Monday, May 24, 2010

God's Invasion: Heaven Comes Down

Preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-20, 23-27

A minister, a priest, and a rabbi stood along the side of a winding canyon road with signs that read: “The end is near. Repent and turn back!” They waved and yelled at the first car that came by. The driver opened his window and shook his fist at them, “Leave me alone, you fanatics!” After the car rounded the curve they heard the squealing of tires, and a crash, and the rabbi said, “Do you think we should have made signs that just said, “Bridge out”?

The first Pentecost was confusing, too; and, more than confusing, it was mysterious. There was the sound of a wind, but was there an actual wind? What was the sound that drew the crowd? Did the crowd in the street see and hear what the disciples saw and heard; or did they only see and hear the disciples? What did they have to go by?

All of the mysteries of the first Pentecost have something to tell us: the wind, the fire, the languages, the message of the wonders of God, and the people who heard the message and called on the name of the Lord and received the Lord into their lives as a result of it. Sometimes the wonders of Pentecost are described as part of what we call the birthday of the Church. Sometimes I have called them that. And yet it seems misleading.

Your birthday is your special day. It is the day when the attention is on you. Your birthday is all about you.

Pentecost is not about us at all, except that it is about what God intends for us to be and do. Pentecost is the anniversary of God pouring out his Spirit on all flesh; or, at least, it is the beginning of that. Peter says that the great thing about what God was doing that day was this: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people.’” (Acts 2:16-17; Joel 2:28-32)

This talks about God making himself accessible and approachable to everyone, as well as empowering them. The last days (as the Bible talks about them) are the time when God does justice, and sets all things right. God restores all things to their intended purposes. It is a time for judgment. It is also a time for healing and grace. This gift of accessibility, approachability, and empowerment are part of the healing and grace of God making us human beings what we ought to be; God’s real children.

God made himself accessible and approachable, and empowering through the gift of becoming human in Jesus, and through the gift of taking our sins and death upon himself on the cross, and through conquering sin and death by rising from the dead.

When God did this in Christ, he began a new day. God set in motion the day of the Lord; the beginning of the last days, when all things are to be made new. The day of the Lord began on that first day of Pentecost and it continues onward to this time; and, so, it is a very long day indeed.

The day of the Lord is the movement of the kingdom of God coming to earth as it is in heaven. Heaven is the place where God is; where the beauty of the Lord is visible, and where it is seen in his creatures.

Our first Pentecost was the beginning of earth becoming a place like heaven; a place where it is easy to tell the mighty acts of the Lord and to see those acts in your own life and in the lives of others. This is what was happening that day of Pentecost.

A foretaste, a first installment, of heaven: in a sense Pentecost is like the world of heaven becoming a practical experience on earth. It is heaven invading earth.
One of the signs of the last days was the existence of people from all nations who were filled with the Spirit of God. Peter told the crowd that this was what they were seeing on that street in Jerusalem.

By the time of Jesus and his disciples, Pentecost was a Jewish feast or festival that celebrated the giving of the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. But, all along, it had also been a harvest festival called “The First Fruits”.

When anything began to be harvested, a token of the beginning of that crop was given to the Lord. That was the first fruits of that particular harvest.

But there was a special week, in the Jewish year, which represented all the harvests of the world. That was the time when the first sheaves of wheat were to be offered; and that was during what became known as Pentecost. (Leviticus 23: 9-21; Numbers 28:26-31)

The crowd would have understood that Pentecost was the feast of the harvest. They also would have understood the last days, the day of the Lord, as the final harvest of the world and the human race.

In light of what they saw, and in light of what Peter said, they would have understood that the harvest of the last days was not being finished before their eye, but it was beginning before their eyes; and Peter, and his friends, and his hearers were part of the first fruits of the harvest. As far as we know, we are also part of the first fruits of that harvest that will be finished at a time known only to God.

The point is that the Holy Spirit is meant to dwell in us, in its fullness, so that we can be signs of what God intends to do. We are designed to be signs of what the kingdom of God will be when it comes. We are designed to be signs of hope and promise. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is given to make this possible, to make us this sign hope and promise in the world. Every gesture of our lives, every gesture and action of the church, is meant to be a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign of salvation, as sign of grace, and access to God.

When Jesus was talking to the disciples about sending them the Holy Spirit (who is also known as the Counselor, or Comforter) Jesus told them that he would not leave then as orphans. He would come to them. (John 14:18)

This is not a promise that is separate from the Holy Spirit. This living presence of Jesus is part of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the gift of Jesus, and Jesus is the gift of the Spirit. And this is part of what he means when he says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Let not your hearts be trouble, and do not be afraid.” (John 14:18, 27)

Through the Holy Spirit we carry Jesus in us. We carry within us, and among us, the king of the Kingdom of God. We are the advance forces of the invasion of the Kingdom of God. We are part of heaven’s invasion of the world. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days (for the past two thousand years till now and beyond) means that there are countless little Jesuses walking around and living all over this planet, doing the work of Jesus, because we carry Jesus in us: not Jesus the meek and mild, but Jesus the King.

This is why Jesus said we would do greater works than he did. Jesus glorified his Father and his Father glorified him. (John 17:1) Now (even though Jesus is only invisibly present) there are men and women, old people and children, who glorify the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit makes all the fullness of God to live in them.

In the world, as it is, it is hard to see the fullness of God at work. In fact, we seem to see just the opposite. We don’t see the human race and the people around us living in patterns that show the fullness of God.

The time for the visible presence of the fullness of God has not come yet. But the church is called to share with the world the kingdom of God that lives and works through Christ.

We witness to this kingdom by being the kingdom in its first installment. We are to be a family, a tribe, a band of little Jesuses; really living like Jesus, in a world that seems to contradict everything we know about him. And we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit to live and speak in ways that contradict the spirit of the world we live in.

If this is to really happen, if this is what we really are called to be, then something fundamentally radical has to happen. We have to have something different in us. Jesus has to give us something that the world cannot give. We have to have something in us as surprising and strange as wind and fire; something that the world cannot give. We have to have the Spirit of the living God blowing and burning in us, and through us.

In fact the church can only exist as a result of Pentecost. The church can only be the living witness to Jesus that it is called to be when the power of the Holy Spirit is given to it. (Acts 1:8) Otherwise we don’t have much to offer.

Would we see Jesus in us if we were looking at ourselves through others’ eyes? When we make choices, when we set our course, do we ask, “What would Jesus do?” If we seriously and faithfully, and sacrificially consider this, we are on the right course. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this makes us the church.

In a sense, we are not the church. The church is what we let God make of us. What we really bring to God, in the church, is mostly our sins, and our repentance, and our prayers, and our surrender, and the offering up of our lives to God in Christ. The rest of the church is what God does with us and through us.

Tom Wright (N.T. Wright) is a great, faithful Biblical thinker of our time, and he says this about the lesson of Pentecost: “The point is to transform the earth with the power of heaven, starting with those parts of ‘earth’ which consist of the bodies, minds, hearts, and lives of the followers of Jesus, as a community…” (“Acts for Everyone: Part One” pp 22-23)

If the hearers in the crowd figured out anything, it was that the spiritual leaders of Israel, and the secular leaders of Rome, were no friends of this group of happy, babbling fishers and villagers. The odds were long against them. The world would be against them. But something they could not see, or hear, or touch said, “This is the place to be. This is the Day of the Lord, call on the name of the Lord.”

To be honest, the apparent odds are against us too. The times we live in seem to be against us. Our mission depends not on the odds but on listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us as his church. We are blessed to be living in times like these, when we cannot live confidently as Christians by sheer force of habit. We can only be confident by faith.

That puts us back with those first disciples who knew that they were living in the Day of the Lord when anyone could call on the name of the Lord and be saved. We can call upon the Lord and find that he has made himself accessible to us and to everyone, and that this is the message of the good news of Jesus.

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