An Uncontrollable Fire
Acts 2: 1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It’s always a humbling experience to be awakened in the middle of the night by a big summer thunderstorm.
I’m sure you’ve experienced it before—it seems to be one of those universal human experiences.
You’ve been happily asleep, perhaps even dreaming, for several hours when suddenly your body wakes itself up and you are treated to sensory overload –
Rapid bolts of lightning aim themselves through the windows and into your bedroom,
And then you wait…. counting the seconds after the flash, for the inevitable, calamitous crashing of thunder that seems to lift your house off of its foundation.
As the walls continue to shake, the quick smattering of water on the pavement outside providing a haunting backbeat to the rushing winds that seem to have come out of nowhere.
It’s a humbling experience-- being jarred awake from slumber.
I was reminded of this on Thursday around 2 in the morning as a small but powerful storm blew through the neighborhood.
These days, other than the initial shock of the wake-up call, I love a good summer thunderstorm.
But as I sat up in bed on Thursday, trying to get my heart rate back down after that first colossal thunderclap, I remembered one of the irrational fears I had as a child.
I had read a story at some point about a bolt of lightning striking a tree in the forest, and the tree immediately erupting in flames, the flames then spreading to the grasses and the shrubs and finally into a wildfire that was impossible to contain.
And so, as a child whenever a clap of thunder woke me up, I was convinced that a stray bolt of lightning from the storm would lick the roof of our house and start a fire, and that the fire would spread and become impossible to control.
I was afraid of an uncontrollable fire.
And who wouldn’t be afraid of an uncontrollable fire?
I am certain that the disciples were afraid that day in the upper room.
Because that day the Holy Spirit came like an uncontrollable fire.
And who wouldn’t be afraid of an uncontrollable fire?
But let’s back up for a minute to consider how the disciples found themselves gathered in that upper room. Because they gathered with an expectation that something would happen, but no idea what was to come.
For you see, it had been 53 days since the worst day.
53 days since they saw Jesus hanging on the cross,
breathing his last, giving himself up to death.
53 days since Peter hid out of shame, and the other apostles fearfully fled from the hill.
53 days since the world came crashing down around them, their dreams dead and buried.
And yet, death was not the end of the story.
And in that upper room, that day, the disciples held tightly to the fact that it had been 50 days since the day of new life.
50 days since the stone was rolled away and the tomb was found empty.
50 days since Mary recognized the gardener as Jesus, risen from the dead.
50 days since hope was reborn and the world was changed forever.
And in those days that followed the resurrection, Jesus appeared to many of them – on the road to Emmaus, by the sea, at the table, in a locked room.
They had just a few weeks of chance encounters with Jesus—
just a few precious moments for each of them to ask their questions, share their doubts, and tell Jesus how much he had meant to them.
And then it was time for him to go again. Another wave of grief. Losing him all over again.
For as they gathered in the upper room,
It had only been 10 days since he ascended into the clouds.
10 days since they watched him being taken away once more.
10 days since his final words to them – those vague and cryptic words –
he had said to them - “ in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
And in those 10 days it seems that the disciples laid low.
They managed to elect a 12th disciple – Matthias – to take Judas’s place.
They took care of the business that needed to be attended to.
And they tried to make sense of his words – “baptized with the Holy Spirit?”
And then they prayed and they waited.
I imagine that this waiting felt different to each one of those 120 who gathered –
- Some were anxious for the Holy Spirit to show up already – anxious to get started on something new, anxious for a distraction from all the heaviness of 53 days.
- Surely some were cautiously optimistic, excited by Jesus’s final promise to them and ready to hit the ground running on ministry in Jerusalem.
- But I imagine that others were wrestling with feelings of profound unworthiness, wondering why Jesus hadn’t appeared to them after being resurrected.
- Many were likely still traumatized by it all, still haunted by the image of Jesus’s face contorted on the cross, still hearing the echoes, “crucify him!”, still wondering if more of them would be arrested and punished.
- And still others were questioning their role in the community, wondering what the future would look like with Jesus officially out of the picture, wondering if this group had a future at all.
The room in which they gathered must have been an anxious space, for those 53 days from Good Friday to the first Pentecost were an emotional whirlwind. Jesus, their leader, was alive, and then dead, and then alive again, and then gone for good.
If this sequence of events happened today in our community, we would call in grief and trauma counselors immediately.
I wonder, have you ever walked a journey like these disciples?
Have you ever experienced loss in your life?
For even though Jesus was resurrected, even though the miracle happened – the miracle that many of us hope for in the face of loss – I’m not sure that the resurrection erased the uncertainty, the fear, and deep grief that the disciples carried with them from the cross.
For just like those 120 people who gathered in that upper room – 120 people who had known and walked with and loved Jesus – who were overjoyed to see him again, but grieved all the more when he ascended into the clouds – just like those 120 people who were finally sitting down together to process and grieve – just like them, we know that there is a certain hollowness that accompanies loss. There’s something about experiencing profound emotion that can leave you feeling hollow, like you have nothing more to give.
Maybe you’re familiar with this hollowness – the sense that you have nothing left to give, that you have done as much as you can do on your own.
Maybe you’re feeling that way today.
- Perhaps you are burned out in your work, feeling like you need to make a change but you are deeply uncertain about the next phase of life.
- Perhaps you are feeling the weight of the world – each morning a new wave of fear overcomes you as you send your children to school again – will this be the day that the violence of the world walks through the doors of the school? Will this be the day the news crews and police cars rush to the scene of another school shooting? How long, O Lord, how long?
- Perhaps you are experiencing compassion fatigue – your heart is pulled in so many directions locally and globally. You struggle with how to care for the ones you love most while also feeling deeply sad about Gaza, and Syria, and Santa Fe High School
- Perhaps you are deeply grieved as the disciples were over the loss of a partner, or a parent, or a friend – a loss that has broken your heart and wounded your spirit.
We are familiar with the hollowness of life, just as the disciples were.
We know what is feels like for our hearts to break open,
for grief and anxiety and fear to overcome us,
we know what it feels like to have nothing left to give,
we know what it feels like to have no other option but to wait.
We don’t often think of Pentecost as the day when the Spirit entered into a somber room of grieving people – but I wonder if we might begin to – I wonder if we might begin to acknowledge the brokenness and hollowness of that space and all the things that the disciples were processing, and the fact that the Holy Spirit entered into even that.
Because it seems to me that the good news of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit comes in the midst of our hollowness to bring us new life!
For on the day of Pentecost, that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit did among those gathered.
On that morning in the upper room, while some were still sleeping, or perhaps finishing their morning prayers, the Holy Spirit – like a summer thunderstorm- surrounded the house, shook the walls, and enveloped the space with noise and chaos.
I wonder if we know what we’re saying when we say, “Come, Holy Spirit, come!”
For that morning, the Holy Spirit not only shook them from their slumber, but set the room on fire!
The Holy Spirit lit up the room like an uncontrollable fire,
and each of those gathered was embraced by the fire, each was given their own flame.
Each person, in the midst of their own hollowness and grief,
Was suddenly and inexplicably filled
with the warmth and the energy and the passion of an uncontrollable fire.
And the miracle of it all is that the fire – the Spirit’s fire - did not consume them, did not destroy them, did not burn them alive.
These people in their hollowness were not consumed by the fire, but blessed by it, called forth by it, inspired by it, invited into new life by it.
We see in the rest of the story that the fire gives each the power to speak and to understand,
That the fire unites the community across ethnic and social boundaries.
When Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy in his sermon, we see that the fire that each has been given
Will allow them to dream and see visions and prophesy.
The fire of the Holy Spirit will allow them to imagine again, and hope again.
The fire of the Holy Spirit forces them out into the world to begin to live again.
And suddenly, this group of burned out, grieving, uncertain people has been given uncontrollable fire, and a charge to go outward and dream and vision and prophesy.
And Peter, himself burning with the Holy Spirit, tells them to listen to the voices of the old and the young, and people of all genders and classes and races.
Can you feel the energy picking up? Can you feel the heat of the fire?
Can you feel things shifting? Can you see signs of new life?
Friends, the same Spirit that roared through that upper room is with us today.
The same Spirit that sparked an uncontrollable fire is in our midst.
And the good news of Pentecost is that the Spirit doesn’t wait for us to feel “full” on our own. The Spirit doesn’t wait for us to have everything together, thanks be to God.
The Spirit doesn’t set burn in the hearts of perfect people, because perfect people don’t exist.
In fact, sometimes our hollowness is the best kindling for the fire of the Spirit.
You see, when we open ourselves up to feeling, to grieving, to having our hearts broken open, to process things in community – when we open ourselves up to hollowness, we open ourselves up to the Spirit.
We open ourselves up to life in its fullest, we open ourselves up to the fire of the Spirit.
Last summer, right after I graduated from seminary, Zach and I traveled with my mom to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we spent several days hiking and reading and being.
I was at a major crossroads in my life- ending my graduate school journey and preparing to be here with you all. I was feeling so many things – joy and anticipation, anxiety and uncertainty, and a lot of grief that such an amazing chapter of my life had come to an end.
One morning, we set out to hike a trail along the rim of the canyon and we were driving to the trailhead when the landscape shifting drastically. The tall and picturesque conifers that provided such nice shade gave way to an alien scene of burned out trees with vultures perched in their charred branches. Signs indicated that the area had recently experienced a wildfire.
I was disappointed when we reached the trailhead and realized that much of the hike would take us through this strange landscape where a fire had swept through. I was hoping for some better pictures.
A few minutes into the hike, as we walked toward the burned zone, I began to glimpse something miraculous and unexpected. Covering the ground below the blackened tree trunks were millions of green seedlings, growing taller each day. New life was pushing itself through the ash. The uncontrollable wildfire had in fact created the conditions for abundant life to spring forth.
I hope you will remember this image as you celebrate this day of Pentecost.
Remember that the Spirit doesn’t wait for us to have it all together to give us the fire of new life.
Remember that in our hollowness, the Spirit sparks new hope and dreams and visions.
Remember that the fire of the Spirit surrounds us and dwells within us today and always. Amen.