A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Pentecost ~ Genesis 11:1-9, and Acts 2:1-8, 11-18
We’re starting today with the famous story of the tower built in the land of Shinar – except we don’t call it that.
We all know it as the tower of…?
Let’s start a fight! The word b-a-b-e-l rhymes with what? Raise your hand when I get to your pronunciation!
Table? Scrabble? Hobble? Or is it something else?
The answer is…it depends!
The proper Hebrew is pronunciation is baw-Bell with emphasis on the 2nd syllable.
But the proper English, according to the dictionary, rhymes with ‘table’ – so it’s Bay-bull.
But many of us learned it as babble, which sounds like confusion, and also sounds like Babylon, which is where the land of Shinar actually is, so maybe that’s right?
It doesn’t really matter. Pronounce it however you like!
My point is that even though we’re all English speakers here we can’t agree on how it should be pronounced. Add in multiple languages, and translations from ancient languages, and it’s a recipe for confusion!
Language can be confounding.
Eventually I’m going to make a big point about language and communicating and understanding, but for now I was just looking for a fun way to get started!
Before I go any further I just want to say the obvious that this story is just a story.
It’s never meant to be accurate history. It’s a teaching story – so we need to look carefully at it to learn its lessons!
The tower of…Babel (however you say it) story happens right after the Noah’s ark story. That’s important for interpreting it. After the flood the first thing we hear about is a story about how the people came to one place, under one language, and began to build an audacious, amazing tower. One language, working together – what’s the problem?
The problem is arrogance!
The problem is that God has repeatedly told humankind to “spread out and fill the whole earth” (Genesis 1:28, 9:1) – and here in Genesis 11, having been given a clean slate after the flood, the first thing humankind does is gather together in one place under one language.
God says “spread out.”
Humanity says, “Nope, we’re staying right here – and we’re going to build a tower that reaches the heavens – because we’re just as important and good as God is! We’ll be equal with God!”
Yikes! Friends, that’s called rebellion!
But instead of punishing humankind for this rebellion of arrogance – again – God chooses to reinforce God’s desire that humankind should spread out and fill the whole earth.
Do they like it? Of course not!
It’s like being told that vegetables are actually better for you than chocolate chip cookies! We may not like it, but it’s right!
So the people are scattered – not as punishment, but as a righting of the course.
A scattered, diverse humanity is God’s plan. One in love, but diverse in identity and expression.
So now let’s turn to the story of the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost. Just by way of background, Pentecost is a Greek word for the Jewish pilgrimage festival called Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks – commemorating the giving of the Law on Sinai – Moses, tablets, all that. We know Pentecost as a hugely important Christian day, but it’s roots are Jewish.
It’s called Pentecost (meaning 50th day) because it came 50 days after Passover. And just like on Passover, Jerusalem would have been bursting with pilgrims – Jews from all over the place flocking to the city for the festival. That’s why the long list of countries (that we mercifully left out of the reading) is there – to explain why people from all over, who speak all kinds of languages, are all together. The people have been scattered in diversity, and they have gathered together for worship.
Let’s turn to the text.
I think we all probably know the story well. While the disciples are gathered, presumably in worship, (Acts 2:2) suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
I love the imagery of the Holy Spirit blowing as a wind, but if you read this carefully it suggests that what they experienced was a “sound” like wind.
A sound – a powerful sound that reverberated so resoundingly that it filled the entire house.
Isn’t that fantastic?!
Have you ever stood in front of a loud speaker, like at a concert or something, and you can feel the vibrations of the music actually buzzing in your body?
Wind blows and musses up your hair. You feel it, but mostly on the outside (until you breathe it in, of course!).
But sound reverberates and moves your whole body from the inside out.
Spirit doesn’t just stir and blow – Spirit resounds and shakes your very being.
It’s a very powerful, moving, pulsating image.
I always struggle with the next bit though.
Something like tongues of fire rested on them. It’s a curious, colourful, and confusing image. It’s certainly been well depicted in art! You can’t paint sound resounding but you can paint tongues of fire.
But the part that I struggle with is Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Filled with the Spirit, I get! Speaking other languages is odd.
It has to be more than just a parlour trick.
It has to be more than just a dazzling display of newness to show off that something special has happened.
It has to be useful. Useful for what? That’s the question!
What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit being experienced so deeply?
Surely, part of it is to build up the receiver. As one receives the Spirit and it resounds so powerfully one is empowered, and strengthened, and feels much closer and in deeper communion with the Presence of God. So that’s a great thing.
But spirituality isn’t just for our own benefit!
We receive so we can be loved and strengthened, but also so we can share that love and strength with others and help them experience it too. So we need an outward component here.
Acts 2:6-8 And at this sound (notice it’s the sound!) the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard (the disciples) speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
And now we see it! It’s not just a parlour trick. The point is about communication.
The ability to speak in different languages is really interesting, and totally unnecessary!
Think about it.
These are people from all over the place, but they’re all Jews, and they’ve all come for the purpose of celebrating their own spiritual heritage. In other words, they haven’t been transported into the middle of a strange new land. They’ve come home.
It’s not like you or I suddenly finding ourselves in the middle of Beijing or Moscow and not having a clue how to speak the language.
These are Jews come home. They all speak Hebrew! They share that common language.
If the disciples had been filled with the Spirit, and been propelled into the street, and started speaking about God’s amazing Presence in Hebrew then everyone on that street – no matter where they came from – would have been able to understand.
So why speak in different languages?
I think it’s as simple as this: you hear more deeply in your “mother tongue” – in the language you are at home in. That’s what it means when it says that all the people heard the disciples speaking in “our own native language.” I like to call it your heart language.
Speaking Hebrew they could have all understood.
Speaking in their mother tongues, their heart language, they understood far more deeply.
The power and the presence of God wasn’t just being communicated – it was being shared heart to heart – spirit to spirit – by the Spirit.
Remember the tower of Babel story? Remember how God emphasized the value of diversity and uniqueness?
The Pentecost story celebrates that same spirit of diversity.
Each person hears of God’s love in their own unique way.
Each person receives the message of God’s awesomeness in their own unique context.
There is no one single way to hear – and therefore to speak – of God’s love.
There’s no one single interpretation.
There’s no one single book, or style of music, or liturgical shape, or denomination that is the “right” one, or even the best one.
There’s my heart and your heart – both yearning for the Spirit, both yearning for God’s loving Presence, both needing it for different reasons and in different ways.
One size definitely does not fit all.
I remember seeing this image on the interwebs that showed a one-way sign and Jesus’ name, suggesting that there’s only one way to know God. And, of course it just happens to be the way that is known and comfortable for the person insisting on that one way.
How utterly arrogant that is!
It’s that same closed-minded and destructive spirit that fueled colonialism and empire.
It’s the same wrong-headed and oppressive spirit that’s fueling much of the legislation limiting women’s rights to autonomy over their own bodies.
We know what’s best, we know what’s right, you will conform to our superior interpretation.
To the arrogant tower builders in Babylon God said “No. I love diversity.”
To the hearts of pilgrims at Pentecost God said “Hear this in your heart – in your diversity and uniqueness – that is where my Spirit flourishes!”
And to us – the people of God in this mostly white, mostly homogeneous, mostly socio-economically similar congregation – how does God speak?
In one way, with one message? Not a chance!
Do you think everyone listening to me speak today is going to hear the same message, or even the message that I think I’m giving?
Not a chance!
Remember our rhyming game at the beginning. Even here, even among all this seeming sameness, there is tremendous diversity.
And God celebrates that.
You don’t have to have my experience to be faithful, or the person two rows over.
You have your own experience of God and it’s entirely unique.
And if, like those disciples in that upper room, you allow yourself to be filled with the Spirit, you allow your whole being to utterly resound and reverberate with the power and presence of God, then amazing things will flow forth from you as you strive to share your heart with other hearts.
Acts 2:17-18 I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
To prophesy is to speak forth of the things of God – to boldly share the message that God has inspired within you.
Notice who gets to speak forth? Sons and daughters – young and old persons – and EVEN slaves, both men and women – the lowest of the low are celebrated and honoured with the ability to share forth God’s love and God’s blessings – heart to heart – spirit to spirit.
It’s not just those of us who are male, pale, and stale who are called to do this – ALL are called, and empowered, and spirit-filled to share God’s love.
All people, all of God’s wondrous diversity, even you.
May God’s Pentecost Spirit bless the diversity and uniqueness that is you, and may you be filled, and propelled into the world, sharing God’s love and power, heart to heart, spirit to spirit, in your own unique way.
Babble on, my friends!