Pentecost: Making the Old New

Acts 2:1-21 & John 15:26-27, John 16:4b-15 

 I love Pentecost. It’s my second favorite holiday in the ecclesial calendar. What I love about it is that God does a new thing – send the permanent presence of God’s spirit – in exactly the way that made sense on that particular day. Let me explain. 

The first Pentecost did not happen in Jerusalem, but at Sinai. Fifty days after the Passover (which is where we get the name Pentecost/Πεντηκοστή “fiftieth”) God appeared to the Israelites who assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai.  The Bible is very explicit that this appearance at Sinai was accompanied by a multitude of “voices” [Qolot, Strong’s H6963] (Exodus 19:16, 20:18), a lightning storm (Exodus 19:16) and something like lamps or tongues of fire floating around [Lapidim, Strongs H3940 – “lightning” is an unfortunate translation and ignores the other occurrences of the word in the Bible as well as millennia of Jewish precedent] (Exodus 20:18). The voices and the little fires were seen by the whole community (Exodus 20:18).  

But how is a voice seen? The rabbis tell us that each voice was a different human language into which the Torah was revealed at Sinai (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:9)*. The Torah was revealed in 70 languages, which was symbolic of all nations. The Israelites could see the mixed multitude who traveled with them (Exodus 12:38) understanding Torah in their own languages! Every Pentecost since the first would have carried the memory of that first one in which small flames and a multitude of languages ushered in God’s appearance to the people and the revelation of God’s ongoing presence. 

The celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost was one of the big three pilgrimage festivals while the temple stood (Exodus 34:22, Numbers 28:26, Deut 16:10) and making the trip up to Jerusalem was incumbent upon all Israelites. They were to bring the first fruits of their late-spring harvest to the temple.  

After Jesus was crucified around the Passover, and he waited 40 days and ascended, his disciples were still waiting in Jerusalem. They only had to wait another few days before the time came to celebrate how God had appeared to God’s people over a thousand years earlier with multiple languages, stormy weather, and little fires in order to inaugurate a new covenant with God’s people.  

Those in Jerusalem that day were not disappointed! God’s spirit appeared with power to do a new thing in an old way. The people again heard a mighty windy storm (Acts 2:2). They again saw something like little tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). And they again heard the words of God proclaimed in many human languages so that people without skills in Hebrew could understand what was being said (Acts 2:4).  

This would have been at once deeply shocking, but also deeply familiar to all those who knew the reason for the mass celebration. Jews from all over the world, who had grown up in foreign cultures, speaking foreign languages, had come to Jerusalem to celebrate God’s revealing of Godself. They celebrated by enjoying a giant communal meal marking God’s gifting of another harvest season beginning.  Certainly there would be much feasting and drinking that day. But Peter and the rest had not started drinking early. They were simply experiencing God do what God had done before: show up in a holy/weird way. But they also experience God doing what God had not done yet: permanently impart God’s holy spirit into God’s people.  

So what difference does it make for us that when God shows up in powerful new ways to welcome God’s people into an intensified relationship, God does so with the proclaiming of God’s word in multiple languages? God cares deeply that no one be left of out the revelation, particularly those who have already drawn close. The mixed multitude at the first Pentecost had already left Egypt and their normal lives in order to follow this powerful God with God’s people. God made it a point to speak to the entire assembly in voices that they could understand. 

During the celebration of Pentecost while the temple stood, the people were enjoined to recite “my father was a wandering Aramean” as they presented their sacrifice in order to remember a time before their incorporation into a holy people when their ancestors were foreigners in the lands in which they traveled (Deut 26:5). At the first church-age Pentecost, God again made sure that all those who had drawn close to celebrate, including those from North Africa, Asia Minor, the Levant, Arabia, Persia and Central Asia, were welcomed in their own languages and invited into the thing that God was doing.  

I think that we are called today to participate in similar welcoming to people from some of those exact same places. If we turn away or refuse to associate with people from Libya, Egypt, Arab countries and Persia, [or anyplace else], especially because they speak a different language from us, we are doing the exact opposite of what God did during those Pentecosts at Sinai and Jerusalem. Indeed, welcoming the foreigner into the story of God’s people is what God has always done.  

2018.05.20

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* “Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

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