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"Holy S...urprises!"

Holy Surprises

Pentecost is, above all else, a gracious surprise.

It’s Pentecost, the third most important holiday of the Christian year (after Easter and Christmas, of course.) In honor of the occasion, let’s begin with a quote by Calvin.

Not that Calvin. Not the Protestant Reformer of 16th-century Geneva. Let’s bask in the wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip.

Calvin’s standing outside, waiting for the school bus. It never takes much to make this precocious kid’s imagination run wild. Today is no exception. “It would sure be a big surprise,” he says to his sidekick, Hobbes the tiger, “if the school bus spontaneously exploded, and I didn’t have to go to school! Yeah, I’d sure be surprised if THAT happened!”

The final frame shows Calvin sitting on the school bus, looking dejected. He turns to Hobbes — who’s now reverted to his stuffed-tiger persona — and says, “Life is full of surprises, but never when you need one.”

He’s so right. Life is full of surprises — and they never seem to happen when we want them to. Boring, humdrum days drag on, uninterrupted. And on the days when we have other plans — exciting plans — unwelcome surprises can often derail them.

The Bible’s full of surprises — holy surprises. God is at the center of them all, breaking into our lives like some cat burglar. Not stealing the silverware — just moving the pieces around, so nothing’s where we expect to find it. It can be infuriating when God does that!

Maybe the biggest surprise of all, in the Bible — with the exception of the Resurrection — is what happens on the day of Pentecost.

That story begins with a rather mundane statement: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” “Pentecost” refers to a Jewish festival, still celebrated to this day. It’s called Shavuot, in Hebrew, and it celebrates God’s giving of the law, the Torah, to Moses on Mt. Sinai. “Pentecost” is a Greek word that means “the 50th day.” Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Passover.

On that 50th day, “they were all gathered together in one place.” Now, that may sound like a perfectly ordinary statement for Luke to make, but it’s not — for several reasons.

First, the fact that they’re all together is a miracle in itself. Remember how it was with Jesus’ disciples when the Romans hauled him off to be crucified. Ever walk into a cockroach-infested kitchen at night and turn on the lights? If you have, you’ve seen those pesky critters bolt for the nearest dark corner. That’s how the disciples responded when their beloved teacher needed them the most. “I tell you, I do not know the man!” said Peter. (So long, cockroach!)

Yet, here, just a few weeks later, they’re all together again. The one bodacious thing that’s changed, of course — God’s world-changing surprise — is the resurrection. Some of the scattered have gathered once again. They pile into that little house, waiting for who-knows-what. Their hearts are full: more than ever before in their lives.

Now here’s another surprising thing about that ordinary-sounding statement: they’re together in one place. Think of it. This is the first-generation church of Jesus Christ, the antecedent body of what has since become the largest religion in the world. Jesus has billions of followers today. But on the day of Pentecost — in that year of wonders — all of Christianity fits into one room. Surely it was a tight fit, but they’re all in there!

It’s never happened since, and it won’t happen again until Jesus returns one day to call us home.

The next sentence begins with an ordinary little word, but one that carries a world of meaning. The word is suddenly: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind...”

Suddenly. That’s how it happens for us on those days of our lives when we receive God’s greatest surprises. Maybe they’re happy surprises, or maybe they’re tragic, but whatever they are, they burst into the midst of whatever else we’re doing.

Pay attention to what comes right after: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” From heaven. Not from earth. Not from any meteorological pattern these people have ever before witnessed. What happens to them — the surging wind that comes from nowhere and returns to the same, and the tongues of fire, dancing over each of their heads — are rare sights and sounds, indeed. Surely, they have heavenly origins!

Another miraculous aspect of Pentecost is how those timid, passive disciples spilled out into the streets afterwards, conversing with one another and the crowd in different languages. The way Luke describes the miracle of Pentecost, it looks very much like a reversal of the curse of Babel. Jesus’ entry into the world carries that kind of power. Who but God’s own Son could cancel the curse of disunity, holding out the promise of a single, world community — a promise we’re still working to realize?

On a great feast-day like Shavuot, a great many foreign-born Jews had made their way to the holy city of Jerusalem. The city was teeming with pilgrims: travelers from distant lands, whose first language was something other than the Aramaic tongue Jesus spoke. They held the Hebrew tongue in common, of course, but that was a dead language — no longer spoken, only read and studied. Probably the most common spoken language, known to more first-century Jews than any other, was Greek.

The miracle of Pentecost undid all that. It served up a divine surprise: a powerful symbol of a change to come. The languages and cultures that, until then, had distanced the children of God one from another would soon be overcome. In their place would be established a new reality: the reign of God on earth. This new order would not come fully until Christ himself returns to bring it in, but his apostles would begin that process, sharing the new way of living and loving that their Master had taught.

Another miraculous sign is “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” That sounds like something hurricane and tornado survivors often say. You know what they so often tell the Weather Channel reporters: it was “like an express train bearing down upon us.”

Imagine the sound of Pentecost as something like that, a mighty roar. The coming of the Spirit upon the church was no gentle breeze. It was more like a tornado. And the apostles — that first generation of believers to share the good news — were not so much witnesses to the Holy Spirit’s power as they were survivors.

In both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the word for spirit also carries the meaning of “wind.” In Hebrew, the word is ruach. It can mean both “wind” and “breath.” In Greek the word is pneuma, which we also know from the English word “pneumatic,” a machine powered by compressed air. Think of a pneumatic drill, or jackhammer. Think of the power behind that piece of equipment: then think of the sidewalk-pulverizing power that is the Holy Spirit!

Not only was the Holy Spirit like a powerful wind, it was also the vital force of life itself. A great many primitive cultures — the Hebrews and the Greeks included — identified the human life-force with the act of breathing. Until the advent of modern medicine, how did people decide if someone was still alive? They held a mirror up to their nose. If the mirror remained clear and unfogged, they knew the soul had departed. The Holy Spirit that came upon the church at Pentecost was the power of life itself. New life in Christ was the gift those apostles offered to the world!

Most human organizations have an official story of their founding, a tale of their origins. Usually, it involves the hard work of one or more founders, who come up with a dream. Then — through a mixture of boldness, ingenuity and being in the right place at the right time — they make it happen. Microsoft was once Bill Gates and Steve Balmer, tinkering in a garage. General Electric traces its pedigree to Thomas Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park — who tried out one substance after another as light-bulb filament, until he happened upon tungsten, which burned brightly without being consumed.

The church’s origin story isn’t like that. We in the church do celebrate the noteworthy work of apostles like Peter and Paul, but we’re very clear they were not the founders of the faith. It’s even stretching it a bit to name Jesus as the founder of Christianity — he gives little indication in the Gospels that he’s trying to do anything other than call faithful Jews to repentance.

No, the best candidate for founder of Christianity is the Holy Spirit. Again and again, throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Luke portrays the Spirit as directing — in some cases, even controlling — the work of the apostles.

And so it remains today. Our life together, as the Christian community, is like climbing into a sailboat — the old-fashioned kind, with no backup motor — and setting sail. There may be times when the boat merely sits in one place, becalmed. There are times when life in the church feels like a waiting game — waiting for that powerful rush of air that heralds something new.

Such a wind, when it comes, is strong, powerful enough to tear our sails to tatters. It’s that way in the crises of life, the change-times. The wind that assails us, in trying times, can be too strong for us to tap into directly. What we must do, then, is carefully set our sails, tacking up and down, catching just enough of that powerful wind to continue on toward our destination.

It can be a risky business to be surprised by God — and so it is, if we rely only on our own abilities to pull ourselves out of the crisis. It just so happens that, whenever God does surprise us, God gives us exactly what we need to set our sails and navigate through it. Thank God for the power of the Holy Spirit, in our church and in our lives!

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