Pentecost already was an important day on the Jewish calendar when the day we Christians often call the first Pentecost happened. For Jews, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. While Passover celebrated ancient Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the giving of the law, the ten commandments, by God through Moses to Israel (and, through him, to all the world) at Mount Sinai.
That may seem weird to us. We don’t like laws. They hem us in, keep us from doing what we want to do, control us.
And some human laws can be unjust and oppressive, obviously.
But ancient Israel saw God’s Law, the ten commandments and the moral laws that stem from them, as good things, as blessings that marked out the boundaries of what they called shalom, a place of peace with God and neighbor and self.
The Israelites even sang about God’s Law in their hymnal, which we know as the Psalms. “Oh, how I love Your law!” Psalm 119:97 says, for example, “I meditate on it all day long..”
God's people had a problem though: They loved God’s law. They couldn’t keep it.
If following God’s law was like staying on a paved road marked out for driving, disobeying it was like falling into a ditch of mud.
And like kids who have just taken a bath, Israel loved heading for the ditches of sin: the ditch of idolatry, the ditch of materialism, the ditch of wanting to fit in with others and ignore the will of God, the ditch of adultery and fornication, the ditch of false witness and character assassination, the ditch of self will, the ditch of thievery and false business and political dealings.
Through the centuries though, even after God sent prophets to remind His people to obey His laws, as human beings they were incapable of keeping themselves out of the ditches of sin and death.
Life in the ditches leads inevitably to separation from God. And to be separated from God, the Maker of life, is to be separated from life.
Yet, like the ancient Israelites, we can’t help ourselves. We’re born ditch-seekers.
Some of us like some ditches better than others. But from the moment we’re born, we’re like lemmings programmed by the sin we inherit from our parents to head for the mud, to do the very sin we hate!
We can hear and know God’s law and even delight in it. We may even spend some shameful time in condemning others who don't keep God's law in the way we think they should.
But we cannot, through the force of our own characters or wills, keep God's law.
Our only hope is the Gospel, the good news.
The Gospel isn't some abstract story about love.
The Gospel springs from a particular true story.
It’s the true story of how God took on flesh in a particular human life.
It’s the true story of Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit so that He would not inherit the sin that the rest of the human family inherits from our parents.
Jesus was the perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Jesus rose from the dead and offers the benefits of His sacrifice--new life--to all who believe in Him as their God and Savior.
And Jesus came to replace the evil kingdom of sin and the dying kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of God for all who repent and believe in Him.
The new kingdom that Jesus died and rose to bring into being isn’t opposed to the law God gave through Moses. Some people have the erroneous idea that Jesus abolished God's law and has given us all a free pass to eternity.
In fact, in some ways, Jesus makes God’s Law even more demanding than it is in the Old Testament.
In Matthew 5:21-22, for example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said...‘‘You shall not murder’...But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister [by which Jesus, Who got angry, clearly means here sustained, vengeful, unforgiving anger] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [raca was a term of derision that said a person was empty-headed] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
So, Jesus says to anyone who thinks that His death and resurrection are a free pass, a letter of indulgence, allowing believers to heedlessly and unrepentantly do whatever we want or believe whatever we want, no matter how disobedient or contemptuous of the will of God it may be, they’re wrong.
“Do not think,” Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…”
Then He says in Matthew 5:20: “...unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Our situation would be hopeless were it not for the fact that Jesus Christ, the One Who delivers this stern message, has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
He has obeyed the law.
Jesus has kept the law and so, by His innocent death for us, has conquered the law and its stern verdict against every one of us!
So Romans 8:1-2 tells us this: “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
Think of that: No condemnation for those who live in the sheltering, saving, forgiving love of Christ!
Those who are saved by God’s grace through their faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ are pulled out of the ditch of sin and death and set on the narrow path that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 7:13-14. “Enter through the narrow gate” Jesus says. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Jesus is the narrow path and there is life to be found nowhere else. In no legalistic religious system. In no psychobabbling fad. In nothing that this world has to offer. All of those wide and inviting paths lead to condemnation because, as they're all built around the idea that I can be good enough to warrant a pass from God, they leave us naked in our sin, worthy only of condemnation. When we follow Jesus, He clothes us in His righteousness.
All of which brings us back to Pentecost. The first chapter of Acts shows us that the first Christians experienced how Jesus’ grace can change people’s relationships with God and with each other. Jesus forgave them for abandoning Him and denying Him on the night of His betrayal. Through the crucified and risen Jesus and their faith in Him, God pulled them from the ditches of shame and guilt. They were set right with God and learning what it meant to live in the kingdom of heaven.
But their minds, like ours, were still fogged by sin. So they ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1:6]
Jesus tells them they need to pray, to quit striving and start surrendering.
Then, the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the power that created the universe, would come to them.
That’s exactly what happened on the Pentecost of our second lesson.
Like the first disciples, all who today believe in Jesus and are baptized receive the Holy Spirit.
But, you may have noticed something: The world is a ditch and it’s so easy to wallow in its sins, to wallow in our own sins.
This side of our own resurrections, we will never be completely free of sin.
And, acting in our own strength, even when we think we're doing good things, we can only make things worse.
That’s why Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit gives birth to faith.
The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and drives us to the cross.
The Holy Spirit assures the repentant of forgiveness through faith in Christ.
The Holy Spirit enables to be used by God to pull others out of their ditches.
As we submit our lives to the control and grace of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit can empower us to live differently. We begin to exhibit what Galatians 5:22-23 calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” things like “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
This is the life of the kingdom of heaven, the life of shalom, of peace with God, peace with others, peace with others.
The Pentecost crowd must have wondered how this kind of peace could come to them. So do we.
How can we know peace in the midst of chaos?
How can we have serenity in the midst of this world’s uncertainties?
Peter knew the answer to those questions, not because he was perfect or arrogant or intelligent. Peter knew the way to peace because like the other first followers of Jesus, he had...
...seen it revealed,
...heard its voice,
...received bread and wine from its hand,
...touched the hem of its garment,
...saw it crucified and resurrected.
Peter knew the one way to the peace for which we long.
Peter knew the way to life with God personally because that way of life had been revealed to him, sometimes painfully, by God.
In Acts 2:21, the last verse in our lesson, Peter shares God’s peace with the crowd. Quoting from an Old Testament passage that used the word Yawheh, I AM, God’s Name revealed to Moses the lawgiver and which we translate in our Bibles simply as LORD, Peter commended to the crowd the One he and his fellow disciples had come to call, “Lord." He commended the Lord Jesus to them.
Peter told the crowd, “...whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Today, this week, the Holy Spirit can empower you to live each day in the assurance that, no matter how crazy, conflicted, marked by futility, sad, or even horrible and tragic the world may be, as you submit your sins, your hopes, your decisions, your family, your whole life to Jesus Christ, you are saved, again and again...from the law condemns us for our sin even as it shows us the will of God, from death, and from the devil.
You are saved from the gossip that tears you down, from the fears that haunt you, from the temptations that allure you, from the sadness that dogs you, from sin, from death.
To have Jesus is truly to have God’s peace.
Jesus Christ is in heaven at the Father’s right hand. But if you believe in Him and call His Name, you are not and you never will be alone.
The Holy Spirit has come to let you know that whoever calls on the Name of the Lord Jesus--when you call on the Name of the Lord Jesus--you are saved, safe forever in the arms of God, empowered forever to leave the ditch behind and walk as freed, redeemed, and forever loved children of God. Amen!