Monday, June 13, 2011

The Punctuation of Pentecost (!)

In Nomine Iesu
Acts 2
June 12, 2011
Day of Pentecost A

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. . . . It’s the Day of Pentecost—exactly fifty days past Easter—the day when the Ascended Christ breathed out the Holy Spirit upon His tiny church, taking it from a mere 120 souls to over three thousand in one day.

You know the highlights of that day: the sound of a rushing wind, tongues of fire that came to rest upon the Apostles, and the miraculous preaching and proclamation in a multitude of languages and dialects. Jesus had promised His disciples that they would be clothed with power from on high; and that promise was fulfilled by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It was a great day—a grand and glorious day—an exciting exclamation point of a day designed to draw people in to hear the good news about Jesus.

But if I’m going to describe Pentecost as an “exclamation point” of a day, I need to be careful. You know what an exclamation point is, don’t you? It’s a mark of punctuation—a vertical line with a dot beneath it. Exclamation points signal surprise, emphasis and excitement. When it comes to punctuation, I’m not what you’d call a stickler; but I do like to get it right. But I have a tough time knowing when to use exclamation points. For instance, I could use one here(!) and here(!) and there(!) and there(!). But if you use exclamation points too often, they start to lose their effect.

In my early years of preaching, I used to attach an exclamation point to the title of every sermon, thinking that would somehow generate more excitement and enthusiasm for my message. But over the years I’ve concluded that a well-written sermon, filled with ordinary punctuation (like periods, commas and hyphens) gets a lot more mileage than a whole herd of exclamation points can achieve.

The Holy Spirit does His work using both exclamation points and periods. What do I mean by that? Well, nowhere is the punctuation of Pentecost more clearly seen than in Acts chapter 2. The exclamation points in that chapter are awfully hard to miss—the sound of rushing wind, flames of fire on the heads of men, a multitude of languages miraculously spoken and heard declaring the wonders of God. Bewilderment and utter amazement! And a little bit further on in the chapter you have Peter preaching, telling the crowds how the Jesus they had nailed to the cross and put to death was now alive forevermore(!)—that Jesus is both Lord and Christ(!), raised from the dead!, exalted to the Father’s right hand! And the people were cut to the heart when they heard this. You can feel the intensity of their emotions as they cried out to Peter and the others, “Brothers, what shall we do?!” Emphasis, emotion, excitement—exclamation point!

But we can’t overlook the “periods” of Pentecost either. Periods are just dots—signaling a routine pause. When it comes to punctuation, periods are ordinary, expected, routine—a chance to pause, and ponder and reflect. That’s what brought thousands of people together on that day. Pentecost itself was an ordinary, expected, routine festival. The Jews had been celebrating Pentecost for centuries. It was an annual harvest festival, perhaps not so different from Thanksgiving for us. It was as routine and predictable as turkey and pumpkin pie. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. It was. But OT Pentecost was just a period, not an exclamation point. It was a special occasion which brought together God’s people from all over the world. Yet God chose this routine, annual holy day to stage a grand opening for the Holy Spirit.

Later on in Acts 2 we learn of how those first believers lived under the Spirit’s influence. And for the most part, it was a life without exclamation points. It says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). No exclamation points there, just some commas and a period. They regularly, routinely, ordinarily gathered together for preaching and liturgy, feasting and fellowship. There was nothing glamorous about it. There was no red carpet rolled out—no rushing wind and no tongues of fire. It was simply God’s people gathering around God’s gifts, growing slowly and steadily in faith and good works. No exclamation points, just periods—times to be refreshed, to ponder, reflect, listen and digest the faith delivered by the Holy Spirit.

Exclamation points and periods—that’s the punctuation of Pentecost. As a baptized child of God in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, you can and should expect your faith to be shaped by both forms of punctuation. We need both periods and exclamation points in our lives.

We need, first of all, the slow, steady, regular, routine, unremarkable, predictable periods produced by the Holy Spirit. You need a slow and steady dose of God’s Word, of prayers and praise and liturgy and hymns—just like you’re getting here this morning. Here you can delve deeply into the mysteries and mercies of God. It’s all as absolutely predictable as periods on the page of a manuscript. But it’s what we need. It’s part of what the Holy Spirit gives us.
You often hear people criticizing this part of the church’s life. They say liturgy is too formal, too predictable, too boring. “The liturgy with all its periods and pauses doesn’t let me express myself or sing what I want to sing.” And that’s exactly right! The liturgy teaches us to subdue ourselves, our wants, our likes, our dislikes and to more deeply understand what it means to be the One body of Christ—to be the one, holy Christian and apostolic church. We need that—to be less self-centered and more Christ-centered. We must decrease; Jesus must increase.

You know, if we wanted to, we could manufacture some exclamation points around here. We could generate fire and wind and people speaking different languages here every Sunday if we wanted to. And what would happen? We’d get bored with it within a month or two. Sound effects and pyrotechnics don’t last. They don’t give long term benefits. Even the best, most exciting entertainment gets stale over time. This is why we need to pause and ponder—to stop and listen . . . (period).

But we just as much need the Spirit’s exclamation points in our lives. The God of the period is the same God of the exclamation point. For the church has just as many sinners as she has members. The old Adam inside each of us would love nothing more than to fall asleep, to make the Christian life a dead routine, to engage in liturgy and hymns and pew-sitting as a disguise—a disguise to cover up our sinful self-satisfaction, our complacency and our lack of real repentance and serious stewardship. Attending a church you love can always become dangerously comfortable—a deadening routine in which the old Adam makes us feel proud and “spiritual,” while we turn a blind eye to the troubles and burdens of people around us. We can be glad that we attend a church that preaches and teaches the pure Word of God. And we can just as easily ignore that pure Word of God in every other hour of the week.

It is precisely then that the Holy Spirit graciously sends an exclamation point our way—a wake-up call that cuts us to the heart—a crushing blast of law that leads us to fall on our knees and cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It might be a sermon you hear. It might be a hymn that you sing that causes your voice to quake with emotion. It might be a word of admonition from a brother or sister in Christ that wakes you up. But behind that exclamation point is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. He sends those exclamation points to stir up our hearts to repentance and to the joy that only Jesus can give.

On the day of Pentecost we are reminded again that our God will stop at nothing to save you. He uses periods and exclamation points, facts and feelings, ordinary and extraordinary, steady routines and shocking surprises, repetition and variety to make you His own and keep you as His own forever and ever.

The crucifixion cross of Jesus is God’s most powerful punctuation. In Jesus we have both period and exclamation point. It is finished—period. It is finished—exclamation point! Everything has been done for you and your salvation. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ has ascended to the throne of glory at the Father’s right hand. It is finished. Your sins are forgiven. The Spirit dwells in you. Nothing more needs to be done except to broadcast the victory. Preach it. Proclaim it. Make it known far and wide that Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners and the lover of souls. He was crucified for our trespasses and raised for our justification. In Jesus God has reconciled the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us. In Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.

The day will come when we won’t need exclamation points from the Holy Spirit to wake us up from complacency or to give us the joy of Jesus. Exclamation points will one day become obsolete—along with hospitals, obituaries, and cemeteries. For after the Lord awakens us on the last day, there will be no more crying, no more pain, no more death. Sorrow and sighing will flee away, and everlasting joy will be ours. But from what the Scriptures reveal to us about heaven, we know there will still be liturgy—the regular, steady, sustained praises of God sung by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven—including you.

For now, however, we need both. We need periods and we need exclamation points. The same Holy Spirit uses both—uses them to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. The Holy Spirit is a stickler for just that kind of punctuation which He uses in just the right combination to draw you to Jesus Christ—and to keep you with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. Happy Pentecost (exclamation point)! Amen.

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