a sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21
preached on Pentecost, May 15, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
One of my less-well-known and newer hobbies is crossword puzzles. Many nights, as I lay on the couch catching up on the latest episodes of my favorite TV shows or watching a soccer match, I pull up a crossword puzzle on my iPad and do my best to complete the grid based on the pithy clues. At this point, a couple years into this new hobby, I’ve gotten reasonably proficient at the New York Times’ Monday and Tuesday puzzles. I struggle a bit but usually try and occasionally finish a Wednesday puzzle, but I gave up even trying Thursday through Sunday when I could only fill in one or two blanks on a good day! I suspect I’ll never be a really amazing crossword puzzle solver, but I find it strangely relaxing and a great brain exercise to spend some time unscrambling the letters and words that make up our language in this way.
On this Pentecost Sunday, as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in power upon the disciples in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, we get two visions of scrambled and unscrambled words that speak to a whole different kind of approach to language and words in our world. First we hear from Genesis about how everything got scrambled in the first place, of the strange city and tower that were under construction on a plain in the land of Shinar, where desire for human achievement clashed with the depth and breadth of divine sovereignty. On this plain, the people realized that they could build “a tower with its top in the heavens,” a monument to what they could pull off as human beings and a link connecting them to one another that would survive any attempt to scatter and separate them.
With each new level of bricks added, God became more concerned. Their intentions at the beginning were small, limited to one tower in one town on one obscure plain, but God felt that they would have little difficulty taking up an even greater creative project because it was so easy to communicate with each other. “Look… this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” So God decided to confuse their language and scatter them away from this great city. Unable to communicate effectively with one another, they were forced to abandon the tower that they had set out to build. They called the place Babel, recognizing the “babble” of languages that had come as God had scrambled their language and scattered them across the face of the earth.
The scattering and scrambling begun at Babel persisted for generations. The story of God’s people throughout the ages was built upon the confusion first created at Babel. Not only were God’s people spread all around the world with different languages from this initial time of scattering and scrambling, the people of Israel had been further dispersed by the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria, sending them all around the Mediterranean region and giving them many different local languages even as they shared a common religious tradition.
So on that first Pentecost morning, after the disciples had gathered “together in one place,” the Holy Spirit came upon them in “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” as “divided tongues, as of fire… rested on each of them.” In this moment, they began “to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Now this was perfect timing—not only was this fifty days after Jesus had risen from the dead, but there was a festival going on in Jerusalem fifty days after Passover, bringing some of those scattered, faithful Jews from all around the world to join in the celebration and pilgrimage. On that first Pentecost, though, these faithful Jews suddenly heard not Hebrew or Greek but their own native languages, spoken not by linguists or educated translators but by a bunch of country bumpkins from Galilee, the backwater of the backwaters of the empire.
Even before they started to make sense of any of the words, the message to these scattered and scrambled people of God was clear: God was ready to unscramble everything that had been scrambled so many generations before at Babel. Slowly but surely, as faithful Jews from all around the world heard the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in their own language and as Peter reminded them of the words of the prophet Joel that claimed that something new would be coming in the last days, the deeper message became clear to everyone: God was up to something new, and everyone was invited to join in. In Jesus, God unscrambled everything that had been scrambled before and brought together everyone that had been so scattered for so long.
Now things still seem scattered and scrambled a lot of the time. The various different versions of English that we hear in our daily lives, marked with the inflections of our homelands and first languages, are only the beginning! Even when we can understand each other’s words in shared language, there are so many other things that so easily scatter and scramble us. We struggle to recognize the differences of life and station that separate us simply because we have been born in different times and places. We intentionally and unintentionally affirm the privileges that come with our power and position along the way, dividing God’s people based on these very human things. We separate ourselves from those who appear to be different from us by the color of their skin, their ethnic or national origin, their understanding of gender and sexuality, or any number of countless other factors. And we scatter and scramble God’s intentions for our life together as those who lead us pursue policies and strategies that drive us apart from one another and even deny the image of God in some members of our human family.
But by the power of the Holy Spirit seen in such glory on Pentecost, God unscatters and unscrambles us along the way to show us that all things can and will be made new by the power of God in Jesus Christ. God works in ways beyond our comprehension to unite us across our differences and transform our lives so that we recognize the many things we share in our humanity. God shows us that the greatest service we can offer to God and humanity comes as we reach out to those in greatest need, speaking up for those who are victims of systems of greed and privilege, insisting that division on these very human grounds is unacceptable at every turn, and linking our future to the lives of those who have been scattered and scrambled by the difficulty and challenge of this world. And God comes to us in Jesus Christ to bridge the gaps that we create with one another and with God when we go astray from what God intends.
The gift of the Holy Spirit shows us that we can participate in God’s work of transformation in this world, that we are not left alone to face the challenges that confront us along the way, that we can only be divided from one another by the many assumptions of our world or the boundaries of this age. Just as the Holy Spirit breathed on the disciples on the first day of Pentecost, so the Spirit still blows in our midst. The Spirit opens us to new ways of living with one another that recognize the value in each and every human being and enable us to speak up amid the systems and structures of our world that try to deny this value over and over again. The Spirit helps us to recognize our complicity in the pain and struggle of the poor and suffering of our world so that we might live in ways that show hope and dismantle the systems and structures that get in the way of justice and peace. And the Spirit empowers us to be a part of God’s new creation taking hold in our world, sharing good news in our words and even more in our deeds so that the wonder of new life might take hold ever more deeply around us.
So as we celebrate this Pentecost day, may the Holy Spirit unscramble and unscatter us anew, guiding us beyond our assumptions to listen and act for the good of the whole creation as we walk together into the new life that emerges in the new things that God is doing in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.