Unexpected Gifts of the Spirit: Where We Find Ourselves

Read Acts 2:1-18

Have you identified your P3 yet? Are you praying on a regular basis each week? I hope you are, and I hope you’ve experienced a difference in your spiritual life. It really is an amazing experience to know that some is praying for you every day, thinking about your life and God’s presence in it. After all, every day is a gift. That’s why we call it the presence! And speaking of gifts…I want to talk about birthdays.

Birthdays are wonderful celebrations. I love everything about them, particularly the fact that I can keep my birthday celebration going for quite a long time. It was a joke around my house that I didn’t just celebrate the day of my birthday, I celebrate the entire month. I call it my birthday month. But what is it about birthdays that are so exciting? I mean, the older we get the less likely our birthday can be that exciting. Perhaps what makes it special to us, is that we are reminded how special WE are to the people in our lives. It’s like…for that 24 hours we are the center of attention and everyone reminds us of that by sending us cards and giving gifts.

But when I turned 50, I noticed something very unsettling about my birthday cards. In the past most of my cards had images of dogs on the front. People who are pretty close to me know that I have a fondness for puppies. I do love my dogs. But I also had more than my share of “over the hill” references to my age. Here’s a few I’ve received since turning 50.

  • In Dog years, you would already be dead.
  • Don’t worry, I’m sure it handles as well as a sport’s car
  • There was no way I could fit that many candles on the cake, so I just set it on fire.
  • Inside every 50 year old body is a 20 year old wondering what happened?
  • You know you’re getting old when happy hours is a nap
  • Remember age gets better with wine. Happy Birthday

And of course, there are the gifts. They are the best part right? Who doesn’t like to get a few gifts? Except when it is one of those over the hill gag gifts. I’m pretty happy that my birthday is almost six months after Christmas. That way I can enjoy the feeling of Christmas all over again. But I’ve never quite thought about my birthday the way I have these past few years. I guess it was all the over the hill cards that got me going.

Over th Hill gifts.jpg

I remember spending one of my birthdays on the road driving to a work conference. During my drive my grandmother called me to wish me a Happy Birthday and asked me a peculiar question. “One time were you born, my little June bug?” I laughed for a second. My grandma always knows how to make me feel like a little kid again. “I was born at 5:27 am,” I answered. “You came into this world pretty early in the morning,” she laughed. “Yeah, I guess it was a pretty long night for Mom.” I chuckled. We laughed for a few more minutes and she said “Goodbye, sweet potato” and drive safely. I ended the call on my cell phone and then thought about that for a little while. Yeah, I bet that was a long and eventful night for my Mom, I thought. Now I’ll never have to experience the pain of childbirth, but I can imagine that your children’s birthdays bring back lots of memories of those labor pains. Memories of intense pain and joy—all rolled into that one experience of giving birth. Wow! I can hardly imagine what that means for women who have given birth.

And that question brings us to our text. The Day of Pentecost is about the birth of the church. And growing up I was taught that the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to this new church, was a real thing that existed as part of the trinity and was evidenced by speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit was that part of God that lives with us on earth. It was necessary for the Holy Spirit to be sent by Jesus so that we could understand what God wanted us to do. The Holy Spirit was God’s mouthpiece, in a sense. That’s why we would speak in tongues, in languages we didn’t know, because God was directly speaking to our hearts. Of course, most Christians don’t speak in tongues, although many Pentecostals still do.

When I came back to church after many years of rejecting my childhood faith, I had to struggle with the role of the Holy Spirit in my life. And I wondered about the evidence of the Holy Spirit in other’s lives if they didn’t speak in tongues. What does it mean to be filled with the spirit? And when I let go of the mandate that you had to show some specific outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit, I began to understand the Pentecost text in a different way. Was it a literal event that actually happened this way? The writer of the book of Acts, Luke, seems to use the feast of Pentecost following the death of Jesus as the birthday of the church; a first time gathering of the followers of Jesus. And what a party it was; disruptive, confusing, and a little over the top…just like our birthday video clips from earlier. It was an event that must have been outrageous. But the important point that Peter makes in the story is what people would do at this party when the gift of the Holy Spirit is given: 

. . .I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. . .

If Pentecost means anything, in other words, it means that the evidence that the Holy Spirit came down on men and women that day in Jerusalem, indeed, the proof that the Holy Spirit has ever visited men and women anywhere is the ability and willingness of men and women to prophesy. And to prophesy in the Old Testament scriptures means literally to be unable to keep silent about those things the Spirit compels them to speak about. For Peter, it was the need to confront the nation's leaders, both political and religious, about their crimes against humanity. In other words, this ability to identify, expose, report and rebuke the powers of death when we see it incarnated in ourselves and others, and even in our nation and its institutions, is how we must measure whether or not we are people of the Spirit. It’s this gift of speaking out in the midst of uncertainty that is our measure of just how much we trust and rely on the Holy Spirit to do that work. And that speaking out will always build up the church.

We are starting a new sermon series today. It’s entitled, “Unexpected Gifts of the Spirit.” It is grounded in part by a wonderful book called, “Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics and Other Wanderers.” by Eric Elnes. This book suggests that spiritual awakening and discovery is found in the most unlikely and misunderstood places; a place known famously as the “Dark Wood” in Dante’s prolific work, The Divine Comedy. And the core message for the next 8 weeks is simple this:

We have a place in this world. It is a place where awkwardness dissolves and you are most fully alive, most fully human. It’s about finding our place in the world at points where we feel furthest from it. It’s about recognizing the fierce beauty and astonishing blessings that exist within experiences that most of us fear, but none of us can avoid. It’s about seeing life through new eyes, recognizing that experiences of failure, emptiness, and uncertainty are as critical for finding our way through life as they are unavoidable.

The early church dealt with these issues in traumatic and dramatic ways. And we have much to learn about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. For like the ancient church, at the point when the disciples felt furthest from the Jesus that they had known and love, at the point when the world was against them, God showed up in the form of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. God showed that rag tag band of disciples that living a vital, even heroic life was not about moving from failure to success, but allowing their next struggle to become their next source of revelation…and their next opportunity for God to show up. What happened at Pentecost was no mystical, inner, personal experience of the Spirit. It was an outpouring of God's energy that touched every life that was present.

And that is the same us, Holy Trinity. At the point when we feel furthest from Jesus, furthest from the security of a God that never leaves, at the point when the world and circumstances seem against us, God shows up in the form of a rush of presence and insight and a fire within us for spreading the Good News. And God will still show up for a present day rag tag band of disciples that are committed to living a vital, even heroic life not framed by failures or success, but by allowing our next struggle to become our next source of revelation…and our next opportunity for seeking God among us. That’s who we are. That is Holy Trinity Community Church. And that’s where we are today.

Sometimes it takes a journey into darkness, even deep darkness, to finally awaken to God’s plan for us. Sometimes we need to lose our way in order to discover the grandeur, mystery, and freedom that awaits us. It’s in the dark woods that we meet God!

Over the next seven Sundays we will be exploring those places in our lives framed by uncertainty, emptiness, getting lost, sudden insight, temptation, disappearing (withdrawal), and being misfit (not fitting in). These can be unexpected gifts of the Holy Spirit to us, and in these dark wood places we can discover the courage and commitment to speak out against whatever sin keeps the Good News of God’s grace from being received in us and in the world. And I believe that is the mission of the church. No matter how painful it might be; joy comes when just one person receives the gift of God’s love.

This has got to be one of the most important lessons of Pentecost. If people like Peter could do it, then people like you and me can do it too. You don't have to wear robes to do it; and you certainly don't have to do it from a pulpit. You might be on the phone to somebody who is down on their luck. What on earth do you say to someone like that? It's a scary thing, isn't it? But,

       The spirit of the Lord . . . is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed . . .

Or you find out somebody's marriage has just come to an end. What possible comfort could you offer somebody like that?

       The Spirit of the Lord . . . . is upon me . . . to bind up the broken-hearted . . .

Or the house bound neighbor who thinks she has no one and nowhere to turn.

       The Spirit of the Lord . . . is upon me . . . to proclaim liberty to captives . . .

That's what Pentecost is about as much as it is about anybody speaking from a pulpit. It's a public and private speech ordinary people like you can give to others, because even though we didn't know how we were going to do it, the Holy Spirit descends and gives us the power to speak. It is what the prophet Joel meant when he said that in former days, God's word was given only to prophets, a few charismatic, leader types who managed to speak up for God. But he said that a day would come when God said, "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams." Everybody gets to speak up for God; because church is the place where the power to speak belongs, not just to a few, but to all.

As the Spirit-filled church you are God’s present to the world. For the Spirit of the Lord is upon you to bring good news to Nashville, Tennessee, or Antioch, or Murfreesboro, or Hendersonville, or Dickson, or Donelson, or wherever you might live. As Christians you are filled with God’s Spirit, and that means you are God’s present to the world. Happy Birthday Church! Amen! (Adapted from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Public Speaking” for May 15, 2005 – www.fernstone.org