You know those stories, don’t you? Maybe you’re out at the bar or with a group of friends over dinner and someone starts to tell a crazy story. It’s one of those outlandish, improbable stories that could only happen to this one person. “So there we were, on top of the Empire State Building, with a beer in one hand, a machete in the other, and the cheetah was running at full speed toward us,” then they say “that when it started to get weird.” You’re thinking, “It was pretty strange up to the point. I can’t imagine how this might get any weirder.” Somehow it does. There’s always a person with those kinds of stories, the “that when it started to get weird” adventures. I can see you picturing them in your brain. You might even be that person yourself.
The Bible is kind of like that person. The Bible will throw you for a loop. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the text does something you don’t expect. In other words, when you think things can’t get any weirder, it usually does. Pentecost is one of those stories. When you believe you have a handle on the action, the narrative turns hard left, right, and then back to the left again. So, if you found people speaking in tongues is a bit strange, “that’s when it started to get weird.” That was only the warm up for the fire dancing over and on top of people’s head, others speaking languages they never took in high school, prophecies about young people having visions and older people having dreams about the end of the world. I told you it would get stranger. But what does it all mean?
It’s a fair question. Once we start telling a crazy story, do you find yourself wondering, “Now where was I in the first place?” Have you ever told a story and all of the sudden, you can’t remember why you started telling or how it fits back in to the larger conversation you were having five minutes earlier? I think we’re all guilty of that.
I want to go back to the beginning of the Pentecost conversation; before we started telling the crazy story. I think it’s important to pull back the layers of strange to try and understand what’s going on. Because my gut tells me, it may not be as crazy as we think it is and there’s probably more happening than we realize. Sometimes, in the Bible, crazy sounding stories are a cover. They are a cover for God to do some subtle (yet amazing) things while we’re distracted by fire and speaking in tongues.
A couple of weeks ago we had graduation Sunday. We honored our high school and college graduates. Next Sunday is Ocracoke School graduation day. One on hand, graduation is as an event, it’s a ceremony, a thing that happens on a day, at a certain time, at a specific place, and when it’s over, you’re graduated. Graduation is something you can mark on a calendar. But yet it’s not. For the seventeen young men and women graduating this year, their graduation journey began when they entered kindergarten, whether at Ocracoke School or elsewhere. Graduation began the day they started school. Once they leave school, they will still be graduating from new challenges. Graduation never ends. It’s an ongoing process. Sure, the ceremony is a one-time thing. But graduation started years ago and will not finish next Sunday. It is a process. It is a journey.
Are you with me? It’s a process. It’s a journey. Pentecost is both a process and a journey. Pentecost isn’t a single day on the church calendar. Pentecost isn’t the first twenty one verses in the second chapter of the book of Acts. Pentecost started long before the disciples were waiting in the Upper Room for the arrival in the spirit and it would continue long after the Holy Spirit spilled out into the street. This story is a not so subtle reminder that Pentecost is an uncontainable, immeasurable, and unscheduled event.
You can’t plan for something you ought to be living and embodying every day. We don’t plan to breathe, see, walk, touch, feel, love, or exist. A Pentecost existence is a well-rounded Christian existence which says, “I may not be able to tell you the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but I’m trying to live in balance with all three.” You know what it’s like to have a car with tires out of alignment or balance. Over time, it can do a great deal of damage to your car. You want to get it fixed. Spiritually, you can live out of Trinitarian alignment. Yes, your, “Father Gods” and your “Sweet Jesus’” can all be lined up correctly but if they Holy Spirit isn’t in the mix or smoothing out the rough spots, you’re going to end up in the ditch. Let the Spirit keep us out the ditch.
Pentecost is also about language, real honest to God spoken language; the kind you can buy a Rosetta Stone for, take a class online to learn, or travel to another country to speak. Pentecost as recorded in the Bible isn’t about speaking in a special prayer language known only to the angels. Look at what the text says:
“They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all of the people who are spiking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own language!”
We hear them in our own language. I want those words to linger for a moment. Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire. Greek was the commercial language. If you wanted a deed notarized, you needed some Latin. If you wanted to sell your fish, you better know enough Greek not to be cheated.
People had been talking about Jesus for over three years now. By this time, news of who Jesus was and what he taught had made it into Greek and Latin. Most people knew a little Latin and even more Greek. It’s one thing to hear about somebody, even a great prophet and teacher who people say rose from the dead in a language that’s not your own, a language you only use once a month to sell your grain. It’s another thing to hear those same stories “in our own language”.
Hearing it your own language changes everything. Your language is yours. It’s full of sounds, inflection, tones, meaning, and nuance that are unique to you, your family, and your part of the world. So while the fire, commotion, and rushing wind are darting all over Acts 2, it’s easy to miss what else God is doing. God is simply speaking to the hearts of diverse individuals in words they can understand. You don’t get more tangible than this. I believe God wants us to get it. Look at the amazement in the crowd! They’re not used to hearing from God in their own language. Have you ever been to a far away land, in another country, and suddenly heard another English speaker. What a joy it was to speak to someone else in English when you’ve been speaking Russian for months on end! That may have been how they felt. Someone knows me for me; here is someone I can talk to and someone who wants to talk to me. The Pentecost experience means that God wants to hear from us because we now speak the same language. In an instant, it goes from a little weird to exciting.
For those of you who haven’t noticed, I’m bald. I can’t remember the last time I had hair. It was 1990 something or other. I’m to the point where I’ve stopped caring. However, because I’m bald I have to be careful about getting sunburned on top of my head. My bald “bros” out there know what I mean. Unless you’ve got a good glaze up there, your head will catch on fire. It’s not a pleasant feeling.
At Pentecost, Luke tells us “individual flames of fire” alighted on each one them. This symbolized their baptism by the Holy Spirit. Their heads were on fire. Whether you are bald or not, Pentecost is about the Spirit lighting your head on fire. Let your heart be the kindling which helps the Holy Spirit ignite your head. The Holy Spirit sunburn should be self-evident, so you speak the gospel in ways that that people will understand, so that the world will want to have conversations with us, in a Pentecost that happens every single day.