we sense that there is the opportunity to speak about Jesus, do we try to find reasons why we shouldn’t? Or will we instead allow the Spirit to lead us in bearing witness to Christ?

On the day of Pentecost the ascended Lord poured forth the Holy Spirit on his Church. He fulfilled the prophet Joel’s words in an action the announces to us that we are living in the last days. Through the Spirit – his Spirit – the Lord Jesus has called us to faith and keeps us as members of his Church. The Spirit continues to be active and at work among us until our Lord returns on the Last Day. He helps us to suppress the old man so that we can live in the ways of Christ. And he leads and enables us to share the good news about Jesus Christ who died for the sins of all and rose from the dead.

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