"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pentecost Sermon

This turned out to be a much better sermon in the study than in the pulpit (bummer) but here it is. Win some, lose some I guess.

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I like to shop down at the Korean grocery store in Oakland. It’s a little mom and pop shop that does most of its business selling ramen noodles to college students and niche market ingredients to Asian immigrants. Only once have I ever seen another non-Asian customer in that store. And the first time you go in, it’s intimidating. All the labels are in Korean or Japanese, some have an English translation on the package, some don’t. I once bought something there that looked tasty and got it home to realize I had no idea how to prepare it. The little line drawings that substituted for non-Korean instructions didn’t help.
The owners are first generation immigrants, and while they speak English passably well, some days are clearly better than others. On any given occasion, I’ve heard Korean rattled off joyfully between shopkeeper and customer, but I am often greeted with a friendly silence as I bring my items to the register. Of course, their English is far better than my Korean, but usually I try out my handful of Korean words – hello, thank you, good bye—when I see them. On one such day, clearly not the best of English days for the lady at the counter, I quietly waited while she checked out my items, and then offered “thank you” in my surely mangled Korean. She lit up, stepped back, flung her arms wide, and said in exuberant Korean “Yes yes! Thank you!” Somehow, I seem to have made her day.
I know what’s like to be shy about your language abilities. My sophomore year in college, I lived with a French woman. Since she knew I was studying French, she suggested early on that we speak French in the dorm room (this was intended to be for my benefit, since she was fully and comfortably, bilingual). Ashamed of what I suspected to be a truly horrid French accent, I declined. Perhaps, if we had spoken French among ourselves, I would remember the language today; instead, I let six years of language study slowly waste away.
The visitors to Jerusalem in the Acts passage today would have been like my French friend or our Korean grocer; able to understand the language of the land they were visiting, even though it wasn’t the language of their innermost thoughts. Most everyone in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament would have understood Greek in addition to their native tongue. Most Jews would have understood Hebrew for Temple use. The people who had come to the Temple would have been Jews who had been scattered into many foreign lands during the Exile and the movements of the centuries after. They would have retained their Jewish heritage by learning Hebrew, even though it was not the language they used for everyday life.
Pentecost was one of the primary pilgrimages of the Hebrew calendar, and the visitors to the city would have saved and prepared for months or years to make the long journey from foreign lands. Many would have simply stayed in Jerusalem for the fifty days after the Passover festival in order to participate in the Pentecost celebration of the first fruits of the grain harvest without enduring a second journey. For many of the far flung people, this may be the only chance they have to visit the Temple, to worship God in the only place that was believed to be truly his home.
Most of them would have been Jews, one people scattered by geography and separated by the details of native language and culture. Others, however, were converts, “God-fearers” who had given up paganism to seek the one God of the Jews, outsiders with neither a common ancestry nor a common covenant to bridge the gaps of distance and ethnicity.
And while the scattered peoples were gathered, the disciples were huddled together all in one place, awaiting further instructions now that they had seen Christ ascend. “And suddenly there came down from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Soon the huddled disciples will be the ones scattered to out into the world, in order to bring the good news to all people that God is calling every tongue and tribe and nation to become his people.
There’s a word play here that is worth noting. In Greek, the word pneuma means “breath, wind, or Spirit.” The same is true for the Old Testament word nephesh, which we’ll see in a moment. So suddenly there is a great rushing wind, breath, spirit, in the room, and the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit.
And in the beginning, the spirit, the breath, of God was hovering over the face of the deep, dark, chaotic waters. And after God had tamed the chaos and brought forth light and order, God used the same creative breath that spoke all things into being to breathe life, spirit, breath into the man and woman. The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit because this is what, at the beginning of Creation, man was intended to be.
After humankind rebelled against God in the garden, the Holy Spirit seemed to be in much more limited supply. A prophet here, a prophet there, maybe a king or two along the way might have the Holy Spirit; but the gifting was restrained. It was so restrained, in fact, that ever since the Hebrew people returned from Exile centuries before, they believe d that the Holy Spirit had ceased to be given at all. And here, suddenly, the spirit comes like a rush, a flood, poured out in abundance. And the disciples begin to speak in languages they had never studied, so that the people could hear the Gospel in their own language.
After humankind decided to turn from God in the Garden, men and women began to try to make themselves like gods, building a tower into the heavens. But because we are not nearly so godlike as we wish to believe, those plans were thwarted. The effect of sin included the confusion of languages, so that one person could not easily communicate with another, and the scattering of people to the distant parts of the earth. But now, as the Kingdom of God begins to enter into creation, the effects of sin begin to unravel and man can hear the Gospel clearly, and the scattered peoples are drawn together to worship God.
Three thousand people were baptized that day. Three thousand! If you want the unbeatable model for church growth, here it is: just follow the Great Commission, to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations and let the Holy Spirit do the work. Every Christian has access to this marvelous gift, and while we don’t all have speaking in tongues and other shazaam moments, the Spirit will work through each of us if we are faithful and willing. The disciples had only taken the first baby steps into “all the world” and already a handful of disciples had become thousands. And that was not all, for day by day “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The Lord chose to do this miracle on Pentecost, the ancient celebration of the first fruits of the grain harvest as a sign to us that the harvest is indeed plentiful and that these thousands are really just a drop in the bucket. God desires that all men and women be saved, Jesus has promised that by his being lifted up on the Cross he would draw all men to himself. Its your job, brothers and sisters, not to grow this church, but to grow God’s kingdom. And while that feels like a tough job, all we really need to do is to be willing to make those baby steps out into the world, offer the unblemished Gospel in a language the people can understand, and let the Holy Spirit do the work.

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