The Day of Pentecost (May 20, 2018)
“The Spirit Poured Out” (Acts 2:1-21)
If you were a good Jewish man in the first century, you’d do your best to make it to Jerusalem for the big festivals three times a year, if you had the means and ability to do so. There was Passover in the Springtime. There was Succoth, sometimes called Tabernacles or Booths, in the Fall. And in between, there was Pentecost, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. It celebrated the wheat harvest. It also commemorated the giving of the Law to the nation of Israel at Sinai. It was called the Feast of Weeks because it fell at the end of a seven-week period following Passover.
That’s why there were so many people gathered in Jerusalem as described at the beginning of Acts chapter 2. “Devout men from every nation under heaven.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration on the part of the author St. Luke. He probably means every nation known at the time.
And there were the disciples of Jesus gathered there. A rather small band of 12 apostles – the Eleven minus Judas and the newly-minted Matthias – and a little over 100 others. They were sitting down, so apparently, they were listening to someone preach, as would have been the custom in those days … just like our custom. And as they sat there, hearing the Word of God, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them. There was the sound of a mighty rushing wind, perhaps like the sound of a waterfall. Just think of the times you may have been to Snoqualmie Falls in the height of the rainy season here … or if you have ever been to Niagara Falls. It doesn’t necessarily sound like water … it sounds like a powerful wind, not to mention the spray that you feel as the water pounds down upon the rocks below. This was not just a trickling down of the Holy Spirit, a tiny little drip-drop-drip. This was a major outpouring, the one promised by Jesus before his crucifixion.
And there were tongues of fire that rested upon the disciples. This signified the purifying presence of God, as did the pillar of fire at the tabernacle so many years before. And they spoke in other tongues, other languages, the languages of the people who were gathered there. Each person heard them declaring “the mighty works of God” in their own native tongues. What these “mighty works” were we’re not told, but I have a hunch it was centered in Jesus and his death and resurrection. Jesus told the Twelve earlier that “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth … he will bear witness about me. And you will also bear witness” (John 15:26-27). This was the reverse of Babel, when God confused the languages of the people. Now, although the disciples spoke in different languages, the Church was united with one voice, directed by the Holy Spirit. Everyone heard the same message. Luke says they spoke, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These were God’s words proclaimed, Spirit-filled, Spirit-directed, prophetic words from the mouths of the disciples.
This was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, inspired by the Spirit, several hundred years earlier. Peter quotes Joel to say that these are the Last Days … the entire NT era, from that day forward until Jesus returns in glory. The Spirit will now be poured out on all flesh … without limit … upon Jews and Gentiles, men and women, young and old. There should be no comparing Christians and saying that this person is more Spirit-filled than that one. The Spirit will be poured out on all. And all are given the privilege to declare the mighty works of God … to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could experience what those disciples experienced? A new, mighty rushing wind blowing in our lives. Clearing out the sinful dust and debris that get in the way of our relationship with God. Filling our sails so that the wind of God moves us along his way rather than our own way. We get stalled in the doldrums, feeling like we have no purpose, no direction at all. We get bored. We grow lazy. We know this is not how we’re supposed to be.
We often wish that we could see evidence of God’s presence, like a verifiable miracle, perhaps a flame of fire on our head, the ability to suddenly speak in another language without the use of Google Translate on our smartphone or Rosetta Stone on our computer. We wish for signs of God’s presence, but it seems as though he is absent. Shall we go looking for him in experiences like the day of Pentecost? Maybe we can find a way to stir something up on our own, to get ourselves more excited about being a follower of Jesus. But this leads to even more guilt than we may already have … when the excitement doesn’t arrive. Besides, Jesus never told the disciples to get themselves all stirred up. Rather, he told them “to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). There was nothing that they were do. Simply wait. The pouring out of the Spirit would happen according to God’s timing and in his own way, not theirs.
The Holy Spirit is still poured out upon us today, in God’s timing and in his own way. He is poured out through the preached Word of the Gospel. It may not sound like a mighty rushing wind, but we are filled with the breath of God nonetheless, like those dry bones enlivened through the preaching of Ezekiel. He is poured out through the waters of Baptism. It may not be the pounding of a waterfall, but God’s promises are connected to even a mere handful of water. He is poured out through bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar. The Spirit works through the Words of Institution to deliver what it is … the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus which deliver forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in his Name.
God never promised us a Pentecost like the one in Acts, that is, with accompanying signs such as speaking in other languages and prophesying. It happened in a similar way on three other occasions recorded for us in the Book of Acts … to the Samaritans, to Cornelius and his household, and to a group of disciples of John the Baptist. But emotional highs or ecstatic experiences are not evidence of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues as it is understood today and other miraculous events are not assurances that you are a true Christian … although you will hear this in certain circles. Scripture does not say, “Everyone who speaks in tongues is a true believer.” Nowhere does it say that.
What it does say is this: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And we can only do this when the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us. “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3. In a Pentecost sermon, Luther said this: “The kind of Pentecost people the Holy Spirit produces [are] people who know that they have a gracious God and Father in Christ, and who boldly proceed to confess Christ before the whole world, and are prepared to suffer for his sake” (Complete Sermons, VI: 161).
And what do we see at the end of the chapter after Peter’s Pentecost sermon? People were cut to the heart. Peter called them to repentance and to be baptized. And that’s exactly what they did. Nothing spectacular. No sound of a mighty rushing wind. No tongues of fire. No speaking in other languages. Just the simple – yet most certainly Spirit-filled – beginnings of the New Testament Church by repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And so have you.