“It’s Not A Safe Place”
May 20 2018
Today is Pentecost. It is one of the three most important days in the church year – along with Christmas and Easter. This is the day we celebrate the coming and power of the Spirit. But we seem to be uncomfortable with Pentecost. It seems that we don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm for Pentecost. Why do we not celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in the same way we celebrate the coming of Christ or the resurrection of Christ? I’m not sure, but I’m afraid it has something to do with the fact that we are scared.
Our scripture passages for today tell us what God’s spirit can do. We have the Ezekiel 37 passage of God’s Spirit giving life to the valley of dry bones and the Acts 2 passage of the Spirit giving life to the disciples. As we look at these passages we might want to look at the Biblical stories and say: “Yes it was wonderful that the Holy Spirit came” or “How wonderful it was that the Spirit of God brought life the dry bones”, but what would we do if it happened here and now? The very thought of the Spirit coming into our lives and this Church right now might be a scary thought for us, but as come around God’s table later in the service, listen to God’s word and try to imagine just what might happen if God’s spirit actually moved among us here and now.
It is funny how things change. When I was young, the church was respectable and predictable. It was seen as a safe haven in a dangerous world. I was born in 1955. Many remember the 1950’s and early 1960’s as a time that was wonderfully uncomplicated. But it wasn’t quite as simple as many remember it as being. We had survived World War II and the Korean War only to find ourselves engaged in the Cold War. I remember as a child being trained in school to duck under my desk for cover in the event of a nuclear attack. I also remember our bomb shelter in our back yard with food for our family to survive a nuclear attack. So the Fifties and early Sixties were not as perfect as you might imagine and we needed a place to feel safe. Church was where we felt safe. Businessmen would sometimes join the church as a way to meet potential clients. Church was not only safe, but it could help you to “get ahead.” Church was safe and predictable.
But the church hasn’t always been that way. Its beginnings were certainly not safe and predictable. We celebrate the church’s birthday on Pentecost. The first Christian Pentecost was quite an uproar. The disciples had gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, one of the major Jewish feast days. Jews came to Jerusalem on Pentecost from all over that part of the world. Scholars believe that there must have been over 180,000 people crowded into Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast day of Pentecost.
Can you imagine what that must have been like?
I grew up in South Carolina, and my family would go to Myrtle Beach every year for vacation. One year we happened to go the week of July 4th. There were nearly 200,000 people in town on vacation that week. It was amazing! Cars and people everywhere! We started noticing the traffic about 50 miles out of Myrtle Beach. The closer we got, the more traffic there was. When we got into town, King’s Highway was a river of cars moving in both directions for as far as the eye could see. It was faster to walk somewhere than to drive. People were in Myrtle Beach from many different states. My sisters and I began a competition to see who could identify the most state license plates, and while I do not remember who won the competition I do remember that there were license plates from all over the country and from Canada.
Jerusalem must have been like that for the Pentecost festival. People everywhere! People rubbing elbows and jostling each other! People looking for a place to eat! People looking for a place to sleep!
Of course, things were pretty predictable in Jerusalem at Pentecost. For that matter, things were pretty predictable in Myrtle Beach for July 4th. There were police all around. Motel signs proclaimed, “Welcome to Myrtle Beach!” And if everything was under control in Myrtle Beach, just imagine how it must have been in Jerusalem. There was no need for police. These were religious pilgrims! They had come to worship God! They weren’t going to do anything bad! For many of them, it was the only time that they would ever see the temple and they were in awe. The temple was where God lived, you know. Jews believed that God lived in the Holy of Holies at the center of the temple. The temple sat high on the mountain, and you could see it from everywhere. These pilgrims had come from near and far to worship God at the temple. It was the experience of a lifetime.
But then something totally unexpected happened. They heard a great noise, a deafening roar, like a jet plane or like a tornado. And then they saw a group of Jesus’ disciples gathered together. Some said that flames of fire had rested on them. And then those disciples started preaching. Acts says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The result should have been total confusion, but it wasn’t. Everyone understood, and each person heard in his or her own language about what God was doing through Jesus Christ. The people had come from everywhere––Phrygia and Pamphylia ––Egypt and Libya––Mesopotamia––the island of Crete––everywhere. Each person heard the message about Jesus in his or her own language.
So the disciples got the crowd’s attention. Everyone was listening. Then Peter got up to preach. What kind of sermon did he preach? Did he tell them that they were good people? No. Did he tell them that Jesus was going to make life easy for them? No. Peter told them that they had killed the Messiah. This was not a gentle sermon that Peter preached. Acts says that the people were cut to the heart. They wanted to know what they could do. Peter told them to repent and be baptized, and three thousand people were baptized that day. They received the Holy Spirit. They became new people. That didn’t make life easy for them. It aligned them with God’s plan for their lives, but it did not make their lives easy. These three thousand people returned to their homes and told other people about Jesus. The church began to spread. Pentecost was the beginning of something big. It was the birth of the church. It was the beginning of the spread of the Good News of salvation to the world. These people, filled with the Spirit, played an important part!
You know, that’s what should happen when you become a Christian. That is what happens when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in your life. That’s what happens when you align your life with God’s will. Life may not get easier but important things begin to happen. You become part of something big. Not something easy, but something big! It may not be something safe or easy, but it will be something that is God’s will.
Robert Coles is an author and a psychiatrist. Some years ago, he interviewed a number of people who were involved in the civil rights movement. It was a turbulent time. The country was so divided! Coles interviewed a young white man who had grown up in the South, but who had worked to eliminate the discrimination that he had grown up with. That was a courageous thing to do, because civil rights work was dangerous. When Coles asked this man why he had done it, the man said: “I don’t know why I put myself on the line. I don’t know why I said no to segregation. I’m just another white Southerner, and I wasn’t brought up to love integration. But I was brought up to love Jesus Christ, and when I saw the police of this city use dogs on people, I asked myself what Jesus Christ would have thought and what He would have done, and that’s all I know about how I came to be here, on the firing line.”
Did you hear that? He was brought up to love Jesus Christ, and he could not stand by idly and watch the police use dogs to attack people. Following Christ did not make that man’s life easy or safe, but it did give him something important to do, something worth living for, something even worth dying for, if it came to that.
You don’t hear much about that sort of thing these days. We are too focused on being safe and not stepping out and taking chances, even in response to Christ. But if you love Christ and let the Holy Spirit guide you, He will teach you how to love God and your neighbor and He will give you a life worth living. Not an easy life, not a safe life, not a trouble-free life, but a life worth living. The life He has planned for you.
On this day of Pentecost as we gather around God’s table and celebrate the coming of God’s Spirit, keep in mind that if you want an easy life, following Christ and being filled with the Holy Spirit is not going to give it to you. Following Christ and the Holy Spirit may lead you to places and doing things that are not safe. But if you want a meaningful life, that life that God intends for you, give your life to Christ and receive the Holy Spirit, and see what God can do! Amen.