Sermon #187 St. James the Less #94 5/31/20
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: `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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "
Over the past week, I have been reading a book on Lewis and Clark and their adventures out West. I am amazed at everything they endured, and how they were able to overcome so much adversity.
I learned that Americans in the early 19th century believed that there was a waterway that would connect the East to the West, even the earliest explores of the continent believed this waterway was out there.
Since there were still no railroads, the early Americans were fixated on the idea of how rivers could connect the country. Boats were certainly faster and more efficient than a horse and buggy.
And so, Lewis and Clark, along with their traveling companions, set out in their canoes to find this undiscovered waterway. They believed if they could reach the Continental Divide, then they would be able to put their canoes in the Columbia River and go downstream to the Pacific. But all of that changed for Lewis as he drew closer to Lemhi Pass, which is now part of the border of Montana and Idaho.
One writer captures the moment leading up to Lemhi Pass perfectly by saying, “[Lewis] was approaching the farthest boundary of the Louisiana Territory, the Continental Divide—the spine of the Rocky Mountains beyond which the rivers flow west. No American citizen had ever been there before. This he believed was the Northwest Passage: the goal of explorers for more than three centuries, the great prize that Thomas Jefferson had sent him to find and claim for the United States.
“With each stride, Lewis was nearing what he expected to be the crowning moment of his expedition and his life. From the vantage point just ahead, all of science and geography had prepared him to see the watershed of the Columbia [River] and beyond it, perhaps, a great plain that led down to the Pacific.
“Instead [when he reached the Pass and looked at what laid before him his heart sunk]. There were more mountains [ahead of him]. Lewis wrote that there were ‘immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.’
“At that moment, in the daunting vista spread out at the feet of Meriwether Lewis, the dream of any easy water route across the continent—a dream stretching back to Christopher Columbus—was shattered” (from Ken Burns’ Lewis & Clark).
Lewis and his traveling companions were shocked and disappointed in their situation. If they were going to continue forward, they would have to drastically change their expectations. Without a river, they would have to leave behind their canoes and prepare to climb even more mountains. The journey would take longer and be tougher than they originally planned.
What they imagined the journey would be like did not meet the reality they saw before them and so they would have to adjust to their circumstances. There were mountains rather than a river, but with this surprise also came a fresh start, a new kind of journey. There were grand opportunities for new discoveries if they were willing to meet the challenge.
If they were to continue on, they would have to set aside their expectations as they ventured into the unknown.
Now I want you to hold that image of Lewis looking out towards the mountains at Lemhi Pass in your mind, we’ll come back to it in a bit.
Let’s really shift gears and talk for a moment about Pentecost, it’s the day we are celebrating after all. Pentecost is not originally a Christian celebration, but one of the main Jewish festivals, also known as the Feast of Weeks.
It was an agricultural festival where farmers journeyed to Jerusalem to offer their first sheaves of wheat as a thank offering to God. The winter and spring rains in Israel would have made much of the land green and beautiful, and offering to God part of the first harvest was a sign of appreciation but also as a hope that God would continue to bless the land as the summer heat approached.
But Pentecost also had a theological element to it as well. It was typically celebrated 50 days after Passover to commemorate when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God.
We can all picture Moses walking down with the Ten Commandments carved in stone, and for the Jewish people receiving the Law from God was so important because it was through the Law that God showed them how he wanted them to live.
It was the path to God. It was pretty straightforward: if you wanted to draw close to God then follow the Law that God gave. Pentecost was a festival recalling this great gift God gave to his people.
Pentecost in Acts
But something utterly amazing and new happens during the Pentecost that we read about in our Acts passage. The Spirit of the Living God descends on his people. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s the sound of a rushing wind and tongues of fire resting on each of the disciples’ heads.
Pentecost which celebrated the giving of the Law now was transformed into the giving of the Holy Spirit. Put another way, “Like Moses ascending Mount Sinai, Jesus ascended into heaven and was now coming down, not with a written Law carved in stone, but with the dynamic energy of the Law, designed to be written on the human heart” (Wright 22 paraphrased).
And with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the disciples pour out into the streets of Jerusalem and begin speaking in the mother tongue of many different tribes and nations.
These timid and sheepish disciples, who’ve been in hiding, are transformed by something much greater than themselves and are now boldly proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The world before the disciples didn’t look as scary as it once did. It was now a place filled with opportunities to share the Good News. In the blink of an eye, their expectations of life were completely changed. Though they had little idea of what the next few months or years would look like for them, they could’ve never imagined this.
Our Lemhi Pass
I believe the Pentecost that we are celebrating today is more like that Pentecost in Acts than we might initially think. We are returning to something that is familiar and yet totally new.
This is not how any of us expected to be celebrating Pentecost even just a few months ago, let alone planning to worship this way for months to come. But with this strange situation that we find ourselves in, there are also new opportunities that lay before us.
Pentecost 2020 is equivalent to standing next to Meriwether Lewis at Lemhi Pass and looking out at the unexpected horizon before us. This is not how we imagined it, but this is our reality and we must journey on.
We cannot canoe up a mountain, instead, we will have to adapt to our situation: to hold on to the essentials, to let some things go, and embrace other things we might’ve dismissed in the past.
As the church, we’re going to have to put away our canoes and start this new part of the journey with fresh eyes and open expectations. And like the disciples on Pentecost, we may very well be transformed by what God has in store for us.
We mustn’t forget that the disciples’ lives were utterly changed because of what the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost. The plans for their lives were thrown out the window, but God had something new for them, beyond their wildest dreams, and they journeyed into the unknown—throughout the world—to tell others about Jesus.
Ending at the Beginning
I think it is only fitting that we end this sermon series on the Book of Acts where we began. Ironically, we started with the very last section of chapter two, and today we read the beginning of that very same chapter.
If you recall, chapter two concludes on the evening of Pentecost with the followers of Jesus (which drastically grew over the day, thanks to Peter’s sermon), and it says “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
These four marks of the church have been the foundation of Christian life for over two thousand years. So, though we are at the precipice of something new which will require us to face unexpected challenges and lead us into new opportunities, we can still be rooted in these four ancient practices.
They have been good enough for the faithful through plagues, wars, natural disasters, and even through civil unrest like the kind we are experiencing today in our country. They are our map into this unknown territory, and so we must move forward with confidence, being led always by the Holy Spirit.
Please pray with me, Come Holy Spirit and fill us to the brim, and consume us in the fire of your love. Come quickly and do not delay, for we need you and you alone. Amen.
The Day of Pentecost. Year A. Acts 1:6-14. Canoeing the Mountains, pg. 87-88. Acts for Everyone Pt. I, Wright.