The Day of Pentecost
May 15, 2016
In French, “Bon Jour”.
In Spanish, “Hola”.
In Hebrew, “Shalom”
In Chinese, “Ni How”.
In Swahili, “Habari”.
And in a new language I am still learning, “Howdy, y'all”
I won’t say hello in every one of the more than 775 languages of the world. But if you ever wondered where we got all these languages, Scripture is clear that it all goes back to a tower. And every time we struggle with a translation, we can remember the judgment of God on an arrogant humanity which worked together against him.
Genesis 11 tells of a time when there was only one language, and the people of the world worked together. They got an idea. They would build a tower, all the way up to the sky. They would make a name for themselves. They would ascend to the heavens, perhaps even to God, on their own. They would not disperse and fill the earth, according to God’s earlier command. They had their own ideas, their own plans.
This wasn’t too long after the flood, and they were using pitch or tar for mortar – the same water-proofing material used to cover boats. Perhaps so that the next flood wouldn’t even be able to wash away their grand tower. But didn't they recall God's promise not to send another flood over all the earth? Did they believe his word, or not?
The people before the flood were a wicked lot. But now, the smell of rebellion against God was again in the air. They were out for the sake of themselves and their own name. They showed no concern for the Name above all names.
God saw their little project. And you might think he'd laugh it off. The idea that they could build a tower to heaven. But he was concerned. Here was sinful man working together for a sinful purpose. It could have been only the beginning. God knows what kind of trouble and grief and pain they could have caused, working together toward some evil end. And so, in judgment but also in mercy, God confused their languages, and dispersed them.
Judgment but also mercy. Much like when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden and put an angel with a fiery sword at the gate. That was not only banishment for sin, but also for their own good – so they wouldn’t eat of the tree of life and live forever in sin. It was mercy even amidst judgment.
So too was the scattering and the confusion of languages at Babel. If God had allowed it to continue, he knew the human capacity for getting into trouble was boundless. Working together as one, a tower would have been only the beginning of the trouble. So in judgment and mercy, he scattered and confused. A consequence of their sin, no doubt, but never the way things were meant to be from the beginning.
The Tower of Babel is not just a story about the sins of other people, but we can find ourselves in it too. We are arrogant and prideful at times, thinking our own magnificent work must impress God and Man alike. We try to make a name for ourselves, often at the expense of the name of others. We find ourselves challenging God and his commands and demands in our life. We don’t build a tower, but we construct all sorts of monuments to our selves with the time and energy we should be devoting to God.
And sin always separates, divides. Us from God, us from one another. It brings confusion and discord to our relationships. Sometimes even when we do speak the same language, we talk past each other. We argue and struggle, we bear grudges and hate. It’s not just language that divides us from each other, but also our use of words to hurt and harm. We gossip and besmirch our neighbor's good name often in the name of concern, but really only trying to make our own name look better by comparison. No, those ancient tower-builders on the plains of Shinnar weren’t the only ones to construct catastrophe for themselves. We sinners are by nature just as rebellious, prideful and wicked.
And just as God dealt with his people of old through both his justice and mercy, so too does he deal with us. His law shows us our sin. But the good news of the Gospel of Jesus – shows our salvation. First, the commandments knock down our feeble little constructions of self-made righteousness. The law pokes so many holes in our pride, shows how threadbare our own works really are. There's no tooting your own horn. There's no, “look at what a wonderful job I've done following the rules”. There is only accusation, condemnation.
You've worshipped other gods. You've misused the true God's name. You've despised preaching and his word. You've rebelled against God-given authority. You've hurt and murdered your neighbor, at least with your thoughts, but also your words and actions. You've dishonored marriage. You've taken what isn't yours. You've failed to guard your neighbor's good name. And you're not content with so many blessings, but you want what the other guy has. The law takes us down. It blows over any self-righteous house of cards we try to make, and shows how hopeless it is.
But the Gospel builds us up again, not in ourselves, but in Christ. He's the cornerstone and capstone of this house of living stones called his Church. He's the one who builds it – not on our works – but on the confession of his name. “Upon this rock, I will build my church”. The Gospel is the only foundation for us, for the houses built on sand by the self-righteous fools are quickly washed away. But the house built on Christ stands strong forever. Not a tower, but a temple, like his own torn down in death on a Friday, and rebuilt in three days. And this construction actually does get us to heaven, for he has already taken his place there, and prepares even now a place for us.
So the Tower of Babel is not some quaint Sunday School tale to amuse children. It is a true account of real events. And it also makes a difference to us today. Especially today, the Day of Pentecost.
You know the story – 50 days after Easter, as the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem with many Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples of Jesus a special gift. They spoke in tongues – the native languages of the people gathered there. And they weren’t just talking about the weather, mind you. They were telling the good news of Jesus, the promised Messiah, who fulfilled the scriptures by dying and rising from the dead.
In a way, what happens on Pentecost is the undoing of the judgment of Babel. The languages which were confused because of man’s sin, were now miraculously clarified by the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit. Divisions are healed, unity is restored, and the people who were many are, by the Gospel, made one in Christ.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit extends and continues the work of Christ.
Recall how when our Lord was crucified, the charge against him was posted by Pontius Pilate? The sign above the cross read, “This is the King of the Jews”. And that message was written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic. Fitting, in a way, to show how Jesus is King not only of the Jews but also the Greeks and Romans, in fact, of all people. And what happened there at the cross was for all people of every language. He is the world’s Savior. He is your Savior.
Now at Pentecost, Peter preaches his first sermon – and quotes the prophet Joel, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”. So instead of making a name for ourselves, now we call upon God’s name. We approach God “in Jesus’ name.” We rely on the triune name of God we received at our baptism. For there God’s Spirit was poured out on us, along with forgiveness of our sins and all the promises of Jesus. You didn't see the flaming tongues or the form of a dove, but the same Spirit is upon you.
In so many ways this Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit is the reversal of everything that went wrong at the tower of Babel. Communication is restored. Unity is established. Confusion is ended.
And God himself builds a new construction – not a tower, but a Church – built by his Spirit. Built on the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. He is the only way we can, and the certain way that we will reach heaven.
And his Gospel is now the language we all share. The language of the Christian. It informs the way we speak, what we say, and to whom. This is the language of forgiveness in Jesus' name. It is the language of prayer, “Thy will be done”, “Thy kingdom come”. It is the tongue that confesses and praises and thanks and speaks truth in love. It is when we speak what God has spoken. The church hears, by faith, by the Spirit. The church speaks, by faith, by the Spirit. So that what we believe in our hearts we confess with our mouths – that Jesus Christ has died. Jesus Christ is arisen. And Jesus Christ will come again. To him be all power, honor, glory and might, for his name is above every name. And all God's blessings come to us in that same name. Amen.
Monday, May 02, 2016
May 1, 2016
“The Unexpected Course of the Gospel”
Paul and Silas, Timothy and later, evidently Luke began the travels of Paul's Second Missionary Journey. Immediately before our text, we read of how these men had intended to preach in various places in Asia minor (which is modern day Turkey). But they were frustrated. Something got in the way of it all. Perhaps the circumstances didn't allow it. Perhaps they heard through some direct message from God. We don't really know. Nonetheless, the “Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” to carry on with their own plans.
Instead, Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, saying, “Come and help us”.
Macedonia, you might recall, is just north of Greece. And so by leaving Asia and going to Macedonia, Paul and company are actually moving from one continent to another. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation goes with them – from Asia to Europe.
And so they go. They go to help. But how?
Paul was a tentmaker, but he didn't go to build them shelters. Luke was a physician, but this wasn't a medical mercy trip. All of these missionaries understood that the help these people really needed was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He said “help us”, and so they concluded, “God had called us to preach the Gospel to them”.
So one thing we can learn from the Macedonian Call is that the Gospel is the help that God gives us. It is through the preaching of the Gospel, after all, that the Spirit brings us to faith. It is the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation. How can mere words do such great things? Ah, but this is the Word of God. This is the message of Jesus Christ, who has overcome the world by his death and resurrection. There is no greater friend, no greater gift, no greater help we could ask for.
Perhaps you also need help. People have often told me I need help. But all of us, as sinners, need help – and not in the sense that we will do part and need God's mere assistance to finish the job. Nor in the sense that God does 90% or even 99% of the work, an unequal partner, and then leaves us to finish the job. No, the kind of help the Gospel gives is a saving you from death help. It's a snatching you out of the jaws of Satan help. A help with no contribution from you, no you doing-your-part, no you putting a cherry on top. Grace is free and full, but it is from outside of you – and not just from a different continent – but from God's very throne above, for the sake of Jesus Christ who sits at his right hand.
So they set sail. From Troas to Samothrace, then Neapolis and Philippi, the main city in Macedonia. And now another reminder for us. We don't, most of us, know these cities and places. They are foreign sounding names to us, of cities halfway around the world whose inhabitants are long since gone. Their cultures and customs we would no doubt find strange. We don't know their languages. We really have only clues about their daily lives. So why mention the specifics?
Perhaps, partly, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to real people who live in real places. It could just as easily have been Keller, or Denton, Bedford or North Richland Hills, or Fort Worth. And, in fact, it is to all of those places and the people living in them that the Gospel comes today. Could those early disciples, apostles and missionaries have conceived of us, in modern day America, with all of our strange customs, and fast food, and the internet, and what-have-you.... could they have imagined us hearing and believing also in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
But the Gospel, while a net that is cast wide to draw in the nations – is also a laser beam of individual promise to specific people in specific times and places. So you have been baptized. By name. You have been called. You have been forgiven, redeemed, set free. It's very personal. It's very real.
And so it was for a woman named Lydia.
Paul and friends, upon arriving in a new city, would usually seek out a synagogue and preach first to the Jews. You'd need to have 10 Jewish males to form a synagogue, but apparently there were too few in this major city even for that to happen. But there was a place of prayer. And there were some women gathered there on the Sabbath. And so Paul preached to them, and one of them was Lydia. He came because of the vision of the man from Macedonia, but it began with a word embraced by a woman. And she, Lydia, the first recorded Christian conversion on the continent of Europe.
Again we have a real person with a real history and city of origin, she has a real job selling purple goods. And we know that in some sense, perhaps through contact with Judaism, Lydia was a “worshipper of the true God”. Yet, like many of those, she had not yet heard of the fulfillment of the promises that came in the person of Jesus Christ.
So why would a woman from a far-off land, with plenty of business to tend to, listen to these strange men from an even farther land who come to proclaim a message about a man who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven? Well to that we have the clear answer: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention”. We don't believe of our own accord, you see. Our hearts and minds are closed, locked up tighter than the tomb sealed with a large stone. But the Holy Spirit changes hearts. He creates faith where it wasn't. The Lord and Giver of Life can even bring hearts dead in sin to the glories of eternal life.
And look where it leads next. She and her household are baptized. The Gospel's reach grows. And Lydia's response to all of this is noteworthy, too. She opens her home to Paul and his companions. The offers her hospitality. And thus, she supports the further preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She does what she can with the resources given to her to further the cause so that more would hear and believe in Christ and live.
You, also, dear Christians, are given to support the preaching of the Gospel. Through your own vocations and stations in life, through your generosity or perhaps hospitality. Through your invitation that others would come and see and hear about Christ. And in acts of service and love, by word and deed, to friends, neighbors, co-workers.
You see, the declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is effected by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. When and where he will he creates faith. He strengthens us, not only in our study of the Word, but also in applying that word in our lives. As you forgive your neighbor who has sinned against you, as you hear the words of absolution for your sins, yes, even that deep dark sin. Perhaps when you least expect it. In fact, often when you least expect it.
For who would expect God to have mercy on sinners? Who would think he would send his own son to save? Who could predict that his mission would take him, not to conquest but to cross? And who could have seen that on the third day he would rise? Did anyone foretell his restoration of those wayward and denying disciples? Or imagine that he would turn his most zealous persecutor into his greatest missionary?
Who would see this rag-tag band of preachers traveling thousands of miles, and now even into Europe, to simply tell people about Jesus? Who would think that their first convert would be a well-off woman from some other land? And who knew that she would show them hospitality, and thus help them help the Macedonians by their preaching?
Ah, the unexpected course of the Gospel. I suspect that even as you look back on your life, you can see many unexpected twists and turns whereby God did great things for you. That he builds whole households on this gospel is even better. And that one day your eyes, closed in death, will be wakened again to glory – well that will be the final surprise.
Nothing about this should really surprise us, though, for God has promised it all. And he has promised it not just to someone, or even to all, but also to individuals, like Lydia, and like you.
No matter what baggage you bring, how sketchy your past, how big your sins. Christ has died for you. No matter where you come from. No matter how unlovable you feel, how ashamed you are, or what this world of pain and death has thrown at you. Jesus is alive, and he is your Savior.
So go in peace. You are baptized. Your sins are forgiven. Serve the Lord with gladness. Amen.