Sermon for June 9th, 2019
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
I'm just curious--how many of you, in the past two weeks have attended (or will attend sometime in the coming two weeks) a graduation ceremony? It's that time of year, right? Caps and gowns, fancy diplomas, pomp and circumstance, proud parents, lavish parties and presents... lots of crying and tearful goodbyes, unbelievable hopes, dreams, and ambitions for the future... and I'm just describing the kindergarten graduation I attended at our church preschool last week!
Graduation day is a big deal in our culture today, and for good reason. It's a celebration of education, of personal and family achievement; it's a transition from one phase of life to the next, both an ending and a beginning all rolled up in one. I want to talk to you today about graduation. And that may seem a little odd for Pentecost Sunday, when we just read the story from Acts that has often been described as the "birthday of the church" -- the day when God sent his Spirit down from heaven to fill the earliest disciples with power and boldness and fire...and the ability to share the gospel across barriers of language and nationality and ethnicity. Happy Birthday, church!
But you see, I think Pentecost is more like a graduation day than a birthday.
When you were born, you didn't have to do a whole lot to prepare yourself for that moment--your mother did all the hard work. On the other hand, anyone who has graduated knows the amount of study, the years of dedication required to earn that diploma, that degree. Jesus' disciples had been sitting at his feet for three long years, studying his teachings. They had followed him across the country watching him feed the hungry, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor. He even sent them out on short internships and field trips to practice what he had taught them. Finally, they had been through the intense emotional roller coaster of crucifixion and resurrection as a grueling final exam. Then they said their goodbyes to their teacher and watched him ascend into heaven.
At Pentecost, the disciples weren't waiting to be born...they were ready to graduate and take on the world.
Likewise, immediately after you were born, you were helpless and had to be sheltered, protected from the dangers of the world for many years by your parents, until you were ready. But at Pentecost, when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, they are far from helpless--we see them boldly and loudly proclaiming the gospel for all to hear. They abandon all shelter and protection, they start risking their lives to carry God's message into far off places. Pentecost is not for helpless babies...it's for trained professionals ready to take on the world!
Pentecost is graduation day.
I understand that up in Norman, Oklahoma, they recently held a graduation ceremony for the University of Oklahoma graduating class of 2019. Any Sooners here today? I'm told that at that graduation, there was a certain young man (Let's call him Bubba) who was a star athlete, but like so many of his fellow Sooners, struggled to meet all his academic requirements. He was one credit short in one class on graduation day, so when he walked across the stage to receive his diploma, the college president stopped him short and said, "I'm sorry Bubba, but I can't let you graduate."
The audience broke out into a chant, thousands of voices all in unison, saying, "Give Bubba a chance! Give Bubba a chance!" Not wanting to look bad in front of so many future alumni donors, the president said, "Alright, alright. If Bubba can answer this one question and prove he's smart enough, I'll him graduate." The crowd went wild. When they had calmed down, the President looked at Bubba and said, "Now Bubba, can you tell me what two plus two equals?" Bubba thought about it for awhile. He counted on his fingers, then took off his shoes and socks and counted on his toes. Sweat broke out on Bubba's forehead, but finally he looked at the college president and said ... "Is it four?"
And the entire crowd once again broke out into a unison chant, saying, "Give him another chance! Give him another chance!"
There are actually two stories in the Bible where God's spirit comes down from heaven and people begin to speak in different languages, and I think both stories are related. In fact, as is often the case with scripture, one can help us better understand the other.
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
This is the story we usually refer to as the "Tower of Babel." It's a great story, and I think it's very, very misunderstood. The usual interpretation of the story, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Mankind gets too big for its britches, too full of itself, and out of pride decides to build a tower into the heavens, rivaling God himself. So God comes down and punishes them, squashing their building and confusing their language so they would never be able to do that again. The end. Moral of the story: Don't be prideful.
But I think that's all wrong. I don't think God cares how tall we build our towers--there are plenty of skyscrapers in the world today. I know prideful people who speak 10 languages, and prideful people who speak just one. In fact, I don't think this is a story about sin and punishment at all. Look again at what God says in verse 6:
"And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." That sounds more like a proud parent than an angry God. In just a few chapters of Genesis, humanity has gone from scattered nomadic tribes barely surviving against the elements and each other, to a cooperative civilization with specialized skills in building and planning -- I think God is proud of his creation.
But there's just one problem, and it's not pride. It's not when they say, "Let us make a name for ourselves" but right after that, when they say, "otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." Their problem isn't pride, it's fear. God told Adam and Eve "be fruitful and multiply and FILL the earth." God told them to GO...and they said, "well, lets build a building, and maybe the world will come to us."
So God confuses their language. In Hebrew the word for confused is בָּלַל (balal), which sounds like babel. But it literally means to mix together. Most other verses where this word appears in the Bible are verses that talk about cooking. God's not punishing themn...he's mixing it up. He's tossing their salad, scrambling their eggs, and adding some spice to their lives!
More importantly, he's kicking them out of the nest. He's telling them, "You're ready! You learned what you were supposed to learn, you've got the skills, here's your diploma, now get out of here!" It's Graduation Day.
Fast forward a few thousand years, to the New Testament and our passage in Acts chapter 2. Where do we find the disciples, those wise and brave students who just spent the last three years studying at the feet of Jesus?
You guessed it. Verse 1: "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place." Uh oh. That's not how you start a movement. That's not how you save the world.
And so once again, God comes down from heaven, this time to literally light a fire underneath them (well, technically above them, but you get the idea). In Genesis, God mixes up their language to get them out of their comfort zone, to split them up. Here in Acts, in the cosmopolitan, multicultural, multilingual city of Jerusalem, God once again mixes up their language, and once again, it's to get them out of their comfort zone, to split them up--so they have the ability to speak and understand those from other cultures and ethnicities. Foreign language requirement for a degree in international relations? Check. Here's your diploma, now get out there and preach!