Sermon- July 2, 2017 Carillon Beach Community Chapel
“Ebb and Flow, Come and Go, To and Fro”
Scripture: Acts 2: 1-12 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
June 4th was Pentecost Sunday, the day in the Christian year when we celebrate the coming of the power of the Holy Spirit among all of Christ’s believers and the birth of the church. Our Scripture reading today points to the diverse nationalities of people from all over the known world who lived in Jerusalem and others who were in Jerusalem at that time for the annual Jewish Feast of First Fruits or for commerce. As the Holy Spirit descended with power upon the gathered disciples, those Jews and visitors from all over the world observed the Holy Spirit’s power come upon them and heard the message of the Gospel, each in his own respective language, shared by these Galilean fishermen who had never been trained in those languages. (Acts 2: 4-12) I have heard it observed that the linguistic miracle of Pentecost was somewhat of a reversal of the experience at the Tower of Babel that we read about in Genesis 11:1-9. During that Old Testament event people came together and sought arrogantly and pridefully to build their own towering access to God and were thwarted by being fragmented into numerous languages and scattered across the globe by God. What God confounded and disbursed in the Old Testament due to the people’s pride and rebellion, he symbolically redeemed and restored through a gathering together of people from across the globe with a new language of the Spirit and a new understanding of the person and ministry of Christ.
That observation of a redemptive reversal from the experience at Babel to the experience at Pentecost reminded me of another “reversal” of sorts that is also associated with that glorious day of the Holy Spirit’s power and the birth of Christ’s church. Upon completion of Peter’s preaching to the multitudes there, most likely right on the steps of the Temple, the Scripture says: “ And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:40-42)
The Scripture tells us that 3000 souls were saved that day upon hearing the Gospel! If one thinks back to Exodus 32:28, when the people of God acted idolatrously, creating and worshipping a golden calf during Moses’ absence while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandment tablets, God’s wrath and discipline over their disobedience had resulted in 3000 deaths. This is another sort of Old Testament/ New Testament contrast and represents another symbolically redemptive act of restoration that occurred from one age to another.
In both of these situations described in the Old Testament, the golden calf worship and the tower of Babel construction, people had acted presumptuously and disobediently. In the New Testament, by comparable proportions (the 3000 souls saved) or by comparable modes of expression (through language) a distinctly redemptive work of God was accomplished by the power of his Holy Spirit. A phrase that comes to mind in such to and fro, ebb and flow, contrasting and balancing circumstances is the phrase, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And quite regularly, although we are not always aware of it, God’s giving and taking is often done in more or less proportional measures.
If one considers the long arc of biblical progression of God’s redemptive work, the ultimate expression of that contrast between discipline for rebellion against God and God’s gracious acts of redemption, this same ‘then/now” contrasting and balancing work of God, is expressed by Paul in Romans 5:12-21: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…….But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many…..on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”
What a beautiful picture of loss due to sin and the discipline of God in one age and the balancing of the full measure of that loss against the redemptive work of Christ in another age that was more than sufficient for all that had been lost.
Again and again in Scripture we see examples of humanity sowing to the flesh and suffering discipline for their conduct and God providing evidence of his love and willingness to redeem humanity. We see Adam and Eve violating a covenant with God and being forced out of the security and provision of the garden to struggle and learn to seek and trust God again. We see later in the single man, Abraham, over many generations God drawing and molding first the man, then his family, then a clan, a tribe, moving them about and enlarging their number, molding them into a nation and a chosen people with an identity defined by God. In fact, throughout the Old Testament we see people wandering, moving about and being moved, exiled and then liberated. And through all of that they are being molded physically, geopolitically, and spiritually into the people of God. In the New Testament we see that same chosen nation and people, now under the oppression of Rome in their own land, in a definitive time and place, challenged by God’s own son, who brought the news that what they possessed and regarded so covetously as being for them and them alone as God’s chosen people, as being no longer for them alone but for the whole world. From that point on, Christ’s impact on the world once again was sent forth and spread from “Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to all the earth.” God sent out his disobedient people, then multiplied them. Then he called them out to be his holy people again through Abraham, gathered them, multiplied them some more, consolidated them, created them through centuries of defining them as his people in the Old Testament age. Then God brought forth his son, who redefined everything, flipping the “natural order” that depended on Jewish common bonds of nationalism, ethnicity, and geography. Jesus made it clear that God’s people from that point on were defined by belief in him, love for one another, obedience to God, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, regardless of any person’s place and time in history, their ethnicity, nationalism, or geography.
Conformity to rules and discipline are the primary emphases that define the law, the tools used by God in the first movement of drawing his people back into relationship with himself after Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Grace and love are the primary emphases, the tools used by God in the second movement, after his people had learned the reason for and the inadequacy of the law alone. Jesus taught believers- Jews and Gentiles alike- how impossible it was to keep the letter of the law, but that with his power, they could attain an even higher standard in keeping the spirit of the law. Recall Jesus’ words…..”you have heard it said ‘thou shalt not commit murder.’ But I say to you, even if you curse your brother, you are guilty.” He also, reminded us that to look lustfully on another is as sinful as adultery. Jesus used all that had been accomplished through God’s redemptive work over the prior thousands of years and stepped it up, flipped the script, dashed human’s limited expectations of what the Messiah would be, and then made it all make sense through the lens of grace and love, instead of the law.
I was trained as a scientist….a medical laboratory scientist. My training and natural curiosity taught me to look for patterns, to observe similarities, to note how things work and why. Even though I have not worked in a medical laboratory for over 35 years, my orientation to observation and evaluation of processes and systems continues.
I work daily with women whose lives are in chaos through a residential life recovery ministry. In that faith-based discipleship ministry we use time- proven processes for evaluation and development of personal ethics and character that mirrors somewhat the process that I have observed in the big picture of God’s work with his people. For those who are lost in the chaos of a sin-filled, self-interest based ethic of the world, we establish a means by which they may be brought into obedience to the rules of a Christian community. They experience being molded into conformity to standards that are just and agreed upon, while learning the personal and community values that underlie the rules. As the values are recognized as being a more excellent way by which to live and are embraced, and celebrated, the rules that have been formulated to support the values become less and less onerous, or even completely unnecessary. When the women first come to live within this rules-based ethics and consequence-based environment from the free-wheeling self-interest based ethics environment of the world, it feels constricting, onerous, and difficult to adapt to. As the women living in community begin to share the values we teach and practice and strive toward virtues that support and edify one another, rules which had been restrictive and burdensome when they first came in fade into the background and the fruit of the Holy Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control and other shared aspects of life in mutually supportive community become the new standard, all accomplished as a work of grace in their lives. In many transformational process this is the pattern….. break down the old habits, restrict behavior through constraining rules and discipline, and then build up again with new standards in place…. balance one action that takes away with a more lasting and valued action that restores. Another example of this is in military boot camps breaking down individuals’ boundaries and their unique and diverse values and reforming the individuals into a finely honed group defined by shared goals and values……a mutually supportive team which…..as a group….shares more in common and is capable of so much more than single individuals left to their own behavior, patterns, and habits could ever have accomplished. God does this transformational work with groups of people in each generation as the church has been built up over the 2000 years since Pentecost. And he is still doing it wherever groups of believers gather together in a common goal of exalting Christ and serving God’s people.
In the progressive, millennia-long redemption of God’s people, as in ethical and behavioral development of groups, there are similar processes at work. God is a genius of processes, having created them to fulfill his purposes. He works those processes on grand scales across millennia of time among millions of people in many cultures and generations. But God also works those processes in contemporaneous small groups in a matter of months, as in our discipleship formation program at Titus 2 Women’s Life Recovery Residence. And God works that transformational process in the heart of every person who is broken by sin in life, then repents, believes, and seeks to live in obedience to God. And in every system, no matter the scale or scope, the central goal is the restoration of God’s people to himself……..incrementally, step by step, and unrelentingly. What we may observe as the slow pendulum of time moving back and forth bringing the progression and balance of history across the ages into focus and overcoming a multitude of interfering obstacles, God sees as a split second…..a finished work……already done….. just waiting to be revealed to all who are part of the great whole work of God’s created realm.
When our son and daughter were teenagers, we had a German young lady live with us for a year. We were excited to learn from her and share with her everything we could about our culture. There were a couple of things that really impacted her life while she was with us. One was that she attended Auburn football games with us every week during that fall and became a life long fan of Auburn and American style football! The other thing that intrigued her was our devotion to church life and how many churches there were in the community where we lived. I took her around to some of them and gave her some history on them…..how old they were, what the denomination was noted for and such. I recall one day I was sharing with her information about a large Gothic styled stone church in a park setting that had been built in the 1850’s, nearly 150 years old at the time! To me that was impressive. She looked at me, sort of puzzled, and observed that in Germany they have castles and cathedrals that date back to the 1200’s or older! It was a bit of a humbling embarrassment for me to realize that this young lady had lived among more history and with a greater sense of antiquity than I ever would. Perspective seen from different cultural positions can bring a real dose of reality about the insignificance of some things that we think are noteworthy, especially in regard to time. In the decades since that experience with our German student, I have come to realize that newer doesn’t always mean better, and older doesn’t always mean obsolete. God is timeless and the ways in which he works among his people is unchanging.
God uses history and tradition across the ages. He uses the wisdom and reason of truth and experience in present generations. God’s economy is without waste. Everything gets used…..either as a good example or as a painful warning. The lessons of the past instruct the future. But we, as Christians, have the knowledge that all of time is moving inexorably toward a promised time when God’s intention for humanity when Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden is restored and evil’s power is once again set far beyond in a place where it can no longer reach God’s people.
As we celebrate our nation’s 241st birthday Tuesday, we are confronted with the reality that America, like any group of people bound by physical, geopolitical, social, and other ties, has faced times of success and times of defeat. It has at times shown brightly in its virtue and it has been marred at other times by the dark pain of its victims. Nevertheless, it is a nation that God has allowed to exist, just as all other nations of the world have and do…..by God’s grace and mercy. God provides protection and favor to those individuals that revere and worship him. And, it seems, too, that God extends his protection and favor to those nations that revere him. Whether any nation, group, or person is used as a good example or as a painful warning by God depends upon how they well they see and respond to God’s will. God has a plan. We can participate in it and be part of bringing about the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth or we can be obstacles to it. But it is going to come, with or without any nation, group or individual. That has already been ordained and instituted. It is not open to discussion. No one person, group or nation is indispensable in the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity. The one person whose presence and purpose was indispensable to God’s purpose and plan was Jesus Christ and Jesus has already fulfilled his part in the process and is waiting for us to finish our part so that we can all enjoy the fullness of his work of redemption for all the world!
I trust God’s work in the world, in the history of humankind, and in the future of our nation and for my family and for myself and for you. And I trust that when time comes to an end, all that remains will be good and just and holy. In the meantime, each of us has our part to do. And part of that is praying for one another and others in our nation and across the globe to seek God and to know and do God’s will.
The sign of the fish (in your bulletin) is a symbol that Christians have used since the time of the birth of the church, during times of persecution and in times of celebration to represent the coming together of believers. When discretion and caution were required one person would draw an arc on the ground. If the other person was a believer as well, he would respond by drawing the reversed arc, resulting in the sign of the fish….the icthus…..The letters of the word icthus are an acrostic spelling out the name and title of the incarnate God: in English it translates as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” Believers declared their shared faith in a sovereign God through alternating marks of complimentary, reversed arcs that started apart but ended together.
God bless us in fulfilling our individual roles in the redemptive work of God across the long arcing process of time and across the broad landscape of history even now, right here in our day and time and place. And God bless America.