“Those Who Wait…” (Isaiah 40:3-5,27-31; Acts 1:4-5;2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13)
I was taken by Isaiah chapter 40 long ago when I was just learning Hebrew. Through the years it has become my favourite passage in the Bible and has fed my soul over many decades now, as I come back to it again and again. This time I have come to it, asking to be fed yet again, by trying to think through what its words might say interpreted in the light of the feast of Pentecost which we celebrate today.
At Pentecost, the Church celebrates its divine empowerment for the mission of going out into the world in God’s name and for Jesus’ sake. The story is told in the 2nd chapter of Acts, part of which we have read. It tells of the sound of a rushing, mighty wind and flaming tongues resting on each of the waiting disciples, and Peter’s sermon. It also introduces all the stories in the Book of Acts that follow from this anointing by God’s spirit. When we think of all these things, we might be tempted to equate the work of God’s Spirit with victorious, overpowering action. But that fails to recognize the previous, hard, and recurring work of waiting that prepared for the coming of God’s Spirit in a new way on this particular Pentecost Day. I say “particular” because the feast here called by its Greek name of Pentecost is an old Hebrew one called the Feast of Weeks (chag shabu’ot), held seven weeks after the Passover. Jewish tradition held that the Hebrew Torah was given on the first day of the feast. God’s people had been celebrating Pentecost for a long time. And the reality is that, at many of these so-called celebrations, things were pretty depressing and awful. As you’ve heard me say many times, this Old Testament chapter (and those through chapter 55) grew out of one of the worst of those times, when the Hebrew people had been taken away from everything important to them and everything important was taken away from them. They were powerless and could only hang around and wait for what was next. But they began to realize that waiting – at least of a certain kind – was not “nothing,” but was its own kind of work. In the early part of Isaiah 40 there’s a great command that leads to a great promise:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain, and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.
But, such a vision could only be seen by the eye of great faith. It did not look that way at all to normal human eyes. All they could seem to do was wait. And yet, slowly it dawned upon them that their deliverance really depended, not on their greatness, wealth, and military power, or youth, beauty, or any of the other agenda items that worked for the place where they were captive. Rather, it was waiting for the LORD who would renew strength that would help them to rise above what was happening to them. Here are the words:
Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall rise up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
When others do other kinds of things, and some folk say it makes no sense to do anything at all, God’s faithful people wait for the Lord. In Hebrew there are at least four different words for waiting. Sometimes waiting is simply silent, resigned acceptance that now is not the moment, but that’s not this waiting. Sometimes, the waiting is eager and visible, but that’s not this kind either. The word here is qawah, which is related to a word for a skein of yarn or a line stretched tight. It combines the ideas of the quiet work of weaving strands of yarn together for something yet to be created, and of being stretched tight like a cord. It is expectant and patient waiting. That is often the work to which God’s people are called. We prepare for what’s coming by attentive care to weaving together important strands of life. One of the works of waiting that the people at about this time did was to gather, weave together and recast the existing parts of what we now call the Old Testament into something very like what we have today. They thought about, reflected, worked through, wove together their traditions of God’s life with them and theirs with God not in the light of their past, but in the light of their present, so that they could be ready and expectant whenever the fulfillment came to be. The Hebrew verb qawah (pronounced qavah in modern Hebrew) is related to the noun tiqvah, which means “hope” that has been woven together and stretched tight into faithful expectation of God’s good future. This is our story and it’s important to us.
It was to just such another waiting group of God’s people that the Pentecost Spirit came. Jesus himself told them “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). And, so they were. Waiting expectantly, perhaps, fearfully, probably. Reflecting, remembering, wondering how to face the future, now that Jesus was gone from them, based on what Jesus himself had promised; “being clothed with power from on high.” And, then, it happened…the wind rushed in, the tongues of fire descended, and the work of waiting was over for now.
What happened was truly amazing, for the crowds of people from all over the world there for that particular Pentecost began listening to what these Galilean disciples were saying. The word “Galilean” here may, at least partly, refer to the fact that these folk were from, “the sticks” not sophisticated Jerusalem, or Athens, or Rome. But, as the sophisticated ones from all these places began to listen, they began to understand what was being said in their mother tongues. How could this be? Maybe these “hicks from the sticks” were full of new wine – they were drunk. When we hear the word Pentecost today, we’re likely to think of Pentecostals, who may engage in practices that make some of us uncomfortable. We need to be careful that we don’t come to the same hasty conclusion today that God couldn’t work in ways that mix us sophisticates up a little. Peter tried to disabuse these hearers of the conclusion that these were drunk, and reminded them of the deep Hebrew conviction that the world is permeated by the presence (the controlling influence, the personality, the “spirit”) of the almighty, loving, purposeful, redeeming, creating God. Throughout the story of Israel God called and beckoned the people into deeper understanding of what it meant to be a person or community that shared the values of the God of the universe who yearned, above all, for communion with human beings and the whole created order in order to bless it all. The whole early story of Israel centres around God’s empowerment of a little community that would bring blessing to the world. When the mighty empires found their own might challenged by God’s values to bless all the families of the earth, rather than just a few, God lifted that little community out of Egypt and delivered them. So God became not only the God of blessing but of deliverance as well. This is our story, and it should make a difference to us today.
In Acts 2 Luke enables us to feel Peter’s attempt to find words and concepts to get his and his hearers’ heads around what had happened. There was a passage in his Bible, from the Prophecy of Joel, at the end of chapter 2 in English (chapter 3 in Hebrew) where God promised to pour the mighty presence of divine love and grace out on everyone. Joel said it would happen, one day. Peter picked this up and realized that, in what happened to the Apostles on Pentecost, that Spirit had begun to fill Joel’s words full of new meaning. The apostles were not full of new wine, but of this wonderful presence of God. Peter also connected all this with the story of what had happened to Jesus and, through him, to them. Peter was able to recognize in what had happened, the very power and presence of Jesus in a new way. It didn’t look just like what it used to look like when Jesus was physically present, but those who had done the hard work of waiting for it could recognize the presence and enabling power of God, and of Jesus, for the blessing of all people, in what was happening. This is our story, and it should make a difference to us today.
As days went on Christians struggled with how this new movement of God’s spirit related to their spiritual ancestors in Judaism. By the middle of the first Christian century, it seems, there were at least three groups of Jews who followed Jesus: those who were strict Jews and who kept the Jewish laws strictly. Those who did not require Gentiles to keep but a minimum of these laws, and those who, like Paul, saw no real advantage to keeping Jewish purity and food laws at all. Paul called himself the Apostle to the Gentiles, and, although we don’t always appreciate it now, Paul was the radical in those days. For a long time, he worked with a very rowdy Christian community in a bawdy Gentile city named Corinth. The Corinthians were always stirring things up one way or another. They were anxious for activity, and sometimes, in their zeal, these Corinthian Christians forgot, that, if God is in the activity, love, grace, and kindness are its hallmarks. In our Epistle this morning, Paul reminded these rowdy folk in Corinth that God’s active presence exists to bless all that Jesus is and stands for. He reminded them that, when Christ’s active presence is alive in a community that this Spirit gives, literally, “graces, services, and energies,” in amazing variety to the community members, and that we cannot all be alike. Paul names some of these here (and not others). What he reminds them of, however, is that these graces, services, and energies are for giving away, not for keeping. So, when one member of a community has the grace of wisdom, say, all have it because the gift is shared. This is our story and it should make a difference to us in our congregation.
My guess is that the gifting of congregations grows as much out of waiting in tears as out of activity. The work of waiting together in expectation births more work of the Spirit, than does sheer movement and frenzied programming in congregations. The ground-work of weaving the many diverse threads and strands of “human yarn” together until there is a multi-hued beauty is indispensable, even when the weaving comes with many tears. And the result is always full of love, grace and kindness.
On this Pentecost Day, let us remind ourselves that the work of being Jesus’ followers requires a prior work of waiting earnestly, quietly, thoughtfully, expectantly, so that we might share God’s gracious gifts, not only with one another, but with our communities, to the end that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.