Reading Ramblings – June 9, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Pentecost – June 9, 2019

Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 143; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

Context: Pentecost (meaning 50th day in Greek) began as the Jewish feast of weeks or feast of firstfruits, stipulated multiple times in the Old Testament (Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26, Deuteronomy 16:10; 2 Chronicles 8:13). It occurred 50 days after the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. Later, the festival was associated with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai to Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 19:1, although this connection is certainly not clear or necessary from the texts. Pentecost is essentially a harvest festival, denoting the firstfruits of the spring harvest. It is second in importance only to Passover in terms of the three Jewish high holy celebrations. As such the description of Acts 2:5 that there are Jews from every nation under heaven is very reasonable. The Christian celebration of Pentecost gradually came to be called Whitsunday, as those who were baptized on this festival Sunday wore white clothing. The celebration is noted by Irenaeus and Tertullian. The readings for today indicate that the Holy Spirit’s arrival (John 14, Acts 2) is the effective beginning of the undoing of the reign and effects of sin and Satan (Genesis 11), the response to our cries for mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 143).

Genesis 11:1-9 – Sin drives us apart. It drives us apart first and foremost from God, and secondarily from others. Theologians speak of sin as making us incurvatus in se, turned perpetually inwards on ourselves. We are the centers of our lives, and our desires and wishes are what naturally preoccupy us rather than proper relationship with our Creator. Following the flood we saw this self-centeredness in Ham’s disrespect of his father, Noah, as well as Noah’s own drunkenness. Next we see it on a larger scale, as the growing population of the world collectively rejects the command of God to subdue the earth as they grow in numbers (Genesis 1:28, 9:1,7). Instead of obedience, their sin turns them in on themselves and their own glory and accomplishment. Our sinfulness leads us to wistfully wish that God had not confused our languages. What might we have accomplished if we had not been scattered! If we had not turned against each other based on language and customs! Our sinfulness prevents us from seeing the greater evils we might accomplish as well, or the potentially more thorough devastation we might inflict on one another if, like Adam and Eve, we did not seek protections against the sin we find in ourselves and one another. I read God’s work here as merciful, actually a protection of us against ourselves and one another, a protection that begins to be unnecessary with the Holy Spirit’s coming. In the defeat of Satan and sin and death, the effects of the Fall begin to be unraveled. Not completely, but partially. Unity in Christian love across all languages and ethnicities is a testimony to this unraveling, and should point both believers and unbelievers towards the final coming judgment and restoration.

Psalm 143 – A cry for mercy and forgiveness against our crushing enemy the accuser, the Satan. Apart from God we cannot hope to prevail against this enemy, who crushes us with the reality of our sin and rebellion against our Creator. We are hopelessly separated from our Creator and unable to re-establish right relationship on our own. Only if our Creator comes to us, only if He is the initiator of reconciliation can there be any hope. We pray that God would come to our relief (v.1), which acknowledges that God is always present, but only God can decide to come to us as relief rather than judge (v.2). We wait, without peace, until we hear a word from our God that indicates his forgiveness and grace rather than his holy punishment of sin (v.7). When that word comes (v.8), our response is to cling to it as our sole source of hope, and to seek further understanding and embracing of God’s revealed Word and Will as the only proper and sure guides for our lives (v.8). Asking for divine direction is not an attempt to manipulate God or earn his favor, but is the only reasonable response to a God who forgives our trespasses.

Acts 2:1-21 – The account of the first Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes in tangible power, differently than when Jesus conveyed the Holy Spirit to his disciples in John 20:21-23. A different kind of power is now manifest. Their authority to forgive sins was already present, but the power to preach the Gospel, to lay before others the choice of life or death, sin or sanctity grounded in the reality of the empty tomb of the Son of God, that only comes at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit undoes in a limited sense the separation of language given in Genesis 11. The point is not to obsess over speaking in tongues, but rather to see that God’s graciousness in Jesus Christ is available every bit as universally as judgment for sin has been. None are excluded, all are welcomed into the Holy City described in Revelation 21 that is not a competitor to God in heaven, but is actually the city where God and the victorious Lamb dwell once again with their creation.

John 14:23-31 – Anyone can claim to be a Christian, and in our post-Biblical, post-Christian culture a majority of Americans still do. But the mark of a follower of Jesus Christ is obedience to his teaching, which is no different than the teaching of God the Father in the Old Testament. Regardless of what you want to call yourself, if you refuse to submit your will and understanding to the revealed will of God, you reject the very presence of God and expose yourself to the only alternative to his perfect will and grace: judgment. This is our natural condition. But the presence of God the Holy Spirit brings the gift of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, with an attendant recognition that our ideas and standards are untrustworthy, and only God the Father’s will can be trusted as the rule and norm for our lives. This trust in turn will be the source of our peace. Seeking peace in the structures and relationships of a sinful world can only lead to despair and disappointment. But placing our hope in the promises of God – forgiveness, grace, resurrection, eternal life – can center us in a peace that is not disturbed regardless of the awful events that might transpire around (or even within!) us.

Receiving the presence of God requires that we receive his grace, and his grace is brought to us in the good news of Jesus Christ. But that grace also comes as we learn what that good news does – not simply freeing us from the fear of death but freeing us to live as God’s creatures rather than as our own masters. Jesus commands his disciples in Matthew 28:16-20 to go and make disciples. But this process of discipleship does not stop at preaching Christ crucified and resurrected and providing baptism. It also consists of teaching obedience to everything that Jesus commanded, which again, is nothing short of the commands of God the Father in his word. We cannot accept the grace and forgiveness of God without accepting also his revealed Word as it tells us how to live. We will fail to live as He calls us to – we remain sinful and imperfect. But there is a difference between acknowledging the truth and goodness of God’s will and trying to live it out but failing, and rejecting the Word of God as truth in favor of any other teaching or system, internal or external.

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