Preaching festivals—any festival—is some of the most important and most dangerous preaching we do.
Important because festivals mark the major turning points in the Christian story. They orient us toward what is central, even crucial, about the Christian faith. But also dangerous, because the nearly irresistible temptation when preaching a festival is to commemorate it. Festivals beckon us to remember God's faithful action in the past. Which is a good thing...so long as it prompts us to seek God's action among us in the present and prepare for God's action through us in the future.
All too often, however, when we look back to commemorate God's action in the past our attention lingers there, and we grow nostalgic for days gone by and compare unfavorably those we currently live in. And here's where the danger lies, as there is nothing more resistant to purposeful, hopeful action in the present than nostalgia, the sentimental longing for a bygone era.
Few holidays present themselves as ripe for nostalgia as Pentecost. After all, weren't these the glory days of the church—spirit-filled preaching; attentive, even miraculous listening; three thousand converted in a single day? Exactly. And what have most of us seen or done since that could possibly compare? Preaching Pentecost primarily as a remembrance of the past—think big cake and candles to celebrate the church's birthday—unintentionally numbs us to God's ongoing work to love, bless and redeem this world right now, right here, through us.
But Pentecost doesn't need to be about the past. In fact, I suspect that Luke, like all historians, wrote about the past in order to make sense of the present and prepare for the future. (I think he says as much in his introduction to part one of his two-volume story—see Luke 1:1-4). If so, why not imitate Luke and preach Pentecost not as a nostalgic commemoration but as the means by which to anticipate and make sense of God's ongoing activity in the world.
From this point of view, the chief goal of the sermon is not to describe in detail the coming of the Spirit in tongues of flame, nor to elaborate on Peter's use of Joel in his sermon, nor even to marvel at the efficacy of his preaching. Rather, the goal is to share just enough of these details in order to ask your hearers where they see something similar happening today, to open up the biblical story of this past event in order to help them recognize God's activity among and through them in the present.
Some years ago, I did just that...completely by accident. A month earlier we had successfully completed the most ambitious capital campaign in the congregation's history. In my Pentecost sermon, I said that I had seen Pentecost happen on the "commitment Sunday" that culminated that campaign. It was an offhand remark. Don't get me wrong: I meant what I said, but it wasn't the center of the sermon. But you wouldn't have known that by the reaction it aroused. More persons commented on that single line than on anything I'd preached in quite some time. The most frequent remark was, "You helped me experience Pentecost as something that is happening today, not just long ago."
Notice that what happened in our congregation was not the same as what happened two thousand years before. Rather, we were discerning a pattern of God's activity and linking how God acted in the past with how God was still at work in and through us. The details weren't important—the pattern of an active God at work through God's people was what counted.
Recently, I described what I think is the great challenge of this generation of church leaders: to open the biblical story so that people hear and feel it speaking into the present. Pentecost is one of those "make or break" days in this effort. To the degree that we preach Pentecost as a commemoration of a wonderful day in the church's past, we have the opportunity of kindling warm, nostalgic feelings about one of the church's festivals ... for those who still care about such things. But to the degree that we preach Pentecost as a promise of God's ongoing activity and as a clue to discerning how God is using us just as surely as God used Peter, we have the potential for making this portion of the biblical witness both vital and useful.
Most of our hearers are so much more accustomed to commemoration than anticipation that we may need to help them by naming where we see Pentecost happening around us. But anticipating God's work ends us being so much more fun than commemorating it that I promise you it won't take them all that long to try it for themselves. So show them, invite them, and then send them to look for God's ongoing Pentecost. Thank you for this, Working Preacher, and for all that you do.
Yours in Christ,