God Is Still Speaking (Pentecost)

May 30, 2004



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Pentecost 2004: God is Still Speaking (5/30/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

The passage you heard read from the lectern this morning contains the words of the Apostle Peter as he delivers his first sermon, seven weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus. You heard only a small part of the sermon, but we know it was amazingly effective, since the Bible tells us that about three thousand people became followers of Jesus Christ on that day. It wasn’t Peter’s sermon alone, however, that caused this massive change in people’s hearts. It was what they witnessed prior to the sermon that set the stage for their conversion.

Let’s set the scene. The people of the ancient world held periodic celebrations over the course of the year, and many civilizations celebrated the first harvest—that time of the year when the spring’s first plantings started to bear fruit. The Jews called this the Feast of Weeks, which celebrated the first fruits of the wheat harvest. This festival became known as Pentecost, a word that is derived from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth,” because it was about 50 days after the first planting that the first harvest was possible.

There were three mandatory Jewish celebrations each year: Passover, the Festival of Tabernacles, and Pentecost. All faithful Jews were supposed to make every attempt to go to Jerusalem for these celebrations, and that is why Peter had a very large crowd for his first sermon. This was only seven weeks after the first Easter, and the apostles were still in Jerusalem. They were no doubt trying to make sense of all that had happened over the past year, as they had followed Jesus around the northern region of Galilee, and then traveled south, where only two months ago they had entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. A few days later Jesus was killed. A few days after that they witnessed the mystery of the first Easter. And then, for seven weeks, they sort of hid out in Jerusalem, trying to make sense of things. Then Jews from all over the world descended on Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost.

Listen to the story, as written by Luke in the Book of Acts:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes (meeds), Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia (kap-uh-DOH-she-uh), Pontus and Asia, Phrygia (FREE-jee-uh) and Pamphylia (pam-FILL-ee-uh), Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene (sigh-REEN-uh), and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Peter’s sermon continues, and the result is the birth of the church. Christians have adopted Pentecost as one of our most important religious holidays, because Pentecost is indeed the birthday of the Christian church. And yet many of us in mainline congregations try to ignore Pentecost. Why? Because it is all about the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a pretty confusing part of the Christian faith.

Christians tend to think of God in three ways—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We should be careful about thinking we have defined the nature of God when we think of this Trinity. There is no more complicated idea in all of Christianity than the Trinity. Gregory of Nyssa (NICE-uh) was one of the early church fathers who spent a lot of time thinking about the Trinity, and he had a wonderful insight. Gregory of Nyssa recognized that it is impossible to conceive of God—the God that can be spoken of is not really God. He said that it is best to think of the Trinity as a gift from God that enables the human mind to think about God. God is inconceivable. The Trinity is a way we human beings can sort of envision that which cannot really be envisioned. But we should be very cautious about pretending we have defined God, or figured out God, when we say we believe in the Trinity.

I remind myself of Gregory of Nyssa’s insight every time I look over all my theology books that contain thousand of pages dedicated to explaining the Trinity. I think it is best to keep it simple. God is the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the universe. Fair enough. Let’s move on. But before we do, we should give a little thought to the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is an important way of thinking about God. No need to over-analyze it. We can imagine God as the Creator, but we can’t really envision what that God would look like. We can imagine God as the Redeemer made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus was a man who lived 2000 years ago. We can get our minds around Jesus, but we can’t touch him. Our only point of contact with God is that Spirit within us that binds each of us to God and to one another. And that is the Holy Spirit.

So why do so many of us in the modern church sort of turn up our noses when people start talking about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit? Probably because of that relatively recent Christian movement called Pentecostalism. These are the Holy Rollers! These folks don’t worship quite like you and me. We like to quiet ourselves, and pause in silence, hoping God will fill those quiet moments. Pentecostals jump up and down and clap their hands and shout out loud, dancing down the aisle of the church.

Strangest of all, Pentecostals are the people who speak in tongues. In fact, that’s why they are called Pentecostals, because just as the apostles spoke in strange languages at Pentecost a few thousand years ago, modern Pentecostals are known to occasionally speak in strange tongues.

Personally, I appreciate the fact there are hundreds of denominations, and a wide variety of worship styles. And I think the Pentecostal style of worship is great—it’s just not for me. As for the speaking in tongues, I’ve known people who insist they have been around faithful worshippers who started speaking in strange, ancient languages, and I chalk that up to one of the many mysteries I don’t understand. I think it’s odd, because it is sort of the opposite of what happened at that first Pentecost. Back then, God caused the apostles to speak in strange languages for a reason; so they would be understood. The people who witnessed this did not speak Aramaic like the apostles, so God caused the apostles to speak in all those foreign languages so people from foreign lands would hear and understand the gospel. Today when people speak in tongues, they speak in such a way that people cannot understand what they say. Again, it makes no sense to me, but that only means I can file the speaking in tongues away with countless other things that make no sense to me.

Dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues, and spontaneous shouts of joy aside, I think the modern church needs to reclaim the Holy Spirit. Most Christians, myself included, believe the Bible is inspired by God. What does that mean? Well, not that God reached down a mighty hand and scratched the words of the Bible across those ancient parchments; and not that the writers of the Bible fell into some sort of trance, and God used their hands to perfectly channel divine thoughts onto paper.

For me, thinking the Bible is inspired by God means that people who were truly surrendered to God made every attempt to open themselves to the Holy Spirit of God, and in their very inspired but very human way, they wrote from their hearts what they believed to be the truth.

Many people would ask, “Why doesn’t God do that any more? When was it, exactly, that God decided to quit speaking to people through the Holy Spirit?” And the answer, I believe, is that God does indeed still speak to people through the Holy Spirit. In fact, that is the slogan of the denomination through which I am ordained. The United Church of Christ’s current slogan is, “God is still speaking.”

Okay, I admit that sounds a little scary at first glance. If I tell you that God is still speaking, and then imply that God is speaking directly to me, that sort of puts and end to further discussion. And I do know preachers who think that way, although none who are in the United Church. I remember back in seminary when one of my friends told me his congregation was giving him an awfully tough time. He was becoming more and more convinced that he had the gospel all figured out, and more and more convinced that his congregation was as bunch of vile sinners.

He told me the situation had caused him a great deal of angst until he came to understand that what he was preaching—what he was telling people from the pulpit—was indeed the Word of God. And the previous week, when a couple of parishioners approached him after the service to take issue with something he had said in his sermon, he told them, “Hey, I’m preaching God’s Word. If you don’t’ like what I say, take it up with God.”

At first I thought he was joking; but he wasn’t! He had convinced himself that the Holy Spirit of God was speaking through him with such clarity that his words should not be called into question. I don’t know…I have a feeling that attitude wouldn’t fly around this place. And thank God for that! My friend missed an important point. God is still speaking, but none of us are capable of conveying God’s word infallibly. No matter how hard we try, and no matter how devoted we are to our faith, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, even on our very best days.

So what does it mean to say God is still speaking? Those of us who believe God is still speaking but also accept how ridiculous it would be to think God is speaking through us alone in a unique way, hear God speaking to humanity in two ways: through the created world, which bears the image of its Creator; and through prayer.

I’ve told you before that Karl Barth, often regarded as the greatest 20th Century theologian, did not believe we could learn anything about God by looking at the world around us. He said the only thing we learn about God by looking at nature is that big gods eat little gods. And it is easy to see why he felt that way. Nature can look pretty cold, with survival of the fittest, and the “eat or be eaten” nature of life in the wild.

Barth was a firm believer that the world is fallen, human beings are depraved, and the only point of contact between God and humanity is The Holy Spirit of God when it has been placed in a person’s heart by Jesus Christ.

But I think Barth was a bit too cynical about creation. Almost 500 years ago, John Calvin, the great reformer, observed that the wonder of God is etched upon creation. Creation is not God; but it is like a mirror that reflects God’s glory. That makes a lot of sense to me, and I believe God speaks to us through creation.

When I sit quietly and watch a Kansas sunrise, I hear God speaking to me. God isn’t telling me what to say from the pulpit; God is whispering at the very center of my being that life is a miraculous and precious gift, and we should cherish every second of it. When I look out at your faces on Sunday morning; when I hear you saying the Lord’s Prayer together; when I hear you singing the benediction response; I hear God speaking to me through your voices just a surely as God spoke to the inspired people who authored the Bible. God is still speaking. Through the created world, God is still speaking.

But there is a second way God continues to speak to us, and that is through prayer. I think the mistake most of us make when we pray is that we decide we need to let God know something. In prayer we tell God what we need, or what we hope for, and there is nothing wrong with that. I’m certain God is always thrilled to hear from us. But we should spend at least as much time in prayer listening as we do talking. Henry Nouwen said the whole purpose of prayer is to hold open some empty space inside ourselves so God has a place to fill. We are so full of thoughts and words and emotions that there is no place left for God to touch. Prayer is the art of being still, opening our hearts, and waiting—waiting for a word from God.

Most people who are wiling to spend some time in this type of prayer will tell us that God is indeed still speaking. God speaks softly, and gently, and without words. But God speaks directly to the heart that is open enough to listen for God’s word. God speaks to us not only through the glory of creation, but also through the Holy Spirit.

Oh, this can be dangerous stuff. Really! Because the person who is confident he or she is hearing directly from God can be a threat to the rest of us, especially if that person is deluded. My goodness, we have people all over the world killing one another, shooting people, strapping bombs to themselves, and dropping bombs from airplanes, all convinced they are doing what God is telling them to do.

But honestly, I think these are the folks who are spending too much prayer time talking to God and not enough prayer time listening for God. Because God is still speaking. We just aren’t listening.

Can you imagine what would happen if for just one hour, every one of us—every child of God in this whole world—would be quiet, and listen, and pray. Seriously, I think we would hear it. We would hear the voice of God. What a day that would be! We’d have to give it a name. I suppose we could call it…Pentecost.