The book of Exodus describes the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the long journey through the wilderness. The people were quickly frustrated by their escape from Egypt and they turned against Moses and his god, lamenting that perhaps they were better off as slaves in Egypt! It’s perfectly normal in human nature to do this: After the exhilaration and the excitement of liberation comes the harsh reality. Faced with the harsh realities of life, most people are willing to give up even their freedom!
Idolatry is at the very heart of human existence, and we each have our own idols. Some are religious idols; some are idols of achievement; some are idols of physical appearance and attractiveness; etc. And the greatest idol, of course, is money. Almost every human being worships that idol. So when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, idolatry was confronted head on. You shall have no other god… You shall make no image… You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain… You shall honor the Sabbath… You shall not covet. Five of the ten commandments are explicitly against idolatry! No other gods… no images or statues… no use of God’s name the way idol-worshippers use the names of their gods, for magic and manipulation… honor the Sabbath – a protection against enslavement to money and earthly masters… do not covet – coveting is the root of the idolatry of money!
But when Moses went back up on the mountain to receive further instructions from God, the people quickly gave in to idolatry. He took too long up on the mountain; maybe he’s abandoned the people; maybe his god deceived them to take us out of Egypt so they can die of hunger and thirst in the desert. Build us an idol, Aaron, another god we may worship, a god we can see! This is the comfort that idols bring – they are gods we can see. Money is a god we can see. Images and statues we can see. A god who does not reveal himself and only speaks to one man – well, maybe that’s not a god we want to trust or believe in.
The Old Testament injunction against images is something that the Orthodox Church has had to face throughout its history because icons are such an important part of our tradition. We have good theological reasons for icons, and we certainly are not bound to the commandments and laws of ancient Israel. But even though we can work our way around the commandments of Sinai, the danger of idolatry persists and is a constant temptation. And let’s face it: rules didn’t work for the ancient Israelites, they don’t work for us either. So God found another way – the way of Pentecost.
Back in the First Book of Kings we read of Elijah on a mountain. “And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12) – all external manifestations of power, but God was not in any of them; God was in the small voice instead. In the ancient world there were gods of thunder and storms; gods of earthquakes and fire. All the powers of nature were associated with gods. But not the God of Israel, who preferred the still small voice.
But notice what happened on the day of Pentecost. “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). A mighty wind and fire! Just as with Elijah – but with a difference, a big difference. The wind and the fire were no longer the weapons of fictional gods; they were now the message of the coming of the Holy Spirit. For pagans, the forces of nature were controlled by gods and were used to strike fear and superstition into people. On Pentecost, God chose these forces of wind and fire to announce a new way. Wind and fire, to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit to drive away evil from our hearts and to cleanse us and inspire us to new life, new hope and vision! And the Gospel gives us an even third image for the Holy Spirit: rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Water, the greatest power on earth; the power that can erode whole mountains and continents given enough time! Water destroys when its fury is unleashed; and yet water is the source of all life.
Wind, fire and water – images of God’s power to transform our lives. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may have appeared as a dove at the baptism of Jesus – but we do a great disservice when we turn the Holy Spirit into a bird! Not a bird, not a plane, not Superman – but the infinite power of God. Pentecost provides us with the truest images of God. Tongues of fire rested on each disciple in Jerusalem. May tongues of fire rest on every one of us today and every day: the Holy Spirit in our lives!