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Wrestling with the Word, episode 74: Day of Pentecost, Year C (May 23, 2010) May 13, 2010

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Day of Pentecost

The human mind is a marvelous instrument. It helps us find our way in the world. It enables us to plan, to measure, to reflect, to calculate, and to take responsibility for ourselves and for others. Our minds can develop instruments to see so far out into space that we can look back in time, determine the origins of life, and calculate genetic structures. Yet, the human mind has its limits (and that is not only because of aging). Its limits are due to our inability to believe things that are beyond the scope of human reason. My mind cannot bring me to believe that God is the Creator of the universe, although I would love to figure out how God and evolutionary processes exist side by side. My mind cannot lead me to believe that the death of a Jewish man on a cross about the year A.D. 29 could accomplish God’s forgiveness of sin for the whole world. Nor will my mind enable me to grasp that the same person was raised from the dead only a couple of days later. It is no wonder that the church celebrates the Day of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, for this gift enables us to believe what our minds cannot comprehend.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 74: Day of Pentecost, Year C.

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Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
The psalm is a hymn of praise to God the Creator. It bears striking similarities both to the Egyptian “Hymn to the Sun God” and to Genesis 1. All three have in common the belief that each phenomenon of nature exists to fulfill a particular function. Further, like Genesis 1, the sea and its creatures (even Leviathan here) do not represent chaos but playful things in which God delights. Our verses summarize the preceding material with the confession that “in wisdom” (v. 24) and with divine “spirit” or “breath” (v. 30), God not only creates everything but sustains all creation with appropriate nourishment. For all these wonders, the psalmist offers praise with song, music, and poetic meditation (vss. 33-34).

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Genesis 11:1-9
Against humanity’s attempts to play God, the Lord exercises royal authority by turning their plans against them and separating them from one another.

Context
The story concludes the history of the brokenness of humanity which began in Genesis 3.  One story after another depicts humanity’s attempts to “be like God” – to use the serpent’s words. Each attempt results in humanity’s alienation from God and from one another.

Key Words
V. 2. biq‘â be’erets šin‘ar wayyēšebû šām = “a plain in the land of Shinar and dwelt there”: The word Shinar seems to describe an area that comprised the ancient land of Sumer and the land that later became Babylonia. The term appears in the OT also at Gen. 14:1, 9; Isa. 11:11; Dan. 1:2, and Zech. 5:11—all apparently as a name for the area that later generations knew as Babylon.

V. 4.  ‘îr ûmigdāl werōšô baššāmayim = “a city and a tower and its top in the heavens”:  In ancient Babylon the temple abode for the gods Marduk, Enlil, and Ea was called E.SAG.ILA = “house of the lofty top.”  The tower in the complex was called E.TEMEN. AN.KI = “House of the Bond of Heaven and Earth.”

V. 4.  wena‘aseh-llānû šēm = “and let us make a name for ourselves”:  To understand the expression as a claim to fame, see ’anšê haššēm = “men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). The problem is that humanity is created to acclaim the name of God as great (see Psalm 76:1; 86:12; 92:1; 96:4, 8; 99:2-3). In order for humans to have a “great name” requires the gift and blessing of God; see Gen. 12:2; waagaddelâ šemekâ = “and I will make your name great” (cf. 2 Sam. 7:9).

V. 7.  nēre wenābelâ šām sephātām = “let us go down and confuse there their language [lip]”:  For Yahweh’s heavenly court as a possible addressee here, see 1 Kings 22:19-23; Isa. 6:1ff.; Job 1; Ps. 81; 89, etc.  Note the word for “confuse” (nābelâ) derives from the root bll and not from bbl from which Babel comes.

V. 9.  ‘al-kēn qārā’ šemāh bābel = “one called its name Babel”:  In the Babylonian language bab-ilāni or bab-ilî means “the gate of the gods.”  Cf. Gen. 28:18 where at Beth-el (House of God) Jacob declares he is at ša‘ar haššāmayim = “the gate of heaven.”

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Acts 2:1-21
God confirms the prophetic promise of a New Day by sending the Holy Spirit to inspire a universal audience to speak/hear the word of God in his/her own language so that the community of the new time might be realized.

Context
After the ascension of Jesus from the Mount of Olives, the disciples, about 120 in number, gathered in Jerusalem to choose a twelfth apostle to take the place of Judas.  The lot fell on Matthias.  Still in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles experienced the birth-day of the church. The excitement of the scene should not detract the reader from Peter’s explanation of the event and his sermon that follows our pericope.

Key Words
V. 1.  “the day of Pentecost”:  The festival was known in the OT period as “the feast of the harvest of the first fruits” (Exod.23:16), “the feast of weeks, the first fruits of the wheat harvest” (Exod. 34:22; Deut. 16:9-12), “the day of the first fruits” (Num. 28:26).  It was one of three festivals each year when all the males of Israel were to appear at the Jerusalem temple.

V. 2.  pnoē = “wind”:  One would expect pneuma here for “wind”; This term appears in NT elsewhere only at Acts 17:25 for “breath.”

V. 3.  glōssai hōsei pyros = “tongues as fire”:  For the connection of the Holy Spirit and fire, see Matt. 3:11 (//Luke 3:16); for fire as a visible manifestations of God (see Exod. 3:2; 19:18; Isa. 31:9). Perhaps more important, the final chapter of Isaiah prophesies an eschatological theophany in terms of fire, storm-wind, flames of fire; it goes on to describe God’s gathering of “all nations and tongues” and the divine promise that “all flesh shall come to worship before me” (Isa. 66:15-23)

V. 17-21. The words are Joel 2:28-29 with additions.  In v. 17 ev tais eschatais hēmerais = “in the last days” recalls Isa. 2:2 to refer to the New Day. The Lord’s promise to “pour out my spirit on all flesh” has taken audible and visible form in the scene that has just occurred, and the universality of that prophecy in Joel becomes the critical issue for the author of Luke-Acts through the interpretation and sermon of Peter.  In v. 18 the final words kai prophēteusousin = “and they shall prophesy” reflect the thought of Num. 11:29 where Moses desires that “all the Lord’s people were prophets.”

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John 14:8-17 (25-27)
In response to Philip’s request that Jesus show the disciples the Father, Jesus indicates that he and the Father are one and that when he goes away, he will pray that the Father send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who will teach them all things and bring to remembrance all that Jesus had told them.

Context
After Judas had left the room of the final supper, Jesus began the Last Discourse (13:31).  He said that by loving one another, others will know they are his disciples (13:31-35).  Peter offered to lay down his life that he might go with Jesus, but Jesus predicts Peter will deny him three times (13:36-38).  Jesus then promises to prepare a place for his disciples in his Father’s house (14:1-6).

Key Words
V. 9. kai ouk egnōkas me = “and you do not know me”: The verb “know” should probably be understood in the OT sense of “know” where it means not intellectual awareness of a personal relationship. See Jer. 31:34; Hos. 6:6; Amos 3:2. At John 1:10, the world does not “know” the light that has come into the world. At John 10:38, Jesus connects “knowing” the relationship between the Father and the Son on the basis of the works that Jesus performs, just as in the following two verses here.

Vss. 10, 11. “I am in the Father and the Father in me”: The identity of God the Father and God the Son is attested throughout John’s Gospel, including Jesus’ claim to the divine title I AM. The same theme appears in Matt. 11:27//Luke 10:22.

Vv. 15, 21.  “my commandments”:  Whatever commandments Jesus intends, the saying is similar to 15:10 where the commandments involve “abiding in love.” When Jesus teaches the “new commandments” at 15:12, he focuses exclusively on a specific kind of love: “that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

V. 16.  allon paraklēton dōsei hymin = “he will give you another Paraclete/Advocate/Counselor/Helper”:  While this is the first occurrence in John’s Gospel, the term appears as the title/function for the Holy Spirit also at 14:26 (see note on v. 26); 15:26 (function of bearing witness to Jesus); and 16:7 (function of convincing the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment).

V. 17.  ho ho kosmos ou dynatai labein, hoti ou theōrei auto oude ginōskei = “whom the world is not able to receive, because it neither sees nor knows him”:  cf. 1:10:  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him,” referring to the Word/Wisdom.  Although the world does not know and see the person of God, God loves the world (3:16), and Jesus prays that the world might believe that God sent him (17:20-26).

V. 26. ekeinos hymas didaxei panta kai hypomnēsei hymas ha eipon hymin egō = “that one will teach you many things and remind you of the things I said to you”: The teaching function of the Spirit recalls that of Wisdom in the traditions of the OT (see Prov. 8:1ff.; 9:1-6; and the seven “wisdom”gifts of the spirit at Isa. 11:2-3). As for the reminder of things Jesus had said to the disciples, note John 2:22 on the resurrection.

Wrestling with the Word, episode 23: Day of Pentecost, Year B (May 31, 2009) May 16, 2009

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The Day of Pentecost

What would we do without the Spirit? We confess in the Apostles Creed that “I believe in the Holy Spirit,…”, but Martin Luther teaches in his Small Catechism that we cannot believe in much of anything without the Spirit. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith,…” As we move from the beginning of Scripture through to the end, the Holy Spirit plays many roles in creation and redemption, apart from the role of enlightener that Luther describes. It is small wonder that the church regards this day when God poured out the Spirit to be the birth-day of the church.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 23: Day of Pentecost, Year B.

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Psalm 104: 24-34, 35b

The psalm is a beautiful hymn about God the Creator and the whole creation. It has attracted much attention and study because of its similarities to the Egyptian Hymn to the Sun God (Aton). Verses 1-4 praise God who, like a master builder, put the sky in place. Verses 5-9 celebrate the Lord’s mythical defeat of the Deep and the assignment of the waters on the earth. Verses 10-18 announce that springs and rains make vegetation grow so that the animals and humans have places to live and food to eat. Verses 19-23 extol the Lord for using night and day to the advantage of living things on earth. Our verses first celebrate the sea (a mythological enemy) as a delightful creation by the Lord where ships sail and Leviathan plays (vss. 24-26). Then the section praises God for the breath/Spirit that creates and sustains all life (vss. 27-30). The psalm starts its conclusion with announcing the glory of God in the phenomena of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions;  then it culminates in a first person statement of joy expressed through song and meditation (vss. 31-35).

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Ezekiel 37:1-14

Although the people lost hope in God and experienced death, God, through an inspired spokesperson, gives new life in the spirit and reunites them with himself.

Context

The people of Israel had been exiled to the land of Babylon in 597 B.C. and again in 587 B.C. In the fifth year of the first exile, that is, in 593 B.C., God called Ezekiel, a priest, to prophesy to the exiles. Much of his prophecy was directed to a false optimism as he preached to the exiles the destruction of their Jerusalem, their home. Finally, according to 33:21, a messenger came with the word that Jerusalem had fallen. Thereafter, the prophetic word from Ezekiel was one of restoration to the land, of promise to the exiles. Our pericope, therefore, belongs to that section of the book which promises such return.

Key Words

V. 1.  wayyôtsî’ēnî berûach YHWH = “and the spirit of the Lord brought me out”:  Note the connection of the Spirit with the hand of the Lord at 3:22-24 and 8:1-3. More specifically, the movement by the Spirit is attested at 3:12, 14 “Then the Spirit lifted me up”) and in the New Testament at Mark 1:12 (drove Jesus) and Acts 8:39 (snatched Philip).

V. 4.  hinnabē’ `al-ha`atsāmôt = “prophesy to/concerning these bones”:  the prophetic word is the means by which the dead will come to life.

V. 5. anî mēbî’ bākem rûach wihyîtem = “I will keep bringing among you spirit/breath/wind, that you may live”:  The word “spirit” is used is various ways in the prophecy; at v. 1 it seems to be God’s spirit; here it is the animating spirit for humans; at v. 9 it is the wind. That the rûach of God creates and restores life can be see also at Genesis 6:3; 6:17; 7:22 (all P). Job 12:10; Psalm 104:30. Note the contrast with Genesis 2:7 where the animating force that God breathes into Adam’s nostrils is not ruach but nešāmâ = “breath.”

V. 6.  wîda‘tem kî-’anî YHWH = “and you shall know that I am YHWH”:  The expression occurs eighty-six times in the Book of Ezekiel. Note the priestly emphasis (P) in the story of the exodus (Exodus 14:18), demonstrating that God is known by acts of judgment and salvation.

V. 11.  yābešû ‘atsmōtēnû = “our bones are dried up”:  Note Proverbs 22:17 where “a downcast spirit” is what “dries up the bones.”

V. 11.  we‘obdâ tiqwatēnû = “and our hope is perishing”:  The object of Israel’s hope is YHWH (see Psalm 39:7); at time “hope” is even used as an epithet for YHWH (“Hope of Israel”;see Jeremiah 14:8; 17:13).

V. 11.  nigzarnû lānû = “we are cut off”:  For the impact of such exclusion see the use of nigzar at 2 Chronicles 26:21 (King Uzziah was excluded from the temple); Psalm 88:6 (cut off from your hand = dead); Isaiah 53:8 servant of the Lord “cut off from the land of the living”).

V. 14.  kî-’anî YHWH dibbartî we‘āsîtî = “for I, YHWH, have spoken and I have done it”: The notion that it is the spoken word that accomplishes the great acts of the Lord is one that became particularly prominent during the Babylonian Exile; cf. Genesis 1; Isaiah 55:10-11; the Deuteronomistic history.

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Acts 2:1-21

God sends the promised Spirit, thus establishing the new community in the new Day in which the usual barriers that separate people disappear.

Context

In the days following Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to elect a replacement for Judas who died because of his betrayal (Acts 1:15-20). There they elected by lot Mathias over Joseph (1:21-26).

Key Words

V. 1.  tēn hēmeran tēs pentēcostēs = “the Day of Pentecost“:  The Greek word for the Feast of Weeks that the Jewish people celebrated fifty days after the Passover time. The fiftieth day marked the end of the grain harvest and the season to begin the offering of first fruits (Exod. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:15-21; Num. 28:26-31; Deut. 16:9-12. This temporal reference for receiving the Spirit stands in contrast to John 20:19-23; there the resurrected Jesus bestows the Holy Spirit on the evening of Easter Day.

V. 2.  hōsper pheromenēs pnoēs biaias = “like the rush of a mighty wind”:  the coming of the Holy Spirit = pneumatos hagiou (v. 4). The words for “wind” and “spirit” are different here, although the word pneuma could have been used for both (see John 3:8). The appearance of “fire” along with the sound of the “wind” recall ancient theophanies (see Exod. 19:16-19; Isa. 66:15-16.

V. 4. kai eplēsthēsan pantes pneumatos hagiou ‘ “and all were filled with the Holy Spirit”: The expression bursts forth in Luke—Acts. It starts with the stories of the conception and birth of John and Jesus (Luke 1:15, 41, 67), Jesus’ baptism and temptation (Luke 4:1), and then extends beyond the Day of Pentecost to the ministry of Peter (Acts 4:8), Stephen (7:55), the call of Saul (9:17), the ministry of Barnabas (11:24) and of Paul (13:9). Thus, Acts 2:4 serves as the turning point for “all.”

V. 8. gleukous memestōmenoi eisin = “they are filled with new wine”: Note the Greek word for “filled with” is not the same as the one used for the Spirit in v. 4.

V. 11.  akouomen lalountōn autōn tais hēmeterais glōssais = “we hear them telling in our own languages”:  the miracle thus seems to be one of hearing in tongues (languages) rather than one of speaking in tongues (glossolalia; cf. 1 Cor. 14).

Vss. 17-18.  Additions to the quotation from Joel 2:28-32 are the words “in the last days …, God declares” (v. 17) and “they shall prophesy” (end of v. 18). The first addition assures “afterward” is interpreted as “the Day of YHWH.”

V. 21. “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”: These words from Joel 2:32 appear also at Romans 10:13 where Paul uses them to begin his section about hearing and preaching the word of God.

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Romans 8:22-27

Over against the suffering of this life, both for Christians and for all the world, God promises a glorious new life—a promise in which hope sustains us and for which the Holy Spirit enables us to pray.

Context

The 8th chapter of Romans describes what it means to be in the Spirit. The Christian life itself is life in the Spirit (vv. 1, 11). Spiritual life means living as children of God (vv. 12, 17). Now Paul turns to spiritual life as living in hope for a new day (vv. 18-30).

Key Words

V. 22.  hē ktisis systenazei kai synōdinei achri tou nun = “the creation has been in travail together and suffering agony together until now”:  The image of suffering as the birth pangs of a woman is common throughout Scripture (Ps. 48:6; Songs 8:5; Isa. 13:8; 21:3; 42:14; 45:10; 54:1; Jer. 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 13:21; 22:23; 31:8; 49:24; 50:43; Mic. 4:9, 10; 5:3; John 16:21; Gal. 4:27; 1 Thess. 5:3.

V. 23.  tēn aparchēn tou pneumatos = “the first fruits of the Spirit”:  The image of first fruits derives, of course, from the agricultural world and was part of the festival of weeks when the Jewish people returned the first produce from the ground to the Lord; as they delivered the offering they recited the historical confession of Deut. 26:5-9). Apart from agriculture the expression appears in the following ways:  of a father’s strength to produce offspring (Gen. 49:3), of Israel’s relationship with the Lord (Jer. 2:3), of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20), of those who belong to Christ (15:23), of God’s creatures who are Christian (James 1:8), of the redeemed (Rev.14:4).

V. 23.  en heautois stenazomen = “among us we groan”: The same verb is used in v. 19 for the “eager expectation” of the creation. (RSV’s “inwardly” does not take into account the collective nature of suffering among the Christian community.)

V. 23.  huiothesian apekdexomenoi = “as we are waiting for adoption”:  The expression “adoption” occurs also at Gal. 4:5 as the gift which God gave in his Son (there the adoption is a present reality).

V. 23. tēn apolytrōsin tou sōmatos hēmōn = “the redemption of our bodies”: Though the verb “redeem” and the active participle “redeemer” occur often in the OT, the noun form “redemption” appears only rarely in the NT. Paul uses the same word at 3:24 and 1 Cor. 1:30 (also Eph. 4:30).

Vv. 24, 25.  elpis = “hope”:  Throughout the Epistle to the Romans Paul emphasizes “hope” as the way to wait for what is still to come (5:2, 4, 5; 8:20, 24, 25; 12:12; 15:4, 12, 13). At Hebrews 11:1, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Further, at Galatians 5:5 Paul writes, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.”

Vss. 26-27. “the Spirit helps us …, intercedes with sighs too deep for words… the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God”:  The functions of the Spirit listed here are critical to our communication in prayer with God. Jude 20 instructs readers to “pray in the Holy Spirit.”

V. 27. ho de eraunōn tas kardias oiden = “the one (God) who searches the heart”: This understanding of God sounds similar to Ps. 139:1.

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John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

In the face of the world’s persecuting the disciples as it persecuted Jesus, God the Father and God the Son will send the Paraclete who will guide the disciples in their witnessing and prove to the world it was wrong in sentencing Jesus to death.

Context

In the preceding verses, Jesus had been talking about the difficulties the disciples will have with the world that will hate them as it hated him.

Key Words

15:26. hotan elthē ho paraklētos hon egō pempsō hymin = “When the Paraclete comes whom I will send to you”: Jesus introduced the Paraclete at 14:26 as “another Paraclete” who will come when he leaves, but there the one who will send the Paraclete is the Father. At 1 John 2:1 Jesus is the Paraclete (NRSV “the Advocate”) who stands “at the side of” sinners on the day of judgment to represent us before God the Judge. The Paracelete is called here “the Spirit of truth,” a description introduced at 14:17 and repeated at 16:13. The relationship of “the truth” to Jesus is common in John’s Gospel (1:14; 8:32 and 36; 14:6; 19:37-38). At 16:13 the Spirit will “guide you into all the truth,” just as the Lord is petitioned to “lead me in thy truth and teach me, for thou art the God of my salvation (Ps. 25:5).

15:26-27. ekeinos martyrēsei peri emou; kai hymeis de martyreite = “That one (the Paraclete) will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses”: The function of witnessing might involve not only telling the story and meaning of Jesus life and death but also taking the stand in a court case. Therefore, NRSV’s “testify” is appropriate.

16:8. kai elthōn ekeinos elegzei ton kosmon peri hamartias kai peri dikaiosynēs kai peri kriseōs = “and coming, that one (the Paraclete) will prove the world wrong regarding sin and justice/righteousness and judgment”: The function of the Paraclete here seems to focusd on reversing the conviction of Jesus at his trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate  (still to come in chapter18).

16:13. kai ta erchomena anaggelei hymin = “and he (the Spirit) will declare to you the things to come”: In the OT God is the one who speaks the word and makes it come to pass. Therefore, God declares what will happen because God’s word effected them. The prophet second Isaiah, speaking God’s word to the exiles in Babylon, uses “trial speeches” in which YHWH takes the idols of Babylon to court and sues them. The idols cannot tell in advance what will happen (Isa. 44:7 kai ta eperchomena pro tou elthein anaggeilatōsan hymin), and so they are imposters. God, on the other hand, is the one who announced of old and declared it (44:8 ouk ap’ archēs ēnōtisasthe kei apēggeila hymin; see also 42:9; 46:10; 48:14). In this court God summons the people of Israel, “You are witnesses” (44:8 martyres hymeis este) to the uniqueness of God. The verdict determines that God’s word can be trusted.

Looking Ahead
The lessons for next Sunday, the Holy Trinity:
Psalm 29
Isaiah 6:1-8
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17