As I look around, I’ve got to say, you all look really good this morning. Really, you do. You look good. But now, even though you all look good, as I look around this morning here in this congregation, I see some who are tired, some who are angry, who are anxious. I see some who are concerned for friends and loved ones they left at home to come here this morning, others who are concerned for friends and loved ones who have traveled far from here.
I see some who are looking forward to a life ahead, in this season of graduations. Some are looking back over many years, wondering where the time went. A few of us may remember when this sanctuary was full, when the halls of the church rang with voices of children: many, many children. Some of us remember battlefields of World War 2, of Korea, of Vietnam, possibly of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These days we see the footage on the evening news, of children starving by thousands in Syria, others in refugee camps. We hear the reports of police brutality, and we hear reports of others, doing their best to serve and protect, struck down in the line of duty. We see raging fanaticism of crazed terrorists spreading across foreign lands like a plague, and some of us wonder if the same blind rage and divisiveness might be taking over our own politics.
Day by day, we try to make sense of these thing in our world, and we might well wonder, “What does this world of the Bible have to do with the day-to-day world we live in? And where is this God we hear tell of in our Bibles and in church, when these things are happening all around us — things that make us fearful. Thing that make our hearts break. Where is God in all of this?”
But Pentecost. Now this is a story we hear maybe once a year, and only really in church, so it may be a little less familiar. I was teaching third graders in Sunday School class a few years ago, and we were discussing Pentecost. None of them knew what Pentecost was, so I told them that Pentecost was when the people of the church were all sitting in a group one day, and the Holy Spirit landed on them likes tongues of fire on their heads. Then, I told them, all the people began to speak the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, in all the languages of the world. One little girl looked at me with astonishment, her eyes wide open. And she finally said, “Gosh, I must have been absent that Sunday.” We know the stories of the world. But maybe you missed church that day of Pentecost. That Acts, chapter 2 day.
If I’m honest with myself, hearing of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Day of Pentecost, I feel like that little girl. Our life together is usually so tame. Most Sundays if we miss church we can depend on it’s still being pretty much the same the next week. We must have missed church the Sunday all that Pentecost happened.
So let me tell you a little about Pentecost. The first Pentecost happened exactly fifty days after a man named Jesus was beaten and nailed to a cross and left for dead by a western imperial power occupying a middle-eastern land. As it happens, exactly fifty days after that fateful miscarriage of justice a few of his followers were hiding out in a house in the city. They were tired. They were reeling from the betrayal of Judas, one of their own. Some of them, no doubt feeling the sting of that betrayal, were angry. They had been in hiding ever since the crucifixion of Jesus, laying low, trying to keep below the radar of the authorities, for fear of being caught and accused of being members of the insurgency. They were anxious. They were in Jerusalem, but most of them had families back home back in Galilee. They had their lives ahead of them and wondered what kind of career they could have now that they had cast their lot with Jesus and he was gone. No doubt, they remembered those happier times in much the same way we remember the heyday of this church.
They remembered when Jesus welcomed the children and their voices rang through the homes and villages where they ministered and worshipped – but now, now those memories haunted them. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they had dared to dream a dream and dared to hope in the defeat those dark forces of fear and hatred and despair, forces that had consumed their country and had killed their parents and were even now cutting off their children’s future. And now locked up in their room, they were alone, locked in their house consumed by the same fear and despair they had once hoped to overcome. That was how that first day of Pentecost began.
In their Pentecost world and ours, people are tired, people are angry, people are anxious, people are filled with memories of children that haunt them, with fear, with despair and with hatred. In there world and in ours, there was a longing to believe again in the promise of love and hope. In their Pentecost world and in ours, people wonder what the world is coming to and what happened to the country they thought they knew and loved. This world of ours and the world of the Bible — turns out they are the same world.
But then on that Pentecost day, the Spirit of God came in a new way. God did something that God had not done before, something completely new. The wind, the fire, the ability to speak so many different languages: none of this is what the disciples gathered together there had expected. If you had asked them before it happened, most of them would have probably shied away from it in fear or skepticism. They likely would have stuck to the old familiar ways of doing things if they had been given the choice. Rushing wind and tongues of fire! Way too radical! “We’ve never done it that way before!” are the seven last words of a dying church. But that is exactly what those first disciples would have said that morning of Pentecost. How do I know? Because the Book of Acts tells me that they were “in the house.”
God had to come into the house. The wind had to fill the house where they were sitting. The disciples were in the house sitting down, when the whole idea about the Pentecost in the tradition they said they loved was that people were supposed to get out of the house and stand in their booths out of doors to wait for God. That Pentecost day, the disciples were fearful, and they were anxious. They were few in number, and they were apparently of the mind that they were not going to do anything but sit around in their house.
But God did not let them just sit there. God sent the Spirit to fill them with the power to go out and turn the world upside down. They received power that day to speak so that everyone could hear and understand that the forces of darkness had met their match in the same Jesus of Nazareth they nailed to the cross. That same Jesus they had left for dead was alive and there was nothing that hatred and fear and despair or imperial power could do about it. And then God gave those fearful despairing disciples the courage and perseverance to go out into the world to begin to prove that the words they spoke were true.
On that day there was a rush of mighty wind, fire, tongues of flame, and the Holy Spirit prevailed. The church came alive again. Those once disheartened disciples moved out, prodded by the Holy Spirit which gave them that which the human spirit could not.
They healed the sick by the power of God. They gave hope to the hopeless, courage to the fearful, strength to the downtrodden. They fed the hungry and clothed the naked. They spoke the truth to power and remained true in the face of temptation. On that day, a day that began in despair and fear, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
So now you know about that first Pentecost. But I reckon you still need to know that Pentecost didn’t end there.
Fifteen hundred years later, the church that began in Acts chapter 2, it was languishing. There was widespread corruption and abuse of power. The church had become wealthy and complacent. Would the movement begun at Pentecost go the way of so many other organizations that mature and die? And then, out of nowhere — out of Rotterdam, a noplace, some nobody, a Dutch theologian by the name of Erasmus wrote a passionate, satirical criticism of the church, and an Augustinian monk in Germany named Martin Luther took it to heart and nailed 95 propositions to the beautiful new mahogany doors of his church — without the Trustees or the Building Committee’s permission! — calling it back to its Acts 2 roots and, thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
Fast forward another three hundred years to eighteenth century England. There, in the midst of the social trauma and displacement of urbanization and the first industrial revolution, amid rampant poverty, where alcoholism was a plague upon the land — there, the church remained far removed from these tragedies — remote, privileged, and cold. Into that world, a no-name priest in the church of England named John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed one night. He began a dramatic revival that swept through England and transformed the hearts of millions. The Wesleyan revival swept across the Atlantic into the new American colonies as well sparking what we know from our High School history books as the Great Awakening. So I ask you, what had strangely warmed John Wesley’s heart that night? The Holy Spirit prevailed.
Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts, a young preacher man named Roger Williams called the colonial establishment at Plymouth to account for its mistreatment of those who dissented from the Calvinist Puritan form of religion. For his impudence, he was banished into exile from Massachusetts, thrown out into the New England winter. He did what any sensible person would do. He went south—to Rhode Island, where he founded the First Baptist Church in America on the principle of the absolute freedom of conscience, and became one of the first to oppose the institution of slavery on the ground of Christian faith. Thus began the foundations of both the Baptist AND the abolitionist movements in America. The Holy Spirit prevailed.
Early 20th century America was not that different from 18th century England. This young country’s burgeoning cities were being taken over, it seemed, by wretched tenements where recently arrived immigrants huddled. There was great poverty and despair. And there was a church that wanted to stay in it’s neo-gothic stone buildings and pretend that none of that existed. Again a young man no one had ever heard of, named Frank Mason North was led — may we say it was the Spirit’s leading? — into the worst of the poverty, an area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen. There, he worked among the people, devising new structures for uplifting the poor, giving them hope. Again, despite all the world’s despair and the complacency of the church, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
In the early 20th century, women, once key leaders of the church, if we’re to believe the New Testament, had been pushed aside as the church fell back into the patterns and mores of the surrounding culture. There were exceptions such as the partnership of William and Catherine Booth who together founded the Salvation Army. But mostly, the gifts of women for leadership in ministry were ignored or repudiated. But then not so far from here, in Glens Falls, the Spirit moved and First Baptist Church was opened for Susan B. Anthony to speak in favor of a woman’s right to vote. It was so controversial that they had to have riot police surrounded the building. We could say that the church was ahead of the times, or a more biblical way to say the same thing would be to say, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
In the 1960’s the church represented the status quo in an America where racial discrimination had been codified and carried the force of law and the implicit sanction of God, when a young preacher with “a little too much education” (so it was said) arrived in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. became for a nation the voice of God calling it to live up to the ideals of freedom, justice and equality upon which it claimed to be founded, and through the blood of the saints, the Jim Crow laws were dismantled, the schools were integrated, lily-white kids from northern towns like Lake George went south to help disenfranchised black brothers and sisters get their voting cards, and Holy Spirit prevailed.
Time and again, in spite of our boundaries, breaking down our walls, throbbing, intruding, flaming, calling forth the nobodies of the world into the greatest causes recorded in our history, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
And right now in our churches, in this very church, time and again, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that when we’ve been cold of heart, slow to move, timid and cowering, the Holy Spirit has prevailed. In our own lives, in those moments when all seems lost, when there seems no way out, no way forward, when we’ve been beaten down, when our backs have been up against the wall—time and again a door opened, a way appeared when there seemed no way, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
Now as we look around and see that the pews are not so full as we remember. We look around and see that the culture is changed. We look around and see that our children and grandchildren don’t come once they’re old enough to drive. We see a church denomination that is often out of touch with the people in the street. We see, by and large, a church living in the glory of its past, while the future is bearing down on us like a freight train, and we are locked — just like those first disciples on that day so long ago were locked — into these old patterns of timid woeful waiting for the end to come, like helpless princess prima-donnas in our sanctified towers thinking we’re helpless. But brothers and sisters, if history is any indication, when we settle into our comfortable melancholy is when we have got to expect that the Holy Spirit is going to blow through here. The Holy Spirit will prevail.
When you’re weary, when you’re down and out, when your on the street and evening falls so hard — but wait! — this isn’t just Simon and Garfunkle — when your car’s out of gas and your paycheck is spent, when you’ve been burned out, washed up, done in and beaten down, friends do not lose hope: the Holy Spirit will prevail.
Listen, friends, this is the gospel. I know of a man named Paul, who was a pastor to a church that was on the rocks. There were fights about all kinds of things going on. You know there’s no fight quite like a church fight. Well, in this church a former Pastor kept meddling in the affairs of the congregation. They were fighting about which group was the most spiritual. They were fighting about which group got to say what’s what in the worship service. They were fighting over who was qualified to teach Sunday school. They were fighting about whether they should have communion once a week or once a month. And on top of all that there was one fellow in the church who was having an affair with his mother-in-law, and some people in the church thought that was OK and others were hesitant to say anything about it because he was one of the major givers. Things were not going well for Pastor Paul in that church.
And then, he wrote, he had a vision of the Holy Spirit. He said,
As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:3–10
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we do not lose hope. We are kept on tiptoes, expectant, eager, sometimes even nervous! For the Holy Spirit that gave birth to the church continues to prod, cajole, and beckon us forward and to call disciples out of our churches and out of our locked up rooms. Just when we get all settled down, comfortable with present arrangements, and our pews bolted down securely to the floor, there comes a rush of mighty wind, or a still small voice, a strangely warmed heart, a brilliant idea, a breath of fresh air, tongues of fire and — say it with me — the Holy Spirit prevails.