By John Sundara
If you have seen Cecil DeMille’s classic film The Ten Commandments, you will remember this iconic scene that I am about to describe. Moses goes up Mount Sinai and the Lord descends with fire and smoke and thunder and gives Moses the Ten Commandments.
But let’s hear how the Bible describes this iconic scene, from Exodus 19 — because sometimes films don’t always capture the magic and the power, or capture our imaginations more powerfully than God’s written Word.
So, close your eyes, and try to imagine what I am about to read from Exodus 19.
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon Mount Sinai, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.”
Powerful, isn’t it? Fire and smoke and thunder! Imagine what you would have felt if you were there at that awesome moment at the foot of that awesome mountain. The ground shaking as God himself descends upon his holy mountain in fire and smoke, and then speaks, and his voice is thunder.
In fact, the Old Testament is filled with stories of God’s presence filling our world with fire and smoke and thunder.
Do you remember, for example, in 2 Chronicles 3-6? Right after Solomon builds the temple of God in Jerusalem, he offers hundreds and hundreds of sacrifices, and the smoke of the sacrifices and the earnestness of his prayers go up to God like sweet-smelling incense? And after he is finished praying, God honors Solomon’s sacrifice of prayer. And God descends upon his temple in fire and smoke.
Or as 2 Chronicles 7 describes it, “After King Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house.”
Fire and smoke and glory.
Or do you remember that fascinating story in 1 Kings 18? Where the righteous prophet Elijah, he alone faces off against 950 false prophets of the idols Baal and Asherah? And after they sacrifice oxen on the altar, these false prophets earnestly pray to Baal and Asherah from morning to noon to accept their sacrifices … and nothing happens.
But at noon, Elijah prays to the Lord a simple prayer, and a great pillar of fire instantly descends upon the altar from out of the blue sky and consumes the sacrifices. And the pillar of fire is followed by a great and mighty storm of lightning and thunder.
Fire and smoke and thunder.
Or what about in Isaiah 6, when the prophet Isaiah is caught up into heaven and sees the Lord sitting upon his throne, and around him the giant seraphim angels with six wings each flying, echoing out with angelic voices to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the Lord’s entire heavenly palace is filled with smoke and filled with his glory, and heaven shakes and quakes and trembles when God speaks with a thunderous voice.
Fire and smoke and thunder.
Well, where am I going with this? Today, the Church celebrates Pentecost. And it’s easy to read today’s New Testament passages, both the Gospel and the Acts passage about the Holy Spirit coming down on the Church, and dismiss them as odd and ancient readings. Or perhaps the more dangerous thing to do is to dismiss them because we are too familiar with them because we hear them every Pentecost, every year.
They aren’t odd, although they might be familiar. They are certainly awesome. And they are just as awesome as all these Old Testament stories of fire and smoke and thunder, because both passages are about God descending upon his people in fire and smoke and thunder.
In fact, both passages are like two paintings of the same event. It’s like if Marc Chagall and Rembrandt were to both paint the Last Supper, but you get two very different works of art because of two very different imaginations — but you can recognize the same shape and substance.
Notice how both passages are filled with pneumatic tones — breath, rush of a mighty wind, even the word Spirit. In fact, if you were a first-century Jew reading these passages in the original Greek, you would have recognized right away that all these different words in Greek, and in our case English — breath, wind, and Spirit — are the same word in Hebrew: ru-ach.
And smoke itself has a pneumatic tone, doesn’t it? Smoke is air and wind from a burning fire. Smoke is, so to speak, wind that is on fire. And not just any fire, but fire from God. At Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit descends upon his people, his Church, like multiple flames, multiple fires.
In the same way that God descended with fire and smoke upon Mount Sinai, in the same way that God descended with fire and smoke upon King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, in the same way that God descended with fire and smoke upon Elijah’s altar, at Pentecost God descended upon his people, his Church, with a wind of fire and smoke.
In other words, we, you, are a privileged people. You are a gifted people. You are now the mountain of God through whom God reigns over his creation. You are now the temple of God through whom God’s glory is revealed to the world. You are now the altar of God, upon which sacrifices of prayer and thanksgiving rise up to God like sweet-smelling incense! You are fire and smoke because the mighty wind of God, the Holy Spirit, has descended upon you.
But what about the thunder? Where is there thunder in either passage?
A few years ago, I was talking to a local missionary who had served deep in the rural and tribal interior of the Indian subcontinent. These were peoples that had born and died, generation after generation, but had never even heard the name of Jesus. But in the last 15 years, he was telling me, there had been a massive revival of the faith that had swept across scores of these villages, where entire villages would be baptized.
And every week, hundreds of these new Christians would walk many hours so that they could all worship together. But they had no church buildings, you see. So when they sang and prayed in the open, he told me, their voices would rise up in the air and sound like a rainstorm, like thunder!
See, today’s Acts and John passages don’t have thunder, except if you count the voices of the multitudes of worshipers upon whom the wind of fire and smoke descended, as their voices rose up and ascended into heaven. To the people around them, it would have sounded like a rainstorm, like thunder.
In other words — you, your voice, is now the thunder of God. It doesn’t matter if your voice is feeble or strong, weak or nervous, anxious or fearful. It doesn’t matter if your voice is janitor or homemaker, artist or realist, senator or missioner, banker or mayor, Democrat or Republican, aristocrat or publican, black or white, green, blue, or purple, it doesn’t matter. When you were baptized, if you were baptized, God’s wind of fire and smoke descended upon you, and you are now the thunder of God.
Every time you pray, every time you sing, every time you tell someone that God loves them and has forgiven them their sins, your voice, you are the thunder of God echoing out into the world. And the World needs to hear this thunder of God.
The Rev. John Sundara is assistant rector for Christian formation at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.