May 19, 2013

Sermon for Whitsuntide


Whitsuntide
Psalm 145 Joel 2:28, Romans 8:1-11

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen.

Fifty days after the resurrection of Christ, something amazing happened.  Not that the resurrection wasn't amazing enough.  Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross.  He literally died there.  And when you consider that He was God in the flesh, that's  somewhat amazing in itself.  Yet, three days later, He was alive again.  He rose from the dead.  Amazing. The ascension of Christ was equally amazing.  This "Man" who had died and risen from the grave, physically and bodily began to float, steadily rising higher and higher into the sky until He disappeared into the clouds.  I can't imagine the fear and shock felt by those eleven men who witnessed the ascension.  Remember that at this point they still did not understand who Jesus is.  Just moments before His ascension they had asked Him if He was  ready to restore the kingdom to Israel., meaning was He going to drive out the Romans and give the land back to the Jews?  It was as though they were saying, since Jesus had gotten this crucifixion and resurrection out of His system, would He now do something important, and give the land of Israel back to the Jews?  But instead of leading an attack on Rome, Jesus simply left the earth.  He simply floated away.  Amazing.  But even after the ascension, something amazing happened.  The Holy Spirit came to the Apostles and enabled them to miraculously speak in ways that were understood by people of many different languages.  And what they spoke was not what today passes for speaking in tongues, nor was it a private "prayer language," they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is easy to miss the real significance of this event, because so many people nowadays  proclaim an erroneous view of it.  In fact, whole denominations have formed around the mistaken idea that the main event here is speaking in tongues.  But the main event is not speaking in tongues.  The main even is the inauguration of the New Age, the age of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the Bible, the New Age is often called  the "last days" or the"end times"   But it is important that we realise that the phrase "last days" does not refer to the final few days  before the end. It is not a numerical term, it is a positional term.  It describes the place or position of our time in the plan of God.  "Last days" means we are in the last era, the last age.  And this era could end today, or it could last several more thousand, or even million, years.    Understand this and you will save yourself much wasted time trying to decide if this is the day Jesus is coming back, or if this or that event it the "sign" that His return, or "rapture" is near.

Since the Reformation, certain groups have taken Peter's quote of Joel 2 as a numerical term, meaning they thought it referred to the very last few days before the end of the world, return of Christ, or "rapture." But again I stress that "last days" refers to an era, not a number.  It refers to the last era of the plan of God, prior to the time when God will fully and finally  "gather together in one all things in Christ" (Eph. 1:10).  Since the Reformation, the number of groups and people interpreting the last days as a numerical phrase has multiplied, and it is because of the multitude of these groups and people, and the way their views have been popularised in movies and books and sermons, that  the real meaning of the day of Pentecost has been obscured.  Their views have so influenced the popular understanding of Pentecost that most people do not even know about the real meaning of Pentecost and the last days. So, I repeat my earlier statement, that the real significance of the day of Pentecost is that it is the beginning of the New Era of the Gospel of Christ, and the "last days" are that era.

The new era is the age in which the promises of the Old Testament are beginning to be fulfilled.  The Old Testament gave us sacrifices and dietary laws and a physical, political entity named Israel, and these things symbolically represented the coming of Christ.  His sacrifice on the cross would accomplish what no animal sacrifice could accomplish.  He would be the Priest of His people in a way no human priest could ever be.  He would be the King of His people in a way no human king could ever be.  And the revelation of His Kingdom would be accomplished through direct proclamation rather than through signs and symbols.  And His Kingdom would include people from all races and nationalities and languages, not just people from Israel.  The day of Pentecost is the beginning of that era.  The Saviour has come and has given His life as the ransom for sin.  Now forgiveness of sin and life in His Kingdom are offered to all who believe and receive it.  The power of sin is breaking, and those who are in Christ are called and enabled to live free of the things that kill the soul and ruin lives, free to live in unity and harmony with God and one another.

In other words, the last days are the era of the Gospel.  The meaning of Pentecost is not that you can or should speak in tongues.  Tongues were just a sign that the new era has begun.  They were/are not the point, nor were/are they to be sought.  To make tongues the point is to make personal experience the meaning of Christianity.  It is to force Christianity into the realm of subjective feelings and emotions and mystical experiences.  None of these things have any relationship or resemblance to Biblical Christian faith.  This is why I oppose what I call "contemporaryism" in church.  Contemporaryism isn't just an attempt to dispense with the ancient liturgies and hymns in order to connect with people through music and worship styles they like.  Contemporayism is an attempt to  subectivise worship and the faith. Contemporaryism reduces worship to happy-clappy experiences, and reduces faith to feeling good about God.  But the Good news of Jesus Christ is not that you can get a good feeling at church.  It is that God is with us.  He has paid the price of our sins and offers us a chance to live the way He created us to live, a constructive and meaningful life lived in harmony with Him and one another, now and forever.

And now, the Gospel that was once almost hidden by the animal sacrifices and symbolism of the Old Testament, is openly and clearly proclaimed.  That is what the Holy Spirit was doing on the day of Pentecost.  The Apostles, so confused about the nature and work of Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, were suddenly able to understand who Jesus is.  His teaching suddenly made sense to them.  His crucifixion made sense to them, as did His resurrection and ascension.  Suddenly they knew He was everything the Old Testament promised.  That is what the Holy Spirit does today, He enables us to believe the Gospel of Christ.

But the Apostles also proclaimed the Gospel, and that is also the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  He proclaims this Gospel of reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ.  The Old Testament signs and symbols have passed away now.  The clear and clarion call goes out to all, "Believe [have faith] on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."  

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