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May 31, 2015

Bewildering Spirit

“Bewildering Spirit”

A Sermon Preached by Frank Mansell III

John Knox Presbyterian Church – Indianapolis, Indiana

Pentecost – May 31, 2015

Acts 2: 1-21

One of the hardest tasks I face as a preacher, and I’m sure other pastors would share this feeling, is preaching on a text that is very familiar and repeats itself every year. It is often the case at Christmas and Easter, stories we all know by heart. How do we find something new to say about something that is so well-known?

While not celebrated in popular culture like Christmas and Easter, Pentecost presents a similar conundrum for me and other preachers. It is a day that we celebrate every year in the church’s life. It is a day that liturgists dread for all the weird biblical names that appear in the second chapter of Acts. We know about the wind that rushes in, the tongues of fire that alight on everyone’s head, the speaking in tongues that occurs, and Peter’s rebuttal that these apostles are not drunk, but are fulfilling the prophecy of Joel, “that God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh.” We know all of that. We’ve heard it all before. So what? What new thing can we learn or hear from the Pentecost story this day in the year 2015?

As is often the case, my skepticism is countered by God’s Spirit when I open my heart to read the passage. This week, my eyes were drawn to a word in this familiar story that I had not previously noticed. It’s a funny-sounding word, but a word that spoke deeply to me as I thought about what this day means for us in the church. In verse 6, we read, “At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

The crowd was bewildered. Bewildered – it’s a word we don’t use in normal conversation, or at least I don’t. One definition of bewilder is: “To cause to lose one’s bearings” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bewilder). In other words, to cause someone else to become disoriented.

I had that experience this past week. I went to visit Marilyn Sutherlin where she is undergoing rehabilitation. It is at a facility I had never been to before, and I was bewildered on two occasions during my time there. The first was trying to enter the building – after a couple of failed attempts at doors that appeared to be entrances, I eventually found the rehab wing and got to see Marilyn. The second was when I left. I had a great visit with Marilyn, left her room, and when I came to a turn in the hallway, I turned right. Instead of being met with the exit, I entered the dining room. I hadn’t paid close attention to how I got to Marilyn’s room when I arrived, so I was a bit bewildered when I tried to leave and instead was met with puzzled looks by residents eating their lunch!

Another definition of bewilder is: “to perplex or confuse especially by a complexity, variety, or multitude of objects or considerations” (ibid). Indeed, that is reflected in what we read later in the passage: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (2:12). When we are perplexed or confused, we are unsure of what’s going on around us. We have a hard time making sense of what’s being said, what’s taking place, why certain things are happening. When we are bewildered, our situation feels complex, as we are faced with a multitude of considerations.

If we are a student in school, we might know that bewildered feeling when we sit down for an exam, and the questions don’t look anything like what we prepared for. If we are at work, we might know that bewildered feeling when we are given a new assignment by a supervisor and it makes absolutely no sense to us. If we are caring for a loved one at home, we might know that bewildered feeling when we feel overwhelmed by the inability of our spouse, our parent, our child, to care for him or herself anymore. “To perplex or confuse especially by a complexity of considerations.” It may be a funny word, but we all certainly know what it feels like to be bewildered.

Now consider this: in the Pentecost story, in this familiar, well-known, we’ve-heard-this-a-million-times-before passage – who causes the bewilderment? Who is the agent of confusion? Who is the disruptive force that causes people to wonder if folks have been hitting the bottle for breakfast? Who causes the crowds to be bewildered?

It is God. It is the Holy Spirit.

Not exactly the sentiment we think about, say, when we sing the song, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place,” huh? It is the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost that confuses, that perplexes, that bewilders. It is the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost that causes those witnesses to lose their bearings. And if we hold true to our profession that it is this same Spirit that sustains, supports, and renews the church to this day, then the Holy Spirit continues to cause bewilderment in 2015. The Bewildering Spirit: not exactly the first thing you’d think of when it comes to Pentecost, to be sure.

And yet, how true it is that God often causes bewilderment. We certainly see that throughout the Old Testament: Noah and the flood; the Tower of Babel; the Israelites wandering in the wilderness; David killing Goliath. And Jesus’ life and ministry were not marked without conflict or confusion: eating with outcasts and sinners; welcoming the woman caught in adultery; refusing to fall into the constant traps of the religious authorities. Our God is not just a God of omnipotence, power, and grace. Our God is also a God of bewilderment, many times causing his people to lose their bearing, struggle with their surroundings, and ask, “What is going on here?”

But always, in these cases and in today’s account of Pentecost, God has a purpose in causing the bewilderment. It is not solely to make chaos, to cause disorder, to leave people feeling lost in their disorientation. The bewildering Spirit means to shake people from their comfort, to cause them to see their world through a new set of eyes, and to move forward with a deeper faith in their Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Indeed, the crowds are bewildered because they hear these Galileans – the apostles – speaking to this huge diversity of people in their own languages. But despite their bewilderment, God speaks to them in a language each of them can understand and comprehend. The Spirit doesn’t leave people in a state of confusion. The Spirit leads people to understand more clearly who Jesus Christ is for their lives of faith.

And Peter offers clarification and direction for the crowd’s bewilderment. This isn’t some random event. This is a day that was foretold by the prophet Joel. This is a day that fulfills God’s promise “to pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” This is a day that will empower men and women, young and old, slave and free – all those who call on the name of the Lord – to dream dreams and see visions. This is a day – this bewildering, confusing, unusual day – when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:21).

On this Pentecost Sunday in 2015, we not only celebrate the Spirit’s arrival as described in the Book of Acts, but we give thanks for the Spirit’s continual presence with us as individuals, and with us as the Body of Christ, the Church. It is also easy to relate to those first witnesses, and the sense of bewilderment they experienced. And yet, despite our times of confusion or uncertainty, God doesn’t let go of us.

We can feel bewildered when someone we love continues to make poor choices that lead to unhealthy, destructive behavior. We can feel bewildered when that person cannot comprehend how much pain he or she is causing. We can feel bewildered when bridges are burned and life-long bonds are nearly torn apart.

But even in our bewilderment, God is present. For the Spirit sustains, strengthens, and reconciles us to God and one another. The bewildering Spirit will not let us go.

We can feel bewildered when someone we respect deeply has a completely different opinion than we do on a particular topic. It could be politics, it could be culture, it could be faith – it could be something very personal and divisive. We can feel bewildered that someone who claims to be an American or a Christian could have such a different outlook on the world than us.

But even in our bewilderment, God is present. For the Spirit sustains, strengthens, and reconciles us to God and one another. The bewildering Spirit will not let us go.

Do you know what I have always appreciated about the Pentecost story? That in the midst of all this chaos, this confusion, this bewilderment, God does something incredible. God gives to each person the gift, “according to his or her ability,” to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. And in so doing, amid all these various voices and backgrounds and bewildering experiences, the church becomes God’s agent of proclamation. All because of the Advocate, God’s Holy Spirit.

Amid our times of bewilderment, our times of feeling like we’ve lost our bearing, our times of seeming like things are too complex to move forward – may we remember that the Spirit of God will not let us go. And maybe, our bewilderment is present for a purpose: so we might move forward with a deeper faith in our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Come, bewildering Holy Spirit, come! Alleluia! Amen.

    


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