Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 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.” 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 slaves, 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.’
The Burnt Hills. Every year, around this time in May, the leaves on the trees behind our house, and all the vegetation growing around those trees, becomes so dense that we can no longer see our neighbor’s house. Of course, I’m trying not to remember that in a few months, much of that growth will be on the ground and will have to be raked up. For now, it’s green and lush. And beautiful. And thick.
Like most people my age (I think), I’ve held onto a mental picture of the old-growth, pristine forest that must have existed here in New England before our Puritan ancestors arrived 300-400 years ago. Now I know that this is a myth. Scientists can tell from looking at tree rings that there were regular forests fires – and many of these were intentional.
One of the Connecticut churches I’ve served has a summer tradition of a “Blueberry Festival.” Originally, the blueberries were local; small, wild blueberries found in the hills nearby. Many of you know the difference between those blueberries and the larger ones that are easy to find in grocery stores. They aren’t just smaller; they have a much stronger taste. As the festival grew, the church had to start getting its wild blueberries from a “farm” in northern Massachusetts. The farm was an area near the border of Vermont where the blueberries have been growing naturally for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
In early August, “Burnt Hill” is frosted with blueberries on bushes about 2-feet high and the aroma is amazing. At the top of the hill is a place that the owners say was used as a kind of shrine by Native Americans. Every two years, these people would burn parts of the hill in the spring and this is still the practice. The bushes have to be burnt to keep them healthy. This is not only true for wild blueberries; there are many of species of plants and animals that flourish after the forest has caught fire.
This was something that made no sense to the Europeans coming to New England, but the Indians on the East Coast all knew this: there are some plants that seem to thrive after they’ve been burned. It’s one of those things that’s strange but true. Have you ever wondered how people would travel from one place to another when the underbrush is so dense in the forest around here? We have always had so many permanent wooden homes that this kind of intentional burning is too dangerous, but in the places where Native Americans lived, they used to burn the undergrowth regularly. The fire had a cleansing purpose. It pruned and fertilized the forest, made travel easier, and kept harmful insects and animals at bay.
Jesus Lights a Fire. Today is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, when we remember how the first Christians saw the Holy Spirit come among them like “tongues of fire.” Usually, the part about that reading that gets people’s attention is how everyone started speaking in different languages. But I’d like to think for a moment about the fire.
If you ever go camping in a state park, you might drive by a sign on the way in that says, “fire alert low today.” Or it might be moderate or high. And Smokey the Bear is holding the sign. We usually think of fire as bad. But the fire today is friendly fire. It’s fire that’s good for us.
I think that friendly fire is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49)
The match that starts this fire is what he calls his own “baptism,” which we understand as his crucifixion, when he cleared the path between us and God. When the followers of Jesus have faith in what he has done, the Holy Spirit comes. And Luke sees this Spirit over the head of each believer as fire; a little piece of God’s fire. The fire catches and spreads around town, around the country, around the world, changing people one by one, giving them life and making them different people than they were before. All from that one match.
When that fire was sitting on top of the heads of those first Christians, I wonder what that felt like. Could they actually feel it? Was it warm or hot? Or was it something they could see in each other, but couldn’t see themselves?
I think that one of the things God does when you give yourself to Christ, is send friendly fire, and the fire is doing certain things….
It’s that warmth you feel when after you’ve heard a reading or a song and you know God spoke to you.
It’s also the nagging awareness that there is something you need to stop doing because it’s interfering with your relationship with God (or other Christians).
It’s also the awareness that there is something you need to start doing in order to improve your relationship with God (or other Christians). The gifts that came with the Holy Spirit, like speaking another language, was (and is) always about helping someone else.
The fire of the Holy Spirit is that sense that you are no longer alone in your spiritual life. God is with you.
In scripture, God sets fires to clear out the underbrush that’s getting in the way. God destroys the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire in Genesis, and then evil is thrown into a lake of fire in Revelation. When God is first “seen,” God is speaking to Moses out of a burning bush. Then God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in a pillar of fire. God could have picked something else, but God picked fire.
Have you ever sensed that God is burning some underbrush out of your life? It can be a hard thing to accept, but sometimes God allows the fire to burn away the things that keep us from growing, from being better Christians, from being closer to God. That fire over our heads is the Spirit of God saying, I know you’re struggling – let me help you deal with that. Let my fire burn away the thing that keeps you from growing.
The Fire Spreads. When Luke made the list of countries the visitors to Jerusalem were from, he was making a sort of counter- clockwise circle of about 600 miles around Jerusalem. These were all the places Christians were going to talk about Jesus. About the time the book of Acts was written, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city burned. Those first generations of Christians did not have the chance to stay in one place and get comfortable.
Eventually, they came to your church and to you…. Someone came and made the message of faith in Christ accessible to you. They would not have come if they were allowed to stay in one place and get comfortable. The Christian faith is always about moving from one place to another, moving on toward a promised land. God helps us burn the underbrush and move on. Somebody somewhere needs your faith.
When we believe in Christ, God goes straight to the heart of the relationship and says, “What can I do for you? You know, I could help you a lot right now.” God speaks our personal language. God is all about relationship and communicating. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (v. 4)
Take a look at how God did this. We start with a small group of country people from Galilee in Jerusalem, hiding in a big room somewhere in the city. This is a little like saying the church started with some Wisconsin dairy farmers on vacation in New York City. It would take a miracle, and that’s what happened, a miracle.
First, God gave all these believers something in common: a Savior. No matter who they were, or “where they were on life’s journey,” their age or background; strengths or weaknesses, their faith in a resurrected Jesus made them equal. Having been with Jesus also gave them a good idea of what to do with the power of God once they had it. Do what Jesus did. Tell people about God’s love and heal them!
Secondly, God gave them the ability to spread the message, the ability to communicate once they knew what they had to do. For at least a brief moment, they were speaking in other languages. In those days, Greek was a “universal” language, like English is today – a language of commerce. Many people had a home language and also spoke Greek. This was probably the case with the people at the Pentecost festival. They could communicate with each other in Greek, but what was unusual was that they each heard the good news of God being spoken in their own personal language.
This is amazing not just because these Galilean people were suddenly speaking in languages they hadn’t learned, but because of how this event worked into God’s plan, God’s long-range goals. The last thing Jesus told them before he left was that when the power of the Spirit came to them, they were going to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8). In one fell-swoop God met the deepest need of the world: an open door to a relationship with God. The new church believed in the resurrection of Jesus, they talked about it, and people from other countries understood – in a personal way. The Spirit gave them the power to talk about Jesus. And this is what the church continues to do: talk about the living Jesus; and as we do, the Spirit gives us power.
Most times I give a sermon about the Holy Spirit I include this little story: I once read a story in the newspaper about the custody trial of a deaf teenage girl. Custody was given to her interpreter instead of her parents. Custody cases are always tragic and damage families in some way. This one had a lesson attached. Actually, the story said that it was her father who wanted custody, and although he apparently had some problems with alcohol, the main reason the judge chose the interpreter was that the father refused to learn sign language. He didn’t want to learn her language, and may as well have been saying that he did not want to understand or be understood. The underbrush of his life was this attitude of resistance.
Without the Spirit of God, we only have some rules and traditions and church buildings. We need the power of the Spirit to be the church God intended us to be. We need the Spirit to be followers of Christ. With the Spirit of God living in us, we see the world and we see each other through God’s eyes. We sing about Christ, we speak about Christ, we eat together to honor Christ. Through all these things we grow closer to each other as the Spirit teaches us how to love; how to care for our church and each other; how to reach out to our world and communicate the most important person we know.
God, we pray for our own day of Pentecost. Fill us with your power, speaking the truth of your love in a language our families, friends, and neighbors understand. Show us where to go, what to do, what to say, and when to be quiet. Use your Spirit to help us make a deeper commitment to following Christ. Help us see the world as he sees it, feeling his joy at the good things happening in his church, his weeping at the sight of sick or hungry children, his anger at the injustice of senseless war. Use your Spirit in us to bring forgiveness and healing to a world you love. Amen.