1st Reading: Genesis 11:1-9 (translated by Theodore Hiebert)
All the earth had one language and the same words. When they traveled toward the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and let us fire them.” The bricks were stones for them, and asphalt was mortar for them. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be dispersed over the surface of all the earth.” Then God came down to see the city and the tower which the human race built. And God said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” Then God dispersed them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore, God named it Babel, for there God mixed the language of all the earth, and from there God dispersed them over the surface of all the earth.
2nd Reading: Acts 2:1-18
When the day of Pentecost (Shavuot) had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’
Sermon: Dreaming God’s Dreams…
So here we are in Jerusalem for another festival. You know It’s a wonder Jesus’ followers would be willing to pile into Jerusalem for another festival after what happened the last time they set foot in the city on a festival day. Don’t you suppose they came through the door of their probably hesitant host with some amount of trepidation? I wonder if the sounds and color of that Palm Sunday parade or the memory of Jesus around that table, or the fear of the guards who arrested him mixed in with the strange experience of the empty tomb washed over them? Did they gather around tables and exchange notes on who had seen Jesus where? What had he said and done in secret rooms and on the beach? Were they excited? Afraid? Triumphant?
When I was little I remember hearing this story and imagining a secret gathering… sort of like a special agent planning kind of meeting where they discussed their Jesus sightings and decided what their next move would be.
That’s what I pictured because most pictures and Sunday school lessons of this day imply or teach that there were just a few straggly disciples hunkered down together that day. But the story written here in Acts 2 tells us that they all gathered… and earlier in Acts (1:15) we read that all of these early Christ followers have grown in number to “about one hundred and twenty persons”.
And so here they all are. It is the joyful festival of Shavuot… the celebration of first fruits, when the first fruits of harvest are given to God. Can you see them crowding into a house together? Passing the peace and wondering what might happen this time…
And of course, God doesn’t disappoint!
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4)
This all “would have included the women and the men, the Twelve, and the many other unnamed, faithful followers of Jesus. All of these receive the Holy Spirit; all are given the gifts of speaking in other languages. This follows a pattern that will reoccur again and again in Acts, the Holy Spirit has a tendency not to discriminate based on human standards.”[i]
All of this commotion, the loud winds and strange flickering fire and the cacophony of over one hundred voices drew a crowd… can you imagine it? The neighbors poured out of their houses and the street filled with people…
The story describes those “living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5, 14) as devout Jews from every nation – “these were immigrants, not pilgrims as we often imagine, but those who had emigrated from areas of the Roman Empire to the north, east, south, and west of Jerusalem. As subjects of Rome, all of them would have spoken Greek, the language of the Roman military and of commerce for much of the early imperial period. But they were also multilingual, speaking languages of their natal lands also.”[ii]
It’s almost as if God’s holy winds had blown the walls of the house clean off, because suddenly there are throngs of people and there are the disciples right in the midst of them… And as they pour into the streets the disciples are speaking in the natal languages of all of these immigrant peoples; not in the language of the empire, but in the languages of the people. Can you imagine that? Have you ever been lost in a foreign land, unable to communicate and suddenly heard your native tongue? Have you ever gotten lost or confused and then discovered just one familiar landmark or seen just one familiar face in the chaos?
Often times we read this story along side the story we heard this morning from Genesis about the city of Babel and we think oh… this is God putting things back together. At Babel God stirs things up, scattering folks and giving them different languages and here, finally, at Pentecost, God is putting things back together. Some scholars have even called this day a reversal of Babel. But think about it. The Genesis story of Babel explains the creation of multiple languages; and its reversal would be the creation of one unifying language. But that’s not what happens here at all, rather than requiring of all of the people to speak one language, Pentecost gives power to the band of Jesus followers to speak all the languages of the world.
At Babel God leans in and notices that folks are beginning to look and sound an awfully lot alike. And God says aloud (seems like he’s talking to mother wisdom again) “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” (Genesis 11)
God mixes language and dispersed people at Babel because it’s God’s unfolding dream for the world that the world is filled to the brim with a beautiful collage of diversity, color, language and culture. The story doesn’t tell us God is angry or punishing the people, but it does tell us that God’s spirit will sweep in and stir up some new life and some difference where things are getting stale.
The Spirit blows in and mixes things up… in the city of babel it mixed up the language and sent the people out… out of complacency and safety and into the world.
In Jerusalem it causes confusion, which is pretty hilarious given that everyone actually understood the words coming out of the mouths of the disciples. The confusion of the Jewish community is in trying to piece together what on earth is happening, Suddenly God is speaking in and through this band of Galilean Jesus followers. They’re not in a synagogue or temple. This isn’t a voice of authority. Not a rabbi or temple elite, not a roman official or imperial guard, but in their own voices, in the words of each of their ancestors and in the words of their mothers.
In Jerusalem Peter quotes the prophet Joel, declaring that this Holy Wind will make prophets of our children, infuse us with the dreams and visions of God. If only we can hear them… if only we can see them…
Turning in your Easter Homework – finding evidence of resurrection, of new life…
On Easter Sunday you recieved this homework:
Look for signs of resurrection – of new life
Report Back – Tell about it
(We did this as a congregation, taking a moment to record signs of resurrection and new life that we’d witnessed over the last 7 weeks. Then we turned and shared these with our neighbors, then we reported back to the larger group.)
Pentecost is another birthing moment… it marks the birth or beginning of the Church but how does this birth continue to happening in us? In the life of our church and in our own lives?
How is God’s dream being born through us?
The Holy Spirit Turns the house inside out… how are we getting outside our own house?
How are we getting outside of our own train station?
What Holy Spirit wind will blow our walls down? What commotion are we creating? Where are we seeking new life?
We too, are the prophets and the dreamers… God’s vision for the world becomes our vision, when we are looking at the world like God does. God’s dream for the world becomes our dream when we see God’s new life springing forth and we become the prophets we are called to be when we witness to what we’ve seen. When we report back and tell our stories to others.
Recently on a Tennessee gas station bathroom wall I saw evidence of our need to connect to one another, to share a common story. The walls were covered with folks penning hello from all over, giving their names and their home states, even their home cities. We have a deep human need to connect, a need to be in common, a need to tell our story and hear from one another. The folks working hard to build the tower in Babel make total sense to me. Of course we want to gather with others like us, how often do you find yourself in conversation trying to find out everything you don’t have in common with another? Never. Even when we gather with those who are different we begin to come together, with common language, values and ideas, we are changed by one another and we move closer to one another…
It’s not bad or good, the desire for sameness. But our differences are often what create the spaces for growth, in our relationships and in our communities. It’s often, here in our community around these very tables, that I hear someone say, I just don’t know if I’m the right fit for this work group… I am not all that sure I belong in leadership, what I’m bringing is different than what others bring to the table…
What if, instead of imagining that our differences keep us out or are reason to exclude ourselves… what if we imagined that our differences were exactly what was needed? What if these differences, our different ideas and perspectives, our different stories and gifts, each given to all of us were the very dreams and prophesies that God is pouring into us? What if the differences we encounter in the world are what we most need to pay attention too? To see God working in all things?
Our biblical stories today in Babel and Jerusalem are not the antithesis of one another… one doesn’t break us and the other fix us.
Instead they invite us into the ebb and flow of the work of the Holy Spirit. Like our breath, inhaling and exhaling, the Spirit moves us into communities of comfort and back out into the world. The Spirit blows through our midst shaping our visions and dreams for the future – sometimes asking us to take dramatic risks and make mighty changes but then… then she reforms and remakes us, comforts and encourages us, moving us ever closer into the new life God’s dreaming for us. Amen.