When the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church through the miracle at Pentecost, the Spirit’s first “act” was to translate the good news of the gospel into languages that other people could understand. In this sermon, I discuss ways in which the Spirit continues to do this through us.
Sermon Text: Acts 1:6-8; 2:1-21
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Since we’re near the beginning of summer, many of you will be going on vacation as a family to the beach soon. Do you like taking long car trips with your family? Growing up, my dad never cursed more than in those moments just before we left for summer vacation. I never understood this when I was a kid. Vacation was nothing but fun, and anticipating going on vacation was one of the best parts—all the nervous excitement of getting ready to go.
But as a parent… I totally understand the stress of getting ready to go on a trip. I mean, it’s stressful watching my wife, Lisa, plan the trip, do all the laundry, pack all the bags, pack the cooler, load everything into the car, arrange to have the neighbors feed the animals… It’s stressful to watch that. I hate it for her. But to my credit, I do most of the driving. And not long after we get on the road, we get to hear our kids arguing in the backseat: “Mom, Townshend is touching me. Stop touching me.” “I’m not touching you!” “Yes you are!”
All this stress ensures that by the time vacation is over, you’ll really need a vacation. But not only that, when you’re on a long car trip to the beach, you get to hear another question asked frequently from the backseat: “Are we almost there yet?”
The disciples ask a similar question in Acts chapter 1, verse 6, shortly before Jesus ascends to the Father: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” It was a natural question for these disciples. In traditional Jewish thinking, once the Messiah comes, he’s supposed to establish God’s kingdom on earth, restore the people of Israel, and establish peace at last: swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning-hooks. Now that the resurrection proved that Jesus was the Messiah, the next step, the disciples believed, was restoring the kingdom to Israel. So the disciples asked, in so many words, “Is now the time we’ve all been waiting for? Are we almost there yet?”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that they’re wrong to ask the question. He doesn’t say, “No, you’re missing the point. The point of my death and resurrection wasn’t to establish God’s kingdom on earth, after all, but for all of us to leave this world of time and space behind and live in heaven for all eternity—to float on clouds with the angels and play harps and sing in the choir all day and all night. ‘Some glad morning, when this life is over, we’ll all fly away to heaven… Just a few more weary days and then… we’ll fly away.’” Love the song, hate the theology!
No, there will come a day, according to Revelation 21, when heaven will come down to a transformed earth, God’s kingdom will be established in all its fullness, this Creation that God loves will be redeemed, and we’ll be resurrected to a new kind of physical life. That day is coming, by all means. But Jesus also wants us to know that in another sense, God’s kingdom is already here. Jesus’ resurrection means that Jesus is already on the throne, ruling as the world’s true king. And one day, as Paul says in Philippians, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. While there is still time, while we still have life and breath, people need to acknowledge that Jesus is king and live now as citizens worthy of that kingdom.
In the Roman Empire, when a new emperor ascended to the throne, they didn’t have TVs or the internet back then. You couldn’t watch it live on CNN or Fox. Messengers would instead be sent “as far as Spain to the east, Britain to the north, and Egypt to the southeast announcing to the people that Claudius or Nero, or whoever, was now the rightful king and to demand glad allegiance” from the king’s grateful subjects.
This is exactly what Jesus is telling the apostles to do in verse 8: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” So now these disciples have a job, a mission: Go all over the world and announce the good news—this best news of all: Jesus is on the throne! Jesus is king! Give your allegiance to him. All these other kings and presidents and potentates promise peace, happiness, a better life, a better world. But they’re pretenders. They will only let us down. Only Jesus, our true king, delivers on his promise.
The church’s mission at Pentecost, of announcing to the world that Jesus is king, is still our mission today. So many people in our world have other people or things sitting on the throne of their lives. They need to be set free by the liberating good news of Jesus Christ. If only someone could tell them!
One of my favorite people I’ve known in life was my Uncle Nick. He wasn’t a real uncle. He was better than that. He was one of my parents’ best friends, and he was given the title “Uncle” the old-fashioned way: he earned it. Long before I knew him, Uncle Nick was a suave, successful, jet-setting senior executive with a large corporation back in the ’50s, ‘60s, and ’70s. I’ve never seen the show Mad Men, but Uncle Nick lived and worked during that era, wore those kind of suits, had that kind of hair, and I don’t know… I bet he was the kind of man who, before he got married, lived in a bachelor pad and drank a cocktail every night while listening to Frank Sinatra on the hi-fi. You get the picture? Just cool.
He was also a raconteur who told great stories. Once, while living in Miami in the early-50′s, Nick was dating a beautiful young Cuban-American woman. She wanted to know if Nick could arrange a blind date between her best friend, Maria, and Nick’s best friend, Bill. And so he did. The four of them agreed to go on a double date. It would be an opportunity for Bill and Maria to meet, to get to know each other, to test the waters. So Bill shows up at the restaurant, and the other three are already seated at a table. Nick introduces Bill, and the two women exchange glances and say something to each other in Spanish. And the two women laugh. Whatever they said, Nick and Bill didn’t understand it, because they didn’t speak Spanish.
This sort of thing went on for a little while. The four of them would be talking in English, and every once in a while the two women would say something privately to each other in Spanish. Then they’d laugh, or wink, or smile. You get the picture. Finally, Bill excused himself to go to the men’s room. Maria said to Nick, “So, tell me what your friend does for a living.” Without skipping a beat, Nick said, “Oh… He teaches Spanish at the University of Miami.”
The two women turned beet-red with embarrassment. Can you imagine? What if Bill understood everything they had been saying about him in secret? What if their secret were no longer a secret?
The point is, if you want to keep a secret between friends, it helps if the secret is in a language that other people don’t know. If, on the other hand, you want to let the world in on a secret, you have to translate those words into a language that other people can understand. This is exactly what God is doing in today’s scripture. At Pentecost, God translates this good news of Jesus—the world’s true king—into a language that other people can understand.
Brothers and sisters, when we are “witnesses” for Jesus, we do the same thing: Witnessing is nothing other than translating the good news of Jesus Christ into a language that other people can understand. Today, as people in our world become increasingly unfamiliar with the words and concepts we use when talking about our faith, we may as well be speaking a foreign language! The need for translation has never been more urgent!
A couple of weeks ago, Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton did something that only 15 players other players in Major League history have ever done: he hit four home runs in a single game. He also went 5 for 5; his other at-bat was a double! He set an American League record for most bases earned: 16 for his four home runs plus two for the double. That’s a good night! Hamilton also did something that same night that he has done many nights before: he was a witness for Jesus. He’s been witnessing for Jesus for a long time. In the early 2000s, he nearly destroyed his career and his life through drugs and alcohol. But he wants the world to know that he found Jesus, and Jesus saved his life—physically, spiritually, and eternally. He’ll tell everyone who’ll listen that that’s what Jesus did for him.
Do you ever just wake up in the morning and think, “I am saved! God has forgiven my sins; God has rescued me from the fear of death and hell; God has removed all the obstacles that have kept me from him; God has given me eternal life; God has made me his beloved child; God has given me a free gift, which I couldn’t pay back if I wanted to. And God did all this out of a love for me from which nothing in the world can separate me. Thank you, Jesus!” How could we not want other people to know this good news?
Josh Hamilton says he’s still an addict—and he’s constantly tempted. Life didn’t magically get easier when he gave his life to Christ. Trusting in Jesus is hard work and discipline. He’s fallen off the wagon a couple of times, by his own admission. But he gets drug-tested three times a week in accordance with Major League drug policies, and he likes the accountability. He wants to show the world that he’s clean. He wants to show the world that through his faith in Christ, he finds the strength to resist his addictions.
I have personally never been addicted to drugs or alcohol. I’ve never faced that particular temptation. I face plenty of other temptations to sin, other wagons to fall off. But I find encouragement from Hamilton’s witness. He reminds me that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ has the power to change us and heal us. Not only that, I imagine that for people who are enslaved by addiction to drugs and alcohol—or who are trying desperately not to be—Hamilton is a powerful witness.
What he’s really doing is translating the gospel into a language that people struggling with addiction can understand.
You and I don’t have the kind of nationwide, public platform that athletes like Josh Hamilton have. But that doesn’t matter… Maybe the Holy Spirit wants to perform a Pentecost miracle through you and me, so we can translate the gospel into a language that people in our lives can understand?
Some of you might object… Pentecost was a long time ago. But what about now? After all, the vast majority of us Christians don’t miraculously speak in languages we don’t understand… I’m a preacher, but, unlike Peter in Acts 2, I’ve never preached a sermon in which 3,000 people get converted and join the church. Is something wrong with us? Is something wrong with the Holy Spirit? Do we still have this power at work in our church? In our lives?
And my answer is yes! Think about those many members of our church who completed a “Disciple” Bible study this year. Through that experience, many of them have had their lives changed forever by God’s Word! Many of them are now equipped to be more faithful followers of Jesus. Many of our Disciple graduates are now on fire for Jesus! That’s the Holy Spirit!
Or think about the exciting changes that are happening in our children’s ministry. Sharon Yancey has a vision for ministry that is contagious! She inspires me. She reminds me, when we’re sitting through boring staff meetings, of the reason that we’re here. Doesn’t she, Stephanie? Or think about Marjan Holbrook and the work that she’s doing with our new AFUMC “exceptional children’s ministry,” which exists to minister to children with special needs. This category of ministry wasn’t on our church’s radar not long ago. Or think about the passion of Lisa Langford, who had a vision for a new playground that children with special needs could access. When I heard the initial price-tag, I thought, “No way!” But we’re getting closer and closer to making that vision a reality. My point is that people like Sharon, Marjan, Lisa, and many volunteers are doing the most important kind of evangelism imaginable: they are translating the gospel into a language that children can understand. These people are on fire for Jesus! That’s the Holy Spirit!
Or think about Kevin Bryant, one of our legendary Vinebranch bassists. A couple of weeks ago, he went on the Walk to Emmaus. He told me last week that while he had heard for years about how powerful the experience was, while his friends encouraged him to go, he remained non-commital. He didn’t really want to go. Guess what? He went. It far exceeded what he imagined. Kevin, did that experience change your life? Are you equipped to be a more faithful follower of Jesus now? Will you be a more effective witness for Jesus now? Kevin is on fire for Jesus! That’s the Holy Spirit!
As United Methodists we have this famous logo. [Show the United Methodist cross-and-flame logo.] It’s recognizable to a lot of people, even people who aren’t Methodists. Notice it has this flame here? That image comes from todays’s scripture. It represents the Holy Spirit. I wonder… Is it false advertising for us? You know what I want? I want each one of us to live up to our logo. I want us to be on fire for Jesus! And we can be… And through faith and God’s grace I believe we will be.
Lord Jesus, work a Pentecost miracle in our lives and make it so!
 Most of these words and ideas come from N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2008),9.