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At several important junctures in the Old Testament, the people were ordered to construct a memorial by stacking stones into what’s called a cairn that will remind them and future generations of how God was with them through some pivotal event.
For example, Joshua ordered that one be erected at the point where the people crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
Joshua 4:21-23 (Joshua spoke to the people) saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over.”
Other monuments were made to remind people where Jacob had seen angels on the stairway to heaven, at the foot of Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the Law, and, after the conquest of the Promised Land, where the people promised to remember what God had done for them and to worship Him only.
Even if we don’t have physical monuments, God is gracious in planting in our memories the equivalent of cairns so that we can look back and make sense of confusing times, or see God’s hand in pivotal moments of our own life.
If you think back, you may sense a particular moment when you could feel that something beyond yourself was at play, even if you didn’t understand it right then.
I’ve had several of those moments when I had a vague sense that something supernatural was happening that would dramatically change my life.
One was a couple of years into my ministry here and I was just starting to date.
I was grieving, confused about my own feelings, and uncertain of my future.
Back then, people often met through ads in the weekly newspaper, but after a bad experience I vowed to not go that route again.
But one Thursday afternoon I was distracted and had writer’s block so my sermon just wasn’t coming together, so when the newspaper arrived, I idly scanned the singles ads.
As I was berating myself for wasting time, I felt my eyes being pulled toward one ad near the bottom of the page and, of course, that was Vivienne.
And I mean that as it was happening, I felt my eyes drawn to the one ad – I can still recall that physical feeling.
But it turns out there was much more going on.
First, that was the very first week that Vivienne, who had just come out of a divorce, had decided to tentatively venture into the dating world.
And, somehow, 2-year-old Kerstynn even encouraged her to go out with me after she overheard our phone conversation.
Because of my grief I wasn’t sure I wanted a relationship or even could handle one, but within minutes of meeting Vivienne I knew I wanted to marry her.
Looking back on how it all fell into place it became an affirmation for both of us that God was with us and that God had a plan for us together – and for our church as well because of the skills Vivienne has brought to us.
Confusions in life become clarified when we look back and see how God’s hand was upon us and explore what God’s plan was.
What does this have to do with Pentecost?
A lot, as it turns out – but to understand we have to go all the way back to the second book of the Old Testament.
But first, understand where the disciples were coming from in today’s passage from Acts 2.
They had experienced the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, gone into hiding, had first-hand encounters with the resurrected Jesus … even had seen his ascension into Heaven.
So much had happened so fast and unexpectedly that they couldn’t make sense of it all.
Then fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus – and therefore fifty days after Passover – they heard the rushing of wind as the Holy Spirit swept upon them.
There were tongues of flames and foreign languages that they miraculously spoke and understood.
Those watching said they were drunk.
Peter was inspired to speak of a new law through Christ.
Suddenly, all that was happening made sense to them because it corresponded to just what happened when Moses received the old Law on Mount Sinai.
You remember how the Hebrew people had been enslaved in Egypt and Pharoah had refused to let them go.
God eventually intervened and instructed the people to mark their doors with lamb’s blood.
Then God sent an angel of death to slay the Egyptians’ firstborn sons but to pass over the Hebrews’ homes and leave their first born unscathed.
That became known as Passover, and it was fifty days later that Moses descended from Mount Sinai to give the Law to the people.
But while Moses was on the mountain with God, the people decided to throw a party, get drunk on wine, and – worst of all – make a golden idol and worship it.
Even as he was descending the mountain, Moses could hear the revelry, and when he laid eyes on the golden idol, he was so furious that he smashed the tablets on which God had written the Law.
Then he ordered the Levites – the tribe that would later assist with Temple worship – to go through the crowds with their swords and kill people.
3,000 Hebrews were killed that day.
Oh, and there’s something else:
There is an ancient rabbinical legend that says that as God spoke to Moses, 70 tongues of flame shot from His mouth.
Another rabbinical legend says that Moses’ tongue was turned into a flame by an angel.
Make note of all that:
50 days after Passover; tongues of flame, people drunk on wine, an elaborate set of rules called the Law, 3,000 dead.
Now back to Acts 2.
Acts 2:1-3 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
The people were gathered to celebrate Shavuot, a festival held fifty days after Passover to commemorate Moses bringing the Law fifty days after the first Passover.
The Holy Spirit came as wind and tongues of fire.
Some cynics said that they were drunk on wine, but Peter was inspired to preach the first Christian sermon announcing a new covenant.
What first appeared as irony – the new covenant coming from Christ on the day of Shavuot when the people had gathered to celebrate the old covenant – became a point-by-point rewrite of Moses at Sinai.
Now for those scared and confused disciples it made sense … this was a rewrite of Moses at Mount Sinai, but this time they weren’t being presented with a set of impossible rules of the Old Covenant that would lead to death, but a New Covenant of grace that would lead to life.
Acts 2:38-39 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Want to guess how many were baptized and saved that day?
Acts 2:41 … So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about (you guessed it) three thousand persons were added.
3,000 had died at the presentation of the old covenant; now 3,000 are saved at the presentation of the new covenant.
It’s a point-by-point rewrite of Mount Sinai:
50 days after Passover
Tongues of flame
People accused of being drunk
New Law of Grace
3,000 people saved
Life has to be lived forward, but often it is looking back that we find the hand of God had been on particular moments of our life.
I wonder if you’ve had such moments … moments when your life took a real turn, moments when you felt God’s intervention, moments when you were not then aware of Him but see it now, or moments that now help you make sense of your life or clarify your purpose.
Whatever those may be, share your gratitude with God for your life and for His involvement in your life.
By the way, cultivating this kind of gratitude can be a great stress reliever for several reasons.
First, as I recognize times God has graciously acted in my life, I trust that no matter what circumstance I am facing He will also be with me.
That’s why 1Thessalonians 5:18 says, Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
God didn’t bring you this far to abandon you now.
Second, by celebrating how God has been active in my life before, I become more sensitive to ways God is present for me now.
Psalm 136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.
For example, maybe you expect God to only show up in dramatic ways … but as you become more sensitive to the Divine, you will discover Him also acting many more times but in more subtle ways.
And third, recognizing and then thanking God for His gracious gifts and involvement in our lives helps us better align with His ways.
There are so many temptations, so many distractions, so many attacks from evil that can feel strong and real in the moment, but the more familiar we are with God’s ways the less likely that we will be lured away.
So, this week take a few minutes to look back at key moments in your life and ask how God might have been involved.
And if you conclude that God had a hand in that, then ask what that says about who you’ve become and where God wants you to go in this life.
And give thanks.
Open yourself to God’s peace, purpose and guidance – it is all a gift given in love by your Creator.