Pentecost 2024 - This Church Is On Fire!

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. The story of the Church's birth is a story of great suspense, mighty wind, holy fire, curses reversed, prophecy fulfilled, repentance, mass baptisms, and some Holy Ghost triple-action power!  

Are you even ready for this?  

Before we get into the story of Pentecost from Acts 2, I need to share something.  

For the past several years, something has been stirring in my heart, and as I read the story of the Church in Scripture, I begin to catch glimpses of what makes the Church—the Church.  

You see, I have come to know that the Church is not an institution---though we church-y types have certainly tried hard to make it into a movement of Jesus followers stumbling after him.  

The Church was meant to illuminate the Way of Jesus, to help people see Jesus better along the Way. 

Years ago, I read this quote from a famous Spanish anarchist and atheist from the early 20th century--a man named Buenaventura Durranti.  Durranti had a real axe to grind against organized religion, and so he said something pretty controversial.  

And the exciting thing is that I agree with him... sort of.  I know I know... the pastor just said that he agreed with an anarchist atheist with an axe to grind.   Yeah... and I think you might, too, when you hear what he said... 

"The only church that illuminates is a burning church."

Put aside the meaning that Durranti had in mind and focus on those words. 

"The only church that illuminates is a burning church."

So, on this church birthday, I have to ask a pretty pointed question to all of us today. 

Are we, the members and friends of Shepherd of the Hills Church, illuminating the world? Are we lighting the Way? Are we, as individual followers of Jesus, on fire with passion for Jesus? 

Does it really show in the way we live, move in the world, make decisions, and act?  

Are we burning church?  

The good thing is that we have an example of what it looks like when the Holy Spirit fire begins to burn in the hearts of a movement of people bent on changing the world.  

Let's read Acts 2:1-21

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 

Pentecost is traditionally the 50th day after Passover, and is more accurately called the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot.  

The Feast of Shavuot was also traditionally held to commemorate when Moses was given the Torah (the law) on Mt. Sinai and God entered into a covenantal relationship with the people of Israel.  

Verse one of the passage sets the tone, doesn't it?  "When the day of Pentecost came..."  Not really, you say?  Well, that's because it's not in Greek in that translation.  When you put it in Greek, you use the word symplermsthai, which means "was fulfilled."  

This prophetic language is loaded with possibility, dread, anticipation, and trembling. 

2 Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them. 

And the sign came in wind and fire. More on that in a bit... 

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” 

At some point, this crowd ends up at the Temple on the Southern or "Teaching" steps and begins to preach and teach about Jesus—only they start doing it in other languages that none of them had heretofore been able to speak. And this rather long list of foreign Jews suddenly can hear the words of the disciples in their own languages. 

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Then Peter gets up to speak, and he preaches it up. Peter was given a second chance to declare his allegiance and loyalty to Jesus, and he makes the most of it in this passage. He stands on the Teaching Steps of the Temple, where he sat and listened to Jesus preach numerous times, and shares the Gospel with the people gathered there en masse. 

Over three thousand of these Jewish pilgrims embraced the teaching and were baptized right then and there in the name of Jesus---baptized in the mitzvot baths that were located by the steps. 

Boom. Now, that's a church service. 

But there is so much more going on here.  

In the book of Genesis, we read in the Creation poem of a God who breathes the breath of life into a lump of clay—words that helped the ancients visualize the way that God continues to breathe the breath of life into each of his image-bearers. Here in Acts, we have the wind breathing life into a new creation.  

As Moses was given the commandments by God at Sinai, this moment affirms the new command Jesus gave to his disciples to love one another. It affirms all those moments when Jesus declared, "You have heard it said [in the commands], BUT I say to you..."  

There is also a reversal of a curse happening here—from the book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel, a strange tale of how humankind decided to build a tower that would reach heaven. They were focused only on themselves and their own achievement, their own technology, and they lost sight of who they really were and who God always is. In the story, their speech is suddenly confused, and they no longer understand one another. 

But in the story of Pentecost, that curse is reversed when everyone hears the truth in their own language.  

In the end, the promise that God made to Abraham is finally fulfilled ---through his descendants and ultimately through the one true Israelite, the Son of Man, the Prince of Peace, Jesus himself--- and all of the nations of the world are blessed. The idea of chosenness is expanded beyond just a few people to all people.  

That's a lot of symbolism, don't you think?  

But today, our focus is on that fire—that Holy Spirit fire—the fire that ignited courage in Peter, openness to speak to those who had felt silenced, and boldness to proclaim God's redemption story to everyone.  

Fire was a way to describe a physiological experience of prophetic inspiration and a sign of the very Spirit of God.  

In other words, the people in that room would describe what happened to them as if they were on fire. In a rush, they were given the power not only to speak the word of God to the world but also to think about God in fresh and inspired ways they had never thought possible.

So, this leads us to the questions that those of us on this side of the historic moment of Pentecost should be asking. 

What do we do with this? How do we become a burning church full of on-fire believers?  We need to learn this valuable lesson about our purpose and mission. 

You see, Jesus didn't create a mission for the Church; he created a church for his mission. Jesus' mission was and is to seek and save those who are lost, broken, wounded, left behind, ostracized, lonely, unworthy, unaccepted, unwanted, picked last, and otherwise not on the inside.  

And we all find ourselves somewhere on that list.  

Church isn't an institution created for a chosen few.  It was never meant to be.  It isn't somewhere you go; it's who we are.  And we've been touched by Holy Fire that, like the burning bush of old, lights us up but doesn't consume us.  We are the world's light, an illuminated city on a hill that cannot be hidden. 

We are the church, and we have a mission.  Jesus spelled out a mission clearly in Luke 4:18-19 to open the eyes of the blind, set the captives free, lift up the oppressed, and declare the year of the Lord's favor.  

Every day of our lives, we need to ask ourselves, "Am I fulfilling Jesus' mission?  Can people see Jesus more clearly because of the fire burning in my life?  

Do you feel the fire? Where is it evident?  Is it obvious how you give of yourself and all you have for the kingdom of God?  Is it in the way that you offer even the lowest person you encounter with the dignity of notice?  Is it in the way you dedicate your life to living in such a way that others see Jesus... and not you?  

The only church that illuminates is a burning church, beloved.

Let's go out and light up the world.  

I want to close by reading the words Jesus read when he addressed his hometown synagogue in Luke chapter 4.  As I read these words, close your eyes in prayer and let them fall upon you.  We'll have a brief silence at the end to pray that God will set us on fire to be a part of Jesus' mission.  

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”



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