Sermons That Work

The Promise of Pentecost…, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2010

May 23, 2010

[NOTE TO READER: In paragraph 22, the Hebrew word ruach is pronounced “ROO-ark.”]

The promise of Pentecost is baptism. “The one coming after me,” the Baptist promised, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

This Pentecostal promise speaks not of some infantile christening, the dribbling of water across the crown, water wiped away with delicate embroidered cloths. Nor does this promise speak of the lighting of a candle with safe flame, or the rubbing of an oily cross on the forehead.

Rather, this Pentecostal promise threatens full immersion. Full immersion, as in inundation, the element of water encases you in its tomb. You could drown, or perhaps burn, for the Holy Spirit entombs you in explosion, and conflagration. Flames of God’s power lap inexhaustibly skyward – with your soul as fuel.

Baptism by fire is soulful, like the first baptism. “As I went down in the river to pray …” The line of pilgrims snaking upward from the shore, grasses blowing at heels. Person after person stepping tentatively into the water, with promise as soap to cleanse.

Hope to change: regeneration by element. But water is dangerous, fire is dangerous, baptism is dangerous, and the Holy Spirit is dangerous – an unshucked atom. But John the wild-Baptist promised this type of Pentecostal baptism.

“The One coming after me will baptize you with Spirit and Fire,” not water on the head, drip by dribble, but fire.

Now “you have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer you who lives, but Christ who lives in you.” You are “Christ’s own forever.”

In February, NASA launched the space shuttle Endeavour, in what was billed as the last nighttime liftoff. Originally, launch STS-130 was scheduled for 4:39, a.m., February 7.

They say a space shuttle launch is dangerous. Not just to the astronauts, but to spectators. Liquid hydrogen, 423 degrees below zero, is combined with liquid oxygen to inaugurate an explosive thrust of 37 million horsepower. The explosion consumes so much fuel that, were it water in a swimming pool, the pool would drain in 25 seconds.

The closest non-NASA spectators must watch from six miles away, across water. Even the raw explosive sound would kill you if you were located much closer than a football field from the launch.

On February 7, Florida was cold: forty-two degrees, and the sky was crystal. The Big Dipper and the North Star were imprinted into the nighttime sky above the launch pad. Spectators lined the shore of the Banana River. They huddled with friends for hours, in blankets to keep warm.

About one hour before the launch, a bank of low-ceiling clouds rolled in, threatening the launch. NASA actually needs to see a shuttle visually to 5,000 feet.

Undaunted by the cloudbank, NASA continued the countdown. The clouds were also tenacious, and at T-minus nine minutes, NASA scrubbed the launch.

It was rescheduled for the same time the next night, but few spectators returned. What were the chances, when the same cloudbank still hung low that second night?

About thirty minutes before launch, the cloud bank slid off to the side, a few stars appeared, and this time, the countdown passed T-minus nine.

Finally, into seconds, and then, 10-9-8-7-6 … At four, the liquid hydrogen explosively combined with the liquid oxygen, the sky lit instantly, and the shuttle, like an old man rising from an armchair, lifted.

Only it was no old man; it was, as someone remarked, “instant sunrise,” for the fireball lit the sky and clouds and horizon. The cloudbank turned orange; the water, too, and the fish in the Banana River, the frogs at water’s edge, alligators and egrets, all paused to catch incredulous breath at the extraordinary sight, and finally, the roar.

The single most beautiful element of launch is the rumbling roar speeding low across water, far slower than the speed of light.

At five seconds per mile, the sound reached the spectators at thirty seconds after liftoff, bathing them at last in extraordinary spirit.

Jesus’ followers heard sound first, before they saw the flame, the sound of spirit traveling faster than light, not slower.

Before now, they had been incarnational believers. Jesus was alive, physically, and they had thrust their fingers into his hands and their fists into his pierced side. They had believed with their bodies. However, the internal radiance of Moses and the indefatigable power of Elijah thus far, had eluded them. The illuminating essence of Divine, Jesus at Transfiguration, was absent. Perhaps essence was their hope, but it was not yet their reality.

Now, today, the prepossessing roar of Spirit as at creation, the same breath of God, ruach expressed across the deep – like oxygen fanning flame – the sound itself baptized these neophyte Christians by Holy Spirit and translation!

Translated life, for once they were lost, but now they are found, once they were dead wood, but now they are the fuel of lapping Spirit, a fire kindled deep inside.

Jesus had written them into his Last Will and Testament: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” The very peace of God as fire in them imploded, changing them forever. Estate settled.

Perhaps you received the Holy Spirit in some civilized ceremony, with droplets of water falling onto your head, and the polite sign of the cross pressed into your forehead. On that day, the church ladies smiled. They nodded to one another, and observed, “How sweet.” Neither they, nor you, realized the power transmitted by liquid drops of hydrogen and oxygen onto your head. An unshucked atom. The very Spirit of God in you is still unshucked.

You are Jesus’ heir, and you don’t even know it.

Perhaps the Pentecostals get it better than we do. They celebrate the Holy Spirit in a ritual of fiery baptism, dancing and shouting and speaking in tongues. They engage the atomic power of God’s Spirit, while we Episcopalians act like the Father has invited us to afternoon tea and crumpets. In the process, could it be that we deny the Holy Spirit?

You have received the Spirit of God, the power of peace within, and without. Perhaps it is time for you and me to shuck the atom, to unleash the power.

There are any number of ways to unleash the power.

• Advocate: The Holy Spirit prays on your behalf, interceding regularly for you, and through you, for others. God as creator jumps to answer these prayers, but do you pray boldly?
• Guide: The Holy Spirit will guide you, but the compass-power of God is located in the silence. How can you possibly hear above the internal cacophony?
• Interpreter of Scripture: The Holy Spirit will interpret Scripture for you, will open your mind like that of the disciples to see the Word of God lurking behind the black letters on the page. How will you discover God in Scripture if you never crack the book?
• Healer: The Holy Spirit heals, sometimes physically and emotionally, if you can believe it, and always spiritually. How will you be healed if you won’t forgive those who have wronged you?

There is so much more, and it is all explosive, all the conflagration of God. The promise of Pentecost, uttered by the Baptist, is not impotent, but potent. Not weak, but strong.

It is time for us to become Pentecostal believers, and tap into the explosion of God’s Spirit.

“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me.”

Christ in living Technicolor, and instant sunrise.

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Christopher Sikkema