Sermon from Pentecost: Ruach
The Day of Pentecost; May 31, 2020
I have a Hebrew word for you: ruach. It describes moving air, both literally and figuratively, so we translate it into English as breath or wind or spirit. So when the Bible talks about the ruach of God, it refers to God’s breath or the wind of God or the Holy Spirit. Picture Genesis 2, when God makes the human creature. God takes clay, and shapes it into a human body, then leans close to its face and breathes into it, and it comes to life. The ruach of God is the source of life for the human creature, Adam’s breath, Adam’s spirit.
Okay, enough language lesson, now let’s have some fun with this Psalm. This is the Psalm for Pentecost, and I want to talk about it backwards. I mean from the end to the beginning. The thing that strikes me about it is that the ruach of God is very much like our breath, like the wind of the world: you can see its effects, but you can’t see it. I know, on a cold day you say that you can see your breath, but that isn’t your breath you’re seeing; it’s water vapor that’s cold enough to be visible; you’re essentially making a bit of fog. Just to be straight about it. Anyway, four short thoughts about the effects of the presence of the ruach of God. Signs of God’s ruach are abundance, playfulness, humility, and a response from the faithful.
Let’s start with the response. I know: good sermon-construction says that I should go through everything else first, then end with how you and I should respond, but I don’t want to do that. I want to get the response part out of the way, and get to the really good stuff to finish with. Besides, if my preaching is imperfect, that’s intentional. Your Church aims to be imperfect, because we know that some of you enjoy complaining, and we want everybody to be happy. Anyway, the poet says that those who are faithful will do the following things in response to the presence of the ruach of God:
They will sing praise to the Lord as long as they live.
They will hope that their words please God.
They will pray for the end of wickedness.
You see where the attitude is? They are God-centered, God-focused. They go to church – when they go to church; when will that be? I’ll talk about that at the end of the service – they go to church not with the attitude, “I hope the preacher will say something I like; I hope the choir will please me,” but rather, “I hope that what I say will please God; I hope that my singing will make God happy.” They approach their day like the woman who told me recently, “My goal every day is to give joy to someone.” Not, “I want something to happen that will make me happy,” but “I hope I give joy to someone.” Now, narrowly in today’s reading, the hope is that you and I give joy to God, but let’s be real: when we do something to give joy to another person, we give joy to God.
Now that was from the last three verses of the Psalm; let’s back up and see what else is there. But please keep this in mind: when the ruach of God – God’s breath, God’s wind, the Holy Spirit – is present in people, they will be God-focused, more concerned with pleasing God than with being pleased.
Just before that the poet says a lot about the dependence of living things on the ruach of God. We depend on God for our breath, our life, our food. We all do, from the whale to the phytoplankton: “All of them look to you to give them their food in due season.” During this pandemic, we have been experiencing vividly how much of our life is beyond our control. We think of ourselves as so independent, so self-reliant, but now we have been face-to-face with the reality that you and I are part of interconnected webs of support and service. Where would we be if grocery-store workers stopped working? We have fretted about meat-packing plants closing and the possibility of rising prices; but what of the folks who have to work in those plants? Their health and well-being matter, and so that piece of the system is threatened. And at root of all this uncertainty is a bunch of DNA surrounded by protein, something called a virus. The question the poet answers in Psalm 104 is, “Is there anything certain as a foundation to all this uncertainty?” When we live through times of uncertainty, it’s easy to think that everything is random, that nothing is dependable. But the poet says, “All of them look to you to give them their food in due season.” Life is uncertain, our social systems are fragile, we’re not as self-reliant as we pretend to be, but underneath it all are the strong arms of a loving God, the God who is creating a world of abundance, the God whose ruach breathes life into the world.
According to the poet, one of those lives is Leviathan, the great sea monster. Leviathan is an interesting figure: he or she goes back to ancient Canaanite mythology, where Lotan is the seven-headed sea monster slain by the god Baal. Leviathan represents chaos, the unfathomable depths of the Mediterranean Sea, and it is always threatening to devour the world. Well, that’s one side of the story. Some ancient literature sees Leviathan as evil, chaotic, and threatening. And then there’s the Book of Job (41), where Leviathan threatens human beings but is led around on a leash by the Lord God. And Psalm 104, where Leviathan is, well, God’s playmate. God made Leviathan to play with in the sea, and the Lord rejoices every time the sea monster breaks water and leaps into the sun.
There’s something playful about the ruach of God. If you look through the Bible, you’ll see that the effect of the presence of God is not to make people sit, bored with reality; in God’s presence, people dance. King David stripped to his skivvies and did the twist before the Ark of God. John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of Jesus. Leviathan sports in the Mediterranean Sea. If your religion is making you too solemn and serious, then you need a dose of ruach. Call me; I’ll write you a prescription.
And the piece of the psalm we read started with celebration of abundance. And that’s why we didn’t need to read the whole psalm: the whole first part of the psalm is a celebration of the abundance of life in the presence of God. I was hiking one day – I can’t remember if it was the mountains of Colorado or the desert of Arizona – and the terrain was rocky. I noticed plants growing through cracks in the rock, clinging to the rock, and I thought, “Life is so persistent! It wants to grow everywhere.”
One of the works of God’s ruach is to encourage life to grow profusely, abundantly, and with great diversity. On the day of Pentecost, one of the signs of that abundance and diversity was the profusion of languages in which people heard the Gospel. You heard the story in our reading from Acts (2:1-21): people came from all over the world, and they heard the good news of God in their own language. Here’s a taste of that:
To readers: We had John 1:5 in a variety of forms and languages: Greek (me), Russian (Mike Osborn), French (Kathy Sutula), German (Kathleen Keefer), Croatian (Chris Krampe), American Sign Language (Ann Thompson), Catalan (me), Latin (Mike Osborn), Spanish (Barb Irvin), English (via electronic communication device, Colleen Collins). If you can, look at the sermon on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JLcZJnhuYA) to get the best experience of it.
One year, long ago in another congregation, on the day of Pentecost, I had a number of people read like that in church. I got an angry letter from a church member, who said that he and his wife were leaving the church because of it. At the time I was upset that he didn’t like something I had done (actually, in light of what I said at the beginning of the sermon, I should have been glad that I had given him something to gripe about! He was probably one of those who enjoyed that). More to the point, I should have realized that the problem isn’t that the Pastor did something he didn’t like; the problem was that he was running from the presence of the Holy Spirit, God’s ruach, since hearing the good news of God in a profusion of languages is a sign that the Holy Spirit is present.
Do you have the Holy Spirit? No, it doesn’t come in bottles. How can you tell? By the sense of abundance and diversity of the presence of the Spirit, by a willingness to let loose and be playful, by the humility of realizing your dependence, and by a faithful response: where your focus is not yourself, but the Lord God, who among everything else puts Leviathan on a leash and takes it out to play.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master