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Edward F. Markquart

First Hand Experience 

Pentecost     Acts 2:1-21

It is very important for a person to have a first hand experience in life.  In fact, there is nothing like this first hand experience.  It gives you a certain delightfulness, integrity, and truthfulness in telling a story.  You can tell a story with more subtleties and nuances if you have experienced something first hand. It helps enormously if you are telling a story that doesnít merely come from a book, a TV program, or a parent.  It helps enormously if it is not someone elseís story, but your very own story, from your own first hand experience. You speak so much more effectively if you have a first hand experience to draw from. Let me give you some illustrations of this principle. We could all chose from so many experiences of our lives.

For example, recently in my life, I have become quite an authority on spreading chicken manure.  Years ago, I didnít have much contact with chicken manure, but we decided to put in a garden by the side of our house last year, and so we got some very good chicken manure. This particular chicken manure had been at the bottom of the pile, and the powerful nitrogen had soaked down to the bottom and so the manure was extra rich and thick. But this past year, we got the chicken manure off the top of the pile, and it did not have nearly as much potency and nitrogen.  Now, I am told that chicken manure is a lot better than cow manure or horse manure, but I canít really speak about the effectiveness of cow manure or horse manure because I donít have any first hand experience with them.  But I can speak quite easily and eloquently about the blessings of chicken manure because I have a first hand experience with chicken manure which gives a person integrity, delightfulness, and truthfulness and lets you speak with a greater authority about chicken manure based on real life experience.

A second example.  Years ago, my family and I traveled to Mohall, North Dakota to visit a pastor friend and his family.  We traveled to Mohall from Seattle, and as we got closer to Mohall, there wasnít one tree on the horizon, so it seemed.  There were no evergreens, no lakes, no rivers, but the land seemed all parched and flat and brown.  The land was very beautiful if you like flat, brown, level surfaces.  When we got to Mohall, there were several exciting things that we could do:  that is, my friend gave me a tour of town, including a visit to the grain elevator.  In that grain elevator (I had visited such grain elevators before), the boards on the floor were old, wooded planks, and the room had an old wooden desk, and the whole office was covered with at least, so it felt, an inch of dust.  The dust was thick as it could be, in this grain elevator.  There on the wall was a calendar that hadnít been changed for some three months. In fact, there were two calendars, one with a picture of a scantily clad voluptuous woman and the other with a picture of a beautiful scene from nature.  This scenic setting on the second calendar was just the opposite of what we saw in Mohall, North Dakota.  It was green; it was blue; it was the ocean; it was a beautiful lighthouse standing regally on land overlooking the ocean.  I couldnít believe it.  I said to the boy who was standing there:  ďThatís the Oregon coast.  I have been there, many times, to that lighthouse.Ē  The little boy, with eyes wide open, said:  ďReally?Ē  I said:  ďThatís right.  That lighthouse is north of Florence, Oregon, near the Sea Lionís Caves, and I go there all the time.  It is one of the prettiest places on earth, deserving to be on a calendar photograph.Ē  The little boy said:  ďTell me about it.Ē   I told the little boy about the beauties of the ocean, the beauties of the ocean water and how it changed itís personality, from a soft light icy blue that made you sing to an ugly violent nasty swirl that made you afraid.  I told him about the lighthouse, its colors, its insides, its lights.  I could speak out of my first hand experience that added eloquence, delightfulness and authority to my words.  I knew the shades and subtleties, the nuances and novelties of my story.  In other words, I hadnít read about this scene in Oregon from a book; I hadnít learned out it from TV; my memories were not based on what my parents had told me.  Rather, I had a first hand experience, in fact, several experiences with that lighthouse, and I could speak with happiness and authority to the little boy.

Third example.  If you have had a husband or wife or parent die recently, you are very sad inside yourself, and you often talk to others.  You are amazed that feelings sneak up on you when you least expect them to, welling up inside yourself and flowing out in tears that you never expected at that moment.  The person who walks through the valley of death has a first hand experience.  They speak with integrity, power and authority because they have been there.  Having nearly died recently, I know now what others mean more clearly.  Your first hand words reveal the shades and subtleties, the nuances and novelty, that you have been there and tasted death itself. Death is now more personal than having read a book about it, seen it on TV or talked with my family.

Another example.  If you have trouble with alcohol or drugs, or one of your family does, or a friend, you normally will get help only through conversations with a reformed alcohol or drug abuser.  Someone who has been on drugs or alcohol speaks with much greater authority about the addiction.  They know the shades and subtleties, the nuances and novelty, of additions.  People who only learn about addictions by reading it in a book, seeing it on TV, or talking with their parents donít really know.  First hand experience is absolutely necessary in helping others overcome their addictions.

Well, you have your stories and I have mine, but all of us are aware of the power of first hand experiences, which brings us to the epistle lesson for today, Pentecost Sunday.  The story goes like this:  A group of disciples were gathered in a room, and they had been waiting.  Jesus had told them to wait and they were waiting for something, but they werenít quite sure what they were waiting for.  And, suddenly, the Spirit of the Risen Christ came upon those people in an unusual way.  It seemed as if there were tongues of fire dancing about the room and on the heads of people.  It seemed as if there was a large wind blowing, howling and whooshing through the room.  It felt like a powerful, magnetic experience when the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, came onto them and into them.  This was a first hand experience for them.  They knew what had happened to them and in them; they knew the shades and subtleties, the nuances and novelty; and so they went out into the world and started telling their story, their first hand story, with power.  They had experienced first hand the power of God, that power of God that raised Jesus from the dead, that power of God that filled their lives; that power of God that changed their sinful lives; that power of God that filled them with forgiveness.  This was not a Jesus Christ that they had read about in a book; this was not the Jesus Christ who lived in the past pages of the Old Testament; this wasnít the Jesus Christ that their parents had told them about.  But this was the indwelling power of Jesus Christ that they had experienced first hand, in their own way, in their own particularity, in their own story.  Their first hand experience with the Risen Christ gave them authority, power and naturalness as they spoke about Christ and the new power that they found within.

These first Christians were the greatest missionaries ever primarily because they spoke naturally and potently about their first hand experiences with the Risen Christ. They spoke naturally and eloquently about Jesus Christ because theirs was a first hand experience with the power and presence of Christ.

So, what does it mean to have a first hand experience with God and the Risen Christ?  What does that mean for you and me, knowing that we didnít live 2000 years ago on that first Pentecost Sunday?  What does it mean for us today to have this first hand experience with God and the Risen Christ and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit?

Does it mean to have some big, religiously emotional binge, some kind of spiritual ecstasy?  This may happen to you. We read in articles such as the recent New York Times that four out of ten Americans have had some dominant religious experience. For example, when I was in ninth grade at a Bible Camp, Mount Carmel near Alexandria, Minnesota, I had a born again experience with Pastor Hammer speaking, in his white dinner jacket in that old auditorium.  I clearly remember.  I remember writing in my pocket Bible that I came to know the Lord that night.  I can remember my tears, my coming up front from the wooden pews on the right side. Yes, I can remember vividly. Is that what it is to have a first hand experience? To have a conversion experience at Bible camp? Yes and no. I remember the night, and that it didnít last long.  I soon was back to my old ways.  But in the whole scheme of things, that night is an important event in my lifeís journey.

Is that what it means to have a first hand experience with Christ, go to Bible Camp and get in the right mood?

Another example.  When our confirmation kids were at Camp NoríWester many years ago, they were out of that island in front of the camp, surrounded by glassy water of Puget Sound on every side, and they were covered by the brightest stars you have ever seen in the sky.  The silence was so present and real that you could feel you could slice it.  We talked about the Wind of God, that God was invisible like the wind.  You couldnít see the wind but the effects of the wind.  Slowly and then suddenly, there was a wind in the trees, a rustling of the branches and the leaves, and in that mystic night, we all were aware of the power and presence of God.  Is that what having a first hand experience is?  Going to camp, with a perfect setting on a perfect night in a momentarily perfect world?  For some people.

If you ask people, 40% of Americans can tell of religious experiences such as these, where they knew for sure the power and presence of Christ.

But for other Christians, this first hand experience is closer to home. It is nearer to them than they realize; where they have been drawn into the power and presence of Christ.  It began in their baptism, being born and bred in a Christian family, and they have always grown up in the faith.  That is my story, my first hand story, being born into a family that believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.  I was baptized as an infant in Jackson, Minnesota, at our Saviorís Lutheran Church, and although the sanctuary has long been destroyed, I remember it with vividness.  The woods, the pews, the altar, the font, the windows, the people.  Especially the people.  The Christian people are the church, and how they loved me.  I still receive Christmas cards from Mrs. Alvina Paulson who was my fifth grade Sunday School teacher; she is a treasured memory of mine. The Watlands, the Aamots, the Sommers.  These people reared me and taught me confirmation and got me to Bible Camp in ninth grade when my parents were having problems, although no one knew it but us in the family, who knew it painfully well.  There in that camp, I again met Jesus Christ, in an emotional way with Pastor Hammer in his white dinner jacket,  because I was most emotional as a mixed up ninth grader.  It is all part of the story, my story, of a boy knowing first hand, the power and presence of Jesus Christ, from the time of birth and infant baptism.  When you know first hand about being baptized as an infant, you can speak more freely about it than if you read it in a book, saw it on TV or was a memory from your parents.

Monica?  At confirmation last year, she told about her first hand experience.  For Monica, there were no flashing signs or lightning in the sky.  She told in her paper, ďMy Relationship to Jesus Christ,Ē which was later read to the congregation, that she opened the Bible often and that certain Bible verses spoke directly to her.  She told us about an uncle, a godparent, who wrote a religious poem for her confirmation and this poem was special to her.  She read the poem.  What a gift.  What a gift of faith.  When Monica gets up and tells you about Jesus Christ, it is not something she is reciting out of a book, not something she saw on TV, nor something that her mom and dad crammed down her throat. But out of her own first hand experience, she was telling you in her language about her faith in the power and presence of Jesus Christ in her life.

Ed Pooley? Ed Pooley was sitting here today at the first service.  I remember his old favorite story about when he first came to church and didnít know anything.  In fact, he said he knew a lot of nothing about the Christian faith.  In his story, he tells about a pastor who simply asked him to teach, to teach Sunday School.  Pooley said that they really must have been desperate to ask him to teach Sunday School.  But, they were short of teachers, and so he said yes.  That was so many years ago, Ed Pooley doesnít remember.  But for decades, Pooley has taught the Bible, almost wearing out his Bible and Bible Concordance. He has now been teaching the menís Saturday breakfast for twenty years.  God has become real to Ed Pooley.  Pooley has had these first hand experiences with God by becoming a teacher of the Word.  It was not something he read about in a history book, saw it on TV, or learned it from his parents.

Godís real power and presence comes to us in some many different ways.  I love the quotation from C.S. Lewis about his knowing Christ first hand.  ďWhen I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, if I were to say that Christ came to me, I should be using conventional words that would carry no precise meaning.  For Christ comes to men and women in different ways.  When I try to record the experience at that time, I use the imagery of the Vision of the Holy Grail.  It seemed to me like that.  There was, however, no sensible vision.  There was just the room, with its shabby furniture and the fire burning in the grate, and the red shaded lamp on the table.  But the room was filled by a presence that in a strange way was both about me and within me like a light or warmth. I was overwhelming possessed by someone who was not myself.  And yet, I felt more myself than ever before.  I was filled with intense happiness and almost unbearable joy as I had never known before or never known since.  And overall, there was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.Ē  This was Pentecost for C.S. Lewis.  It was a first hand experience for C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest authors of this past century.

As C.S. Lewis said, it is different for everyone.  For some of you, it is the thimble of wine and the words of Christ that you are forgiven.  It is the Word of Jesus. For still others of you, it is the words of hope in the midst of an AA meeting.  Or it may be the wind rustling the autumn leaves or moving the ripples on silk smooth waters. Or it may be the growth of seeds in your garden or the miracle of the tulips from tulip bulbs.  Or it may be being alone with death and knowing that Life is stronger than death.  A miracle occurs or a thousand miracles occur and you know; you know first hand of Godís goodness to you in Jesus Christ.

And you then talk about Christ in you with naturalness, with conviction and authority, delightfulness and humor, because Christ is part of your story; in fact, the key to your story.

Did I tell you I climbed up to Camp Muir this past summer with Bill Manderville, the mountain climber of our parish, and we got lost in a whiteout?  That day was something else, let me tell you.  I remember that day, the nuances and the novelty, the shades, the shadows, the subtleties.  You can always tell a story better if you have a first hand experience, and that is why those first Christians at Pentecost were such great missionaries.  They told their story about Godís power within them, first hand.  Amen.

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