Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 27 May 2012: Year B, Pentecost
Imagine the scandal if a visitor came to our church and thought we were all drunk! That’s exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost, after the resurrection of Jesus. His once-dejected followers now found they were filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with confidence that they had a message for the world. In fact, they were so confident that it made them seem tipsy!
Acts tells us that they somehow were able to speak the message in the languages of all the foreigners who were gathered there. So perhaps part of the trouble was that it all sounded a bit of a babble. Eventually the apostle Peter had to tell the ‘amazed and confused’ crowd: ‘These people are not drunk, as you suppose; it is only nine o’clock in the morning’, and he went on to explain that this was a fulfilment of prophecy- that one day, God’s word would be heard in every language under the sun. Christianity was already on its way to becoming a truly global faith.
The story of Pentecost is full of imagery and word-pictures. Trying to describe what happened, Luke, the writer of Acts, uses lots of different images to describe the effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples:
When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
Noise from the sky, a sound like wind, filling the house and the people there, tongues of fire- all different descriptions of the power of the Holy Spirit. All different ways Luke uses to try to speak of what is, in the end, indescribable. For this is about the Holy Spirit of God, and we can never totally describe God with our earthbound language. Instead we use words which describe what God is like. It’s not that God is fire, but that God is like fire. On this Sunday when we celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church and in our lives, let’s think a wee bit about one those words. Not wind, or fire- which is often what preachers talk about on this Sunday- but noise.
Noise seems a strange thing to associate with God. So often we are encouraged to seek silence when we want to think about God. We like our churches to be quiet, so that we can seek the still small voice of God. But Luke says the first sign that something was happening to the disciples was that they heard ‘a noise from the sky’.
Historians tell us that the first religious stirrings in human beings came about as they tried to survive against nature. When you live in a cave, when you’ve got to hunt for your food to survive, you are involved in a constant battle against nature. And nature is frightening, and it’s noisy. Sitting in your cave at night, you would hear noises all the time- noises we city-dwellers don’t hear so often. The noises of birds and animals in the forest. The wailing of wolves. The sound of the wind in the trees, of the thunder in the clouds. We know what these things are, but anyone who’s ever camped out overnight in a lonely place can begin to understand how these noises could be frightening, and awesome. More so if, as a caveman, you’ve no idea what’s causing them. Little wonder that ancient people decided that nature was full of gods, spirits, demons and sprites. Those mysterious noises were what created the primitive awe which would one day develop into religion.
Noise still has that capacity to create strange emotions within us. Nails scraped on a blackboard will set your teeth on edge. For a patriotic Englishman there is nothing more evocative of home that than that noise of willow on leather and a cry of ‘Howzat!’ For a patriotic Scotsman, the sound of the pipes makes the hair on your neck stand on end. I know a woman who doesn’t like alcohol because of noises she heard when she was a wee girl. She’d been born and spent her earliest years in a house upstairs from a pub. It was in a slum area, in a Scottish town which suffered greatly in the depression in the 1930s. For many men, there seemed nothing better to do than to drown their sorrows. And especially at weekends, as the night went on, this little girl would lie in her bed and hear the noise getting louder and louder and louder. The murmurs would turn to singing, then came the raised voices, shouting, an all too often the sound of blows being exchanged, the crash of furniture, the groans of the wounded, and the cries of women and children outside, trying to get father to come home. Into adulthood, this woman always associate alcohol with those noises which had broken her childhood sleep.
The first Pentecost crowd thought that all the noise meant that- even at nine in the morning- the followers of Jesus must be drunk. No wonder they were ‘amazed and confused’ by it all. And in our noisy world today- full of the noise of cars and planes and radio and television- we like to get away from noise. People seek out silent churches and remote places as they attempt to commune with God. Presbyterians make much of ‘decency and order’ in our worship. We flinch if, at an very solemn part of a service (especially our communion service) someone drops a bible, or a police car roars past outside, siren wailing. We want to be quiet, we want to leave all the noise and bustle of ordinary life behind, as we come to meet God in worship.
I can imagine the disciples feeling like that, when they met early in the morning on the day of Pentecost. For forty days they’ve been trying to make sense of Easter. The tomb was empty, the stone was rolled away, and then more and more of them met their friend, until the visions stopped, and it appeared that he had left them. Yet Jesus had promised them a ‘Helper’- who, or what, would that helper be? And so they gathered together, early in the morning, in a safe house somewhere, unsure about what will happen next, about what they should do next. I can imagine them sitting silently, in prayer, straining to hear what God wants them to do next.
But heaven is not silent. Seemingly out of the sky comes this noise, a noise like the wind, a noise which will get them off their knees and out of that safe house and out into the marketplace, into the noisy and confused world, into Jerusalem, that powder-keg where people of all races have come to seek after God. Christianity had literally burst out of nowhere, to change lives and to change the world. For Christianity had started to be a big noise in the world.
In our modern world, our hankering after silence in order to be spiritual has, I think, often been unfaithful of us. We have sought safety in silence. We want the church to be a place where we can forget the frightening noises of the world for a while. So it’s no wonder that many people have come to believe that the church has nothing useful to say to them. Christianity has fallen silent.
And even when people do seek for God in the church, our love of silence sometimes puts them off. I once met a young mother who told me how she’d been put off Christianity by a churchgoer who wanted silence in order to commune with God. The young mother had taken her toddler into church, and, as toddlers do, the child became a bit restless. There was a tap on the mother’s shoulder, and she was advised that she ought to take her noisy child out of the building. How welcoming we Christians can be, sometimes… In fact, the noise of a child is one of the most beautiful sounds in creation. It is, like Luke’s wind from the sky, a sound from heaven. It reminds us that we must become like children if we are to enter the Kingdom. Jesus said that we should let the children come to him. A church in which the voice of children is not permitted to be heard is a church which has lost sight of its purpose. A person who values their pious silence over the sound of a child has not been listening to Jesus, who said let the children come to me and do not forbid them.
Yes, it’s nice to be quiet sometimes. But many churches are too quiet. There’s no noise coming from them, certainly anything which could be mistaken for a bunch of people so happy it sounds as though they’re drunk. The silence can’t continue. We need more noise- heavenly noise. The noise of a a wind which will away the cobwebs, which will fill the church and our lives, which will send us noisily out into the world, making noise for God in the midst of our noisy world. To go out and to discover that God is in the noisy places of his world.
This sacrament which we are about to celebrate is not an escape from the noisy world. It is a sacrament which is about the world, the world which is God’s world. We use bread and wine- everyday things- to represent God’s presence among us. So every time you eat a meal, God is present. Even if it’s a meal which is loud with family arguments, or with laughter, or with tears- God is there. In this sacrament we share bread and wine. And every time we share anything with anyone, God is present. When we share hopes and fear, love or even hate. God is there. When we go to work, when we share any kind of task with other people- God is there. So if your communing with God in a few minutes is rudely interrupted with some all-too-human noise, listen carefully. It’s a reminder that the Sacrament- and the Christian Faith- is about communing with God, but it’s also about communing with your neighbour.
So if, in the middle of this solemn service, if you hear the sound of a siren from outside, remember Jesus said we would sometimes find him as a prisoner. If you hear the roar of an engine, remember God can be found on a bus. If you hear a clap of thunder or sound of rain, or the song a bird, remember that this is the God of heaven and earth you are meeting here. And if it’s the sound of a child, remember that this is the feast of the Kingdom of Heaven, where the first shall be last and the least are greatest. And if the elders are clumping along the aisles, or your neighbour coughs- remember you are called to love your neighbour as well as your God, and unless you can love your neighbour with all their failings and imperfections, you’ll never know what it means to love God. Listen to the noise, for it might be the noise of God!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo