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Pentecost: What Do We Expect From the Spirit?

A sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21, and John 15:26-27.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here; Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash]

This past Monday night in Children’s Church we were talking about the story of God calling Samuel to be a prophet, and we were helping God out by making megaphones out of our hands and yelling “Samuel, Samuel, Samuel!” We were laughing and having fun, but we were also learning. And I know this, because of the question one of our youngest siblings in Christ asked as we talked about the story.

I was telling the children about how God talks to us too, and this young seeker of truth interrupted me to ask, “then how come we don’t hear God?!”

It’s one of those questions that I both love and hate as a pastor. I love the evidence of engagement. I love the simple faith that hasn’t yet begun to ask whether this kind of question is allowed. I love the willingness to imagine what it might feel like to be woken up in the night by the voice of God, and then to name the disappointment that comes from not getting to hear that audible, inarguable voice.

But I hate that I don’t have an adequate answer to meet that longing. I can (and did) talk about how God calls all of us to be that voice for each other. And we shared an activity of announcing God’s love.

But the plaintive question still hangs in my memory: “How come we don’t hear God?” It’s a question that reverberated inside my soul this week as I meditated on today’s scriptures, which present such sensory expressions of the Spirit’s power. We hear a call to prophesy to dry bones, so that they can be re-knit into bodies that receive life-giving breath. And we hear of the rushing wind and crackling flames of the Spirit descending on the nascent church as it breaks forth in spontaneous testimony to the glory of God. And we hear Christ’s promise that, when he goes, the Advocate will come and will guide us into all truth.

But what we don’t hear is the voice of God. Not directly. Not like Samuel did, or Ezekiel, or Peter, and Jesus. The Holy Spirit – whose coming to empower the church is the focus of today’s celebration – isn’t nearly so easy to experience with our senses as these readings seem to suggest.

And so, these accounts seem remote… unconnected to our daily reality. If we are as brave as our young Children’s Church student, we might even describe them as fantasy stories. Perhaps that word comes to mind, for me, because my son’s Language Arts class is studying fantasy writing right now. But because of that study, I know that one of the core techniques of the genre is the use of “unrealistic concepts.” Concepts like dragons, or magic, or flames of fire floating, unsupported and unconsuming, over people’s heads while those people speak in multiple languages but are perfectly understood, without amplification, by a crowd of thousands.

I mean, if we’re honest is does sound pretty… unrealistic!

We might cringe away from applying this term to stories of scripture because it seems so unbelieving, but the point of recognizing “unrealistic concepts” in fantasy literature is to figure out the author’s goal in using that technique. How does the “unrealistic concept” advance the story? How does it draw the reader in?

So, what if we ask those questions? What if the “fantasy” elements in these Bible readings invite us to lean into the stories in a new way? What if, instead of suppressing our questions, these sensory descriptions invite us to ask, with a child’s honest longing: “Why don’t we experience God’s Spirit in such vivid, perceptible ways?” If it is better for us that Jesus went away so that God’s Spirit could come to us, then why isn’t that Spirit more obvious to us? Why can’t we clearly see it moving?

In a moment in history when we so desperately need truth, why isn’t the Spirit guiding us into all truth, with unity and clarity, across the diverse global church?

In a moment when even people who speak the same language can’t seem to understand one another, why isn’t the Spirit opening our mouths to testify to God’s work in the world and opening our ears to hear that re-orienting, re-converting testimony?

In a moment when Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones evokes too easily this week’s images from Gaza of lifeless bodies, broken by a violence whose roots seem utterly beyond solution, why isn’t the ruach- Spirit-breath of God rushing in to give us and them new life and hope?

And what if these questions are actually what we need? Because, when we start asking these questions, we start making space in our hearts for a longing for God’s Spirit to move and to act with power in our world. We start longing for the experiences that comfortable, middle class, American lifestyle generally rejects as "unrealistic."

But, the truth is, God’s Spirit does move in powerful, even perceptible ways in God’s church – it’s just more noticeable in cultures where acts of power are expected. Our own church council member, Paul Otu-Winner, recently published a book on Walking in Divine Power[1], which gives witness to the way in which his Nigerian church heritage opens his eyes to recognize God’s mighty acts in daily life. I’m sure we all have something to learn from that witness, and I don’t think that lesson demands us to forsake our own various cultures.

It just invites us to expect God’s power in our lives in a new way. It invites us to open our lives to the rushing ruach-spirit-breath of God.

Of course, breathing deeply… drawing in the breath of another has a new meaning in our lives after the last year. COVID has made us aware, as we probably never were before, of the way that breathing is a communal activity. We wear masks and stand at a distance to avoid sharing the same air, but even with intention that’s never completely possible. That’s the nature of breath. That’s the nature of Spirit.

Which is why, ultimately, the best answer we can give to the question of “why don’t we hear God?” is to say, “actually, we do.” God has never woken me up with an audible voice in the middle of the night, but that’s me, not we. We is the whole church, the church in which God IS moving powerfully. And if you or I don’t experience that, then maybe we need to look wider, and deeper, for the evidence to prove it to us.

And so, to close this sermon, I want to speak a blessing over all of us – a blessing written by poet and artist Jan Richardson to evoke the Pentecost Spirit in today’s church.

It is called, “This Grace that Scorches Us”[2]

Here’s one thing

you must understand

about this blessing:

it is not

for you alone.

It is stubborn

about this.

Do not even try

to lay hold of it

if you are by yourself,

thinking you can carry it

on your own.

To bear this blessing,

you must first take yourself

to a place where everyone

does not look like you

or think like you,

a place where they do not

believe precisely as you believe,

where their thoughts

and ideas and gestures

are not exact echoes

of your own.

Bring your sorrow.

Bring your grief.

Bring your fear.

Bring your weariness,

your pain,

your disgust at how broken

the world is,

how fractured,

how fragmented

by its fighting,

its wars,

its hungers,

its penchant for power,

its ceaseless repetition

of the history it refuses

to rise above.

I will not tell you

this blessing will fix all that.

But in the place

where you have gathered,




Lay aside your inability

to be surprised,

your resistance to what you

do not understand.

See then whether this blessing

turns to flame on your tongue,

sets you to speaking

what you cannot fathom

or opens your ear

to a language

beyond your imagining

that comes as a knowing

in your bones,

a clarity

in your heart

that tells you

this is the reason

we were made:

for this ache

that finally opens us,

for this struggle,

this grace

that scorches us

toward one another

and into the blazing day. Thanks be to God.

[1] [2] By Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons


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