Two stories, set thousands of years apart, yet inextricably linked together by the hand of God. The first Biblical story is tucked between the epoch story of Noah’s Ark and the defining story of God’s call of Abraham, beginning the journey between God and God’s people. It is the story of the Tower of Babel. It is a story of a grand construction project to build a tower. The tower was not built to be a home lifted from the ground for safety nor a temple, lifted above the earth to draw people closer to God. No, the function of this brick tower was very different. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches into the heavens to make a name for ourselves.” They could not be content being a people that belonged to God. The built a tower to reach into heaven, not to encounter God but to become like God. God acts. God acts to protect humanity from itself. God acts and in a moment the people are scattered and the language that once drew them together now became like Babel – they were virtually unintelligible to each other. Language now divided and confused them.
We celebrate the second story each year on Pentecost Sunday. Today, in churches that are more formal and liturgical in their traditions, the day will be filled with some dramatic visual imagery born in church history. You might encounter red streamers on long bamboo poles waved about furiously to represent the gift of the tongues of fire. Others might experience a cloud of white and red balloons, representing the presence of the Holy Spirit. Still others might taste the sweet taste of birthday cake, offered to celebrate the birth of the church. There is one musical symbol that I want to claim for our experience this morning. Nod to Steven. Pipe organ to LOUDLY sound trumpets for several measures of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The sounding of the trumpets represent the rushing wind and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The reason the Church has added these elements to worship has been in an attempt to help all who worship put their hands around some of the sights and sounds of divine chaos those early disciples experienced in the wild rush of the coming of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. When Shari read the Biblical story, could you feel the unadulterated power rushing winds? As she read, could you see the glowing tongues of fire? It is hard for 21st Century Christians like us to imagine ourselves in that Upper Room. This is the same room where they shared the Last Supper with Jesus. This is the same room where they huddled in fear in the hours after the crucifixion. This is the same room where Jesus appeared to them and where Thomas touched his nailed scarred hands in the days after the resurrection. Now this room becomes the place with the power and presence of God descends on them and the history is changed forever.
This band of fishermen, tax collectors, and other assorted followers experience something incredible. They had spoken Aramaic their whole lives. Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they listened as other languages tumbled from their lips. I am not sure that they understood what was happening to them, but the scene moves from the Upper Room to the streets. Jewish from across the globe walked the streets, drawn to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple as a part of one of the grand religious celebrations. The crowd was bewildered – confused – even shocked – because they saw these simple Galileans speaking to them in their own language. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt? “The Spirit-powered mission and the message of the church are clearly evident in the outpouring of these other languages. God’s action through Christ on behalf of the world is a proclamation that must be spread, to all people, in all languages, even to the ‘the ends of the earth.’” The command they heard from Jesus on a hillside in Galilee to take the gospel “to the ends of the earth” suddenly was being realized before their eyes.
There were skeptics in those streets of Jerusalem, of course. There always are. The divine confusion was too much for them. They could not image this grand act of God. They wondered aloud if the disciples just might be drunk. It is funny how some people always doubt when God moves. But, God still moves. We begun to experience a taste of God’s movement in our own midst. I believe that what we are experiencing as a congregation in this moment is a living Pentecost. No, we have not suddenly been empowered by the Spirit to speak the languages of the world; God has brought the world into our midst and is remaking and reshaping us. The Chin, the Zomie, the Karen, the Kachin, the Sudanese, and those from the Hispanic community are bring the world into our midst and we get the opportunity to witness the amazing work of God. Others beyond our midst have begun to notice what is happening here and wonder if they too might be called to be a people of the Pentecost.
As we look at this great story it seems in this moment in the streets of Jerusalem the confusion of the story of Babel is replaced with the gospel pronouncement of grace. “Notice, however, that Pentecost does not really reverse Babel. It is not the case, that at the end of Pentecost all the earth—or even all believers—have one language and the same words. The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other.” In this second story these languages given by God becomes the bridge to bring people together. It speaks to the reality that while we are still a scattered people, what brings us together as children of God is born in our relationship with God and our worship of God. It is God who gives us One Voice that we might praise Him and proclaim Him.
Peter stands above the crowd and speaks to both the amazed and the skeptics. Now, folks, these men are not drunk. It is too early in the morning for that kind of foolishness. What you are witnessing is the fulfillment of what the Prophet Joel promised a long time ago. God is pouring out his spirit on all people. The young and the old, men and women, will proclaim the good news of God – and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The Holy Spirit was and is what pushes the church out from behind those closed Upper Room doors and into the marketplace – and into streets, the public square and corporate boardroom. Because Pentecost happens…the Church and the Church’s evangelistic message is born.” The great promise of salvation found in Jesus was intended for us and our salvation. It was equally intended for us to become the unapologetic carriers of this message of salvation. The Pentecost story is not a story of chaos and confusion, but rather of a dramatic act of God that empowered the disciples and empowers the Church through the presence of God. It is God alive in us, express through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I fear that we have allowed our own apprehension about the charismatic movement to cheat us from claiming this reality and living out our lives of faith in the empowerment of the Spirit. We witness their take on the gift of the Holy Spirit, we see the emotionally driven worship, and hear the conversations of heavenly languages and quickly turn away. Our fears of an unrestrained religious experience can lead us view the idea of a faith empowered by the Holy Spirit with suspicion. I would contend that they have misinterpreted God’s grand act at Pentecost. It was and is not about a personal religious experience, it was and is about an empowered witness in the world.
I fear that our responses to the interpretative abuses of others have created an apprehension to claiming a faith and witness empowered by the Holy Spirit. We can claim the Holy Spirit as a means for comfort, encouragement, and even spiritual direction. But, it seems that the idea of embracing a Holy Spirit that empowers is just too much. For some this has spawned a timid Christianity content in the confines of the Upper Room and stained glassed sanctuary rather than in the street where the people of the world walk. Our fears of how the skeptics might react to us leave us huddled in our comfortable relationships rather than stepping out in the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God. The haunting question that echoed on the streets of Jerusalem that morning was “what does this mean?” This is a worthy question to ask again this morning. I believe that we are meant to be a bold people of the Pentecost – a people of an empowered witness that can draw people toward the worship of God. This calls us into intentional authentic relationships with those who do not yet know Jesus. It calls is to speak words of witness to those who have not yet come into a worshipping relationship with God. For some, this will call then to step beyond their regular rhythms of normative Christian relationships and begin to engage with people who live apart from Christ. As a church, we will be looking for new opportunities and venues where we might have the opportunity to be a gospel witness of word and deed. We are the scattered people given One Voice for worship and witness. Can you feel the rushing winds of the Spirit? Can you see the tongues of fire given for witness? God is moving. Are you ready to respond?