Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rejoicing Where the Flames Burn: A Pentecost Sermon

It was in their third month of liberty when they got where they were headed. “In the third month, after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came to the Wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1).1 Not quite two months had passed since the Passover that bought their redemption. Now, in this third month, on some significant day, they reached the plateau at the foot of Mount Sinai. And there they camped while Moses went up to confer with the LORD God Almighty, who spoke to him out of heaven (Exodus 19:2-3). God made Israel an offer: if they'd accept and obey his covenant, he'd make them a priestly kingdom to all the nations of the world, his special treasure (Exodus 19:4-6). For this, they claimed to be willing.

For several days, then, they consecrated themselves, preparing to meet their God on this holy mountain (Exodus 19:12-13). For soon, on the chosen day in this third month, “the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exodus 19:11). And that's exactly what happened. Can you picture what it must have looked like? One day, the skies were clear. But then, as a new morning dawned, “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it with fire; the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:16-18).

As Moses summed it up forty years later, “you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (Deuteronomy 4:11). There, on that day the mountain was set ablaze, “the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire..., and he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform – that is, the Ten Words; and he wrote them on two tablets of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). “On earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:36). We're told “all the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:18), which later Jews understood to mean that when God spoke the Ten Commandments, the audible words took on the visible form of fire which, in front of their eyes, was then burned into the stone tablets.2

But when they beheld this fire on the mountain, “the people saw and trembled, and they stood far off” (Exodus 20:18). Moses tells us why: “You were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up to the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:5). “While the mountain was burning with fire..., you said: 'Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire... Now, therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us! If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die!'” (Deuteronomy 5:23-25). To meet God, to hear his own voice, was too frightening. “For the LORD your God,” Moses comments, “is a Consuming Fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Therefore, Israel backed away from the blaze. They knew they were but flesh and could not dwell with the Consuming Fire.

So Moses ascended on their behalf. “Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Moses braved the flame and, like a bush he once saw, was not consumed. Until “the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands,” said Moses, still “the mountain was burning with fire” (Deuteronomy 9:15). In the meantime, Moses heard other burning commands, including that Israel was to “keep the Feast of Harvest of the firstfruits of your labor,” on which “all of your males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:16-17).

This holiday ritually marked the wheat harvest for Israel, and Moses explained that, after seven sets of seven days from the time they first began to harvest grain – or from waving the firstfruits of the barley harvest on the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:15) – they would keep this Feast of Weeks by offering “the tribute of a free-will offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).3 Israel would mark the day with special sacrifices, keeping a holy convocation and not doing any ordinary work – because this Feast of Weeks, was special (Leviticus 23:21).

The Feast of Weeks was their sole third-month holiday, a day Jews came to identify as the anniversary of God appearing in fire and making a covenant and giving them the Law.4 On that day, it was seen how “Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest” of the world (Jeremiah 2:3). Not only was the Feast of Weeks a choice chance to confirm their covenant commitment year after year,5 but as a pilgrimage feast it gathered Israel again and again to “the LORD whose fire is in Zion and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9).

Long after Moses, there came the Messiah. God's own eternal Son took on human flesh and human blood from the Hebrew tribe of Judah, and on Passover in the most important year of all, he himself became the sacrificial Lamb. Rising again to life during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he spent the ensuing weeks with his disciples, opening their minds and the Scriptures to each other (Luke 24:45). Then, just as Moses had ascended the mountain into the cloud, Jesus ascended heaven behind the cover of the same cloud (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).6

And so Jesus' disciples worshipped (Luke 24:52-53). And they waited. A group of 120 disciples, including not just the apostles but also Mother Mary and other followers of Jesus, prayed and waited under Peter's leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-26). Because it wouldn't be long until the Feast of Weeks had come, the day when the wheat harvest had finished and the covenant was remembered at the holy convocation. Greek-speaking Jews had a special nickname for the Feast of Weeks. Since it was fifty days after Passover, they called it 'Pentecost.'

That amazing year, “when the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place, and suddenly there came from heaven a sound” – not unlike the thunders and trumpets heard on Sinai (Acts 2:1-2). And just as “the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Exodus 19:19), now the sound of a mighty rushing wind “filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2).7 And then came the flame. “Divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them,” on each of these first Jesus-followers, on Mary and Peter and John and James and Thomas and all the rest (Acts 2:3). It was the dawn of the Feast of Weeks, and as pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to bring their offerings to the Lord, God returns in fire on the mountain! Only now, each apostle is like a mini-Mount Sinai, his head ablaze with the holy fire their forefathers feared!

As Jewish pilgrims from not only the Promised Land but also the diaspora among the nations gathered around, standing amazed at the foot of this new mountain, they heard the announcement of “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:5-11). Peter preached to them about “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories,” just as the prophets had previously been led by the same Spirit to foretell (1 Peter 1:10-11). Peter and the apostles showed that, though Moses had mediated a covenant on Sinai's scorching summit, Messiah had now ascended the heavenly mountain to mediate a far greater covenant “enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). And Israel could “know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36), for it was none other than Jesus who “poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33), certifying his apostles as “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit [who] gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). So just “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; for the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39)!

That was why the apostles and disciples, there in their place in the holy city, had been anointed and bathed and crowned with fire, the fire of God, the fire of the Holy Spirit. “That fire did not burn them up,” said one saint, “but stirred them up instead.”8 Jesus had hurled down from heaven to them a greater gift than Moses' hands had carried down Sinai's slopes,9 and Peter and the others were burning to let the whole world hear about it, starting with those already gathered from near and far to faithfully celebrate the joys of the old feast and seek the Lord!  Here, at this feast, there was set apart a new chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [the Lord's] own possession, as these Spirit-gifted disciples commenced to proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light, the light of the Spirit of the Living God (1 Peter 2:9).

Pressing forward from Pentecost, the apostles – and those who then carried their ministry forward through time, generation after generation in succession – have now “preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). It's in descent from Pentecost that the fiery words of the gospel reached your own ears, and that was a work of the Holy Spirit himself: “The gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).  And that you efficaciously received the gospel is no less his doing: “No one can say 'Jesus is Lord!' except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). “When you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13), so that now “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In fact, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body... and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

But what's that good news? What have we imbibed from the one Spirit who overflows the temple? That “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13); that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who are by God's power being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5), when “you will be visited by the LORD of Hosts with thunder and... with whirlwind and tempest and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6).

And this living hope, a hope that's born in us and that we're born into, is what sustains our joy when the days get hot, when the pressures are on, when the flames shoot high. In this life, we are quite likely to contend with “the fiery trial when it comes upon you,” and yet it isn't “something strange” to catch us by surprise (1 Peter 4:12). What are these fiery sufferings we endure, if not evidence that we live on this side of Pentecost? The Spirit of the Living God may come as our Comforter, but he isn't always comfortable. Who ever said the Pentecostal fires weren't hot on the apostles' heads? I've never heard a promise that Pentecost don't cost, that Pentecost ain't a pain, that Pentecost brings no burdens and summons no sufferings. Pentecostal fire can be frightfully fierce. To the extent we're in Christ, we've each “received the fire of the Holy Spirit.”10 The flames that burn us, the heat that scorches us and scalds us – aren't they this very fire? God always promised he'd put his chosen ones “into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (Zechariah 13:9).

You have been grieved by various trials,” then, to unveil “your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). But the end goal of this fiery testing is “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). It's through the fire that tests and tries us now that we prepare for that imperishable inheritance stored away in heaven for us. And that's why we have Pentecostal joy. From the beginning, on the Feast of Weeks, not only were you to offer a measure of God's blessing, but “you shall rejoice before the LORD your God” – no matter who you are or what you're enduring, Pentecost always called for rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:11). Now, on account of our hope, we rejoice where the flames burn! To us, Pentecost is “not of burning but of saving fire, which consumes the thorns of sins but renders the soul radiant.”11

Though you do not now see [Jesus], you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith: the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Salvation for the soul, redemption for the body – no wonder we believe despite the gap between what we see and what we hope! The firstfruits of the Spirit in us is a promise, “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14), provided we do not “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” by turning fatally and finally away from God's love, God's joy, God's glory (Ephesians 4:30).

But what a strange thought – that the fire of the Holy Spirit should be crackling and hissing in each of us, and yet here we sit, here we stand, and we are not destroyed! How is it that we can rejoice while being burned from the inside out? How is it we can bear to bear the Spirit of the Living God? How is it we can dare to look for the Day of the Lord to be light and not darkness, and brightness with no gloom in it (cf. Amos 5:20)?

Malachi had that question: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire!” (Malachi 3:2). Isaiah tells us that the godless themselves fret inwardly, “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33:14). Yet the prophet goes on to say that one who “walks righteously and speaks uprightly” can somehow indeed “dwell on the heights,” even the heights of the holy mountain ablaze (Isaiah 33:15-16). How could that ever be?

I've heard a strange thought on that matter. I've heard it suggested that the agonies of hell and the brilliance of heaven are actually nothing but one and the same fire: the exuberant love of God.12 This is the consuming fire, these are the everlasting burnings, with which the godless are incapable of dwelling, and “night and day it shall not be quenched” (Isaiah 34:10) – for how could the love of God ever be quenched? But those in it who can see transparently their own incompatibility with God's goodness, those who are forever unsettled and pained and frustrated by God's love, those who can't help but flee from omnipresent beauty, can't escape the “spiritual frustrations and restlessness” that come from an eternal effort to avoid the unavoidability of love.13 God's love inevitably burns sin, so those who ultimately become their sin – by clinging to it immutably and irrevocably, by identifying with it to the bitter end – are in the end choosing to be eternally flammable.14 Therefore, they are agonized by being so ferociously loved as God always loves. To those in hell, love is so unbearably strong and fierce that it can only be suffered as unremitting violence, as a source of burning shame, as a wound of fiery wrath, “and you shall be melted in the midst of it” (Ezekiel 22:21).

But the difference in heaven is that, by the time you get to heaven, everything in you that was incompatible with God's fiery goodness has been surrendered, boiled and burned away. The fire of God's love is all around them, and yet to them it can be said, “When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). They'll be “unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt” (Daniel 3:25). Why? They've become fully compatible with the heat of the Spirit, they're entirely penetrated by and united to the fires of God's love.15 And what's already all fire is forever fireproof. So the faithful pray for “that time when I flow into you, purged and rendered molten by the fire of your love.”16

So think “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness” now, the scripture urges, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn; but, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:11-13). Yes, this whole universe is due for a Day of God, the final harvest at the end of days (Matthew 13:39), “for behold, the LORD will come in fire..., for by fire will the LORD enter into judgment” with his creation (Isaiah 66:15-16). On that day, as Daniel foresees, “a stream of fire issued and came out from before him” (Daniel 7:10). It'll be a day when the Spirit of God surges forth in flame, when the galaxies shall be baptized in the blazes, when the laws of physics will be put to the test like gold in the forge, when the outpouring will melt out of creation every impurity that cannot bear the burning, smoldering, penetrating gaze of Eternal Love. That's what judgment means: seeing what will melt away and what will prove itself compatible with the fiery love of God. That's what we groan inwardly for, that's what we wait eagerly for, that's what the redemption of not only our bodies but creation's body will mean!

A cosmic Pentecost – that's what we're waiting for, that's where our hope rests! On that final day, “your eyes will behold the King in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar” (Isaiah 33:17). Built of gleaming flame all around us, filling the universe, “behold, Zion, the city of our appointed feasts..., an untroubled habitation!” (Isaiah 33:20). There we'll celebrate our Pentecost forever! There we'll rejoice to dwell with the everlasting burnings of God's love, of God's irrepressible joy and delight (for God is himself his own Joy), when we too are all flame! So “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Hallelujah in the Spirit! Amen!

O Lord our God and Father, we gather in holy convocation on this truly holy day, the Pentecostal feast that completes your Passover of the New Covenant, to celebrate with joy your bounty and your blessings natural and supernatural, under the Law and in the Spirit.  By the hands of your Son, you have poured out your Spirit upon his Body below and have filled heaven and earth with your awesome wonders.  From the first, you sent your Christ to cast fire upon the earth, and now we rejoice to see it kindled.  Give us to delight ever more joyously in your sacred inferno of unquenchable love.  'Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power, that sinners be converted and thy name glorified!'  May this holy fire rage ever wilder, smoking out all sin in us and all woe in the world, igniting all things to a red-hot perfection, until your creation is lit as one flame with you eternally.  Let your joy ever burn bright in us and in the world you even now are making new by your outpoured All-Holy Spirit, who lives and gives life as one God with the Father and the Son, world without end.  Amen.

1  Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (IVP Academic, 2019), 67-68.

2  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 209-213.

3  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 42-43.

4  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 197, 202-203.

5  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 60-61.

6  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 204-205.

7  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 209.

8  Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 269.1, in Works of Saint Augustine III/7:283.

9  Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (T&T Clark, 2008), 237-238.

10  Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 272, in Works of Saint Augustine III/7:301.

11  Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 17.15, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 64:106.

12  Among many others, see, e.g., Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 6.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:87.  See also Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, But Never Dreamed of Asking! (Ignatius Press, 1990), 234, who remarks that "the very fires of Hell are made of the love of God."

13  Adrian Reimers, Hell and the Mercy of God (Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 41.

14  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 17.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:93.

15  Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 17.14, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 64:105.

16  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 11.29 §39, in Works of Saint Augustine I/1:310.

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