Monday, June 23, 2008

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is the day that the Christian church remembers it’s birthday, so to speak, the day of Pentecost. Pentecost means “fiftieth.” That first Christian Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus rose from the tomb, and only 10 days after He ascended into heaven—the Christian church took off with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ ascension, He reaffirmed His promise that He would send the gift of His Holy Spirit. When the disciples received this gift, they were to begin their mission as His witnesses, from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Today we’ll look more closely at that first Christian Pentecost, in our 2nd reading, Acts 2:1-21. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pentecost truly must have been a miraculous scene, for the eyewitnesses and “earwitnesses” of this unusual event. The 12 apostles, and as many as 120 other brothers and sisters in the faith, were gathered together in Jerusalem, awaiting Jesus’ promised gift of the Spirit. And with the sound of a rushing wind from heaven, tongues of fire were distributed on each of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Why fire? In the Old Testament, fire was a sign of God’s presence, from the burning bush that Moses saw, to the pillar of fire that rested over the tabernacle, or tent of worship, and led the Israelites through the wilderness by night. Even today we light candles during worship as a reminder of God’s presence.

So here the tongues of fire rested on them, not consuming or burning them, but pouring out the Holy Spirit’s power on them, giving them the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages they didn’t previously know. The word “tongues” here, refers both to the flames of fire and to the languages they spoke with their tongues. Obviously, this was no everyday occurrence, and caught the attention of a crowd of people, who were from a diverse range of nations to the North, South, East, and West of Jerusalem. Who were they, and why were they there in Jerusalem? They were God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…which basically means they were Jews who had been scattered from their homeland of Israel, in an event called the Diaspora, which means “scattering.” Israel and Judah had been taken into exile hundreds of years before Jesus came. The foreign countries of Assyria and Babylon had driven many of the Jews out of their homeland. Some had been taken captive to those lands; many fled to foreign countries and settled there. These nations and regions that are listed are some of the places where those Jews ended up after their Diaspora or “scattering.” They had learned the foreign languages and were now hearing and comprehending the saving message of the Gospel in the words of their own languages, from where they were born.

So why were these God-fearing Jews, from scattered nations across the North and South coasts of the Mediterranean Sea in Europe and Africa, and from Arabia and modern day Iraq, and North into Asia—why were they returning to Jerusalem, the place of their ancestors? They had come to Jerusalem for the Jewish Festivals of Passover and Pentecost. Pentecost was an Old Testament Festival of Harvest. It was when the grain offerings would be made in the Temple as a celebration of the harvest. But today, that Old Testament holiday would take on a new and greater meaning. What had once been a celebration of the grain harvest would now become a celebration of a harvest of souls! Later that day over 3,000 people would be baptized and saved, after hearing Peter’s Pentecost sermon. A great harvest of souls, from many nations! The beginning of global Christianity. Every anniversary of Pentecost since, that harvest of souls grows greater and greater, as God’s mission continues around the world.

The enormous task of building up the church from a group of 120 believers or more, facing the obstacles of time, distance, and language, was rapidly overcome on Pentecost. In the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, the Holy Spirit infused power and vitality into the newborn Christian mission, by breaking down the barriers of language. The spreading of the Gospel was now accelerated exponentially, as people from nations all over the known world heard the great deeds of God in their own language. Now they could carry the message back to their homelands. Could the disciples have imagined how quickly their mission would take off and have success? Do we sometimes doubt our mission?

Pentecost also marked a major reversal in the course of history. Our reading says a crowd of observers gathered in bewilderment or confusion. “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?” they said. “Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” There was another time in history where there had been a great confusion of languages. A confusion that led to a great scattering of peoples. Long ago at the Tower of Babel, there had been a common language that all mankind on earth spoke. But because of the pride and idolatry of man, God confused the language of the people at Babel, and new language groups arose and scattered throughout the world. Pentecost marks the beginning of a great reversal of this division of languages. The first Christian Pentecost would make no sense, except for the fact that there were a multitude of languages spoken on earth, that couldn’t communicate with each other. And into this world of divided tongues, the Holy Spirit distributed the gift of tongues to the disciples. Instantaneously that language barrier was taken down, and for the first time since the Tower of Babel, the Word of God was spoken and heard in every language or tongue. Today the translation of the Bible into other languages is proceeding at a record pace. Currently portions or the entire Bible is translated into over 2,000 languages worldwide, out of an estimated 6,000+ languages; and hundreds more translations are underway. That leaves still some 66% of languages awaiting some portion of the Bible to be tranlated into them. We thank and pray for those gifted in languages to continue their work in bringing the Gospel to people in their own language.

Fortunately for us, there were some good Lutherans in the crowd at Pentecost, who asked the typically Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” Every Lutheran who has gone through catechism instruction knows this question well. Some of the crowd jeered and mocked the disciples, claiming this display was nothing more than drunkenness. But Peter, filled with boldness from the Holy Spirit, got up and addressed the crowd. What was his answer to the all important question of “what does this mean?” No, they weren’t drunk, for it was still 9 in the morning. But it was a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel. How often did people get the chance to be eyewitnesses to the living Word of prophecy coming alive from the pages of Scripture and taking effect before their own eyes?!

For those who had been present for the Passover as well, they would have already witnessed the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and at least heard of His resurrection. These people were living in unprecedented times, when a flood of God’s prophecies were being fulfilled in their own lifetimes. The prophecy of Joel described signs of the Messianic age—the pouring out of the Spirit on all God’s people; the prophesying of menservants and maidservants, the seeing of visions and dreams. Signs of blood and fire and billows of smoke. The darkening of the sun and the moon being turned to blood. What does this mean? All these signs of the Messianic age were now happening, and they saw it. So if the Messianic age was now here, then the obvious conclusion was that the Messiah or Christ had already come! The crowd was now seeing further proof that Jesus of Nazareth, the one they saw condemned to death, and had since risen from the grave, was in fact the Messiah promised from old times. It may even be that the darkening of the sun and the blood-red moon may have referred to the events that took place during Jesus’ crucifixion, with the darkening of the sun for three hours, an earthquake, and other great signs of cosmic upheaval.

Today we live in unprecedented times. Times when former obstacles to the mission have been reduced almost to insignificance. With modern communication via internet and phone, and travel by airplane, obstacles of time and distance are nearly insignificant. People are able to communicate with each other around the globe from the comfort of their own home. More and more people are multilingual and can commuicate in languages other than their own. Will we use these advantages to help spread the mission? There are multitudes that have little or no knowledge of Christ and His saving work. How will we carry the Word to them?

After the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, the Pentecost crowd were witnesses to the inexplicable miracle of tongues, and Peter echoed the voice of Joel to them: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” These Pentecost events called for a response from the people. It’s not as if they could just be filed away as “that one bizarre day on the family pilgrimage to Jerusalem;” something to reminisce about at family gatherings back home. No, this was a life-changing event, and they were confronted with the facts of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and Lordship over creation. They were confronted with the fact that they were now living in the Messianic age, where their promised Savior had come. If they were to be saved, they must also call on the name of the Lord—this Lord Jesus. So also Pentecost calls us to respond, not to treat these truths as mere remembrances, but to believe them and call on the name of the Lord Jesus to be saved.

Together with Christians all around the world, from Hawaii to China to Madagascar to Brazil to Russia and every nation on earth, we now join those crowds of foreigners, hearing that same Pentecost message of the apostle Peter. Pointing us to the way of salvation in Jesus Christ. Hearing the great deeds of God in our own languages, from English to Chinese to Malagasy to Portuguese to Russian and languages spoken on every continent throughout the world. If you would have asked the disciples before Pentecost, if they could imagine the Gospel spreading so rapidly through the Mediterranean and Middle East, you might have seen looks of doubtful surprise. If you would have asked the 15 or so founding members of Emmanuel Lutheran Church 40 years ago, if they could imagine a Lutheran preschool and grade school program, bursting at the seams and outgrowing our current campus, you might have seen looks of doubtful surprise. If you were to ask the gathered members here today, could you envision what Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School will be in another 40 years? We might see looks of doubtful surprise at the plans that are being laid. But when the Word of God is the heart and mission of our church, indeed of the greater church throughout the world, then the Holy Spirit will be active through that Word. The Word of God brings the Spirit of God—for whom no obstacle is too great.

Barriers and obstacles of language, resources, and number of people are of no consequence to the work of the Holy Spirit. Because the all-important message of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners has to go out to the world, the Holy Spirit breathes a remarkable vitality into the church. A vitality born not of human cleverness or power, or even persuasive philosophies and wisdom. No, the vitality of the apostolic church was the conviction of the apostles of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:20). They had seen Jesus rise to life from a shameful death on the cross—the death that was the payment and penalty for our sins. They carried the conviction of the Holy Spirit about their own guilt in His death, but also the remarkable gift of His righteousness, given to us by faith. And they feared no obstacles because they also had the Spirit-borne conviction that the prince of this world, namely Satan, stands condemned. You too, Christians here today, are filled with that same Holy Spirit, who brings us this conviction of our own guilt, that leads us to repentance. The conviction of the righteousness we have in Christ by faith, and the conviction that Satan is our defeated and condemned enemy. With this boldness and conviction, we can work with great boldness for a new tomorrow. We are called into the harvest of Jesus Christ by continuing God’s mission for us to be Christ’s witnesses even to the ends of the earth, here in Hawaii. Lord we pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us, giving us all boldness, confidence, and conviction to speak your Word, as witnesses to your salvation. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

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ElderChild said...
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