Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1351
May 20, 2018 Acts 2.1-21
Rev. Dr. Ed Pettus
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“What a Day!”
At First a Sound
On the day of Pentecost, the day that the disciples had gathered together for a Jewish Festival, the first thing that happens to mark this day was a sound. It was a sound that filled the house. It sounded like a wind, a mighty rushing wind. The wind filled the house and their ears. Do you remember that sound from the movie the Wizard of Oz? It’s still in black and white and everyone at the farm is getting the horses and the chickens out and Auntie Em is hollering for Dorothy but the sound just takes her voice away. The wind in blowing too hard to hear. We have those occasional rushing winds in Princeton. I imagine this wind at Pentecost was like that of a tornado or hurricane, loud enough to disturb the disciples and fill the house but also loud enough to draw a crowd. Look at verse six, “and at this sound the multitude came together.” It was the sound that drew the crowd around the house. People from all over had come for the Jewish holiday called Shavuot, fifty days after the Passover, and as they meandered around the city they heard this sound. It may have been more like a booming wind, a wind that pointed everyone’s ears in the same direction.
It is interesting that the first hint of the power from on high, the coming of the Holy Spirit is a sound. It is not what they saw at first, but what they heard. This was, of course, a common way for people to know things back in biblical times. The oral tradition passed the Word of God down through speaking and hearing. Today we are barraged by images and sights that sometimes shut down our imaginations. In the days of the spoken word people used their imaginations to picture the stories in their minds. Probably the last time that was done on a regular basis was before television came into existence. People would sit around the radio and listen to the westerns and mysteries and scary programs and imagine what could be seen only by hearing and picturing it in their minds.
In one sense we are invited to do the same thing here in hearing Acts 2. We have to imagine what it looked like and sounded like when the Spirit descended. I imagine a violent wind with a boom like a sonic boom from a jet! It pinpointed a location precise enough for people to gather and then hear another sound. But before we get to the next sound, let’s look at the appearance of the Spirit.
Then an Appearance
What they did see was something like fire that rested upon them. It was the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The appearance only gets a brief mention. Perhaps it was too difficult to describe, after all, Luke just says “divided tongues as of fire appeared”. Was it something shaped like a tongue? Was it fire? Was it a tongue on fire? Luke may have only described it as divided tongues because of what was manifested next. What the divided tongues as of fire brought was another sound. This time it was not wind but words. They spoke. The Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages.
Filling the House and the Disciples
Let’s back up for a moment before we listen for what was being spoken and heard. Luke uses the term “filled” three times in describing the events of Pentecost. The first use is when the sound of the Spirit filled the entire house. There was no corner without the sound. In fact, it blasted way beyond the walls of the house so that all in the city could hear. Secondly, the Spirit filled the disciples. There was not one aspect of their being unfilled. The sound of the Spirit overflowed into the city by the sound of the spoken word, even in languages beyond their own abilities.
But there also was a criticism of the disciples, that they were filled with new wine. Peter called this for what it was, fake news. People who oppose Jesus will twist the truth like this to incriminate believers. What we would call the sanctity of life they will call the right to choose. What we might call an abomination to the Lord they will call the right to love whomever they want. What we would call freedom of religion they would call discrimination. Isaiah spoke of these kinds of people in Isaiah 5,
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!
This is the picture Isaiah paints with words and it fits what we hear and see today. I imagine if we were to quote Isaiah 5 to many of the anti-Christian movements today we too would be accused of being “filled with new wine” just like the disciples.
(See also Acts 4.31 for another account of “filling”.)
The second sound that is heard on Pentecost is the sound of speech. The speech is the gospel – the mighty works of God. What is so strange about this sound is that the peoples who spoke different languages than the disciples are hearing the words in their own tongue. It is to them a very strange and perplexing sound. They cannot understand it, but they do respond to it. One response to to wonder what it means. It is as if they are curious as to what is going on in a way that is receptive. The other response is to write the disciples off as drunk and put a stop to this Holy Spirit movement. But this is one of those “thus says the Lord” moments. It is too big to dismiss, too important to silence, and too powerful to stop.
God has given the gift of speech in various tongues. God has given an utterance in languages the disciples did not know. God has done it and no accusations of drunkenness will prevent this movement of God’s Spirit. It is God’s doing as the story tells us, “as the Spirit gave them utterance”. God’s word will prevail over the enemies of God.
In Isaiah 55 we read,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (55. 10-11).
God’s word will not be thwarted. To hear the sound of it is to know it’s power to heal and forgive, to love and show mercy, as well as to tear down and convict, to destroy and to rebuke. This Word that goes forth is a living Word. It has the power to speak in tongues so that all might come to know what God has done.
As a side note, some believe that this passage might be a taste of the undoing of the tower of Babel. At the tower the speech was confused so that no one could understand another. Here the languages are given in such a way that everyone understands in their own languages. I might not push that contrast too far, but it does speak to the unity of the church that can hear together the living Word of God and hear it with one mind and in unity.
We have this sound in the speech of the disciples and we have a hearing in this variety of languages. Some people try to discern if the speaking was in other tongues or the hearing was supernaturally adjusted to hear in other tongues. The text seems to indicate that the disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages. It also seems to be a temporary gift. Perhaps it is in the hearing, in the sound that is heard, that the hearers would be more readily receptive to the preaching of the disciples. Perhaps it was just a way to get everyone to listen.
But what happens next is that Peter stands up among the disciples, I’m assuming that he is the only one speaking now, and he starts a sermon on the events that have lead up to this day and what the prophet Joel spoke long ago.
Peter identifies one of Israel’s prophets, Joel, as referring to this event of Pentecost. The pouring out of the Spirit, prophesy, visions, dreams, things like they had never seen before. This is the day that Joel prophesied. Now this would have been a scandal to any Jew who did not believe that Jesus was the messiah. It would have sparked more curiosity to those who were seeking the truth. Now the sound that is heard is of a prophet who spoke of strange events from the power of the Spirit.
What a Day!
What a day! It was a day of sounds and sights and speeches and hearing. I wanted us to see the significance of the sounds today. We use all kinds of sounds to worship God, singing hymns, speaking together in unison, speaking in response to one another, speaking individually as I am doing now. We hear instruments and if we listen very closely we might hear a wind. This is what Pentecost invites in us, to listen. We are invited to listen for the Holy Spirit, in the wind, in the word, in the music, in the worship. But beyond today we are called to listen daily for the wind of God or the sound of God.
The two great places of commandment are about hearing a sound.
The great Shema is one of the vital texts of Judaism. To hear is to listen and obey. It is to do what is spoken. Not to simply hear, but to act.
Jesus repeats this command when asked what was the greatest command (Mark 12.28-31),
“Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
This sound of God’s Word in the ears of people was a call not only to hear what was spoken, but to obey. We know that when we tell our children to clean their room, it is never truly heard until the room is cleaned! The sound must reach our ears and our feet to go and do what we have heard.
The day of Pentecost was a day filled with power, with sounds – of wind, of speech, all for the recipients to hear. Paul said something about hearing and sound in Romans 10.14-17,
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
This is the hearing required for salvation. This is the hearing upon which we are called to speak the gospel. We make the sounds by the power of the Holy Spirit. They are not our own, not under our abilities, not from our power, but by the power of the One who has sent each of us to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit came by a sound on this Pentecost Sunday and He may blow into our lives and hearts in ways we do not expect. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3.8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It is that same Spirit that blows into and through our lives today giving us sounds of speech to share our testimonies of God’s mighty works.
Let us celebrate the sounds of Pentecost and the same sounds that God’s brings forth in our speech and in our hearing. Amen.