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Sermon for Day of Pentecost 2023

First Reading: Numbers 11:24-30

 24Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. 26Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 30And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.


Psalm 25:1-15

 1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 2Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. 3Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. 4Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 5Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 6Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. 7Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. 8He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly. 9All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. 10For your name’s sake, O Lord, forgive my sin, for it is great. 11Who are they who fear the Lord? he will teach them the way that they should choose. 12They shall dwell in prosperity, and their offspring shall inherit the land. 13The Lord is a friend to those who fear him and will show them his covenant. 14My eyes are ever looking to the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net. 15Turn to me and have pity on me, for I am left alone and in misery.


Second Reading: Acts 2:1-21

 1When the day of Pentecost arrived, {the disciples} were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians — we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”


Gospel: John 7:37-39

 37On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.


The Howling

One of the things faithful Lutherans get accused of, is that we don’t emphasize the importance of God the Holy Spirit enough in our teaching, worship, or spiritual lives.  In a very broad sense, this is understandable when you consider that other denominations predominantly emphasize the need to receive the Holy Spirit as a separate action from Baptism.  And because of their teachings, they then, are often accused of focusing more on the work of God’s Spirit over that of Jesus.  Yes, Lutherans are Christocentric; we do spend a great deal of time teaching and studying the life and works of Jesus.  We do this not to teach one person of the God head over the other, but because Jesus is not only the visible representation of God the Father, He is also the One we look to as an example of how we’re to live and serve.

What is often misunderstood, in Lutheran instruction, is that we teach and believe that we receive the Holy Spirt as one of the many gifts we’re given in Baptism.  This is why we remind ourselves weekly, of the importance of all three persons of the Holy Trinity when we recite the Apostles, Nicene or Athanasian creeds.  This is also why we set aside Sundays like Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sunday; it gives us the opportunity to focus on all three persons of our Triune God.

If one were to look at our readings for today, they can certainly make an argument for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling as a separate act outside of Baptism.  And again, this is why we need to be careful when we read passages or groups of passages in isolation.  Take our Old Testament reading for example.  Moses, very early in his prophetic career, was given some of God’s Spirit to help and guide him as he led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt and throughout their desert wanderings.  And in our Numbers reading, God took some of the Spirit from Moses and shared it with the 70 elders.  This was evidenced by them prophesying not only at the Tent of Meeting, but in the camp as well.  This makes this an important reading.

In this passage we see that God’s Spirit is given to assist God’s people in more than simply our prayer life or prophetic life.  God’s Spirit is given to help us in all aspects of life.  Too often we simply associate God’s Spirit with helping us pray, or when we’re studying God’s word.  But this limits the work of God’s Spirit to only one aspect of who we are.  By remembering that we, first and foremost, are Christians, and everything else in life is informed by this fact, then it’s much easier to understand the importance of God’s Spirit in all aspects of our lives.  This is why the Council of Nicaea included in the Nicene Creed the phrase, “with the Father and Son, [the Holy Spirit] is worshiped and glorified”.  This brings us to the importance of the events of the first Pentecost in our Acts reading for today.

In a very familiar reading, the promised Holy Spirit comes upon those gathered in a very energetic way.  In verse 2 we read, “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  I’ve seen this verse translated several ways, so I went back to the Greek, and the way this wind event is described is interesting.  For the word rushing, St. Luke choose the Greek word pher-o-men-ēs, which means not only wind, it also means to make publicly known.  God’s intent in sending His Spirit that day was not only to send the promised Advocate, but for it to be announced, to be made publicly known.  Next, another way to describe the sound heard that day was that of a howling wind.  This is of course a common way of describing a wind that is more than a simple breeze.

If you were to search the Cambridge Dictionary for the definition of “howl” or “howling” you would find three options: 1) wind blowing hard and making noise, 2) a dog or wolf sound, 3) a communal noise made by a group of people.  When I looked this up, I found it interesting that in defining the word “howl,” the wind came first.  But then, perhaps our idea of what a “howl” comes from our experience in nature.  In fact, in the movie, “Frozen,” Elsa sings, “The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside,” as she describes her emotions creating a tumult inside of her, much like a howling wind around her.

Allen Ginsburg’s breath-length poem called “Howl” is a great example: a long and windy rant coming from deep inside.  Ginsburg uses the title “Howl” to express a vocal “release” of his authentic, emotional self, and the alienation he feels at the failings of American society in the tumultuous 1960s.  The style of the poem came to him after his psychologist told him that his poetry was too academic, and that he should get in touch with his emotional side.  But, not all “howls” are sounds of pain, distress or ones that elicit fear.

Howling is also a significant form of communication, made by those who reside in social structures that exhibit cooperative behaviors, primarily humans, wolves, and dolphins.  Although scientists, especially evolutionary scientists, forward that our DNA may be closest to chimpanzees or great apes, our social behavior, however, is closest to other intelligent species, such as wolves and dolphins.  Evolutionary scientists believe that studying the howls and sounds of these mammals can help us understand what our own pre-verbal human communication may have been like long, long ago.

In an article in phys.org, the University of Cambridge posted an paper noting that wolf species have different types of dialects.  This observation is based on a study of the wolves’ howls and other sounds they make within their communities.  Whether types of wolves, jackals, dogs, or coyotes, each sub species had developed its own “vocal fingerprint.”  While a timber wolf’s howl sounds low and flat, a red wolf’s howl is high and looping.  This non-verbal communication is used primarily in cooperative behavior to signal and communicate with others in the pack.  Each species has a dialect that is shared with members of a wolf’s or dog’s own pack group.

Interestingly, when two varied wolf species began to mate and blend, their howls unified into one understandable language for that group.  But far from being a desolate cry, as is so often depicted in TV shows and movies, the wolves’ howling tended to be a communal cry of unity, solidarity, and joy.  In fact, a group of dogs, left alone in a house, often will howl in a cry of accord, harmony, and camaraderie.  Each animal is acknowledging their bond together.  This is the kind of human “howl” we find lifted up in the poetry of Walt Whitman, the poet known as America’s heart and soul.

In his poetry, Whitman wrote of a “barbaric yawp” that comes from deep within, that he describes as a joyous and primal cry of freedom and human accord, a heroic message of “happiness, hope, and nativity” as described by Thomas Singer in Poets and Writers.  For Whitman, the human primal cry is a metaphorical, untranslatable utterance that rises from the depths of the human soul, signaling a feeling of unified love, friendship, liberty, and joy in freedom, a kind of euphoria for life and the human spirit.

In Mill Valley, CA during the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” could be heard each night at 8 PM, as groups of locals would cry out in a communal howl of joy and liberation, reminding those who heard it, that nothing can tame the human spirit.  They may have been confined to their homes, but their spirits, they say, were bonded in something that extended beyond politics and economics and disease and tragedy –a shared and joyous humanity.  Now I’ve shared all this as a way to compare the “howl” mentioned by the poets with the “howl” we read about in Acts 2, as an announced celebration as well.

God’s beckoning and sustaining “voice” howls through the disciples in the upper room and beyond, filling all those present to saturation with the power and boldness of the Holy Spirit.  God was not only celebrating Jesus’ evangelistic mission cry and God’s mastery over all creation, including sin, death, and the devil, but the bonding of God’s Spirit with our spirit.  In that instant, when the Holy Spirit’s howl sounded out, humanity was united in something bigger than themselves, bigger than their politics, bigger than their viewpoints, and even their languages.

Imagine for a moment how that must have sounded when the Holy Spirit’s howl filled the entire house.  The sound seemed to come directly from the heavens, a sound like a fierce, howling wind, resonating through the very walls.  But God wasn’t satisfied with simply an auditory announcement, this event included visuals as well – what appeared to be tongues of flames were seen resting on the heads of those present.  This event prompted an immediate response, their spirits were filled, which provoked vocalizations of their own – the disciples were given the ability to speak the languages of all those around them.  All dialects of the earth were united in a single common message.  The message of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

In the apocalyptic novel, The Seraph Seal, author Lori Wagner, recalling the opening verses of Genesis 1, talks about the superstring physics of sound as applied to the universe created by God.  The nutshell explanation is this: all existence is made up of sound.  Everything, visible and invisible, was created by God’s voice, and that sound became what we know as matter.  In fact, physicists know that what makes a table different from the air we breathe has to do with how fast the molecules in that matter vibrate.  The molecules in a table vibrate faster than those in water or air.  Everything is made up of sound.  We see the various objects around us simply because sound has made matter possible.  In fact, in space, we now know that everything in the universe has its own sound.  The universe in a sense is God’s symphony.

The scriptures are filled with the “sounds” of God’s voice –in the sound of winds, the crackling of unconsumed fire, in the sound of the ram’s horns that felled Jericho, the sound of the waves, the sound of a voice calling to prophets, the call of a ram’s horn to prayer.  Here in Acts 2, God’s voice, that same voice that brought all things into being, roars and howls into that house in Jerusalem in the form of the Holy Spirit, to anoint, fill, consume without consuming, to immerse and saturate Jesus’ disciples, empowering them to proclaim Jesus as victorious and risen!  And as we read in St. Luke’s second account, everyone in Jerusalem heard the sound.

When they heard the howling and the voices, a crowd gathered.  “They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their own native tongues,” they heard declarations of God’s mighty works in their own languages.  Residents of Jerusalem, which included people from everywhere in the known world, as well as those that had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, heard the Galilean faithful speak in their own languages.  God’s mighty work enabled the “howling” voice of the Lord to be heard by all that day and that sound entered into every heart.  A vast communal “howl” was heard by all that day, uniting every one of them, as beloved people of God, no matter what their culture or language.  It was a sound that not only filled the house, but spilled out into the streets, and later into the towns and villages across the known world.

Today, it’s important for us to recall that first Pentecost, to acknowledge that you and I are part of that communal message of God to all people.  In Christ we have been united together as beloved children of God, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have been invited to participate in God’s mission.  But the Holy Spirit does more than simply empower us for the ministry of proclamation, the Holy Spirit is given to assist us in all areas of our lives.

As children of God, the whole of our lives is informed by the One who is with us and in us.  Jesus promised to send “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in [His] name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26).  As followers of Jesus, we have been united by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, and anointed as a disciple and worker in God’s kingdom.

Today, as we enter into this Season of Pentecost, we’ve been joined together with the saints across time in the common mission, “to live lives worth of the gospel” (Phil 1:27), and to go and proclaim our joy and victory, because in Christ we have been freed from the power of sin and death.  And because Jesus now sits at the right hand of God, the hope of life everlasting is ours.  This is the message that the first Christians shared with those in Jerusalem that first Pentecost, and the message we share with our world today.


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