Sermon: It’s the Context

06.08.2014     Preaching Text: “After [Jesus] said this, he breathed on them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” (John 20:21)

Back when our older granddaughter was 18-months or so, she saw the moon for the first time. We were driving in the car and there it loomed, large, brilliant, and full. She had never seen anything like it. With complete abandon she pointed at it and crooned, loudly, “Moooon!!! Moooon!!! Moooon!!!”

A few weeks ago, I asked Aliyah about fairy tales. What is it about them that makes them so special? She answered without a moment’s hesitation, “They’re magic!”

Clearly, for Autumn, the moon was magic, its luminous presence life-altering. Her excitement was pure and unreserved; her whole body shook in euphoric exaltation.

You or I look at the moon and, in general, find it unremarkable. We’ve seen it thousands of times, after all. The only time we’re likely to notice it is when it’s hidden, leaving the night darker still, its utilitarian purposes all but negated. Yet a child looks at it with the wonder it deserves and celebrates it as magic, which, of course, it is.

One of the many dangers of my study habits is that you have to hear about them! Of late I’ve rediscovered G.K. Chesterton who, in my opinion, is easily among the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. In his classic presentation of Christianity, Orthodoxy, he notes how odd it is that we forget the things that as children we once knew implicitly, such as magic, the truth of the fairy tale, and the faith, innocence, honesty, curiosity and wonder of our native imaginations.

In adulthood, especially within this skeptical, materialistic, scientific age, we’re conditioned to forget what is most basic to human existence. We forget, in some sense, who we really are.

Of course, there are those moments in life when our forgetfulness is temporarily suspended. “All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy,” Chesterton writes, “only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

We forget the strong emotion we once felt when “life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity.”

These emotions, Chesterton argues, are captured in the simple truths of fairy tales, stories that present a glorious, mysterious, awe-filled, yet inexplicably perplexing and disturbing world (“a wild and startling place,” he calls it, “which might have been different, but which is quite delightful.” Every fairy tale presumes yet another simple truth, that our world possesses certain mysterious, seemingly nonsensical rules and limitations we ignore or violate at our peril.

“[The] true citizen of fairyland,” he writes, “is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.”

The story of the giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts and John makes little sense unless we accept both these basic assumptions: one, that this world embodies, at root, a glorious, incomprehensible happiness, and that, two, this same happiness has been lost as a result of the seeming illogic of a forbidden fruit illicitly taken.

The biblical worldview assumes, then, that this place we call home has forsaken its substance, its spirit – its magic now shrouded by a gloomy forgetfulness that has misplaced the primal, God-given joy of life.

This past week in Bible study we discussed Scripture’s fantastic and fearsome talk about the “Day of the Lord,” that time prophesied by Old Testament seers when God would rescue the world with terrible judgment (as we find in our reading from Acts). For us moderns, of course, such talk appears nonsensical at best, though more likely offensive or just plain wrong.

As I’ve said many times, the biblical worldview is that time is divided into two ages, this “present age” and the “age to come.” The present age, as every inhabitant of Jerusalem surely would have known, was lived under the power and authority of Satan. God’s long-awaited intervention to come, however, was to remove Satan from power and install God’s divine reign, the “golden age,” forever peaceful and just. For the ancients, then, this tumultuous, cosmic reversal was welcomed and anticipated eagerly.

From the Christian point of view, the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples was thus the first installment of this cosmic reversal. The magic of the Spirit’s appearance on the streets of Jerusalem is a moment of victory when the truth of God’s goodness, and the hope of a God once lost, is now made manifest. And in this light alone do we remember who we are (and what it is we’ve forgotten).

When asked (and even when not, if truth be told!), I have likened the first Pentecost to the storming of the beaches at Normandy, the 70th anniversary of which we commemorated this past Friday. Without its horrors, of course, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit established a beachhead claimed by God, bringing liberation, salvation, and freedom in its wake, the first beginnings of a long and difficult crusade against sin and evil that was to fan out into the surrounding countryside and, eventually, the whole world. Amen.