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It’s been said that if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going. Finding out where you come from can be an important factor for people as far as a sense of identity goes – this is why websites like ancestry.com are so popular along with DNA genealogy services. Sometimes we are surprised at where we come from. A good friend of mine has invested a lot of time in genealogy. His parents came to Canada from Dublin and he’s been able to trace his roots back to the 19th century very accurately with photographs even – it’s very cool and meaningful.
This morning we’re looking at where the church came from. This is Pentecost Sunday – the day in the traditional church calendar on which we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s coming. I think it’s good to focus on the Holy Spirit in an intentional way – not that we don’t at other times of the year. I had a theology prof who likened the Holy Spirit in many traditions to Cinderella. The Cinderella of the Trinity, often being left behind as God the Father and Jesus the Son go to the ball. William Barclay in his set of commentaries on the New Testament wrote that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is one that the church needs to reclaim. Let us look at this story of the birth of the church in Acts and see what the Holy Spirit has to say to our hearts.
“While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me, for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” These are the words of Jesus to his followers in Acts 1. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” comes the question from his disciples. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, you will be my witnesses everywhere! This is the church’s job, as it were. This is not something we’re hearing for the first time, I know. I want us to pay attention though to the first thing that the followers of Christ are to do. They’re not told to build a church. They’re not told to hold a strategic meeting or put together a search committee. They are told to wait.
And pray. I want to look at waiting for a little while. To stop and consider waiting. We need to stop in order to wait. We want even our waiting time to be productive these days, don’t we? Everyone looking at their devices as we wait for the bus, or for our appointment. They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer as they waited. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. This is how the prophet Isaiah described it. We are not called to do any of this on our own – in fact it would be impossible if it were just up to us. Too often though we think and worry and act and strive like it’s all up to us. “Lord help me to know my dependence on you, my need for you,” is something I pray often. May we all pray this.
And so they prayed. They were praying based on a promise that God had made. In this case the promise of the Holy Spirit. One of my favourite ways to pray, one of my favourite things to pray for is to ask God to fulfill God’s promises. Sometimes I’ve wondered if this is a little insolent. “Of course God’s going to fulfill his promises,” you may say, “You’re always going on about how God is faithful which means that when God makes a promise, he keeps it right? Why would we need to remind God to fulfill his promises? Wouldn’t that be a little annoying?” It’s like you know when you’re going to do something or you’re in the middle of doing something and someone asks you to do it? Isn’t that a little annoying? Maybe it’s just me? J
We needn’t worry about being insolent though, to ask God to fulfill God’s promises. We’re going to be looking at some promises of God over the next four weeks, and I encourage us all to pray that we see their fulfillment. The disciples are praying for the promised Holy Spirit. William Willimon puts it like this in his book on Acts:
“In a sense this is what prayer is – the bold, even arrogant effort on the part of the community to hold God to his promises. In praying ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,’ we pray that God will be true to himself and give us what has been promised. Prayer is thus boldness born out of confidence in the faithfulness of God to the promises he makes, confidence that God will be true to himself (like praying “I know you are a faithful God, a just God, a merciful God” DT). What may appear as prayerful insolence by the church in praying that we shall receive the Spirit, the kingdom, the power, and restoration is in fact the deepest humility, the church’s humble realization that only God can give what the church most desperately needs.”
Only God can give what the church most desperately needs. May God give us an ever increasing sense of our need for God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without God none of this happens. May we pray in the deepest humility for God to be faithful to God’s promises. It becomes so freeing. We’re not doing this on our own. God is with us always. We mustn’t give short shrift to the Holy Spirit. As Pastor Abby said when we were talking about this – He’s the one who’s been left behind with us! As we wait. And waiting can be hard.
So the disciples are waiting. They wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The advent of the Holy Spirit even? The parallels between this story and the birth of Christ story told in Luke’s Gospel are significant. Both are announced. Both are awaited. Both have the Holy Spirit involved. Both involve new life. It’s like Christmas in June. Happy birthday Holy Spirit! It’s not that the Holy Spirit wasn’t around before any more than Jesus wasn’t around before. All three existing eternally and don’t even try to get your mind around that mystery. The spirit of God brooded on the waters in Genesis 1. The spirit of God came on King Saul, on King David. Elisha asked for a double portion of the spirit that had been given to Elijah. But now the Spirit would not only be for prophets and kings and priests – the Spirit would come on everyone and touch us individually like tongues of fire.
On the day of Pentecost. The Feast of Weeks. This was one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, when people came to Jerusalem to celebrate. The other two were Passover and the Feast of Booths. Passover was the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. Now we’re 50 days later. Pentecost was a time of celebrating harvest – the barley harvest. It was a time of stopping work. Of celebrating God’s provision. In later times (and possible Luke’s time) it was a time to celebrate God giving the Torah – the Law – to the Israelite nation. They were all together in one place, we read. And suddenly…
Things get shaken up. Just like things got shaken up on Resurrection Day. There was an earthquake then, as Matthew reports. There was the sound like the rush of a violent wind. The Holy Spirit disturbs things. He shakes up the status quo. A sound of a violent wind. It reminds me of making phone calls from subway platforms before cell phone days. Divided tongues, as of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. These are images we’re talking about – as of fire. These are images we use to try to explain the inexplicable. This mystery. This power. Fire in scripture is often used to signifying purification – dross being burned away in the making of gold or silver. We sing about it – Refiner’s Fire. Fire is also unpredictable. These are images we use to describe the Holy Spirit. Disruptive. Refining. Unpredictable. The wind goes where it wills. In Celtic Christianity, the Holy Spirit was compared to a wild goose – I like that! Who knows what the wild goose will do?! Even domestic geese can be pretty unpredictable. On the land where I spent much of my formative years we raised animals – my dad was a hobby farmer – including geese. One of my jobs when I was young was to herd them into the barn at night. One evening as they were filing in the last goose (which was in fact a gander) decided that he didn’t want to be told what to do. He turned around before reaching the door, spread his wings out, put his neck low to the ground and started advancing on me, hissing. I didn’t know geese hissed! I turned and ran and jumped over fence. When I turned around to face him from the safe side of the fence he casually turned and sauntered into the barn of his own accord.
The Holy Spirit shakes things up. We need this on an ongoing basis. The Holy Spirit’s work was tangible. In this case the followers of Christ started speaking in other languages – the countries of much of the known world of the time are listed by Luke. It meant the universalization of the Christ following life, of course. They heard the followers of God speak about God’s deeds of power. Of new life. New life in Christ that was shown at Easter. New life now for us in the Spirit. The opportunity to speak was granted by the activity which was birthed by the Holy Spirit of God.
I say often that in our days, the opportunities we have to proclaim God’s message, the good news of mercy and forgiveness and justice and life in Christ will be birthed by Holy Spirit inspired activity. I head the CEO of Yonge St Mission speak recently to a group of Christian leaders about our city. About the systemic, endemic, generational poverty that exists in what is consistently described as one of the top 3 cities in the world. She spoke of how the city needs to be shocked like you shock a pool. Do you know about this? When you maintain a pool you put a small amount of chemicals in it each day, to maintain its’ clarity, pH levels and so on. If you neglect it for too long things well go south. It will turn green. If you try the same maintenance routine at that point it won’t work. It will stay green. You need to shock it. We wondered how Christians might be able to shock our city. We spoke about people renting out space to low income families – like a cut rate Airbnb type of thing. Christians donating space so that a single mother of 3 doesn’t have to try to figure out how to live on $4 per day. We spoke of Christians coming alongside new immigrants – journeying with them, spending time. Taking the church out there. We spoke of street youth who become housed, but have no permanent relationships outside of social workers, intake workers and shelter staff. What if churches could become “landing pads” for such youth – to foster ongoing relationships almost as surrogate parents and aunts and uncles and help them? What if that could happen?
Would that be crazy? Would people wonder if we were drunk? This is what some in the crowd thought. Maybe it’s time to get a little crazy. I’m talking about all this activity, but we must always remember that it’s based on the engine that drives the church, the Holy Spirit of God. For whom we must learn to wait.
And pray that we be filled. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is not just a onetime filling. We must pray to be continually filled, speaking of asking God to fulfill God’s promises. Note that all the words we’re using here are passive. All the things we talk about doing are not dependent on our own striving. They’re dependent on our openness to being filled with the Spirit. When you are baptized you’re not actively doing anything, any more than you’re actively doing anything be being filled. You’re receiving a gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit which is power, which is life. God grant that we might be so filled this day, and all the days.