Sermon for May 19th, 2013
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.
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.’
Last week was final exams for all of our UTEP college students, so I'm glad to see they have survived and are still with us. I've heard it said that if God had been a college student at the beginning of time, instead of creating the world in six days and then resting on the seventh, he would have put it all off until the last day, pulled an all-nighter, and then hoped no one would notice.
We are entering the season of graduation...UTEP's was yesterday, most of the area high schools will be in a few weeks, and later today I will be speaking at the baccalaureate service for Radford High School. Somehow I think I must have gotten my sermons mixed up, because I'll be talking to Radford's graduating Seniors about Faith, Hope, and Love, while in today's sermon to you, I'll be talking about...graduation. Must've been that all-nighter I pulled when writing this week's sermons.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, which is often referred to as the "Birthday" of the church. There is certainly something to this, because in the same chapter as today's scripture passage, we read about the first converts to Christianity, who "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." These are the things that today we still practice, and consider to be central to what it means to be the church. In Acts chapter 2, the church was born.
But there's another way to look at Pentecost, another analogy that fits here, perhaps even better than "birthday" and it's "graduation day." When you were born, chances are you didn't have to do a whole lot to prepare yourself for that moment (instead, you can thank your mother for the hard work in that event). On the other hand, anyone who has graduated knows the amount of work, the years of dedication required to earn that diploma, that title. 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 final exam of the crucifixion and the resurrection. They said their goodbyes to their teacher and watched him ascend into heaven. At Pentecost, they weren't waiting to be born...they were ready to graduate and take on the world.
Likewise, immediately after you were born, most of us were helpless and had to be sheltered, protected from the dangers of the world for many years by our parents, until we were ready. But at Pentecost, when the disciples are given their flaming diplomas by the Spirit of God, they are far from helpless--we see them boldly and loudly proclaiming the gospel for all to hear. They abandon all shelter and protection, risking their very lives to carry God's message into the world. Pentecost is not for helpless babies...it's for trained and eager graduates!
There's a very similar story in our Old Testament reading today. It's a familiar story--the Tower of Babel--and one that I think is often misunderstood. A common understanding of the story of Babel is that Mankind got too big for its britches, too full of itself, and out of pride decided to build a tower into the heavens, rivaling God himself. So God came down and punished them, confusing their language so they'd never be able to do that again.
I think the 20th century conclusively proved that God doesn't really care how tall we build our towers. And 21st century technologies like Google Translate and other translation software will most likely prove that it doesn't really bother God when we all understand each other across linguistic barriers. No, I think the story of the tower of Babel is not about sin and punishment. Never once does God 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 each other, to a cooperative civilization with bricks and mortar--that's early technology! I think God is proud of his creation.
But there is one problem, both in Babel, and in the Book of Acts: 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 earth."
The same is true of the disciples. The last thing Jesus said to them before his ascension in the Gospel of Mark 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 days later), "they were all together in one place." Oops. In both Babel and in Acts, God sees that his people are ready, and God's Spirit comes down from heaven to give them a gentle push out the door. To any graduates here today, be careful--if you stick around home too long, your parents may decide to do the same thing.
This "push"...this graduation...this Pentecost, however, is not just a message for recent graduates. It's not just a message for Jesus' disciples in Acts or for the people of Babel. Like many timeless messages in the Bible, it speaks to us today, especially as the church. I've said this before in at least one other sermon, but it bears repeating: What would it be like if your son or daughter came home from college one day and told you, "Mom, Dad, I've decided I don't need to graduate. I don't need a career. I think I'm just going to stay in college for the rest of my life. You can finance that, right?" And yet, how many of us in the church have sat through countless Sunday school classes, countless bible studies over countless years...and we have yet to graduate, yet to go out into the world and actually DO the things we learned, to actually teach others what we have been taught, to lead others as we have been led.
There's nothing wrong with lifelong education. But at some point Jesus tells his students, "You have everything you need. Now it's your turn. I will always be with you." And then he disappears. There's a classic scene in the movie Star Wars, where the experienced Jedi Master, Obi Wan Kenobi has been discipling, teaching a young Luke Skywalker the ways of the force. While he has made great progress, Luke has also become dependent upon his teacher. So in the middle an intense lightsaber duel on the Death Star between Obi Wan Kenobi and the evil Darth Vader, while Luke watches helplessly from a distance, Obi Wan Kenobi calmly looks over at Luke one last time, then lowers his lightsaber, allowing Darth Vader to strike him down. It is only then that Luke can truly become a Jedi, that he can truly internalize the voice of his teacher, which constantly reminds him throughout the remaining films to "use the Force, Luke!"
It's not just Star Wars. We find this throughout literature and film--King Arthur and his teacher Merlin, Frodo Baggins and the Wizard Gandalf, The Karate Kid and Mr. Miagi. In the Bible it's the Prophet Elijah and his student Elisha. John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, tells his followers "I must decrease, that he may increase."
College graduates don't have the luxury of carrying their professors with them everywhere they go, popping them out of a briefcase in order to say, "can you remind me what that important formula was again?" or asking "Now what should I do when this happens?" Nor do college graduates remain in college, following their professors around wherever they go so that they will always have the right answer. College graduates honor their professors best by graduating, by going into the world and putting their valuable skills to work in the service of others. In this way, they actually DO carry their professors, or the spirit of their professors, with them wherever they go, sharing what they have been taught.
This is what Pentecost is about. It's our reminder that even though Jesus Christ no longer walks the earth in flesh and blood, God has looked down upon his children with great pride...He has seen that we are ready to serve, ready to teach, ready to lead...He has sent down his Spirit to gently nudge us out the door, to help us to be bold and courageous...and God has said to us, "Go. And I will be with you always."