What is Wrong with the World?
The a probably apocryphal story the Times of London wrote famous authors asking them to answer the question “What is Wrong with the World?” GK Chesterton, a writer famous for is mystery novels replied “I am”.
Most of the large public calamities we face and many of the small private ones are caused by people. Sometimes they are self-inflicted. Sometimes they are done purposefully by others. Sometimes they are unintended. People are the problem.
Generations of ambition, nationalism, concerns for national security and a network of loyalty brought us World War I. The desire to teach Germany a lesson brought us World War II. The need to stop the bloody war in the Pacific and the ever marching fear of falling behind in science and technology brought us the bomb. The Nazi Holocaust brought us the state of Israel in the midst of an Arab world, and on and on we go.
You can fill in your own strong of solutions that brought bigger problems behind them. They might be the solution imagined by a friend, neighbor or enemy that brought trouble to your life. The junky needs his fix so he breaks into the house to steal to feed their habit but the owner is home and on and on and on.
People themselves need to change and to be changed but how can that happen? We know people do change for the better, but also for the worse.
The Long Story of the Bible
The long story of the Bible is about the divorce of heaven and earth and God’s mission to rescue humanity from itself. Various options were tried.
- Drown all the “bad people”, but even Noah, the best man in the world had a weakness for the bottle and it ruined his family.
- Give people rules. Reward them when the obey and punish them when they stray. Result? We learned what we already knew. People can’t obey rules, even the ones they impose on themselves.
The Advent of the God-Man
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. They believe he didn’t just teach us things, most of what he taught was already in the Old Testament. He bore divine punishment for human rebellion and then arose again from the dead as the new humanity.
Last week we looked at Ascension Day through what I’d call the “Biblical Imaginary”. When I say that I’m referencing a world of language that the Bible creates and establishes. The authors of the Bible used that language to tell a very long story through the elements that came before.
Jesus comes to us as true humanity, fully in line with God and with nature being his true servant. He stills storms, he brings fish to swim into nets with a thought, he walks on water, he flies into the air.
As I noted Jesus came and went, appeared and disappeared after the resurrection but then in one very intentional and miraculous demonstration made some very specific points to his disciples as he flew into the air and disappeared in a cloud. We might pay attention to flying and clouds but we should understand those things in the light of the rest of the Bible.
- We looked at what heaven was for Jesus’ audience and why it was up.
- We looked at what flying would mean in terms of Jesus’ mastery over the natural order
- We looked at the long history of clouds in the Bible and how they were associated with God’s reign from heaven and his interactions with earth.
In many ways in Luke Pentecost completes Ascension so I’d like to look at some of the elements of Pentecost and see how they connect with the far larger story of the Bible.
Jesus is the image of renewed humanity, the first fruits of creation 2.0. In the story of Pentecost the plan of God to renew human hearts is fulfilled.
Jeremiah 24:7 (NIV)
7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
Habakkuk 2:14 (NIV)
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
The Festival of Weeks: Pentecost
It’s important to remember that “Pentecost” was first a Hebrew festival, one of the big three solemn festivals where good Jews were supposed to gather in Jerusalem. This is why there were so many Jews from all over the Roman empire in Jerusalem.
The festival was supposed to be seven weeks of seven days, or the 50th day after the Passover and it coincided with the wheat harvest. Jews were to bring first fruits offerings to God in anticipation of the fuller harvest. This imaginary will play into the “first fruits” offering of the Holy Spirit as we will see.
The Miracle Story of Pentecost
Just as the Ascension is really a miracle story, so is the story of Pentecost even if we don’t usually see it exactly like that. Pentecost is really the first overt miracle of the Holy Spirit because it isn’t associated directly with Jesus, a prophet or an apostle.
Acts 2:1–12 (NIV)
1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Peter will of course as the lead apostle stand up and tell them all what it means, but let’s look at some of the elements.
The Violent Wind
If you scan the Bible you’ll see that wind often plays an interesting role in various important stories. Wind is often of course just wind,
- Genesis 1:2 although often translated as “Spirit” in Christian Bibles can be translated as “wind from God”
- In Genesis 8:1 when God remembers Noah he causes a wind again to blow across the earth so the waters subside.
- Winds factor into Joseph’s dream of lean years shriveled by an east wind.
- Winds factor into the plagues and in bring quail to feed Israel.
- Wind is used to part the Red Sea
- Wind shows up when God appears to Elijah. It is described as a great and mighty wind shattering rocks and splitting mountains
- Winds show up in Psalms and poetry as powerful and destructive forces but also as the servant of God.
- Winds are obviously also connected with storms and these storms are sometimes the servant of the Lord as in the story of Jonah.
- Wind often carries off chaff which is commonly used in Biblical imagery. That is used in Daniel 2 where it carries off the remnants of the great statue after the stone struck it.
- In Daniel the wind and the sea as chaos elements get involved in the imperial beasts that come out of the sea.
- The wind and the waves obey Jesus when he calms the storm.
- John 3:8 Jesus associates wind blowing with the Spirit of God.
Clearly the violent wind blowing through the house was a miracle intended to convey the presence of the creator God in their midst. In many ways it is parallel with John 3:8 in this context.
Fire also plays an important part in Biblical imagery. God is described as a consuming fire (Deut 2:24) and comes down on Sinai as fire.
Probably the most important text is in the inauguration of the tabernacle in Leviticus 9 and 10.
Leviticus 9:22–24 (NIV)
22 Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down. 23 Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.
But then this happened.
Leviticus 10:1–2 (NIV)
1 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. 2 So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.
The altar before the tabernacle and then the temple was to have upon it a perpetual fire. That fire was to be in direct continuity with God himself. What an animal sacrifice was was placing the animal directly into the presence of God manifested in that fire. This was the ritual embodiment of the story. Since we cannot stand in the presence of God, as seen by the animal, the animal takes our place. The animal takes our sin and it is consumed in our place.
When Aaron’s sons try to introduce “strange fire”, or alien fire, fire that isn’t God they doing all sorts of violence to the system. They are then killed just like the animal. They cannot stand in the presence of God, or manufacture God (idolatry), or replace God with something they bring themselves.
It’s helpful again to review The Bible Project’s video of heaven and earth.
What had been centrally located on the altar now gets distributed by these followers of Jesus. As we’ll see in the next image it will go out over all the earth.
Speaking in the Tongues of the Nations
The third sign of Pentecost was that the followers of Jesus were given the ability to be heard in the myriad of tongues of the Jewish diaspora pilgrims coming from the nations. This was the reversing of the Tower of Babel. Not only would the presence of God in wind and fire be manifest but the word of God would go out with these people all over the world.
Restoration Power Begins with Misery and Humility
What follows in Acts 2 is a longish (for the book of Acts) sermon by Peter explaining exactly what is happening. Since he’s speaking to observant Jews gathered from around the world for the first fruits festival of Weeks.
Given our cultural setting we might imagine that this new gift would be given to us withing a context and under certain conditions.
We might imagine this gift would be given to people as a reward for good behavior. “Since you have been very good. Since you have been very smart to follow the right God. Since you have been very moral. God is going to give you extra power through his Spirit so that you can do wonders. So that you can go all over the world and fix things for suffering people and everything will be dandy.”
We might imagine that God would give this gift as sort of a new technology. “Now we can cure cholera, cancer, the flu and hunger by telling fish to go into nets, multiplying loaves and fishes and causing it to rain on the fields where and when we need it.”
What we forget is that it is our inability to do the right thing, our inability to have solutions that actually work for everyone, and not just for ourselves, our tribe or our group that gets us into messes.
We also forget that even as our technological power increases we increase the problems we have. At the beginning of the 20th century the world had about 1.6 billion people. By 1930 it had about 2 billion people. Before the fixation of nitrogen it is imagined the world might be able to feed between 3 and 4 billion people (Read The Alchemy of Air). Germany in particular was facing an inability to feed its own people. It was rescued by the a Jewish scientist who developed a process to extract nitrogen from the air. This nitrogen was used to create fertilizer and also explosive munitions. This helped give us World War 1 and 2 and helped us push human population into the 7 billion level.
All of this excess nitrogen that we rely on to feed us also messes up the nitrogen cycle and allows us to continue to build explosives that help with construction but also allow munitions. We gain power, but do we know how to use it?
What is evident from Peter’s sermon is that the first response to this new gift is not “oh thanks, we sure deserve this” or “thank God he’s sending us new technology and power to help us out of our messes” but “we did what to God’s son? We’re cooked!”
Acts 2:36–41 (NIV)
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” 37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
In other words it is not our good behavior that earns the gift, nor our intelligence to use God’s gifts that spurns him on to give more, it is the self-knowledge of our rebellion and our repentance that brings us to God.
How does this apply to us? Not much different than how it applied to them.
We need to begin to see that GK Chesterton as right. The problem with this world is not other people. It is me. My heart needs to be broken. I need to see the log in my own eye.
What happened on that day is the working out of the imagery of Pentecost. The few gathered in the upper room go out and the Spirit spreads onto more and more people around the world. The book of Acts sees the Spirit spreading through all sorts of people, surprising people. It spreads consistently with the image. It blows where it wills. God’s refining presence burns in us as he refines us to love sacrificially as the animal on the altar, as Jesus on the cross.
Gratitude for the deliverance given becomes the focus of the Christian life.
The Spirit given at Pentecost is a gift. It is not a tool we wield because our renovation is not yet complete. If given great power we will often do what everyone else often does, a lot of damage and maybe some good. You will find that the Holy Spirit does a variety of things in us.
- The Holy Spirit convicts us of the sin in our lives and drives us to repentance.
- The Holy Spirit reminds us of what Jesus teaches.
- The Holy Spirit gives us boldness to talk about Jesus.
- The Holy Spirit intercedes for us before the Father in words we cannot express.
- The Holy Spirit gives us signs and foretastes of the new life that is to come that was seen in Jesus.
- The Holy Spirit builds the church and allows us as a community to taste the unity that will one day come.
We are not in control of these things. We ask God for them and as the gospel of Luke says he will surely give to all who ask for His Spirit.