Thursday, May 17, 2018

Universal Signs

Earlier this week, Elizabeth and I were out of town for a couple of days because my parents agreed to keep our children and give us the chance to spend some time together. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) On Monday morning, around nine o'clock, Elizabeth's phone rang. My mother was calling because she heard what sounded like a weather siren blaring outside of our house. "Should I be worried?" my mother asked. "Well," Elizabeth replied, "does the weather outside look concerning?" When my mother replied that it was a beautiful day, Elizabeth said, "Then it's probably just the monthly test."

There are some signs that we use that are designed to get everyone's attention: a tornado siren, the weather alert on our televisions, radios, and smart phones, the siren on a fire truck, the blue lights on a police car. Even if you do not know exactly what they mean, they grab your attention and demand your response. Try standing unreactively beside an ambulance when the siren goes off.

There are similar signs in the Bible, too: the plagues in Egypt, the cloud of the Lord's presence, the trumpets at Jericho, the chariot of fire, the appearance of the son of man. Sometimes the Lord speaks directly to God's people through a prophet or other messenger, but other times God declares himself in signs that no one is able to miss. These are moments when human beings do not need a mediator or a common language or tradition in order to understand the Creator. When the sky becomes dark and the moon turns blood red and the earth shakes and the mountains smoke, everyone knows to pay attention whether she has read the Bible or not.

Sunday's Pentecost story in Acts is one of those moments when God's speech and God's unmistakable acts are united in a display that no one is able to miss. The Holy Spirit descends upon the earth and upon the disciples with the rush of a mighty wind and blazing tongues of fire. The mouths and minds of the disciples are opened, and they begin to declare the good news of God in Jesus in the languages of "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene." Anyone and everyone who was there could tell that something big was going on.

Peter, freshly anointed by the Holy Spirit, rises and explains what has happened, quoting the prophet Joel and, thus, linking Pentecost with God's unmediated display: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh...And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Pentecost is the inauguration of the "Last Days" in the sense that from now on what God is doing in the world is meant for everyone. The fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and, through him, to all the nations of the earth is coming to fruition. At Pentecost, the "Jesus Movement" has become the "Spirit Movement" that brings all peoples into the fold of God. This movement, this work of god, isn't different that what has gone on before just as the external operation of the persons of the Trinity isn't different or distinguishable. It is the same movement, but its reach and focus have grown. The prophets who have spoken to God's people are becoming universal voices and signs--the kind of earth-completing evidence that darkening sun and smoky mist speak to all people.

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