A New Spirit is Blowing
The story of Pentecost is one of those biblical events where we find it hard to know exactly what happened. Luke, in writing about it, used word pictures such as a mighty wind and tongues of flames, to try and help his readers understand the uniqueness and power of this event. Nothing like this had ever happened before and never again will it occur, in quite this way. The disciples were given, for a time, the ability to speak in other languages. It was different from what occurs in the rest of the Acts of the Apostles when it talks about people speaking in tongues. It was different from the gift of tongues that people claim today. This time the disciples could speak in all of the known languages of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Many Jews and God-fearers were in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, which we often forget was first a Jewish holy day. Because of this outpouring of the Spirit, all could hear the good news in their own language.
The disciples were changed forever by this event. Beforehand, we find them hiding behind closed doors. Afterward, they stand with Peter as he proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. It says 3000 were added to the faith and it is why we call Pentecost, the birth of the church. The disciples will undergo persecution and imprisonment. All but the Apostle John will die as martyrs for the faith. The greatest miracle of the Pentecost story, to my mind, is not the coming of the Spirit giving the disciples the ability to speak in many languages. The greatest miracle was the change that occurs, because of the Holy Spirit, in the disciples, moving them from fearful to fearless. God’s Spirit when it comes to us, always has this life-altering effect on us.
As we prepare for the change in pastors, I want to celebrate how the winds of the Holy Spirit are still blowing through this church. We have felt it powerfully during the nine years I have been here. I feel it now even in the midst of the pandemic. It will continue to blow after Brad begins to serve as your pastor. That spirit empowers and changes us now just as it did back then. That Spirit has allowed us to be adaptive in these changing times. I think of all the new things I have had to learn to do in the past few weeks. It would not have been possible without the help of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit continues to blow through our midst, and the Spirit will help you reform and discern how ministry moves forward in the months to come.
Today I want to celebrate the work of the Spirit. There are many words for the Holy Spirit contained in the Bible, among them are: wind, breath, fire, cloud, and a dove. Again, these are word pictures to describe how the individual, at that moment, is experiencing God. Today I want us to think about how the Holy Spirit moves in our lives and the life of the church using those images. Let us see what they have to tell us about how God comes to us, strengthens us, comforts us, challenges us, and changes us.
We begin with Wind: Many times the writers of the Bible use this word to describe the actions of God. The wind blew across the waters in creation to create the dry land. Again, after forty days of rain, in the story of Noah, we hear God caused a wind to blow across the waters of the flood so the dry land appeared. And when Jesus was in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a storm arose he silenced the wind and all were in awe that the wind and sea obeyed him. On Pentecost, we hear that the Spirit came upon the disciples with the sound of a mighty wind. When we think of our experiences of wind we know it can be beneficial, such as how a summer breeze cools us. We also see its destructive power in tornados or hurricanes. Sometimes we talk about wind as being a cleansing force and we know this happens when the wind takes our leaves and blows them into our neighbor’s yard! The Bible connects wind with the power of the Holy Spirit. This tells me that sometimes we experience the Holy Spirit as God blessing us, sometimes shaking things up in our lives and, as at Pentecost, blowing us in new directions. We need to be open to the power of the Spirit blowing in our lives in all these ways, particularly now as we move into a new future.
Breath: is another image sometimes used in the Bible for the Spirit of God.
Adam was formed by God but did not have life until the breath of God was blown into him. Ezekiel had a vision of the valley of dry bones. The bones are knit back together and have flesh come upon them but do not live until the breath of God blows across and into them. This makes me ask the question, “Where are we feeling dead and lifeless?”
All of us have those moments when today feels pointless and tomorrow seems hopeless. God wants to blow into our lives a message of hope and life, and remind us that we are offered life, full and abundant, even at these moments.
Fire: Is also a way the Bible describes God’s Spirit among us. Moses sees a bush burning but not consumed and when he approaches it, hears the voice of God. Today we heard of tongues of fire resting on those in the room as a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Like wind, I want us to think of some of the ways we experience fire. Fire has positive images associated with it as seen through its power to burn off impurities during the smelting process. It tempers steel making the metal stronger. Also, it can cause things to blend. When discordant elements reach their melting point they can be combined, such as sugar, butter, and chocolate in a recipe. All of these images speak to me of what God wants to do in our lives as happened in the lives of the disciples at Pentecost. Pentecost was a purifying time. We can assume that all of the disciples had some guilt and shame about how they had acted in the last days of Jesus’ life, Peter most of all. This might have been one of the reasons they were afraid and silent. The power of the Spirit brought with it an awareness that they were forgiven, purified. It was also a tempering fire as they became strong enough to face anything.
Fear was replaced by strength. Pentecost was also a time of unity coming out of disunity. Many remark how Pentecost is the reversal of the tower of Babel story. There, God caused the people to begin to speak in many languages. Where there was unity now chaos reigned. At Pentecost, the disciples speak the same message but in many languages. All could hear and understand the good news. There was a new sense of unity. We need to ask ourselves where do we need this purifying fire reminding us God loves and forgives us? Where do we need to be strengthened because fear has silenced us? And where do we need the power to work for unity, to break down barriers between us and others? The Spirit that comes as fire will do this in our lives.
Cloud is another image associated with God’s Spirit. We recall how a cloud covered Mount Sinai when Moses went up to receive the Ten Commandments. We hear the voice of God coming out of a cloud at Jesus’ baptism and later it happens again on the Mount of Transfiguration. Both times this voice shares the news that Jesus was God’s beloved. Thinking of those images, a cloud becomes a symbol of the nearness of God and the love of God. When we are feeling very alone or we begin to think that God does not hear or at least respond to our needs we should look up and see a cloud. Let that image remind us that God’s Spirit is with us and surrounds us. When we are feeling uncared about, again a cloud can remind us that God calls us God’s beloved. A cloud image is a comforting and reassuring form of the Spirit that blows into our lives. It won’t shake us up and point us in new directions but will remind us that we are not alone and we have the tools to handle this present moment.
Dove is our last symbol. It was a dove that came back to Noah bearing an olive branch after the flood to say the dry land had appeared. This is not exactly a sign of the Spirit of God but a reminder that God is offering life when all we feel is chaos and death. In some of the stories of Jesus’ baptism, we have a dove descending upon him. It is a word picture of how God’s Spirit came in a new and empowering way into Jesus’ life.
What we forget is what some of those same accounts tell us occurs just after Jesus’ baptism. It says the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. So the dove, like the wind and flames, is a symbol of God’s Spirit coming to us but also a reminder that God expects us to listen, to be willing to change and move in new directions because of that gift.
I feel this is a very appropriate symbol for our church at this time. You need to embrace the dove image. With my retirement, you are moving forward in new directions. The dove will remind you that God is with you. Never forget that. But the dove is also challenging you to listen and to embrace the change that is occurring. Change is scary but through the gift of God’s Spirit, as shown in a dove, we are all assured that we are beloved.
Luke did his best to describe the powerful encounter the disciples had with the Holy Spirit. Whether it was a wind, fire, breath, cloud, or dove it changed their lives forever. This is what the Spirit wants to do for all of us. This day we need to have the trust and the courage to pray “Come Holy Spirit.” As we open ourselves to the gifts of God we know we will be changed, blessed, renewed, and challenged. May you feel God’s Spirit especially today and in the months and years to come.