“Understanding Each Other: The Language Problem” – 05-19-13 – Day of Pentecost – Cycle C

Listen to the sermon here:

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104:24-35b Genesis 11:1-9 Romans 8:14-17 John 14:8-17

Robert and Roberto are friends. They have managed to be friends even though they are only in the beginning stages of learning each other’s language. This is commendable. Robert is not expecting Roberto to do all the learning. Robert is willing to learn Spanish while Roberto is learning English. They are teaching each other by making motions, by using a Spanish-English dictionary, and some plain guessing.

We find ourselves thinking that it would be great if we all spoke the same language. Nations may not be fighting each other. It is in the communication that issues are resolved; that we find common thinking, common interests. We may be thinking that the common language should be English – at least here in the United States. The fair way to decide which language the world should be speaking is to analyze which language is used by the most people. Unfortunately, wealth and power is probably making that decision. The language which is spoken by the wealthiest and most powerful nation wins this contest.

But, be careful! Wealth and power are most likely not God’s measuring stick for favoring the inhabitants of a land. We have this powerful passage from Genesis in which the inhabitants wanted to emphasize or even gauge their power. It is the story of the Tower of Babel. This story happens in the early years after the flood as humans multiplied again. They evidently roamed. It seems that they found themselves in the area that later was called Babylonia.

Somehow these people decided to build a high, high tower. Building “steps” from earth to heaven is not a new idea. This particular “steps” architecture was planned to be taller than any other “steps to heaven.” They had great plans and started well. They understood each other and had the same goal. As the story unfolds, God observed what was happening. God, in his jealous wisdom, realized that if this were not stopped, these people would become very proud and increasingly ambitious to do what they wanted, whatever grand ideas they could imagine. These people would no longer think of God.

Are you feeling uncomfortable that I used the word “jealous” to refer to God. Well, our God is a jealous God. We remember, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” These people, all of whom were descended from Noah, were making their own achievements their gods. God was not pleased about this attitude. No, No, No! God realized that if he did not stop this trend, the people would simply stop being dependent on God. Does God seem to be manipulative here? Is this the God we worship? Is this how we think about our God?

We may need to be thinking of our God as a Chief Executive Officer – a CEO. One style of being a CEO is to make decisions without consulting the custodian or even Vice Presidents down the line. Especially in the Old Testament scriptures, God does seem to be mostly autocratic without much compassion. Of course, we understand that God wears various hats in the scheme of things. In this case, with these Noah descendants who have started a tower, God claims the upper hand and – whamo – the people can no longer understand each other. Not only that. This account says that God scattered the people. Picture a wind storm with people flying from one part of the known earth to the other! Or maybe they just packed their meager belongings and found themselves walking away from each other.

They could not communicate. It is like opening our mouths as English-speaking people and finding Russian words flowing from our mouths to our ears. Or, it is as if you had a stroke or some similar affliction and you were thinking one word but to your dismay another word was being spoken from your lips. Very frustrating!

This Babel experience happened vaguely in the 2300 B.C. section of history – about 10 generations before Abram. People increased in number but still spoke different languages as generation after generation arrived on the scene. The years marched on year after year until a baby was born quietly in the night. This is a new day. New things are happening. The year of this baby became the most important year in history to-date. Our present count of years starts with the birth of this baby theoretically. We now know that this calculation is 4 to 6 years late but the intent was for the year of the baby to become the dividing line between prophecy and fulfillment.

Our belief system is based on this fulfillment. We can believe that the Son was always one of the three persons of God. We find references throughout the Old Testament which become as gems in our delight that God had this giant plan and Jesus is the promised Messiah. I personally accepted the idea of Jesus being the promised Messiah without questioning. It seemed natural as I learned this as a child. Why question something that seemed so right? I am natured that way. But now as an adult, it is like an exciting game to find and document the references in the Hebrew scriptures which seem to shine like pieces of mica near the surface of the earth; they catch and reflect the powerful and revealing rays of the sun.

The century following the birth of this baby provides spectacular events and transformations. The baby grew, taught, healed, died, was buried, lived again, walked the earth for 40 days, was lifted into heaven in plain sight of his followers, and promised them that the Father would send the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost – now known as the birthday of the church. This is the day the Holy Spirit came in full force.

The Holy Spirit was always part of God, just as Jesus was. God is still a threesome – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ten days after the Ascension of Jesus in which he returns to heaven, we find this mighty wind and the little tongues of flame jumping here and there on people’s shoulders and heads – bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. But, the most momentous occurrence is the language. The Holy Spirit enabled various languages to flow from the lips of the followers of Jesus who were gathered at that time in that spot in Jerusalem. People of various languages who were in hearing distance were amazed that they could understand what these Jesus people were saying. It certainly caught their attention and became an occasion of gospel-spreading.

Translation was automatically happening. Communication was happening. It seems to me that God was relenting from his Babel edict. This was a new day. This is a new day! Did this understanding continue past this day in history? Apparently not. We are still spending time and money to learn the language of our partners in the world. But when it happens, the communication is cause for celebration. Language can make or prohibit improvement; friendship can become a previous friendship with slips of the tongue or intentional verbal expressions which hurt.

What were the followers of Jesus saying in these various languages? They were telling the story about this baby who appeared one holy and presumably cold night in a stable no less. There could have been much worse places. Some babies in our world are born in awful places, in awful conditions. Our very own Savior was born in a feeding trough. However, somewhere I heard it emphasized that this was a freshly cleaned stable. God arranged for that to be so, I am sure. There was clean hay. Can you imagine the fragrance that greeted Mary and Joseph as they followed the innkeeper into the animal barn? Can you see the clean sparkling water in the water trough? What a beginning for this life on earth!

Now picture the wine at the Last Supper – probably clean and sparkling. Now picture the cheap wine/vinegar poured on the sponge on a hyssop stalk. Can you smell this bitterness? Now picture the dead body being carried to a donated tomb. But, glory of glories, picture the alive body on the morning of the third day! Can you just imagine! Where does this story go from here? This story, being told in many various languages, is moving directly to the saving of our souls. Jesus ascended to the Father in the heavenly kingdom. This baby, thirty-three years later, sent a substitute who reinforced the concept of our God being an awesome God.

A constant companion, a constant guide, a constant advocate is this Holy Spirit who did not sneak on the scene but arrived in spectacular display and presence! John 14 includes the announcement of Jesus that the Father will send an Advocate to take the place of Jesus on earth. Advocate refers to the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that this Advocate is the Spirit of Truth. Sometimes we say, “What is the truth?” The Bible is confusing. Well, it was not written by one person. It is a holy combination of chosen material written by many people. We say that it is “inspired” which means that the Holy Spirit guided the authors and the persons who made the decisions about which writings to include. The dilemma about what is the truth needs to be investigated in communication with the Holy Spirit.

The quest for understanding and the quest for communication with each other is an unending whirlwind. We are not on our own. We have the Pentecost experience – the visible living flame tongues, the powerful wind, and especially the language barrier removed – on which to base our continuing efforts toward communication with all people on earth. It is the only way to peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14: 27 (NRSV) You may be saying that we are considering two varieties of peace – peace between peoples of the world, and a personal peace within us. I maintain that they are siblings or at least cousins. Even while being bold in relations between nations, we need to operate from peace within while we are negotiating the peace between nations. Holy Spirit, come upon us in your powerful but loving way. Amen