The language of God
Today our services have special features to remind us that this is the day on which God gave us the Holy Spirit. We read the lesson from Acts 2 in many languages to tell the story of Pentecost. We wear red to symbolize the Holy Spirit at work in us. We have balloons to remind us of the tongues of flame that empowered the disciples. And now we have this marvelous new red frontal on the altar that Frances Barnett made to remind us where we get the Holy Spirit.
As much fun as we have celebrating Pentecost, though, these festivities definitely are not the real event. When the Holy Spirit shows up, we don’t end up in the same place that we were before. The Holy Spirit brings whole new realities into being. Our festivities are fun, though.
Perhaps today’s lessons are very familiar to you, as they are to me. But this year I see something in them that I never noticed before, and I hear the language of God in them. This year I see that the Tower of Babel in our first lesson bears a certain resemblance to the Upper Room in which Jesus’ disciples were gathered on that first Pentecost. And this year I notice that God moves us from our towers, from our places apart out into the world, letting me hear that the language of God boils down to two words: “go,” and “tell.”
Clearly, the first Pentecost and the events of our Old Testament lesson relate to each other. Both are stories involving a babble of human languages. In one way, Pentecost reversed what had happened at the Tower of Babel. At Babel, God jumbled human speech into many languages and scattered people over the face of the earth (that’s the “go” part). At Pentecost, God provided a universal translator and sent people out into the world so that the people who didn’t yet know about Jesus could become disciples, too. So today I see that there is a point to the “scattering” that God does (to get beyond ourselves and to “tell” others about God).
In our first lesson, the people built a city to make a name for themselves. And in this city the people also built themselves a clubhouse, a tower “with its top in the heavens,” a place in which to worship God.
Now the traditional interpretation of this Tower story is that these were prideful acts, ones that in some way revealed that these people were trying to be God. According to the traditional interpretation, God noticed the people’s pride and intervened.
However, another theory about this story is becoming fashionable. The new theory is that this is not so much a story of our pride, but how our early ancestors tried to be exclusive and claim God for ourselves. They built a tower—like people do—with a good intention; their intention was to reach God. Maybe they wanted more, wanted to BE God, but the tower definitely involved a movement toward the divine.
I’ll bet that the liturgy and the music in the tower were heavenly. This city would have been a very close-knit community—they had their own tower, after all. Everything would have been lovely, perfect really.
Well, almost everything. Our lesson tells us that these people were afraid of something. Do you remember what they feared? The people feared being scattered abroad, don’t want to have to leave their own heavenly tower and lose their identity.
So what was God’s response? Did God say, “Well done, you good and faithful servants. You’ve built me a tower!” We don’t know; the story is silent on this subject. But in a way God did hint that the people of Babel were superior to other people. God said, “There isn’t anything these people can’t do.” In other words, God reasoned something like this: “These people are so good at this, let’s send them out of the tower and see how they do out there. And to make sure that they don’t go off somewhere else and build themselves a new tower in which to shut themselves off and worship me, I’ll confuse their language. I’ll make them GO.” So God blessed them by making their worst fear come true: he scattered them down out of their tower and out into the world.
This is the end of the Tower of Babel story, but this isn’t where the story ends. Just for a minute, think of all of scripture between our Genesis lesson and our Acts reading as one big ellipsis, one big “dot, dot, dot.” All of what transpires in the God story between Babel and Pentecost is, in fact, the story of humanity being scattered, being divided, of seeking God and finding God and of then re-enclosing God in a tower of worship that’s reserved just for us.
Of course God is at work in the “dot, dot, dot,” drawing us close to the divine and then scattering us abroad so that we don’t keep God just for ourselves. God even provided a way to redeem our tower-building urges. God came among us and showed us unequivocally how to be one with each other without being exclusive. So we killed him—or tried to kill him; there’s just no killing God. BUT God forgave us and sprang back to life again, then rose to heaven while telling us he would send a helper, an Advocate, his Spirit, so that we could do better. All this is what happened in the “dot, dot, dot” period.
So now here we are at the Day of Pentecost. There were 120 Jesus-followers, all in one place, in an Upper Room, observing a Jewish holy festival together. Lovely worship; heavenly music.
This was 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection and 10 days after he had ascended into heaven. The disciples were together, talking about God’s “deeds of power,” as the lesson tells us. Which of God’s “deeds of power” do you think the disciples were talking about, this soon after Jesus’ Resurrection, his post-Resurrection appearances, and his Ascension into heaven?
As the 120 disciples were talking—testifying, really—about all that had happened, there came a sound like a violent wind, and some kind of energy became evident around them. Suddenly these 120 people began to speak in a language they didn’t even know—not gibberish, because those who came to see what the racket was all about began hearing those testimonies about “deeds of power,” each in their own language.
You know this story. But do you know WHY the Holy Spirit gave those 120 people this ability? They needed to be able to leave their Upper Room, leave their tower, and go out into the world and share the Good News about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to carry out the Great Commission, the instruction that Jesus gave to his followers to tell the whole world about him.
Jesus promised to send us a helper—and he gave us the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is how God inspires us to do God-work in the world, and how God provides every single thing we need to do what God calls us to do. The Holy Spirit also helps us to stay focused on Jesus, and to not be so mesmerized by the beautiful towers that we build for ourselves.
In very practical and concrete terms, the Holy Spirit is what plants God’s inspiration within us. Every time we have an urge towards God or a glimpse of God, this too is the work of the Holy Spirit. This means that the Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds and givrd us abilities we never knew we had to help us in the process.
Peter, that “apostle with the foot-shaped mouth,” opened his mouth here and preached a sermon that resulted in 3,000 new converts—just like that. This is not the Peter we knew, but a Peter who has been transformed by the Holy Spirit, somehow, into a gifted preacher and leader.
I, too, have experienced Pentecost. The Spirit blew me out of my own tower of comfort ten years ago, and has been transforming me ever since. My Pentecost story is a story for another day, but I can testify that God is always calling us out of our comfort zone into new ventures in ministry.
How about you? Where is your tower of comfort? What do you fear that is keeping you there? And how is the Holy Spirit at work in your life and in our life together? Maybe God will bless us by giving us what we fear.