Sermon for Pentecost – “God does not shout”. Preached at the Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 28 May 2023 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Acts Ch 2: v 1 – 21; John Ch 20: v 19 – 23)
A doctor, an architect and a politician were discussing whose profession was the oldest. The doctor argued that his was the oldest since God performed a surgical operation when he created Eve out of Adam’s rib. The architect claimed that his profession was older still since God, like any architect, in creating the world, made it out of chaos. “Yes,” said the politician triumphantly, “but who do you think made the chaos!”
The creation of the universe has always fascinated Astronomers and observations showed clearly that it was expanding. If you were to imagine time running backwards then you would arrive at the moment when it all began. it was Sir Fred Hoyle who gave the name Big Bang Theory to the suggestion that everything must have begun some 13.8 billion years ago from an unimaginably small, dense, singularity. He was being rather contemptuous but the name stuck and now, whenever TV programmes are trying to describe the beginning of the universe, they cannot resist showing an explosion accompanied by a suitably noisy soundtrack. Of course, no one could have been outside the universe, apart from God, to see this beginning and likewise there would have been nothing to hear as there would have been no medium to conduct the sound waves. No doubt we will always be fated to be given this picture and sound effect even though it is totally ludicrous.
You will find that there is a similar mismatch with film portrayals of God. If in a play or film, the voice of God is to be heard, it is always a deep male voice and very loud. This is rather curious for the biblical experience is that God does not shout. It is the Spirit of God, as often as not, who is portrayed as calling people to a particular task. The Spirit of God is involved in creation as Genesis makes clear. Our translations speak of the spirit hovering or moving on the face of the waters but the Hebrew literally means brooding, a rather evocative word suggesting the spirit was hatching a plan and needed to think about it in the quiet to get it right. If we look though the Old Testament we might see the Spirit at work in the call of prophets and kings. Samuel hears his name being called in the stillness and quiet of the Temple, in the half light of the burning lamp. No thunderous summons, impossible to ignore, but a quiet call of his name. Samuel could have turned over and gone back to sleep. But he listened to the call of God’s Spirit.
Or think of Elijah, fleeing in fear of his life from Queen Jezebel and standing on the mountain as God went by. But God’s Spirit was not, as you might have thought, in the violent wind, the earthquake or the raging fire, but in the still small voice. It is easy to be reminded of our first lesson this morning with the coming of the Spirit being like the sound of a strong wind or tongues as of fire small enough to dance on the heads of the assembled gathering. But these were not violent manifestations. Elijah did witness a violent wind and raging fire but we are told that God’s Spirit was not in them. They were out of control and aggressive events. Instead, God’s Spirit is revealed in the still small voice, quiet and under control. The translators have found the Hebrew difficult to put into English. Another translation is “faint murmuring sound”. God does not shout: he is to be found in the quiet. So it is that we ascribe the calling by God to the Spirit who inspired prophets and called people to faith in God.
In the New Testament the Spirit is seen at the baptism of Jesus but symbolised by a dove with its pale cream feathers and quiet soothing call. Then it is the Spirit who, we are told, drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. St. Mark has “drives” but St. Matthew and St. Luke have Jesus being led by the Spirit. Perhaps they found the Markan “drives” a bit too aggressive. In St. John’s gospel John the Baptist speaks of Jesus, testifying that the Spirit came down like a dove and came to rest on Jesus.
Certainly the power of the Spirit is conveyed in the Acts of the Apostles passage we heard as our first lesson, but St. Luke writes of a sound like a strong wind and tongues as of fire so we are not given images of a destructive gale or a raging fire out of control but of the sound of the wind and fiery tongues which looked like flames. It is not possible certainly for God’s Holy Spirit to be within our control but the Spirit’s power is always controlled and never destructive.
We live in a noisy world – TV, radio, mobile phones, the sound of traffic and planes – all press upon us. Our churches often have thick walls which helpfully cut down the outside noise so this is a place of quiet. For we need calm and quiet, reflection and peace for us to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to us. We believe that Christ died for each human being and that therefore each person is uniquely valuable. The resurrection produces change and transformation in a person, but, we believe, still preserves that person’s individuality. In him we live and move and have our being, so St. Paul tells us.
But God is also ready to come within us. Just as the tide rises to fill the rock pools and every crack and crevice of the cliffs, so God’s Spirit is ready to fill us with his love.
But we are afraid. We try to keep him out, for the Spirit of God is unpredictable and cannot be controlled by us. What might he not do with us if we let him have free rein. So we build great sea walls of self-confidence and false independence; and this has been a problem down the ages. The prophets attacked the people of the Old Testament for relying on something other than God, whether it was the gods of other nations or the armies of powerful empires. They were unwilling to put their trust in God. In the New Testament the pharisees were attacked by Jesus because they trusted in their own purity of life and they wanted their just reward from God for their good behaviour and despised those who well knew their own frailty.
But still the Spirit of God is there poised to fill us if we will let him, if we will trust him. For our real self is to be found in the depths of the Spirit silently rising within us to fill our whole being.
St. John’s gospel gives us another image for he tells us that Jesus breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit”. This inspired one of our hymns where the 3rd verse combines the idea of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into them with the tongues of fire of Pentecost; “Breath on me, Breath of God, Till I am wholly thine; until this earthly part of me glows with the fire divine.”
It is the Spirit who calls, guides, encourages and helps people of faith through the trials that come their way. So we can choose amongst the images that others have found helpful whether the sound of the invisible wind with its continuous pressure, the bright tongues of flame, the still depths of the ocean or the life-giving force of breath imparting the Spirit.
So whether we see the Spirit at work in the prophets who were unpredictable and uncomfortable people, driven by the Spirit, or see him linked through our understanding of the Holy Trinity with the work and mission of Jesus; or perceive his guidance and assurance today, allaying our anxiety, always we will see that
* God does not shout. *