By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Waiting can drive you crazy. It all depends on what you are waiting for…
the cable guy to come between noon and 5:00…
the store to deliver a promised appliance…
a colleague to arrive for an important meeting…
a baby to be delivered…
the proverbial pot to be boiled.
Yes, it definitely depends on the circumstances, on what you are waiting for. But in many, if not most, cases, waiting can set the teeth on edge and cause the emotional temperature to rise.
The disciples of Jesus, as we find them in the second chapter of Acts, have been waiting. Do you think patiently? I doubt it. I can’t find any evidence in the New Testament gospels that the men Jesus had chosen to be his closest confidants – those who would serve as the foundation for his new church – had it in them, had the maturity, the spiritual wherewithal, to wait patiently for anything.
Look at Peter. He could wait on the fish to bite, perhaps, but he got real edgy when Jesus went off to pray and he, Peter, wanted to get on with whatever it was his agenda called for that day. And generally his agenda was different from Jesus’. Consider Thomas. One so prone to doubt would not be likely to wait on anything that didn’t carry some kind of empirical evidence to it. James and John, Sons of Thunder? You’ve got to be kidding. Let me ask you this… have you ever known anyone in your lifetime with a flash-fire temper like theirs to be patient about anything?
Do you think that when Jesus said it… when he said, “Stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:59)… do you think that he really thought they would do it? Or would they take matters into their own hands as they had done so many times before when he had been with them? Do you think that when Jesus said it he figured he might as well have been talking to a blank wall?
Waiting can drive you crazy! My guess is that if I were to call for testimonials at this point, stories from you about particular times in your life when you found yourself waiting… waiting… waiting… that very few of them would be told with a pleasant tone to the voice. No, we are not prone to waiting patiently any more than were the disciples of Jesus.
But guess what… they did it. They did what Jesus told them to do. That doesn’t mean they sat on their hands all day. According to the scriptures they devoted themselves to prayer and they elected Matthias to replace the betrayer Judas. But other than that, they pretty much just… waited. And then it happened, just as Jesus had said it would.
It was the Jewish festival called Pentecost. The word literally means The Fiftieth. Penta means five, as in pentagon or pentagram. So Pentecost was the Jewish festival which fell fifty days after Passover. Passover was a more important festival to the Jews, but because it came almost two months earlier the weather could be a bit more unpredictable.
Because the weather was more favorable at Pentecost, making travel easier, Jewish pilgrims had come from all over for the festival. There were Parthians and Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya. And Rome; don’t forget about Rome. Even Cretans and Arabs. That’s the list of nationalities Luke provides us, which is his way of saying they had come from all over! All gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate their common faith.
It was into the midst of this international crowd that the Holy Spirit came like gangbusters and made his presence known to those who had committed themselves to following Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and resurrected one. And it happened the way Jesus said it would. And it happened at Pentecost.
Frankly, I used to think that Easter was enough. One unique affirmation the Christian faith has always been able to make is that our Founder, our Lord, does not have a marker next to his grave. He is risen, the grave could not hold him. I used to think that the empty tomb was enough all by itself. But I’ve changed my mind. Easter needs Pentecost, for Easter would not be completed without Pentecost.
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Think about it. This is the way Fred Craddock puts it…
Without Pentecost, Easter reminds the church that Jesus has now gone to be with God and his followers are left alone in the world. Without Pentecost, Easter offers us a risen Christ whose return to glory leaves the church to face the world armed with nothing but fond memories of how it once was when Jesus was here. But with Pentecost, Easter’s Christ promises to return and has returned in the Holy Spirit as comforter, guide, teacher, reminder, and power. With Pentecost, the church does not simply celebrate but participates in Easter. With Pentecost, the risen Christ says hello and not good-bye to the church.1
Easter needs Pentecost.
And you and I need Pentecost, and here’s why…
Think of those times when you felt defeated. Personal circumstances had beaten you down. People you trusted had not proven faithful to that trust. The journey of life had reached a dead-end, and the path was so tight there wasn’t even enough room to turn around, much less go in a new direction. And just when it seemed you couldn’t take it anymore, the Holy Spirit of God came, and as he did in Ezekiel’s valley, breathed new life into your dry and brittle bones. And you knew that your life was worth claiming once again, was worth asking for, was worth seeking.
We are Easter people, yes, but even with Easter we still need Pentecost.
Listen once again as Luke describes it… “…suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting (where they were waiting!). And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (2:2-4).
You know what I think he is saying? I think Luke is telling us that he really can’t find the words to describe it. Not fully. The words don’t exist. God may have given us the gift of his coming Spirit, but not necessarily the words to describe it; not fully anyway. Luke’s just doing the best he can. There’s a great and deep emotion in this story, and despite his best efforts Luke hints that he hasn’t even begun to tell it the way it really was. We’ll just have to settle for his human description of what was most undoubtedly a very un-human experience.
Well, what does it all mean? After all, wasn’t it a one-time thing, never to occur again? Let me ask you: have you seen any tongues of fire floating through the church lately? The colors you’re wearing today come as close as we possibly can.
Let’s admit it… while we talk about the presence of the Holy Spirit, isn’t it really true that we are more like Thomas? We believe what we can see, what we can touch, what we know to be real, and because of that we’re not inclined to place the full weight of our faith on something as vaguely obscure as the Holy Spirit?
We’re like the little boy who was being tucked into bed by his mother. “Mommy,” he cried out, “I’m afraid to be alone in the dark. I want somebody to stay with me.”
His mother responded, “Don’t be afraid. God is with you.”
The little boy then said, “I want somebody with skin on his face.”
When it comes to seeing the presence of God, isn’t it true that you want him to be someone with skin on his face? Well, Pentecost tells us we can. As Tony Campolo says…
Two thousand years ago, the eternal Christ was incarnated in a man named Jesus. The hands of that man Jesus were the hands of God, and with those hands God touched those who had leprosy and made them whole. The feet of that man Jesus were the feet of God, and with those feet God walked among the people of this world so that we might behold God’s glory. The tongue of that man Jesus was the tongue of God, and it was with that tongue that God uttered the most important words ever put into human language. Two thousand years ago, Christ who is the eternal Son of God, expressed Himself in a historical human body.2
Two thousand years ago. Does that mean God no longer exists in human form? No! Pentecost says that God is now embodied in the church, that through the church he wants to heal the sick, he wants to proclaim good news to those who need it most, he wants to bring about justice in a pain-driven world, and he wants to give liberty to those who are driven down by the dreadful circumstances of their lives. If it is going to happen, it will happen through the church.
God has made it clear that these kinds of people are his kind of people, and he is depending on the church to proclaim and embody the good news that only the kingdom can deliver. There was a time when the disciples found themselves waiting, tediously waiting. But when Pentecost came, when the Holy Spirit appeared as wind and fire and anointed those gathered that day with power from on high, it then became the church’s time to deliver the great good news of the kingdom. And that is still the church’s task.
The church, this church, needs to be set on fire, for that is the picture of Pentecost.
If someone were to stand right now and holler, “Fire!,” what would be our reaction? We would run into each other trying to be the first to get out. Do you see why this imagery is so important to the church? This is where we gather to worship, yes, but this isn’t where the church is supposed to be when we are not worshiping. The church is supposed to be out there, and every service of worship in this place is simply another opportunity for us to call out, “Fire!” But the fire that sends us scurrying into the world outside these four walls is the kind of fire that heals rather than harms, it builds rather than destroys, and it “melts chaos into communion,” opens peoples’ ears, and fills their hearts with passion.3
Pentecost is the season of fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the season of wind, the wind of the Spirit that blows and gusts his way into the hearts of those who are committed to God and his kingdom. Pentecost is the time when we need to be reminded that sometimes being the church can be dangerous. Annie Dillard is rather famous for saying that we ought to wear crash helmets in church and strap ourselves to the pews, because we don’t know what a dangerous place this is.
So let us ask the inevitable question… In this place, is the Spirit evident? When we leave worship and go out into the world, is the Spirit evident? Where we work, where we live, where we shop, where we do whatever it is we do, is the Spirit evident? We are Easter people, yes, but are we Pentecost people as well?
A wealthy family from Massachusetts used to take a month’s vacation every summer to the coast of Maine, taking their maid with them. The maid had an annual ritual at the beach. She wore an old-fashioned bathing suit, complete with a little white hat, and carried enough paraphernalia to stock Wal-Mart. She would settle herself on the beach, cover every inch of her exposed flesh and journey down to the water’s edge. There she would hesitate while taking deep breaths and working up her courage to enter the icy-cold water. Finally, she would daintily extend one foot and lower it slowly into the water until she barely had her big toe submerged. Then she repeated the act with the other foot. Then, having satisfied her minimal urge for a swim, she would retreat to her chair and umbrella and spend the remainder of the vacation curled around a book.
I’m afraid that may be a parable of our Christian commitment. Are we afraid to give into the Pentecost experience, fearful that we might lose control? That’s what it is really all about, isn’t it? Control. We want to be in control.
Well, if Pentecost is to do nothing else, it should remind us that we are not in control, not even of ourselves. We are to be a witnessing community, sharing with friends, family, and acquaintances the power of God in our lives. Why? Because we are the church, and the church is the only institution founded by Christ himself. But we can’t do that, we can’t witness to our faith, if the Power isn’t present in us, can we?
My friends, the time for waiting is over. Let us on this Pentecost Sunday respond to the outpouring of God’s great Spirit, and determine as individuals and a collective body of faith that it is time for us to deliver. There are really no other options.
Lord, come and anoint us on this Pentecost day. Give us tongues of fire with which to share our faith. Send, with the gusty wind of your presence, the Spirit that gives us courage to let go and let you be in control of who we are and what we do. Inflame us with your Spirit, that we might deliver the good news of a saving Christ, for it is in his name we pray this dangerous prayer, Amen.
1Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), pp. 298-299.
2from old notes, unable to locate source
3C. Welton Gaddy and Don W. Nixon, Worship Resources for Christian Congregations, (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1995), p. 219.
–– Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.