Listen to the sermon here:
Scripture – Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
Not only heard, but understood. These days in many cities and towns, we find language differences preventing us from communicating with each other. In Pottstown, the most prominent non-English language is Spanish. We do however, find other languages and dialects. How can we be friendly, or helpful, or do government, or business with each other?
In the year that Jesus ascended, after living on earth for 33 years, the tradition or obligation had continued. Jerusalem was t-h-e city. People made pilgrimages to Jerusalem every so often as demanded by the powers that be. This was a hardship for many people. But the command was their guiding principle, to which some pilgrims probably looked forward in pleasant anticipation. But the language barrier in Jerusalem was a hindrance to meaningful interaction and communication. Friendship and comradeship needed to happen by other paths; not by words.
Thankfully, there are the languages of smiles and acts of kindness and helpfulness, but verbal language is necessary for having barriers removed to understanding between people and whole cultures. Government requires verbal understanding; as does religion and commerce; health care and education.
Do you know or remember the account in Genesis of the descendants of Noah? It is Genesis 10 and 11. I read Genesis 11:1-9 from the Contemporary English Version.
At first [the descendants of Noah] spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said: “Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.” But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said: “These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages – then they won’t be able to understand each other. So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
Just a note here about the pronunciation of Babel. Both the dictionary1 and the King James Version of the Bible mark the word Babel to be pronounced with a long a. Another note is that Babylonia was also called Shinar.
Yet another significant note is about the words of the Lord when he said, “Let’s go down …” Who is the us? Who was God inviting to “go down” with him to do something about this over-confident people. Remember, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God” and we are taught that Word, capital W, means Jesus: Jesus, the Son person of God. This Word passage comes from the Gospel of John in chapter 1. It was not only Jesus to whom God was speaking when God said, “Let’s go down …” There is this trio, the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. “Let’s go down …” and so they did. This Trinity caused people to speak in different languages. Confusion reigned with these people who thought they were as powerful as God. They could not communicate.
This is an example of human attempts to be as powerful as God. It continues to happen today. Think of the time in our lives – maybe even yesterday – when we forgot to check with God and went about our business or fun the way our own desires dictated. I certainly can.
When have you been forced to stop in your tracks because you could not communicate with someone. I am reminded of people who have had strokes which affected the connection between their thoughts and their mouth. It is extreme frustration. Of course, often I am trying to communicate with various Spanish speaking persons without knowing more than a hundred Spanish words and in many cases the wrong pronunciation because even though English and Spanish have the same alphabet, different sounds are assigned to those letters. Very frustrating! We can thank those descendants of Noah in those days after the flood for causing frustration, and confusion, this separation among humans.
Please move with me to this New Testament time when Jesus had ascended right in front of the disciples. This day – 10 days after the Ascension – is the day when God temporarily reversed the Tower of Babel episode. This day when people gathered from far and wide, bringing with them their separate language and dialect. Imagine, just imagine, how surprising and amazing that must have been to understand what the disciples were saying in their hometown, Galilean manner of speech. This good news was not to be kept from anyone. Each person needed to know. Each person needed to be empowered to spread this knowledge and this zeal.
It has been one piece of excitement after another ever since the morning we call Easter revealed an empty tomb. Resurrection! It had to be to be shared but language served as a barrier to understanding! Do you remember, Peter spoke to this crowd and 3,000 people were baptized! They lived together and shared their belongings, their money. They became the model for what we have coined in our language as Utopia – an ideal world, a perfect society, a perfect way to live, a perfect manner in which to be in relationship with God – at least for a time.
You may agree that this Utopia did not last long. A problem developed rather quickly. One of the couples could not resist the temptation to hide some of their income. Those two people dropped dead immediately! It is certain that this Utopia did not last 2,000 years. Here we are, speaking different languages again. Here we are, focused on selfish accumulation of wealth. We may experience Utopia for a short while as in an intense relationship that seems like heaven. Or we may have just inherited a large sum of money. Or we could have been gambling and won a terrific lottery bundle. These examples are usually short-lived with some exceptions. A couple may actually enjoy a blessed relationship for all of their lives, being devoted to each other and only to each other. A few people actually care for their big wind-falls wisely which means giving God ten percent of the total including the interest.
Otherwise, for most of us, life is like an egg, gradually acquiring cracks until one day the final crack happens; something like courses in high school which are training young people for life’s realities and how to handle them. Instead of one of those technologically programmed dolls which simulate an actual baby with those many needs, raw eggs are used. This egg shall not become cracked. This egg has to return to class after a weekend without a blemish. Young people readily learn that they are not entering any kind of Utopia. Even high income living has its cracks.
When Pentecost happened with wind and flames and understanding – each in his or her own language, help had arrived with a power-filled, Spirit-filled excitement and it has not disappeared yet. Good communal living is challenging to find. But we have witness of the Holy Spirit’s presence every day and in unexpected ways. This flame of excitement may dim in our lives, but it is still here. We need to fan those flames. We need to gather with people whose flames are burning brightly at the same time that our flames are low. We need the inspiration, the fuel, for higher burning flames. We need to find a congregation whose worship is like a bonfire. We need to make time to listen to the Father, through our beloved Jesus. We need to find a place where the Holy Spirit is blowing mightily. Where is that? How far do we need to go?
Maybe we need to be still, very still and invite the Holy Spirit to find us, whether gently or powerfully. In the Old Testament, the prophet Joel 2:28-29 speaks:
The Lord said, “Later, I will give my Spirit to everyone. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days I will even give my Spirit to my servants, both men and women.”
Maybe we need to find the celebration and join the dance with the Spirit. Natalie Sleeth gives us these words set to Hebrew-style music:
“I will pour out my spirit” saith the Lord, “from on high, And the young shall see visions, and the old, prophesy! All your sons and your daughters shall grow strong and increase, For the fruits of the spirit shall be love, joy, and peace!”
“I will pour out my spirit,” saith the Lord, “day by day; And all those who receive it shall in truth find the way! From their woe and their sorrow they will soon know release, For the fruits of the spirit shall be love, joy, and peace.”
“I will pour out my spirit,” saith the Lord, “forever more. And the faith of my people once again will I restore! For theirs is a land where joy will never cease, For the fruits of the spirit of the Lord are love and peace. Yes, the fruits shall be love and joy and peace!”
Sydney Carter gives us these words as though Jesus is speaking from the song, “Lord of the Dance”:
They cut me down And I leapt up high. I am the life, that will never, never die, I’ll live in you If you’ll live in me. I am the Lord of the Dance said He.
Dance then wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said He. And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the Dance said He.
Can we feel those dancing flames on our shoulders? Can we feel the wind of the Holy Spirit pushing us on the path as we follow the dancing of Jesus? Amen
1Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford University Press. Inc., 1980)