“Burn, Baby, Burn”
If I, with my limited perspective, had written the script for Jesus’ life, a lot of things would have been different. For example, the post-resurrection events – in my scenario Jesus would have spent less time appearing to his disciples and more appearing to those who had condemned him to death. Can’t you see Him standing once again before Pilate and Herod? Confronting the Sanhedrin? Lecturing the angry mob? I even have two versions written – in one, many of these people plead for forgiveness, repent of their wrongs, and come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and there is great rejoicing. In the other version, they cower in utter fear, knowing they are doomed to eternal damnation and there is great agony and sorrow – for indeed, they had tried to kill the Son of God. In either case, what better way to let the world know about Jesus the Lord? It would certainly make for some exciting drama. But, fortunately, I did not write the script; God did. So Jesus did not appear to his enemies. God had another plan for letting the world know about Jesus – Jesus turned his ministry over to the Holy Spirit. He would let His Spirit convince the world that He is Lord. More pointedly, He would let His Spirit, through us, convince the world that Jesus is Lord. That’s what this Pentecost Sunday is all about.
Pentecost was a very special day – because GOD SET UP THE DAY. Pentecost was one of the big three pilgrimage festivals along with Passover and the Feast of the Tabernacle. On these days every Jewish male was commanded to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Pentecost was called the Festival of Weeks because it fell on the first day after the 7 weeks following the Passover celebration. It was also known as the Feast of Harvest, because it was right at the end of the barley harvest and the initial ripening of the wheat harvest. Eventually it became as well the time to celebrate the anniversary of the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.
So the stage was set for this day recorded in Acts 2. God’s people would understand the signs of wind, fire, and sound – their forefathers experienced that when Moses was on Sinai receiving the law. They would come to realize the Holy Spirit would bring them a new law by which to live. They would catch the vision that the harvest was ripe and ready to be harvested. Only God could, over the years, set up this day. To celebrate Pentecost is to acknowledge that God is in control, that He is working out His plan. In fact, God has set up today; even as we celebrate Pentecost God has prepared us for right now. We are part of His ongoing plan.
This morning I want to focus on just one of the symbols GOD PROVIDED FOR THE DAY to communicate His message. Verse 3: “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” Just what is the significance of the fire?
First, the fire symbolizes that THERE IS A POWER TO BELIEVE. Fire is the most striking symbol of God’s divine presence. In Exodus 3, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush. Throughout their journey in the wilderness the Israelites were guided and protected by a pillar of fire. When God appeared in the Tabernacle the temple was covered with a fiery cloud, called His Shekinah glory. At the giving of the 10 commandments, God appeared to Moses on the mountain in a constant fire. John the Baptist even said of Jesus, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt. 3:11)
So JESUS POINTED TO THE POWER. The disciples were constantly in awe of Jesus and the things He did – stilling the storms, raising the dead, healing the sick. But Jesus kept teaching them that it was not Him but the Father who was doing it all. John 14:10 – “…it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. “ John 5:19 – “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does…For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son give life to whom he is pleased to give it.” The Father spoke through Jesus, healed through Jesus, and worked His will through Jesus. That’s why Jesus, as He was preparing to ascend to heaven and leave the disciples here on earth, said (Acts 1:8): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” That’s how they would fulfill the promise of Jesus that they would do even greater works then He had done – they would have the Father’s power! It would take more than enthusiasm and commitment to be a follower of Jesus – it would take divine power!
On Pentecost the flame, the fire, of God appeared on each person present. God was demonstrating that His presence would now be not only with but also within them. He was filling the very tissues of their brains with the Holy Spirit. So today we celebrate the fact that THE HOLY SPIRIT VESTS US WITH HEAVENLY POWER. The power of God is conferred on all who believe. Listen to Paul’s description of this power (Ephesians 1:19-20 & 3:20): “I pray … that you may know … his incomparably great power… that power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the
heavenly realms…Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” This is a power that enables, energizes, and equips us – far more then we can ever understand and know! Someone has aptly described this infusion of power as ‘the electrifying of tissue in our inner being.’ This power radically changes us – it is intellectual power, wisdom, and understanding. It is spiritual enrichment for boldness and faith. It is emotional power to persevere and to love. It is physical power to endure. It is a power that regenerates us. It is a power that enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Jesus is more than our center of attention – He is our center. He is within us. Remember what this power did for the disciples? They changed from a timid, confused group of followers into a powerful band of world-beaters who turned their world upside down. As Vance Havner clearly stated, “We are not going to move this world by criticism of it nor conformity to it, but by the combustion within it of lives ignited by the Spirit of God.” Burn, baby, burn!
That raises a question in my mind. Do you believe in this radical power of Jesus? Do you believe that you can have this immeasurable power of God? Do you believe you can be used powerfully by the Father? Do you want to be? There is a power to believe – it’s available to you. But it will never be forced on you. The decision is yours alone.
Notice, however, the full emphasis of Jesus (Acts 1:8): “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” On Pentecost “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” The tongues mean that along with the power to believe THERE IS A PURPOSE TO ACHIEVE. The power is a means to an end not an end in itself. Power with no purpose, unbridled power is dangerous. The power, for example, of Niagara Falls is deadly – that’s why most people who have tried to ride over the falls are killed! But when channeled efficiently it provides an abundant supply of electricity – which is why there’s a huge power plant next to the falls. Power must be channeled. Someone has likened this, in a grim but effective fashion, to the difference between conventional and nuclear bombs. The blockbusters used in World War II had great power, but spent their force in one blast. Nuclear explosion, in the other hand, is different. In it, ordinary, tiny units of matter can, under special conditions, become so energized that they send off neutrons, which in turn energize other tiny units to do the same in an expanding, geometric rate. This so-called “chain-reaction” is the source of tremendous power. The parallel is this: the monumental patriarchs, prophets, and leaders represent the blockbuster approach of doing God’s work from the earliest days until today. But Pentecost – Christ in us – means a kind of chain-reaction by which ordinary units of society, ordinary people, energize one another. One glowing heart sets another aflame, and so another, until the geometric progression becomes the power to “turn the world upside down.” Burn, baby, burn.
The message of Pentecost is that THE OUTPOURING OF GOD’S SPIRIT IS FOR THE OUTGOING OF GOD’S PEOPLE. “You will receive power…and you will be my witnesses…“They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”” The Holy Spirit and witnessing are two sides of the same coin. Just as we cannot split a coin in two and still have a coin, so we cannot split apart the Holy Spirit and witnessing. Luke uses the word ‘witness’ as a noun or verb 29 times in the books of Acts. Part of the ‘greater works’ that Jesus said we would do because of His Spirit is spreading the Gospel into the whole world. Jesus knew that as long is the movement centered in His person alone, it would be limited to where He could be; but with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit Jesus can be wherever any of His people are – and therefore the Gospel message can be taken to the ends of the earth. Burn, baby, burn.
Could Jesus have found a way to do it by Himself? Yes – beyond a doubt. But He wanted to share the privilege and excitement of doing so with us! That’s why all four Gospel writers include the commission to witness as Jesus’ final words. It was uppermost in Jesus’ mind just before he ascended; it was his last command. HIS LAST COMMAND IS OUR FIRST CONCERN! This mighty power of God will radically transform us and make us new people – but its purpose is to enable and empower us to witness to Jesus Christ. A few years ago Fortune magazine published an editorial which contained this statement, “In days like these, what we of the world need to hear is a word from the Lord. We look to the church for that word, and all we hear is the echo of our own voice.” Not everyone has the gift of evangelism – but everyone is called to witness to Jesus. It is the grand occupation and calling of a Christian.
WE ARE TO SPEAK AND WITNESS TO ALL people. Jesus told His disciples to go into the entire world. Immediately after the flame descended everyone heard the message in their own language. The Holy Spirit translates for God. Our task, therefore, is to share the message of the Gospel to varying cultures in ways that may be vastly different from ours – whether far away or down the street from us. That’s why the Reformed Church in America, and our Classis, have been emphasizing church multiplication. There are unchurched – and formally churched – persons who need to hear the Gospel in their own cultural language. Existing churches and ministries are not reaching them. Our launching of Encounter worship was done in that spirit. The invitation to join in the new ministry in Benton Harbor comes to us in that spirit. Our special offering this morning is for that purpose.
There is a purpose to achieve. The outpouring of God’s Spirit is for the outgoing of God’s people. We are not to sit and discuss but to get up and go. Our communion Liturgy states we are to proclaim our Lord’s death until He comes. We never quit; we never give up; we never excuse ourselves. We just let the power of God flow through us as we witness to Jesus. We just do it – until He comes. Burn, baby, burn.
When we read what happened in the days and weeks following Pentecost, we also learn that THERE IS A POSSESSION TO RECEIVE. While God gives us the fire of the Spirit, the flame will only burn within us if we receive it and live by its power and purpose. The newborn Christians were on fire. The Holy Spirit gave them GREATER COURAGE TO SHARE. Consider Peter and the disciples. Just weeks prior, they had gone into hiding because they feared for their lives; now they preached and witnessed. In Chapter 4 of Acts we see them challenged by the ruling authorities. But this time they stood firm and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord. Then they spent some time in prayer with other Christians. “And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:29-31) It’s not that they weren’t already filled with the Spirit – it’s that the Spirit gave them extra courage to share. And He will give the same to us! Burn, baby, burn!
The fore of the Holy Spirit also filled them with a LARGER CAPACITY TO LOVE. Jesus had taught that the world would identify His followers because of the way they would love one another. And indeed Acts tells us that people outside the church commented “See how they love one another.” And Luke records that the town leaders, when dealing with these new Christians, “took note that they had been with Jesus.” It was obvious in the way they loved and lived. Malcom Muggeridge worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and later wrote a book about her. In it he said, “God’s universal love has rubbed off on Mother Teresa, giving her features a noticeable luminosity, a shining quality.” The Holy Spirit gives us a larger capacity to love. Burn, baby, burn.
The Holy Spirit also burned within believers a DEEPER GRATITUDE TO GIVE. Here’s how Luke summarizes the life of the Christian community: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 4:32-35) If we choose to live in the Spirit’s power this could describe our community as well. Burn, baby, burn.
God, through His Holy Spirit, has provided us with a power to believe, a purpose to achieve, and a possession to receive. We will be as filled with the Holy Spirit a we are empty of ourselves. An Anglican bishop was asked to preach at a conference in England. For many weeks he did not respond to the invitation. Finally, the corresponding secretary for the conference wrote him a note which said “We must know if you are coming. We need to make our plans.” The bishop responded that he was waiting for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the matter, and he would let them know in four weeks. The exasperated secretary wrote back: “Bishop, please don’t bother. Cancel the invitation. We are not interested in having anyone speak at our conference who lives four weeks away from the Holy Spirit.” It’s clear what the Holy Spirit can do for and in you. The only question is, “Are you willing to make room for Him?” You don’t need to wait four weeks. He’s ready to enter now. Perhaps He’s ready to enter your heart for the first time. It may be He’s ready to enter to give you boldness to witness to that co-worker or fellow student. Maybe He’s ready to enter to give you strength for the road ahead or the trial you’re going through. Whatever the case, He’s ready. As Jesus said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Come, Holy Spirit. Burn, baby, burn. Let us pray.