[This sermon was proclaimed at Brunswick Church, Troy NY, on Pentecost, June 9, 2019.]
I don’t much like waiting. They have been waiting. We set the scene. In Acts 1, just as Jesus was about to ascend into the heavens, he told them to wait: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I have come to accept that waiting is a necessary part of life, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like waiting. When I am about to check out at Wegmans, I study the traffic patterns. I usually have maybe 5-15 items. As I approach the check-out lines, I survey the 15 items or fewer line and the 7 items or fewer line. There are four people in the 15 items line and just one in the 7 items line. I look quickly in the basket. I have 8 items. Now I am facing a weighty ethical dilemma. Do I pretend I have 7 items instead of 8? Do the cashiers really count them? What if I get in the 7-item line with 8 items and a person gets in line right after me and counts my items on the conveyor belt? Archibald Hart, then a professor at Fuller Seminary, suggested that pastors learn to deal with their impatience to see God work quickly by getting in the longest check-out line at the market and praying for all the people in a hurry to check out. I never mastered that spiritual discipline.
Waiting for God the Holy Spirit isn’t about whether I have 7 or 8 items in my basket. Scripture puts a high value on waiting for God to fulfill God’s promises. Isaiah tells us, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
The embryonic Church was waiting in weakness, waiting in hope. Really, it was waiting with some doubt, as Ted preached here last Sunday. Count me among those that have doubted. Seven weeks before their world had been jolted into stunning reality, their dreams dashed, when their Lord was crucified on a Roman cross and buried in a borrowed tomb. That he had told them at least three times that this was coming was of no comfort in the reality of the devastating blow.
He gave them 40 glorious days, revealing his risen glory in multiple ways. Then–poof!–he was gone. This time not even in a tomb, where they could go with their spices and grieve. This time, gone in a cloud. “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Do you understand the cloud? Neither do I. Let’s see, my iPhone and iPad are sharing information in a cloud. That’s as mysterious as Jesus’ ascension. Again, he is gone.
And they wait. The day arrives. Pentecost. A Jewish festival celebrating the early spring harvest. One of the big three festivals, which means people flow to Jerusalem from all over the world. People were pouring in across their southern border, their northern border, and their eastern border. Would this crush of humanity be for them intimidation or opportunity? They will not be intimidated by the global gathering, but will declare Good News to the world at their doorstep.
Rochester has a nationally renowned Lilac Festival every May. Last month’s came in an unusually cold, damp week. It was so cold and damp that they closed the festival on Monday. Then on Saturday afternoon, it turned warm and sunny. We quickly decided to go the festival. In Highland Park, the north side of Highland Avenue has 1800 lilac plants of over 500 varieties. The south side of the street has almost as many food trucks and vendors that week. Some people go to walk among the lilacs and some go to walk among the food trucks and eat some high octane junk food. We were hungry. We went another day to see the lilacs. And because it was finally warm and sunny, hundreds of people were crowding every walkway among the food trucks. We saw people of every skin color. And every hair color, including many colors God didn’t give them directly. We saw a high school couple on their way to the prom, he wearing a tuxedo and she a beautiful blue gown. Munching on carnival junk food. We heard numerous languages being spoken. We saw body art—some call them tattoos—of all colors and kinds. The next day I would be preaching from Revelation 7. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) I thought, the crowd at the lilac festival walking among the food trucks looks more like the heavenly congregation in Revelation 7 than most churches on Sunday mornings. It was a multi-cultural festival.
But that lilac festival crowd couldn’t top that Pentecost on which the Spirit descended and the Church was birthed. “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…. Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” What does this mean? Opportunity. The world is at their doorstep.
The world is not orthogonally designed, with everything at right angles and perpendicular. It’s a world of circles and endless connections that aren’t always in straight lines. God is working with ever larger circles. From the beginning of God’s salvation story, God’s heart for the other, the outside, the foreigner has been clear.
- “I will make you into a great nation,and I will bless you; and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
- “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
- “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7)
- “there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)
Jesus in his earthly ministry honored the limits of living in one place at one time. He never traveled to Athens or Rome. Yet, he was always breaking boundaries by reaching out to outsiders: women, outcasts, diseased, people despised by the religious authorities. No wonder the religious leaders were always upset with him; he upset their rigid rules of exclusion. Then, when he left them he sent the Spirit and opened the floodgates.
The world at our doorstep, Brunswick Church. Russell Sage College, just a few miles west, has two cohorts of students from Lebanon and one from Thailand coming to study this fall. RPI, also a few miles away, has students from 44 countries, about one out of every seven students, studying here. In the last three years, two of those students from other nations have become followers or Jesus and been baptized here because of your welcome. The world at our doorstep is our opportunity.
The Church stands in danger today. The danger of seeking temporal power. The danger of seeking governmental favor. The danger of taking pride in our buildings and grounds. The danger of thinking our cutting edge ministries and programs will impress people. The danger of complacency. The danger of certainty that we have everything figured out. Religion has always tended to draw tight circles that tell us who is in the circle and who is outside the circle. God messes with those circles and keeps enlarging them to include people from all nations. Pentecost thrusts the Church out with Good News for all nations, all peoples, all tribes, and all language groups.
A few decades ago there was a TV program called “I’ll Fly Away.” In one episode, Lily, the housekeeper, tells her eight-year-old daughter Adelaine that a woman was hospitalized when her house suddenly settled two inches, scaring her nearly to death. She said, “It made me remember when we were building our church. We made sure to build a firm foundation. But still one windy day it pitched and swayed, such that I thought it had the Spirit of God in it.” Adelaine responded, “Don’t worry, Mama. The church ain’t settlin’, its movin’.”
What does this mean? God has entrusted us with Good News—the best news—that in the risen Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, God’s love is shared with every nation, tribe, people, and language. This church ain’t settlin’, it’s movin’. Let the Church be the Church.