Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Year C
Based on Gen. 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21
Today we celebrate the birthday of the church. The birthday of the church goes back to Jerusalem, over two-thousand years ago, as Jews from all over the then known world were gathered together in one place to worship God. The people were given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, poured out upon them in the form of a mighty wind and tongues as of fire.
The wind of God’s Spirit is reminiscent of the beginning of creation; when God’s Wind-Spirit moved across the face of the waters. The tongues as of fire are reminiscent of the burning bush, which appeared to Moses; as well as the pillar of fire which accompanied Israel in their desert wanderings as a sign of God’s presence and protection while on their way to the Promised Land. But today, there’s another connection with the Christian celebration of Pentecost, which is in the form of a reversal.
In our first lesson from Genesis, we’re given an account of the opposite or reversal of Pentecost. The ancient story of the city and tower of Babel are Pentecost in reverse. We are told that the peoples of the world all spoke one language. However, this communication was not used for good purposes, in the service of their God. Rather, it was used to glorify themselves; in an attempt to be gods in God’s place. They are gathered together and decide to build a city and a tower up to the heavens. That sounds not so bad or evil in and of itself. After all, human beings were created to live in community with one another. But wait a minute, the writer of this passage gives us the motives for building their city and tower: “let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
In attempting to make a name for themselves, they are forgetting about God and the true image in which God created them. They are at the centre of the universe. Self-made people are blind to the fact that God gives them the breath of life; God gives them the food, clothing and shelter and everything else they need to exist on this earth. Self-made people give all the credit for their lives to themselves—all of their wisdom; all of their success; all of their accomplishments; leaves no room for God; it’s all their doing.
This focus on one’s self is sort of like looking at life only with the colours of black and white and believing that no other colours exist; while others look at life and see all kinds of colours in all of their beauty. Those who see only in black and white miss out on so much. Those who focus only on themselves live life wearing blinders. They fail to see the larger picture of God’s power and presence at work through all manner of people; all manner of ways and means in the world.
The other motive given for building their city and tower is stated in the following words: “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Now here again, at first one might consider this to be a good motive; does it not emphasize something we all long for? We all long to be gathered together rather than to be scattered all over the whole earth; we deeply long for a meaningful life lived out in a comfortable, secure community. What’s so wrong with that motive?
Well, it misses the undercurrent at work in these words. The motive is wrong because building their city and tower is based on the mood of these words—namely, a mood of fear. It is fear of being scattered all over the whole earth that motivates them to build this city and tower. When we build our lives—whether political, economic, social, mental, emotional, spiritual—motivated by fear, we are in big trouble. Fear does not bring us comfort, security or well-being. Right now, we see the fear of some people and politicians and military leaders in the United States, as they propose yet another nuclear arms star-wars project. They believe—wrongfully—that such a program will ensure their protection and security. This will only add tension to the arms race internationally and make the whole world more insecure—not to mention the internal difficulties in the U.S. if money is taken from social programs, education and health and redirected into the arms race. This is not the way to peace or security for the United States or the rest of the world—fear only leads to more fear, which eventually has the potential to turn into violence and destruction. Supposing that the U.S. was successful in building their new star-wars program and nuclear bombs fell over their nation but didn’t harm them. What about the consequences of survival in terms of the harm that radiation could cause humans and the environment in the U.S. and the rest of the world? No lasting peace is going to survive on the motive of fear.
In the story of Babel, God acts in order to put an end to human community based on the wrong motives of self-centred sin and fear. God chooses to confuse their language so that they can’t understand each other—causing them to be scattered abroad over the face of all the earth. We Canadians know all-too-well how language differences have divided our nation. When we approach life only from a human perspective; when we build cities, towers, nations, civilizations by ourselves, based on selfishness and fear; then division and destruction shall always prevail.
However, thank God for acting in and through history. God is the master and final writer of all humankind’s history. Thank God for another history than that of Babel! Thank God for the salvation history at work to give birth to the church on the Day of Pentecost, so long ago! God the Holy Spirit visits the gathered community of faith to do the opposite; the reversal of Babel. The Holy Spirit’s wind and fire pours out into the lives of people from all kinds of languages and cultures and nations so that they understand each other when they speak. Language no longer divides people; it now unites them as one people of God—the church, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. What does that mean for us today? Well, among other things, it means: that God the Holy Spirit is working creatively in us and our world to transform hopeless, faithless, loveless people and situations and fill them with hope, faith and love. It means, as theologian Paul Tillich once articulated it so well:
The Spirit can work in you with a soft but insistent voice, telling you that your life is empty and meaningless, but that there are chances of a new life waiting before the door of your inner self to fill its void and to conquer its dullness. The Spirit can work in you, awakening the desire to strive towards the sublime against the profanity of the average day. The Spirit can give you the courage that says “yes” to life in spite of the destructiveness you have experienced around you and within you. The Spirit can reveal to you that you have hurt somebody deeply, but it can also give you the right word that reunites him or her with you. The Spirit can make you love, with the divine love, someone you profoundly dislike or in whom you have no interest. The Spirit can conquer your sloth towards what you know is the aim of your life, and it can transform your moods of aggression and depression into stability and peace. The Spirit can awaken you to sudden insight into the way you must take your world, and it can open your eyes to a view of it that makes everything new. The Spirit can give you joy in the midst of ordinary routine as well as in the depth of sorrow. 1
Or to borrow the rather colourful language of William Willimon to describe the Holy Spirit’s workings:
We therefore do not lose hope. For the Holy Spirit that gave birth to our church continues to prod, cajole, and beckon forward our church. Just when we get all settled down, comfortable with present arrangements, our pews bolted securely to the floor, all fixed and immobile, there comes a rush of wind, or a still small voice, a breath of fresh air, tongues of fire…the Holy Spirit prevails! 2
Thank God for that! Amen! Come, Holy Spirit, renew us and the whole creation!
1 Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), pp. 84-86.