Hearing the Voice of the Spirit (The Day of Pentecost)

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Thousands of years before Google Translate, there was already the Holy Spirit!  Except of course, the Holy Spirit was more accurate!

That’s the beginning of the Pentecost story.  The first disciples of Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit like the rush of the wind, and were inspired to go outside the house where they had locked themselves in, and begin to speak of “God’s deeds of power” to whoever was around.

But they all probably spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew.  Yet even though they spoke in Aramaic, people who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world heard them speaking in the native language of each one of them.  This wasn’t the “speaking in tongues” that Paul writes about later, where people spoke in some kind of spiritual ecstasy, which somebody else had to interpret.  Instead, these might deeds of God are understood by everybody, without an interpreter, because the Holy Spirit apparently simultaneously translated the words of the disciples into each person’s native tongue.

And sometimes, as we read this story, we may be tempted to think that people heard and understood the disciples because the words themselves were intelligible.  That is, they understood the vocabulary and the syntax.  And surely, that was the first part.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  All of these folks began to say that they were not just hearing words they technically understood, but that they were hearing about “God’s deeds of power.”  And that means that, when they heard whatever they heard, it had to mean more to them than just a bunch of words.

The power of the Holy Spirit, working through the disciples, was more than just the power to translate.  Instead, folks heard and experienced deeper meaning.  And if that was so, then it means that, beyond simply the words, people understood the words to be actual stories of God’s deeds of power because:

  • They were open to listening wherever they happened to be at that moment – many of these folks were probably in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost (which in Judaism is the celebration of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, 50 days after Passover….)  They may have been expecting to have a deep spiritual experience on the Temple mount.  Or they may have been looking to hear about the deeds of God’s power when they went to a synagogue and read the stories about the giving of the Law to Moses.  But just wandering around on the streets?  In parts of the city they may not even have planned to be?  Yet those who were open to listening wherever they were heard the Spirit’s words, not just the disciples talking…
  • The deeds of power they heard about somehow resonated with them – I’ve often wondered, as I read this story every year, what “deeds of power” the disciples were relating?  The Resurrection?  The stories of Jesus healing and raising people from the dead?  Or perhaps some of the Old Testament stories which connected the stories of Jesus to things God had always done?  Luke doesn’t tell us.  And maybe that’s because not all stories of God’s power resonate with each person in the same way.  Honestly, I believe the story of Moses and the burning bush, but nothing like that has ever happened to me.  But sometimes, I read other stories of how God acts in people’s lives and I think, “Wow, that is similar to something that happened to me.  Maybe that was God, too.”  And on that day of Pentecost, people perhaps heard about God’s deeds of power in new ways, not simply because they understood the words, but because the Spirit helped them to identify and resonate with God’s acts in their lives…
  • They were willing to accept that God could speak to them through people they didn’t know, and didn’t expect to be the conveyers of God’s presence – we read this story as the story of the “great apostles sharing the power of the Holy Spirit.”  But to those folks listening to them, they were just a bunch of funny people in the street, who a not insignificant number thought were drunk!  And yet, the story of God’s deeds of power was heard by the folks who were willing to see more than a bunch of unknown and eclectic people.  After all, God had always used unexpected people (Moses was one of them) to convey a message to others.  And for those folks, the Spirit helped them to hear God’s deeds of power in a new way…

And while we often focus on the first disciples in the Pentecost story, perhaps it’s also a good idea to consider the people to whom they spoke.  Many of those folks heard and experienced the power of God in their lives that day.  And are we, like those folks, also opening ourselves up to how the Spirit is speaking to us in our lives?

For us, too, it’s not really about the wind or the tongues of fire.  And it’s not just about words. Instead, hearing the Spirit of God speak to us is also often about:

  • Being open to what God may be saying wherever we happen to be at the moment – lots of people are looking for the guidance of God in their lives.  But sometimes we get trapped in our own expectations – if we’re in the right space (physical or spiritual) or if we’re involved in prayer or worship or the right kind of meditation – then maybe we’ll sense the presence and guidance of God.  And often, those things are helpful.  But the story of Pentecost reminds us to be open to God working in our lives to guide and enlighten us wherever we happen to find ourselves, and in whatever seemingly “non-religious” activity we might be involved in at the moment.  For us too, just like on the day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit may choose a different moment than we expect to slap us upside the head and tell us something…!
  • Realizing that the things that resonate with us may be the ways in which God is moving in our lives – I don’t know what most resonated with the folks in Jerusalem that day, but I suspect it was different for each one of them.  But I do know that, in my life, when I notice that something catches my attention or imagination, and I can’t shake it, that’s sometimes been the way God has guided me into thinking, living or acting in a new way.  Sometimes, when I read books with different devotional reflections, I read about spiritual experiences by other people and think, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”  But other times, I feel like, “yes, I’ve had that feeling or experience, too!”  And often, it’s the ways that God knows we can relate to that the Spirit uses to speak to us…
  • Recognizing that people we don’t expect can also be the agents of God’s voice in our lives – it’s often the case that if I pray for guidance or direction that the voice of the Spirit often ends up coming out of the mouth of friends who aren’t particularly religious, or don’t even believe in God at all!  The Spirit uses all kinds of people – even people who don’t think they’re being agents of God – to speak to others.  And it’s been the case for me, and maybe for you, too, that when somebody has told me that God helped them through me, it didn’t seem that way to me at the time…

The story of Pentecost is cool because it’s a wild story with wind and tongues of flame.  But that’s not really what it’s about.

Instead, the story of Pentecost is our reminder each year that God is always working through his Spirit to speak to us and to breathe new life into us.  And God can and will do that in many ways, whether we’re looking for God in our lives or not.

But Pentecost reminds us that we’re more likely to experience the Spirit when we, like those unsuspecting folks in Jerusalem are open to God acting whenever and wherever we are.  We’re more likely to sense the Spirit when we’re involved in activities and experiences that God would be likely to use to speak to us.  And we’re more likely to hear the Spirit when we’re open to listening to unexpected voices in unexpected places.