As Christians, we think of Pentecost as the day the Holy Spirit was poured out on the early church. But the first Jewish believers were actually celebrating Shavuot, one of the biblical feast days that is still celebrated by Jews today. (More here.)
The day commemorates when Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, fifty days after they left their bondage in Egypt. The name of Shavuot means “weeks,” coming from the seven weeks that were to be counted after Passover.
Have you ever considered how momentous the day was when Israel first encountered the living God on Mount Sinai? Fifty days before, God’s divine Ruach (wind/breath/spirit) had parted the waters of the Red Sea to liberate them from their Egyptian oppressors. Now this terrifying, awesome God was summoning them into his very presence. As the Israelites gazed up at the mountain they could see the smoke and flashing lightning, and feel the powerful Ruach of God blowing again. How could they not tremble in awe?
The Power of Pentecost
I used to picture the Pentecost scene as sweet and gentle, as the Spirit alighted like a dove on the believers as they prayed. But Acts 2:2 describes a violent, rushing wind filling the Temple. I wonder if the experience of God’s holy Ruach that day wasn’t much more soul-shaking, like the Mt. Sinai experience centuries earlier. (You might be surprised at how many Jewish traditions about Mt. Sinai sound like the scene in Acts.)
When I think of God speaking on Mt. Sinai, it reminds me of how Psalm 29 describes the thunderous sound of God’s voice:
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD shatters the cedars of Lebanon…
The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the LORD shakes the desert;
the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
On Pentecost, it seems fitting to mediate on Psalm 29. God was celebrating Shavuot by once again shaking the earth with his Voice. He was filling the first believers with his power and giving them voices to preach of his mighty redemption to the whole world.
Check out this video that I made for some of the splendor of Psalm 29 in creation. (It has no sound.)
When God Showed Up
Do you remember the Tom Hanks movie, Forrest Gump? Recently I saw it again, and it made me think about God’s mighty Ruach. I’ve been meditating on it as Pentecost approaches.
Forrest Gump is a simple, faithful man. Despite being mentally disabled, his life is a powerful witness to those around him. He serves in Vietnam with Lieutenant Dan, who comes home a wheelchair-bound amputee. Embittered and broken, Lt. Dan scornfully laughs at Forrest’s faith in Jesus. (Note: some profanity)
But Forrest buys a boat on Louisiana’s gulf coast and invites Lt. Dan to help him fish for shrimp. After months of fruitless toil, nary a shrimp is to be found. Lt. Dan goads Forrest, “Where’s this God of yours?”
But then, as Forrest says, God showed up:
What I love about this is how it portrays the wildness of God’s Spirit. God is not a “tame” God, as C.S. Lewis has said. Lt. Dan’s rage is no match for the hurricane wind that God sends. But God graciously uses it to redeem his life rather than to destroy it:
On Pentecost, we celebrate the day that God’s Ruach began blowing across the earth, not to shatter cedars and strip forests bare, but to repair human lives shattered by sin.
Back at creation, God’s Spirit blew over the waters as God spoke the world into existence. Once again, God was speaking new life into the world.
Do you feel God’s breeze blowing in your own life even now?
For more on Pentecost’s deep roots in Shavuot, and how other biblical encounters of God’s presence shed light the strange events of the day, see these two articles:
(Picture Credit: Sean Heavey, and thanks to Nancy Johnsen)