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The Immeasurable Greatness of God’s Work in Us

Acts 1:1-11; Acts 2:1-13
Pentecost

Right after World War II, a U.S. Army officer and his wife were stationed in Japan. The country had been devastated by the war. The economy was in shambles. Unemployment approached 60%. People came to the army wife’s door daily looking for work.

One man said he could do wonders for her garden if she would only give him a chance. So, for the first time in her life, the young woman hired a gardener. He spoke no English, but the wife, through sign language and pencil and paper gave him instructions about where to plant, prune, and pamper her garden. He listened politely and followed her instructions exactly. The garden emerged as the finest in the neighborhood. When she finally realized that this man knew far more about the matter than she, the wife stopped giving him directions and gave him free rein in the garden. And that garden was magnificent.

Then one day the gardener came with an interpreter who expressed the appreciation along with the regrets of the gardener: “He will no longer be able to care for your garden. He must leave.”

The wife expressed her regrets and thanked him, through the interpreter, for making hers such a fine garden.

Then she asked the interpreter, “Where is he going?” The interpreter replied that the gardener was returning to his old job as the Professor of Horticulture at the University of Tokyo.

I can imagine, can’t you, the look that must have been on that woman’s face when she discovered, upon his leaving, that her gardener was far more than a gardener.

Well, imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples on the day of Christ’s ascension into heaven. Let’s put ourselves at the scene: I’d bet “stunned,” “flabbergasted,” and “bowled over” wouldn’t even come anywhere near to expressing our amazement. We’d be wordless, probably struggling to catch a breath, just standing there with our mouths open, gawking.

The repeated appearances of Jesus after His death and resurrection brought His followers so much joy that they must have wanted the visits to continue indefinitely. But on the 40th day after His resurrection, having given His disciples final instructions, Jesus slowly ascended and a cloud hid Him from view.

Jesus could have vanished instantly but He chose to ascend visibly to impress upon His followers that His bodily presence would soon be replaced by the presence of the Advocate/Counselor/Comforter — the Holy Spirit — promised in John 14:16.

Jesus’ ascension marked the dawn of a new era.

In His glorified human body, the Lord Jesus ascended, entered heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Father. Ten days later, He sent the Holy Spirit.

Witnessing the ascension of Christ was a true mountaintop experience comparable to what the disciples had undergone on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus’ appearance was changed right before their eyes. Then His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light. In Matthew, chapter 17, we read that the disciples Peter, James and John witnessed this and saw Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus. That, too, was a life changing moment.

I went on line looking for definitions of and stories about mountaintop experiences. One pastor spoke of a mountaintop experience as an epiphany, a sudden understanding of the way things work. Another described a mountaintop experience as an “aha” moment when something falls into place. It doesn’t take a mountaintop to have a mountaintop experience.

Brian Faltynski, writing on this topic, noted that there is always one constant characteristic in mountaintop experiences: there is some sort of breaking down of walls, a spiritual smashing of barriers.

He suggests that, to have a mountaintop experience, we have to let God in and we have to get our junk out of the way. This means getting real, getting honest, and bringing that honesty before God. So many of us, myself included, love our sin too much to be honest about it. We have the hardest time admitting to ourselves that we are the broken sinners that God loves. We may say it, but do we truly believe it?

If you haven’t felt close to God in a while, or if you haven’t had a mountaintop experience, get your junk out of the way. Truly give attention to the Lord and be prepared for God to amaze you. Amaze you like He amazed the disciples – He’ll have you standing there gawking.

I wonder, as the disciples caught their last glimpses of Jesus as He ascended, if they thought back to His words – His words of promise about not leaving them as orphans but rather providing them with a Counselor/Comforter/Advocate to be with them. Or I wonder, at that moment, if they just forgot everything He’d ever told them or done for them. I wonder if they simply felt abandoned even though they had the promise.

But, perhaps, their first response to this mountaintop experience was to simply stand in awe at who Jesus is and all He had done.

When was the last time you were filled with awe at the awesomeness of God? When did you last have a true mountaintop experience? Have you become too preoccupied with the inconsequential and the non-awesome that you’re failing to seek what and who would truly fill you with awe? Have you been awed by what Christ has called you to do? The disciples likely were. The last thing Christ said to them was, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest parts of the earth.”

And so, in the final hours before the start of the Feast of Pentecost, the disciples sat on the edge of a miracle – the transformation of human personality, the beginning of a new humanity.

Pentecost is a term derived from the Greek pentekostos, meaning fiftieth, which was applied to the fiftieth day after the Passover. It was the culmination of the Feast of Weeks which began on the third day of Passover –with the presentation of the first harvested sheaves to God — and which concluded on Pentecost with the offering of two loaves of unleavened bread, representing the first products of the harvest.

And on the 50th day after His resurrection – on Pentecost, the day celebrating the first fruits of the harvest — there suddenly came a sound from heaven like that of a rushing, mighty wind and the sound filled the entire house where they were sitting. And they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

The dynamics of Pentecost were wind, fire and praise. Picture the disciples as they waited expectantly. Suddenly, a wind begins to stir, gently at first, then growing stronger. The Hebrew word for “spirit” and “wind” is ruach. The pronunciation of the word gives us a sense of its meaning. Its first and last letters are gutturals and the word rumbles from the larynx and ends with a breathy sound.

The wind had been the emblem of the Spirit for the Hebrew people throughout the generations. When the Lord spoke to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, He told the prophet to prophesy to the breath: “Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe on these slain that they might live.” The dry bones symbolized the defeated, dejected people of Israel in exile in Ezekiel’s day. They needed the Holy Spirit; they needed life to come into them again.

Jesus used the image of the wind for the Holy Spirit when He said to Nicodemus, “You shouldn’t be surprised by my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases and you hear the sound of it but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Faith: we can’t see it, but – like the wind – we can see the effects of it.

Sometimes the wind is strong and you can see immediate dramatic results; other times its presence can’t be seen except over time. For example, you’ll see a tree leaning toward a certain direction and even though you don’t see the wind bend the tree, shape the tree, over time, the tree will move as the wind directs.

God has used the wind throughout the generations to save and guide His people. It was the wind that made the waters recede after the great flood in Noah’s time. It was the wind that drove back the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross in safety before the pursuing Egyptians.

Well, now here again was the wind of the Spirit – the Lord gave outward signs – tangible evidence of His presence – so that those gathered in Jerusalem would understand. And what the wind does when it rushes so too the Holy Spirit was doing in the souls of the disciples: blowing out cobwebs of fear and the layered dust of uncertainty, bending souls and opening a way forward.

There was an inward rushing of new thought, new emotion, new will. The Lord’s people were being stirred up, quickened, brought to life because the Holy Spirit had arrived.

There was a second outward sign of what was happening in the people. A prophecy of John the Baptist was finding fulfillment. John had said: “I baptize you with water but One mightier than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Chaff is the worthless parts of harvested matter that has to be separated from the grain before use. That separating is done through such techniques as threshing and wind winnowing. In threshing, the grain is separated from the chaff that covers it by striking it with a flail (akin to a long stick). Then the flat basket of grain and chaff is tossed in the air and the chaff is blown away while the heavier grains – the useful parts – fall back into the basket and are kept. The wind blows away that which is useless.

The same sort of process occurs in a believer when the Holy Spirit does His work. Believers have chaff that covers their minds and hearts – the Holy Spirit blows away the chaff and burns it up.

There’s another way of understanding the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. We’re helped in understanding by the words of the song, “Spirit of the Living God”: Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.

When a metal like gold or silver is refined, it goes through a trying or melting process in order to separate the pure metal from the waste. A layer of scum forms on the surface of the molten metal. This waste, called dross, is removed in the refining, purifying process.

In the same way, the fire of the Holy Spirit brings to the surface our spiritual dross, our impurities, which are then removed by the Holy Spirit so that we can be molded and fitted for God’s use. If we realize that trials are used by the Lord to refine us for His service, we can experience joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We are even counseled in scripture to rejoice in trial, not because the affliction itself is a cause for joy (it’s not), but because in it God can find an occasion for producing what is good.

The third manifestation of the Holy Spirit was for the 120 believers (the number given in Acts 1, verse 15) and for the crowds that had gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. The followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit for praise and proclamation. They were filled to overflowing and praise was the undeniable evidence.

One of the manifestations of this was that they spontaneously began to speak in languages other than their own. It’s important to note here that they were enabled to speak in these languages so that they might communicate to all what was happening to them. We should note that this is something different from the gift of tongues that is one of the many spiritual gifts which God may bestow.

Some of the people who heard the praise of the believers asked, “What does this mean?” Others made fun saying, “They’re just drunk.”

That got Simon Peter on his feet! “These people aren’t drunk; it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit and your sons and daughters will prophesy, the young will see visions, the old will dream dreams . . .'”

Pentecost is the birthday of the church – it’s a time to celebrate new visions and new dreams. After Christ’s death on the cross and even after His resurrection from the dead, the disciples had been a rag-tag crew of well-meaning but ineffectual followers trying to sort out what had happened and what next steps they were to take. After Pentecost, these same disciples became such powerful witnesses that it was said of one of the disciples, Simon Peter, that his mere shadow passing over a physically distressed person could bring healing.

Before Pentecost, the disciples were fearful, fickle followers who hid themselves away. After Pentecost, they were emboldened ready to face persecution, ready and willing to endure anything – even torture and death – to testify to the reality of the risen Lord Jesus.

Before Pentecost, they were pathetic, listless. After Pentecost they were filled with power, Spirit power, and they went out to win the world.  This was Christ’s legacy: a Spirit-filled church. And that, of course, is who we are intended to be today–a power-filled, purpose-driven community of faith making a dramatic difference in the world.

Pentecost is a good day for us to take account of our discipleship, both individually and corporately. Are we the kind of force in the world that Christ has called us to be?

The story is told about an employee who did so little work that he was fired.

A friend came to the boss and said, “I want to apply for the vacancy that Joe left.” And the boss replied, “Joe didn’t leave a vacancy.”

That could be said of some churches. If they disappeared, they wouldn’t leave a vacancy. That could also be said of many followers of Christ. Could it be said of you? If something were to happen to you tonight, would others feel a vacancy where your life had been? Are you making a difference in the world around you?

We look at the church at its birth and we wonder, could we have that astonishing, mind-blowing kind of joy, that kind of love, that kind of power in the world today? And the simple answer is, yes. Yes we can. How?

It will happen when we all open ourselves to the same power that created the church in the first place. God never intended for us to be timid in our witness, anemic in our discipleship.  If that’s you, know that God can effect a change in you; He can transform you, make you bold, forthright, courageous.

Now, I’m not a great fan of Robert Schuller but I would like to bounce off of something he wrote in the introduction to one of his books:

“How much is a sprinkler-head worth?” he asked. “It all depends. Not much on a shelf in the hardware store. But attach it to a water line and it will bring life to plants, flowers, and fruit, feeding the human race. Life and death–they’re in the sprinkler head.

“How much is a pen worth? It all depends on whose hand holds it–and what that hand does with it.”

What is a human being worth anyway? It all depends. A disconnected human life may not be worth much but connected to an uplifting faith in the loving Holy Spirit and that simple person becomes a powerhouse of life-giving hope.

Invite the Holy Spirit to come in power into your life – as wind and fire – and see if you won’t be filled with praise for God Almighty, brimming over with the desire to proclaim the good news of life in Christ, filled with joy and moving out on to the fields that are ripe for harvest.

Perhaps you might also lift this prayer:

Gracious Holy Spirit, I pray for Your fresh anointing to revive me and cleanse me. Come as fire to purge from me that which is useless dross. Water my spirit, Lord, and consecrate my heart and life to Your greater glory. Fill me, Holy Spirit, with the kind of praise that poured from the disciples at that first precious Pentecost.

Loving God, help me in the days ahead to rise each morning praising You. Help me to push aside the rush and press to seek You, to read Your Word, to discover Your purpose for me for each day, and to discover deep joy and satisfaction as I do. Help me to focus on that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Grant me a peace that passes all understanding. Guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

Lord, you know prayer is not always easy for me. I can become so distracted, so busy, that I — in essence — cut You out of the very world You created. And sometimes it’s difficult when I do acknowledge You to understand why You permit some hard things to happen to me. I want to be open and honest so I ask You to guide me in my thinking, in my praying, in my attitude toward You, toward others, toward the world.

I pray also that, in the way of intercession, You would help me to be truly sensitive to the needs of others. Help me not to worry but to cast all my cares on You, confident that You care for me and that You can use all things for my good, producing in me increasing measures of Christlikeness.

Help me to let go of the things that hold me down. Help me to grow in patience that I may remember and find assurance in knowing that Your timing is often different from mine and Your timing is always better. Help me to wait upon You with the assurance that my strength will be renewed. Help me to trust You to work all things for my good. And when all seems just so right in my individual world, remind me to lift my heart and mind in praise and thanksgiving to You. May I find my abundance in You, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Open me Lord to the fresh wind of the Spirit, moving, prodding, convincing, convicting, enabling, challenging. Cause me to catch a vision of Your directives and to hear the voice of my Lord in the stillness, in the rushing wind, in the whisper, in the storm. Lord, I know You hear me; You have heard and have taken to Your heart every spoken and unspoken prayer. May You make of me one who is willing to hear and willing to accept Your will, Your answers to my prayers, for I ask in gratitude and with a worship-filled hearts through Jesus, my Savior. Amen

From Augustine of Hippo we have this prayer to the Holy Spirit:

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.

Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.

Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy.

Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.

Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.

My prayer for you: May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him; may the eyes of your heart be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe, according to the working of His great might which He accomplished in Christ when He raised Him from the dead. Amen.

NOTE: I composed this from notes compiled over a number of years. Attributions may not be complete.

Featured photo by Colin Kinnear.

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