We see here in the story of Pentecost one of the great threads that runs throughout the Bible, namely, the element of surprise! All through the Scriptures, we see God surprising people: appearing in a burning bush, rolling back the waters of the Red Sea, coming to visit the earth in the form of a little baby, and (surprise of surprises!) using, of all things, a cross – a tool of torture and death – as the instrument of salvation.
And here at Pentecost, jumping dramatically out of this story we see three of God’s most wonderful, amazing surprises. First of all, we see at Pentecost God’s surprising love for all people.
All of the people heard the message of God that day. Real love is inclusive! It is goodwill toward all people. Real love sees all people as children of God. Sometimes we have trouble with that, don’t we? Every day we see it in our newspapers – more stories of violence. We want to pick and choose who to love and who to be nice to. But this wasn’t a problem at Pentecost, was it? What happened there was open and available to all the people, and God’s message was spread in a language that each person could understand.
Recently I had a picture taken in order to renew my passport. “I hope you will do me justice,” I said. With a grin, the photographer replied, “What you need is not justice, but mercy!” Don’t we all need mercy? The surprising good news of God is that God is indeed merciful to All of us, and God wants to include all of us in the circle of his love. He loves each one of us! And what’s more, God wants us to love one another.
God’s love for all people; that’s the number one surprise from God at Pentecost. Now, here is a second surprise. Second, we see at Pentecost God’s surprising presence in unexpected places.
Have you ever met God in an unexpected place? Some of the most memorable moments in the Scriptures are those accounts of people running up on God in unexpected places. For example:
• Moses, in exile in the wilderness, finds God in a burning bush.
• Jacob, in the most fearful moment of his life – wrestling with his soul – finds God there.
• Elijah, wallowing in self-pity, thinking suicidal thoughts, finds God there.
• Job finds God in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and pain.
• Shadrach, Mesbach, and Abednego find God in a fiery furnace.
• Daniel finds God in the lion’s den.
And whoever would have thought that God’s spirit would explode dramatically into the world through that little, motley handful of disciples at Pentecost! Surprisingly, sometimes when we least expect it, suddenly God is there with power and grace.
Some of you will recognize the name of Clarence Jordan. He died in 1969 after a lifetime of sharing the gospel with others. He will probably be remembered most for his homespun translation of the Scriptures, which he titled The Cottonpatch Version. When Clarence Jordan died, many of his friends reminisced about the vibrant qualities of his life – his strength and gentleness, his commitment and sense of humor, his simple life and eloquent words, and his ability to be at ease with people from all walks of life.
Clarence Jordan was buried on a hillside that is part of Koinonia Farms, the bold faith community that he and his wife had founded. At his funeral, a beautiful thing happened. People were sobbing, moaning, and grieving as men shoveled the soil of Georgia on top of his cedar casket.
Just then a little 2-year-old girl, who lived on the farm, unprompted and spontaneously stepped up to the grave and sang her favorite song. She had sensed that this was a special day for her friend Clarence. So, boldly in her little two-year-old voice, she sang this song for him: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Dear Clarence, happy birthday to you.”
“A little child shall lead them”; so say the Scriptures (Isaiah 11:6). And that day in Georgia, a little 2-year-old child led those grieving people into the presence of God. With her song, she reminded them death is not death at all for the Christian. No; it’s a birth day! Those at that funeral had found God before in expected places – in church, in prayer, in the Scriptures, at the altar. But God was with them in the unexpected place of grief and sorrow.
Isn’t it something? God’s surprising love for all people, and God’s surprising presence in unexpected places. Finally, we see at Pentecost God’s surprising judgment of what we fail to do.
It wasn’t just that they crucified Jesus. It was also that they failed to listen to him, they failed to follow him, they failed to stand tall with him. It’s not just what we do; we are also accountable to God for what we fail to do.
Think of it: the elder brother, the one-talent servant, the priest and the Levite, the foolish maiden, Pontius Pilate – all depict graphically the sin of omission, the sin of failing to do what we ought to do.
There is an old Japanese legend that makes the point dramatically. It tells of a man who died and went to heaven. As he was shown around, he was much impressed with the sights – beautiful gardens where lotus flowers bloomed, mansions built of marble and gold and precious stones. It was all so beautiful, even more wonderful than he had imagined!
But then the man came to a very large room that looked like a merchant’s shop. Lining the walls were shelves on which were piled and labeled what looked very much like dried mushrooms. On closer examination, however, the newcomer to heaven saw that they were not mushrooms at all. Actually, they were human ears!
His guide explained that these were the ears of people on earth who went diligently to theft places of worship and listened with pleasure to the teachings of faith, yet did nothing about what they heard; so after death, they, themselves, went somewhere else, and only their ears reached heaven!
What a surprising God! He surprisingly loves all people with tender mercy. He surprisingly shows up in the most unexpected places. He surprisingly holds us accountable for the things we fail to do. Now, that’s something to think about, isn’t it?
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.