Rev. James Singleton
May 27, 2012
Every year on the Day of Pentecost we hear this strange story about the Holy Spirit sweeping into the room where the disciples are gathered and dancing over their heads like fire and causing them to speak in strange tongues and act so odd that other people are convinced that they must be drunk. Truth is that every year when I have to preach on this text, I feel a little uncomfortable.
This entire scene reminds me of a Pentecostal camp meeting with people who are so caught up in the Spirit that they begin barking and twitching and speaking in tongues and just generally doing things that if happened in our church would pretty well freak us out. We are not Holy Roller kind of Christians and this passage always sounds like a Holy Roller passage.
So what are we more reserved Christians to make of this Holy Spirit and what does it mean for us that those first disciples were so caught up by the Spirit that they began speaking in strange languages and acting like they have never acted before?
Are we just outsiders looking in on the Holy Spirit life? Are we too uptight to allow ourselves to get caught up in the work of the Spirit? What does Pentecost mean for us?
To begin with, let’s remember what the season of Pentecost meant to the first disciples. Pentecost was an old seasonal celebration in which Jews came together in Jerusalem to remember and celebrate the gift of the first five books of the Bible. Remember penta means five. It was an ancient festival that celebrated what God had done a long time ago in the giving of the law and Ten Commandments to the ancient people of Israel as recorded in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
It was a time to reflect upon the past and be thankful that in times long ago the Spirit of God was active and led the people of God to the Promised Land.
So here are the disciples all gathered together preparing to celebrate this festival in which they were to remember how the Spirit acted once upon a time when all of a sudden, to their amazement, the Spirit descends upon them in the present. The festival had never been about that before. It had always been about what God had done, not what God is doing.
They suddenly felt a power come over them that they had never experienced before. And they found themselves speaking in languages that they didn’t think they could speak.
Let’s get one thing straight about these languages. We often think that they began speaking in what we refer to as “tongues,” or ecstatic, nonsensical languages such as is heard in Pentecostal churches. But that was not the case.
What they began to speak in were, as we heard in the video, foreign languages that Jews from countries other than Israel could understand and draw inspiration from.
Again, I have to admit that I find that odd. I have never left church on a Pentecost Sunday being able to unexpectedly speak French or German or Italian or any other language other than English. Has that ever happened to you? So does that mean that the Spirit does not descend upon us? Or can the Spirit create in us the ability to speak a different language in ways that we may not have realized? Let’s consider some ways the Spirit might teach us a new language.
“I have to pinch myself,” she said to me. “Why?” I asked. “I was ordained three days ago! I never in my wildest imagination thought I would ever be ordained into the ministry.” I had known her for years as a good layperson from my hometown church. I knew she had always had a dream of being a minister but she was married and had a successful career and a son in college. There never seemed to be a good time for a career change.
But that wild and unpredictable Holy Spirit came blowing into her life in the here and now and she and her husband agreed that she had to follow this persistent sense of calling. Now, rather than speaking the settled language of “same old same old” she is speaking the language of new dreams and new visions.
“I never believed I could find happiness again,” he told me just before his wedding. I had buried his wife a couple of years previous and he was a shriveled up man consumed with grief and fears. We would pray that something new happen in his life to make it worth living. But nothing seemed to be happening.
Then one day I get a phone call from him. He had just returned from a grief session at Hospice that he didn’t want to attend, but felt a strange urge to go. It was there that he met someone. I heard a sound in his voice that I had not heard for a long time. The Holy Spirit had come and for the first time in years he was not speaking in the language of languish but was speaking the language of joy.
Karl Steiner was at his wits end. He had been in the hospital for three months and was awaiting a procedure that was required if he were ever to get well, but his doctors had not been seen or heard from for nearly a week. Sitting in bed with his head down, he started praying for God to help. He told God that he was at the end of his rope and didn’t think he could keep going on.
It was then that the phone rang and it was the Chairman of the Elders, Jerry Ritzman on the other end. He asked Karl if he was up for communion. Karl replied, “How soon can you get here?” By the time Jerry arrived, the doctor had come into the room and told Karl that the surgery was scheduled for the next day. Karl, Jen and Jerry celebrated communion and thanked God for acting and answering prayer and Karl stopped speaking in the language of wits end and began speaking in a new language—the language of hope.
How many times do we beat ourselves up over our achievements, or lack thereof? We measure our worth by what we accomplish, but we never accomplish what we think we ought to accomplish. There is always someone else who does more than we do. There is always something more we could have done and so we feel like a failure.
Achievements are how we try to earn a sense of self-worth and value. But we never achieve enough to make us think we are of worth and value. It’s why the language that we speak most of time is the language of complaining.
But then we come to church and we are invited to the table to eat a meal of broken bread and spilled blood, symbols of God’s unconditional love for us through Christ and we are told that there is nothing that we can ever do to earn such love—it is a gift. When we finally allow the Gospel to sink into our hearts that our worth is not based upon our achievements but upon God’s gracious love, we no longer speak the language of complaining but rather begin to speak the language of gratitude.
“I am so ashamed of my actions,” he confessed to me. “If I could take them back I would.” He had an affair and his wife sat next to him with a look of devastation. There was nothing he could do to change the past. I encouraged them not to give up until they sought marriage counseling and fought for the marriage. They agreed to try.
Six months past until they sat again in my office. This time, rather than sitting on opposite ends of the couch facing away from each other, they sat together in the middle. She held his hand. I asked them what changed. He said that they realized that they had lost each other over the years and so they started to talk again and make plans.
And then he said, “She told me that she forgave me. I never experienced such freedom in my life. Now I know what that hymn means when it says, “I once was lost but now am found.” He went from speaking the language of guilt and shame to speaking the language of amazing grace.
Pentecost is not about strange and unusual experiences that only a few people have. Pentecost is about God pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. That means you. It means that the Holy Spirit is working in you to change the language that you are speaking. What language are you currently speaking and what language do you need to speak?
Are you speaking the language of unhappiness? Pentecost proclaims that the Spirit is working to so change your life that you will learn the language of joy.
Are you speaking the language of conflict? The Spirit is working in your relationships to enable you to speak the language of peace.
Are you speaking the language of fear? The Spirit is giving you abilities beyond your own abilities so that you will be able to stand up and witness in the language of courage.
We don’t always know what the Holy Spirit is up to. All we know is that it is alive and within us working on our behalf.
What does this mean?
It means that our present is not defined by our past. It means that our future is not set and is as unpredictable as a Texas tornado. It means that we can never give up on ourselves or on our world or on God’s dreams for us.
It is the day of Pentecost. We are all together in one place. All of us are filled with the Holy Spirit. What new language is the Spirit giving you the ability to speak.