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When Lightning Strikes

Thomas J Parlette

“When Lightning Strikes”

Acts 2: 1-21, Numbers 11: 24-30

6/04/17

 

Shortly after I accepted the call to Brookville Presbyterian Church – the church I served before coming here to Rochester – lightning struck the little Presbyterian Church just a few miles down the road.

That’s the way it is in Western Pennsylvania – you run into a little Presbyterian Church every 5 miles or so.

The Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Corsica, Pennsylvania was hit by lightning, a fire broke out and, tragically, the church burned to the ground. The minister of the Pisgah, Jim Dietrich, actually lived just up the street from the Manse where we were living in – in fact, Jim was one of the first people to drop by and say hello when we moved in. Jim and I used to have breakfast every once in awhile, alternating between one of the three truck stops in town, and he would talk about all the challenges, and joys, that came along with re-building a church.

It’s a terrible thing when your church burns down – but some good does come out of the loss. The good thing that comes out of such a tragedy is that you get to plan a whole new church building! After the initial wave of shock and grief subsided – Jim always had great stories about the new energy that came with building something new. When the church was finally finished it was a wonderful, modern building with ample parking, great accessibility and up-to-date technology. I have to admit, I was a little jealous when we got to take a tour of the new facility.

One day, Jim came to breakfast with a great story from the building committee meeting. As the new church was getting all the finishing touches, there was a big debate going on about what they should put on their steeple. They had designed a much shorter steeple than they had had before on the old church – for obvious reasons- and now the committee and the session were in deep discussions about whether they should put a cross on their steeple, as they used to have, or, put on specially designed, heavy duty lightning rod on the steeple.

After much heated debate, they decided to go with the lightning rod – because they never wanted to lose their church to lightning and fire again.

Jim wisely kept his mouth shut during the debate – but the irony was not lost on him. Every year, when Pentecost rolled around, we had a good chuckle about his church being afraid of the Holy tongues of flame.

Today we celebrate the day when lightning struck the early church. Not literally, of course – but figuratively.

Jesus’ closest followers were gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem. They are enjoying fellowship with each other and praying constantly. They had witnessed Jesus ascend into heaven, and now they were following his instructions, waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit.

And then, without warning – lightning struck. Actually it was more like a small tornado – a sound like the blowing of a violent wind, what seemed like tongues of fire coming down upon them. All of them filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other languages.

An exciting, yet terrifying story. We often pray that the Holy Spirit would come and rest upon us, yet look what happens when it does – tornado, lightning, fire and strange new abilities. Things we can’t explain, things we can’t control, things that might strike fear in our hearts. It’s understandable when churches want to replace the cross with a lightning rod. Maybe we don’t really want the Holy Spirit to come. We don’t like things we can’t control. We don’t like the unknown, the unpredictable, and the uncomfortable.

There is a wonderful story about a very dignified pastor who was visiting a lady in a nursing home. This lady was confined to a wheelchair. As the pastor stood to leave, the lady asked him to have a word of prayer. He gently took her hand, and in a somewhat perfunctory way, prayed that God would send the Holy Spirit to be with her to bring comfort, strength and healing.

When he finished praying, her face began to glow. She said softly, “Pastor, would you help me to my feet?”

Not knowing what else to do, the pastor helped her up. At first, she took a few uncertain steps. Then she began to jump up and down, and dance – then shout and cry with happiness that she had been healed, until finally the whole nursing home was in an uproar of joy and wonderment.

After things quieted down a little, the dignified pastor hurried out to his car, closed the door, grabbed hold of the steering wheel and prayed to God – “Lord, don’t you ever do that to me again!”(1)

Sometimes when our prayers are answered and the Holy Spirit strikes like lightning – we don’t know how to handle it.

But as we see here in this story from Acts, and in our other Pentecost story from Numbers – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God will not be contained or controlled. The Spirit can work through anyone, at any time. The Spirit comes to help us when we need it the most, or as Paul says in Romans, “The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness.”

The Christ-followers gathered in Jerusalem certainly experienced that. And they weren’t alone. This coming of the Holy Spirit had actually happened before. Let’s take a moment to consider that other Pentecost story we heard today – the story from Numbers about Moses, the 70 elders and two guys named Eldad and Medad.

This is a story that starts with grumbling. First, the people of Israel are grumbling. They’ve been led out of slavery in Egypt, they’ve organized themselves for the long march to the promised land and before they really get started, the people come to a halt in order to complain. They complain about the quality of the food and the lack of water and of course, the uncomfortable conditions. Moses does his share of complaining as well – he is unhappy with the burden of leadership. Moses is overwhelmed, he is frustrated, he doesn’t feel up to the task. He finally throws his hands up and says, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, Lord, just kill me now.”

So the Lord steps in. Lightning is about to strike. Moses gathers up 70 elders, the Lord comes down in a cloud and took some of the spirit that was on Moses and put some on each of the 70 elders – and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. Just like in that upper room in Jerusalem.

But then something surprising happens, something that demonstrates the unpredictable, uncontainable nature of the Holy Spirit. Two men outside the tent, not among the 70 that Moses chose, are also touched by the Spirit, and they begin to prophesy as well – one named Eldad, and the other Medad. At first, the elders are concerned about this, they want to control the spirit, keep it for themselves. They tell Moses, “Stop these guys!”

But Moses won’t have any of it. Instead, he has one of the great lines in all of scripture – “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the Spirit on all of them.”

The more, the merrier, says Moses. Moses is only too happy to see the Spirit working through as many people as possible.

This experience points to perhaps the deepest meaning of Pentecost. If we try to respond to the crying needs of the world as individuals, we will soon find ourselves in despair. The Pentecost experience and the gift of the Holy Spirit means that no one needs to carry the burden alone. For leaders, as well as all others, God’s Spirit is always available to guide, always willing to lead, and always present in every circumstance.(2) As Paul says, “The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once told about one of his moments of weakness, a midnight hour of despair in the early years of his leadership in the civil rights movement. He had received many calls threatening to bomb his home. He feared for his wife and his new baby daughter. He wondered if the struggle was worth it if these precious persons suffered or died because of him. Restless and unable to sleep one night, he sat at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee and spilled out his fears, doubts, and despair to God. He writes, “At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.” That was enough to renew his strength and commitment to lead.(3)

Lightning struck, the Spirit came to help him in his weakness.

That’s what happens at Pentecost. When lightning strikes, when the tornado of Spirit wind blows through, when the holy tongues of fire descend, God’s uncontainable spirit rests on whomever God choses.

In Pentecost, the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness.

And so, despite our fears, despite our doubts, despite our anxieties, let lightning strike once more, as we gather at the Lord’s table.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, p.61.

2.    Carole Crumley, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p.4.

3.    Ibid…p.4,6.