“Tongues of Fire”
Rev. Sandy Johnson
May 24, 2015
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We are stepping away from our series on religions of the world for today to celebrate Pentecost. We will come back to the study of other religions next Sunday when I will be presenting about the LDS church. You won’t want to miss!
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I went to college at Oregon State University right after graduating high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, but in my family the options were which college, not whether we would go to college, so off I went. I spent two years with an undeclared major and was in an exploratory studies program. This allowed me to take classes in a variety of majors to see if I could discover my niche. My junior year I declared Resource Recreation Management, partly because that was the area of study my brother was in and I respected and admired him; it may have also been because it was in the School of Forestry and there were very few women in the midst of some very hunky outdoorsmen.
Whatever the reason, that was where I landed. I struggled through the first year in the program and had taken an incomplete in the tree identification course. It was a brutal class that required the students to memorize all of the pieces and parts of hundreds of trees. We had to know each tree by its bark, cone, leaf or needle. It took massive amounts of pure memorization to pass. I was sitting in the school of forestry study room one day, pouring over the samples, trying to cram the information into my head so I could pass a test, when one of my professors came in. He said to me, “What are you doing here?” I told him I was studying for the next tree identification test. He said, “no, not what are you doing here today, but what are you doing in the School of Forestry? You don’t belong here. You should go over to sociology. That’s where you belong.”
I was shocked at his remark but as I thought about it I wondered if he was right. The next day I went to see the academic advisor for the school of Liberal Arts and discovered that I had coincidentally, perfectly completed a liberal arts degree without even trying. All I had left, if I switched majors to sociology, was two terms of upper division sociology and I would graduate with a BS.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit intervened in my life that day, through my professor. It was a life changing event that has brought me to where I am today. It was subtle, some would say coincidental, but I know that it was God directing me, as only God can. It was only in retrospect, however, that I noticed or acknowledged the working of the Holy Spirit in my day to day life. Up to that point I just thought I was pretty brilliant and frankly very “lucky.” It was many years before I fully came to understand the Holy Spirit and the role that it played in my life.
This morning we are celebrating Pentecost. The experience the disciples had, as told in our scripture this morning, was of the Holy Spirit coming upon them and transforming their lives. That same Holy Spirit lives among us today and guides us if we are open and willing to listen and follow.
Pentecost is the second most important part of the Christian year following Easter. It was originally a Jewish festival that is fifty days after Passover. It is also known as the Feast of Weeks and Feast of Harvest of First-Fruits. Pentecost occurred just following the spring wheat harvest. Exodus 34:23 says that “three times a year all your men (all of the Israelite males) are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel” to offer gratitude for the harvest. So Christ’s disciples had gathered together to celebrate the festival. What happened that evening blew the lid off their faith. Acts 2:2:
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
The sound, like the rush of a violent wind filled the house. I have heard people describe the sound of tornados as like a freight train. Part of the sound I suspect is the wind and part is the destruction happening when it touches the ground, but it is loud none the less. There is no report of damage to the household, only the sound of violent wind. Then the scripture says:
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Can you even imagine witnessing this? Tongues of fire, lapping at those present. It doesn’t say so, but I wonder if they felt the heat of the fire? Or if it was only that fire represented the Spirit and nothing was actually burning; sort of like the sound of the wind without the power of the wind in the first part of the scripture. Each person present was filled with the Spirit, each person had a tongue of fire resting upon them.
These people, devout Jews from all over who were living in Jerusalem, each with their own language, could understand what the people were saying. Jesus’ followers were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke to those who would listen and everyone understood. Those who were present listening were also filled with the Holy Spirit and were able to understand what was being said, even though they didn’t speak the same language. How in the world can that happen? Does anyone else wonder if they are drunk? There has to be some serious hallucinogenic drugs involved, right?
Well you and I aren’t the only ones who wondered if they were drunk. They were accused of being “filled with new wine” and you could feel the condemnation, especially because it was only nine in the morning.
But then Peter steps forward to try to explain what is happening. Gotta love Peter. He knew they weren’t drunk. He also knew that Jesus had told them that he would send his Holy Spirit upon them, so he shared what he knew from the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
We are all filled with the Holy Spirit. Few of us have had an experience as dramatic as this one from the first Pentecost, but we are all none the less, filled with the Spirit. When we are filled with the Spirit we are able to connect with God in a very tangible and practical way. Our own founder of Methodism, John Wesley, speaks of the day he felt the movement of the Holy Spirit. He had been in a season where he was questioning his faith. He expressed a growing misery and was considering leaving the church. His friend, a Moravian, told him to “Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it, you will preach faith.” (Sort of like fake it until you make it!) John followed this advice and led a prisoner to faith in Jesus and was astonished with the transformation he witnessed in the man.
While this was great for John, he longed to be assured, to know that God was with him. He longed to “feel” God. He cried out in prayer, “Lord, help my unbelief!” And then on May 24, 1738 – exactly 277 years ago today – he “opened his bible at about five in the morning and came across these words from 2 Peter 1:4, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should partakers of the divine nature.”
That evening he reluctantly attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate. “Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. At about 8:45 p.m. John states that “while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, he felt his heart strangely warmed. He said, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
John Wesley was already an Anglican priest at that time, he was well into his ministry when he felt the movement of the Holy Spirit and gained the assurance of his faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit is powerful and real, tangible and transformative. As Christians we have access to the Holy Spirit every minute, of every day. When the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we are able to see where a shift happens, a shift from our self to God self, from a life lived to glorify ourselves, to one that glorifies God. The Holy Spirit “enables us to focus on our love of God and others.” As Wesleyans, we understand that the gift of the Holy Spirit helps us to “live into the two-fold nature of discipleship: loving God and [loving] our neighbors.” Wesley taught us to understand “the Holy Spirit as the fullness of God at work in our broken world.”
How do we sense the Holy Spirit? Where do we connect with the Divine? “We sense the Spirit in time alone – perhaps in prayer, in our study of the Scriptures, in reflection on a difficult decision or in the memory of a loved one. The Spirit’s touch is intensely personal.” Sometimes the Holy Spirit works through others, like with my professor. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes to us when we are most vulnerable.
Marge Shull shared with me that when she lived in Connecticut she had to go in for an MRI of her head. She knew she was claustrophobic and was anxious thinking about how she would handle the appointment. She shared with me that as she laid on the table waiting for the technician to begin, her mind was a jumble of thoughts. The technician explained the procedure and Marge did her best to concentrate on what she was saying but all she could remember was that the test took 25 minutes and that she would have to hold very still.
Marge shared that her head was placed into a box-like device and it was closed so that she couldn’t move. She vaguely remembered the technician saying, “Please hold very still.” She knew she couldn’t move and she said her heart began to beat and her breathing became labored. She knew in that moment that if she didn’t get control of herself she was going to scream. She silently cried out instead to God, “Please God, Don’t let me panic!”
Immediately she told me that an overwhelming peace surrounded her whole being, like a protective blanket that she “snuggled” into. She said she enjoyed the rest of the procedure. Moments later the technician told her that the test was over, the time had flown by. Marge related that as strange as it seemed, she didn’t want to leave the wonderful peace that God had given her.
The Holy Spirit is among us and in us and through us. “When we sense God’s leading, God’s challenge, or God’s support or comfort, we say that it’s the Holy Spirit at work.” Call it intuition, call it Spider Sense, or call it a sneaky suspicion; the Spirit dwells within us and wants to be known. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom and peace go hand in hand when we surrender to the leading of the Spirit.
“We can all have our [own] Pentecost. We can experience the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in worship, in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, during prayer time, during Bible study, during missionary outreach, during service work, in whatever activity helps us have an open heart and mind to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is also present in times of personal suffering and even death. God sends us the Holy Spirit in such moments to comfort us but also to give us courage, faith, and power to deal with our suffering and grief and then move on. The Holy Spirit helps us experience God’s presence and gives us the power to be faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is God’s way of staying in touch daily with his people as they share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.”
It is my prayer that as we celebrate Pentecost that we will be reminded of the tongues of fire that descended upon everyone present that day, so many years ago, that we would rejoice in the knowledge that God is always with us and the Holy Spirit is with all of us today.
Let us pray: Gracious God, we are overwhelmed with the knowledge that you sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate to be our daily companion. We couldn’t do life without the Spirit’s help and we thank you for opening our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit’s presence and movement. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
 http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/john-wesleys-heart-strangely-warmed-11630227.html Accessed May 23, 2015.
 http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/john-wesleys-heart-strangely-warmed-11630227.html Accessed May 23, 2015
 http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/come-holy-ghost-a-wesleyan-perspective-on-the-spirit Accessed May 23, 2015
 http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-christian-roots-the-holy-spirit Accessed May 22, 2015
 http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-christian-roots-the-holy-spirit Accessed May 22, 2015
 http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/3832/from-the-particular-to-the-universal Accessed May 22, 2015