Monday, May 16, 2016

Pentecost: The Second Most Important Birthday in the Universe

In honor of the Christian church’s birthday, technically known as Pentecost, which was celebrated yesterday, May 15, I wanted to share with you a sermon I gave several years ago, modified somewhat for this post. It’s based on Acts 2:1-21, and is the story of the most important birthday in the universe, next to Jesus' birth, of course.

We’re celebrating another birthday. A BIG one! A recognition occurring for nearly two thousand years now; a remembrance of when God ushered the church age into history.

But what’s so special about this birthday? Why do we celebrate it year, after year, after year?

Some birthday characteristics

People often reminisce about past birthdays, or those of their children or grandchildren. They’ll remember what life was like “back then,” what they got,  who or what was special in their life.

When you were younger you probably counted the days leading up to the birthday, especially the big ones – like ten – when you finally made double digits, and thirteen – when you could finally call yourself a teenager; and then eighteen—when you thought you owned the world—and twenty-one, when you knew you did!

And you may gaze mentally into the future to contemplate what the next year holds for you. You dream dreams and make grandiose plans. You celebrate YOU!

Birthday party basics:
1. You need to have a guest of honor
2. You set the place and time – so everyone knows when and where to show up
3. You need to have an invitation list
4. Then you need to compile a guest list (for the ones who responded that they will join you to celebrate.)

As we look at Pentecost, you’ll see that the characteristics are present: reminiscing, counting down the days, and thinking about the future. 

And we will recognize that all of the necessities are here for a good party: a pre-arranged place and time, (Jerusalem during a festival); an invitation list, (the disciples and followers); a guest list, (disciples, followers, and soon-to-be new believers); and, most important, a guest of honor, (the Holy Spirit).

But the first thing you need to remember is that Pentecost is not originally a church celebration. It was a Jewish celebration that had been going on since God gave Moses the Book of Deuteronomy.

Reminiscing and Understanding

So, I want to take you back nearly two thousand years, when God had a big party and initiated the church age. I want you to view this event—this special birthday— through Jewish eyes.

Imagine you are a Jew, a follower of Christ, sitting in that house with about 120 other Jewish disciples. You’re praying and singing psalms and excitedly anticipating what will happen.

Ten days ago, just before you watched Him ascend into heaven, Jesus commanded you to go to Jerusalem and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit—the Divine Presence of God. Jesus said you would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon you, and that you would be a witness to Him in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. But how can that be, you wonder? Then your mind retraces the last fifty days.

So much has happened. 

First, you celebrated Passover then hours later watched as the crowd called for Jesus to be crucified. When Pilate gave the order, you and most of Jesus’s closest disciples hid, terrified you would be arrested too. You were confused. Your hearts were broken. You had all been so sure Jesus was the prophesied Messiah who would deliver you from the oppressive Roman yoke.

But then Sunday morning after the crucifixion, the stunning news came that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to some of the other disciples. They breathlessly told you about it. And you and the others reasoned together about the Resurrection.

It all started to make sense.

Passover was one of the three great festivals God commanded the Jews to celebrate. Every year your family traveled to Jerusalem to sacrifice the Passover lamb. Three days later, you went to the temple for the Festival of First Fruits—the festival that celebrated the bountiful harvest God had provided.

And to prepare for that festival, every spring you and your family carefully scoured the wheat fields looking for the first swollen grains of the season. Then you would eagerly mark these stalks with a ribbon, these first fruits of the harvest that were given to God. On the third morning after Passover, the priests waved one of your dedicated sheaves in the temple. Then, you were to count forty-nine more days, and return to Jerusalem to bring the first fruits of the barley harvest to the temple on Shavuot, translated Pentecost in Greek.

It was always a time of great celebration. Your mother decorated and made special dairy meals – to remind you that Israel is the land of milk and honey. The rabbis compared it to a wedding between God and His people. And it was the day King David was born, and died. And your parents always had you repeat the verse from Deuteronomy: “And you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given you.”

But this year, Jesus’s death threw you and your friends, and most of Jerusalem into an uproar. The Sanhedrin hadn’t wanted Jesus to die during Passover, but it happened anyway. Then the eleven remaining disciples told everyone about the new covenant Jesus had initiated at the last Passover he ate with them. That stunned everyone. His body and his blood given for them? That was a marriage covenant he recited! Then Jesus was raised from the dead on first day of First Fruits!

And He met with all of you for forty days before returning to heaven. He promised you again that he would not leave you alone; he promised that his power would come to you. 

Now you are sitting in that house—waiting. Just this morning you heard the temple official call out, “Arise! Let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God!”

You are sure it will happen on this day—this final day of celebration of Passover and First Fruits; where the barley harvest will be baked into two loaves and offered before the Lord at the temple. You are sure that Jesus is The First Fruit of the harvest. And to send the Holy Spirit on this day —the day Israel recognizes as the day the law was given—would also be a fulfillment of prophecy. After all, Jesus had said that He came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it!

It was all coming together…

Then you hear it! An enormous, deafening sound like a violent rush of wind. The air itself is not stirred; just the powerful sound fills the house. Then divided tongues, looking like fire, appear in the room; one resting on each person’s head. And King David’s psalm floods your mind, “The voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness.” And someone else excitedly reminds everyone about the smoke and fire that appeared on Mt. Sinai the day God gave Moses the law!

This is it! The Divine Presence of God—the Holy Spirit—Jesus promised!

Suddenly you and the others start speaking in different languages. You’ve never spoken another dialect, but immediately you’re given the ability to do so. What God started at the Tower of Babel, he has reversed on this day.

All of you run to the temple. It is crowded with Jewish pilgrims from as far away as Iran, Iraq, Rome, Turkey, Libya, Crete, Arabia, and Egypt. They are there to offer their first fruits barley harvest.

And it is clear that they, too, heard the sound because they have gathered together, bewildered and astounded, because you and the others are speaking to them as quickly and excitedly as you can about Jesus, and how his death and resurrection fulfill prophecy and give eternal life. Your heart burns within you as you share this good news. The listeners from these other countries actually hear your words in their language!

The crowd listening to you is amazed and perplexed because they understand your words. Some of them excitedly ask you what it all means? They are eager to know more. Others sneer, and accuse you of having made some strong wine from your new crops and partaken of it this morning.

So Peter stands with the other eleven before the crowd and tells them that you aren’t drunk; it’s too early for the celebratory drinking to start. Then he reminds everyone of the prophet Joel’s prophecy, where God says that in the last days He will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, and everyone shall prophecy; that people will see visions, and even the old will have dreams. Everyone, slave and free alike, will receive this power from God.

And then Peter goes on to remind everyone that Joel also prophesied about the distant future—where God will cause signs in heaven and on earth. Signs like blood, and fire, and smoky mist; like the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood, before the Lord’s final return on his judgment day.  

Three thousand Jews receive the Holy Spirit and believe the message they hear that day. And they can’t wait to return to their homes to share with friends and family the good news of salvation and life through Jesus the Jewish Messiah. No longer will you have to live under the law, but under grace.

You know instinctively that it is the start of a mission that will take all of you to the ends of the earth, just as He said.

The Holy Spirit has enabled you for Christ’s service—to share this good news, so that others might also know about Jesus and receive His joy of eternal life. It is the most important thing Jesus calls you to do. And you must be obedient to him. And you will no longer be afraid because now He will be with you wherever you go.

And months later Dr. Luke interviews all of you so that he can make an account of the day the church started, for future generations to read—and remember.

Celebrating the Birthday Today

And now, let me bring you back to the present—to our celebration.

You are here, in this place, because Jesus has invited you. I pray you have said yes and fully received his gift—the power of his Holy Spirit—and become his disciples, and have your name written on the official guest list.

But remember, Jesus is still inviting.

And He wants you to be the one to deliver the invitations.

May I ask, how many invitations you have passed out lately?  When was the last time you extended an invitation to someone else to join this party—Jesus’ party?

The person who irks you at work? Have you invited him to meet the Savior? The cantankerous, lonesome old lady next door? The single mother who’s struggling with everything in life and void of resources or hope? The indolent teenager whose father is AWOL? Is your heart broken enough over their conditions to invite them?

Jesus invited the sinners—the poor, the downtrodden, the liars, the thieves, the prostitutes, the adulterers, the prisoners, the blind, the lame, the lepers; the outcasts and the misfits. He’s still inviting them to come, to be set free. He invites them to come and live a full, joyful life in and through Him.

Or maybe you know someone who’s so nice and kind they don’t seem to need a Savior. They do. No one is ever nice enough or kind enough or good enough. No one matches Christ. Only He—and faith in him—saves. You’re not getting into the eternal party without him.

But be careful about thinking that you can always just show people your good works without saying anything to them about Jesus.

I’d like to illustrate that fact by this true story:

A man named Sam was saved in Seattle as a result of a Billy Graham event. Sam was so excited about what God did in his life, he told his boss about his relationship with Christ.

The boss said, “That’s great! I’m a Christian too, and I’ve been praying for you for years.”

But Sam was disappointed, and his countenance fell. He asked his boss, “Why didn’t you ever tell me? You were the very reason why I haven’t been interested in the Gospel all of these years!”

The boss responded, “How could that be? I’ve done my best, by God’s grace, to live a Christ-like life around you all this time.”

Sam said, “That’s the point. You lived such a model life without telling me that it was Christ who made the difference, [that] I convinced myself that if you could live such a good and happy life without Christ, then I could too” (Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 111).

Whom Does He Send to Deliver Invitations?

God seems to be in the celebration business because He instituted a lot of feasts for the Israelites. He still has a wedding feast awaiting us in heaven.

But whom does he send to deliver the invitation? You. Us.

Professional marketers know from research that it takes about 7-9 letters of invitation before someone responds. How many times have you invited?

C.S. Lewis called God “the hound of heaven” because God never gives up. How often have you asked? Have you given up?

Have you prayed that God would go before you to prepare the heart of the person whom you want to invite? Have you prayed for Jesus to give you just the right words to speak to them, and for their ears and hearts to be open to the reception of the message? Do you pray – often – for God to provide opportunities for you to share the Gospel?

Who’s on your invitation list? Do you even have one?  

Keep inviting. Keep sharing your story and the reason for your joy. Scour the fields; plant seeds. Prepare for God’s harvest.

When you exit those doors, you are entering your mission field. Go out and invite, and take the heart of God with you. As Fred said last Sunday, “Go fishing!”

When you’re having a party, you want people to come and share in the celebration with you.

When you’ve received a great gift, you want to talk about and share it. I’m sure there are special gifts you still remember and reminisce to others about.

Are Jesus and the Holy Spirit on your special gift list?

All of you have a special story to tell. Jesus has given you the power to tell it. But are you willing?

As John Wesley said, “I look on all the world as my parish, … I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it … my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”

I ask again—how special is Jesus to you? Do you find him worth sharing? Do you consider it your bounden duty to tell others those glad tidings of salvation? The First Century Jewish believers did. Within months they had the Roman world turned upside down. They couldn’t stop talking about Him, even if it cost them their lives.

As Paul later wrote to the Roman church, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace. Who bring glad tidings of good things”  (Romans 10: 14-15).

So remember Pentecost, and look forward to the heavenly party God has planned for those who follow Jesus. You don’t know how many days you have left. Prepare your list of invitees. Jesus—the guest of honor—is waiting. Put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim His gospel of peace.

Someone you know, or have yet to meet, is eagerly waiting to receive that invitation.


Until next week,

Happy Invitation Delivering!