Where the Wind Blows: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

061213_tree_damage_wind3.jpgI suspect that many people reading this have experienced in one way or another, as I have, the destruction and damage that a sudden, violent wind can cause with the least amount of warning. When I worked for the State Park Service in Ohio, I was often on call on weekends for cleanup of wind and storm damage on our buildings, in the campground, the beach, and the trails and picnic areas. My equipment consisted of a dump truck and a chainsaw, and occasionally an axe and a sledgehammer as well. It was not unusual for the wind to rip out trees that had stood for over a hundred years and drop them onto structures built up by the state or the park service over the years or across roads and trails that could no longer guide travelers from one part of the park to another. I spent hundreds of hours hacking through such trees to clear out roadways and paths and occasionally knocking down various structures that once served an important purpose but which now, through the violence of wind, were now rendered useless; the best I could often do was salvage what I could to be used in another time, and even in another place, while the rest of the structure would be removed completely. Fences erected between private and public land were often mangled, permitting civilized humans and wild animals alike to run free and ignore the divisions between “our” land and “their” properties.

What was also interesting is that it often seemed like these windstorms, whether they were tornadoes or micro-bursts, seemed to us to always hit the same areas, which on the one hand annoyed the heck out of us laborers but on the other hand permitted a certain amount of planning and preparation. If bad weather was forecast for Saturday, I would often get the trucks ready and chainsaws oiled and sharpened on Friday afternoon. On the other hand, though, it seemed like the park administration never figured this out, or else never believed us, and I remember an outhouse that was flattened twice in the same summer, being rebuilt yet a third time that fall, only to be flattened again the following spring. When I left the park service, they were building it yet again in the same spot. I knew, as did most of the laborers, that we weren’t dealing with geniuses in these decisions to simply keep doing things the same way that they’ve always been done, under the same bylaws and regulations that have been in place for 100 years, despite the fact that the wind, obviously, didn’t give a hoot for the rules, regulations, budget constraints, and conventional wisdoms of the board of directors.

The ancient Hebrews knew the Spirit of God as ru’ach elohim as in Genesis 1.2 and dozens of places elsewhere in the Old Testament. The word itself basically means “wind” or “breath”. The Hebrews took this concept a step further in their thinking, as well, and they recognized that God is the source of life; his granting of “spirit” to Adam was an act of unprecedented newness by which adam, “man,” became a living being (Genesis 2.7) with power to create, sustain (Genesis 6.3; Job 27.3; 34.14-15, others), and renew life (as in Ps. 104:29-30; Isaiah 32.15).

The concept of the Spirit of God as the powerful wind of life led to the Hebrews seeing the Spirit as who God sends to accomplish his goals as the divine power at work in the world. Scripture shows us repeatedly that God’s Spirit acts in special ways in the lives of people in order to accomplish special tasks. The Old Testament shows that the presence of God’s Wind, God’s Spirit, provided the recipient with whatever was needed to complete a divinely ordained job. It is God’s spirit, and not solely or even primarily human intellect or ability or committees and so forth that was the indispensable provision for accomplishing God’s program (see Zech. 4.6) against all fears (see Haggai 2.4-5).

Along these lines, the Prophets dreamed of and hoped for a day when the fullness of God’s Spirit, God’s Wind, God’s Life, would rest on an Anointed One (Isaiah 42.2) who would in turn pour out his Spirit on the House of Israel (Ezekiel 39.29) and all of God’s people, which would inaugurate the universal experience of the presence of God (see Joel 2.28-29).

But the prophets, like seamen and those whose livelihoods depend on the seas, also seemed to know instinctively that a massive influx of God’s Wind blowing into this world would radically alter everything we think we know about him and everything we do that we think honors him. The sudden rush of a violent wind threatens to break down barriers and boundaries and destroy some structures while transfiguring others for new uses, of closing old paths and opening new roads. The sudden rush of life would likewise signal an end to old patterns of knowing and doing, an expiration of the old, and the inspiration of the new.

And what newness! The Day of Pentecost has always been a festival of newness and renewal in Jewish tradition; it marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest as the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot. It was considered in Jesus’ day to be the day of the giving of the Law at Sinai (see Jubilees 1.17). For the church, the 50th day after Passover, when Jews from all over the Mediterranean were on hand to celebrate God’s bounty of life and the giving of the covenant and to renew their covenantal relationship to yhwh, was the Day that signaled the end of the chaos of Babel (Genesis 11.1-9) and the beginning of the Church’s mission, a mission that would accomplish things even greater than Jesus had done, as he promised his disciples in the passage we read from John today. On Pentecost, the sudden rush of Spirit-Wind over the rag-tag gathering of Jews from all over enabled not just a common language to be understood by all men, but a new speech entirely, one that refused the stock answers of all the traditions of their various cultures and politics and religious practices and ideologies. The Jews that day heard the new speech of new prophets, as it were, in the new language of the Gospel of Christ.

We live in a world today that presumes, and even trusts and hopes, that there is no new Wind that will challenge all our trusted structures, even when these structures turn out to be little more than outhouses in a park. We hope that when such a Wind does blow that we can contain and control it by moving it through ordered, legitimated channels and finely engineered and constructed “wind tunnels.” But the threat of Pentecost is exactly that the Wind of the Holy Spirit will not cooperate, and when it comes it is an egalitarian Wind that blows on all present. God’s Wind doesn’t care about our judgments on “who’s in” and “who’s out.” God’s Wind doesn’t care about our finely constructed systematic theologies or our popular versions of conservative and liberal interpretations. The threat of Pentecost is that God’s Wind will blow where it will blow! And, like when a strong wind levels out old, gigantic trees in a forest, a new space for growth, a clearing for new life in an ecosystem perhaps hundreds of years old, begins to emerge.

We in the church are right to be apprehensive, for we know, as I knew in the Park Service, that while the Spirit of God blows where it wants to, when it wants to, it always seems to come back to the same place. The Church is that place; it is the site where the Wind of God returns again and again to dismantle our structures when they become oppressive and unjust or just flat out wrong, no matter how long we have been “doing church” or “thinking Christian” in the way we have. The Spirit of God labors, sometimes with us, and often against us, in bringing out God’s missional activity in the world. We, like the buildings in my old park, are always being challenged by the force of the Spirit of God. Our God, through the mission of the Gospel of Christ, has singled us out to accomplish his ends, to do Kingdom work. And to do that, we as the Church of Jesus the Christ and those called to the Gospel need the Wind of God at our back, not in our face.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Church today, may we speak the new speech of the life of the Gospel; and may we humbly yield to whatever direction the Wind of the Holy Spirit may take us. Oh Lord, ‘Let your wind blow!’