June 9, 2019: "God Is Not Done"

“God Is Not Done”

A sermon by Andrew Philip Long

The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK

June 9, 2019: Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-12

I’m going to start today by getting right to the point of my entire sermon, and the point of my sermon today is this: God is not done. God is not done with us. God is not done with this congregation. God is not done with the Christian church in America. God is not done with the Church throughout the world. God is not done with creation or with the creatures that inhabit it. God is not done. Now, let me tell you how our Scripture lessons today proclaim this exceedingly good news.

Pentecost is one the Church’s favorite holidays. Pentecost is the day in the Scriptures when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and gathered Jesus’ earliest followers into what we today call the Church. The Church celebrates Pentecost as its birthday because today is the day all those many years ago that the Church was born into the world. But what we easily forget in celebrating Pentecost is that Pentecost existed as a Jewish feast day many, many centuries before the Church inherited it. Pentecost is celebrated in the Jewish faith fifty days after Passover and it commemorates the day when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Unlike Passover, which is celebrated quietly in the family home, Pentecost is a time when Jewish people come together to renew their connection to God and to one another, and to celebrate the law and liberty of God that binds them together as one. It can be a boisterous time in Jewish communities, but the celebration never overshadows the community’s obligation to share a portion of their feast with those who are without.

In the centuries between when the Israelites first celebrated Pentecost in the time of Moses and when God’s Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ followers, there were many rises and many falls in the fortunes of the Israelites. King David’s great reign and Solomon’s grand temple were long since gone. It was Herod’s temple that Jesus’ apostles knew, and it was a far smaller and less impressive complex than its predecessor. Herod was no David or Solomon—he was merely a puppet for the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. The political and religious atmosphere in Jerusalem and Palestine was thick with longing for restoration of all that had been lost. The men and women who followed Jesus during his ministry were honestly looking and praying for a new harvest of God’s glory. Pilgrims and converts to the faith all made their way to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost because they hoped that this would be place for that new harvest. They came with their frustrations about their present situation, they came with their anxieties about the unknown future, they came with their longing for a glorious past and a renewed golden age.

So, on the day that the book of Acts tells us about, people had come from all over to celebrate. And the Holy Spirit came that day, too. 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 of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. These images—rushing wind, tongues of fire—are provocative images that bring to mind the wind of God that swept over the face of the waters in creation. With rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostles experienced the presence of God like never before. In power and in intimacy, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ. They were sent out to heal aching souls. They were sent out to bear witness to God. They were sent out to share a love that would not let them go. Their frustrations about the present melted away. Their anxieties about the future vanished into the air. Their longing for a glorious past was washed away in the glory of the present moment.

And people responded. Thousands of them, Acts tells us. That Pentecost day ended quite differently than it had begun. A day that started out with the disciples huddled in a house, presumably in fear as they had done since the day of the resurrection, ended with thousands and thousands coming to knowledge of Jesus Christ. From then on, the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to breaking bread, to prayer. Later on in Acts we learn that this new, vibrant community shared everything in common, that they sold most of their possessions in order to have enough money to cover everyone’s needs, and they added new members to their fellowship every day. The Spirit had come. The fearful had found power. A new community was born. It was a very good beginning, a huge success for pilgrims in Jerusalem that holy day.

There is a problem here, though. It has been said that the greatest obstacle to future success is past success. We can and do learn from our mistakes and failures, but when we are successful…well, our successes can fool us into thinking that what worked then must be what will work always. We like to standardize and codify. We build structures and give birth to bureaucracies. Like Peter on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured, we try to build tents and stay there. When we are forced to come down, because we are always forced to come down, we often spend years pining for what we left behind. The golden age always appears to be back there, back then. Our past successes turn into our ‘I wish it was the way it was back then,’ and all too often this gets in the way of God’s new work before us. That’s the problem we face now as the church after Pentecost. Pentecost was huge, larger than life, but now we face lower attendance, more effort needed to create true community, people of faith acting…well, nothing like people of faith. The glorious past, the success of yesterday, makes us lazy, and the church we occupy today seemed to be harmed beyond repair because of it. But in this, my friends, stands the good news that I shared with you at the beginning: God is not done.

As complicated and complex as our minds might be, the way we think about time is actually quite simple. We think of time as linear—it has a past, present, and future, and events just stack up one after another like a timeline in a text book. We think about our place in this linear timeline as covering from the moment we are born until the moment we die. We live a short time, we take up a small place on the grand timeline of history, we die, and time goes on. But the way we think about time and our place in history is not how God think or operates. It is certainly not how the Holy Spirit thinks and operates. God’s estimation of time is that everything is moving toward one, grand, final completion, the time when all things will be made new. Events in history, the things we do in between the time we are born and die, they are not single moments that create other single moments. Everything is adding up—not stacking up—moving towards, and preparing for the end of all things when God once again calms the chaos of creation and pronounces it very good.

In the eleventh chapter of Acts, we get a glimpse at just how the Holy Spirit operates in God’s estimation of time. There we read about a persecution of the early church that scattered the first followers of Jesus throughout the Middle East. In Acts 11:26 we read that, “And it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” That’s odd. I thought the first Christians were gathered together in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Yes, the church may have been born in Jerusalem at Pentecost, but the people of Jesus were not known as Christians until they came together in Antioch just about a half mile away from Jerusalem. This means that Pentecost in Jerusalem was not so much a birthday as it a gestation period that brought forth fruit with something truly new in Antioch and beyond. That’s how God works; that is how the Holy Spirit works. We think we know what God is doing here, when in fact God is also over there doing something miraculous. We think that what we know and experience in God is what everyone else knows and experiences, when in reality not even the people in this room today know and experience the same things of God. We can’t fathom how God is working in the world, who will become ambassadors of God, or what new and miraculous thing God will do with something we look at and shrug off as just a collection of dry bones. The gestation continues.

It began with Pentecost, but it could not and did not stop there. There is no golden age of the church because the golden age is every moment that the church stands to witness to the love and mercy of God. And because we know that this message is more important and vital today than at any other moment in history, we know that God simply cannot be done with us. While there are people who will only define themselves and others by which box they check on a ballot or voter registration card or census or questionnaire, God is not done with us. While there are children who go to sleep hungry at night while millions of pounds of food go to waste every hour, God is not done with us. While there are souls in our community who have only known the pleasure of a hot meal a few times in their life, God is not done with us. While we have neighbors who have never heard just how loved they are, and that this love is not dependent on whether or not they change or conform to societal standards, God is not done with us. Until every single soul has come to know the saving love of Jesus Christ, God is not done with us.

So, we can look back and lament that things today are not the way they used to be. We can pine and yearn for how it was, but the Holy Spirit, the fruit of Pentecost, the gestation in Jerusalem, is not in the past, it is right here with us now, today. Sure, things around here don’t look like quite like they did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. The truth is that you won’t find a church today that looks like it did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But think about that first Pentecost and how different it looked from the community the disciples had built during Jesus’ ministry. Their group was mostly Palestinian Jews, mostly men, and most from a class of working people. When the Holy Spirit blew through the house, and the tongues of fire danced on the disciples’ heads, they suddenly noticed that they were surrounded by people from all over the place. Parthians, Medes, poly-theists, immigrants, atheists, heretics, idol worshippers, and, most shockingly for them, women. When the Holy Spirit comes, the community that is builds looks nothing like it did, but it always looks like what God truly desires.

And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Pentecost Sunday we come here bringing our frustrations about how things are. We come here carrying our anxieties about a future we do not know and cannot control. We have brought with us today a deep longing for restoration and wholeness. God is speaking to us today and the Holy Spirit has come, and it has come with great power. We can hold on to the past, or we can open ourselves to the future the Spirit will lead us into. We can yearn for what was, or we can look with great expectation to what will be. God is…what?...not done with us. And so, we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to fear for the future of the church. We do not have to fear that our children will one day be stripped of their knowledge of Jesus Christ. We do not have to be afraid of the rises and falls in our fortunes. We do not have to be afraid how the world around us changes and takes on different and new forms. We do not have to be afraid that today looks different from tomorrow and tomorrow looks different from today and yesterday. The Holy Spirit has come, and it has come with great power. God is not done with us. We can, we must, have hope.

And then, in hope, we must act. And I know we will. There just isn’t any other way.Amen.

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