First of all, I want to thank Pastor Mike for the opportunity to preach this morning. It is always an honor to speak with you. When he offered this text as a choice, I agreed quickly because I love the way we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in our worship. It is always inspiring to me, and a bit scary in a good way, to hear many voices, in many languages, speaking what I know is the same story of God’s presence in and among Us. It allows me to imagine what I might have felt on that first Day of Pentecost.
A couple of years ago Jamie and I took a dive trip to a part of the world where English is not the dominant language. Our flight into Doha, Quatar was wonderfully uneventful. When we landed in the Airport at Doha, there were so many languages being spoken around me and so much noise, I was exhausted by the time we got to the tranquility of our hotel room. Even though we never left the security of the international airport, I felt anxious, wary that I might miss some instruction or important information because I didn’t know any language but English.
When we reached our destination at the airport in the Maldives, there were also many languages. I was more relaxed and could engage my curiosity and try to determine what part of the world people represented. The ship’s crew were all from the Maldives and most spoke some English. The guests represented a mix of people from all over Europe.
I first thought I was going to spend the next several days and nights not being able to understand what was being communicated to me and wondering how I would communicate if I really needed something. It was hard. However, most of the Europeans spoke English as well several other languages.
There were eight of us who had only 1 language – five English speakers and three Russians. It was such a relief to find Simon, Nicole and Jeremy! Hearing my own language was a settling and comforting experience. I was so relieved and able to enjoy the world in its variety. Hearing English daily, emboldened me to try to communicate more with the boat crew and even make an effort with the folk who spoke Russian. After that trip, I think I may have a better idea about how some of the folk in today’s scripture felt
Along with the Pentecost text, I was glad to find that one of the other scripture readings for the day is Genesis 11, The Tower of Babel. I thought to myself something along the lines of, “Language and God at work in a powerful and personal way.” That’s the obvious thing, right? In the Genesis passage God confused the language and in Acts 2, God provides a way for all to hear the same message even though they did not all speak the same language.
So, I started reading and thinking and wondering and it occurred to me that the Genesis account and the Acts account are both turning points in the history of humanity. In Genesis, God confused the language and in the Acts passage God provided for all to hear the message AND BOTH record God’s deliberate intervention to achieve God’s purpose in the world. There is something important about these two texts and while there are many turning points for human history in the scripture, these are two very particular Turning Points in the life of God’s people.
I am using the New International Version when I specifically quote scripture.
In Genesis 9:1, after the flood that destroyed all breathing flesh on the earth had receded, and the Ark had settled onto dry land, God gave Noah and his sons the command to “Be fruitful and increase in numbers and fill the earth.” In verse 7, after God promised Noah a covenant and delineated their separate responsibilites, God reiterated the command, the directive to Noah and his offspring, “as for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” That is a command that calls for deliberate forward movement. The families of Noah’s descendants obeyed and began spreading across the known world.
I imagine it like the westward push of pioneers across the North American continent. I imagine them celebrating that they were safe and ready to move. Perhaps some stayed in the shadow of the ark, after they disembarked, while others left this first place to set off on the journey to “be fruitful and increase in number.” I expect that as they tired, they made camp and rested a while, before moving outward, away from the ark. Perhaps family groups split into smaller groups who went different ways. They would find a place, stay a while, move on, leaving settlements in their wake from which others would go out to new places. That’s how I imagined Noah’s descendants might have followed God’s command to repopulate the earth.
All these groups of Noah’s descendants spoke the same language. Scripture indicates that one of these groups moved east. In Chapter 11 we see them wanting to settle down. They wanted to become permanent. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. I understand the desire to want to be settled into a familiar and safe place. Yet, in settling down, in this case they were stopping the forward movement of repopulating the earth, they were no longer being intentional about fulfilling God’s command. Gen 11:4 says, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” This was a direct turn away from God’s command. As a child I heard this story portrayed as God’s punishment because the people were prideful in wanting to make a name for themselves. I wonder if it could be that God saw the people as simply disobedient, or too inwardly focused on their own desires to remember they had a command from God.
Regardless of the motive for wanting to build a big city and not be scattered, the decision was a huge turning point for human history. In the narrative, God came down, saw the smallness of their dreams and recognized their turning from the purpose given them, to go forth and scatter themselves across the earth. By confusing their language, God scattered the people. They became unable to work with each other because they’d lost the capacity for effective communication. Because God brought linguistic diversity among them, they could no longer work together in a concerted effort. With the diversity of language, they stopped building the city. God’s purpose was reinitiated.
I wonder how often God sees what we consider great or at least pretty good projects, as feeble attempts at greatness, that serve only to knock us off the real mission? God confused the language because as long as they “spoke the same language” they would not accomplish God’s command. Sometimes I sit in meetings where the participants are “all speaking the same language,” i.e. agreeing on what we think is best, getting little done and participating in group think. No one is disagreeing or bringing us back to our initial task or mission. We have no one asking hard questions or pointing out the unintended consequences of our group’s “great idea.” We need the thinking of the other, the one who doesn’t necessarily always “speak our language,” in order to stay on point.
And, there are other times, perhaps a turning point for us, when God calls us to confuse the language by being the one who Does Not speak the same language. In a culture that is beginning to accept or become immune to the language of hate or exclusion or fear what if God were to confuse the language? What if God were to give us the command to be instruments of linguistic confusion in our day. What if instead of letting the language of the day slide by, we were to confuse the conversation by our insistence to speak a language of love, of inclusion and acceptance. Could it be that we would be participating in God bring about a change, something new? For me, a takeaway from the story of Babel is that God uses difference to bring about God’s purpose. How can we be different in our culture so as to bring about God’s purpose of being known by all humankind?
With this story in the background we turn our attention to the story of the apostles celebrating Pentecost. Pentecost was celebrated 50 days after the Celebration of Passover. The holy day commemorated the giving of the Torah and was a time of offering the first fruits of at the temple. In the intervening 50 days between Passover and Pentecost, a lot happened to Jesus’ followers. They had seen Jesus crucified, his lifeless body laid in a borrowed tomb. The women saw him alive, resurrected from the dead, and spoke to him in the Garden. Jesus had appeared to the disciples, in the midst of them, twice. He made breakfast for them on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. He forgave Peter his denials and reinstated him with the command to “feed my sheep.” And, at the end of 40 days after the resurrection he gave them the directive, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father Promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And then, Jesus ascended into the heaven. Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit. They were to stay where they were until the Spirit came.
I submit to you, Jesus’ command for them to stay in Jerusalem may have been comforting for them. They were in Jerusalem with throngs of other observant Jews from all over the known world, celebrating Pentecost. It was familiar after so many unsettling, frightening, grief inducing and exhilarating happenings. They were obedient to Jesus’ last instruction to them.
On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles and at least an additional 120 disciples, gathered together to celebrate, to wait, to hope, for God’s promise to come.
God intervened. The place where they were gathered filled with loud noise, like a violent wind, and fire rested on each of them but did no harm. These three, noise, wind and fire are important because Old Testament prophets had experienced God’s presence in noise and wind and fire. While these manifestations were incredible, they were not the most dramatic acts of God’s intervention that day. What attracted and held the attention of the crowds in Jerusalem was that Jesus’ disciples, as they were filled with the Holy Spirit, began to speak in languages other than their own. It was astounding. God’s intervention made it possible for persons from all over the world to hear of the mighty acts of God in the lives of those gathered and hear their experiences in Jesus. Those of all languages could know the presence and love of God in a different way – through the disciples’ witness of their experiences with Jesus. The ability of the multi-cultural, multi-lingual crowd to hear the disciples’ preaching in their own languages was miraculous. They didn’t know what it meant? How could it be that Galileans, backward fishermen who could barely speak their own language, were able to speak the languages of the 15 different regions of the world mentioned in Acts 2:9 - 11.
Hard stop here. How everyone heard in their own language is not the point. The point is that God intervened in human history again in an amazing way. A turning point different than Babel and yet the same. God intervened to bring about God’s purpose: to be known by his creation—humankind. All of humankind.
Professor Eric Barreto points out that at Pentecost, the Spirit maintains diversity of human language and culture and being, in a way that honors all who were listening to the disciples. This is not a reversal of God’s intervention at Babel. Rather than reversing the multiple languages represented that day, God did not give all present the SAME language rather in the work of the Holy Spirit, all heard the word in their own language. They all heard in their own language. They did not have to be someone they weren’t, they only needed to hear and respond to God’s call.
When they were accused of being inebriated, Peter came to front stage and preached a sermon using the words of the Prophet Joel explaining what they were seeing and hearing. Those present were experiencing Joel’s prophesy coming to fruition. A change in the world, a turning point in which all persons of all cultures, languages and races could know and be known by God the creator, through Jesus the son, empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out and multiply the knowledge of God’s love for all.
So what of us? You and I? What does this mean to and for us? I think it’s a reminder that God has given us purpose – tell the good news of relationship with God. And with that thought, I’m reminded of a quote from St. Francis of Assisi. “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” St. Francis
You may have heard something more akin to “Everywhere you go, preach the gospel and if necessary, use words.”
That is to say, when speaking of being followers of Christ, our actions among our fellow strugglers, speak more than our words ever can. I believe that our world is filled with possible turning points every day. I believe it personally, for myself. I believe it in a corporate sense for us as a church and for all believers actually. Each day we are offered the opportunity to be part of another Turning point, in our place in human history.
This week, I hope we can all live into our encounters with co-workers, family members, or anyone we meet, by wondering what about this specific interchange could be a turning point for us or for them or for both of us. Look for the turning points in your life this week. Ask yourself, “What intervention may God be doing in my life at this very moment?” Notice where God is placing you to preach the good news through words and your actions.