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.