Becoming the Kingdom of God

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21; Isaiah 49:5-7

Before I get into my sermon proper, there are a couple of interesting things I thought I’d share with you at Pentecost. There are 7,099 languages spoken today. Just 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population. Roughly a third of those languages are considered endangered, often with less than a thousand speakers remaining. For instances, there are 840 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea alone.

Chinese has the most first-language speakers, as you might expect, but Spanish is second, and English is third. While language is a factor why many people have not heard the Gospel, in some parts of the world, community and caste issues are more of an obstacle. Many people’s cultural identity is based on tribe or caste, not language, and they do not associate with people of other tribes or castes.

There are approximately sixteen thousand ethnic people groups, and about 6,700 people groups are considered unreached, meaning there are less than 2% Christ-followers and less than 5% professing Christians. About three thousand people groups have few if any known believers and no active on-site church planting efforts. And even if there were a Bible in every language, about one billion adults are considered illiterate.

And speaking of language, an interesting fact: apparently some languages can be whistled. I heard of a story of someone who was on a short-term mission trip. He was in a new place and was walking with his interpreter, and he was in a good mood and happy. He was excited about what he was doing. So he was walking along the road whistling.

There was a woman who was hanging up clothes on her line, and as he walked by, whistling, suddenly she broke off what she was doing and she went over and started yelling at him and smacking him on the shoulder. He asked, “What? What did I do?” So the interpreter asked, and the woman claimed that he had been insulting her. It turned out those people whistled sometimes to share information.

Last week was Ascension Sunday. The disciples saw Jesus for one last time, and asked when God would restore the Kingdom of Israel to them. He gave them an oblique answer, and told them they would be his witnesses to the whole world, disappeared into the clouds, and an angel sort of “shooed” them into Jerusalem.

There they waited, and on that day of Pentecost, something different from what any of them had been expecting occurred. They had been expecting the Spirit to come in power, yes; but with power to subdue and conquer – to throw off the Romans and rule.

Instead, God showed once again that even though Jesus had been pretty clear about why he came, and what was expected of his disciples, they managed to get it wrong. But no more. For you see, with the Holy Spirit coming on Pentecost, the plan of God was fully revealed, and the people of God given the power to carry that plan out.

So you might ask, what was revealed, and what were the people given? I am so glad you asked.

In verse 8 of chapter one, it is remotely possible to interpret what Jesus said as fitting in with the Jewish Messianic expectations – even though Jesus called them “witnesses,” and not “rulers,” or conquerors,” or some other title like that.

In Chapter 2:8-11, we see that a number of languages and places are mentioned. In none of them are the Jews a significant presence. In fact, some of the peoples (according to modern scholarship) had been gone for almost 500 years! But one thing they all had in common – they had been enemies of Israel, and conquerors at one time. Enemies of the people of God, and of God Himself. All that remained of the faithful in any of those places was a remnant.

Yet God gave the disciples such languages – and not just say, a Georgian drawl versus Boston bark, but totally different languages. Languages they shouldn’t even have known, as some of the crowd themselves noted. And in doing so, God was giving them marching orders, and revealing to them what was next.

You see, the kingdom of God was not to be made up of Jews, or any one ethnic group. It was not exclusive to one people or race. God was showing how the work of Christ in the life of a disciple was to change the lives of many. For as the Gospel of John states:

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoso believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His one and only Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

This was not some universalist screed. Jesus made it clear that He is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except by Him. In John 3:16, it says they must believe in Him, not just any old thing. But God had torn down the veil between Himself and the people; no longer was He only accessible to the priests and leaders of the people.

And they did that to themselves, by the way, at the time of Moses, as I’ve mentioned before at other times. But I digress. Now we could see God directly, and approach the throne of mercy ourselves, depending on the finished work of Christ to cover for our sins and impute on us His righteousness.

The disciples understood that core message already after the resurrection, but they did not understand the scope and the manner of the kingdom of God. God tells everyone there at Pentecost that all people – even those who had been enemies of Israel – could have the Spirit poured out on them and be chosen by God for adoption into the kingdom of heaven. Just as we were enemies of God before He reached out to us and made a way for us to be reconciled to Him, so it is offered to others.

By choosing the languages of enemies, God makes it clear that it is His choice and not ours. As Peter said in his sermon in Acts 2, the prophecy of Joel was made manifest as the Spirit was poured out on all flesh. By choosing the ignorant and the uneducated, God was showing His power makes up for our weaknesses.

And it gave a message to the disciples that they were still a little slow in getting, and that sometimes I think we need to work on as well. He was telling them to let go of their prejudices, and lower their barriers. The Gentiles (in this case) were going to become part of the kingdom.

They, the disciples, were to focus on sharing the Gospel with fervency, to follow Christ’s teachings, and to exhibit the presence of the Spirit in their lives, and then fellowship together as one people, without regard to race, class, economic status, social status, being slaves or free. That gathering gave witness to the kingdom of God to the world around them.

One of the seminars I had at the recent Pastors conference I went to was called “Taking off cultural blinders.” One of the things the speaker said struck me deeply. She was speaking primarily of missionaries and people going to foreign countries to evangelize and disciple new peoples, and she went through values, different kinds of values, values that Americans have, and values that some other groups have.

She said that because of our own cultural values of efficiency, independence, and self-reliance, we often make people we are trying to bring to Christ and the church think we are trying to “fix them.” And they don’t want to be fixed. They want to hear the good news. They feel like we want to make them just like us, because of course, our traditions, our methods, and our doctrines are all the “right” ones.

How often do we do that in our lives? We are friendly enough, no doubt. This town is one of the friendliest I have known. I make jokes occasionally about small town culture, and how you can be here for twenty years but you’re still a newcomer if you didn’t grow up here. But they’re very welcoming people.

But sometimes instead of taking the time to listen to and learn the ways which others think and then communicate with them in an effective manner, we simply insist that they learn our ways.

Now just so you understand, I am not speaking politically here. I am not talking about the kind of multiculturalism that is often pushed in the schools and discussed today, where it seems like we don’t dare even suggest that certain traditions are alright because it might offend those different from us.

But the church is not the same kind of institution as the public school. While holding fast to the truth at all times, we show compassion to those around us. We are called to be kind and gentle and humble as noted three weeks ago; and to openly have a ministry of reconciliation, as noted two weeks ago. That is, we are to help people become reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, and to reconcile with each other, so that others may see God’s love exemplified in us.

This is not an easy task. We are called out of our comfort zones. We need to be deliberate about reaching out past our prejudices, and tearing down the walls that separate us. And by the way, it can be an inwardly turned prejudice as well, such as low self-esteem, where you don’t want to talk because you’re afraid of rejection. And the more diverse our congregation (and I use that word guardedly), the more we reflect what God intends for us in heaven. The more we show to the world what it will be like in heaven.

Demographics are changing. There are new neighborhoods being built, even now, in a small town like Wapello. New places where, if you’re willing to go outside your comfort zone, you might be able to reach out, and make new friends, and bring someone to worship and be part of this community of faith.

In this church we celebrate Communion in a way that doesn’t require you to have a specific denomination, or church membership, or doctrine. You just need to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. You just need to understand that foundational relationship, and what it means that Christ died for us, and rose for us, and intercedes for us.

Communion is a reminder for us – not just of our own salvation, but of how we are to live as citizens in the kingdom of God. Always grateful that God has loved us so much, breaking down all the barriers between Him and us, celebrating the victory we have gained in the resurrection, and reaffirming our commitment to fulfilling the New Covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a sign and seal of God’s love, but it is also, I believe, a symbol of our call to share with others.

On this Pentecost, my prayer is that you be filled with the Spirit of God, shouting and singing the good news in every way and language that you know, and bringing the hope of Christ to a desperate and needy people – regardless of what it takes, and where it takes you. And as you do that, through your efforts, may God get the glory for the great things He has done.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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