Last week was resurrection Sunday. No doubt you all remember that Jesus was taken up into heaven on a cloud. As some of you may be aware, I was at our neighboring church, preaching to the Methodists. I had the best ideaever for the sermon. I wanted to rig some kind of harness and pulley system along with a fog machine to lift me out of the sanctuary during the closing remarks of my sermon. Nobody went for it. They cited budget concerns among their top reaons for keeping creativity out of the sanctuary.
When I learned from my pastor that I would preaching today, I of course immediatly thought of how to bring this scripture to life in a theatrical way. Of course, not far into my imaginings, a voice very similar to my pastor's popped into my head using words like "fire marshall" and "arson investigation." Well, that certainly put a damper on things. So it is, this morning you get a drama-free sermon. Common sense won out. Nobody get to have their head set on fire.
In Acts, which many consider to be our "primary" text for Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shows up amongst a crowd of disciples. There is a great sound, like a rushing wind, and a tongue of fire rests on each of them, and they are all filled with the Holy Spirit.
Some of the more interesting aspects of this passage for me concern the nature of fire and the word that is translated "Spirit." Fire is loud. It requires the presence of oxygen to burn. It tends to change whatever it touches--be it a forest fire or a backyard bar-b-que, nothing from trees to steaks is the same after it's been touched by flames.
The word for Spirit in the Old Testament is the Hebrew "ruach." In the New Testament, it is the Greek "pneuma." Both of these words literally translates "breath." Beginning all the way back in Genesis, when God "breathed" life into a clump of dirt we call Adam, the spirit of God has been known as breath, and all who breathe are known to be created in the image of God.
The spirit of God is also closely linked with another character in the Bible: the personification of wisdom. This may explain the placement of the tongues of flame. Come to think of it, this may also explain that voice in the back of my mind which spoke against any fiery theatrics this morning.
In our Acts passage, when the Holy Spirit appears, manifested as tongues of flame resting on everyone's head, the people began speaking in different languages; languages which were not their mother tongue. As though this weren't amazing enough, those listening heard everything as though it were spoken in their own mother tongue. It would be as though I stood up here this morning speaking Swahili, a language I've never studied, and each of you, knowing I was speaking a foreign language, nonetheless heard my sermon in English.
Some passersby assumed the people were drunk. Knowing this, Peter stands up and says, "Are you all crazy?! It's only 9:00 in the morning!" And then, he starts to preach. Peter repeats the words of the prophet Joes, assuring the people that God will fulfill the promises which were made. God will restore to Israel everything that has been taken from her. And after, God will send the Holy Spirit amongst the people and:
- your sons and daughters shall prophesy
- your young men will see visions
- your old men shall dream dreams
- both men and women, even those who have never held a place of honor, shall prophesy
- and everyone who call onthe name of God shall be saved.
Paul explains it even further in 1 Corinthians. He says that to each of us, the Holy Spirit gives gifts. As an examply today, I've brought some gifts that have been given to me over the years. For my last birthday, a dear friend gave me this:
A few years ago for Christmas, my best friend gave me this:
That's right, folks! A toy hippo! But not just any toy hippo. This one sings. And moves. And it sings the best Christmas song in the history of human kind--Gayla Peevey's I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas! My dog, by the way, hates my hippo. She goes crazy and tries to kill it everytime I play the song.
That same year, I gave my best friend a gift as well. It's the same gift I gave myself. A book. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. It's like Aesop's Fables for Harry Potter fans. Rachel thought it was AWESOME!
Shortly after my birthday this year, my best friend and I were hanging out over coffee and she gave me a "just because" gift.
Now, which of these gifts most resembles the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit?
(After a moment of silence, someone in our congregation said, "The pens!")
I would agree. Paul talks about the Spirit giving each of ust gifts at the direction and pleasure of God's will. The gifts the Holy Spirit gives us are tailor-made for us. God created us. God knows us inside and out. Everything about us is laid bare before our creator. It should come as no surprise, then, that like each of these gifts my friends have given me, gifts which are surprised and delighted me, which fit me perfectly becuase my friends know me, similarly, God gives us gifts that are uniquely suited to each one of us. This is because God know us, intimately.
And while I'd like to be able to tell you that the gits given to us by God are a lot like a singing hippo, even that's too far a stretch for my imagination.
No, the gifts we receive from God are more like this one: the pen and ink set my friend gave me. The reason: my hippo sits on a shelf all year, and once or twice at Christmas, or during a sermon in June, I'll take it out and squeeze its...arm for lack of a better anatomy term, and I'll listen to it sing. I'll watch it rock back and forth. And while I delight in using a ridiculous toy as a sermon prop, it's primary purpose, it's sole purpose as a gift given, is my own personal delight.
These pens, on the other hand, though given to me, aren't solely, ore even really for me. Now, certainly my friend knows me well, and she knew I would delight in receiving these pnes and inks as a gift. But she also knew that I would use them. And she knew how I would use them as well: pulling out my favorite stationery, writing hand-penned letters, sealing envelopes with wax and a brass seal before sending them via US Postal Service to friends near and far.
It is a gift whose primary purpose in use is not for or about me. The primary purpose of this gift is to bless others. I use it to give to others.
And that's why I think this gift reflects most clearly the gifts given by the Holy Spirit.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit, be it wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, or interpreting tongues, these gifts are not given to us for our personal delight and private enjoyment.
Rather, they are given for the common good; for the benefit of all. If you've been given the gift of teaching, how does it serve you to stand up in an empty classroom and teach to a crowd of empty chairs?
If you've been given a gift of music, how does it serve you to stand on a stage and perform to an empty auditorium?
It doesn't. And it doesn't serve God or anyone else either. Our gifts, like the ink in these bottles, will dry up if unused. They will become useless, and will fail to bless us or anyone else.
And the Bible is clear: the tongues of flame rested on everyone; to each peron is given a gift of the Holy Spirit for the comon good. No one is exempt. And no one gets to keep it all for themselves. We are expected to follow the first rule of kindergarten: Share!
Whatever gift or gifts you have been given, I hope this week and in the weeks to come you make an opportunity to share it with others.