First Reading Genesis 11:1-9
Second Reading: Acts 2:1-21
Gospel Reading: John 14:8-17, 25-27
Sermon: “Babel Undone – Sort Of”
Its Pentecost! One of the few festivals that Hallmark hasn’t discovered yet. Maybe that’s because it makes us just a little bit uncomfortable. All that stuff about the sound of a violent wind and flames on people’s heads and strange languages, it’s all so strange and we’re not sure what we’re supposed to do with it. How are we to hear it today in this place? It’s my intention this morning to try and help just a bit with that this morning – you can tell me later if I succeeded to any degree.
First off, just what is Pentecost anyway? For the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that morning it was 50 days after the Sabbath of Passover week. It commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai after the Exodus. It also celebrated the offering of the first fruits of the years crops. It was one of the 3 major feasts each year in Jerusalem and people would travel for considerable distances to come for it. For we Christians, it has come to be called the birthday of the church.
We can perhaps argue a bit about that, since there were already at least 120 followers, but on that day, the promise that Jesus made to his disciples was wonderfully fulfilled. He had ascended back to his Father in Heaven 40 days after the resurrection, but had told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower them to carry the gospel to the far reaches of the world. What I’d like to consider with you today is what we can learn from the events of that day that we should know for the events that will happen this day and in the days to come.
Lets begin with that peculiar story we read from Genesis about the Tower of Babel. The story follows closely on the Flood and the descendants of Noah. God had commissioned them saying(Genesis 9:1 NRSV “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Indeed they did multiply, but instead of spreading over the earth, they stayed together and built a great city where Babylon would one day be. In that city, they began to build a great tower with the intention to reach up into the heavens. In short, they were pursuing their own glory and goals, instead of the glory and goals of God. Interestingly, they thought to reach God by their own devices, but God came down to them – evidentially unrecognized. God decided to give them a big push in the direction of his will and so they found that they now spoke different languages. And so, they dispersed and formed smaller communities all over the earth. Much later, God would choose one from that vast diversity – Abraham, and begin to form the nation of Israel.
We still have trouble understanding each other – sometimes even though we speak the same language. We still insist on doing our own things our own way, not God’s way. and that is where I want to consider next as we turn our focus to the story in Acts. We live in a world of vast diversity – that is how God chose to make it. We might think of it as Divine protection from our baser instincts. It is intended to make us work a little to understand each other and to experience a variety of perspectives. Think how terribly boring this world would be if we all did the same thing the same way, and how terrible if that were not the right way. There is not much efficiency in the way that God chose for us, but there is gracious mercy if we but understand it as the gift that God intended.
So we come to the city of Jerusalem – filled with a huge diversity of observant Jews from all over that part of the world – 16 regions are listed representing even more languages and dialects. Its a good thing that there were more than just 11 disciples isn’t it! Each one there is able to hear one of those disciples in their own native language. Now that is a real gift, even if you know some of another language or two, its so comforting to hear your own.
During my career as a Research Engineer, I got to travel a fair bit in Europe and Asia. In Europe, it wasn’t so bad, many spoke English quite well, and I knew just a tiny bit of German. And at least the signs were in an Alphabet I could read and translate as needed. But when I was in Japan and China it was very different. The language was completely incomprehensible to me, the lettering did me no good either. When I was away from our guide on a few occasions, the sea of voices around me held no meaning – unless – once in a while, I would pick up someone else speaking English! Instantly, my attention would snap to pick out who it was and what they were saying. I wonder if it was like that for those travelers in Jerusalem that morning? Did those words that the Holy Spirit empowered rivet them in that same way – I think it probably did. Even though they likely knew enough Hebrew or Aramaic to get by, hearing the gospel spoken in a way they could easily grasp was the special gift of the Holy Spirit that day.
Of course, not everybody was impressed. Some where predictably cynical, hearing strange words as well as their own and just tossed it off as the ravings of a bunch of drunks – completely missing the wonderful grace of God being shared. Peter, speaks up at this point and first gives a simple, common sense reason why bottled spirits were not the answer. It was early – before breakfast on a festival day, which would normally happen about 10:00am. Then he shares the real reason. This is the Spirit of God that the prophet Joel had promised so long ago, that their own scriptures captured. There was to come a day when the spirit of God was to be poured out liberally over everybody – Young and old, Boys and girls, Old men and women, slaves and free. This was day one of that era! God promised salvation to any who would call on the name of the Lord.
It was then Peter’s privilege to share with them how God had indeed come among them in the person of Jesus Christ – had lived and taught, showed the power of God in his miracles, been crucified and raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit must have provided Peter quite the sermon that day because 3000 people came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and the church was now a movement, not just a timid few any longer.
So, back to my original question, What does this story have to say to us in Newkirk on this beautiful June day? Are we to simply hang around and wait for the wind to blow and the flames to show up again? … No. we know better than that. The Holy Spirit came and has never left. The power and the mission are still present and worthy of our attention. So lets review the basics:
• Jesus Christ is the Son of God – crucified and resurrected – and through him we have access to God here and now by the Holy Spirit and the promise of life everlasting. We need nothing else.
• The Spirit is the Gift of God to all who believe in Jesus and their Lord and Savior – we don’t have to wait for anything.
• We are commanded to love others – all others – and share the gospel and our material wealth in gratitude for the grace of God. The gifts of God are not for us alone.
• The vast diversity of this earth is the intention of God. We are all spoken to by the same Spirit. We don’t all have to be the same. Young, old, men, women, all walks of life – these are all the recipients of God’s Spirit.
• God gives his Spirit to all and we can learn from others – they may see some things better than we can. So we need to Listen as well as speak – Maybe that was one of the unsung gifts of that day – the ability to hear the good news from an unexpected source.
• Others hear the gospel best when they hear it in terms and language they already know. We need to reach out according to their culture and vocabulary. They don’t have to be one of us first.
So what would the mission of this church look like if we took these things to heart? Do we know how to speak to this community in terms they can understand? Or do we think we have to use our special church language to tell them that God loves them and wants them to know his Son. Would you rather hear me proclaim the simple gospel message that Jesus opens the way to be with God both right now and forever, or hear me say that the High Christology of Johanan theology presents Jesus as God Incarnate and therefore the mediator of our Justification? Yeah, I thought so. Language can be a barrier or an invitation. Our differences can divide us or enrich us.
That group of diverse people answered the call of the Spirit and became the Church that day. They were as different as God made them and so, called by God they became one.
What does Newkirk need to hear? How can we put it so that they understand? Do we need to listen carefully first, so that we understand them, since likely only then will we be able to make ourselves understood. The Spirit has been in the business of sharing understanding for some 2000 years now. Lets not just babel away – but share the best news possible.