It is Pentecost Sunday! Everywhere you look, you can see red and doves. Red paraments, doves in the air, all symbols of the Holy Spirit. This is when we celebrate the birth of the church—the event that is described in our reading from Acts. Today is a day when we pay special attention to the Holy Spirit. When we worship, we worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and since that is all one God, we don’t divide up our worship amongst the three. However there are festivals that we focus more on one particular person of the trinity and today that’s the Spirit. The breath of God or, as it’s said in the Old Testament in Hebrew: Ruach! The breath of God.
The lectionary texts for this week have a set of texts to choose from. What we just heard read is slightly different from what your bulletin lists. We heard first from the book of Numbers, a book of history and of the law. This text is similar to the story of Pentecost we are familiar with because it is about God giving his Spirit. In this case, it is to seventy elders that Moses had chosen.
God told Moses to choose these men so they could share and make manageable all his many responsibilities that he had caring for the people. What makes all of this interesting, though, is what happens just before this section and the surprising twist at the end.
The people of God, recently sprung from their Egyptian slavery by the mighty hand of God and his prophet, Moses, are wandering in the desert. First they were thirsty, as anyone would be in the desert, and God found water for them. Then they were hungry, the next logical thing for a group just wandering around, and God fed them on Manna. And yet they are still whining about how things were so much better in their slavery days because they had meat to eat. They really are the ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately?’ people. They begin to whine to Moses about their wishes for meat and Moses, in turn, complains to God about the heavy burden placed on him to care for all these people. How am I suppose to care for all these people—he asks God. I cannot keep doing this!
As God as always done, he provides for them, this time by giving them quail meat –all they can eat and then some! But God also hears not just the people’s needs but Moses’ needs as well. Just as he provides what the people need to survive, God also provides for Moses, too. And that’s where we get to today’s text. God has Moses to select seventy elders from all the tribes and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. It is then that God comes down and divides the Ruach–the Spirit–that has been placed upon Moses, so that a portion of it is shared amongst these men as well. They prophecy as the spirit is given to them. These men were then able to share with Moses in some of the many jobs he had in taking care of, leading, teaching and guiding the people of God.
That’s all well and good. Very good, actually. But here’s the twist in the story. There are two men who had not been in the Tent of Meeting and, presumably, hadn’t been chosen by Moses, were also given a portion of that Ruach and they, too, began to prophecy right out there in the regular area of camp. Right there amongst everyone else.
Well, where did that come from? That wasn’t part of the plan, neither the plan Moses had nor the plan God presented to Moses! Joshua, one of the most faithful and Moses’ right hand helper, and a few others, were quite a bit unsettled by this turn of events, too, and went to tell Moses to get them knock it off. They weren’t part of the group and shouldn’t be doing that.
It wasn’t part of the plan. It wasn’t the way it was ‘supposed’ to be.
We feel like this sometimes, don’t we? We think God is going to do something a certain way and, instead, we get something a little different from what we’d expected. Things are supposed to follow a certain pattern, go a certain way. God is supposed to do what he said he would do. Which God does. God always comes through on what he says he will do, but sometimes we may wish God would stop there with just what we want. Stop with OUR plan.
But Moses thinks this is such a good thing that he says he really wishes all the people of God were prophets and that God would give them all his Ruach.
That is the Holy Spirit at work. Unpredictable. Unexpected. Uncontrollable. Untame. There is a hymn in one of our hymnals that’s verses tell about a gentle, mild Holy Spirit that is more like a soft breeze or warm candle light than a whirlwind and fire. While I am sure the Holy Spirit can be every bit as gentle as God wishes since he is, in fact, God and can therefore do anything, but it seems that most of the time this is exactly what the Holy Spirit is: whirlwind and fire. Uncontrolable. Untame. Unexpected. Doesn’t sound like the Spirit is gentle at all.
When the church is born at Pentecost, it is the fire of the Holy Spirit that dances upon the heads of the disciples as they are transformed into apostles. It is the whirlwind of the Holy Spirit that rushes into fill the house; a sign that change is coming and coming quickly. This is not what they had expected. First, Jesus was not the Messiah they thought they would get, then he was resurrected—which was completely unexpected. Then, when he could have brought about the kingdom of God right then and there, he rises up to heaven. He had promised the Holy Spirit, the one he called the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, the Advocate, but he never said it would be like this! They begin to proclaim the good news of God in every language of the people present in the area. Peter begins to quote the words of the prophet Joel about God’s promise to pour out his Spirit on all flesh.
Moses’ wish is beginning to come true.
The Gospel text gives us another scene where Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit. Jesus, after his resurrection, tells the terrified disciples that just as God had sent him into the word, he was sending them into the world. Here, he breathes on them the Holy Spirit and tells them that if they forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven and if they retain them, they are retained. Like the first human into whom God breathed his life, the disciples are brought back to a new and eternal life. And this Spirit, the breath of Jesus, the Ruach of God is what gives this life.
Unpredictable. Unexpected. But something else happens to, perhaps even more unexpected. Jesus tells them that the sins they forgive are forgiven and the ones they retain are retained. One of the most amazing and shocking things about Jesus in the first place was that he was going around forgiving sins just like he had the authority to do so and now…..now he’s giving that same authority to them by breathing on them the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God, in all God’s untame, unpredictable, unexpected whirlwind and fire, gives them the power to exercise God’s mercy….God’s grace. Maybe there is some gentleness there, after all!
The Holy Spirit is all about creation, recreation, renewal, and bringing about mercy and grace, too. The Spirit renewed Moses and the people of God by distributing the responsibility of leadership to others, recreating the way the people would be led and doing something altogether unexpected and new. Not just delegating tasks but empowering for the real work of God among the people. The Spirit created the church at Pentecost and we are now, today, This Very Day, being called, gathered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit to be the church where we are also made new creations through Christ. And we also receive the precious gift of God’s grace and forgiveness through the Holy Spirit as well.
It is the untame Holy Spirit that renews us as well both as individuals and as a congregation. We pray for our church to be renewed, to be recreated, to be made new and have new ministries and new ways of proclaiming the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to our corner of the world. Some of us pray for this every day. I ask all of you to do this as well. Pray that God will send his Holy Spirit into our congregation, that he will fill us—each and every one of us—with ideas and gifts and compassion.
But here is something for us to remember as we pray: the Holy Spirit is not tame and does not do what we tell him to do. He is the whirlwind driving and fire blazing Spirit of the Living God. God’s acts of creation, re-creation, renewal, mercy and grace may not look like we think it will. Just look what happened with Moses–people he hadn’t counted on received God’s Spirit. And Peter! One minute he’s denying and cowering in fear for his life and the next he’s speaking in foreign languages and preaching in public to strangers! Not to mention all those other times the Spirit shows up, like moving across the face of chaos at the dawn of creation, bringing to life an entire army in a valley of dry bones, speaking through all the prophets, coming down upon Jesus at his baptism just like a great dove, coming down to give each of us gifts in our own baptism that we get to use, giving voice to our own wordless human pain and suffering with sighs deeper than we ourselves can muster, and the day when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh when the young prophesy and the old dream.
When God sends his Holy Spirit, we do not know exactly what will happen and we may not be completely in control but we do know it will be life-giving, gracious and merciful. So I say, let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit!