Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost: The Promise

Today is Pentecost Sunday. I was down to preach this morning and what follows is an adaptation of my talk. The reading for the service was  Acts 2:1-21.

A very rich man once held a huge party to celebrate his 50th birthday. He had a pool in which he collected all sorts of alligators, I think he must have made his money being a Bond villain. After an extravagant lunch, he announced he would be willing to give away his luxury cars, 1 million pounds, his home or even his daughter's hand in marriage to the man brave enough to swim across the perilous pool.

No sooner than he had made the announcement, there was a loud splash. In the pool is a man and he is swimming as hard as he can. Tails are thrashing in the water, jaws are snapping but the man just keeps on going while the alligators are gaining on him. Finally he reaches the end and gets out of the pool, tired and soaked. The rich man walks over the exhausted young man and loudly proclaims, 'I am a man of my word, anything of mine I will give, my Ferraris, my house, absolutely anything, for you are the bravest man I have ever seen. So sir what will it be?' The young man looks up and replies:

"I don't want your money or your daughter sir. I just want to know who on earth pushed me into that pool!"

In a sense, God is like the rich man in that joke. Now I don't mean that he keeps a swimming pool full of big alligators; I mean that like that rich man, he is all about great big promises.

Previously in John's Gospel, Jesus had promised that he would ask the Father to send another counsellor or advocate to help all Christians and to be with us forever. Today on Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the day that God fulfilled that promise and poured out the Holy Spirit on the group of roughly 120 followers of Jesus who met in his name. Before it was celebrated in the Christian faith, Pentecost was already celebrated as part of Judaism. It marked the 50th day after Passover and the bringing in of the first Harvest. It is also the feast day when Jews celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses. This is why there were Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem.

It's really important that God chose to give the Holy Spirit at a time when the people present were focussed on the Law. If the Christian life was merely about keeping the commandments, we would really struggle because as human beings, we are limited in our understanding of God's will and we lack the spiritual strength to obey him on our own.  Scripture teaches us that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, that he convicts us when we are disobedient and that he enables us to understand and obey the will of God and express our needs to the Father, even when words fail us.

Someone once said "All word and no spirit, we dry up; all Spirit and no Word, we blow up; both Word and Spirit, we grow up." That the giving of the Law and the Spirit were being celebrated on the same day shows us how important it is for us to have a balanced relationship with both those elements.

But how did the apostles get the Spirit? Well we are told in the passage that they simply received it. God gives freely and abundantly, but he does it in his time. It does not depend on our desire or effort, but on God's mercy. Nevertheless Paul teaches us that we should eagerly desire the gifts of God. There's no doubt that God could pour out and equip his saints abundantly at a word, but I believe we demonstrate our faithfulness and discipleship when we actively seek these things in prayer.

Verse 2 speaks of a rushing wind filling the room and causing tongues of flame to appear. Whenever I read that, it calls to my mind the triangle of fire - heat, fuel and wind. Our lives are the dormant fuel waiting with hidden potential. Calling upon God in prayer to fill us and empower us, is the heat. When the wind of the Spirit blows.... The fire comes.

As Christians we already have access to the Spirit, but if we spend time in meditation and quiet, we can be filled anew. When I was preparing my talk for this morning, I felt that God laid the word "promise" on my heart. That it was important to illustrate that God didn't just casually let the Spirit into our lives, he committed himself to doing it. Did you know that if you take a banknote out of your pocket and examine it, it has the words "I promise to pay the bearer upon demand" emblazoned on it? In olden days you could go to the Bank of England and demand gold sovereigns equivalent to the value of your notes. Or again consider how a politician may be elected on the basis of what they promise to the electorate. Or yet again take the example of marriage - how two people who love each other make a commitment to love and serve one another in a relationship confirmed in vows. The point I'm trying to illustrate is that even as humans we don't make promises lightly... and when someone makes a promise or commitment to us, we take that seriously as well.
Well in this morning's passage, God makes his own promises known to us. If you call upon the name of the Lord, you will be saved. He will pour out his Spirit on all people. Can we as Christians treat God's promises with any less weight than those of the people around us? When somebody offers us something of great value, shouldn't we embrace it? Thinking back to my initial joke, when God offers us the opportunity to serve him with his many gifts... What do we see? Do we see the worthiness of the giver and the worth of his gift? Or do we preoccupy ourselves with the fear and suspicion that there might be alligators in the swimming pool?
What will it take for us to get swimming, are we ready to be hungry for what God wants? Or will it take a sneaky shove in the back?

Essentially though, there are three things that I'd like us to take from this morning's reading:

1. The promise of the Holy Spirit is for everyone who follows Christ. Whether you are young or old man or woman, high church or low church, rich or poor, ordained or laity. The passage that Peter quoted in our reading today says that God pours out his Spirit on ALL people.

2. The Holy Spirit meets each of us and speaks to us where we are at individually. All the Jews in Jerusalem that day could speak Hebrew and Greek, and yet God chose to publicly address them in their local language in a manner that was personal to each of them. The church is one body, but every part of it matters and never think for s moment that God doesn't care about your individual needs.

3. The Spirit is given that we may make God's presence known to a world that needs his love, forgiveness and direction. So that as verse 21 tell us, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. God will in grace respond to all who call. But how shall they call if they have never heard the gracious invitation of His word? We must go.

Finally I wanted to give an example of how being filled with the Spirit does not mean losing who we are as individuals... and that we don't have to be afraid of the good things God gives:
Imagine you had two identical bath sponges. If you took one of them and saturated it with water, its properties and internal nature would change. It's heavier, it's wetter but essentially it is still roughly the same shape. It is still a sponge just like its dry counterpart.

So it is with the Holy Spirit. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are still the same individual. We are till the same person, but we carry something life giving that has changed our properties and our condition. When you look at a sponge filled with water you cannot tell where the sponge ends and the water begins.

When people look to us and scrutinise our way of life and responses to their questions, let us hope to be the kind of Christian where an observer cannot tell where the person ends and God begins.

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