Sunday, May 30, 2004

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; And thou renewest the face of the ground.

When Allen met Madison, she spoke very little English and he had no concept of the language she spoke. When he asked for her name, she squealed the most bizarre sounds. There was no way he could come close to repeating it. Since they were standing on Madison Avenue in New York, Allen gave her the name Madison. This is, of course, from a scene from the movie “Splash” starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, and Madison was not human. She was a mermaid.

It does not take such a strange pairing to see the difficulty of pronouncing names from different countries. I find it impossible to properly pronounce names from Poland or Russia. Even English names can seem strange on the tongue to Americans, particularly since most can’t be said phonetically. Worchester is pronounced “werster” and Towcester is pronounced “toaster.” That sauce in your refrigerator is not “war-chester-shire” but rather “wer-ster-sheer.” You would think that something like Hoppes might be easy for people to pronounce, and yet it is often pronounced “hopes” or “hops” instead of “hop-pes.”

If we can not even speak one another’s names, imagine how difficult it is to pass on a message or have a conversation. When my mom visited us in England several years ago, we were sitting in a restaurant getting ready to order our dinner. My mom asked several questions of the waitress, hoping to make the British food at least somewhat appetizing to her palate. The waitress did not understand her questions and Mom did not understand the answers. They were both speaking English but I had to translate for them. My mom said, “I wish you would speak English” and the waitress answered, “Well, it is our language, you know.”

They say that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. The difference is in the way we pronounce the words. Though the English tend to add a few letters here and there, the written word is much easier to translate because the words look the same, but I would often listen to a word two or three times before realizing that the speaker was accenting it differently or using a long vowel where we would use a short one.

We don’t have to travel across the ocean to find such difficulty; it even exists from one region of America to another. Yet, language is not always a barrier. You can go to an opera that is sung entirely in Italian and understand what is happening. My daughter has visited Mexico with very little knowledge of Spanish, and no knowledge of the regional dialect, and yet she has been able to communicate with the children. I have heard that a Lutheran can attend church in Germany and know what is happening throughout the service because the liturgy rises above language.

Our language difficulties go back to the Tower of Babel, our Old Testament lesson for this day. I recently saw a story about a tower that someone found in the desert near ancient Babylon and some have suggested it might be the very tower that they were trying to build.

In the beginning of this story, the people all spoke the same language and gathered together on a plain in the Land of Shinar. They decided to build a city with a tower. “And they said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” This tower was more than just a ladder to reach into the heavens. The people wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted a reputation, but who are they trying to impress?

There are other ziggurats found around the Middle East, with names that are meant to give honor to the gods. These towers were designed to reach toward the heavens and impress the gods so that they would bless the people with prosperity, health and wealth. The people on the plain in Shinar thought that such a monument would given them a reputation among the gods. They built it out of fear, they hoped it would impress the gods enough so that they would not be scattered to the ends of the earth.

God was not impressed. “And Jehovah said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off building the city.”

It really did not take much for God to confuse their language. Geographical separation was all that was necessary, since language develops differently from place to place. Carbonated beverages are called “soda” in one place and “pop” in another. Though there are major differences between languages, there are also some commonalities. Many words can be traced to certain roots which can be traced back to even more ancient words. It is possible all words come from that original language at Babel, but by separating the people God ensured that the language would evolve differently in each of the new nations.

Whatever happened at Babel has been overcome in a most miraculous way. For the past few weeks we have heard Jesus promise a helper that would come to live among the disciples. “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.” In the Gospel lesson for today, this promise is repeated and Jesus tells the disciples about the connection between He and the Father, a connection that will reach out to us and make us a part of His family.

Phillip asked Jesus if He would show them the Father. “Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; how sayest thou, Show us the Father?” Everything that Jesus did was the Father, because the Father abided in Jesus and Jesus abided in the Father. He went on to tell the disciples that when He abides in them and they abide in Him, they will do all that He had done.

This is an amazing promise. Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons. He told people about the love of God and forgave them their sins. He crossed over societal boundaries and broke down walls between people. He even overcame language barriers and spoke to people of many nations. Now, by this time much of the civilized world spoke Greek, and it is likely that Jesus was fluent. He would certainly have known Aramaic and Hebrew. He probably knew at least a few words of Latin. No one seemed to have trouble understanding what He said whether He was in Jerusalem or a small Samaritan town.

His message was one that reached across all lines – forgiveness and mercy met the deepest needs of all people. The disciples were called to share that same message to the ends of the earth, but they would continue to face barriers until Jesus provided the necessary helper who would gift them to speak God’s Word to the world.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem. Ten days later, they were gathered together in celebration of the festival of Pentecost. This was the feast of the first fruits, a time when the people gave bread made from the flour of the new wheat to the priests. While they were praying, they heard a sudden noise like the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire came upon them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit.

At this moment, God reversed what He did at Babel. There He confused the language and sent people to the four corners of the earth. At Pentecost, He gave the disciples the gift of tongues so that they could speak the Gospel to people of every nation. The people that heard the commotion did not know what was happening. Some were amazed because they heard the message of salvation in their own language. Others thought the disciples were drunk. Peter stood up and quoted the book of Joel, “And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth of 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: Yea and on my servants and on my handmaidens in those days Will I pour forth of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above, And signs on the earth beneath; Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the day of the Lord come, That great and notable day. And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

From that moment on, the disciples were one with God because He would abide in their hearts. Through them He would speak His salvation to the world. At Babel, the people tried to make a name for themselves. They were afraid that they would be scattered to the ends of the earth. Their ambition was their downfall because God divided them by space and language so that they could not succeed.

At Pentecost the Father gave the disciples a new name – child of God. They were the first fruit of Christ’s work, the bread made from the new wheat of a new covenant. They need not be afraid because God dwells in their hearts and He is far more than some distant unknown. He is Father. We are now called into the priesthood of believers and become heirs to the kingdom of God. As we are baptized into Christ we receive the same gift of the Spirit.

In today's epistle, Paul wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.” At Pentecost, God broke down the final barrier the people. We now speak one language, which is the language of grace. God’s message of salvation is heard all over the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, taken there by the Church which was formed on that day in Jerusalem. We all experience our own Pentecost moment as God anoints us with his Spirit at our own baptism and we become part of the family of God and priests in His kingdom.

In the psalm we hear, “Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; And thou renewest the face of the ground.” When God came to the disciples at Pentecost, they were made new, adopted into the family of God and blessed to be a blessing.

I always find it interesting when the lectionary withholds a verse in a passage like this one from the psalm. “Let sinners be consumed out of the earth. And let the wicked be no more.” Isn’t that what happened at Pentecost? God’s grace was showered down out of heaven into the hearts of those who believe. From that moment, all those who believe on the name of the Lord Jesus are saved from sin and death. We are transformed into children of God, abide in Him and do His work in this world. In His power we can sing along with the psalmist in praise. “I will sing unto Jehovah as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have any being. Let thy meditation be sweet unto him: I will rejoice in Jehovah.” Thanks be to God.

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