Happy birthday to us, the Church! No doubt many of you who have friends that attend other churches will hear that some sang “Happy birthday” today and that others shared cake to commemorate the birth of the Church. Pentecost does mark the day on which the promised Holy Spirit was sent to empower His people. So, it is really the day that commemorates the birth of the Church. It is important to note, and not just a fine distinction, however, that the focus of this day ought not be the birth of the Church. Our focus should be on the fact that our Lord had a plan of salvation, and, in His wonderful mysterious purposes, He chose to call a Bride to be His representative, His ambassador, on earth! Said a different way, we should be celebrating the fact that God chose, for reasons known only to His inscrutable reasons, to use men and women and children like you and me to share His love with the world. He chose to use those whom He had redeemed to be the bearers of the Good News and midwives of the new creation which He has begun to birth. That is what we should be celebrating, not the creation of the Church for its own purposes. Nowhere is the significance of that distinction more evident than in our Genesis and Acts readings this morning.
Our reading from Genesis this morning focuses on the Tower of Babel. Everyone learns this story early in Sunday School. The people of the earth are building a big tower, one that will reach to the heavens. And God comes down and scatters them, giving them different languages in the process. Unfortunately, that is probably all the attention that we give to the Tower of Babel. As with all other stories in the Bible, though, there is a lot of meaning or meanings contained therein.
Part of that to which we need to pay attention is its place in the narrative of God’s people. God has preserved the family of Noah during the Great Flood. All of these people in the story of the tower, we are told in chapter 10, are the descendants of those who survived with Noah. They are growing in number to the point that, by verse 4 of our reading today, they fear they will be spread over the face of the whole earth. They do not wish to be spread out too far. And so they determine to build a tower. Those of us who have travelled to Chicago or another major city understand the appeal of the city skyline in the distance. Suburbanites often consider themselves citizens of those cities with skylines for as long as they can see the towers. How far across in diameter is Chicagoland? Metropolitan NYC? DFW Metroplex? Atlanta? Even if one lives in cities an hour out, they often consider themselves part of the skyline. That was the sense of belonging that Noah’s descendants were trying to create. Maybe. . . .
You see, there is also meaning in words. The name of the tower is Babel. You probably think of that name in English terms. Their languages were confused so that they could no longer speak to one another and be understood. The noises would have sounded like Babel. But Babel is really the conflation of two different words. On the Babylonian side is babilu, meaning “gate of God.” On the Hebrew side of its etymology would be the word balal, meaning “to confuse.” Why the name choice? Babylon, of course, will gain notoriety for its impressive ziggurats. True, ziggurats are not shaped like towers, but they were meant to provide access to the heavens. Each proper ziggurat was meant to have seven levels, each representing one of the planetary gods, who served as intermediaries in their cosmology, between the heavens and earth. If one wished to approach the heavens, one needed to pass through each of the levels of of the ziggurat, presumably making the appropriate offerings and prayers. If the purpose of the ziggurats applies to the tower, the tower literally was thought of as a gateway to the gods. Hence, part of the name.
Of course, the Hebrew people would have had a much different understanding of how to reach God. undoubtedly, they understood that such effort is the way human beings struggle to approach God. We strive and strain and create our own obstacles. When left to our own devices, we human beings confuse ourselves as to how best to approach the throne of God. And though the Hebrews will know better, they, too, will fail to keep Him and His instruction at the forefront of their lives and worship. The priests, Pharisees, and other Temple elites eventually will create a system of worship that earns the criticism of Jesus for burdening and confusing the people. Thankfully, as the story from Acts reminds us, His ways are not our ways!
No doubt some of us listening to the readings today might be tempted to think of Pentecost as the anti-Babel. In some ways, it is. The Gospel, the message of salvation, is what underlies the speech of those disciples speaking in our lesson today. But notice the hearers are not given ears to hear in the blessed language of Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. The disciples, instead, are given tongues by the working of the Holy Spirit to proclaim in all the languages represented the Gospel of Christ. Each disciple has a story to tell, and the Holy Spirit empowers each to tell that story in a way that can be heard by various listeners.
Sitting here 2000 years later, you might be tempted to scorn those who heard the speech and the rushing wind and, yet, did not turn to the Gospel. Despite the fact that a large number of those speaking in these various languages were fisherman from the Sea of Galilee region, a region not known for being a place of excellent education or Rosetta Stone-like language programs at this time in history, a number of people scoff at the obvious miracle. These fishermen are drunk! Peter, we are told, full of the Spirit stands and proclaims that those present are witnesses to the fulfillment of the prophesy spoken by Joel. Reminding his audience that it is far too early for them to be drunk, Peter points out that the event they are experiencing, Pentecost, has been foretold by God. As with so many of His miracles, God speaks, and then He acts. By the very occurrence of this miracle, the sons and daughters of Judea, gathered from all parts of the empire, know that they are in “the last days” of Joel. The Spirit of God has been poured out on all flesh, and all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved! Yet, how often do we preach by example and word and experience the same scorn? How often do we find our invitations rebuffed?
There is in the Church a tendency to focus on the experience of Pentecost as the event which empowers both the Church and its collective members to accomplish the ministry God has given His people to do. There is nothing wrong with that understanding, except that it falls short of the true purpose and power with which we have been blessed by virtue of our adoption into His family through the blood and body of Christ, our Lord. Yes, Pentecost marks for us a fulfillment of the promise that He will send the Advocate and give us incredible gifts of power, but it also gives us our purpose. The gifts of power that we have been given, whether they are healing ministries, ministries of encouragement, ministries of intercession, provision ministries, gifts of tongues--and this list goes on and on--, is for the express building up of His kingdom. Just as the Church is not birthed for its own sake and purpose, neither are we gifted with power and authority for our own sake or for our own self-defined purpose. You and I are called and equipped for His purposes, for the building up of His kingdom and the proclamation of His Gospel. Exclamation point.
Far too often, we forget the who we are and what we are called to do. Like those people in Genesis, we may be swayed by the construction of a bigger edifice. We may come to believe that a particular sacrifice or series of sacrifices on our part will lead us to God. We may even come to believe that we were worthy of God’s grace with respect to those around us. Pentecost reminds us that we have been given a mission. You and I are empowered to go forth into the world proclaiming the saving works of God. We are called to go forth into the world preaching by word and example of His grace. And, we are very much like our brothers and sisters who experienced this miracle described in Acts today.
How so? Each one of us here gathered has a unique testimony. We may think all our stories are the same, but each of us here has been on a different journey with God. As a result, even though we all speak English, we all have different languages. Looking around this morning, I could go from face to face pointing out your gifts, your story, your language. Each of you and me are uniquely equipped to teach people about the love of God expressed through the work and person of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. I was raised in West Virginia, I studied classics, I worked in the financial industries for fourteen years. My background is crazy different from yours! I should probably be working among hillbilly bankers to be most effective for God’s glory! Don’t laugh, they need to hear the Gospel, too. Both of them. Just as do the people in your life whom God has given you the task of sharing His grace. Whether you are a factory line worker, a native Iowan, a child of a farmer, a widow or widower, suffering from mental illness or addiction, retired, healthy or suffering disease, a cancer survivor or a cancer sufferer--and this list could truly go on and on--, you have a language all your own; and there are people in your life who speak that language far better than they do what we call English!
The miracle of Pentecost of which we read about today is about the gift of tongues. All that God has done has been for the purpose of providing testimony of His saving love to a world that, like the scoffers in our story today, the world simply cannot accept. The purpose of Pentecost, however, is the reminder that all our gifts are from Him and for His inscrutable purposes. We do not determine our purpose. We work for His. And because He has reached into each one of our lives, no matter where we were, we each have been empowered to speak uniquely of His saving grace and power. To those not yet a member of the Church, we may sound drunk or stupid. But to those who are seeking to be found, to know that they are loved, by God, ours is the sound of angelic choirs and incredible hope. If God can take miserable sinners like me and like you, and by His empower grace and Spirit transform us into heralds of His Gospel, what can He not do in the lives of those around us? That, brothers and sisters, is our hope. That, brothers and sisters, is our purpose. We leave this sanctuary, this place of worship and thanksgiving, and we head out into the world serving, teaching, and loving others into the kingdom. From time to time we might reach across backgrounds, the Spirit can certainly accomplish that. But, for the most part, you and I are called to speak our own language, our own understanding of His love for us, and His love for others, into their lives. The best way we can do that, of course, is to share how we have been redeemed, how we have been transformed. It is in that sense that we have experienced the anti-Babel.
Such a call, brothers and sisters, is not easy. Many of those of whom we read about this morning were called to lay down their lives for the Lord in the building up of the Church, and so the ministry given to them by our Lord closely mirrored Christ’s. But what those in the early Church learned and you and I have to remind ourselves is that this magnificent plan of salvation belongs to the Lord. He is its architect. He is its offering. He is its hope. You and I are but heralds, ambassadors, representatives of the One who saves. We do well this Feast of Pentecost to remember that He has called us to His mission. What unites us is not a culture, not a language, not a heritage, and certainly not a building. Indeed, these aspects of our lives can be very different. What unites us, though, is our experience of His offering love from the hard wood of the cross, of the joy of His empty tomb, and of that gift of purpose and hope with which the Holy Spirit anoints us! Seeing His redemptive purposes at work in our own lives uniquely equips us to speak to those redemptive purposes in the lives of those around us. That is the significance of this day and the significance of all our calls!