A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Pentecost Sunday ~ Psalm 104:24-35
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s one of the high points in the Christian year for me. It was the birth of the Church! – not this church, THE Church! So why did we read Psalm 104 instead of the Pentecost story? I’ll get to that in a minute. To begin, let’s recall the basic story. Jesus’ disciples had more or less been hidden away since the tumultuous events of Easter and they weren’t sure what to do. They were too afraid to go forward but they knew they couldn’t just give up. While they were gathered in an upper room – probably the same one they shared that Last Supper with Jesus in – and probably the same upper room where they experienced his risen presence on Easter Sunday and in the days afterward – while they were there together, in that special, shared, sacred space(!), feeling lost and dispirited, something amazingly wonderful, powerful, and awe-full happened.
A thunderous sound like the rush of wind filled the place, and something like tongues of fire rested on each person, and they were each and all flooded with the Holy Spirit. People passing by heard that weird sound, and were amazed, and wondered what it could be. Then Jesus’ followers were compelled and propelled by the Spirit and spilled out onto the street, communicating with everyone they encountered so meaningfully that it felt like being spoken to in your heart-language. It was, no doubt, a wild scene, and at first they thought these followers of Jesus were all drunk – but Peter jumped up and assured them that that wasn’t the case because it was just 9:00 in the morning. It wasn’t spirits but THE SPIRIT that they were intoxicated on.
And then Peter – quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures from the prophet Joel – explained exactly what happened:
Acts 2:17-18 In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
In other words, upon receiving an outpouring of Spirit, God’s people are inspired to prophesy, to share, to speak out, to sing out!
Oh, let me sing to God all my life long, sing hymns to my God as long as I live!
Oh, let my song please God; I’m so pleased to be singing to God.
That’s not Acts 2 – that’s Psalm 104!
So who is Spirit-filled and singing to God, and singing of God, in Psalm 104? It isn’t the disciples, obviously. But it’s clearly someone filled with the Spirit. The same Spirit that was gushing in that upper room 50 days after that first Easter. Why am I making this a deal? It’s because sometimes I worry that we can read the Acts 2 Pentecost story as if that was the first time that Spirit had ever swirled through a group of God’s people. It absolutely wasn’t the first time. (And it wasn’t the last time either!) God’s Spirit wasn’t inaugurated on Pentecost Sunday – but the Church was. God’s Spirit has been blowing and flowing since the first moment of creation.
The bible paints a glorious, metaphorical picture of the beginning of all things in the book called Genesis. Remember how it begins?
Genesis 1:1-2 When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
That wind from God is the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew it’s called ruach. In Greek it’s called pneuma. And it has been swirling, and blowing, and gushing, and inspiring since the beginning of time. There has never been, and never will be, a single nano-second when the Spirit of God is not flowing and blowing. It is always, always, windy.
That’s what was inspiring the psalmist as they sat on their back deck, pausing, breathing deeply, and taking in the overwhelmingly glorious beauty and diversity of the creation that surrounded them. Ok, that’s actually me, but I’m certain that’s how the psalmist felt too. I mean, listen to what they wrote in their journal:
Psalm 104:24-28 What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.
Oh, look – the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon.
Ships plow those waters, and Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.
All the creatures look expectantly to you to give them their meals on time.
You come, and they gather around; you open your hand and they eat from it.
Have you ever hand-fed an animal? Isn’t it one of the most awesome things ever?! You get a warm feeling of utter connectedness with nature as you do it. That’s the metaphor the psalmist is offering us for how we might view our relationship with God. All of creation, including us, looks to God expectantly for what deeply sustains us, and as we open ourselves to God’s Presence it’s like we’re eating out of the palm of God’s hand. Please don’t limit yourself to puny, literal translations of the bible. Allow the language and imagery to take you on a transformational journey. It’s an image of utter interconnectedness and mutual love.
But what happens in those times when you’re not feeling it? Those times when you lose sight of God’s constant, ever-Presence? Well, it feels like you’re dying.
Psalm 104:29 God, if you turned your back (if you were to hide your face), they’d/we’d die in a minute – Take back your Spirit and they/we die, revert to original mud;
Of course God would not, could not, ever take away God’s Spirit. It’s impossible. God is love. God can only love. Giving and taking away love capriciously is not loving – so God must not do that. But it’s a lot more convenient (and very human) to blame God for being absent, for hiding God’s face, when it’s really we who are the ones who turn away so frequently.
God’s Spirit is like the wind. I looked it up. Did you know that wind never, ever ceases to blow and move? I know that there are days when it feels like there’s no wind – we might call it a dead calm, or say that there’s no air moving – but it’s not true. Scientifically speaking, wind is always moving. It is always, always, windy. It may be imperceptible to us in a given moment, but it’s always moving – always blowing. Just like God’s Spirit!
The psalmist knows that all too well, so they write that when we can’t feel the Spirit we cry out to God to let it flow again.
Psalm 104:30-31 Send out your Spirit and they/we spring to life – the whole countryside in bloom and blossom.
The glory of God – let it last forever! Let God enjoy God’s creation!
And then we trip on the imagery – v.32 God takes one look at earth and triggers an earthquake, points a finger at the mountains, and volcanoes erupt.
Don’t misread that. Remember, God can only love. I think this is just a colourful way to exclaim that as gentle and pastoral as eating out of God’s hand can feel that God’s holiness is at the same time awe-some and awe-full, powerful beyond imagining, vast beyond comprehension, mind-bogglingly knee-bucklingly wondrous. So great and powerful that the only natural metaphors a poet has are things like earthquakes and volcanoes. See those incredible natural phenomena? Well, God is bigger!
And what do we do when we are so overwhelmed by spiritual awesomeness, and spirit-filled inspiration, and spiritually warm interconnectedness all at once? What do we do?
Psalm 104:33-34 Oh, let me sing to God all my life long, sing hymns to my God as long as I live!
Oh, let my song please him; I’m so pleased to be singing to God.
That’s what we do! That’s what the psalmist did! That’s what all of creation does! And that’s exactly what the disciples and the followers of Jesus did on the day of Pentecost as they emerged from that upper room. They sang! They prophesied. They shared their spiritual giddiness. It’s so great!!!
And then the psalm ends on a misunderstood note. It doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. In fact, it’s so misunderstood that our lectionary actually leaves out this sentence, because it’s so misleading.
Psalm 104:35 (NRSV) Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!
It’s a language problem. In Hebrew the word translated as consumed here means to be completed, to come to an end. Not ‘destroyed’ (wiped out) but more like no longer being a thing. It’s like we might say “let poverty be consumed from the earth!” Or “let injustice be consumed from the earth!” Or how about “let guns be consumed from the earth!” It’s not a vengeful desire of the psalmist to eliminate bad people. Need I remind us that everyone fits the definition of ‘sinner’ so if all ‘sinners’ were destroyed there’d be no one left at all. So it must mean more than that. And it is! It’s more of a heartfelt plea for a better version of the world more in keeping with God’s vision of love. A plea to eliminate the things that distract us from perceiving God’s Spirit at all times.
But no matter how distracted we are, and how silent God’s voice seems to be, or how still the winds seem to be – the wind is always blowing – the Spirit is always flowing. As is so often the case – the difference is whether or not we notice.
Pentecost is a Greek word meaning ‘fiftieth’ as in the fiftieth day after Passover. The feast of Pentecost was actually a Jewish feast. Jews call this the Feast of Weeks, or in Hebrew Shavuot. It commemorates both the bounty of the harvest, and the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Back in biblical times this was one of the major pilgrimage festivals, so just like at Passover Jerusalem would have been flooded with Jews from all over the world who made the journey to mark this religious feast day. And what do you do when you gather for religious festivals? You worship together.
Sure the disciples were still reeling from their Easter experience, and they were fearful of persecution, and they dared not make any waves until they figured things out. But 50 days had passed. And as they are together, worshipping, celebrating Shavuot (Pentecost), something spiritually special happens. Something extra. Something amplified. I sincerely hope that has happened for you at some point in your life! Hopefully often!
As we worship together – as we connect our hearts and spirits together – as we open ourselves in love to the One who is Love – Spirit flows. Spirit is always flowing – always – but while we’re worshipping, making that effort to be present and open, letting down our guard and welcoming the sacredness of the moment – that’s when Spirit can be amplified. And amplified. And amplified. And sometimes it’s so powerful that it almost feels electric. Energized. So moving that it literally moves you. Uplifts you from your comfortable pew (or couch) and compels and propels you into loving action.
That is what happened as the psalmist wrote this hymn of praise.
That is what happened in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.
That is what can happen every time two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus.
That is what is happening right now – this very moment – as the Holy Spirit continues to flow and swirl among, between, and within all of us.
It is always, always, windy. Help us notice.