Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
After the first wave of missionaries moved through the continent of Africa they realized that though thousands of different languages existed, most Africans spoke more than one language. Several languages many shared, even if not their mother tongue. Obviously, it was more efficient to preach the Gospel in the main languages that most shared.
I heard a missionary story in this connection that helped me appreciate the first Pentecost. It might first be helpful to make sure we have the picture right in our mind’s eye.
You will remember that Jews from every part of the known world came up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, as it was known, fifty days after Passover – so in Greek “Pentecost.” They spoke many different languages, though with Greek and a bit of Aramaic they could participate in the festival which celebrated the giving of the Law or Torah to Moses, fifty days after the first Passover and exodus from Egypt. And in their own sub-groupings they doubtless carried on in their own languages. Like we do here at St Luke’s: with English, French, Danes, Chinese, Scots, Malgache, Germans and Americans huddled together in our own Upper Room in Northern France.
One day an older missionary in Africa, after a long and successful ministry, was cleaning out the office he had inherited from his predecessor. He discovered in a closet some dusty vinyl pressings he assumed were old 78 recordings of music. A bit of leisure-time enjoyment when time perhaps allowed.
He cranked up an old phonograph and put the needle on a random disk from the pile and puzzled at what he was hearing. A young native Christian boy was there with him, sweeping and tidying up in the room. When the old man turned he saw the boy had stopped mid-chore with tears in his eyes, though they seemed to him tears of joy and wonderment. He did not realize he had stumbled onto recordings of the Gospel preaching the very first missionaries had reached out to the new converts with. The first missionaries had actually learned the mother tongues of those they loved and served, including the mother tongue of this young man sweeping a room years later. Now he was at last hearing the marvelous works of God in his own deepest language and self.
Pentecost is a unique event, but I trust we can sense its deep purpose all the same, in our own lives. On that occasion, gathered in the Upper Room, devoted to prayer, unable to speak boldly about what God had done, and all they had witnessed in piercing clarity for seven weeks, 120 men and women were caught up in a great windstorm. Noisy like Mistral. The word for wind in Greek and Hebrew is the same word for Spirit. Fire appeared, the agent of purity, like the fire on Mount Sinai or the bush that burned but did not extinguish. Then suddenly they saw the fire divide—how does that happen, if not for destruction as in western Canada these past weeks? No, instead the fire distributed itself in tongue-like shape, to rest as crowns on the heads of each and every one of them. The Spirit that descended and remained on the one man Jesus at his baptism, coming down and staying on all of them. Not producing a monotony of noise but a choir of music, diverse but with chords like the music of angles. A needle in an old disk springing into life as never before.
The noise of all this caught the attention of the gathered worshippers and opened their ears to a language as deep as their mother tongue but cascading into what could only be called the language of God himself. Speaking of his own marvelous works for them.
Two weeks ago in Toronto I was awakened by the rill of the bagpipe, out on Queen’s Park, next to where I was staying. One piper became ten and ten became 50 and 50 a 100 and then there were 300 at least. It was the first day of May and the streets were shut down for a memorial for fallen policemen in the year past.
If you don’t like bagpipe music, I’m sorry. But you will surely admit it is a piercing sound. Not for indoors. Meant to be accompanied by kilts, and odd footwear, and capes, and hats, white spats, drumming. Pageantry. Clothes kept in a closet and brought out for a special day.
This music sounds today as it did when it first dispatched itself from the pipe and reed, and after we are gone it will sound that way until God brings down the curtain of time. It is music from before and after time. But it would only be so much screeching and bleating if not orchestrated and brought into perfect timing and pitch. The orchestration of the Holy Spirit, then at Pentecost and here in our church this day. Telling of the marvelous works of God in perfect pitch and timing.
God sends his spirit to give us speech beyond ourselves, yet which rises up from within our deepest selves. Aching to be released into his praise. Deep speaks to deep, the psalmist says. At Pentecost #1, in a flash of time, the entire purpose of the work of God in Jesus is shown for what it is: a talking to us that breaks down the hard business of learning a language and communicating with even those we love in a mother tongue we share. Because this talking to us catapults us into a place beyond ourselves, then gathers us into him for a purpose he has for us. Remakes us. All of us, divided since the Tower of Babel. Divided in ourselves and aching to be one in Him.
“You send forth your spirit and we are created,” Psalm 104 says, “and so you renew the face of the earth.”
Sometimes we huddle in an upper room unsure what is now to be said. About God and his purposes for us? Be devoted in prayer and be ready as were the disciples at Pentecost. God has a word to say by his Spirit.
Have you travelled a long way in life and attended faithfully the festivals that God has said are important? So it was for those gathered faithfully in Jerusalem. Be ready. When it is his purpose, you will hear the marvelous works of God for you in the language of your deepest heart. People who thought they were being faithful were being faithful. And God lit that spark into a raging fire.
Or might it be that sin, despair, loss, timidity; chronic sickness; just simple boredom and routine; or not being sure what God means to do with us – whatever the language your daily-self majors in – could it be that this language is going to find a replacement, a tongue of cleansing fire, sending you and me out into the world in fresh power and generosity of spirit?
That is the promise of the Spirit in the Pentecost not of then and there but of our here and now. St Luke’s, 15 May, 2016.
It is also important to remember this dramatic Pentecostal “high-five” for all nations on earth happens at the beginning of the book of Acts. What follows this “high-five” moment? — challenge, trial, shipwreck, imprisonment, disagreement, floggings, sickness, a long and winding road that backtracks three times before Paul and the apostles reach Rome.
This deep speech to you and me and all nations on earth is a promise that no matter what valley we go through, God has the final victory always before his face and ours.
It is not our job to weigh up the challenges we face in faith and in life and worry if God is up to them. He is. We learn that as the first thing he has to say. He sends his spirit, the advocate and comforter, to remind us of all that Jesus has said and promised. Not to lift us out of the daily challenges but to equip us for them.
“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, like me, to be present with you forever. This is the spirit of truth. You know this spirit, because he abides with you and will be in you.”
We have a dial tone. We have a perfect connection. There may be static on our side of the line from time to time. But God has words to speak to us that are deeper than our own mother tongue and more piercing than the bagpipe. May we stop and listen and find the communion with him he longs to give. That includes his special communion, when the Holy Spirit brings the language of his love and purification into simple gifts of bread and wine, and places a tongue of fire on us and on them, to unite us in him.
“Utterly amazed they said, we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own languages.” AMEN
For the Youth:
Do you like a fire in a fireplace? Warm, cozy, wood smell.
Also, the flames dancing. Always moving. Alive.
Moses once saw a bush burning and the flames never extinguishing. “Let me turn aside to see this great sight.” The bush was not burned up and the fire was a constant dance.
At Pentecost the disciples saw a great sight. A fire was burning and suddenly its flames divided into tongue-shaped crowns and settled on the heads of everyone present. A hat of purifying fire. That did not consume but gave life.
When the bishop comes in two weeks he may be wearing his miter. (Picture)
It’s a funny hat. But it shows us what God is doing for every one of us: sending us his Holy Spirit, day by day, more and more to purify us and make us more like Jesus, in what we think and do and say. The fire of his pure love—the Greek word for fire is puros—given to us to make us into his sons and daughters.
So when you see the funny hat, remember it’s a Pentecost sign.
And thank God yours is invisible!