Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Pentecost 2007
” . . . everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Acts 2:21
One of the things we notice when reading the Old Testament is the name of YHWH, the special name for God. Each time it appears in our bibles it is written as LORD in capital letters. Look at the Old Testament and the word occurs many times.
The name of God was so sacred to the people of Israel that they did not speak it aloud. When the Scriptures were being read the reader would not have spoken God’s name, he would not have said YHWH, the LORD. Instead the word ‘Adonai’ was used because people approached the name of God with fear and trembling. Each time we meet ‘LORD’ in upper case letters we encounter the name of the most high God, the name that inspired fear and trembling in the hearts of his people.
We read the texts from those ancient times and we do not have that sense of awe. The name of God is tossed around without a trace of reverence; the most sacred is no longer treated with any regard. Listen to RTE radio, even the advertisements. If I hear another Dublin 4 voice say, “Oh my God” on an advertisement for some silly, insignificant product, I am writing to the authorities. Moslems would not be subject to such profanities, why should we?
On this day of Pentecost, if we want to understand why the church today is not the church of the first Day of Pentecost, we have to start with this loss of the sense of the sacred. If we as Christians are not possessed by a sense of awe and wonder, then how can we expect the world outside to pay any attention to what we might have to say. If we do not speak from an experience of meeting with God, from an experience of encountering God with fear and trembling, then with what authority do we speak? Why should anyone listen to us when they simply regard what the Church says as simply one voice amongst the many voices in our society?
The disciples stepped out into the streets on the Day of Pentecost and they spoke with authority. They spoke the words of the LORD and the lives of their listeners were changed by what they heard. There was a meeting with the God whose Spirit had been present in the days of Moses. They were filled with this life-changing experience because they made it possible. They had a sense of the sacred, a sense that there was more to life than the here and now, a sense that there was a power close to them that was beyond all their comprehension. They could have chosen differently, they could have walked away; they could have gone back to their former lives.
We have the same choice. We can choose to meet with this God of Pentecost, this most high, sacred one, or we can choose a world filled with the babble of the voices of advertisements, a world filled with the silly and the insignificant and the trivial. We are a people who have lost our way completely when the entirely inconsequential Big Brother programme becomes an item on the national media and when people get worked up about the Eurovision Song Contest. Hello! There are hundreds of millions of people dying unnecessarily in our world, light entertainment doesn’t matter, it’s not important.
Being honest, we have to admit that there is very little that differentiates people who go to church from those who do not. There is no sign that we are so gripped by our faith that we are fundamentally different from those who have no faith.
The disciples are not just filled with a sense of the sacred; they are prepared to make it a priority. They are told on the day of the Ascension to go and wait for the Spirit and they stay in Jerusalem. They could have found numerous excuses; they could have said they had a living to earn. They could have said that God could find them wherever they were. But what they believe has first priority; their faith has the first claim upon their lives. They are prepared to set aside all those things we regard as priorities simply to wait on God’s time. At a time when most church people see one hour a week as more than enough, the disciples’ commitment stands in stark contrast.
It is hard for us to talk to our world about faith and commitment when it is clear to onlookers that these things are not the first priority for ourselves.
The prophet Joel, from whom Peter quotes when he speaks to the crowd in Jerusalem, talks about everyone who calls on God being saved. This is a departure from the Old Testament belief in God as a God of a particular people. Jesus breaks down every barrier in his own society. He enrages those who wished to keep God as their own tribal God.
The barriers between peoples and races are swept aside on the Day of Pentecost. The pride and division of humanity are symbolised by the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis when all the languages of the world are confused. On the Day of Pentecost these divisions are reversed. The speaking in tongues is a sign from God that the Good News is for all people from every place and background.
We have problems in being seen as people close to the sacredness of God and we have problems in being seen as people whose faith is such a priority.
The church grew at extraordinary speed in those opening days and weeks in the face of every opposition and adversity. The Spirit that brought that growth is the Spirit that is with us and waits on our invitation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”, says Peter. It depends on us.
The Lord hearing us depends upon us taking him seriously, and taking him seriously demands a much deeper commitment than we currently show. If Pentecost had happened in Dublin in 2007, I wonder how we would have coped.