What Does This Mean?
Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost Day; Farewell Sermon
Sunday, June 12, 2011
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
- God works through his Word
- God has kept his Word
NOTE: In addition to being a sermon for Pentecost Day, this sermon was Pastor Johnold Strey's "farewell sermon" after ten years of service to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Belmont, California. He began serving St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Citrus Heights, California in July of 2011.
“What does this mean?” It is the quintessential Lutheran catch-phrase. If you were confirmed in the Lutheran faith as a child, you probably remember memorizing the different sections of Luther’s Small Catechism and how often the statements you memorized began with the question, “What does this mean?” It is such a familiar statement among Lutherans that a popular book about Lutheran culture and humor is titled, “Growing Up Lutheran: What Does This Mean?” It is such a common phrase that when the Catechism students and I played together as a team in our recent church bowling league, we named our team, “What does this mean?”
“What does this mean?” is not just a Lutheran question you’ll find scattered throughout Luther’s Catechism. It is a critical question asked by the Pentecost Day crowds as they witnessed the miracle that gave birth to the Holy Christian Church. Today’s Second Lesson records the reaction of the Pentecost Day crowd: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” That is not a rigidly literal translation of the crowd’s question, but it does capture the flavor of the crowd’s thoughts as they witnessed the miracle of Pentecost. Today we will use the crowd’s question from the Second Lesson to study the meaning of this final major festival of the Christian church year, and we will take the lessons we learn and apply it to this final Sunday of our time together as pastor and people. What does Pentecost Day have to say to us on this day? What does this mean? The events of Pentecost teach us that God works through his Word and that God has kept his Word.
Last Sunday we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension, although technically Ascension occurred ten days ago. Before Jesus’ Ascension, he promised his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit. Jesus strongly emphasized that promise on Thursday of Holy Week, and you may recall from last week’s service that Jesus stated that promise once more shortly before he ascended into heaven. Today, on Pentecost, we remember how Jesus kept that promise and sent the Holy Spirit miraculously on his disciples.
The Greek and Hebrew words for “Spirit” and “wind” are actually the same words. Ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek mean both “wind” and “Spirit.” So it is no surprise that when Jesus keeps his promise and sends the Holy Spirit on the disciples, he announced the Spirit’s arrival with the sound of wind. And it is also no surprise that Jesus symbolized the miracle of speaking in tongues with small tongue-shaped flames of fire that appeared to rest on the heads of his gathered disciples.
The sound of wind and the tongues of fire were symbols to call attention to the main miracle. The Holy Spirit came on the disciples so that they were able to proclaim the “wonders of God” in the native languages of the many visitors who were in Jerusalem at that time. Your service folder includes a map that shows the different nations that were represented in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God gave this unique gift to the disciples so that all of these foreigners could actually hear and understand the good news about Jesus Christ that the disciples proclaimed through this miracle. The miracle was impressive enough, but the miracle was designed to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the many Messiah-seeking souls who were present in Jerusalem for the Old Testament Jewish harvest festival.
Perhaps you have heard the Pentecost account often enough that the profound sights and sounds of that miracle don’t knock your socks off. But the sights and sounds of the first Pentecost surely knocked the sandals off the pilgrims in Jerusalem! How in all the world do you explain uneducated Galilean rednecks who suddenly speak your native language fluently without Rosetta Stone software? For a good many visitors in Jerusalem, their reaction was ongoing astonishment. “There is no question that this man is speaking my language, and yet there is no normal explanation as to how he can do this.” “What does this mean?” would be a very reasonable question to ask at that point. Unfortunately, there were also skeptics who couldn’t wrap their minds around what was happening, and so they assumed that the disciples had more than their fair share of dessert wine at mid-morning—as if drunks could speak a foreign language with complete fluency!
What is the main miracle of Pentecost Day? We would probably suggest that the disciples’ miraculous ability to speak in tongues was the main miracle. But if we examine the Pentecost account closely, we will see that this miracle enabled a greater miracle—even if it is not viewed as “great” by human standards. God the Holy Spirit used the miracle of speaking in tongues to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the world’s salvation This news, this proclamation of God’s Word, is what would bring many of those Jerusalem to knowledge and faith in Jesus Christ, the long-promised Messiah. Speaking in tongues, while outwardly impressive, really facilitated the Holy Spirit’s main miraculous work of bringing souls to faith in Christ.
So what does this Pentecost miracle mean for us? There is a lesson in the Pentecost account for us to hear on this occasion. The church does God’s work when the Word is proclaimed. Speaking in tongues merely allowed the Word to be understood. The reason you have a pastor is so that the Word is proclaimed and understood in our little corner of the world today. And if that’s the reason for the ministry—to proclaim God’s Word—then the man who carries out that ministry is irrelevant.
It is easy for us to forget that. Ten years ago, a WELS pastor from California happened to be at the Seminary at the time I graduated and received the call to serve you as your new pastor in 2001. That pastor told me about a conversation he had with a former member here who thought the church just couldn’t move forward without the previous pastor. I know that Pastor Geiger did not encourage that way of thinking. It is certainly healthy to appreciate your pastor’s service, but I think that person’s sinful nature may have led him or her to forget how the church is built and sustained. The church is built and sustained through the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ saving work proclaimed through the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacraments.
It is truly good and right that we should thank God for the last ten years we have had together as pastor and people. Appreciating God’s blessings to this congregation and through a pastor’s past ministry is hardly a sin. But we will all be guilty of sin if we now think that this congregation is heading downhill because the man who was in front isn’t going to be in front anymore. Pastors use the tools that God has given his church, and pastors proclaim the message God has given him church, but pastors do not sustain the church. Only the Holy Spirit does that. If someone did not come to church just because they didn’t care for the man in front, then they refused to come for a wrong and sinful reason. And if you came here simply because you liked the man in front, then you also came for a wrong and sinful reason.
Today you are served by Johnold Strey. Next Sunday you will be served by Roger Carter. The following Sunday you will be served by Silas Krueger for the duration of the vacancy. Eventually you will be served by the man who receives and accepts your call to be your new pastor. But none of these men has any power within themselves to sustain the church. They are merely the messengers of the King, the heralds that announce the news, the trumpets that sounds the notes. God uses pastors to proclaim his Word, but the real power is in the Word and Sacraments, and the Holy Spirit whose divine power is in the Word and Sacraments. On a day like today, Pentecost teaches us and reminds us that God works through his Word.
Some in the crowd were stunned. Some in the crowd were skeptical. But the Holy Spirit’s miracle drew everyone’s attention, and now Peter asks for the crowds continued attention. Dismissing the miracle out of hand was neither logical nor sensible. Drunken men do not speak their own language clearly, let alone someone else’s language. The real explanation for the miracle could be found in centuries-old words written by the Old Testament prophet Joel. Joel’s words from the past were proven relevant at that very moment.
Peter quoted the same words that we heard in the First Lesson. In that short reading, the Old Testament prophet predicted the Holy Spirit’s arrival on this very day. But Joel’s entire statement spoke about the “Last Days,” which began on Pentecost and extended to the very Last Day, Judgment Day. Peter went on to quote the verses right after the ones included in the First Lesson. The additional verses talked about another miraculous day—the Last Day, when Christ comes again in glory to give eternal life to all who call on his name in faith.
The prophet Joel predicted the day of Pentecost in the First Lesson, and that prophecy was fulfilled in the Second Lesson. Jesus also promised the Holy Spirit in today’s Gospel, and his promise was fulfilled in the Second Lesson. The lesson should be clear. When God makes a promise in his Word, he keeps his word. That is a promise we need to remember every moment of our lives, and that is especially a promise for you to remember in the vacancy ahead.
Jesus promises in his Word that when his people proclaim his forgiveness, it is just as valid as if he said it himself. And so today and every week ahead, as you come to this house, Jesus keeps his promise to you. He has wiped away your sins in his blood and he has opened the gate to heaven by his resurrection from the dead. He went to hell and returned to heaven so that your sin would be as far from you as the east is from the west. This is his constant promise to you – today, in every service in the past, and in every service in the future.
Jesus promised to be with his church to the very end of the age. And Jesus will be here with you every week, in the pulpit and at the altar, in his Holy Word and in the words of absolution, in Holy Baptism and in Holy Communion. Whether the man in the pulpit or at the altar is Geiger, Strey, Krueger, or someone else called to serve you in the future, Jesus has kept his promise and will continue to keep his promise, delivering his grace to your soul each time you gather in his house to receive his gifts.
Jesus promises that all things work together for spiritual good in his people's lives. Vacancies invariably present new challenges and trials to congregations, yet God will bless and strengthen you during—and through—those challenges. Many of you know from personal experience how God has taken the dark times of your life to accomplish his good purposes. You know by experience that he has kept that promise to you in the past and we can know with certainty that he will keep that promise to this congregation in the future.
Shortly after my predecessor, Pastor Gerald Geiger, left Gloria Dei and I arrived here ten years ago, I came across Pastor Geiger’s farewell sermon on one of the church computers. I remember that, at one point in the sermon, Pastor Geiger acknowledged his own faults and shortcomings as a pastor. Ten years later, I feel the same way. I am painfully aware of my own faults and shortcomings, and I know that there were many occasions when God accomplished his work in spite of my failings. I have greatly appreciated your patience and understanding over the past decade.
Martin Luther once said that there are many times when a pastor should confess his sins, but when he steps out of the pulpit after preaching a sermon is not one of those times. I think I understand what Luther was saying. Despite human shortcomings, when the Word of God has been properly proclaimed, no apology is necessary. After all, Pentecost Day teaches us that God has kept his word because he always works through his Word.
Our ten years together has not been about the messenger, but the message. Our decade together has not been about the undershepherd, but the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. If we think about Pentecost Day and ask ourselves, “What does this mean for us on this particular day?” that truth is highlighted even more. For the Lord has worked in your hearts all these years through his Word, and in the future you can bank on every promise God has made to you in his Word. Brothers and sisters, as you move forward together, don’t focus on the “man of the cloth.” Focus on the God-man who died and rose again. Focus on the Means of Grace. For then your focus will be on the grace of God, and that’s where your focus in the church should always be. This is most certainly true! Amen.