May 31, 2020 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of this service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 29:45.)
Today is Pentecost. It’s the fiftieth day of Easter. We’ve had seven weeks to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. We’ve heard stories of the risen Lord’s encounters with the disciples—how he showed himself to them and encouraged them to carry on in his name. We’ve seen him ascend triumphantly into heaven, yet, when today began, we found ourselves right back where we started—in Jerusalem, huddled together with the disciples, including some of the women, in an upper room, unsure of what to do next. And then it happened.
From heaven above, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. The Holy Spirit, manifested as tongues of fire, came down and alighted on the disciples. Each of them was filled with the power of that Spirit, and they all began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. It was a strange sight and sound to behold. When the residents of Jerusalem heard the commotion, they ran to see what was happening. When they saw and heard this group of Galilean tradesmen speaking in their own native languages, they couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t explain it. Amazed to the point of disbelief, those in the crowd could best make sense of what was happening by saying that these men must be drunk. That might not make a lot of sense either, but how else would you explain how a bunch of uneducated, barely literate fishermen and net-menders had figured out how to speak fluently in all the languages of the known world?
But Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, had a different explanation: “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” According to Peter, if we want to understand what happened at Pentecost, we should look at that day’s events through the lens provided by the prophet Joel, who himself had made sense of another chaotic moment in Jerusalem’s history.
Joel wrote about a great calamity that befell God’s people. A plague of locusts, brought on by a terrible drought, descended upon the land. “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten,” the prophet wrote. “What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” So thorough and complete was the destruction that the people of God had no way to understand it except as divine punishment for their misdeeds. In fact, the catastrophe was so great that successive generations reinterpreted Joel’s words as a timeless depiction of trouble for their own day. What was once an army of locusts came to represent an army of soldiers, and, by the time Joel’s words get to us in their present form, the fall of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians had been woven into the prophet’s account.
But Peter didn’t choose Joel because of its depiction of destruction. It’s what comes next that got Peter’s attention. From the rubble and stubble of a total loss rose a new chapter of prosperity for God’s people. As the prophet declares, “[God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The prophet explains that, because of the people’s repentance, God became jealous for the land and had pity on the people. God sent them grain, wine, and oil—a plentiful harvest so that they might be satisfied. No more would they be a mockery among the nations, for God had brought forth their vindication. But, even then, the prophet wasn’t finished, and neither was Peter.
What makes Joel distinct among the prophets is his understanding that God’s reversal of the fortunes of God’s people was a sign that God would one day bring about a total and complete reversal of human history. If God would intervene and save God’s people from near total destruction, then God will eventually work that salvation to its complete and perfect end. And, for Joel, the sign that God’s ultimate saving work had come to the earth was what Peter recognized in the moment of Pentecost: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
When God’s Spirit is no longer reserved for kings and prophets but is poured out upon all sorts and conditions of people—men and women, old and young, slave and free—it means that God’s work of salvation is nearly finished. When ordinary folk like Galilean tradesmen are filled with God’s power, it means that the ultimate vindication of God’s people has drawn near. When Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, stood up to preach the first-ever Christian sermon, he proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus were signs of God’s great reversal and that the sending down of the Holy Spirit was evidence that the final moment of God’s salvation had come to the earth.
Given this divinely inspired moment of multilingual prophecy, we might think that this is the moment when God’s salvation, which stretches to the ends of the earth, comes to us as well, but that wasn’t what Peter had in mind because that’s not what the prophet Joel foresaw. The time will come, a few chapters later in Acts, when the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to the Gentiles as well, but, first, salvation and vindication must come to the people of Israel. Those who were gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost were represented by all of those different languages, but the text makes it clear that they were all Jewish—either by birth or by conversion. When Joel wrote about salvation coming to all who call upon the name of the Lord, and when Peter expanded that understanding of name to include the name of Jesus, both envisioned God’s deliverance coming exclusively to the covenant descendants of Abraham.
For the rest of us, this moment means something quite different. For Joel and for the preacher who quoted him, the coming of God’s Spirit signaled a troubling end for the other nations of the earth. According to the prophet, Egypt and Edom, Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia—all who tormented and oppressed God’s people must have their evil deeds turned upon their heads. Those who sold God’s people into slavery and captured their gold and silver will themselves be ransacked and made captive. As a great reversal of Isaiah’s peace-filled prophecy, Joel instructed God’s people to beat their plowshares back into swords and their pruning hooks back into spears. We don’t talk about it very often because we don’t like to hear it, but, in order for God’s complete and perfect salvation to come to the earth, those who were oppressed must be vindicated, and those who were the oppressors must be held accountable. Peter wants us to see that truth unfolding at Pentecost.
Pentecost was a moment when God’s Spirit came to earth and filled the disciples with a new and unfamiliar power. It was a power that neither they nor the world had ever known before—the power of God poured out indiscriminately upon God’s people. That power meant that God’s work of salvation was coming to its fruition, but the Spirit didn’t give the apostles the power to make the world right by pretending that everything was ok all along. Instead, it was the power to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus as the moment when the whole world was called to account and judged by God. Those who called upon God’s name—no matter what language or dialect they spoke—would be saved, but those who had mocked the name of God by unjustly imprisoning God’s people and robbing them of their God-given inheritance would be condemned. When God’s Spirit begins speaking like that—through ordinary men and women whom the powers of this world would normally ignore—we had better sit up and take notice.
In God’s perfect time, salvation will come to all people, but for some of us it starts in a different place. For most of us in this church and this community, the path to salvation must begin with recognition and repentance. By sending the Holy Spirit, God has brought the power of God’s ultimate vindication to the earth, but it isn’t we who need vindicating. Those of us who own property, who amass wealth and share it with our children, and who can, without hesitation, count on the officers in blue to defend us and our property—we aren’t the ones who need the powers of this world to be turned on their heads before we can be saved. What we need is to be saved from the powers for which we are responsible. Recognizing that and repenting of the self-preserving systems that we have created is how we leave behind the identity of the oppressor and, by God’s grace, are brought into God’s fold.
We must remember who it is for whom our savior died. The coming of the Holy Ghost has made that clear to the whole world. In Jesus Christ, God has reversed the fortunes of all people. If God’s salvation is meant for us as well, we must change course. We must leave behind the world we know—the world that feeds our egos and fills our pockets—and embrace the reign of God, where the poor become rich, the prisoners are set free, and the oppressed are liberated from their oppressors.