“Thunder, Lightning, Wind and Fire”
Chilmark Community Church
May 15, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
There is a lot of cosmic drama going on in the scriptures this morning. A mountain rumbles, wrapped in smoke, fire descends, the smoke rises like the smoke from a furnace – the mountain shakes. A crowded room is filled with roaring, rushing wind – violent – according to the story – and flames of fire – blazing tongues resting on each person. High drama. When the Sovereign of the Universe wishes to communicate with human beings, the first thing to do is to get our attention! The thing that both of these stories have in common is that God indulges in self-revelation and this happens in very different ways at different times.
This morning we celebrate that second revelation as the Day of Pentecost – the culmination of the 50 days between Easter and today – the revelation or the gift or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the primitive church.
Interestingly enough, Jewish tradition also celebrates a 50 day culmination – post Passover – known as Shavuot – the Revelation at Sinai. This year Shavuot will happen on June 12. Although this year we celebrate Pentecost and Shavuot about a month apart because of the lunar calendar, quite often Shavuot and Pentecost occur quite close to each other. Sometimes the two events of God’s revelation share the same day. This is how it was on the first Christian Pentecost. Our scriptures tell us “When the day of Pentecost had come….” The 1st Christian Pentecost happened on the Jewish Pentecost – the anniversary celebration of God’s giving of the Law to Israel on Mt. Sinai.
The giving of the Torah was a far-reaching spiritual event—one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all times. Jewish sages have compared it to a wedding between Gd and the Jewish people. At Sinai Gd swore eternal devotion to God’s people, and the people in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to
There is a tradition around the revelation at Sinai that every Jewish soul that ever was or ever would be was present when the Torah of God was given. Tradition also holds that every person heard the Torah that they were supposed to hear in a way that they could hear and understand. And so the Torah, the teaching of God, has been transmitted from generation to generation – with each generation being responsible for how to live out the commands of God. It came in a condensed form – traditionally 10 utterances that we have come to call the 10 Commandments. They were and are a blueprint – or a kind of constitution, if you will – for the Israelites – designed to help them become a cohesive people with a set of guidelines to live by. Gradually these early 10 utterances were interpreted and re-interpreted to provide guidance and law as Israel became a people – – no longer slaves – – a people who were free and needed to learn how to live together in that freedom.
So it was this festival of Pentecost that the Jews in Jerusalem were celebrating when the story from the Book of Acts comes into play. There are echoes of Sinai in the Christian Pentecost. Frightening winds – rushing in out of nowhere – flames appearing and hovering over the heads of the people gathered in the room. The writer tells us that there were devout Jews from every nation under the sun – – and they heard those who had been in the room speaking in their own languages – another echo of that great day at Sinai when each person heard the revelation in their own way.
Today we celebrate the outpouring of gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church – that invisible, empowering presence that will lead us into the truth.
But – 2000 years later, there seem to be no rushing winds. The fire we kindle comes from symbolic and rather tame candles. It has been a long, long time since the thunder and the quaking mountain at Sinai and the room full of wind and fire. Those dramatic events have never been repeated. In the 21st century we are challenged to know and understand and interpret and re-interpret these events for our own time in the absence of the dramatic, external, cosmic events. We are challenged with the work of understanding how the ancient revelation and gifts are relevant for us in the here and now.
There are some difficult questions to be considered. First and foremost, perhaps, is the question of whether God actually does indulge in revelation any more? Is there anything that helps us to know that this is what God is doing? How do we know when God is revealing something holy – some kind of guidance – something that will change our lives, something to which we need to pay attention. How do we say “Yes, I ‘hear’ the voice of God” and not make ourselves a candidate for some serious therapy?
These are questions I entertain from time to time. I think it is a good thing to ask these questions in 2016 when God seems absent – – or at the very least seems not to be paying attention to what happens on this planet.
I firmly believe that the sacred texts hold clues to the answers if we are willing open ourselves up to the challenge that reside within them.
When we recall the circumstances that led up to Sinai – we remember that the people who left the narrow strictures of life in slavery in Egypt did not know how to live in freedom. They had never had control over their own lives. They did not know how to manage resources since they had never had any to manage. They did not know how to live together in community since life in slavery did not permit responsible life in community. They did not know how to use their own time since they had never had “their own time”. Moving out into the freedom of the wilderness as a company of slaves presented a traumatic crisis. They put a lot of trust in Moses, but they didn’t really know much about the Holy One who guided their leader.
Into this chaotic crisis, the Holy One set down a revelation of order that would help them to become a people – a basic structure within which to live in freedom: Worship the One God only – – no idol worship – – remember to keep and guard the Sabbath each seventh day and keep it holy – – don’t murder – – don’t steal – – don’t lie or gossip about your neighbor – – don’t envy one another – – honor and respect your elders – and of course – – no adultery!!
In the chaos that seems to rule in so many places and events in the present, these straightforward words still make consummate sense. But humankind being what it is, we forget – we fail to pay attention to these very direct and helpful words for living. Life is complex.
So – – in the first revelation – God gets the attention of the people and reveals to them an order for a civilized life in community as God’s people. Does God still reveal the will of God in 2016? Perhaps one answer might lie in the fact that the original revelation still works. It is said in Jewish tradition that if humankind were to fully keep just one Sabbath – the Messiah would come. So – perhaps that earlier revelation not only presents an order for life, but a vision for a possible world if, indeed, we were able to keep our end of the bargain.
When we revisit the story of the second revelation in Jerusalem, it, too, comes to a people trapped in the narrow strictures of the kind of spiritual and economic and political slavery that existed under Rome at the time. People had the original covenant to guide them and to help them make meaning of life. And into that mixture came a second revelation – – one that brought with it the gifts the people would need to survive and transcend their life circumstances and indeed to begin to flourish and grow. The second revelation in no way replaces the first one – rather it compliments and energizes.
Christian tradition tells us that with the flames and the wind came the Presence of the Holy Spirit bringing precious spiritual gifts that give energy for living out the orderly life that God commanded in the first revelation. These gifts are drawn from Isaiah 11:1-2:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
WISDOM – the capacity to discern spiritual truth in the midst of the material world; the yearning to understand God;
UNDERSTANDING – the comprehension we need to live as God’s people in the world –
the gift we need in order to be able to be in the world – but not of the world COUNSEL/RIGHT JUDGMENT With the gift of counsel/right judgment, we know the difference between right and wrong, and we choose to do what is right.
MIGHT/COURAGE With the gift of fortitude/courage, we overcome our fear and are willing to take risks as a follower of Jesus. A person with courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm.
KNOWLEDGE of God – – direct experience of the Holy that give us a sense of the meaning of God.
PIETY/REVERENCE With the gift of piety/reverence, we have a deep sense of respect for God – a yearning for closeness with God.
FEAR OF GOD – A sense of awe and wonder that leads us into the an awareness of the glory and majesty of God – A yearning never to be separated from God.
Wisdom – Understanding -Right Judgment – Courage -Knowledge -Reverence – Awe and Wonder – Spiritual gifts for living out the days of our lives. We have all received them in some measure. Combined with the powerful words of guidance in the first revelation, these gifts are what empower us to live in community, to follow the beat of a different drummer when necessary, to be God’s people in the world.
Birthdays are for celebrating. On this celebration of the Great Day of Pentecost and its sister celebration of Shavuot, we celebrate the birth of a people and the birth of the church. May we pray to be open to receiving all the gifts of God that are offered to us throughout all time – each day – in each moment – always flowing – always renewable. May we open these gifts, cherish them, use them and share them. May God-Who-Continually-Creates through the love of Jesus and the blowing winds of the Holy Spirit, catch us by surprise with a breath of renewal and a grand spark of energy as we move into another year in ministry together. AMEN