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 right at that moment, the entire University of Oklahoma class of 2019 jumps to their feet and shouts in unison, "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 great pride decides to build a tower into the heavens, in a misguided attempt to rival God himself. So God comes down and punishes them for this vanity, squashing their tower and confusing their language so they will never be able to do that again. The end. Moral of the story: Don't be prideful.
But if that were true... why are there so many skyscrapers in most of the world's largest cities today? Did God change his mind? And if God doesn't want people to understand each other, he must really hate software like Rosetta Stone, Duo Lingo, and Google Translate.
No, I think the story of the tower of Babel is not, ultimately, a story about mankind's sin and God's punishment. If you read closely, never once does God actually condemn what the people of Babel are doing. In fact, he says this: "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 like a compliment to me. Humanity has gone from scattered nomadic tribes barely surviving against the elements and against each other, to a cooperative civilization with specialized skills in building and planning. I think at this moment, God is proud of his creation!
But there is one problem, and this is where the story of Babel and the story of Pentecost converge: We read that the people of Babel came to the land of Shinar, and "settled" there. They want to make their tower, and a name for themselves because "otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." They want to stick together. They want to stay put. They had forgotten God's command to Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the whole earth."
The same is true of the disciples at Pentecost. The last thing Jesus said to them before ascending into heaven was "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation." And then we read in Acts 2:1, "When the day of Pentecost had come" (in other words, 50 whole days later), "they were all together in one place."
In the Babel story and the Pentecost story, God sees that his people are ready, and God's Spirit comes down from heaven to give them a gentle push out the door.
Not long after I graduated from high school, my parents sold our house in El Paso, moved to Austin, and bought a new house...with one less room. It was a subtle hint, and I got it. There would be no moving back in for me.
But this "push" out the door is not just a message for the people of ancient Israel, the disciples of Jesus, or even the recent graduates among us. It's a message for you and me today. Here's what I mean:
Imagine if your son or daughter came home from college one day and told you, "Mom, Dad, I've decided I don't need to actually graduate. I don't need a career. I'm just going to stay in college for the rest of my life. You can afford that, right?"
And yet, how many of us in the church sit through countless sermons, countless Sunday school classes and bible studies over countless years...and we have yet to graduate? We have yet to go out into the world and actually DO the things we learned, to actually teach others what we have been taught; lead others as we have been led.
Please don't misunderstand me--I do believe, passionately, in lifelong education. But not if it's just an excuse to put things off--as in:
"I don't really know the Bible well enough to teach it to anyone else."
"I could never go on a mission trip--that's not MY thing!"
"I can't contribute my (fill in the blank here) time/money/skills to the church--I'm not ready yet. Maybe someday... later..."
Then look out. If you've ever caught yourself saying these things, God might be about to knock down your tower, or light a fire underneath you. What are you waiting for? A diploma?
When we observe Pentecost, we are celebrating the fact that God has looked down upon us from the heavens and said, "Look at them! They are ready, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. All they need is a little push."
A mother was watching her son graduate from high school, and as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma, he stumbled and fell. He was a rather large young man, and so when he hit the floor of the makeshift wooden stage, he knocked a whole in the planks and fell through the stage, disappearing completely. The mother, of course, was absolutely mortified. But the boy's father, seeing her dismay, leaned over and calmly said, "Don't worry, dear. It's just a stage he's going through."
Whatever stage of life you are going through, I hope you'll ask yourself this question: When will you graduate? When will you go out into the world, beyond your comfort zone, and finally DO that thing that God has been calling you, nudging you, pushing you to stop reading about, stop studying, and actually DO?
You are ready. God is proud. And the world is waiting for the message that you bring.