"That You May Declare the Wonderful Deeds of Him who Called You..."
A sermon based upon I Peter 2:1-10 and Exodus 19:3-8
What a wild and wonderful worship service we are having, on this Choir Appreciation Sunday (and Father’s Day)! The choir is certainly going out with a “bang”! We’re almost as lively as an exuberant Pentecostal church! Thank you, one and all (and the drummers), for bringing “joyful noise” and meaningful melodies.
It’s been said that “when you sing, it’s like you pray twice: once in the lyrics of the song (the words) and once in the music.” I think that with the rhythm, and the emotion, there was a lot of Holy Spirit praise & prayer happening right here just now. Thanks!
“Pentecost” was just last Sunday -- fifty days after Easter. It’s been called the “Birthday” of the Church; the day of our “founding” as the “Body of Christ” by the grace of God – the day when the Holy Spirit that had been in Jesus blew back into the congregation -- filled the room… and filled each of Jesus’ followers! -- with bold new courage and a bold, clear message to the people about who God was & what God was doing in their midst. Our church, like every congregation that preceded us in time -- all the way back to Jesus’ original disciples -- came alive on that first Pentecost Sunday. Hallelujah!
After those original followers of Jesus got up, got out, & got going -- telling the “Good News”/Gospel – (we are told) that old folks began to dream dreams, and younger ones had visions…
And by day’s end, some 3,000 new converts joined the fledgling Church in Jerusalem. What a day! What a way to launch a bold new movement for the salvation of the world. (!) Their stories are “our” stories 2,000 years later... thanks to God!
Last Sunday, on Pentecost, we heard a part of Peter’s very first sermon. This morning we heard a reading from Peter’s First Letter to the churches: I Peter, Chapter 2: 1-10.
This is a text that Jill Busa suggested to me last week on the prayer card she turned in during the service. (If you were here, you’ll remember I went down to her pew and brought it up to the pulpit to read. And I stumbled a bit in understanding what Jill had written.) “Maybe it will help bringing the people in from below” she wrote… What she meant by that was: the “AA groups” (and Meditation folks) who meet in the Lower Level All-Purpose Room. These people from “below” are in addition to the ones “above” – that is, those who attend “Open Meetings” upstairs in Fellowship Hall (such as watched the movie “Beautiful Boy” last night), as well as the five 12-step groups that meet every week in our Lounge. Just this week we started yet another one for people who want freedom from smoking! (When you think of it, that’s a lot of folks coming through our building!)
Jill wrote in a letter that I shared with our Board on Monday: “Maybe we could get a revival”! (Right?!) She also wrote: “I have historically seen lots of people during the week in the church, but remained confused as to why they don’t come on Sunday – myself included. My prayer request (last week) for drug court participants “above and below” [meant to] include everybody. Also, I have seen the Church work with this population and I am uncertain if the Congregation fully understands their impact.”
I think Jill caught the Spirit of the Pentecost…In Jesus’ name, we ought to get up and get out and start telling the story of the great things God is doing here!
First Congregational United Church of Christ in Alpena has been shrinking in size and wrinkling with age for long enough. Let’s do as the banner on the outside-wall says: Be You! Be BOLD. Be the Church. That was the point of my Pentecost sermon last Sunday.
What I didn’t tell you last Sunday, was that neither Jesus’ followers in the Upper Room, nor the Jewish crowds in the streets of Jerusalem, knew that day was “Pentecost”! (!) The Jewish festival (in the streets that day) was called “Shavuot”.
I looked it up in my “Siddur” prayer-book and discovered that “Shavuot is the festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus of slaves from Egypt. The Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot is the Biblical passage that describes that day.”  (… the very text Marilyn Kettler read for us as our “Old Testament” Scripture.)
Now, let’s do the math: seven weeks times seven days would total 49 days. That’s how long the escaping Hebrews marched through the desert until they came to Mt. Sinai. On the fiftieth day after Moses led the slaves out of Egypt, they arrived at the mountain where Moses then received the 10 Commandments. (I’m sure you’ve seen the movie with Charlton Heston.)
I’m going to get “technical” for a moment… you should know that Pentecost means the “fiftieth day” – “pente” (in Greek is “5”) -- as in Pentagon, that 5-sided building that head-quarters the U.S. Department of Defense; or the Penta-gram, the five-pointed star that we use on our American flag; or even the “Pentateuch”, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also known as the “Torah”). Seven weeks after the Passover came “Shavuot” the Festival of Weeks: 7 weeks (49) & then Day 50.
“Pentecost” is the Church’s name for its re-interpretation of “Shavuot”. The day Moses received Torah, is now celebrated as the day the Holy Spirit came alive! … Moses’s “Law” (which had directed Israel for almost 2,000 years) was redefined on Pentecost (so to speak). In effect, “a new sheriff was in town”: Jesus, and his Holy Spirit-empowered followers!
Listen once again to the text from Exodus that Marilyn Kettler read for us, which was the assigned reading for Jewish ceremonies at Shavuot:
Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain [Sinai],
saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings
and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will obey my Voice and keep my Covenant, you shall be my own possessions among all peoples… [after all,
remember] all the earth is mine. (!) And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests,
and a holy nation.” (That’s the text for Shavuot: remembering the giving of Torah-
The Old Testament text goes on to say that the Hebrew people agreed with everything that Moses said to them at Mt. Sinai… The Law that God gave to Moses to give to the people served like a “Constitution” for the new nation of Israel. You couldn’t be a true Jew if you didn’t follow God’s Torah. Shavuot.
I want to draw your attention to how God refers to these people as: (1) my possession, (2) as a kingdom of priests, and (3) as a holy nation. God says that if they keep the Covenant (the Torah, the 10 Commandments and subsequent teachings) they will be “my possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” Those words from Moses (recited on Shavuot) sound just like how St. Peter described Christians in his First Letter!
“You (the Church) are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” These are the very same things that God said about Israel when they received God’s Torah from Moses… And now, after Pentecost, Peter says that’s who the Church is! “Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people! Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:10)
I think it is worth noting that Peter addressed this letter to Christians in the five provinces of Asia Minor – Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. (I Peter 1:1) Some of these Christians in exile would have been Jews, who had dispersed from Jerusalem because of the Sanhedrin’s persecution of the followers of Jesus. But most of them would have been Gentiles -- people who had been excluded from the tribes of Israel… They were called “goyiim”… nations other than the Jews.
My “Wycliffe Bible Commentary on the New Testament” refers to these Christians as “scattered sojourners & foreigners, a figure very familiar to dispersed and downtrodden Israel, but also entirely apt for Peter’s many Gentile Christian readers.” … He reminds them that although formerly “not a people,” they are now “the people of God.” (I Peter 2:10) Peter is telling them that they counted in God’s eyes! They, too, were included in God’s “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation: God’s own people.”
In other words, what “Shavuot” had meant to the Jewish people, “Pentecost” had now bestowed on all people. The out-pouring, inclusive, multi-lingual expression of God’s inviting love toward all people -- that happened in such a public and dramatic way at Pentecost -- was intended to invite and to include others in the Church… in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake.
A second thing I noticed in the Old Testament reading was how Moses used the image of God “bearing them up on eagle’s wings”. God says to Moses: “Tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” That sounds like the very same thing that we sing at the end of every worship service here at First Church: “And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings…” In contrast to the defeat of the Egyptians, God lifted and carried the escaping slaves right up to Mt. Sinai.
Years ago, I read the story of “Waukewa’s Eagle”. Author James Buckham told the legend of an Indian boy who found a young eagle that was wounded. He nursed it back to strength and health, until it became as strong as ever and flew away. … A year later, in salmon season, Waukewa was enjoying spearing the silver-sided fish. One glittering salmon after another he threw into his bark canoe. He was so absorbed in the sport that he did not notice that he had reached the head of the rapids, and his canoe began to glide evermore swiftly among the rocks.
At some point he looked up, reached for his paddle, and dipped it wildly in the swirling river. The canoe swung sideways, but held its own against the current; and then, slowly, inch by inch, began to creep up-stream against the torrent, toward the riverbank. (!) But suddenly there was a loud snap, and the paddle split in the boy’s hands, broken just above the blade! Waukewa gave a cry of despairing agony, and bent forward… with the shattered shaft, he fought desperately against the current. But it was useless. The racing torrent swept him downstream; the roaring of a waterfall filled his ears.
But suddenly a shadow fell across the canoe. Waukewa lifted his eyes and saw a great eagle hovering above, with legs dangling overhead and a spread of wings that blotted out the sun. The eyes of the Indian boy and the eagle met…
With a glad cry Waukewa stood up in his canoe, and the eagle hovered lower. As the canoe tossed about on the swelling wave which poured over the cataract’s edge, the boy lifted his hands and caught the legs of the eagle. (!)
The next moment he looked down into the awful gulf of raging water, as the canoe was snatched from beneath him and plunged down the waterfall. But he and the struggling eagle were floating forward, and outward, and downward through the cloud of mist. The spray beat and blinded them; the air rushed upward as they fell. But the eagle struggled on with its heavy burden. He fought his way out of the mist and the flying spray. His great wings thrashed the air as they sank -- down, down, the boy and the eagle -- but ever farther from the precipice of water and the roiling whirlpool below.
Then, with a fluttering plunge, the eagle dropped on a sand bar beyond the whirlpool. He and Waukewa lay there a minute, breathless and exhausted. Then the eagle slowly lifted himself, took the air under his free wings, and soared away. Waukewa knelt on the sand, his eyes following the great bird until he faded away into the gray of the cliffs.
That may be only a legend, but it speaks to any of us who, caught in currents beyond our control, feeling ourselves being swept ever nearer the cataract of ruin, realize that we can reach out our hand to God… or to Jesus Christ, as God’s Savior who is always with us… and God will bear you up on eagle’s wings! Up, up and away from danger -- keeping us company through life; serving as our comforter and companion, our counselor and friend, and sharing with us the burdens of life… and its healing.
Knowing that we Christians, even as the Jews of old, are a “chosen” people -- a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people! – Peter advises us to “put away all malice, and all guile & insincerity, and envy & all slander… for we have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” It is a taste we crave, like pure milk.
When Peter speaks of “pure spiritual milk”, he imagines us Christians “like newborn babies” longing for (or desiring) it. The Wycliffe Commentary says that the Greek words suggest the voracious, hungry impatience of a baby at its mealtime. They cry for it; they bellow loudly until someone brings the bottle!
Peter urges us to cultivate a healthy appetite for the Good News/Gospel that was preached to us. “The Word of the Lord abides forever,” he said. (I Peter 1:25) That Word should be as simple and unadulterated (sincere and elementary) as Mother’s milk -- for we have “tasted the kindness of the Lord.”
Peter says in his Letter that the reason we have been included in the Covenant, given the Good News/Gospel of God, and made into “living stones” by which the church is built up… is so that “you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
We have been called… called out… called to declare the wonderful deeds of Jesus, and the mighty works of God. (!) Let’s not let the other two dozen churches around us define for Alpena what it means to be “Christian.” We have a unique history as a congregation, and our members have been (and still are) a big influence in this town. Don’t hide your light. Be Bold!
Be YOU! Be the Church. And may God bless you as you do.
 Siddur Eit Ratzon: a prayerbook for Shabbat, festivals, and daily services, by Joseph G. Rosenstein, Highland Park, NJ: Shiviti Publications, 2003, page 144
 The Iverson-Norman Associates, New York, 1971, Chicago: Moody Press, page 967
 Retold by Louis Albert Banks, in “Saints & Sinners of the Bible”, AMG Publishers: Chattanooga, TN, page 214
 Ibid, page 973