“Empowered by the Spirit”
Rev. Jeff Bacon
May 31, 2020
Let’s open our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, may we receive your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
A farmer went to a local Psychiatrist, explaining that his brother thought that he was a hen. “Really?” said the Psychiatrist, “and how long has your brother had these feelings of being a hen?” “About four months,” the farmer responded. “Four months!” exclaimed the Psychiatrist, “Why didn’t you bring this to my attention sooner?” “To tell you the truth, Doctor,” the farmer replied, “we needed the eggs.”
Who is misunderstood, or who is seeing things, or who is crazy, depends on one’s personal perspective. The faithful people gathered at Pentecost were misunderstood because they were seeing and hearing some very unusual things: sound like the rush of a violent wind; and divided tongues as of fire appearing and resting on each of them. And they were speaking in foreign languages that the simple Galilean farmers and fishermen could not possibly have known. Pentecost was powerful – and easily misunderstood
Pentecost literally means “the fiftieth day” and it refers to a day-long harvest festival commonly known as the “Feast of Weeks” that comes fifty days after Passover. Pentecost is one of three great Jewish pilgrimage feasts when all of the people of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the goodness of God. It’s now also one of three big Christian celebrations: Christmas for the birth of Jesus; Easter for the death and resurrection of Christ; and Pentecost for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian church. It’s a celebration of the goodness of God and God’s faithfulness. But on that first Pentecost, many of the people misunderstood what was happening. Some thought the disciples had been drinking. Some couldn’t see the goodness of God or God’s faithfulness. Something truly awesome, but confusing, was happening.
Pastor and author John Ortberg tells of an evening when he was walking with some friends in Newport Beach, California. As they walked, they passed one of the local bars just as a fight spilled out onto the street, like a scene from the old wild west. As they watched, three men were beating a single opponent, who was bleeding quite badly.
They realized they had to do something, even though they didn’t have a lot of experience in this sort of thing; in fact, Ortberg writes that breaking up drunken brawls was not a strong area of spiritual passion or competence for any of them. In spite of that, they went over to speak to the aggressors, feeling pretty certain that once they intervened, they would become the next victims.
But as they began to warn the men to break it up, suddenly the thugs looked up with fear in their eyes, let their victim go, and turned to walk away. At that point Ortberg realized that the men had actually been looking over his shoulder, so he turned around and saw what he describes as one of the biggest men he had ever seen. Ortberg writes, “He stood 6 foot 7 and weighed about 250 pounds or so, with perhaps 2 percent body fat. If Hercules had married Xena, the warrior princess, this could have been their child.” The big man didn’t say a word. He just stood there with muscles bulging, looking as if he hoped they would try to take him on. He was a bouncer at the bar, and Ortberg writes that this was “an area of massive, breathtaking competence for him … breaking up fights was his spiritual gift.”
In that moment when he realized what had happened, John Ortberg’s attitude was transformed. He was released from anxiety and fear. He was filled with boldness and confidence. “You’d better not let us catch you hanging around here again!” he called out after the retreating thugs. Ortberg now realized that he was not alone. The big bouncer had his back. Someone was standing with him who was totally capable of dealing with the situation. This is what happened at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled those gathered, and then Peter, filled with heavenly confidence, raises his voice and addresses the crowd.
Many of the people gathered watched with awe and wonder and some watched with cynicism. Many of the people were filled with the Holy Spirit; Peter’s exhortation to the crowds marks the first church sermon; and later that day about three thousand people were baptized. It’s still the same at our services today: we invoke the Holy Spirit, we read scripture, we sing hymns, we pray, and we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The faithful followers of Jesus gathered at Pentecost would have known the passage from Numbers that Lorraine read this morning; how God took some of God’s Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the 70 community elders. They would have also known about Eldad and Medad who received the Holy Spirit even though they were back at the camp and not among the elders. Moses is pleased that God’s Spirit is upon them even though there are misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit: back then, and at the time of Jesus, and now.
Daniel Taylor, in his book Letters to My Children recounts a story of when he was in the sixth grade. At his school, the children were required to take square dancing lessons. The teacher would line up the boys by the door at the back of the classroom and they were asked one at a time to pick one of the girls seated in the classroom to be their partner. Each pair would then walk to the cafeteria where the lessons were held. It must have been an awful process for the boys and for the girls. Perhaps you can remember a similar class in your public-school days – I can.
One girl, Mary, who sat up at the front on the right-hand side of the class, was always picked last. Because of a childhood illness, one of her arms was drawn up and she had a bad leg. She wasn’t very pretty, she wasn’t very smart, and she was often picked on. One day, Miss Owens, the assistant teacher in Dan’s class and a member of the church that his family attended, came up to Dan and said, “Dan, the next time we have square dancing, I want you to choose Mary.” Dan sure didn’t want to choose Mary, but Miss Owens said that it was what a Christian should do. It was the kind of thing Jesus would have done.
On the day of their next dance class, Dan hoped for the first time that he would be the last boy in line to choose a girl and would be able to choose Mary by default. But it wasn’t to be. On that day, the teacher, Mr. Jenkins put Dan first in line to choose a partner. Dan says “The faces of the girls were turned toward me, some smiling. I looked at Mary and saw that she was only half-turned to the back of the room, her face staring down at her desk. Mr. Jenkins said, ‘Okay, Dan – choose your partner!’” Dan remembers feeling very far away and heard his voice say, “I choose Mary.”
Dan recounts, “I still see her expression, undimmed in my memory. She lifted her head, and on her face, reddened with pleasure and surprise and embarrassment all at once, was the most genuine look of delight and even pride that I have ever seen, before or since.” Dan says “It was so pure that I had to look away because I knew I didn’t deserve it.” Mary came and took his arm as they had been instructed, and she walked beside him like a princess, bad leg and arm and all. Dan felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and he realized in that moment that he was the one who had just been chosen and he was humbled, awed and deeply touched.
Dan was filled with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps with a sound in his head like the rush of a violent wind and with heat like that of flames resting upon him that caused him to sweat. I suspect that Dan was not the only person to receive the Holy Spirit that day. Mary for one, but also Dan’s teachers and many of the other girls and boys, who witnessed God’s grace and were filled with the Holy Spirit.
This story is from many years ago. But in the retelling of Dan picking Mary to be his square-dancing partner, the Holy Spirit continues to move freely among us. Have you experienced the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Teacher, the Comforter moving in you today? Perhaps a flash of emotion like the rush of a violent wind and heat and tingles like divided tongues as of fire resting upon each of us. We are blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.