I’d like you to imagine the scene with me.
You’ve been travelling for many weeks on foot. A small group of you set out together from your village to make this arduous journey to Jerusalem. As a child you had heard the stories of your grandparents making this very journey, or perhaps it was even your great-grandparents – the details have been lost in the mists of time but the tale is a proud family legend.
And now it is your turn. Your turn to make this journey. Your turn to travel to the holy city for the feast of Pentecost.
For devout Jews like you and your companions this is one of the three most important festivals of the year, it marks the time when God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. And so this journey has been many months in the planning. You’ve learned the route by heart and along with your own clothes you have an assortment of offerings from your family and neighbours to take to the great temple.
You’ve also been brushing up on your Hebrew.
Although you come from an old Jewish family, many generations ago they fled to the arable land east of the Karun river and you have grown up feeling as much an Elamite as a Jew. However you know that, once you reach Jerusalem, your Hebrew will need to be up to scratch. How else will you know what is going on? How else will you understand the Torah or the prayers?
Everyone knows that Hebrew is God’s own language. So you’ve been practising. Day and night for weeks on end. you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.
When you first set out the majority of voices you heard were Elamite but very soon you left that small pocket of land and began to hear other languages. Mede, Parthian, Babylonian. Then Egyptian, Assyrian, Judean. Greek became the dominant language but among your fellow pilgrims Hebrew quickly became the common ground.
As you get closer doubts begin to creep in. What if my Hebrew isn’t up to scratch? They all seem to be speaking ever so fast. I probably won’t fit in – why would God want to speak to a simple Elamite like me?
But, eventually you arrive and you and your companions find a place to stay – not easy in the hustle and bustle of a busy city preparing for a major festival. Despite your excitement you fall asleep as soon as you lay your head down.
The next morning is the day of Pentecost. You get up and join the crowds heading towards the temple. But on your way there you hear a strange noise. It’s the sound of people speaking, but even among the huge crowds here you can tell that this is something different.
So you decide to take a detour. There will be plenty of time later in the day to go to the temple, maybe the crowds will have died down a bit then anyway.
As you get closer to the strange commotion you realise that it is a small group of men and women. They seem to be together but they are all speaking different languages. Before you can start to work out what is going on you realise that you recognise one of the voices. They are speaking Elamite!
You manage to identify the Elamite speaker, thinking she must be one of your group, but surprisingly you don’t recognise her. Even more surprisingly she doesn’t look anything like an Elamite, not even an Elamite Jew like yourself. If you didn’t know better you’d think she was a Gallilean!
You try and catch what she is saying. She seems to be talking about God, but she is also talking about someone called…Jesus? She is telling a story about how God came to earth as this Jesus, how he was killed but rose again from the dead. How he returned to Heaven but has sent his Spirit to help his followers. How he wants everyone to follow him and to know God’s amazing love.
None of this makes any sense, and yet…how does she know your language? Half the people in Elam have given up speaking Elamite. Maybe this is something else. Maybe this really is God speaking?
You had travelled all this way hoping to hear God speak in Hebrew, God’s own language. Maybe God would deign to speak Greek seeing as most people could understand it a bit. But never in your wildest dreams did you expect God to speak your language. What does this all mean? What is this Holy Spirit all about?
You keep listening and as you listen you feel something change within you. It’s like a fire has been lit in your heart. You think about all the scriptures you know and you see them in a completely new light. Suddenly the God of your ancestors isn’t a strange God speaking a foreign language. He’s a God who knows the language of your heart, a God who understands your culture, your community, your people, a God who speaks in your tongue.
And so you spend the next few weeks with these disciples, learning all about Jesus, all about the amazing things God has done, all about the wonderful power of the Holy Spirit, and then finally it’s time to head home.
You had expected the journey home to be filled with sadness for the great city you may never see again, but it’s not. You are excited, you can’t wait to get home to tell your friends and family about all that God has done. To tell them that no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, no matter what language they speak, God is with them.
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph is the God of the Elamites, and the Medes, and the Persians, and the Egyptians, and the Libyans, and the Syrians, and the English and the Welsh and the Tuareg and the Xhosa and every tribe and nation under the sun!
And to follow him you don’t need to speak a foreign language or talk in high and lofty prose or be eloquent and erudite in your prayers, you can come as you are, you can speak as you like. Because God understands. Because God’s spirit is in you. And that changes everything.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost changed God’s relationship with the world forever. No longer is God’s activity tied to the location of a particular tribe of people, No longer is God’s presence contained just in the person of Jesus. No longer does the Holy Spirit descend on special people at particular times. God’s Holy Spirit dwells in each and every one of us at all times, strengthening us to follow Jesus, empowering us to speak his words of healing and truth, guiding us into the way of peace.
And we are reminded of that every time we come to communion and we hear those familiar words: The Lord is here…His spirit is with us
We may be thousands of miles from Jerusalem, we may speak a language that only began to develop a thousand years after the first Pentecost, we may live in a culture that would be utterly unimaginable to those early Christians, but that same Holy Spirit which fell upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, is with us here, is with us now, is with us always.
The Lord is here…His Spirit is with us.
[Image from https://unsplash.com/photos/X_znrYlFBks]