Monday, June 09, 2014

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21, for the Festival of Pentecost, "The Spirit's Harvest"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, which began as an Old Testament festival of harvest. While we might think of autumn as the time for harvest, the festival of Pentecost marked the ending of the late spring barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest, as these grains were the first crops to bear fruit, and people were to give their first and best as offerings to the Lord.
Today we don’t pattern our lives so much by the cycles of planting and harvesting, of summer and winter. Especially here in Hawaii, where produce can be grown year-round; especially in our modern age of international food markets and grocery stores, where you can get tomatoes or apples or just about anything else, almost any time of year. We notice some local fruits or vegetables are best “in season,” but unless you watch carefully, you probably don’t notice much about those seasonal cycles. And with food coming in from all over the world, we are shielded from the full effects of drought, famine, and pestilence, all which devastate farmers, especially in the ancient world, who were so dependent on local conditions and their prospects for getting their daily food.
But if farming and harvest themes seem distant to us today, they’re all over the Bible. In the reading from Acts, we hear of Jews and proselytes (full converts to Judaism), traveling from great distances from where they lived in other countries around the Middle East and the Mediterranean, to attend the annual festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem. With slower forms of travel, this was a major trip. But they had no idea that at this year’s harvest festival they would be the harvest that was coming in.
As Jews living in foreign countries, they still knew the Old Testament, they knew the promises of the Messiah or Christ, and they still hoped for the deliverance of the Lord. But what a surprise when they saw the signs of the Spirit and heard the message that the Messiah had finally come, Jesus Christ! This Pentecost would be the Spirit’s Harvest, as people coming to celebrate their grain harvest would rejoice that God had harvested them as new disciples of His Anointed One, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And they heard it through the miracle of tongues, as Jesus’ apostles spoke in words that all of them could understand! In their native language, they heard the apostles of Jesus telling “the mighty works of God.”
When they begin to ask each other what this all means, Peter speaks up and quotes from the prophet Joel, that this was to fulfill God’s prophecy that in the last days He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. The book of Joel is about harvests. It describes a time when Israel’s harvest was devastated by a drought and a locust plague. Locusts were swarms of billions of insects that would devour every living plant in sight, leaving people in a terrible food crisis. The prophet called the people to repent of their sins, to weep, and humble their hearts before God, so that He would relent from the disaster, restore and bless them. Joel called on the people to return to the Lord God, who is gracious and merciful, and hope in His deliverance. And in the midst of Joel’s promises of God’s restoration and compassion on His people, God promises to pour out the Spirit in the last days. These promises were above and beyond the restoration from the destruction of the locusts. These promises gave them a great new hope, and made the people watch for a coming spiritual harvest—the harvest that came on that Pentecost.
We too, must be watchful for the harvest, and the words of Joel and Peter speak true to us this Pentecost 2014, just as much as they did 2,000 years ago to that crowd, or some 2,800 years ago to Joel’s hearers. While our lives may not depend on paying attention to harvest cycles—our lives do depend on paying attention to God’s harvest cycle. It’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t come with changing temperatures or colors in the fall; but Jesus used the language of signs and seasons and harvest to remind us of God’s spiritual harvest, just like Joel did. He said there were other signs that would signal God’s harvest. That harvest is a two-sided coin. On the one side is judgment for unrepentance and sin, or for being enemies of God—and on the other side is salvation or deliverance for those who have turned to God, and are His people. Joel, Jesus, and Peter all held out the same message and promise—that if we call on the name of the Lord, we will be saved. But Jesus Himself was that promised Messiah to whom Joel and Peter were both pointing.
The great harvest will be that Day of the Lord, that day of judgment, when those who believe in Jesus will be gathered like wheat into God’s barn (i.e. heaven), and the chaff, the empty hulls of the wheat, will be burned in unquenchable fire. One side of the coin is frightening for those who do not turn back to the Lord, but the other side of the coin is great hope and comfort for those who are saved. The festival of Pentecost was a celebration, full of rejoicing. It was a day to remember the blessings of the Lord, and to live in the anticipation of the future blessings of the Lord. So for the Christian, we rejoice to call on the name of the Lord Jesus, and know that in Him we are saved. In Him we are prepared for the joy of the harvest, for the gathering into the barn, for the rescue from our sins, from death, and from the fear of our enemies. In Him we live in the One who endured the judgment for our sins and suffered death, so that He might bring us safely through that future judgment into His blessed life.
Jesus compared Himself and His death on the cross to a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, but then bears much fruit (John 12:24). Harvesting can’t happen unless seeds are planted and die; so also in the Spirit’s harvest, there is much planting to be done first. This happens whenever we plant “Gospel seeds” in the ears and hearts of those who hear the good news about Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection scatters many Gospel seeds as it bears fruit in the hearts of all who believe in Him. The crowd in our reading were ripe for the harvest because they had been brought up in the Old Testament faith, and just needed to hear about the promises coming true in Jesus. But for missionaries and for many of our churches today who meet people who have never heard at all, we may be looking at unplanted soil, instead of grain that is nearly ripe. Individually, people may be at all the various stages of spiritual growth, from soil that has not yet received the seed, to a mature Christian who is at the end of their life, ready to be harvested into eternal life, as a seed dying and giving birth to a new life.
But whatever the stage of growth, wherever the individual is, Jesus’ life and His Spirit are the life, energy, and spiritual growth of the Christian. When we call on the name of the Lord, and are saved, it is Jesus who answers. Jesus who saves. Jesus who hears our cries of repentance, of our sorrow for our sins, and our cry for God’s mercy. It is Jesus who turns our sorrow into joy and gladness by the forgiveness of our sins. It is Jesus who answers our cry for mercy with the promise that our sins have been taken away. And as we live and grow in faith in Jesus Christ, His Spirit pours life-giving gifts into us. Gifts of faith, hope, and love.
But the prophecy from Joel says that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” Do you prophesy? Prophecy makes us think of telling the future. But prophets, even Joel, spoke about present day events, explaining them in the Light of God’s Word. So can you, as male and female servants of the Lord, do either? Can you tell the future, or can you explain the present in the Light of God’s Word? We do, in a sense, when we simply tell what God’s Word says. We can see our life, our trials and sufferings in light of God’s Word, declaring that God is testing us, that He is patiently preparing us for the harvest as He continues to call people to repentance. We can declare the future, when we confess with the Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. We can be confident of the hope of eternal life. In this way, each Christian can prophesy. We know what is in store for believers in Christ.
But what about the more specific sense of speaking direct messages and revelations from God? The Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Corinthians that different members of the body of Christ receive different gifts, and that prophecy is one of them. But he says we should “earnestly seek the higher gifts”—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. He also says, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). However we understand those words of Joel and Peter on Pentecost, about prophecy, visions, and dreams—and it is somewhat mysterious—we can be certain that the Holy Spirit is real and active, and that He gives gifts to men because Jesus is risen to glory, and that among these gifts, the greatest are faith, hope, and love.
But until the partial passes away, and until we see face to face, we can simply celebrate each Pentecost as a continual harvest. The harvest of the Holy Spirit who has sown the seeds of God’s Word in our hearts, and who gathers us into salvation through Jesus Christ as we believe in Him. And we can look forward in hope to the final harvest, when believers are gathered like wheat into God’s barn, which means eternal life. To Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all the praise and glory, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Pentecost, the “Feast of Weeks” or “Festival of Harvest” is actually an Old Testament celebration. Ex. 34:22; Deut 16:10; Num 28:26; Ex. 23:16a. Pilgrims would gather in Jerusalem, and on Pentecost morning, a flute player would lead the farmers up Mount Zion as they sang the “Song of Ascents” (Psalm 120-36). When they reached the temple, the farmers would present a basket of grain as an offering while reciting the words from Deuteronomy 26:5-10a in Hebrew. (The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1835).
  2. How would your life be affected if your food supply was only sustained by the local harvest, and how the related weather and pest conditions impacted local agriculture? Would it change your attitude toward God and prayer? Read the short book of Joel, and how it describes the drought and locust plague, and its effect on the nation of Israel. Joel 1:4, 10-12. What does the prophet urge the people to do in response? Joel 1:13-14; 2:12-14. How does he promise God will respond? Joel 2:19-32.
  3. In Joel, but also in Jesus’ descriptions, judgment and salvation are two sides of the same coin. How are the people of God delivered? How do the unrepentant and the enemies of God perish? How does this relate to harvest themes? Luke 3:16-17; 10:2.
  4. How does Jesus compare the reading of seasonal and harvest signs to understanding the timing of God’s judgment and salvation? Matthew 24:32-44; John 4:35-38. Since God’s “harvest” is not on the calendar, how do we watch for and prepare for it? How is the timing different from what we would anticipate?
  5. How was the first Christian Pentecost itself a harvest? How were the Jews who were gathered that day for the Old Testament harvest festival primed and ready for the message that Peter proclaimed to them, about Jesus Christ? How were they “ripe for the harvest?”
  6. What were the visible effects of the Holy Spirit bringing in this harvest? How do we end up on the salvation side of the harvest? Acts 2:21. 

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