The following first appeared in the June 2, 2017, edition of The Huffington Post. Jack Levison is the WJA Power Professor of Old Testament at SMU's Perkins School of Theology.
June 2, 2017
By Jack Levison
Normally, Pentecost has its own color, red, to symbolize the tongues as of fire that hovered over Jesus’ followers on that remarkable day of Pentecost over 2,000 years ago.
Christians who follow the church calendar, in fact, wear red on Pentecost. Red shirts. Red pullovers. Red skirts. The church colors—vestments, banners, and altar cloths—turn to red for the season of Pentecost.
This year, Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement changes Pentecost for all of us. So I have a suggestion for this Pentecost Sunday: dump the red and go green.
The answer to this question is simple. Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But this is not the whole of the story. In fact, it’s not even the beginning of the story.
The beginning of the story occurs, well, at the beginning, in the book of Genesis. Long before people are on the scene, the Bible begins simply—with soup. Murky, muddy soup. The middle of chaos. Disorganization and disappointment and disasters waiting to happen. The only glimmer of hope for creation rests in the appearance of the Spirit of God hovering over this primal soup, this abyss, this deep.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2, King James Version)
The mere mention of the Spirit, in the Bible’s first lines, pries open the possibility of order, of birth, of meaning. But how can the Spirit put soup in order?
By hovering. This is the Spirit’s first activity in the Bible.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates Genesis 1:2 in this way: “God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.” Perfect! The verb, hover or sweep—and here, brood—which offers the first glimpse of the Spirit’s activity in the Bible, occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament, when God is an eagle that “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:11-12). This is tender care, powerful pinions grasping Israel’s neck to “set it atop the heights of the land” (32:13). The Spirit of God, at the birth of creation, hovers over an expectant earth, broods like a bird over the watery abyss—an eagle-Spirit poised with powerful wings over a fledgling creation.
In the first two verses of the Bible, we first meet the Spirit of God hovering like an eagle, wings spread, pinions extended, ready to reach and pluck and soar. This isn’t the most inviting image of care I’ve ever known, but it may be the most potent because this Spirit, this eagle, is fearless, undaunted by unformed muck and mire. What threat can a bowl of cosmic soup pose to an eagle that rides the currents above?
The first time we meet the Spirit in the Bible—about the sixteenth word (it’s not easy to count words in Hebrew, where prepositions become parts of words)—God’s Spirit is there already, above the dark deep with the promise of confusion come to order, with the hope of muck made into mountains and soup into seas.
It would be easy, during Pentecost 2017, to give up hope. But the Spirit’s first appearance in the Bible pulses with hope. It would be a betrayal of the Spirit to give up hope for a healthy universe, a salubrious planet.
You can even take a few small steps this Pentecost to mirror that first appearance of the Spirit of God:
- Wear green instead of red to remind all of us that the Spirit, long before Pentecost, hovered in hope over the cosmic soup.
- Stuff the Styrofoam and bring your own mug to church; small protests can be significant steps.
- Say a special prayer of gratitude for good, healthy veggies. (Pentecost was originally a harvest festival—the Feast of Weeks—which celebrated the giving back of first fruits.)
- Write a quick email to your senator or representative to voice your support for the thoughtful care of creation.
- Join in that first work of the Spirit with a donation to a cause like Agros International.
All of these small steps can be significant because all of them mirror the first work of the Spirit — long before Pentecost.
Alongside these small steps lies a deep, deep message this Pentecost: to realize, in these disheartening times, that the Spirit pulses with promise long before—and long after—Pentecost.
It is not yet time for the People of Pentecost to give up hope. Not when the Spirit thrums with anticipation for a creation that still has the capacity to mature into something very good.