Readings: Psalm 104:24-34, Ezekial 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, Romans 8:22-27
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 24th 2015
A group of bewildered disciples are meeting in an upper room in Jerusalem. Jesus had told them after His resurrection that they needed to wait on God and be ready for what was coming next. As they wait on God in prayer, the promise of Jesus, given us in John 15:26 is fulfilled. “When the Advocate (or in some translations 'The Helper') comes, whom I will send to You from the Father, the Spirit of Truth... He will testify on my behalf.”
The room is suddenly flooded with the sounds of wind and images of fire and the disciples become inflamed with a spiritual passion that they had never before experienced. They move out into the streets and begin declaring the wonders of the gospel message in ways that all can understand.
The day of Pentecost marks the birthday of the church. From that day on, that Pentecost day when the Spirit came upon them in a new and powerful way, faithful disciples have sought to press on with the task of declaring God's love to a fragmented and needy world.
It has never been easy. There has always been misunderstanding. There has always been opposition. There has always been conflict. There has always been division. The Spirit comes as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire. You cannot contain the wind. You cannot predict the path of a wind driven fire.
Paul was not with the disciples when the church was born. He had his own personal Pentecost on the road to Damascus. It was just as dramatic and powerful for his life as the Jerusalem Pentecost was for those in the upper room. He too became inflamed with a passion to declare God's love. The task fell to him, through his letters, to attempt explain for the growing church, how the Holy Spirit was at work in the world and in their lives.
In his great theological work, the Book of Romans, Paul includes a passage that speaks of how all creation is infused with a longing for redemption. Such redemption was not just going to happen overnight. The Kingdom of God would come, but their baptism by the Holy Spirit was not the culmination of the process, it was only the beginning. 2000 years later the church still lives within the tension of the kingdom she believes will come and the world as it is. Every generation has its struggles, dreams and challenges.
As individuals we sense that tension within our selves. We understand that God loves us. We celebrate resurrection. Yet often the same old problems haunt us and stifle our ability to be faithful servants of Christ. Discipleship requires more than just going with the flow and enjoying the good times. There has to be a desire to follow wherever the road might lead and to press on with endurance with the hope that, by God's grace, the Holy Spirit will enable us to complete those tasks God is calling us to. Paul mentions two things related to pressing on; Patience and Prayer.
Eugene Petersen in the Message Bible transliterates the first part of our reading from Romans 8 like this: “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. “
We read 8:25 “If we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” It is a lot easier to endure if we have a vision of what can be birthed through the process we are traveling through. That is obvious in the case of a pregnancy. But every great endeavor began as a vision of something previously thought impossible. As an example; the history of flight.
The first commercial flight in history occurred on January 1, 1914, between St. Petersburg and Tampa, flying a total of 23 minutes between the two cities separated by 21 miles of bay waters. The plane, a Benoist 14, maintained a grand altitude of 15 feet across open waters. It was piloted by Tony Jannus, and had one paying passenger, Mr. Abram Pheil, who paid $400, around $5000 in today's currency.
100 years later we think nothing of catching a flight across the country. If you go first class the price is not much different! We take it for granted that travel by air is not only possible, but normal. In fact if ever you are around an airport when flights start being delayed, you observe that patience is a virtue that some sadly lack.
For most of human history flight was inconceivable. A few crazy dreamers persevered. The first transcontinental flight took place on September 17, 1911. Cal Rodgers lifted off from a small airfield in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. In front of him lay a 4000 mile flight, no airports, and no navigation equipment.
Upon takeoff Rodger's plane immediately snagged a tree and crashed to the ground. After making repairs, Rodger's was determined to try it again. Before his journey ended, he would crash land over 15 times and make several visits to various hospitals. By the time he arrived at his destination on the West Coast, Rodger's plane had to be repaired and rebuilt so many times that little of the original craft remained. After 70 stops, numerous injuries, and 86 hours in the air, Rodger's finally reached his destination in Pasadena, California. Next time you are stuck at the airport with a delayed flight, remember Cal Rodgers. He could teach us a thing or to about patience and pressing on!
Nothing great is ever achieved without patience. That algebra task we thought we would never master. That health challenge we thought we could never face. That relationship we thought would never work out. That trip that was on our bucket list. Such things never come to fruition unless we have the patience to press on. It's not about how many times we mess up, but how many times we pick up the pieces and move forward.
Returning to the Message Bible “That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”
But what do we do when our patience is at an end? When we feel we are never going to get there?
Paul says pray.
I have it on the highest authority that science has proved that prayer is beneficial to our well being. I saw that on the 'Today' show, so it has to be true. Matt Lauer said so. Never mind that Scripture has been suggesting as much ever since time began, now it's been on TV we can actually believe it!
For Paul, prayer is co-operating with the Holy Spirit. It is not about getting God to do things that God is reluctant to do. It is not about seeking the impossible. It is finding strength by positioning ourselves in a place where we allow God to help us.
Message Bible. 8:26-27 “ The moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”
It is as though, when our hope is all used up, the Spirit hopes on our behalf. Our groans are caught up with the sighing of all creation. We are sustained by the grace that God offers to us through Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord.
A popular saying in Christian circles is 'Let go and Let God'. Such a phrase never appears in scripture and is open to misinterpretation, but it can apply to our prayer life. We can reach a point when we really do not know what to pray or how to pray. At such times it is OK to say 'I can't do this'.
There's a song I know that contains the lines “Quiet resignation, Hold me or I fall, I don't need any explanation, I just need You, that's all”. Trusting God is easy when we don't have much to trust God for. The rubber meets the road when our only hope is in God's intervention and we are willing to accept whatever God's will may bring our way. It's the kind of prayer that Jesus made in Gethsemane. “Lord, not my will, but thine be done.”
I'm not sure we can fully understand the state of mind of those disciples on that first Pentecost. What a seemingly impossible situation to be in. To have witnessed the unbelievable, the death, resurrection and ascension of their leader, to have come to a position of total belief in all Jesus was and came to do, but not have a clue of how to do it, other than that He had told them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit to come.
What did that mean? How would that work? The answer came as they patiently waited on God in prayer. The boldness came, the words came, the ability to declare God's love and build a community of hope beginning right where they were, suddenly were not a dream but a happening. They had to let go of everything they had previously understood and allow themselves to be embraced by new visions and new possibilities.
How would the gentiles fit into the picture? How should they regard rituals and customs they had observed for centuries? How could they live as citizens of God's Kingdom in the kingdoms of this world? Such insights would only come as they pressed on with the business of being disciples!
Flying didn't happen overnight... and the Kingdom of God will never be seen upon earth as it is in heaven without people prepared to press on with doing those things they believe God is calling them to do. It requires prayer. It requires patience. It requires the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. God can provide safety, strength, security, serenity and service. But we have to, patiently and prayerfully, let go and let God have God's way.
To borrow from a preacher I heard on the radio; “Only God can turn our 'tests' into His testimony, only God can turn our 'mess' into His message to encourage others. Keep your head up to the sky. Press on, press on, press on. Be strong in all you do, be the you God created you to be and, by the great and glorious grace of God, be ready to fly!”
So... 'Happy Birthday Church'. With all the blessings of Pentecost may we each press on in the power of the Holy Spirit towards achieving those things we believe God is calling us to. Amen!
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.