The historic Christian church celebrates three major festivals each year. Do you know what they are? Christmas, Easter and…Pentecost. It’s no secret that of the three, Pentecost is the least known and least celebrated. There are no Pentecost trees or Pentecost presents or Pentecost parties. Many Christians wouldn’t be able to tell you what happened on Pentecost. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? If these three events happened today, which one would create the biggest headlines? Christmas: a poor, unmarried teenage girl gives birth to a baby boy in a small town stable. Easter: several women find the tomb of their friend empty, Jewish and Roman authorities report that his friends stole his body during the night. But Pentecost? Pentecost would go viral, wouldn’t it? The sound of a violent wind, but nothing was destroyed; tongues of fire, but no one was burned; uneducated fishermen speaking in foreign languages they had never learned; and all of this witnessed and, incredibly, believed by thousands of people. Today’s world craves the unusual, the bizarre, the miraculous – so why is the festival of Pentecost so neglected and misunderstood today? Perhaps the answer is found right in our text: amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
I. God Gathers His People in Miraculous Ways
‘What does this mean?’ is the uniquely Lutheran question. Lutheran sermons and Bible classes generally consist of reading a portion Scripture and then asking “what does this mean?” Today we ask: what does Pentecost mean? The word itself simply means 50th or 50th day. Pentecost was originally an OT harvest festival (Leviticus 23:15-22) – where the people gave thanks to God for his gift of a bountiful harvest. But God determined that the Pentecost celebrated 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection would be a memorable one, unlike any that had come before, one which would change and shape the world until the end of time – where Jesus would keep his promise (John 15:26-27) to send the Holy Spirit to reap a harvest, not a of crops but a harvest of souls.
Usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Pentecost are the strange miracles: the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. But we must not overlook two key words: it was a sound LIKE the blowing of a violent wind and what SEEMED to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. It was not actual wind that filled the place where the disciples had gathered and they were not actually on fire. This wasn’t natural nor was it magic – these were miracles. But more than that: these were signs. Like road signs, these signs pointed to something else. Then what was the purpose of these signs? We don’t have to overthink it. Luke tells us that God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven were staying in Jerusalem. During the festival of Pentecost Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who had come to celebrate. This sound of wind gathered these people around the disciples and the tongues of fire demonstrated that the Spirit of God had filled these disciples, and that what they were about to say came from God himself. (Fire is often a sign of God’s presence. See Exodus 3:2-4; Exodus 13:21; Exodus 19:18.)
What was the divine message? Those who heard them said: we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! Clearly the disciples were not babbling incoherently, but were speaking in known languages – and we are probably safe in assuming that they spoke about the God who had created the heavens and the earth, who had destroyed the world in a flood and rescued his people from Egypt, who had led them through the wilderness for 40 years and given them the Promised Land, who had disciplined his rebellious children in exile in Babylon, and brought them back to rebuild the Jerusalem and the Temple they were gathered in this very day. The message was that this same God was about to do something brand new, something that would shock and change the world forever.
But before we get to the message let’s not forget that God continues to gather his people in miraculous ways today. The biggest story in our synod today is that we are working to build a Lutheran seminary in Vietnam. Can you imagine that? Just 50 years ago some of you were going to war against the evil of atheistic communism and now our own synod is being welcomed by the Vietnamese government to build a seminary and train confessional Lutheran pastors. There is a section in every edition of the Forward in Christ called Confessions of Faith. This month’s article is written by a woman who despaired of trying to find salvation through her good works as a Catholic nun and how God led her through marriage and the Word to the peace of free forgiveness and salvation in Christ in the Lutheran Church. But we don’t have to look to the other side of the world or even at a magazine to see the Spirit’s miraculous, gathering power. Whether we are lifelong Christians or have followed a long a winding road to Christ alone – our faith is living proof of the Spirit’s miraculous work. No roaring wind or tongues of flame, but miracles nonetheless. All of which means that Pentecost is not over. Right here and around the world, God is still gathering his people in miraculous ways in order to reap a harvest of souls for salvation in Christ!
II. God Pours Out His Spirit on All People
The crowd waited with eager anticipation to hear what these signs meant. And what did Peter say? Did he admit that when his friends got to drinking they sometimes spoke in foreign languages? Did he boast that these signs showed how they were super-Christians with a special connection to God? Did he promise the crowd that if they devoted their lives to God they would be able to perform signs like this? No! Even in the midst of these signs Peter went back to Scripture. He boldly and clearly proclaimed that the central miracle of Pentecost was the fulfillment of Joel’s 800 year old prophecy. In the last days, that is, the time between Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the final judgment, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. This is the true miracle of Pentecost, the effects of which continue to this day. No longer would God dwell in and work and speak only through a select few prophets and priests – nor only through one nation, the nation of Israel. Now God would send his Holy Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, Jews and Gentiles. For what purpose? Twice Joel writes [they] will prophesy. Often we think of prophesying as the ability to tell the future. But here, Joel is using the word in a much wider sense. Prophesy simply means to speak on God’s behalf. Specifically, to first believe and then to speak about God’s work of saving sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You experience and enjoy the miracle of Pentecost whenever you hear the Word of God preached or taught or when you read at home, when you tell a coworker or friend about Christ, when you read Bible stories to your children and confess your faith. The true miracle of Pentecost is that God kept his centuries-old promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on anyone and everyone, so that all kinds of people might believe and confess the love of God who sent his only Son into this world to save sinners.
Ah, but what about the visions and dreams? I would encourage you to check this out for yourself, but when you look throughout the Bible, what did God show his people through visions and dreams? From Ezekiel’s vision of a temple (the NT Church) (Ezekiel 40-48) to Peter’s vision of the sheet filled with animals coming down from heaven (Acts 10:9-23) to Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man pleading with him to bring the Gospel (Acts 16:6-10); even to much of Revelation – God showed them how He was acting behind the scenes with His Word to break down every barrier created by sin and Satan – and, as he did on that first Pentecost, to use the Gospel to reverse Babel’s curse. (Genesis 11:1-9) These are visions that you and I get to hear about and see regularly. We see the simple, straightforward Gospel winning souls and converting lost sinners in our own families, our own community and through the work of missionaries around the world. The conversion of sinners of all races, nationalities and languages was unimaginable to God’s OT people, but today, these visions and dreams are a living reality for us.
What about that last bit of Joel’s prophecy: the wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood. These words describe what will happen in the days leading up to Judgment Day. Why would Peter bring up these frightening images on the day the NT Church is born? It is for our comfort and confidence. It’s as if God knew that we might doubt and wonder “Well, it’s nice that they had signs and wonders back then, but all we have are the boring old water and Word, bread and wine – is the Spirit really here with us?” Or “is the Holy Spirit like a migrating bird – where we have to be in the right place at the right time and hope he shows up to bring about an exciting revival?” Or “our nation seems to be turning against God, has the Spirit given up on America?” No! No matter how anti-Christian this world may seem, no matter how many polls show that Christian membership is declining, no matter how many preachers yell and scream that the church needs a great revival or it will die, the promise is that the Holy Spirit will continue his gathering and sanctifying work until the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And every war and revolution, every eclipse, every storm, every earthquake, every erupting volcano remind us that we live in the last days and that we may expect our Lord’s return at any time. Not so that we would cower in fear but so that we would lift up our heads and rejoice because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
III. God has Made This Jesus, Whom You Crucified, Both Lord and Christ
Men of Israel Peter began, but he could just have easily said, “men, women, and children of Risen Savior.” Listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God by miracles, wonders and signs…and you…put him to death by nailing him to the cross. Pentecost reaches its fullest meaning for you and for me when the Holy Spirit convicts us of this gut-wrenching truth; the truth that Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost happened because we as a human race had become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts [had become] like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We may not have been there to cry out “Crucify” or pound the nails or hurl insults as Jesus hung on that tree, but he was delivered over to death for our sins. (Romans 4:25) As awful as it was that God’s chosen people crucified his Son, it is just as awful that we who have been chosen by God and filled with His Spirit through Baptism should behave like sheep [who have] gone astray, each of us [turning] to our own way (Isaiah 53:6) with our selfish actions, our loveless words and our filthy thoughts. For Pentecost to mean anything to us, the Holy Spirit must lead us to confess that our sins put the Son of God to death on a cross. Just as Peter didn’t sugarcoat the truth that day, we don’t dare sugarcoat it today: I, by my sins, caused the death of God’s one and only Son; and so did you.
What hope could we possibly have? Just one: But God has raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. What does this mean? It means that this wasn’t a tragic accident; it means that God planned from eternity to hand his Son over to evil men to be put to death to bring about salvation for sinners. It means that Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice for the sins of the world – and his resurrection proves that God accepted his sacrifice; you are forgiven! It means that Jesus has kept his promise to send the Holy Spirit to work through the Gospel in Word and sacrament to create saving faith and to work fruits of faith in our lives. This means that Jesus sits on his throne in heaven and directs everything, every election, every international treaty, every natural disaster, and every personal tragedy and triumph for the good of His Church. This means that one day soon Jesus will return to take all believers home to heaven. This means that God the Father planned your salvation, God the Son carried it out to completion, and God the Spirit brings and applies it to you personally through the Word and sacrament. This is not just good news; this is the best news!
What does Pentecost mean? Pentecost means that just as he did on that day in Jerusalem God continues to gather his people in miraculous ways in order to pour his Holy Spirit out on all people through the Word to convict and convince sinners like us to believe and confess this one eternal, saving truth: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. Amen.