Pentecost Ponderings – “What Does It Mean?”

This isn’t really a sermon – Peter gets the honors on that one for Pentecost Sunday – but here are my reflections on the texts for the day, which will be interwoven with songs and other worship elements as our congregation worships in the park tomorrow, then stays around for a potluck church picnic. Weather won’t be an issue, since we have shelters reserved. Children made flame streamers and coffee filter doves and spinning toys on Wednesday night, so we will use these props as we tell the stories together. Here goes…

Reflection on Numbers 11:24-30

Moses was in the middle of a crisis. The people had rebelled and tested God, whining for meat in addition to the manna that had been provided for them. Moses was exhausted from leading them and arguing with them, and he also complained to God.

The key verse in this story happens just before today’s lesson begins, after Moses has wondered aloud how God can possibly provide a month’s worth of meat for over 600,000 people out in the middle of the desert.:

23 The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

Then God had Moses gather 70 elders. 70 is an important number in the OT – perfection times 10. And God gave each of them a portion of Moses’ spirit, to help him lead the people, and they all began to prophesy, or speak the word of the Lord with authority. However 

Two who did not join the group at the tabernacle, remained in the camp, and they also received the Spirit and began to prophesy. This upset the status quo. Joshua got indignant – this was outside the box! These unauthorized prophets  should be silenced!

But Moses said, “I wish every one of God’s people would be prophets and the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

This number – 70 or 72 – comes up again in scripture. Remember the disciples that Jesus sent out ahead of him, to heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God is near? It’s in Luke 10 if you want to read it sometime. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). What is interesting is that, in the passage from Numbers, there is some disagreement whether Medad and Eldad were part of the original 70, but they just didn’t report to the tent of meeting with the others, or if they were two more. In Luke, some translations list 70, while others say 72 were sent.

God is not limited by our ideas of what the perfect number might be. God is always more than we can imagine. He pours out his spirit abundantly on the perfect number, and then spills it onto two more, completely unexpectedly. God’s spirit cannot be contained, even among rebellious, whiny children. Hold that thought. There’s more to come. …

Then we sing a couple of songs, and read the Gospel lesson together as a responsive reading. It’s only a couple of verses, and needs no commentary. Jesus says, “Let any who are thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Then we sing “Jesus Loves Me” as the children gather and prepare the props for distribution to the congregation.

The Pentecost Story – Acts 2:1-21

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the Ascension. Before he ascended, or rose up, into heaven, Jesus told the disciples to go back into the city and wait to be “clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24: 49) So the disciples went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and they praised God every day in the temple. In Luke’s second book, the one we call “Acts of the Apostles” or just “Acts,” we learn that the disciples were staying together in an upstairs room. This might have been the same room where they ate with Jesus on the night before he was crucified, and where they waited together on Easter morning. But they waited together, and that is the important part.

There was a big festival fifty days after Passover – and remember it was during Passover that Jesus was crucified – and sometimes people who lived far away from Jerusalem would come to the city for Passover, and then just stay for the festival of Pentecost a few weeks later. So Jerusalem was pretty crowded, and there were people there from many different countries, all of them speaking different languages. It must have been pretty noisy.

Then, on the morning of Pentecost, while the disciples were still together – remember the bundle of sticks from last week, and how important it is that we stick together to stay strong in our faith? – well, on that morning, the disciples received what Jesus had promised them, that “power from on high.” But no one expected it to happen the way it did. Remember in our earlier story about Moses and the elders, how God’s spirit spilled out onto Eldad and Medad, even though they stayed in the camp? Well, listen to this, and you can help me tell the story.

 Acts 2:1-21:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (blow pinwheels, make wind sounds by rubbing hands together)

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (wave flame streamers, keep wind noise going, hold construction paper “tongues” over a few heads.)

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

What do you think they were saying? I wonder what it must have felt like, to be speaking a language you didn’t even know yourself, but others could understand. What do you think?

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 

Remember that there were people there in Jerusalem from many different countries, and they all spoke different languages. So there must have been at least a dozen different languages happening at the same time. Do you remember the story in Genesis (11) about the people who were trying to build a tower to heaven, so God “confused their speech” by giving them different languages, so they couldn’t understand each other? Right, it was the Tower of Babel. Well, this was just the opposite. Now, because the disciples were speaking in so many different languages, everyone had a chance to hear the good news in a way they could understand it. But it probably sounded pretty noisy from far away. Let’s try an experiment. Adults, I want you to think of a song you like to sing in church, maybe your favorite hymn. If you don’t think of yourself as a singer, you can use a kazoo (redistribute kazoos, if necessary). Now, the children are going to count to three, and on three, would you each please start singing your own song? While the adults sing, we are going to listen from over here first, to see if we can understand any of them. Then I’d like the adults to spread out away from each other, but keep singing. I’d like each of you children to go stand right in front of someone who is singing, and see if you can tell what their song is. Ready? One, two, three, sing!

Did you notice that it’s easier to hear just one song if you are standing right in front of the singer, while the other songs are in the background? I think that’s what happened here at Pentecost. Suddenly, the disciples aren’t hiding away in the upper room any more. Suddenly, they are out in the street, or maybe the temple square, where everyone else can hear them. And as they spread out, it makes it easier for the people who were there from other places to hear and recognize their own languages.  Let’s see where they were from:

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 

People came from all over to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. In fact, the places that are mentioned here have been grouped according to where they appear on a map. (Show Bible map) The Parthians, Medes, Elamites and Mesopatamians would have come to Jerusalem from the east, the Judeans were the people who lived right around Jerusalem, the Cappadocians and people from Pontus and Asia, Phryigia and Pamphylia came from the north, the Egyptians, Libyans, Romans and Cretans came from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem, and the Arabs came from the south. But the word of the Lord was not just for foreigners, it was also for the people who lived right there in Jerusalem, in the middle of Judea. And it wasn’t just for the Judeans, it was for people from as far away as Egypt and Rome. The good news is for everyone.

For the disciples, that meant Jews AND Gentiles from different places. For us today, it might mean something different. What are some ways we think of people as being different from each other now? Poor, rich, smart, not so smart, shy, popular, bullies, victims of bullying… but the good news is for everyone, even people we think are not like us at all – especially for people we think are not like us at all.
Let’s find out what happened next.

12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘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.
18 Even upon my servants, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
       before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

This is the good news: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Some may laugh and make fun of us for believing in Jesus, just like the people who accused those disciples of being drunk at 9:00 in the morning. But there will always be people asking “What does this mean?” and we have an answer to give them.

The Holy Spirit is here among us. The Holy Spirit gives us power to speak boldly so everyone can hear and understand that Jesus is Lord. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained, but spreads out and overflows. Sons and daughters will prophesy – they will announce God’s good news with authority. Many signs and wonders will let us know that the day of the Lord is coming, and all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. That’s what it means to have rushing wind, tongues of fire, and every known language spoken at once. It means that God’s Spirit is filling the world, filling the church, filling you and me. But that’s not all. There’s more! God has given us so much, we need to give back to God. We have one more reading from the New Testament, and it will tell us what living in the spirit means for us.

Offering time, then an introduction to the Epistle reading for the day:

What have we learned so far, as we heard the story of Moses, and the story of Pentecost? God’s spirit is not limited by our ideas of how things “ought” to be. God’s spirit is poured out on all people who call on the name of the Lord, no matter what they look like, where they come from, how smart they are, or whether they are rich or poor. We need to trust God to do more than we can imagine, knowing that God will pour out his Holy Spirit on us, giving us power to do the work of the Kingdom of God.

In order to do that work, we need to recognize how the spirit acts in each of us, giving each of us particular spiritual gifts, to use for the building up of God’s Kingdom. Hear the final reading for this day of Pentecost, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,  1 Corinthians 12:4-13.

Then we close with a Pentecost prayer, which will include a prayer distributed at the recent Minnesota UMC Annual Conference  Session for God to unleash us as a fearless, spirit-led church, and we sing a final song before blessing the food that follows worship, sharing a benediction to be sent out as spirit-led, spirit-filled, spirit-gifted people of God. Come, Holy Spirit, come!

So, what does your Pentecost party look like?

3 thoughts on “Pentecost Ponderings – “What Does It Mean?”

  1. Scott Sholar

    “I wonder what it must have felt like, to be speaking a language you didn’t even know yourself, but others could understand. What do you think?” For me, twelve years ago, this was an amazing experience that happened at home in my private devotional time. It happens, for me, fresh every day (and this coming from an Asbury Theological Seminary grad).

    Reply
  2. pastorsings Post author

    Yes, Scott, a Pentecostal friend once described the experience of glossolalia as “praying in angel language.” Some commentators note a difference between that kind of ecstatic prayer (which seems most often to be associated with an unidentifiable human language) and what happened on Pentecost, which made it possible for people to hear the Gospel in their own tongue. But the effect on the speaker, I imagine, must be quite similar, whether speaking “angel language” or some human language previously unknown to the speaker. To hear sounds coming out of one’s own mouth that obviously make sense – but not to the one saying them – must be amazing. God’s Spirit cannot be contained!

    Reply

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