The Fire and the Light – May 28, 2023, Pentecost
Psalm 104, Acts 2:1-21
May 28, 2023, Pentecost
A quick disclaimer as I begin. I “borrowed” this sermon title from a song by Billy Joel, of all people. You never know where I’m going to get a sermon title from! I actually looked on an Artificial Intelligence website for “Sermon Titles for Pentecost.” Amazingly, they were good! But I still liked Billy’s words the best!
The song is called “Two Thousand Years.” (It’s from the “River of Dreams” album!) So, if you’re a “Billy” fan, you might remember these words:
“In the beginning, there was the cold and the night.
Prophets and angels gave us the fire and the light.
(Man was triumphant, armed with the faith and the will,
Even the darkest ages couldn’t kill.”)
Those words came to mind for me as I thought about Pentecost. “The Fire and the Light.” Because that’s what happened that day. The Fire and the Light came to the disciples of Jesus. And I’d like us to think about that as we consider the events of this very important day in the history of the early Church!
The “Fire” of Pentecost came. Fire is often used to mean “intensity” and “power.” We use that word when describing someone who has passion for something, We say they have a “fire in their belly!” Or if a ball player is hitting very well, we say they’re “on fire!” Right?
The Holy Spirit, which empowered God’s people that day, has always been symbolized by a flame of fire. The symbol of the United Methodist church has a flame twisting up around the cross. Maybe you’ve seen that. That symbol of the spirit as a flame goes all the way back to this story, where the spirit came upon the disciples, and “tongues as of fire were distributed and resting on each of them.”
Then there’s the “Light.” And “light” has come to mean understanding. We say “the light goes on” in someone. That’s a way of saying they finally understand something. Or sometimes we even use the iconic “light bulb over the head.” You know that image.
Well, Pentecost was one of those moments, as well! The light of understanding came to the disciples that day, too! These guys who had seemed clueless at times, these guys who were focused on the earthly when Jesus was trying to get them to think of the heavenly, these guys finally “got it.” And they “got it” through the understanding given that day by the Holy Spirit.
It’s interesting that the light came on Pentecost. I’ve mentioned before that the day was not called “Pentecost” because of what happened – that we celebrate. It was already called “Pentecost.” It was a Jewish festival. Pentecost literally means “fiftieth day.” It’s the fiftieth day after Passover.
And Pentecost served a dual purpose. It was a celebration of the giving of the first fruits of the harvest, But perhaps more importantly, it was also the celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. And the reason I find that interesting is that one could say that the light came to God’s people that day, too! The Ten Commandments – the Torah – was what made them who they were! It gave them the understanding of what it meant to be God’s people!
And in our case, this event – that happened on Pentecost – is what made us who we are! It made us “the Church!” It gave us the Fire and the Light. And it is part of our history. And I think it’s so important to remember that we are part of this same story, all these years later! Think about that as you think of this scene with the disciples receiving the fire and the light, and Peter standing and telling the story of Jesus. We are still part of that story!
That’s one thing I always loved about running Marathons. In a Marathon, everybody starts together. They don’t send out the fastest runners first, then have a separate race for everybody else. Everybody runs at the same time. They only shoot one bullet! (Or in the case of the New York City Marathon, they shoot a howitzer – a cannon!) And no matter where you are running in the stream of people, you’re still on the same course with the winners. You’re still in the same race as those who finished before you.
It’s the same as the story of the Church. We are in the same race! These guys all finished the race before us, but we’re on the same course. I think it’s great that Paul likened the Christian life to being in a race. Remember what he wrote to the Hebrews. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) Then later in his life, he wrote this to Timothy, his young apprentice, who would continue the race after him. He said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (II Timothy 4:7)
We run that same race. We keep that same faith today. The Spirit is still for us the fire and the light. The problem is that, over the years, the fire has been quenched somewhat, at times. And the light has been dimmed. So we need to be sure we are always looking to rekindle the fire, and to brighten the light. We too need to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!”
As we do so, we also need to remember that “great cloud of witnesses.” That part is so important! We need to know we’re in this together and that there are many who are encouraging us. And I know that’s harder to keep in mind in the world of “virtual church.” But in a way, those witnesses are there, too! But when we don’t see them, it’s harder to have a sense of them.
That “cloud of witnesses” is such an important part of this! You’ve heard me talk before about the age-old question, “Can I be a Christian and not go to Church?” My answer, which has changed slightly over the years, is that, “Yes, of course you can!” You can be a follower of Jesus without going to church. But! Can you have a strong, vital faith without having the fellowship of other believers? That’s the real question! And the answer is that is that it’s very difficult! And I would add that it’s also your fellowship with them that’s just as important! We have that cloud of witnesses that surround us, but we are also part of that cloud of witnesses for someone else!
I know what it’s like to run a race surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses! I’ve been in races with over 40,000 people – with many more than that lining the streets, cheering the winners – and all the rest of us! And we are that for each other here. Faith is not just about the benefits we get from it. It’s also how we help nurture the faith of each other – sometimes simply by our presence! As I’ve been saying for years, “You never know how much someone else needs you to be here!”
It’s been said that Pentecost is “The Birthday of the Church.” I’ve even been in churches where they have balloons and streamers – and cake! (I’m always up for cake!) And I suppose there’s something to that. But it’s hard to make that exact kind of description of this event. Because, as important as birthdays are, this is so much more! If anything, this is more like a birthday where everybody gets presents! Everybody gets gifts! And the gift we get is God himself – his Holy Spirit! And we get, or at least we have been given access to, that same fire and light that came upon the disciples that day!
So, may we, this Pentecost day, think about how God’s spirit touches each one of us. And I would caution you again here. Feelings can betray us. Last week I said, “Just because we may not feel close to God, does not necessarily mean we aren’t close to God.” Do you remember that? “Just because we may not feel close to God, does not necessarily mean we aren’t close to God.”
Well, I would say a similar thing here. Just because we don’t feel the Holy Spirit within us, does not necessarily mean we don’t have the Holy Spirit within us! As God’s people, that’s what we are promised that he is! So we can rely on the promise, not necessarily the feeling!
So, I encourage you, this Pentecost day, to seek to be aware of and “in tune” with the Spirit. Seek the fire, the passion for the faith. Seek the enthusiasm of the faith. And that’s a word that has the Greek word “Theos,” meaning “God,” right in the middle of it! So the word “Enthusiasm” literally means “to have God within!” So seek that fire. And seek the light, that is, the understanding and the inspiration of the Spirit. And know that, not only are you surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, but you are also part of so great a cloud of witnesses!
Eternal God, help us to see ourselves as part of the great history of the Church. Help us to be aware of the many who have gone before and who have handed down the faith to us. Help us to “be there” for each other