By Pastor John Johnson

Pentecost ("Worship" and sermon)

May 31, 2020

NRS 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.'

Pentecost has not always been of importance to me, though as I said once before, the name stuck with me because of reading it in a book of the legends of  King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable back when I was in sixth grade — sixth grade was when I read it; I was not in sixth grade at the time of King Arthur. But Pentecost began taking on religious significance for me, as I have said before, when my friend Jim Russell became minister in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, and I was first singing in the choir under a truly dear late friend, Dwight Davis. And while today we cannot sing hymns so as not to be broadcasting any saliva droplets in the event that any of us is unknowingly carrying the virus, I especially like two hymns which I usually have us sing on Pentecost, two of the other things I enjoy about Pentecost worship are doable: It is the one day of the entire year, aside from ordaining new elders, that I can wear a red stole, and, well, I really, really like the Acts passage that describes the first Christian Pentecost — Pentecost is and was a Jewish festival set up in the book of Leviticus — and I like equally the passage from the Old Testament prophet, Joel, that Peter is quoting in the Acts reading.

And this Pentecost, as the entire world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is something extremely timely about that Joel passage, and I’ll get to it in just a moment.

Rev. Jim Russell, whom I mentioned earlier, liked Pentecost, because the event that is described, the descent of the Holy Spirit on all these people speaking in different languages — “tongues,” about which I might have more to say in another week — the descent of the Holy Spirit marks the “birth” of the Christian Church, even though those present did not consider it as such, and so Pentecost is the “birthday” of the Church. Were we to be sharing fellowship as is our post-worship practice in more normal times, we would, indeed, be having a birthday cake — with some red in the frosting or decoration.

In the story recorded by the writer of Luke and Acts, Peter makes that wonderful statement that includes the beautifully poetic:

“'In the last days it will be, God declares,’” — Peter is quoting the prophet Joel —“‘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.’”

and a few verses later:

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

Awesome words, but the words are part of a slightly longer passage and the setting of those earlier words of the prophet, Joel, matters. In an otherwise unknown scenario to either the Bible or history, the writer of Joel refers to an invasion of locusts, though we do not know whether that description is figurative — perhaps referring to an invading army — or literal.

But an invasion of locusts! At least some of us have seen what damage locusts can do to vegetation; an “invasion of locusts” is in essence a plague, and if the image of plague does not ring a bell for us right now, we have been asleep these past two months. Something certainly had unnerved Joel’s people, who saw that locust “plague” as brought on by God — as were all misfortunes,— because of the sins of the Hebrew people.

I may not believe God has caused COVID-19, you choose for yourselves, but I love what the prophet Joel understood God as saying:

Truly the day of the LORD is great; terrible indeed-- who can endure it? 12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. . . Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'" 18 Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people. 19 In response to his people the LORD said: I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations. 20 I will remove the northern army far from you . . . Surely he has done great things! . . .  23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. . .  26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That’s a lot of Bible, I know, but the message is a simple one:

Truly the day of the LORD is great; terrible indeed-- who can endure it? 12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart . . . Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Wow. This pandemic shall end. How soon? Who can say? Certainly we are seeing encouraging though inconsistent signs not only in Arizona, but in the US as a whole, though with some exceptions. Whether this is because of hotter weather and sun, whether because people have been good about social distancing and wearing masks, and I do want to make a comment about the wearing of masks. A very prominent younger conservative speaker said a few days ago, "There are a bunch of people who are implying that wearing a mask is foolish or that it's giving up basic American freedoms," Shapiro said. "I don't think that's right. I don't think the state should be compelling you to wear a mask if you are out in public, but I do think that you are not being kind to others if you're in a place with vulnerable people.

Of course, the abatement in the spread of the disease may be a combination of both, but let me pick up on what I just quoted: you are not being kind to others if you’re in a  place with vulnerable people and are not wearing a mask.

Being kind to others is of course being godly to others, and one thing I try to say over and over again is that God works through people, God works through us; God works through you and me.

And God is able to work through us in no small measure because enough of us have been able — sometimes not knowingly, sometimes not willingly — to be funnels through which God has poured out God’s spirit on others, and pouring out His spirit on the vulnerable among us is what we are doing by being kind to and considerate of them.

Now I want to depart from this particular plague and move to another for which, truly, we as would be servants — needed servants — of the Lord have a part to play, and I turn to one of my repeated phrases: There has not been a human being born who is not a child of God, a beloved child of God!

In our reading from Acts, I perhaps unwisely had us skip over all the polysyllabic names of tribes and nations from which the writer tells us people were present at that first Pentecost; it is too easy get lost in their recitation. Yet the list of different peoples present at that first Pentecost makes a point for me: We are all God’s children! Remember the song many of us learned in Sunday School before we had even heard the word, “Pentecost”? Be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world!

Our nation, which is to say, the United States, has experienced a second horrible “plague” in the form of two horrific incidents in which Black children of God died unnecessary deaths in situations that cast a terrible pall on the ideal we know as justice — a biblical concept that is central to the Hebrew faith from which Christianity has sprung. Never having been in the position that he was in, indeed, I applaud those who are able and willing to be police men and women, I do not know whether fear, irrational or otherwise, to give him the benefit of the doubt, played a role in the Minneapolis policeman’s being at least a proximate and clearly avoidable cause of death — I’m going straight lawyer on you here — at least a proximate cause of the avoidable death of an African American man stopped as a suspect of a non-violent crime, I repeat, suspect of a non-violent crime, though I cannot conceive of why this policeman’s partners did not stop him! On the other hand, I can say with considerable confidence, that racial intolerance, whether based on lousy parenting or whatever, caused the death by murder — again that term is legally indisputable — of a young African American, a young Black man, jogging in Georgia two or so weeks earlier.

We as Christians cannot enforce God’s laws, but we can model them by seeking to show the world that we draw no lines based on the race or color of another individual; Jesus died for all, including that policeman, including the man he killed, however unintentionally, just as Jesus died for us. We Christians need to model as much today as many did back in the 1950’s and ’60’s the ideal of that song, Be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world!

Unless we can do so, we can never truly observe the spirit of that first Pentecost.

I had been set to close with two paragraphs that I shall still use, but this morning read this tweet from Tony Dungy, a very Christian, Black former college player — I remember him from seeing him quarterback some Minnesota teams that were better than my Illini — and many will remember his as coach of the Super Bowl winning Indianapolis Colts fifteen or so years ago. He lost a son to suicide, and is now better known for his television football analyst work. But he Tweeted this:

As I have watched the events in Minneapolis unfold the last few days I have wondered & prayed about how I should respond. Below are my thoughts. I hope you read the whole thing because the final thought is most important. Romans 12:21

America is in a very sad place today. We have seen a man die senselessly, at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be protecting our citizens. We have seen people protest this death by destroying property and dreams of people in their own community, the very people they are protesting for. We have many people pointing fingers of blame, painting the opposite side with a broad brush. We have anger and bitterness winning out over logic and reason. We have distrust and prejudice winning out over love and respect.

What happened to George Floyd was inexcusable and it should never happen. Justice needs to be served, but in seeking justice we can’t fall into the trap of prejudging every police officer we see. What started out as peaceful protests have devolved into arson and looting and that should never happen, either. Yes there should be protest. But we do not have license to perform criminal acts because we’re angry.

Today we are a divided country. We’re divided racially, politically, and socio-economically. And Satan is laughing at us because that is exactly what he wants. Dysfunction, mistrust, and hatred help this kingdom flourish.

Well, what is the answer then? I believe it has to start with those of us who claim to be Christians. We have to come to the forefront and demonstrate the qualities of the One we claim to follow, Jesus Christ. We can’t be silent. As Dr. King said many years ago, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!” But we can’t go forward with judgmental, bitter, spirits. We need to be proactive, but do it in the spirit of trying to help make things better. And it can’t be just the African American churches. It has to be ALL churches taking a stand and saying “We are going to be on the forefront of meaningful dialogue and meaningful change.” We have to be willing to speak the truth in love but we have to recognize that we are not fighting against other people. We are fighting against Satan and his kingdom of spiritual darkness.

In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Roman 12:21 NIV

The amazing story of the first Christian Pentecost was in overcoming division of peoples based on their languages; we are called to model that. But we are called further to model overcoming the division among people caused by, well, to paraphrase  ourselves from the Apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free” and to add:  

Be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world!

We dealt with the idea of the Holy Spirit two weeks ago in Jesus’ “Farewell discourse” in the Gospel of John when he said he would send us a “helper,” a “comforter,” and if Jesus feels we need a helper and a comforter, how much more must others who do not yet know Him need the same — Let them find it in us as we model for the world what God sought by pouring out His Spirit on us.

It is a miserable time in many ways, but God has poured out His spirit upon us; let us prophesy — which is to say, let us speak on behalf of God, let us act on behalf of God, and show his presence in the world’s and the nation’s time of plague.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Benediction:Benediction/Gospel Lesson: John  17:1-11

NJB John 20:19 In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, 'Peace be with you,' 20 and, after saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord, 21 and he said to them again, 'Peace be with you. 'As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.' 22 After saying this he breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone's sins, they are retained.

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