Vicar’s sermon Pentecost 8.5.23 : Acts 2

Quick quiz:     Food and Feasts: Mince pies?   – Christmas. Hot Cross buns? – Holy Week. Simnel cake? – Easter. Pancakes? – Shrove Tuesday of course. Eggs? –  (over easy) Easter. Ice cream? Cheese cake? Cream cakes? Honey sandwiches? Would you believe today? Pentecost?

Not in Christian tradition I hasten to add – though we do seem to have arrived at ice cream weather this Bank Holiday. But this day, the Feast of Pentecost is the Feast of fulfilment, ‘coming into the Promised Land’ for Judaism: Jews call it Shavuot. And what do we know about the promised land? Well, we’re told it was a land of milk and honey. So you have permission to indulge today.

The Feast of fulfilment? In many ways then this is an agricultural festival: one of Israel’s two Harvest Festivals (Sukkot is the other, it happens in September/October time). On the day after Passover the tradition was to wave an omer of barley (a handful or armful of barley stalks) before the Lord in the temple – the ‘firstfruits’ of the barley harvest, and then the farmers counted off 50 days and marked the end of the wheat harvest by presenting two loaves of bread on this day. This then is a celebration of the land. On this day the devout Jew recites the ancient words from Deuteronomy 26:

‘Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.’ …‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

This day becomes an affirmation of Jewish identity. Slavery to freedom. Freedom and blessing in the land promised by God.

But, of course, for most of Judaism’s centuries the people have had no land: even first century Israel didn’t belong to the people. Shavuot, Pentecost has a more important second association that should be set alongside that of the wheat harvest: it is the Festival of the covenant, the givig of the Law, the Lord’s voice being heard at Sinai. When you think about it this makes sense. The foundational events of Judaism are all marked by Feasts. Passover is the Feast of the people coming out of Egypt: the bread the people eat at Passover is the bread of affliction, unleavened bread. Sukkot is the Feast of the wilderness: the people are instructed to make booths or tents, to sleep out under the stars to remind them that their ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years: the bread of the wilderness is the bread of heaven, manna sent from God. But THE main event of the Old Testament was the covenant made by God with the people at Sinai. The description of this event occupies page after page of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers – it is this Feast, Pentecost, that marks the giving of the Law and the binding of God to His people symbolized by the tablets of stone that Moses brought down from the mountain. As with any good novel or work of art, ideas and images begin to converge – the bread associated with this day is not the unleavened bread slavery, nor the manna in the wilderness but the two loaves made from the wheat of the land presented in the temple. These are loaves that symbolize the people of God being blessed by Him, living under the blessing He promised at Sinai as an outcome of their obedience to Him.

So we have fulfilment, entry into the land, blessing, covenant, identity and law: These are the themes that Luke weaves together at the beginning of his second volume that describes the rise of the Christian church: the Book of Acts. As you know, Luke (out of the 4 gospel writers) is seeking to present Jesus to the non-Jewish world, to Greeks and Romans in particular. By the end of the book of Acts Paul will be a long way from Israel, in Rome to stand trial before the Emperor. And yet both Luke’s gospel (remember the extended birth narratives) and now Acts begin with him affirming the Christian faith’s Jewish heritage.

What does he tell us? He tells us that the blessings promised to God’s faithful people, the fulfilment and freedom that they have celebrated and looked for year after year in the Feast of Shavuot – these things are now poured out upon all who call upon the name of the Lord.

He is showing us that a new covenant has come into existence. A covenant through which God’s Law is being written on the hearts of His people as the prophets had foretold. Back at Sinai the voice of God had so terrified the people that they had begged that God NOT speak to them all but just to Moses. Now the disciples all speak (as the quote from Joel suggests) as prophets – as those who have heard the voice of God.

Israel had learned through hard experience that it didn’t need the land to be God’s people. (Indeed, the nation had come into existence without a land and had lived much of its life in exile in Babylon.) Freedom and identity came from elsewhere. It came from living under God’s rule. It came from a ‘service that is perfect freedom’. This too is on show in Acts chapter 2. The Jewish diaspora, gathered in Jerusalem are presented (through the work of God’s Spirit in the disciples) with a whole community inspired by God’s Spirit – the law of God burning within their hearts.

We’re still speaking to the Jews here in Acts chapter 2 but you know that the story is going to take us out from Judaism into the wider Mediterranean world. Back in the 12th century one of the greatest Jewish writers (a man called Maimonides) wrote this:

‘every individual from among the inhabitants of the world whose spirit moves him and whose intelligence gives him the understanding to withdraw from the world in order to stand before God to serve and minister to Him…such an individual is consecrated to the Holy of Holies and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever more’.

Maimonides possibly over emphasizes human agency rather than divine grace in this quote but his insight is remarkable: He can see a covenant people that has left behind an identity based upon ‘descent’ (family, tribe, nation), instead he sees a covenant people that is built upon ‘assent’ – choosing to belong, submitting to the will and purposes of God taking on the characteristics of the sons and daughters of God.  The sadness is that Maimonides was 12 centuries late. Luke, and Paul, taking their lead from Jesus preached this possibility to the whole world. ‘Repent, the Kingdom of God is near. Believe the gospel and you will receive the promised Holy Spirit.’ Jesus is Lord was the message. All people are welcome. Follow Him and enter the Promised Land. Obey Him and fulfil the covenant summed up in the great command to ‘love the Lord your God…and your neighbour as yourself’. For it’s a new day. It’s a new world and (with ice cream on offer) ‘I’m feeling good.’

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