This Is That…
The title of today’s sermon, “This is that…,” comes from words attributed to Peter in the Acts Lesson, verse 16. Here’s a literal translation: “This is that which has been spoken through the prophet Joel.” The verb tenses here imply that what was spoken long ago is still being spoken today, and what is happening is the unfolding and development now of what was spoken and promised then. The Spirit’s new arrival on that Day of Pentecost (which was, itself, part of an ancient Jewish festival) was just one more demonstration of what the Spirit of God had been up to for eons. In short, while the Christian meaning of Pentecost is rooted in the past, it is an experience for the present. Further, we can expect the Spirit of God to come anew to us again and again in the future. It was not all finished back in the time of the Bible. Pentecost is for now, not just then.
When a Hebrew such as Peter used the word “spirit” in connection to “God,” he would have meant the active, powerful presence of God in the world, like that “hovering over the face of the chaotic waters” that would become our home in Genesis 1. God was present then and God is present now. God was active then and is active now.
Furthermore, when Peter said, “This is that…” he was introducing one of the longest quotations from the Old Testament in the New, from Joel 2:28-32 in English (or chapter 3 in Hebrew). He borrowed Joel’s language to explain the present experience of the sound of the mighty rushing wind, the tongues of fire on the apostles, and the miracle by which all kinds of folks from here, there, and everywhere, understood Peter’s words, even though none of them knew a word of his Galilean Aramaic. Joel had said that “someday later,” God’s mighty presence would come on all sorts of people: young and old, sons and daughters, slave and free, transcending ancient social barriers that made community impossible. And on that great day, all who called upon God’s name would find wholeness and fullness of spiritual life in the present world (which is what it means to be “saved” in the Bible).
It was important to Peter, and is to us, that the words he used to describe the present moment were the ancient words of scripture, but it was even more important than that it was the present moment that was being described by these ancient words. What was being spoken long ago is still being spoken today, and what is happening today is the unfolding and development now of what was spoken and promised then. The words of scripture provide the language to tell us the kinds of things that God’s spirit did and does still. “This is that which has been spoken through the prophet Joel.”
The Old Testament Lesson from Ezekiel, again, starts with “Old unhappy, far off things and battles long ago” (to borrow Wordsworth’s language). Ezekiel was both a prophet and priest who ministered to Judah through the disastrous years of the end of the monarchy and the Babylonian exile. What could be worse for a priest than the destruction of Solomon’s temple with all its liturgical glory? He had the job of saying that the future did not belong to those who stayed behind at home in the ashes of the temple, but those who were carried off to a distant land with no temple at all, and who were forced to re-think their faith. These children of exile were marginalized and isolated in ghettoes. They were as dead as a valley of dried up old bones. According to their own words, there was not a gasp of life or breath in them, spiritually speaking. They saw no future, they saw no way out, they saw no change as possible for them. They were as dead as door nails.
And that was Ezekiel’s vision, wasn’t it? A vast array of the leavings of death – desiccated bones. An angel took him to look over the scene. Nothing was alive. Even God’s angel asks the question: “Mortal, can these dry bones live?” And the prophet meekly responds, “O Lord God, you know” (I don’t).
So God says that his prophet should preach to those old bones with the promise that the spirit or breath of God (same word in Hebrew and Greek) would enter those bones. And Ezekiel did so (do you think he felt foolish?). As he preached – what was that sound? It sounded like someone was rattling dice around in their hands. And he looked and those old dry bones were hitching together. Then came sinews, then came flesh, then came skin. And they were all beautiful creatures again – but still dead as doornails. But then, in response to Ezekiel’s word, the spirit/breath of God swept into them – and the miracle took place – these dead people of Israel were restored to life. God promised them two things. First, new life out of death, and second, return to their home. Now, some people look for this in a literal way in the land of Israel sometime in the future, which misunderstands what is intended as a figure of speech as a roadmap. But the vision itself says that’s wrong. These were not literally dead people, but the People of God, who had become as good as dead in their exile. This is that of which the prophet spoke and still speaks, it was about the rebirth of people in Ezekiel’s present. And in ours.
Again, we are simply using ancient words to describe what is real now. Pentecost is intended to be about this kind of a miracle for us. Back in the Book of Acts, Pentecost is the last act of the Easter drama. It’s when the Spirit of God that was experienced by Jesus’ disciples in him came upon them, but in a way that had more universal implications than before his resurrection. We rightly celebrate the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter. But if this is only a story of long ago and far away, and God is not still able to bring people up from their graves – whatever graves they find themselves in – then it isn’t enough to know that God just acted once a long time ago. And Pentecost is about what God’s up to today. God still opens the graves in which we find ourselves entombed right now. Think about that from which you need resurrection and newness. The promise of Pentecost is that, as we allow the Spirit – the powerful presence of the same God who said to Jesus, “You are my beloved” – the same Spirit to come inhabit us, we will be made alive and new. And, more to that, Ezekiel’s God also promised to bring folks to their homes, to a place where they felt accepted and whole.
But “home” isn’t all there is. From that place of “home,” God continues to challenge people to new things. When God’s spirit – the mighty rushing wind – does come to us, we will not necessarily be called to do just the same things we have always done. Whether we are speaking personally or corporately as a church, when the Spirit comes, God will send us out in new ways and directions that we’d never have expected, to do things we’d never have dreamed. In Joel’s words, again, to “see visions and dream dreams.” God’s vision and God’s dreams.
In our Gospel Lesson, Jesus said it this way (and I know my translation is a little different than some): “But when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you along the road in all that’s true.” The scriptures provide us with the basic language that we use to comprehend the kinds of things that are along that road, but this does not mean that we can use the Bible as if it were a logarithm table in which we could simply look up the right numbers, the right formula. God does not expect us to try to replicate the ancient things in the Bible for God knows as well as we do that the world in which we must live changes. The scriptures point us to principles upon which we follow the Spirit along the road in all that’s true.
Just a few verses before this Jesus had said “I am the truth.” Don’t fail to read the context seriously and think that we may now redefine the word “truth” as propositions or the right opinion, or just the facts. Truth is a person. All through John’s writings, truth is Jesus. So, Jesus promises his disciples that when the Spirit of Truth (Jesus’ own Spirit) comes, that Spirit will guide them along the road within the sphere of what it means to be like Jesus (the truth). Again, the promise is not that the Spirit will make us more in accordance with human expectation, or the latest cool church trend one of the coasts, or the current hot consultants with glossy brochures, or even (and this is the tough one for us Baptists with our great respect for the Bible), in simply trying to transplant words and concepts from the ancient world of the Near East to the contemporary world. (The Bible was not intended to be used that way!) The promise is that the Spirit will simply bring us to new life and help us to be, not more like what’s hot, but more like Jesus in our day and place.
Just eight days ago, at the Central Seminary graduation exercises at historic First Baptist Church of Kansas City, Missouri, Dr. Molly Marshall, the Seminary President, remarked how the day reminded her of Pentecost. And, I must say, it did me, too. We did not add 5000 to the ranks of graduates that day, but we did add 160. And that was over ten times the amount of graduates we had just a few years ago. These students were both women and men. They had been taught in Korean, Chin, Karen (languages of Burma or Myanmar), Spanish, and, O yes, English. The graduates were from impoverished places, and places of great wealth. Because the seminary has decided that education is not just for those who want Masters degrees, there were graduates of lay training certificates, diplomas, masters degrees, and doctoral degrees. As the old children’s song goes, we were red and yellow, black, brown, white, because all are precious in God’s sight. As we reflected on listening to one another, learning from one another, and valuing one another because we are all made in the image of God in Christ, one could hear the rustle of the wings of the Spirit of Pentecost’s dove.
As we heard the address from Dr. Roy Medley, General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches, USA, entitled “Love, the Luminous Heart of the Christian Faith,” and how love mandates acts of justice and mandates acceptance for all God’s children, I not only knew why I have been a life-long American Baptist, but I actually felt the winds of God blowing through that old sanctuary. And I thought, “This is that which was spoken through the prophet.” And I thought, “It is good to have been here.”
Where in our lives in this community can we hear the rushing wind, and feel God’s freshening breeze? Let us be watchful, and raise our sails to catch that wind of the Spirit, and soar.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.