“Silent witness: Wind, fire and foreign tongues”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
On the afternoon of Thursday, May 7, 2009, a small group of clouds began to form over the northeastern corner of Colorado. And even though they showed the promise of rain, most of it evaporated before it reached the ground.
But as day turned to night, thunderstorms began to break out over Kansas. Golfball-sized hail fell at 11:00, followed by a 67 mph wind gust at midnight. And that’s when things quickly went from bad to worse.
A little after three o’clock in the morning, the storm exploded with seventy mile, then eighty mile, then a hundred mile per hour winds, dropping four inches of rain per hour, downing trees and powerlines, flooding roads, splintering homes, and flipping cars and trucks. With wind gusts lasting as long as forty-five minutes, it flattened nearly everything in its path.
Finally, after traveling more than a thousand miles over a period of twenty-four hours and causing millions of dollars in damage, numerous injuries and several deaths, it left as quickly as it came at 6:00 in the evening on Friday, May 8th.
Today, weather forecasters call it the “Super Derecho of May 2009.” It was one of the worst straight-line storms of all time.
What do you think of when you hear the word “wind”? Do you think of toppled buildings and fallen trees? Or do you think of windmills or wind turbines or leaves rustling in the breeze?
That word “wind” has snuck into our vocabulary in a lot of different ways. Think for example of songs like Candle in the Wind, or Dust in the Wind, or Ride Like the Wind, or Windy. Bette Midler sang Wind Beneath My Wings, and Peter, Paul and Mary sang Blowin’ in the Wind.
Think of movies. In 1960, Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly gave us Inherit the Wind, and back in 1939, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh starred in Gone with the Wind.
There’s quite a lot of wind in the Bible too. In the book of Genesis, just as soon as God destroyed the earth with a flood, He sent a wind to dry it back up again. In the book of Exodus, as He led His people out of Egypt and on to the Promised Land, He dried up the Red Sea with a strong east wind. And in the book of Ezekiel, He sent a wind to breathe life into a valley full of dry bones.
And in Jerusalem, on the festival of Pentecost, we hear about a wind once more. Listen to the words of Acts chapter 2: “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
So what’s going on?
The book of Acts begins as Jesus returns to His home in heaven. And as He was lifted up and a cloud took Him from their sight, He said: “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Yet with His command to teach and baptize came a promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8).
So just as Jesus told them, they went back to Jerusalem and gathered again in the very same place He had shared a Last Supper with them, where He had given them His body and blood, and where He washed their feet.
Peter stood by a window, the bright morning sun warming his face, wondering if it would happen today. And as he turned to see Jesus’ mother Mary, and Andrew, James and John and all the rest, some were talking, some were praying, all of them waiting for what Jesus had promised. “Don’t leave Jerusalem,” He said. “Wait for the gift of the Spirit.”
That’s when it happened. Suddenly, the sound of a mighty, rushing wind fell from the sky, then swept through the streets of Jerusalem, and filled the whole house where they were sitting. And along with that wind came fire, tongues of fire, that divided, then came to rest on each of them.
Andrew turned to Peter to ask, “What should we do now?” But instead of answering him, Peter began to address the crowd in Latin! Philip was speaking Egyptian, and Matthew, Persian. But Andrew didn’t know any of those languages. All he knew was Aramiac, enough Hebrew to say his prayers, and enough Greek to get by in the market. How could he say anything to these people from all over the world?
There was so much to tell, that Jesus had overcome sin and death by His death on the cross, and that by His resurrection, we could live forever.
But he couldn’t speak Phrygian or Libyan or Arabian. All that was just gibberish to him. That’s when he noticed that all the Elamites were looking at him.
And while some people mocked them saying, “They are filled with new wine,” others asked, “What does this mean?”
That’s when Peter raised his voice to say, “Men of Israel, listen to me! Jesus, the One whom you crucified, God raised up, and exalted at the right hand of God.”
The people answered, “Brothers, what shall we do to be saved?”
Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39).
And before the day was over, three thousand people believed.
In a book called, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, authors Thom and Joani Schultz tell of a church in upstate New York where youth groups from the northeastern part of the United States gathered for a week of service to the local community. Excitement filled the air as the youth and their leaders worked together, worshiped together, and grew closer to one another.
And as that “Week of Hope” team toured that old church, they marveled at its beautiful stained glass windows and architecture. And the pastor, a cheerful and likeable guy, was happy to say that it was the most activity the church had seen in years. That’s when he admitted his greatest sadness--years before, it had been a thriving church with nearly a thousand members. Now, he said, they were lucky to have thirty people show up on any given Sunday.
And though there were no visible cracks in the church’s stained-glass windows or its beautiful marble floors, it was crumbling before their eyes.
Then the authors went on. “What made it especially disheartening,” they said, “was that that church was just one example among many...one small sign of an epidemic that’s quietly and gradually sending the North American church into oblivion.” And they said that, while forty percent of Americans say they attend a church every week, the reality is far less. Even worse, every year, 2.7 million members become inactive, and four thousand churches close their doors.
When you think of church, what do you think of? Do you think of candles and stained-glass windows, of preludes and postludes, of altars and pulpits?
That’s not what happened at Pentecost. Pentecost was all about wind and fire and foreign tongues.
And when you think of wind, don’t think of a cool, summer breeze. Think storm, typhoon and hurricane.
And when you think of fire, don’t think of sitting by a campfire, roasting marshmallows and warming your toes. Think Gary, Indiana, where huge furnaces blast the hardest metal into a hot, boiling liquid that’ll run through a spout as smooth as water.
This pandemic has been hard on us. It’s something we hope none of us will ever experience again.
But at the same time it’s challenged us in so many ways, it’s also invited us into new ways of worshipping and being together, and of serving the world around us.
And while this crisis has deprived us in many ways, it’s unbound us in many others. Our elderly and shut-in members can reconnect by online worship. Those whom we may never see sitting here in our pews, now tune in every Sunday morning.
Though we can’t see it or hear it or feel it, the Spirit’s wind still blows and His fire burns.
As Jesus once said to His disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The year was 1942, and it seemed that no matter what the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines tried to do, somehow the Japanese knew what they were going to do before they did it.
And as they tried to figure out how and why they knew it, they quickly came to realize that many of the Japanese soldiers had learned English, and many of them had even been educated in United States schools. And because they could speak our language, they were able to pick up and easily decode the messages that were sent by radio to our troops. Then since they knew where our soldiers would be and when, the Japanese were ambushing us and destroying us.
That’s when a man named Philip Johnson had an idea. You see, he was not only a veteran of World War I, he was the son of a missionary who once lived on a Navajo reservation. And when he read an article about how the Army used Native American soldiers as signalmen in training maneuvers, that’s when he had an idea.
You see the language he learned on that reservation, the Navajo language, was only a spoken language. It had never been written down. Even more, it was so rare, other Native American tribes didn’t even know it, not to mention the Japanese.
So after he shared his idea with a major at Camp Eliot in San Diego, they agreed to do a trial run with Navajo people. When it seemed to work, in March of 1942, they recruited twenty-nine Navajo men for the U.S. Marines to become “Code talkers,” “Wind talkers.” And in the months that followed, they developed an unbreakable code, and transmitted that code under the worst of conditions. “Were it not for the Navajos,” they said, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
To this day, the Navajo code is the only spoken military code that’s never been deciphered.
Like it or not, we too are in the middle of a battle, the most important and consequential battle of all time. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against...the powers of darkness” (Ephesians 6:12).
But by the grace and the power of God, we are the “code talkers,” the “wind talkers,” speaking a language that the enemy could never decode or understand. And in the end, we will absolutely defeat sin and death and hell.
And that’s the power and promise of Pentecost.
As You once moved among Your people on that very first Pentecost, dear Father, continue to move among us today. Grant that Your wind and fire may wake and warm cold hearts, that we may know Your grace and peace, for Jesus’ sake. Amen