Scripture – Acts 2:1-21
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Have you ever decided to take an action because you felt God encouraged you to do it? Was there a time when you felt God urging you to stop a destructive behavior? Did it ever seem as if God led you to a particular person who could help you? Have you felt that God inspired you to contribute to an important cause or pick up a hammer for Habitat? Was there a time in your life when God kept reminding you of a person you needed to forgive?
Last week while I was having lunch with a friend, he asked me how I became involved with the Peace Drums project, to bring Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth together in a steel drum band. I told him that God tugged at me. When I first felt the tug, I protested, "I don't have time for that right now. How can I add one more thing to my plate?" It became a tug of war. I was stubborn. My will against God's will. But God did not let up until I surrendered.
I had no striking vision, nor did I hear an audible voice. That is why I reached for metaphorical language to explain what my experience. I felt God tugged at me. I could have just as easily said God whispered to me or, perhaps better, God leaned on me. There are various ways to speak of the experience we have when we believe God is calling us to do something specific. These experiences can happen in subtle ways that lead us down a new branch of the path we have been traveling. However, it can also be a dramatic, life-altering event that opens new vistas and leads us in a totally new direction.
This second way is what is described in today's passage from the Acts of the Apostles. Luke, who wrote a two volume set of early Christianity, consisting of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, paints the scene for us. The setting is a house in Jerusalem where followers of Jesus have gathered. It is 50 days after Passover, and thus, about 50 days after Jesus' resurrection. The disciples of Jesus are gathered together to observe a Jewish festival called Pentecost. Initially, this day was a harvest festival, but by the first century, it had become the day to remember God giving the law to Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. Keep in mind that at this point, all the followers of Jesus are Jews who are still worshiping in the synagogue and observing Jewish rituals and holy days. What distinguished them from other Jews is that they believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.
Jerusalem is a hostile place for them. They are living under the occupation of the Roman army and they acknowledge that Jesus, not the Emperor, is the Son of God. Their leader was executed for this and so one suspects they were trying to keep a very low profile.
Their master is no longer with them, so they are very likely to determine what next. Should they remain together or should they go their separate ways? Should they head back to the Sea of Galilee and pick up their fishing nets?
Luke writes that the disciples are together in a house and at nine in the morning God's Spirit sweeps over them. A sound like the violent wind of a tornado or hurricane fills the house. Attempting to describe a mystical event when God's Spirit was palpable, he says, "Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with God's Spirit and began to speak in other languages."
They must have made quite a ruckus because others heard them and a crowd gathered. Jews from a number of different countries came near, but could not make sense of this ecstatic moment. Some were baffled by the euphoria, but the cynical ones chalked it up to morning cocktails.
However, the disciples were not slurring their speech nor babbling incoherently. They were speaking in languages other than their native tongues of Hebrew and Aramaic. They were speaking in the native tongues of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and a host of others.
Peter jumped up and spoke in an ear-splitting voice to defend them: "No one has been drinking! This is not alcohol talking, it is God's Spirit!" Each of the disciples felt a stirring in his soul and heard God calling him to continue the ministry that Jesus initiated. Each knew it was dangerous work that could land them on a cross, but God's Spirit gave them the courage and determination to forge ahead despite the risk.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Pentecost moment came in the 1930s. He was a visiting professor in the United States and could have remained here in safety. But the news reports coming out of his native land gnawed at his conscience. He felt God's Spirit calling him back to Germany to fight the evil that was emerging.
I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching in places like Selma and Memphis despite the peril. His Pentecost moment was when God called him to confront the evil of racism.
The Scriptures often speak of God's Spirit. In the very first verse of Genesis, at the beginning of creation when the earth was a formless void, the text says that the wind of God or the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word "ruach" can be translated "wind" or "spirit."
As a child, I pictured God as a powerful man in the sky who could see everything happening on earth. When I grew older and learned about the incomprehensible size of the universe, the image of God as a physical being no longer made sense. But picturing God as Spirit works for me.
Spirit, like the air we breathe or like radio waves that can be all around us and even penetrate physical objects, can be everywhere. Indeed, the Scriptures declare that God permeates every crevice of creation. Psalm 139 sings to God, "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me." The psalm declares that the sacred presence is everywhere.
Of course, simply because God is everywhere does not mean that God is perceived in all places. There are cruel, dark places where human beings fail to recognize God and refuse to enact justice and mercy. However, there is no city, no country, no planet, no galaxy, no place in the cosmos where God is absent.
If God is over, under and around us, is God also IN us?
Think about guilt. When we feel guilty for doing something we should not have done, or failing to do something we should have done, is it a psychological response based on breaking a rule drummed into us as a child? Or, is it God's Spirit letting us know that we have erred so that we can make amends? The therapeutic model dominates our secular culture and declares that guilt is the result of a voice in our subconscious planted there by a parent when we were young. But, could it be that God plants within us, or whispers in our depths, what is right and what is wrong?
When a young woman graduating from medical school decides to go to Haiti to provide medical treatment to the desperately poor, many of us believe her when she says she feels God calling her to use her gifts to heal people in need. But what do we think when a TV preacher says that God told him to burn the Koran?
A pastor in a downtown church in a large city said that a disheveled man approached him in the church lobby and said that God had told him that the pastor was to give him $20. The pastor responded that the Spirit was whispering something different to him. He was being instructed not to give him cash, but a metro card.1
How do we know if it is the Divine Spirit speaking or the selfish ego or something else?
Many have claimed divine sanction for going to war. Was it really at God's urging or was it a fearful and destructive spirit that prompted the call to kill? How do we discern God's voice in the midst of competing voices?
Of course, we can never be certain that we have discerned God's Spirit correctly. However, as people of faith, we have a checklist against which we can examine our thoughts and feelings so that we can better perceive which promptings are God-sent and which are not.
The Scriptures teach that God created the world and called it good. Further, God created human beings in God's image. Through the prophets, God commanded the people to treat one another fairly – do not steal, kill, covet, and so on – and God was especially upset when society did not care for its most vulnerable. So, part of the checklist is that an action should be just and merciful.
Jesus reinforced these basic criteria of justice and mercy and gave us simple tools for determining whether an intuition is the Spirit of God or something else. He said to treat others the way you want to be treated and to love others as you love yourself.
The Apostle Paul states what can be inferred from the teachings of Jesus. He says that our actions should be aimed at the common good.
When we are trying to do what we think God wants us to do, it can be very helpful to run it past three questions. Imagine this like a gauntlet; unless we clear all three obstacles, we had better reconsider. First, is it fair or is it weighted in favor of some and to the detriment of others?
Second, is it loving or is it at cross purposes with the best interest of others? Third, will it enhance the common good or will it only reward me and mine? While it is often difficult to know if God is tugging at you, if it passes these criteria, there is a good possibility that God is urging you to act in a specific way.
I doubt that God wants us to wait for a violent wind to reverberate through our sanctuary prompting us to speak in Swahili and Portuguese and Thai. But could God be whispering in the depths of your soul to take action?
God's Spirit urges some to visit people who are ill or homebound. God's Spirit beckons some to feed the hungry or house the homeless. God's Spirit reminds some to drop a note to someone who is ill. God's Spirit challenges some to advocate for outsiders and change unjust laws. God Spirit woos some to mentor a child. God Spirit encourages some to march for peace.
Some have their souls seared by a news story. They read of the suffering of others and are touched by the pain. They feel God whispering, "You can do something about this. You can respond."
Is God tugging at you?
Prayers of the People – Gregory Knox Jones
Gracious God, your sacred presence runs throughout your vast creation. Whether we drill deep within the earth, rocket to a faraway galaxy or withdraw into ourselves, we cannot flee from your presence. You are always above us, below us, around us and within us.
We know it is the same with your grace and your mercy. They are ever present. When we are tempted by darkness to live in destructive ways, you do not abandon us. When tragedy strikes and we cannot sense your presence, you continue to walk beside us. Even when we run knowingly down the path to hell, you show us a way out. God, we give thanks that even when we reject you, you do not reject us. You are with us always and continue to seek the best for us.
Loving God, in the twists and turns of our lives, help us to discern your spirit invading our minds, whispering to our souls and tugging at our hearts. You see the best possibilities before us – the things that will bring us joy, that will bring us meaning, that will bring us hope. Help us to become more receptive to the call of your Spirit, so that we may embrace the abundant lives you want us to live.
God, we are also mindful that tomorrow is Memorial Day, and so we pause this morning to remember those whose time on earth was brief because they died in military service to our country. We are deeply grateful for those who paid the ultimate price while serving our nation, and we are mindful that justice and freedom can be a struggle not only to secure, but also to preserve. Prompt us to remember the sacrifices of the men and women in uniform and to be inspired by their commitment and courage. May we never forget those who gave their lives in order that we may continue to enjoy the blessings of liberty.
God, there are times when war becomes the least bad alternative and the very last resort, but we ask your forgiveness for not finding alternative ways to settle our differences. Guide the leaders of our world to respond to provocations with intelligence rather than impulse, and grant them the steadfast courage to attempt the difficult path of diplomacy rather than giving in too quickly to voices that cry for bombs and blood. Give all people who wield political power constant reminders that they are called to serve the people with truth and justice, and to work for a world where all may live together in peace.
And now, we pray the prayer that the Prince of Peace taught us to pray together, saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven..."
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