Fire In the Air

Pentecost, May 19, 2013
West Side Moravian Church
Green Bay, Wisconsin

Fire On the Mountain

The Hebrew people were saved from their slavery in Egypt by the surprising acts God did in the land of Egypt and by God's great action on the day of Passover. The people left Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds. All the time the glory of God was travelling with them. After about 50 days they found themselves at Mount Sinai, for that is where God had told Moses to bring them.

Moses went up the mountain to meet with the Lord God, who told him to say to the people: You saw what I did in Egypt, and you know how I brought you here to me, just as a mighty eagle carries her young. Now if you will faithfully obey me, you will be my very own people. The whole world is mine, but you will be my holy nation and serve me as priests. [Exodus 19: 2-6a]

The day of Pentecost, the 50th day of the Exodus, is still celebrated as the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. God had guided the people out of slavery as a mighty eagle carries her young. Now in their restored freedom the people were to become a nation of holiness.

How was that to happen? God reaffirmed the covenant and then God began to give the people instruction about how to live as God's very own people. These instructions are what we've come to call the Commandments or the Law, but they are a teaching, a lesson on how to live as God's holy nation.

It was a lot like getting a new job. First, you have to show up at the office and meet your new boss. Next, there are some agreements to sign. And then your new employer begins to teach you how to do your new job – what your responsibilities are and the proper methods for carrying out your duties.

There were some important differences between their experience and my last new job. For one thing, the people of Israel travelled to a mountain in the wilderness, not an office. Also, this job was one for the entire nation. Every boy and girl, every mother and father, all the patriarchs and great aunts, and everybody else was taking on that new job. So everybody came out to meet the new boss. And – oh! – that first meeting with the boss was something! Because the boss was God.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning. A thick cloud covered the mountain, a loud trumpet blast was heard, and everyone in camp trembled with fear. Moses led them out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. [Exodus 19: 16-17]

If that was how my first day on the job went, I'm not sure that I would have been back for a second day. At the very least, I'd be too awestruck and tongue-tied to say anything. This was certainly true for the Hebrews. Fortunately, Moses was there. Moses had talked with God many times, and now he spoke on behalf of the entire nation.

Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had come down in a flaming fire. Smoke poured out of the mountain just like a furnace, and the whole mountain shook. The trumpet blew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. [Exodus 19: 18-19]

After this, Moses went up to the top of the mountain to put together the employee handbook: the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone and then the rest of the 613 teachings.

That first Pentecost was the day when God gave the gift of instruction on how to be God's very own people.

There was Fire on the mountain that day, but there was fear on the people. There was a division, a separation between God on the holy mountain and the people who were to become God's holy nation. On that first Pentecost, only Moses could cross that separation and talk both to God and to the people.

Fire In the Air

Years later, the whole of humanity was saved from our slavery to sin by the surprising acts of Jesus and especially Jesus' great act at the season of Passover. Jesus crossed the boundary of death and yet for 40 days afterward he was travelling with his disciples around Judea and Galilee. After 50 days, the disciples gathered together in honor of God's giving instructions to Moses and the people of Israel so long ago.

On the day of Pentecost, all the Lord's followers were together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions and a tongue came and settled on each person there. [Acts 2: 1-3]

No longer was there Fire on the mountain. On that day there was Fire in the air. The Lord was done with writing instructions. On that day, God handed out power.

The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak. [Acts 2: 4]

Here there was no longer any separation. There was no boundary between God and God's people. God crossed over and touched each person.

Here there was no longer any fear. God's love burned in each person and drove out all their fears. [See 1 John 4:18] Here there was no longer silence and reticence, no longer any need for a Moses to speak on our behalf. God's own breath breathed out of the disciples.

Fire On the Heart

Today we remember the first Pentecost at Mount Sinai. We are grateful to God for meeting our ancestors and for providing them with instructions on holiness. But their experience of Fire on the mountain is not our own experience. As it says in Hebrews:

You have not come to a place like Mount Sinai that can be seen and touched. There is no flaming fire or dark cloud or storm or trumpet sound. The people of Israel heard a voice speak. But they begged it to stop, because they could not obey its commands. … The sight was so frightening that Moses said he shook with fear. [Hebrews 12: 18-21]

Today as well we remember the birth of the church. We are thankful that God breathed wind and fire into the gathering of Jesus' disciples. We thank God for reaching across the barriers of failure and fear and for opening the doors to the Kingdom. But their experience of wind and flame is not the same as our experience.

We share with the ancient Hebrews the experience of a powerful God – and we share the responsibility to make God's work our own work. We share with the disciples the experience of God crossing over to join us where we are – and we share the power to accomplish the work we are assigned to do. We share with all of them the experience of entering into the holy kingdom. We share all of this, but we come to this sharing by a different route.

You have now come to Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the city of the living God, where thousands and thousands of angels have come to celebrate. Here you will find all of God's dearest children …. And you will find God himself …. Here also are the spirits of those good people who have been made perfect. And Jesus is here! [Hebrews 12: 22-24a]

There is no fear here, no boundary, no legalistic employee handbook, no separation. No more huddling at the foot of the mountain or in a closed room. Now we live and breath the power of God.

This was the promise of that first Pentecost at Mount Sinai. It is even more the promise given in the second Pentecost: We are invited to see God. We are engaged to become God's own people. We are empowered to do God's work on the earth. God invites us. God engages us. God empowers us. There is Fire on our hearts.

We are about to step into the City of God. The gates are open. Jesus is here! Soon, and very soon, we are going to see the King. Stand and proclaim it.

Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us! So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won't let go. And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete. [Hebrews 12: 1-2a]

Bible quotations from the Contemporary English Version, © 1995, American Bible Society.

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