May 19, 2013
Rev. John Watts
WHY ALL THE RED?
Acts 2: 1-8,12
Memories of my dad keep flooding my brain. I remember the sign in the little area where he repaired television sets. It said, “We’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?” He had it back where customers couldn’t see it, fortunately.
A similar sign I’ve seen in other stores, also back where the customers can’t see it, let’s hope, reads like this. “Helen Waite is our credit manager. If you would like credit, you can go to Helen Waite.”
Waiting is part of the story of Pentecost. Jesus had told the disciples to wait. Not to go to Helen Waite, but to go toJerusalemand wait. “Wait for the promise of the Father . . . for before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).
It was ten days of waiting. Ten days is not much. But I can imagine those ten days seemed like an eternity to those disciples.
We don’t like to wait. We like instant everything. If I have to wait more than two seconds for my computer to load something, it feels like a terrible imposition. We are in a hurry. We are on the go. We have things to do, places to go, people to see. And yet many times in scripture God tells us to wait.
One is in Isaiah. “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength . . . they shall mount up with wings like eagles . . . they shall run and not be weary . . . they shall walk and not faint” (40:31).
Jesus knew there was value in waiting. He told his disciples to wait. While they waited, they got what they needed. Their strength was renewed. They were given new power. They were able to mount up with wings like eagles. We call it Pentecost. I want to make three points about Pentecost today — its perspective, its phenomena, and its purpose.
First, we just need to put Pentecost into some kind of perspective. Jesus had been crucified. That seemed to be the end. Then Jesus rose from the dead. It was a glorious new beginning! For 40 days Jesus walked this earth once again. Ten post-resurrection appearances are recorded. Ten times he appeared to people in a recognizable form. One of those times, he appeared to more than 500 people at once.
What was he doing? He was convincing them that he really was alive. He really had defeated death. But it was more than that. He was also preparing them for the future. He was weaning them from depending on his physical presence. So these 40 days were a time of transition. He was now recognizable, but not always with them. Soon he would be always with them, but not recognizable.
The 40 days came to an end with his ascension into heaven. And those last words before he ascended: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” That’s the way the book of Matthew ends (28:18-20). Luke, who is also the author of Acts, records these last words: “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (24:49). And then Jesus was gone. The disciples were left alone, waiting for that promise to come true, wondering how long they would have to wait.
As it turned out, they waited 10 days. Which probably seemed like 10 years. You think an hour worship service seems like a long time! They waited and prayed and sang and meditated and worshipped for 10 straight days. And I’m sure before it was over they were starting to feel silly waiting for something they weren’t entirely sure was ever going to happen.
On Pentecost it happened. The promise was kept. The Holy Spirit came. “Pentecost” by the way means fifty. Pentecost was an already existing Jewish holiday that came 50 days after Passover. So Pentecost now takes on new meaning. 40 days of post-resurrection appearances, plus 10 days of waiting, equals 50. That’s the perspective of Pentecost.
Now the phenomena of Pentecost. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, they felt the presence of Christ as much as they felt that presence when he was physically with them. He had promised he would be with them always (Matthew 28:20). It’s one thing to believe that. It’s another thing to experience that. On Pentecost they experienced that. They felt his presence. It was very real.
Here’s where the story gets a little strange. Words could not convey the meaning of the phenomena of Pentecost. So it is recorded in scripture as symbols and sounds. First, the rush of a mighty wind. Like wind, the Holy Spirit is invisible and yet real. Like wind, we can’t see it, but we can see its results.
We’ve had some mighty winds these last few days. In the days after my dad’s death inMadras, there was a wind that shook our house down to its foundations. In lasted about two minutes. Then things were calm. During our Leadership Team meeting on Monday, there was a similar wind. Just as we were expecting the GPS building to be lifted into the sky Wizard of Oz style, the wind died down. I remember so clearly walking home from school on October 12, 1962. That was the day of the Columbus Day storm. It took longer for that wind to die down. We don’t get hurricanes on the Pacific coast. That one technically was a typhoon. But it was one of the rare times the Pacific Northwest experienced what those on the lower Atlantic and theGulfCoastexperience regularly. I’m curious if that storm did damage inIdaho, too. Winds can do great damage. Invisible yet powerful, like the Spirit of God. The sound of a mighty wind was the first of the phenomena of Pentecost.
Then it gets stranger. Tongues of fire were resting on each person. That by the way is why all the red. Red is the color of Pentecost to remind us of the tongues of fire on Pentecost. It’s right there in the symbol of theUnitedMethodistChurch, by the way. The black cross and the red flames, which are tongues of fire.
Fire is a symbol of God’s Spirit. Like fire, God’s Spirit purifies us. “For he is like a refiner’s fire”, it says in Malachi 3:2, and also in Handel’s “Messiah”. Nothing impure can survive the heat of fire. And like fire, God’s Spirit gives light. A single candle in a very dark place gives all the light that is needed to walk safely and confidently.
Notice the location of these tongues of fire. There is one flame per person. That reminds us that God’s Spirit comes to each of us individually. So never let anyone discount your individual experience of God’s Spirit. Never think that someone else’s experience needs to be normative for you. There is one God, but God comes to us in as many individual ways as there are individual people.
Here’s one way to express it: diversity is divine! What unites us is not that we’ve all had the same experience of God. What unites us is that in our own individual ways, we have all experienced God’s love. The Church keeps stumbling on this one. Whenever any one experience of God is made normative and mandatory for all, we get ourselves in trouble. That’s one reason we have so many churches!
This leads into the final phenomenon — speaking in tongues. Those who experienced God’s Spirit on Pentecost did not keep this experience to themselves. They told others about it. They told others about it in a language that God gave them, with words those who spoke didn’t understand, but those for whom the words were intended did understand. In many churches, speaking in tongues is normal and even normative. If you don’t speak in tongues, something must be wrong with you. You haven’t quite reached the pinnacle of Christian experience. I don’t see it that way. There is nothing
wrong with speaking in tongues. Paul says, “I speak in tongues
more than any of you.” But then he goes on to say, “nevertheless,
in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (I Corinthians 14:18-19). Again, we experience God in our own individual ways. Never think someone else’s experience needs to be normative for you.
The perspective of Pentecost is fairly straight forward. 40 days of post-resurrection appearances, plus 10 days of waiting, equals 50. And Pentecost means 50. The phenomena of Pentecost are fairly strange. The wind and the fire and the tongues that express the inexpressible — what God’s Holy Spirit is like. Now we come to the purpose of Pentecost. This is where what happened on Pentecost touches our lives. This is where this day is more that a day in history that we have been learning about. Pentecost is something we can’t live without.
We bought a little green Toyota Echo fromChadand Sarah Snow not quite a year ago. It’s a very small car. It is so light, it is scary to drive it in high winds. But I love the gas mileage! One 11 gallon tank of gas and you can drive nearly 500 miles. However, even that little Echo won’t go forever. If I don’t pay attention to the fuel gage, if I don’t stop when it is time to stop, it will stop for me. And then it will be a long walk to find the fuel it needs.
Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples.” That’s our mission as followers of Jesus, by the way. To make disciples. The Great Commission was telling his disciples long ago and his disciples modern day to carry on where he left off. But in order to do so, they would first need to be empowered. They would need to be energized. They would need fuel. They would need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
That was the purpose of Pentecost. Pentecost gave the disciples the power to do what they had been told to do. I don’t think God expects us to do anything God doesn’t empower us to do. Pentecost was the power. Pentecost was also the confidence that that power was unlimited. It would never run out. It would always be there. So therefore, they could confidently step forward in faith knowing there was nothing they and God could not do!
The book of Acts proves them right! It’s a thrilling book. One of the most thrilling books I’ve ever read is Unbroken, the amazing story of Louis Zamperini’s survival through the Second World War. Our Classics book group has been reading it. The book of Acts is even more thrilling, even more amazing. It is not a book of theology. It is an action book, hence the name. It’s Acts of the Apostles, not Thoughts of the Apostles, or Intentions of the Apostles. It’s a book about getting things done against impossible odds. The words used over and over again in this book are bold, boldly, and boldness.
And if you read the book because it’s one of the more exciting books of Bible to read, you are missing the point. The point is that modern day followers of Jesus like you and me can live boldly. Because what was true back then is just as true today. We can step confidently forward in faith because there is nothing that we and God cannot do!
This is the season of commencement addresses. I don’t remember who spoke at my commencement. But I do still have a picture of me on that day that appeared in theSalem”Statesman-Journal” the next morning. I am holding a radio to my ear because that was the year the Portland Trailblazers won the world championship and they scheduled our commencement during a playoff game.
I think those who graduated fromStanfordUniversityin 2005 remember who spoke at their commencement. It was Steve Jobs. It was one of the great commencement addresses of all time.
It began by telling the graduates that this was the closest he had ever gotten to a college graduation because he never graduated from college. You might want to find the whole speech. It really is a classic. I just want to share with you how the speech ends.
He tells of Steward Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog”. It was a magazine that was printed during the 60’s and into the 70’s. It was real popular with the hippies and the counter-cultural crowd of that day. It ceased publication in 1971. On the back page of the final issue, there was a picture of a country road. Maybe the kind of a road where those who were so inclined might want to hitch a ride. And on that picture were these words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
That’s where Steve Jobs ended his speech. It’s pretty good advice for college graduates. But I think it’s even better advice for followers of Jesus. Pentecost means that God’s resources are unlimited and that God’s resources are intended to be used in you and in me. Those who were present that first Pentecost were hungry for God. They had been waiting. They were ready. And those who were present that first Pentecost were not the least bit concerned about what others might think of their Holy Spirit empowered new life. They were bold. And when you are bold, others will say you are foolish.
What about us? Are we hungry for God? Or are we full and satisfied and ready for a nap? Are we willing to be fools for Christ?
(I Corinthians 4:10) Or are we kind of worried about what other people might think of us? In other words, will we be the ones to carry on where Jesus left off? Or will the Holy Spirit have to go in search of those who will?
On this Pentecost Sunday, dear God, we pray that our waiting might end. For we have been waiting to figure out what life is really all about, what is our real reason for spending a few fleeting years on this earth, and whether you, O God, are really connected to all this. We pray that your Holy Spirit might descend with power upon us. We pray that our lives will no longer be described as timid. May we proudly wear the label, “bold”. Even “foolish”. May we no longer trust in ourselves and our limited resources, but in you and your resources in Christ that have no limit. In his name, Amen.