Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Imagine, if you will, the following: The year is AD 33, though you, as someone in the Jewish community would have known it as the year 3794, or as the 786th year since the founding of Rome, or the 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. You and all of the congregation are crammed together in a house in Jerusalem, praying. The day is the feast of Pentecost, called “Shavuot,” the Feast of Weeks. It is a Jewish harvest festival, which “conclude[s] the period of seven weeks which began with the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest during the Passover celebration.” But it is also a festival commemorating God’s giving the Law to the Israelites at Sinai fifty days after their leaving Egypt, when God descended upon Mount Sinai in thunder and fire, when “[the] smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:18, ESV). You and the rest of the assembly are probably planning to observe the feast with everyone else in Jerusalem. But recently, strange and wondrous things have been afoot in your little community. Jesus has ascended into heaven. Fifty days ago he was resurrected from the dead after being put to death by the Romans, and now he’s gone to be with God, his Father. But he promised to send a helper to you, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to speak to his glory and be your guide. And now you are waiting, following Jesus’ command to “not depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4, ESV).
And while you’re all together in the house, talking, praying, reading, there’s suddenly a mighty whoosh, a great wind, roaring like the sound of a jet engine through the house (not that you’d have known what a jet engine was). But nothing is moving, it’s merely the sound. Suddenly tongues of fire, perhaps like those God sent down on Sinai over one thousand years earlier, come down through the air and rest above the heads of each person in the house, you included, and you’re filled suddenly with this indescribable feeling, maybe a warmth, maybe a prickling, you can’t say. It feels unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, though. Something is going into you, filling you, and you feel different. Better? Whole? Alive?
Suddenly you and everyone else are running out of the house, dashing into the street. The neighbors have heard the whoosh, as well as the out-of-towners who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. They’ve come from all over the world for this, men and women from other parts of Judea and Galilee, from Parthia to the east and Crete to the west; from Egypt, Pontus, Persia, the Anatolian coast, North Africa, and far off Italy. The whole known world is represented in Jerusalem this day. And suddenly, like things possessed, you’re speaking to them about Jesus and who he is and what he’s done. And they can understand you and you can understand them, even though you don’t know a lick of Farsi or Latin or Egyptian.
But some people in the crowd laugh at you. They hear all these languages that they’ve never heard before, this literal Babel of voices, and they think you’re all drunk. They can’t believe it. You can’t believe it. How can this be? What is causing you to do this? How are you doing this? You see, this is the work of the promised one, the Holy Spirit, and he has entered you and made these things possible. The Third Person of the Trinity has come into you and made you his instrument to proclaim the Good News to the world congregating in Jerusalem.
That’s the first part of the Pentecost account from today’s Acts reading. We have all heard the story before, but has it ever occurred to you that something is happening here that is an exact reversal of what happened on several occasions in the Gospels? What we’re looking at in the Pentecost story is not just the story of a miracle. It’s the story of— and I use this term carefully— a possession. Or perhaps put a better way, an exorcism and a possession.
When we think about possession, we usually think about demonic possessions, especially the pop culture depictions of them, like the film depictions in The Exorcist or Ghostbusters or The Evil Dead franchise, or that scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze inhabits Whoopi Goldberg’s body so he can give Demi Moore one last kiss, to name a few. Or we might remember those famous Biblical possessions: the possessed man in the synagogue who tried to call Jesus out early in his ministry or the possessed man in the land of the Gerasenes who hosted the demon Legion, and from whom the demon was cast into a herd of hogs which drowned under its influence. Or we may remember the possessed slave girl used as an oracle who the apostles healed in Acts. We even have a famous story of demonic possession at Concordia Seminary, which is said to have served as the basis for the novel upon which The Exorcist was based. And in all of these examples, we see demons, evil spirits, taking up residence in the bodies of individuals and bending them to their wicked wills, tormenting them and harming them.
But Pentecost is different, because instead of an evil spirit taking up residence in their bodies, the Holy Spirit enters the disciples and takes hold of them. Prior to his coming upon them, they were open to demonic attack, but now the Holy Spirit is dwelling in them. Their bodies are his temple, and he is with them forever, glorifying God, testifying about Christ through them, and helping them withstand the assaults of the devil and the world. They have been “possessed” by him, and are now preaching his Word to an unbelieving world. And even after hearing the sound of the Holy Spirit rushing through the house and seeing and hearing the disciples, these people from Galilee, speaking in tongues not their own, some of the Judaeans and visitors to Jerusalem still did not believe that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was at work there among them that day. They chalked it up to “new” wine, “sweet wine,” the flavor of which masked the alcohol and made it far too easy to drink too much. To them, this miracle was no miracle at all, just a bunch of lushes babbling drunkenly in the street.
It’s easy for us, too, to not see, or not want to see, the work of the Holy Spirit, either in us or in others. The Old Adam, the old sinful man and servant of the devil who still lives within us, tempts us to sin and do those things that would harm us, contrary to God’s will and desire for us. And because we are sinful beings, we enjoy following the Old Adam. It is our basest inclination. And so we sin in all sorts of ways. We might gossip about a neighbor’s behavior, or get angry at that guy with Maryland plates who’s driving twenty miles under the speed limit in front of us in a no-passing lane. We might let our gaze linger just a bit too long on someone who is not our spouse and entertain fantasies that, while we didn’t act on them, still were played out in our hearts. Or we might get angry with our neighbor over some perceived slight, and say things that are very hard to take back.
But when we sin in these ways, when we give in to the temptations wrought upon us in the world, we forget whose we are, trusting in our feeble selves to know what is right and wrong and how we should act. Isn’t this what happened to Adam and Eve, our first parents? And if we let sin rule us for long enough, when we go in search of unclean spirits and trust their voices over God’s, then God help us, because we become lost and cannot find our way back to him on our own. And at that point, the law of God condemns us, and there is nothing we can do. How shall we be delivered from this body of death? Who can we turn to when the enormity of our sin comes crashing down on us and we realize just how helpless we are?
Peter provides an answer to the despair that comes from living under the rule of sin. As Peter says in his sermon to the people gathered outside the house, quoting the prophet Joel, God has poured his Spirit out upon all flesh on account of the work of Christ, and he is now working through those who have received him. They are doing his will now, conformed to him in righteousness so that they might do the works he has set before them. He has cast out the unclean spirits that once made a home in those who have received him, and has made them his dwelling place. Just as God wrote his law on the hearts of the people of Israel, now he comes himself to rest upon the hearts of all believers. The house swept clean from which the unclean spirit has been sent has been given over to a new and better Owner, with a very different taste in interior decoration. They are his own, possessed by him to do God’s good and gracious will. He, the Paraclete, the Helper, has come to protect them against the assaults of the devil and help them live according to God’s purpose. Won by Christ, these disciples are now further preserved in faith by the Spirit who works in them, and his indwelling makes it possible for men to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.
How do we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, especially if we have at times not lived as God would have wanted us to? How do we know that he can help us when we see how terrible our sin is and desire deliverance from it? I have this to say to you: trust in your baptism. You see, when you were baptized, the same kind of exorcism and possession that we see at Pentecost took place in you. In Luther’s Baptismal Rite, the pastor says to the one being baptized, “Fahr aus du unreiner Geist und gib Raum dem heiligen Geist!” (I bet you didn’t expect hearing speaking in tongues today!) “Therefore, depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit!” And later, “Ich beschwöre dich, du unreiner Geist, bei dem Namen des Vaters und des Sohns und des heiligen Geistes daß du ausfahrest und weichest von diesem Diener Jesu Chrsiti [N.] Amen!” “I command you, you unclean Spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that you come out of and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ, Amen!” This rite still exists in our agenda. The old unclean spirit, the old power of the devil, was cast out, and God’s Holy Spirit has made you his dwelling place. Bought and cleansed in the precious blood of the Lamb spilled on Calvary to reconcile all of creation to the Father, you are his own. His Spirit is living in you. Because he lives in you, you can live the life he desires for you and do the good works that have been set before you for the good of your neighbor. With him living in you, you can fight temptation to sin and remember whose you are and how you should live when you want to gossip or look with lust on someone or get angry with your neighbor, for he is your protector. And with him living in you, you can have faith in the promises of Christ, that he died and rose to save you from sin, death, and the devil and turn to him when confronted by your own sin.
And if you fear that you are too great a sinner, that you have lost your salvation because of how you have lived, or if you fear that you are beyond redemption because you have fallen away from the faith for a time, take heart! You might be a great sinner, but God is an even greater savior! His promises are still for you. You can’t wash off your baptism. That promise is indelible, and you can always return to it. The Holy Spirit is still working in you to show you your sin and lead you to repentance and Christ’s love and forgiveness. And when you are restored, he helps you to live as God would have you do.
Jesus says in John 16: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Because of Jesus, we have been cleansed and possessed by the Holy Spirit. Let us live joyfully in his dwelling in us, confident in the promises he has given us in our baptism and doing good toward our neighbors, and speaking God’s good news in Christ to them so that they too may know him and believe. For this is the Pentecost mission of the church.
May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your
hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Mark J. Olson, “Pentecost,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 222-223.
 Agend-Büchlein für die Nürnbergerische Kirchendiener in der Statt und auf dem Land, 1591: 54.
 Agend-Büchlein für die Nürnbergerische Kirchendiener in der Statt und auf dem Land, 1591: 56.