Text: Acts 2:1-21 | Pentecost
There’s a story in the Torah, in the book of Numbers chapter 11, that takes place just after the Israelites depart from Mt Sinai where Moses received the teachings of the law on the people’s behalf. They are again on the move and they are again complaining about the lack of dining options in the desert. Nothing but this bland manna to eat. The people are upset, and this makes Moses, their leader, upset. Moses has it out with Yahweh saying that this is an impossible task, too heavy a burden to bear, and that if Yahweh is indeed merciful that Yahweh should end his life at once.
Yahweh’s response is to have Moses gather 70 of the elders of the people together. Yahweh says, “I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” Moses is skeptical, but goes along with the idea. He calls these elders together, takes them outside the encampment and has them circle up around the tent of meeting, which was the place Moses would go to meet with Yahweh. Kind of a mobile mini temple. A temple for nomads. They circle up around this tent of meeting, and sure enough, Yahweh comes down in a cloud and takes some of the spirit that was on Moses and distributes it to the 70 elders. The spirit rests on them, and they begin prophesying, speaking profound and insightful words.
The only catch to the situation was that two of the elders either didn’t get the memo or were lagging behind and were still back in the camp with the people, not gathered at that special tent of meeting. But when the spirit came on all the others out there, it still came on those two in the camp. And they prophesied as well. A young man in the camp sees this and runs out to tell Moses that these two elders are prophesying. One of the elders, Joshua, son of Nun, hears the news first and tells Moses to make those men stop. Moses answers by saying this: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, and that Yahweh would put the spirit on them.”
There’re a couple important things going on in this story. One of them, perhaps the more obvious one, is that the special spirit of wisdom and leadership that Moses possessed, or that possessed Moses, is being spread around to a wider group. Rather than Moses being the singular leader, we have the beginnings of a leadership group, a council of elders, with each having the spirit on them. This is a new development, but it’s not what bothers Joshua. What bothers Joshua is that two of these elders had not been in the right place when this happened, and yet it still happened to them. They had not been at the holy, sacred, set apart location where gods and humans talk. They had been in the camp, with the common people and common articles of life, and yet they too had the spirit. There is a boundary violation going on between the holy and the common, and it messes with Joshua’s sense of proper order. He doesn’t want Moses to put an end to what’s happening at the tent of meeting with the 68 elders, that’s where that kind of thing is supposed to happen. He wants Moses to shut down those two others who have no right prophesying away from that sacred circle around the tent of meeting.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church, and what we celebrate today has everything to do with the Holy, and how that relates with community and, ultimately, all of creation. This theme has been showing up the last couple weeks of worship, although it hasn’t necessarily been planned that way. Two weeks ago Linda Mercadante talked about how Spiritual but not Religious persons are encountering the holy outside the bounds of traditional religion and not identifying with any particular church or temple or mosque community. Last week at the outdoor service Sarah Zwickle made the confession many of us can identify with of loving creation but tending to romanticize it. It’s one thing to find holiness in a sunset or peaceful woods and another thing to find something redeemable in the violence everywhere throughout the natural world.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we each have places that are more holy than others, or at least places where it’s much easier to see the holy. The tent of meeting is pitched in different places of our lives, usually in a similar fashion as it was in the desert for the Israelites: outside the encampment. Outside the place where the common things of life take place. We need to escape that to find the holy. Go out for a walk, or close the door, take a retreat, go to church.
Pentecost is a not-so-gentle reminder that the Holy has invaded every aspect of our lives and does not depart from us. In Acts 2, a group that had known Jesus in his lifetime, now wondering what is next, is gathered together in one place and experiences the sound of violent wind and fire of a presence among them which they decide is best named not just spirit, but Holy Spirit. Each of them has something like a tongue of fire “resting on them” as Luke says, and they begin speaking all these different languages. These are real languages and because this is a festival day in Jerusalem Jews from all over the world are gathered, and they each hear these wonderful things being expressed in their own native language. The Holy is not contained within one particular people or one particular language, but is native to all people, and all languages. The Holy is native to all places. The Holy is native to you.
There is this movement in scripture from holiness being that which is set apart and separated, to holiness being that which overcomes and breaks down that very separation. From boundary making to boundary breaking. From outside the encampment, to all throughout the encampment. And this is really the main point here. Holiness becomes not so much about taboos and forbidden practices as it becomes about entering into loving relationship with the brokenness of the world, recognizing one’s own brokenness, and encountering the Holy in the very space which was once deemed unholy.
This is not just an Old Testament/New Testament difference, although it comes into more clear focus in the New Testament. There are pictures of this throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of Moses and the 70 elders being one of them. The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter quotes at Pentecost being another. “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, old and young, even on the slaves I shall pour out my spirit.” This is the pattern of Jesus’ life. This is what he did all the time, entering into the spaces and lives deemed unholy. This is what’s going on on the cross. Crucifixion is not a holy thing, it’s a complete desecration of a human life. Jesus even cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a God-forsaken scene, yet it’s that very location of God-forsakenness that becomes the ultimate revelation of the Divine presence. Even the most unholy space is made holy.
Simon and Garfunkel famously sang that the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. They most likely did not consult with Joshua, son of Nun, before writing these lyrics, but I can hear Moses and Jesus saying “Yes, would that all my people were prophets. They too have the Holy Spirit, the prophethood of all believers.” Columbus doesn’t have any subway or subway walls, except for all those sandwich shops where you can occasionally get a five dollar foot long, but if any of you wants to do a cool project you can go around the city and take pictures of the words of the prophets written under the bridges and on the sides of buildings and in the artwork hanging in the hallways of elementary schools. And maybe a few bumper stickers. It would make for a nice visual sermon presentation sometime.
So we’re back in the encampment. Back amidst the common things. And it can be hard to see Holy Spirit here. You almost have to see it in other people’s lives before you can see it in your own. You go to the grocery store and you see a mother with two kids and you can see that what she’s going is holy, raising these children. Even heroic. But she doesn’t see it now. From her perspective, she’s just barely holding it together. Or you have a friend who’s committed to a cause and who feels frustrated and tired and but can see how bold and courageous the person is being.
Holy Spirit is among us, we just sometimes need other people to remind us that the flame of the Spirit is burning over our head. We can see everyone else’s flame, just not our own.
We’re here to remind each other that the flame is there.
And so we have these special places we go outside the encampment to get in touch with Holy Spirit. Sunday worship being one of those. But the point isn’t that this is where Holy Spirit dwells, the point is to remind ourselves that Holy Spirit is everywhere, in all things. This is where the Spiritual but not Religious folks are on to something. Of course the holy isn’t confined to one tradition. But it’s the tradition that keeps teaching us that. The Holy Spirit is always sending us out to be prophets and messenger of good news.
This morning, rather than saying that a tongue of fire rests on each one gathered, we could say that a radiant comforter rests on each one. Or that we rest of them. We send these beautiful comforters, lovingly made, charged with Holy Spirit, into the desecrated parts of the earth, where refugees wonder and seek shelter from violence. They are part of our mission as a Pentecost people, speaking the native language of warmth, of love, of comfort. Common cloth and threads made holy by the one who makes all things holy.
Even a common loaf of bread and a normal cup of grape juice become holy for us now as they re-present us with the body and blood of Christ.
And even we are being made holy.