SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, JUNE 12, 2011, THE DAY OF PENTECOST (WHITSUNDAY)

It’s hard to believe, but we are rapidly coming to the end of our program year here at the Advent, about to move into the long green season of summer. Looking back, there has been a remarkable amount of activity here since last September. For one thing, we walked through almost the whole OT in our adult Christian formation series, and one of the things we talked about early on is that there is a sweep to scripture and a shape to history as revealed in the bible. The bible is one great story about the activity of God in the world, and it’s a story in four acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. Keep those in the back of your mind because we’ll come back to them later.

We have also come a long way in the Christian year – we began with Advent and the birth of Jesus at Christmas, to Epiphany, through Lent to Jesus’ death in Holy Week, the resurrection on the Great Feast of Easter, then Ascension, all the way to today. Today is a very special day in the life of our church because several of our children will be making their first communions in a few moments. And it’s a very special day in the life of the church as a whole because, more than being just another chance for us to process around the church and dress up in pretty red vestments, today ranks, after Easter, as the second greatest festival in the church.[1] On Pentecost, we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church, which is why John Stott says today is so important:

Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christlikeness of character apart from his fruit, and no effective witness without his power. As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead.[2]

Without this day, the church is left with what Fr. Eric described in his Ascension Day sermon as a “long-distance relationship” with God. But at Pentecost, everything changed. The word pentakosta just means the “fiftieth day,” the Greek name for the OT Jewish Feast of Weeks that fell fifty days after Passover. This festival (Ex. 20.16f; Lev. 23.9f) marked the end of the grain season, and later came to be regarded both by Jews and Christians as a commemoration of God giving Moses the Law on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20,[3] but in Jesus’ hands and in the wake of his ministry on Earth, the day is transformed into a celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit and of the events we read about today in Acts 2. Today I want to do two things: Look a little more deeply at the first Pentecost described in Acts 2, and then look for application for our lives.

First, let’s drill down a little bit and look closely at Pentecost, and because (to my dismay and your delight) we don’t preach 30-minute sermons here at the Advent, we only have time to look at one of the phenomena the disciples experienced that day: The sound. When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. (Acts 2.1-2) Some have dubbed this the “Year of the Tornado” because of the extraordinary amount and destructiveness of tornadic activity. This week I saw pictures on the internet from the tornado that struck southwestern Mass on June 1, and the path of that storm, which was half a mile across at its widest point, is actually visible from outer space.[4] If you’ve ever talked to anyone who has been in a tornado, they all describe it the same way – by the sound. “It sounded like a freight train.” It doesn’t appear that the disciples actually felt wind, but they heard that sound, and Stott says it was a symbol of God’s power.[5] After all, isn’t that what the disciples were waiting for in the first place? Jesus had ordered them to wait in Jerusalem and promised “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses . . . .” (Acts 1.4, 8) So when this sound like a tornado comes crashing in on them, it was a symbol of the power they were receiving from God.

Now go ask a bunch of Christians what sound they most associate with God, and I’ll bet you they won’t say “tornado.” Most folks say when God speaks to us, he whispers. Personally, I think that’s because of one story in the book 1 Kings, a story where the prophet Elijah is in a cave on Mt. Horeb when God says he is about to pass by. A great storm blows up, but God was not in the storm. An earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Even fire, but God was not in the fire. Then, to quote the classic translation in the KJV, “after the fire a still small voice,” and Elijah went and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19.12) A great story, one of my favorite parts of the whole bible. The only problem: That’s probably not what happened. Jeff Niehaus, a Hebrew scholar and one of my professors at Gordon-Conwell, begs to differ with that translation.

When Moses and Israel encountered Yahweh, he came in a dark cloud with “thunderous sounds,” such that the mountain trembled – as did the people! Now, however, Elijah meets God and hears, according to the traditional translations, “a still small voice” or a “gentle whisper.” What is wrong with this picture? Whenever Yahweh appears in storm theophany in the OT, the Hebrew word qol is properly and logically translated “thunder,” “thunderous voice,” or the like. The translation in 1 Kgs 19:12 should be the same . . . . So, instead of a “still, small voice,” Elijah hears a “roaring, crushing sound.” Or, I would suggest, a “roaring, crushing, thunderous voice.”[6]

Why am I making such a big deal about this? It’s because our common conception of a God who speaks in whispers (which he sometimes does, by the way), a God with impeccable manners who would never deign to get in our way or cross up our plans, is inaccurate and, quite simply, dangerous. Annie Dillard has a great quote in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[7]

Dillard’s God, the God of Pentecost, is not a tame God. He roars more than he whispers. He is a God of raw power who has a habit or turning over the tables in our temples. He’s not a cuddly deity, but a God of thunder and fire who will stop at nothing to make his people holy and will never, ever quit until he puts our world and the whole universe back the way he wants it to be.

And that’s the last point – the application. The power the disciples experienced at Pentecost, that’s your power. In today’s gospel, Jesus told Philip and the other disciples: [T]ruly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14.12-14) Remember I told you to keep in mind what we learned in Entr’acte this year – the story of the bible is Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. God created; we fell into sin; Jesus accomplished our redemption; and now he is restoring all things. That last part – restoring all things – that is our work, and the good news is that we all have within us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to do God’s work in the world.

So why are we so dainty about it? Jesus had been healing the lame, feeding the hungry, restoring sight to the blind, and then he says “You’ll do all that and more because I’m going to the Father and putting my Spirit inside you.” So when our friends are sick, don’t just say “Oh, what a shame” and then pray a halfhearted prayer without really expecting God to do anything about it. Don’t accept injustice or hunger or homelessness or human trafficking or slavery to sin lying down. Get mad; pray to the God who can do something about it; and remember the African proverb: When you pray, move your feet. The business of restoring the whole creation is now our work, and the power of God, the power of Pentecost, is right there if we’ll use it.

What are we waiting for?

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] “Whitsunday,” in The Oxford Dict. Of the Christian Church, 3d ed. rev’d, F. L. Cross ed. (Oxford: Univ. Press, 2005): 1750.

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990): 60.

[3] “Weeks, Feast of,” in The Oxford Dict. Of the Christian Church, 3d ed. Rev’d, F. L. Cross ed. (Oxford: Univ. Press, 2005): 1736.

[4] “Massachusetts Tornado Left a Track Visible from Space,” http://earthsky.org/earth/massachusetts-tornado-left-a-track-visible-from-space (last visited 10 June 2011).

[5] Stott, 63.

[6] Jeffrey J. Niehaus in Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew: Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001): 412-13.  This is a case where either translation could be appropriate, but the context does favor of the newer translation, in my opinion.  In this sermon, however, my point is less a grammatical/linguistic one than a theological one about the problem with assuming God always whispers and never roars.

[7] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper Collins, 1982): 45.