This photo was taken in December 2011. Every year on this date, I remember visiting the 9/11 Memorial in December 2011. While there, we saw this faint rainbow shining up from the middle of the North Tower Memorial Pool. A powerful reminder of the Light that shines in the darkness…
Like many or all of us, I’ve been asked on this date, “Where were you?” Like many or all of us, I remember exactly where I was on that day and at that time.
It was a Tuesday morning. Roughly two months prior, I’d begun serving as the Director of Youth Ministries at the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Virginia. My first time living in a naval community. That Tuesday morning I arrived at my office shortly before 9:00 am. Instinctively, I checked my email, where I read an email from our Director of Music Ministries that he was resigning to take a position with our local orchestra. A second later a colleague walked by my office. He said, “Did you hear the news?” I said, referring to our Director of Music Ministries’ email, “Yes, I’m excited for him, sad for us.” My colleague said, “No, the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center North Tower.” He walked away as I clicked on Internet Explorer and searched the Internet. I thought, “How could a plane get that far off course?” Then a darker thought came: “Or…what if it was right on course?” At 9:03 am, when a second plane struck the South Tower, I knew which was the answer.
It was my first time living in a naval community. I naively thought, “Well, we’re totally safe in a naval community.” I quickly learned how unsafe that made us. We were a major target. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.
It was a Tuesday morning. Every Tuesday we had a worship service for staff in the Chapel, followed by our staff meeting. On that particular Tuesday morning, we all lingered in the hallway leading down to the Chapel. We discussed what we needed to do, whom we needed to contact in light of the attack. We never made it down the hallway to the Chapel to worship. And yet, we worshipped. Not in the Chapel, but in our community.
Not sure exactly what to do, I went to our local high school, Maury High School. I went to the administrative office, introduced myself, and asked, “How can I help?” I was directed to the guidance counselor’s office, where there were maybe two dozen students present. Most of their parents had been called to their ships right after the attacks in case they needed to be deployed immediately. One such student asked me, “Will I ever see my parents again?” I opened my mouth to say the usual default, “It’ll be ok.” But on that day, it wasn’t so easy to say those words. On that day, there were no words.
Flash forward a few hours, and our church staff and other religious staff organized an amazing ecumenical service that night. I remember calling a local secular radio station that afternoon and asking them to promote the service. The DJ said, “Yes, we’ll advertise it. Because, right now, it doesn’t matter your religious or ethnic group. Right now, we all are one.”
I went home after that worship service and after a great impromptu gathering of our staff at our senior pastor’s home. In my move to Norfolk, it was the first time I lived alone without a roommate. Until that night, I’d loved the sense of independence.
But that night I went home alone.
But that night I wasn’t the only one who went home alone.
The following week our church was scheduled to launch our church-wide small-group initiative. On that following Tuesday night, exactly one week after 9/11, I hosted an initial small group for young singles. When I asked in my living room the typical icebreaker question, “Why did you come tonight?”, the answers were quite atypical: “Because on 9/11 I realized how alone I was.” “Because on 9/11 I realized there was something missing in my life.” “Because on 9/11 I realized I needed God and other people to be in my life.”
And so began an amazing ministry.
There have been many people who have asked me how we launched such an amazing Young Singles’ Ministry. There have been many a Facebook meme that have wished we could go back to September 12, 2001.
The answers to both are one and the same.
I would never wish to go back to September 12, 2001, or to that week later, September 18, 2001…because I know that means going back to September 11, 2001. And yet I would wish to go back to that sense of spirit on September 12, 2001, and to that sense of community in that living room on September 18, 2001. In the words of that DJ 18 years ago: “Right now, it doesn’t matter what your religious or ethnic group is. Right now, we all are one.”
On Sunday mornings during this season of Lent, we’ve been considering questions of Jesus’ last week. Up ‘til now, we’ve looked at questions asked of Jesus either by the disciples or Pilate. Tonight we turn to a question asked of one of the disciples when Jesus wasn’t with them – or, more to the point, when they weren’t with him.
Hours before this scene we’ll read in a moment, Peter, along with James and John, had been with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when suddenly Judas appeared and betrayed Jesus, just as Jesus had predicted. And just as he also predicted, he was arrested, and all of the disciples deserted him. In our text tonight, Peter will be reminded of yet another one of Jesus’ predictions. Listen for God’s Word from the Gospel of John Chapter 18, beginning with verse 15. Read John 18:15-18, 25-27.
Each of the gospels records Peter’s denial. What is unique about the way John recalls the scene is that the denial comes in response to a question. The other gospel writers describe Peter’s denial in response to a statement – “This man was with Jesus.” “Certainly, you are one of his followers.”
When we overhear statements made about us or to us, we sometimes are quick to respond in kind. Lord knows Peter was known for kneejerk responses, like when Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Or when at supper that fateful night when Jesus told Peter, “This very night you will deny me three times,” Peter immediately replied, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.”
When we hear statements made about us, we can choose to respond. Or we can choose to ignore them as just one person’s opinion.
But a question demands a response: “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” Yes or no?
We all have those times when we’re eager to say we’re one of his disciples, and we all have those times when we’re a little less eager. Back in the day when it was the popular thing to put a fish symbol on the back of your car, I admittedly didn’t because, well, let’s be honest, when I’m sitting in traffic on I-75, and my foot gets a little heavy, and my patience gets a little light, I might not want people to know, yes, I’m one of his disciples.
Psychologists say we should especially be mindful of our actions and reactions when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. H-A-L-T. When we are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we need to halt and take a second to think before we speak, lest we say something we might regret.
Peter was likely feeling all four. He was likely hungry. It was around midnight or later by this time. Even a big meal like the Passover feast they’d just enjoyed would have been long gone by now. He was likely angry. Angry at the soldiers who arrested Jesus. Angry at Judas who betrayed him, thinking, “You mess with my mentor, you mess with me.” He was likely lonely. His friends had all scattered. The one friend who had been with him had since gone into the courtyard with Jesus, leaving Peter standing alone by the fire. And he was most definitely tired. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.
Beyond these basic human emotions, the times when the question of discipleship becomes the most telling are those times when there is risk involved. Those times when, like Peter, to answer yes might make us an outcast or the butt of a joke. Those times when to answer yes might bring us unwanted attention, higher expectations, undue scrutiny, or worse. Those times when, to answer yes, we might have to be willing to die to something in us, or, in Peter’s case, to die for someone close to us. If the guards knew that, not only had Peter been in the garden with Jesus, but that he’d cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves, then Jesus might have had some company on that cross.
Faced with that choice, Peter chose to save his own skin rather than profess his allegiance to Christ. It was something he imagined he’d never do, something he even insisted he’d never do. When the cock crowed just as Jesus predicted, I imagine Peter winced, as he realized Jesus knew him better than he knew himself. Now he’d turned his back on the one who knew him best.
It was his darkest night of the soul.
Yet sometimes healing begins during the darkest part of the night. The rooster crowed, Peter wept, and the road to healing began.
A few weeks later, and a few chapters later, in John Chapter 21, John tells us about another healing step in Peter’s journey when Peter found himself once again standing around a charcoal fire.
As many of us know and have experienced, the sense of smell has great power to awaken memories. The aroma of a certain cologne or perfume. The smell of a favorite family dish. And suddenly are these memories flood our minds.
Charcoal fires have a particular smell to them. Much like probably any rooster crow he’d heard since that night, the smell of charcoal likely called up for Peter the memory of that awful, awful night. He’d tried to forget his denial. He’d hoped Jesus had forgotten it also.
But try as he might, the memory came back – and as it turned out, that was a good thing – because around that second fire, Peter learned that healing comes, not from trying to bury our past, but by exposing it to the light – and allowing Jesus to redeem it.
Peter hadn’t forgotten that painful night, and neither had Jesus – and as it turned out, that also was a good thing. Jesus knew exactly what question Peter needed to be asked this time around to help him heal and move past the way he responded to that earlier question. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked.
He asked the question three times, once for each time Peter had denied him. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?
In our English translation, it’s the same question every time. In the original language, the third time is actually a different question. The word translated “love” in the first two questions is agape. Agape is that perfect, unconditional love, the way God loves us. The word translated “love” in the third question is philia. Philia is that brotherly or sisterly love, the love shared between friends, the way we humans love…genuinely…yet imperfectly and conditionally.
Twice Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me perfectly all the time, in all circumstances and all conditions?” Twice Peter gave his trademark kneejerk reaction, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” The third time Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me, even if not perfectly? Peter, do you love me as best you know how right now?” Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything.”
Jesus does know everything. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows us. He gets us. He gets that there will be those moments when we like Peter will confess with bold confidence, “You are the Messiah. Am I one of your disciples? Yes. Absolutely.” He also knows there will be those times when we betray him, desert him, and deny him. “You’re not one of his disciples, are you? No, I am not.”
Jesus knows everything about us. And the good news? He still loves us.
But there’s more good news. Not only does Jesus still love us, but he gives us a purpose. Each time Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.” If Peter’s words of denial “I don’t know him” were unimaginable words to Peter, Jesus’ words “feed my sheep” were equally unimaginable – the one portraying the depth of our sin, the other the depth of God’s mercy.
We may think all of our failures are permanent. Jesus says, “No, they’re not. Your present situation is not your permanent destination. I have a greater purpose for you: Go feed my sheep.”
If ever there were a sign of God’s love and purpose for us, it’s this meal we remember tonight. Even though he knew how the disciples would fail him, Jesus set a place for them at the table. Even though he knew they would never be able to love him as fully in return, Jesus showed them the fullness of his love: “This is my body given for you and my blood shed for you.”
Even to the one who would betray him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to those who would desert him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to the one who would deny him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to you and to me, Jesus says, “Come to the table.”
Tonight as you come to the table, as you tear off a piece of the bread and dip it in the cup, remember his love for you. Remember also what Peter discovered: that God can use you, despite your past…maybe even because of it…if you offer your past to him and trust in his redemption.
May we come to the table, may we remember, and may we discover that grace.
Our Scripture text this evening is not your typical Ash Wednesday text. We normally hear the words from Genesis Chapter 3 when, after Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God told them the consequences of their and all of humanity’s sin, God concluded by saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Or we read from Ecclesiastes, where the author reminds us of that same truth: “All are from dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20).
But there is a third time in Scripture when we hear these words, and that’s in our text tonight.
To set the stage for our reading, three men have come to visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them the great future and heritage God has planned for them as a family. Before they left, God decided to speak again through the men and to share with Abraham God’s plan to destroy Abraham’s neighboring communities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinful ways. Listen for God’s Word. Read Genesis 18:22-33. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What strikes me about this text and the reason I chose it for our service tonight is that so often on Ash Wednesday, when we talk about our dustiness, we hear the words said in the second person. But we don’t hear them said in the first person. On Ash Wednesday, whether through God’s poet in Ecclesiastes or God’s own voice in Genesis, we hear God say, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we never have to say the words ourselves – about ourselves – “I am dust” – which begs the question:
God knows we are dust. Do we?
The only time these words appear in Scripture in the first person is in Genesis Chapter 18.
It’s a fascinating scene. Theologians who like to talk about God’s providence or that favorite topic among Presbyterians, predestination, will often cite this text, asking: Can God change God’s mind? Or can humans change God’s mind?
What’s more striking to me in this text is not God’s mind, but God’s heart – and Abraham’s heart.
Abraham lived in close proximity to Sodom and Gomorrah. He’d likely heard about their questionable behavior. (“Did you hear what those people down the street are doing?”) He may have even witnessed their questionable behavior. So when God told him God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham might have been tempted to point a finger and say to them, “Yep, you are dust and ashes, and you deserve judgment.”
God knows we are dust. Those living in close proximity to us know we are dust. As Jesus says, we’re a lot quicker to notice our neighbor’s dustiness than our own (Matthew 7:3-5). There’s always a great reluctance to say, “I am dust.” There’s always a greater temptation to say, “You are dust.”
But that’s not what Abraham said. Instead of condemning his neighbors, Abraham chose to intercede for them. Instead of judgment, Abraham begged God to show compassion.
It’s often been asked if it’s ok to question God, even to hold God accountable to God’s promises. This text tells us yes– when done with the right heart.
This story is a wonderful exchange of hearts. Out of God’s love and trust in Abraham, God shared what was on his heart with Abraham by disclosing God’s plan. Out of Abraham’s love and trust in God, Abraham shared what was on his heart with God, even going so far as to question God’s plan and to remind God of his character: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:24-25)
Then Abraham asked God, not once, but six times to have mercy and change course. And each time God agreed.
Because Abraham asked with the right heart.
We see Abraham’s heart throughout the conversation, but especially in v. 27: “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”
In response to his neighbors’ sin, Abraham could have looked at his neighbors and said, “You are but dust and ashes,” and asked God for judgment. Instead, he said, “I am but dust and ashes,” and asked God for compassion.
Likewise, in response to Abraham’s request, God could have said, “You’re right – you are but dust and ashes,” and, with the zap of a lightning bolt, returned Abraham again to dust and ashes. Instead, God showed compassion – both to Abraham and to however many righteous people there were in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Of course, if we continue reading, we know how the story ended. There weren’t 50 righteous people. Or 45. Or 40. Or 30. Or 20. Or even 10. In the end, the number didn’t matter.
But there was one number that did matter.
That number was one.
One person who was willing to stand in the gap, no matter the outcome, no matter the cost.
Because in the end what mattered most to Abraham wasn’t being successful; it was being faithful.
No matter what the outcome was, whether he was successful in saving the people of Sodom and Gomorrah or not, whether or not he was successful, Abraham was faithful. He faithfully stood in the gap, boldly crying out to God on behalf of his neighbor.
What gave him the courage to do that? He remembered he was dust.
Not many of us like to remember that we are dust. Maybe that’s why it’s much easier to hear the words, “You are dust,” than it is to say the words, “I am dust.” Let me encourage us to do both tonight. When you come forward to receive the mark of the ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust,” as the Spirit leads, let me encourage us to respond, whether out loud or silently, “I am dust” – for that is a first step in transformation.
And then let me encourage us to quickly add, “Thanks be to God” – for that is also a first step in transformation.
To admit we are dust, while it may not feel good at first, it can bring the biggest sigh of relief and the loudest cry of joy there ever was – because only in humility and vulnerability can transformation occur.
When Abraham admitted he was but dust and ashes, he discovered a deeper intimacy with God. He discovered a greater compassion for his neighbor.
God promises the same can be true for us.
When we like Abraham have a right understanding of who we are in relation to God and who we are in relation to our neighbor, the result can only be transformation – transformation in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
God does God’s greatest work through humility and vulnerability. If you want proof, look at the cross.
Scripture tells us, “You are dust.” Scripture also tells us, while we were yet dust, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
So as we come forward in penance, let us also come forward in hope, eager to submit to the amazing work God wants to do in and through us this Lent – if only we will remember, “I am dust. Thanks be to God.”
Every year we pastors can sometimes find ourselves asking, “What am I going to say this year on Christmas Eve? Is there some new, creative spin I can put on the same ol’ same ol’ story?” The best answer I’ve heard to that question is: “Just tell the story. That’s why we’re all here.”
That’s why we’re all here: to hear the story again, to receive and dare to believe once again the good news.
The Christmas story in Luke 2:1-20 is one act in three scenes. Tonight we’re going to focus on scenes 2 and 3. The first scene tells of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and of Mary giving birth to Jesus. The second scene asks: Jesus is born – now what?
The answer in first-century Middle Eastern culture was: you had to go and tell someone. A royal birth required a royal birth announcement by a herald in the palace. That’s why, when the wise men came looking for Jesus, they instinctively went to Herod’s palace. That’s where his birth was expected to be announced. That’s where they’d find all the high-society people to whom the announcement was expected to be made.
But the herald didn’t go to the palace. He went to a place no one expected, a place no one cared to look, because no one cared about who was there.
When we tell the Christmas story today, shepherds hold a place of honor. At our children’s stable service two weeks ago, we had a dozen or so kids eager to put on shepherds’ costumes. In the first century, no one was eager to be a shepherd. There was no glory in being a shepherd. It was an undesirable job for undesirable people. They were the lowest-ranked class of citizens. The only people who ranked lower than shepherds were shepherds on the night shift. That’s when predators were on the prowl, and the risk of death was highest. The only people you’d put on duty at night were those whose lives didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.
In studying this text with a small group once, I asked: who are the shepherds of our day? Some said fast-food workers, janitors, sanitation workers, restaurant dishwashers, gas station clerks. One person said police officers on the night watch. An interesting thought. While we appreciate our first responders, we sometimes take for granted those who put themselves in harm’s way so that we can sleep in peace.
There’s no glory in being a shepherd on the night shift. It was an undesirable job for even more undesirable people…
…which is why it’s so remarkable that the royal birth announcement began here. Not in the palace. Not in the temple among the religious types. But in a dark field among a bunch of shepherds.
The good news isn’t just that a child is born; the good news is also to whomthe child is born. The good news of God’s love always shows up in placeswe least expect and to people we least expect. Jesus is constantly going to the least likely, redrawing lines, rewriting guest lists, redeeming lost sheep – and lost shepherds.
Why is that good news for us tonight? Because I imagine some of us feel like those shepherds. You’re in a dead-end job or dead-end relationship. You feel unnoticed, unloved, like no one cares or your life doesn’t make a difference. You don’t fit in. Whether it’s because of how someone else has judged you or how you’ve judged yourself, you feel unworthy.
Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve walked through the doors of a church. Maybe this is the first time you’ve ever walked through the doors. You’re wondering what those around you are thinking of you, what’s Godthinking of you.
And yet….you still showed up. That’s always a good first step.
Let me suggest it’s not so much that you and I choseto show up today. God wantedyou to show up. That little nudge or family tradition or sense of obligation, whatever it was that resulted in your being here, ultimately, it’s Godwho brought each of us here for a reason. God led each of us to show up – because God has shown up, and God wants to show forth his glory for us just like he did for those shepherds.
When God showed up in the fields that night, it didn’t seem like a welcome thing at first. Scripture says the shepherds were terrified– and understandably so. Fear is an entirely normal reaction. If any of us were to see something that extraordinary, we might be a little freaked out, too.
Beyond the emotional reaction, there’s the spiritualreaction. All throughout Scripture, whenever people encountered the holy or divine, they often were afraid. Those experiences of fear in the presence of God go all the way back to that originalexperience of fear in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they did, they saw that they were naked, and they hid from God – because they were afraid (Genesis 3:10).
Ever since then, we humans have been wrestling with a desireto know and be known by God in a deep and personal way – and yet, at the same time, we’re terrified: if God saw who we truly are, what might God think of us?
Perhaps you’re feeling some of those mixed emotions tonight, wondering: Do I dare risk believing once again – or for the very first time? Do I dare to believe that there is good news – and that it is truly good?
In Scripture whenever people encountered the holy or divine and were afraid, they were immediately told, “Do not be afraid.” Those were the angel’s first words to Zechariah and to Mary and now to the shepherds. We’ve been talking about this command “Do not be afraid” in Sunday worship the past few weeks. What we haven’t said yet is that the command “Do not be afraid” is, of course, more easily saidthan done.
So what dowe do?
The answer comes, not in doing, but in seeing. The angels’ opening line to the shepherds didn’t stop with, “Do not be afraid.” The angel continued, “Do not be afraid, for see.” See what Godsees. The shepherds looked up and saw a multitude of the heavenly host shining God’s glory in the highest. God, on the other hand, looked down and saw God’s glory in the lowest.
While we’re looking up to the heavens and marveling at God’s light tonight, God’s looking at and marveling at us, saying, “I do see who you truly are: you are my child. You are loved. You belong. You are precious and valuable beyond anything you can imagine – because you are mine.”
What is this good news of great joy the angels call us to see? A child has been born for us, a Savior given to us. Jesus left the glory of the highest heaven to come and show his glory to the lowest on earth – including you and me. If we want to overcome our fear of rejection and failure and be filled with his love, if we want to experience forgiveness and the freedom of no longer having to be our own savior, then look to the manger. See the God who loved you so much that he sent his Son – for you.
See his love for you, and then let what you see compel you to do.
That’s what the shepherds did. When they heard the angels and saw God’s glory shining all around them, they didn’t form a committee in good Presbyterian fashion and say, “OK, you be in charge of navigation, you be in charge of food – the goodstuff, don’t go cheap this time – and we’ll meet back here next week and come up with a plan.” No, they said, “Let’s go now!” Just like when we hear some good news, we can’t wait to pick up our phone and text someone, they couldn’t wait to get to Bethlehem, to see what was in the manger, and to make known what God had told them. But they didn’t stop there. They turned right back around, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.
And there ends scene 2.
But the storydoesn’t end there. The shepherds have done their part. Now it’s our turn to take the stage. What will the world see in the next scene?
It all depends on what we see tonight.
It can be tempting tonight to listen to the music, look all the pretty lights, be reminded of God’s glory in the highest, and leave, simply thinking, “Wasn’t that beautiful?”
God’s glory isn’t just something to admire. It’s not the end itself, but a means to an end.
Much like when you walk into a room and turn on a lamp, you don’t stand there staring at the lamp, thinking, “My, what a nice lamp.” The lights in the choir loft? When we walk in, we don’t notice the lights. We notice the choir because of the light. Or later, when we’re singing by candlelight, yes, notice the pretty candles. But also notice what the candles do: they allow us to see the faces of all our sisters and brothers that surround us.
The purpose of a lamp is not to call attention to itself. The purpose of a lamp is to shine light on everything around it: to expose dark corners, to give warmth, and to help others to see more clearly. That’s a light’s purpose.
Tonight, we celebrate that God has given us his Son Jesus, the Light of the World. But a gift is only a gift if it is received and used, and a light is only a light if it’s used for its purpose. We’re not just supposed to stay here looking up at the light; we’re called to look out at the world and shine that light for others. Just as God’s glory in the highest gave glory to the lowest some two thousand years ago, we’re now called to share the good news of God’s love by doing those same things a lamp does: exposing the darkness of this world, displaying Jesus’ love and truth, providing warmth and comfort to those in need, and helping others to see more clearly the way home.
What are those circumstances and relationships God has given you to glorify him? Don’t settle for the obvious or easy ones. Look for good news where you least expect it. If you don’t see the good news, then maybe that’s where God is calling you to bethe good news.
….and if you’re still struggling to believe there is good news to see – and that it really is good – then get up anyway. Go and see and tell, for sometimes in going and seeing and telling the good news to others we discover the good news for ourselves.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see.” See the manger. Behold what God has done and is doing. To the degree that we behold it, grasp it, and treasure and ponder it in our hearts, to that degree all fears will start to diminish, and only Jesus’ light will remain. Thanks be to God. Amen.
After a recent Saturday training run, a few of us were talking with our coach Amy Begley from Atlanta Track Club about the unexpected women’s results in the 2018 Boston Marathon. She said she believed what helped the top two women was that, unlike their competitors, they were used to suffering. When we stared at her for a second with looks like, “Really? Isn’t any marathon training a form of suffering?”, she added, “I mean, they’re not just used to suffering; they’re used to suffering on top of suffering.”
She went on to explain that many of the elite runners who were favorites to win came from fair-weather states with more favorable training conditions. The top two women did not. The first woman to cross the finish line, Desiree (Desi) Linden, lives in Michigan. (If you think our winter in Atlanta has been cold, talk to a Michigander.) The second woman to cross, Sarah Sellers (who basically was a no name in the running world until April 16), is a nurse anesthetist in Tucson, Arizona. Given her schedule, she had to begin her double-digit-mileage training runs at 4 am before work or at 7 pm after a 10-hour shift at the hospital.
Marathon training in ideal conditions involves suffering. But when having to train in snow and frigid temperatures in the dead of winter, or when having to train well before sunrise or well after sunset, before or after being on your feet all day for work? That’s suffering on top of suffering.
Yet what better preparation for race day – and ultimately for victory?
When the forecast on the day of the Boston Marathon called for gale-force winds and freezing rain, they were ready – because they’d been there. They knew what it was to suffer. As a result, when the real test came, they could handle whatever the race required.
There’s a reason Scripture often compares our life with Christ to a race – and I would add that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Like many of us, I’m good at staying the course when conditions are favorable. When life becomes a tough climb, I may whine or complain some. Add a little rain to that uphill battle, and I might begin sending out invitations to a pity party.
Some of us have said that April has been a hard month for our congregation. We’ve experienced several deaths and cancer diagnoses. Others have said it’s not just the past month. The past year has been hard. Two pastoral transitions, financial challenges, and more. Nevertheless, we’ve stayed the course. We’ve endured. We’ve persevered. We’ve trusted that, in the words of Romans 8:38-39 that our youth shared with us on Youth Sunday, nothing can separate us from the love of God. If God is for us, who or what can be against us?
And I intentionally use the pronoun “we” – because there’s another factor that gave Linden the edge.
Race commentators were surprised when favorite Shalane Flanagan stopped at a porta potty. They were even more surprised when Linden stopped to wait for her. Linden could have seen Flanagan’s pit stop as a chance to get ahead of her competitor. Instead, she saw it as a chance to help her teammate.
According to sports psychologists, Linden’s willingness to support Flanagan and other American runners and get them back on pace allowed her to take her focus off her own pain and suffering and re-direct her energy toward the goal. In Linden’s words, “when you work together, you never know what’s going to happen.”
When going through a difficult season, it might be tempting to do whatever is needed to take care of myself and make sure I come through it ok. Especially in those times, Scripture calls us to a larger vision. When we look beyond ourselves and focus on those around us, when we remember who we are and whose we are, what amazing victory might Jesus accomplish through us together?
….and no offense to Desi, but I’m pretty sure that victory far exceeds the one she received in Boston.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Today our nation celebrates a dreamer named Martin Luther King, Jr. His speech given at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, is commonly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. But that wasn’t his original title. His original title was “Normalcy, Never Again.” In fact, the words “I have a dream” weren’t part of his original manuscript that day. He’d spoken that refrain at two other speeches earlier that year in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Detroit, Michigan. But when he stood at the podium in Washington, D.C., those weren’t the words he planned to say.
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind Dr. King that day as he struggled to find words to connect with his audience. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she called to him. He heard her, and so he did. He told them about the dream, and the dream captured hearts and history.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s words fifty years later, in 2013 Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, observed there was another phrase missing from Dr. King’s speech. It was the phrase, “I have a complaint.” Wallis continued, “There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that our complaints or critiques, even our dissent, will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world – but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.”
Do you have a dream, or do you have a complaint?
There’s a culture of complaint that threatens to draw us into its bitter current. Think about the last informal social gathering of which you were a part – standing around the coffee pot at work or the lunch line at school, sitting in the stands watching your kid’s basketball game, waiting in a grocery store line, or engaging in a social media thread. Odds are the conversation around you involved some kind of complaint. The demands of your boss or teacher. The length of the line. Even during celebratory events like National Championships or play-off games, which tends to generate more dialogue – an amazing pass by the quarterback or one lousy call by the referee?
Even in the church….In early November 2001, I was serving as the youth director of a church in Virginia, when the pastor received a letter of complaint against him and the Session that was signed by about 100 members out of a 1,000+-member congregation. When we traced back the letter to when it started, based on how long it would take to write it and generate that many signatures, it would have been roughly mid-September 2001. 9/11, when everything around us seemed unsafe and out of control.
In my experience, when everything around us seems unsafe and out of control, we tend to turn against the one place that should be safe and within our control, and we tend to point fingers at and try to figure out who’s to blame for all of our problems.
Why is our natural inclination to gravitate toward complaint?
Once at a national meeting of college student-service professionals, a dean of students was leading a workshop, talking about things he’d learned on the job. He was remarking on the fact that, wherever you go in American higher education, there’s one gripe you’re certain to hear from the student body. It’s about the food in the dining hall.
Since part of his job was to make the lives of students more comfortable, the dean shared how over the years he’d convened many university committees to improve their campus’ food quality. They polled the student body to find out what students wanted, and they made improvements accordingly. The food got better and better every semester. Yet, over all those years, the dean observed a strange phenomenon: the students never stopped complaining about the food.
“I have a theory of why that is,” he explained to his colleagues. “When a group of students comes together from all over the country, from many different income levels and ethnic backgrounds and religious creeds, who are majoring in everything from poetry to organic chemistry, there’s one topic of common interest any student can raise with any other, and it’s sure to get a sympathetic hearing. It’s the subject of how bad the food is. The food doesn’t even have to be bad for students to complain about it. Because it’s not about the food. It’s about the deeply felt human need for community.”
A culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. But it’s a false unity. It has no staying power. Once the novelty and emotion around that particular complaint dwindles, people will move on to another complaint. Because there’s never a shortage of complainers.
It doesn’t take a lot of courage to complain. That’s the popular and easy way out. It does take a lot of courage to dream. It takes a lot of courage to dream, even if it might be lonely or cost you something – even if it might cost you everything for the sake of others.
Joseph was a dreamer (Genesis 37:5-20.) I’m an only child, so I can only partially understand this scenario. But for those of you who have younger siblings, how would you respond if your baby brother or sister were to say, “Hey! I dreamt we’re all sheaves of wheat, and suddenly my sheaf is going to rise up, and all of you little sheaves are going to bow down to my sheaf”? Or, “Hey, I dreamt the sun, moon, and all you eleven stars bowed down to me”? I’d imagine his brothers would want to slap Joseph upside the head and make him see stars.
His brothers’ vision was myopic: “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?”
Joseph’s vision, on the other hand, wasn’t myopic, but cosmic. He had the courage to dream of a different world, even if it meant temporarily his world was the pits.
If we keep on reading in Genesis, we find that Joseph endured the pit. He endured Egypt, from finding favor in his master’s eyes to finding himself in prison…to later finding that his willingness to hear and respond to a dream was what got him out of prison.
And later still, in a time of terrible famine, his brothers came to this Egyptian bureaucrat, begging for food (thus fulfilling the dream they’d once found so offensive), and Joseph responded, not with judgment, but with compassion: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).
How do you know if your dreams are of God? Joseph’s words pretty much sum it up.
There have been some political words said this week that have caused me to consider my own words – how I speak of other peoples, other nations. Over the past few years and especially this week, I’ve thought a lot about my words – how flippantly I speak of first-world problems or third-world countries, as if there were one, two, three, or more worlds. Or how important pronouns are: which do I use more – “me and I” or “us and we”?
The book which defines my life, the Bible, says there isn’t one, two, three, or more worlds – there is one world. There isn’t us vs. them – there is just us, all of us, God’s children, together. And if my dreams only benefit me and my world, not the common good and the world, then chances are they are not of God.
I’ve certainly been among the complainers and the scoffers. I can be as snarky as the snarkiest of us. Even with this Dopey Challenge in which I participated last week and which I attribute to a long run a while back. We’re told to do our long runs at a conversational pace. I say I did that long run at too conversational of a pace because, somehow at the end of the run/conversation, I’d basically agreed to sign up for the Chicago Marathon and the Dopey Challenge.
In all seriousness, I’m grateful for that conversation. My reaction to the Dopey Challenge before had always been, “A 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, a full marathon on Sunday? And then what – knee surgery on Monday?”
In response, one of my running partners said, “Yeah…but what if? What if we could do it?”
“But what if?” Those are the words of dreamers, not complainers. Those who see the world, not as it is, but as it could be.
I heard someone say once, “If your preaching doesn’t make you want to have a getaway car waiting for you at the exit doors, you’re not trying hard enough.” The same could be said of us and our dreams. If our dreams don’t leave us shaking in our boots, then we’re not dreaming hard enough.
Our playing safe will not change the world. Our complaining won’t change the world. At a more basic level than that, our complaining betrays the joy we have in the Lord. Our complaining begs the question of whether we believe the good news is really good and whether we trust that nothing is impossible with God.
Our willingness to dream, on the other hand, shows that, no matter how wild our dreams, there’s no need for us to shake in our boots, for even in our wildest, craziest, most infinite dreams, God’s dreams are wilder, crazier, and more infinite still. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “Now to him who by the power at work within you is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” – or dream, as some translations say.
The good news that is truly good is: God is bigger than we ever dreamed, and we can’t out-dream God.
“Tell them about the dream.” That is still our call today. Among the words Dr. King spoke almost 55 years ago, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Tell the world about that dream, and trust God to do abundantly far more. And to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Easter Sunday Sunrise Mediation Based on Luke 24:1-12
Today we gather to celebrate that the old is gone; new life has come. On that first Easter morning, a group of women gathered because they thought the reverse was true: When Jesus began his ministry, they saw their world changed in ways they never thought possible. Jesus healed the sick. He gave sight to the blind. He looked upon the outcasts of society and told them they had worth. He talked of another world – the Kingdom of God, he called it – a world where there was hope, joy, and peace, where there was life – life to the full, he said.
But three days earlier, everything changed. Jesus was nailed to a cross, and it seemed all their dreams were nailed there right beside him. That new world of which Jesus spoke suddenly came to a screeching halt. Life must now return to normal, and death and graveyards were a part of that normal.
When there is a crisis or natural disaster, those first to respond on the scene come looking for signs of life. They turn over every stone in search of the living. But these first responders had no illusions of finding life among the stones, as evidenced by what they brought with them. You don’t bring spices to help expedite the body’s decay unless you expect to find…a body.
However, the body they found is not the one they expected. Jesus’ body is gone. In its place are two living bodies, two men who ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Then they jog their memory: Remember what he told you? How on the third day he would rise again?
I imagine in the hours leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion there were whispers about Jesus’ promise to rise again. As time went by, those rumors faded away. But now with this sight – or lack thereof – of Jesus on his death bed, they remembered.
For Peter and the other disciples, the reports of the women also sounded like nothing more than a fairy tale – until Peter goes to the tomb himself, and he, too, finds it empty – and believes. They say seeing is believing. In this case, not seeing is believing.
In a similar way, a few hours later, according to the very next passage in Luke, two of the disciples were walking with Jesus. Luke says their eyes were kept from recognizing him. In most post-resurrection appearances, Jesus appears to people at first as a stranger. It’s a sign of mercy, in some ways. After all, if you or I were to see someone who once was in the grave, it might scare us to our grave. It’s a sign of hospitality, inviting us to recognize Jesus in the strangers we meet today. It’s also a sign of faith – because Jesus knows that faith is much more than what we can recognize with our eyes or touch with our hands.
Later still that day, when the two disciples invited Jesus to stay for supper, they recognized him when he took the bread, blessed it, and broke it. A familiar act to them and to us. And they remembered.
Memory is a powerful thing. Ever been to an Alzheimers or memory care unit for a worship service or hymn sing or Christmas caroling? Even patients who can’t speak a word will spontaneously begin to sing, for long after the mind is gone, the memory remains lodged in the heart.
I think that’s why the word “remember” is one of the most frequent and most important words in Scripture – so that, when we think there’s no sign of life in the world or in our own lives, our memories can bring us back to the truth: “Remember the works of the Lord. Remember you once were strangers. Remember God brought you out of slavery. Remember God’s everlasting covenant with you. Remember…I am with you always.”
That’s also why we gather this morning – to remember this event of long ago. We don’t gather as if at a memorial service to honor the dead. We gather to declare that, where once tombs were a sign of death, they are now a sign and promise of life. Because this tomb is empty, every tomb can now be empty. That Kingdom of which Jesus spoke? It’s not some misguided hope or distant fantasyland that died with Jesus. It’s alive and well, just as Jesus is.
The good news of Easter is that Jesus is on the loose. And so we also are called to be on the loose – by going from this empty tomb to another tomb.
There are plenty of people in this world, in our city, in our neighborhoods – people who have given up hope, who think the grave is the end, that the world is a lifeless place. But you and I live by a different story: Because these women could not find the living among the dead, we can go find the living among the dead. Because Jesus conquered the grave, we can see life where others see death. By pointing to hope where there is despair. By choosing love where there is hate. By seeing value in people whom the world tosses aside. By offering grace when it is least expected. By declaring that that distant Kingdom of God…maybe isn’t so distant after all. We know it. We remember it – because we’ve glimpsed it today. Thanks be to God.
Yesterday morning I found myself wondering what Jesus was doing on the Wednesday of that first Holy Week. We know what he did on Sunday. Tradition says that on Monday he turned over the tables in the Temple. But we don’t get a play-by-play of the rest of the week – until we come to this night, Maundy Thursday, with Good Friday and the cross less than 24 hours away.
None of us knows the exact day we will die. But Jesus did. What would you do if you knew you only had 24 hours to live? Many of us would probably want to spend that day with family and friends, and so did Jesus. He says elsewhere in Scripture how much he longs to celebrate this Passover meal with his disciples. But for the Gospel writer John, it’s not just the meal that is significant, but what happened during it.
Each of the other Gospel writers relates the account of what is traditionally called the Last Supper. John instead shares the account of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17), for to John both events carry the same message. In the conversation during the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples that his body will be broken and his blood poured out for them because of his love for them. Here in John’s Gospel, instead of telling them about his love, he shows his love – by picking up a towel, grabbing a basin of water, and washing their feet. What exactly do a bunch of feet have in common with a nice, fresh loaf of bread and a pretty chalice of wine? Feet aren’t always pretty. Some of them are kind of funny looking. Most of them are smelly, especially back then when people walked around on dusty roads with sandals. That’s why this job was reserved for the lowest slave in the household.
But it’s not just the foot washers who are humbled by the task, but also the foot wash-ees. Ever had someone wash your feet? Many of us may resist at first like Peter (John 13:8). “Oh, no, I’m too embarrassed to have you wash my feet.” “I have bad foot odor,” or “I haven’t had a pedicure in a long, long time.” Foot washing can be a humbling, vulnerable experience for both sides. Yet Jesus commands us to do it – because Jesus knows that only in moments of humility and vulnerability can the greatest transformation happen.
A few years ago on a youth mission trip to the Dominican Republic, as part of the evening worship one night I invited our group to wash one another’s feet. We took turns, with each person choosing whose feet they wanted to wash. An older sister washed her younger sister’s feet. A man in his 60’s washed the feet of his wife of 40 years. I choose to wash the feet of someone I’d falsely accused earlier that week. We sat in silence for a long time after worship. The next day we would learn that one of the kids – the so-called “wildest” one, the one people thought was far from faith – came to Christ that night. In watching this act of humility and vulnerability, in being willing to be humble and vulnerable himself, he discovered the truth of Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Now, compared to laying down one’s life, washing feet may not sound that bad after all, huh? Washing feet may also sometimes pale in comparison to some of the other commands Jesus gives us, like feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, love your enemies. We don’t always – rarely? ever? – like to humble ourselves and be vulnerable. When I was on Young Life staff, I led a weekly Bible study for a group of sophomore girls. One week we talked about humility. The next week I asked them, “So what’d we talk about last week?” One girl quickly responded, “Humiliation!”
Humility can sometimes feel like humiliation. Maybe that’s why we tend to water down Jesus’ command in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give you: that you like one another.” But when we define love as simply liking each other, tolerating each other, being nice to one another, or – here in the South – blessing someone’s heart, there’s an imbalance to the equation: “Just as I have loved you, you also should like one another”?
Jesus calls us to something more: A love that can’t be defined by just trying to do the right thing or be a good citizen. A love that doesn’t aim for the minimal requirement. A love that goes above and beyond, that does the unexpected, that loves and serves even those who deny us, betray us, and desert us. A love, Jesus says, that makes clear that we are his disciples (John 13:35), for no other explanation is humanly possible.
So what do we need to do to love in that way? The answer is found, not in what we do, but in what we know. In verses 3-4, John writes, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had put all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” Jesus knew three things: He knew he was fully in control, he knew where he’d come from and where he was going. In that knowledge, he could get up from the table and humbly serve his friends.
We know those same three things to be true. Scripture tells us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18). He’s in control. He’s got this. Scripture also tells us God created each of us – and not just created us, but created us in his image (Genesis 1:27). We know our roots, that we came from our Heavenly Father who loved us enough to create us in his image and to call us his children. And we know where we’re going: Later on in this same conversation, Jesus will tell his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for us in our Father’s house. “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” he says, “I will come again and will take you to myself.” (John 14:2-3). With this assurance that we know the bookends of our life – that we’ve come from God, that we will return to God, and that in between the two Jesus has us and all things in his hands – we are free to love one another just as freely as Jesus loves us.
So let us share Jesus’ love with one another around the table tonight that we may, too, may get up from the table to extend it to the world.
Earlier this week a colleague shared a story about a golf tournament he attended. During the tournament, he heard many of the players complaining about how the course wasn’t as nice as it used to be. Parts of it were overgrown. The grass was greener on other courses they’d seen. The paths had some potholes that made for a less-than-smooth cart ride, and so on. But then he noticed one player who didn’t seem bothered by the change in terrain. He just kept doing what he was there to do: play golf. “I think there’s a lesson in that,” my colleague said.
Yes, there is.
Our terrain has changed much in recent years. Challenges in our economy, politics, global conflict, racial-ethnic tensions, social and ethical dilemmas, and more have made for a bumpy ride. Some days it can feel easier to sit on the sidelines and complain than it is to get in the game.
Perhaps those most prone to this dynamic are those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, when the Church faces, not just external, but internal struggles – whether in our denominations, our local congregations, or both. We live in a season when fear, uncertainty, and dis-ease can be so paralyzing that we, too, are reluctant to get in the game. We may even forget there is a game to be played.
That’s what happens when we get so caught up in the “what if’s” that we forget the real question – the question of God’s sovereignty.
A few years ago, a friend from The Outreach Foundation spoke to our congregation about Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East. The most pressing question people asked him was, “Is the situation in the Middle East as bad as it appears on the news, or better – or worse?” My friend replied, “CNN does not define reality; Jesus Christ defines reality.”
I’ve thought about that statement often in recent months, for it can be said of any situation today. Take any crisis, any fear, any worry, or concern – anything that speaks to the reality in which we find ourselves. Then fill in the blank: “_______ does not define reality; Jesus Christ defines reality.”
And his reality, the reality of the gospel, is this: Jesus Christ still sits on the throne. Either we believe this, or we don’t. If we believe this, then no other question ultimately matters. If we believe this, then whom shall we fear? Let’s get on with being disciples!
Let’s get back on the golf course. Not on the beautiful, well-groomed courses, but the ones that have long been neglected. The ones that are overgrown with weeds and potholes. The ones that need, not someone just to make it through 18 holes, but someone to really play.
Because of Jesus Christ, rather than just sitting on the sidelines saying, “Look what the world has come to,” you and I are free to get in the game saying, “Look who has come to the world” – by playing with all our heart and soul, all the joy and grace and hope of the gospel, all for the sake of the Kingdom.
It is a question of sovereignty. By which reality will we live: the reality to which the world would conform us, or the reality that Jesus desires to transform through us?
The Spirit can be a funny thing, can’t it? How many of us can say we fully understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does? Probably none of us, this side of heaven. I remember in seminary, in our Theology 101 class, when we were working through each person, or each article as it is called, of the Apostles’ Creed. When we came to the third article, the third person, the Holy Spirit, we had to write a short paper about the Spirit. After reading our papers, our professor came to class one morning and said, “You people just don’t get the Holy Spirit, do you?” Who could argue with her?
It seems even Scripture can’t argue with her. When Jesus meets with one of the religious leaders Nicodemus, Jesus tells him, ““The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Anyone ever tried to understand the wind? We have meteorologists who can track it with charts and maps, but if you’re in the middle of a hurricane, the experience trumps anything any chart or map can tell you.
Luke’s story in Acts of the coming of the Spirit can be equally perplexing. He, too, finds the Spirit hard to describe, calling it “a sound like the rush of the wind” and “tongues as of fire.” Those of us who are in school or who still remember being in school, how were we taught to analyze a story? You look at the characters and character development, the plot and the story’s setting, its time and place. But Acts seems to have little interest in the things that typically make for a “good story.” Instead, the story is in service to the community: Luke seeks to reveal some truth about the community – that is, the church – something which can only be known by sharing this story, by letting go of our analytical questions, and by letting the story have its way with us. Sometimes this story has given the church hope. Sometimes this story has convicted the church and found it wanting. What will the story say to the church today? Let’s find out.
So I invite you to let go. Read Jesus’ story for his Church (Acts 2:1-21), and let it have its way with you.
Right from the start, Luke’s story shows its focus is community, for it begins with community – the disciples were all together in one place, in a room of a house. The story begins with community, and it will also end with community, but the two will look very different.
While they are all together in one place, suddenly there is that sound like the rush of the wind and tongues as of fire. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages. When we hear about tongues and speaking in other languages, we may think Pentecost means Pentecostalism and its emphasis on the gift of speaking in tongues. But that kind of speaking in tongues requires an interpretation. Here the goal is not interpretation, but proclamation. No interpreter was needed, as we quickly discover, when the setting shifts from inside their house to outside on the streets, where there is a crowd of people already present.
We in the church often forget that Pentecost didn’t start with the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit. It started over a thousand years before that. Pentecost was an agricultural festival established by God through Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:22). At Pentecost, the 50th day after Passover, farmers brought their first sheaves of wheat from their crops, partly as a sign of gratitude, and partly as a prayer that the rest of their crops would be just as fruitful. But that day on Mount Sinai wasn’t just the day God put a bunch of festivals on the calendar; it was also the day the people received the law, when God gave God’s people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.
Pentecost didn’t start with the church, but it is fitting that the church started at Pentecost, for it was this day when God gave us God’s people the power of life by which we, too, must now carry out his purposes.
On this particular Pentecost, as was typical of every Pentecost, people from all over the region were present. They were gathered together for the sake of the festival, when suddenly something else drew them together – first the sound of the wind, and then the sound of their native language in a foreign city. Every tongue was on the tongues…of Galileans of all people!
You may have heard the joke: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? A trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American. (It’s a sad commentary on us, but one that is hopefully changing.) The same joke could be told here: What do you call a person who speaks multiple languages? Certainly not a Galilean. But here they were, speaking not just a few languages, but the native language of every nation under heaven: from Elam in the far east, to Rome in the far west, from African nations such as Egypt and Libya, to the desert nation of Arabia and the island nation of Crete. Through this miraculous witnessing to people gathered from across most of the known world, the Spirit gave the disciples a glimpse of Jesus’ calling to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
And not just to the ends of the earth, but to the ends of time. If you go back and read over the names of the various nations in Acts 2, some of these nations no longer existed at the time of this event. They were ancient people groups from long ago. But somehow they were there that day. It’s as if, by bringing these past nations into this global summit of present nations, God were showing the world how something he started centuries before was now coming to fruition…
It was an unbelievable event – awe-inspiring for some, unsettling and threatening for others. So, human nature being what it is, the crowd had to come up with some explanation to rationalize the irrational: “They’re drunk!” What other explanation could there be?
But there is another explanation, says Peter. If the first gift of the Spirit was the gift of communication, the second was certainly giving Peter courage to speak. This disciple, who just a few weeks beforehand had denied and deserted Jesus, now finds both the nerve and the words to proclaim what God is up to by citing a prophecy of Joel. A prophecy that captured the people’s hope for centuries, that answered the question the disciples asked Jesus right before his ascension (Acts 1:6). The question that threads its way throughout the book of Acts, that perhaps even threads its way through our hearts and minds today: “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? Is this the time when you will finally make everything right again – when you will redeem, restore, and make all things new?”
The answer is yes – and not yet. That’s how theologians today describe the time in which we are living – between the already and the not yet – between the time when Jesus came and launched the start of his Kingdom, and the time when he will come again and complete his mission. The early Christians also believed they were living in between the last days and the ultimate last day, the day of the Lord, as Joel describes it. The way that they knew they were living in these in-between times? Because of what Joel tells them will be a sign: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Before, in the Old Testament, the Spirit had been given to a select few – prophets, priests, kings, and other so-called “righteous” people. But now in these last days, on this Pentecost day, that same Spirit is given to all kinds of people – slave and free, men and women, young and old. And look where it began! Not in the temple or university or seminary or among other so-called “professionals,” but in an ordinary room with a group of ordinary people who simply had been willing to wait and pray together for God’s next move.
A good friend of mine Joan Gray compares these disciples’ “efforts” to the difference between a rowboat and a sailboat. In her book Sailboat Church, she says most of us are skilled rowers. Even if we’ve never been in a rowboat, if we were to find ourselves in one, we’d probably figure out how to make the boat move, because a rowboat relies on our efforts, our muscles. But we’re not all skilled sailors, because a sailboat depends on a different “muscle”: harnessing the power of the wind. Really, the main skill of a sailor is positioning oneself in the same path as the wind – because if you want to catch the wind, you have to put yourself where the wind is blowing.
That’s what the disciples did: They raised their sails and then prayed for wind. They were open and willing for that wind to take them wherever it blew, whether it was miles away from their comfort zone or just across the street from it – for where else do we have more need for the Spirit to be our Comforter (John 14:16) than when we are out of our comfort zones?
In his book Forgotten God: Reversing our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, author and pastor Francis Chan asks, “Why would we need to experience the Comforter if our lives are already comfortable? It is only those who put their lives at risk for the gospel who will most often experience Jesus’ being ‘with you always to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). Though this verse is true for all believers (of course God is always with us), if we are never alone or feeling like we need Him, how much do we care or need to know that God is with us?”
Lutheran pastor Dan Mangler tells the story of his family’s Shetland sheep dog named Amber. Amber loved windy days. No matter how windy it was, whether it was a gentle breeze or a gale-like gust, Amber would stand on their front lawn, face the direction from which the wind was coming, stick her nose in the air – and immediately enter doggy heaven, totally oblivious to anything going on around her. Mangler says he finally figured out why: Her world, for the most part, was confined to the house or the yard. But the wind brought her experiences of a world beyond her power to visit – the smell of a dozen kinds of trees, the smell of a dozen kinds of squirrels, and of all kinds of lands and animals and peoples. When she smelled the wind, Amber caught whiff of the whole world.
Now, not to say who is the dog in this story, but I pray we all are – because that’s the invitation of Pentecost: to catch wind of what God is doing in the world, and then to join him in that mission.
So may we raise our sails this Pentecost Day. May we do whatever it takes to put ourselves where the wind is blowing. And when we catch a whiff of God’s Spirit, may it lead us to visions beyond anything we’ve ever dreamed. In the name of the Father, the Son, …and the Holy Spirit. Amen.