The Ancient Festival of Pentecost
Text: John 7:37-39
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Although Pentecost can easily be overlooked in this particular part of the world in this particular moment in history—with a three-day weekend, graduation, trips, games, and everything else we cram into our overly full schedules—the festival of Pentecost has always been an important one. Although it doesn’t have the fanfare of other holy days, Pentecost is one of the most ancient festivals in the Church that’s still celebrated today. It’s an observance that began even two millennia before the birth of Christ. No—it wasn’t always the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, what we read about in our Acts reading today, as it has been ever since that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But it has been a holy day among God’s people ever since the Lord led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
The feast of Pentecost, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks in the Bible, is a firstfruits festival. It’s celebrated 50 days after the night of Passover, when Israel celebrated its redemption from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites had been set free and given the promise of a new homeland, the promise of becoming a people and nation. They had been redeemed and made God’s own people, and so they would have special seasons and days, like Pentecost, to teach them what it meant to be God’s people. So during the festival of Pentecost, Israel would gather again at the tabernacle, then later, the temple; and they would offer to the Lord a sacrifice of the first of the new grain. They would rest from their ordinary work and offer burnt offerings in thanksgiving for the crops that were just beginning to ripen. Bulls and rams and lambs without blemish would be sacrificed, along with drink offerings poured out with each of those. It was, and still is, a tradition for young Hebrew people to receive their first copy of the Torah on Pentecost, when God’s many gifts of both body and soul are recognized. 50 days after the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, the people of God would gather again to celebrate the gifts He was continuing to give them as the festival season came to close.
So why talk about this harvest festival here, in 2023, when we have technology and transportation and two-day shipping that can bring us whatever we want, in season or out of season? Why try and connect this day of Pentecost with the celebration of firstfruits that was celebrated among God’s Old Testament Church for so long? Because those things that we need to learn, the temptations and sins we face today, really haven’t changed in all that time. God’s people then were also prone to trust in their own work, their own efforts and strength and skill to survive. They were also tempted to hoard and keep things for themselves, just in case the God who had provided them with manna and quail and water flowing from the rock didn’t come through this time. And how we are also lured to such thoughts and actions. How we are tempted to think that God has done His part, but now the rest of the work is ours to accomplish. How we are led to believe that grace and love and peace is nice, but money is just as important; and so we must work ourselves to the bone in order please God or earn a place of respect among His people. How we also balk at the command of the Lord to leave behind what is common and take precious time to gather around His gifts, around the fruit of His sacrifice, the Lord’s Supper, His Word, our brothers and sisters in the faith. Yes, we face the same temptations; the same sins of thought, word, and deed; the same deep suspicion that the things we have are actually rewards, the physical and spiritual treasures we have are simply goods bought and paid for, rather than seeing everything flowing from the hand of God as gift that He has given out of love and grace, simply because He wants to give them.
So our Gospel reading brings us to a harvest festival that Jesus is attending, this time the Feast of Booths. On the last and great day of the feast, the high priest would take a huge urn of water and pour it out on the dry earth, signifying God restoring life, refreshing the land, and renewing His promises. And it was at this point in the festival, when the water was flowing out of the urn, that Jesus stood up in the middle of the holiday crowd and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” And then to explain what He meant, He went on, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” St. John explains that Jesus was talking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who was waiting to be given in power to the Apostles until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What Jesus is doing here at this festival is taking all the threads, every piece of the puzzle, and showing how it all comes together in Him. The ancient festivals and holy days of Israel, every prophecy, every time God saved His people, all of it has been pointing to His perfect fulfillment of everything. All of Scripture is about Him. All of the Law is about Him. It was all a foreshadowing of what He would do perfectly, not only for a nation, not only for one year at a time, but for the world, forever. It’s all about what He has accomplished for us.
So we come to our own celebration of Pentecost. 50 days after the Passover lambs had been sacrificed, after the Passover Lamb of God had been lifted up on the cross, God’s people gathered again in Jerusalem for Pentecost. It was there that the Lord poured out the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ Apostles and the feast day was transformed. 50 days after He had accomplished the salvation of the world by His death on the cross, that redemption was sealed with the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And now, we too, after four thousand years of celebrating of the feast of Pentecost, we too find ourselves 50 days from our Passover celebration, our Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter celebration, giving thanks to God for our redemption from slavery to sin and death. We give thanks that on this day God poured out the Holy Spirit. And notice in our Acts reading, or more accurately, where the reading would continue if we kept reading: who is it that the Holy Spirit is talking about? He’s not talking about the Apostles and the impressive evidence of their miracles. He isn’t even talking about Himself. The Holy Spirit is talking about Jesus and how He is the fulfillment of everything. He is the firstfruits from the dead, the first one blossoming into eternal life, showing the way we all will follow Him and blossom on the Last and Great Day. Jesus is the One who guides us through the wilderness of the world. He is the living temple where we find God’s presence in body and blood, the living water that restores life and renews God’s promises.
Pentecost is the closing season of the celebration of our Passover Lamb, sacrificed for us on the cross. He sends His Holy Spirit to refresh us, poured out like water to strengthen us, poured out with water in Baptism to go with us on our way, reminding us of His promises. As we move into a new season, in the Church year and in the common world, everything still remains all about what Jesus has done for us. We can be reminded of His goodness and how richly He gives His gifts, from a refreshing summer rain shower to the opening of a flower to the prayers of God’s people around the dinner table to a sigh of peace at the Communion rail. So we go forward with Him toward the promise of eternal life. Everything is still about Him. Everything is still completed in Him. So we rest and rejoice in His full and complete salvation, in the countless gifts He gives, and in the promise that just as He is the firstfruits, we too will follow where He leads us. In the name of Jesus, who has given us the Spirit. Amen.