It was an annual holiday and so people knew what to expect. That’s how it goes with regularly occurring events. Yes, there can be minor variations but when it’s Christmastime, we all have our typical ways of celebrating the occasion and the same goes for Easter or Thanksgiving or even the Fourth of July. We tend to hang out with the same people each year and maybe even have traditional outfits we wear each year—our favorite Christmas sweater or a spring dress or bonnet we wear to church. Year to year we tend to make the same traditional foods for the holiday’s main meal: standing rib roast or ham or leg of lamb or roasted turkey or burgers and brats on the grill. Some years we say we might try something different but we almost never do. “We always have potato salad on the Fourth of July so let’s grab some again this year.”
For the Jews gathered in Jerusalem one day long ago the same was true for the holiday known as Shavuot. It had been seven weeks since Passover. The fiftieth day since Passover was called “Pentecost” (the “pente” part tying in with the number 5, as in a five-sided building or shape called a pentagon). This is when the people had long celebrated the conclusion of The Feast of Weeks as the wheat harvest got rolling and the first loaves of bread from that season’s crop got baked. It was harvest time and there was a certain way to celebrate it—same way every year.
Except on that one Pentecost in Jerusalem when something so novel, odd, and unexpected happened that it attracted a huge cosmopolitan crowd of people from literally just about every region of the then-known world. It started with a loud and violent wind that blew up out of nowhere from a bright blue sky on a cloudless day. Then most people in and around the Temple were certain they saw a ball of flame that soon divided up into individual tongues of fire that looked just like a burning candle except with no candle underneath the flame. They just kind of floated there in midair and then settled so close to the heads of a group of men that a few folks feared their hair would burst into flames at any moment.
Folks could tell based on their clothing that these ten or eleven fellows were commoners from the region around Galilee. They were the kind of people some deemed rubes and hicks and if you heard them speaking, they’d have that country twang that pegged them as rural and uneducated for the most part.
Except for now. Not only did they sound eloquent, they spoke as many languages as there were different languages represented in that veritable League of Nations sort of holiday gathering. Who knew whether the men were actually speaking all kinds of languages or if people just heard their own language—either way or both ways simultaneously it sent chills and tingles down people’s spines.
This was not how this holiday usually went. Rather than start with a positive explanation for what seemed to be happening, a few stuck to their stereotypical negative view of such hicks from the outback. “They’re just rip-snorting drunk!” they said. “At 9 o’clock in the morning?” others rejoined. (Though having once been in New York City for St. Patrick’s Day, I can assure you that 9am is plenty early enough to meet up with folks who had been downing some Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey for a good long while already.)
“It’s not that at all” one of these suddenly polyglot men piped up. “What you are seeing is the fulfillment of Holy Scripture itself and particularly what the great Prophet Joel once foresaw.” And next thing you knew this man—whom some said was named Simon but had acquired the nickname of Rocky or Peter—quoted a long-ish passage from memory about the Spirit of God getting poured out on the old but on also the young, on men but yes on also women and when this happened, they would all start to see dreams and visions of a new and better day in some coming kingdom of God. It would be a day that democratized salvation: didn’t matter who you were: just call on the name of the Lord and voila, you’re saved!
Soon enough Peter would connect even more dots that all led to a certain man known as Jesus from Nazareth, who had recently been executed by the Romans but whom Peter will proclaim as having been raised back to life some seven weeks back. No, this Jesus was not present to prove that rather wild claim but what could not be denied is that these simple fisherfolk and such from Galilee were somehow transformed by that Spirit of God Peter was talking about.
In fact that Pentecost day, a few thousand folks listening to all this in their various languages also felt something begin to bubble up in their own hearts. It was as though something new was getting born right inside them and before they even quite grasped what was happening to them, they embraced this Christ Jesus fellow—whom they had only just that moment heard about for the first time—and decided they were going to become a devotee of his from then on.
Not everyone who witnessed and heard all this came away renewed but everyone was certain of one thing: this was not how Shavuot usually went. At the very least and as they years went on, the folks there that day might have mentioned now and again, “Remember that one holiday years ago when that strange thing happened and we heard that name ‘Jesus’ for the first time? Call me crazy if you want but in some ways it seemed like the whole world changed starting that Pentecost.”
Indeed it did. And nothing has ever been the same way since. In the longest possible run that day will be remembered as the day that ushered in the only thing that will ever last for time and eternity: The bright Kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
A colleague in ministry named George VanderVelde once penned some words on the Holy Spirit that I find quite lovely and are worthy of reflection especially at Pentecost:
“It’s not easy to imagine the person of the Holy Spirit. Try to visualize the ‘face’ of the Holy Spirit–you draw a blank. And what about that name? Holy Spirit seems a rather generic term. It’s hardly a personal name. The Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘spirit’ mean breath, wind, or breeze, or perhaps life-energy. Adding the word ‘holy’ doesn’t help a great deal.
Who has seen the Wind? Look in the mirror. Watch the Spirit brush a sister’s face; see the Counselor transform a brother more and more into the image of Christ. Hear the Intercessor turn our groans into prayers. Sense the Spirit setting up housekeeping with the Father and the Son in the household of the Creator and Redeemer’s companions. Ask them, and they’ll tell you – ‘The Spirit is a holy gem.’”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 28, 2023
Acts 2:1-21 Commentary