Babel, Babble, Pentecost and the Power of the Holy Spirit
John 14:8-17, 25-27 (NRSV)
Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Even though we hear a lot about it on Pentecost Sunday, most of us know Lutherans aren’t much for speaking in tongues. It happened for the folks in Babel, back in Genesis, and it happened for the earliest disciples that day in Jerusalem, which we heard from the book of Acts – the Spirit of God moved so dramatically that people began speaking in languages they never knew they knew. It was surprising and bizarre enough that those who heard them thought they must have been drunk.
And I get that. It sounds bizarre enough as I stand here today. I’ve grown up in the Lutheran church and have yet to see the spirit move in such a way. And, truth be told, I’m cynical enough to admit that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I did. And even though I work hard to never tell God what God can and cannot do, I don’t expect I’ll be speaking in tongues anytime soon.
But if you’ve been anywhere near social media this week – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – I imagine you’ve seen this video of a young father talking to his toddler-sized son. It even made its way to CNN one evening, it had gone so viral. But just in case you haven’t seen it – and just because it’s too impossibly cute – I think we should watch it now. For those of you who don’t know – or think you’re not understanding or hearing things correctly – you are. This kid isn’t saying anything with words you need to understand – which is the point, really.
Who among us hasn’t carried on a conversation with an infant or a toddler?
Who would believe the words and sounds a grown man or woman can produce – goo-goo-ing and ga-ga-ing with the best of them – in order to get a child to smile or laugh or sleep or stop crying? Who hasn’t pretended to understand – or actually knew exactly – what a babbling baby was trying to say through non-sensical sounds and squeals, of their own?
Well, baby talk isn’t exactly speaking in tongues, but it did get me thinking about the Holy Spirit and with the events surrounding the Tower of Babel… that first Pentecost in Jerusalem… and most importantly, with what God is calling us to as we gather to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the Church and this Pentecost Sunday, so many generations later.
First of all, I always like to remember that there’s more to the Tower of Babel story than what most of us learned in Sunday School. There’s more to the story than just that God punished the Israelites for building the tower; that God punished the Israelites for trying to be like God; and that God’s punishment was to confuse their language and to scatter them throughout the world, so that I would speak English and need a translator in Paris, or Prague or Port-au-Prince.
No, the key to the story isn’t just that people wanted to be like God. The key to the story isn’t just that God punished them for it by confusing their languages. And the key to the story isn’t all about God’s vengeance and anger.
The key to the story – much of the sin of the people at Babel – was their desire to set up camp, to stay put and keep to themselves. The sin of the people of Babel was that they neglected to be about multiplying and growing and newness and change. See, the people of God are called to be about sharing grace with all creation in whatever ways they can manage, and the Tower of Babel was wrong for a lot of reasons, but the major malfunction was the attempt to keep good news and blessing and the power of God all for themselves – and all in one place.
Which puts our reading from Acts into better perspective, for me. See Babel wasn’t the first or the last time that the people of God would screw things up. The Old Testament is all about the many and various ways that generation after generation after generation of God’s people kept getting it wrong. They had forgotten their call to be a blessing for creation – and they kept on forgetting it.
And then Jesus showed up.
God sent Jesus as the clearest reminder of what love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and sacrifice look and feel like. God sent Jesus to let humanity know that the cries of God’s people have been heard. But no matter how clear the message; no matter how dramatic the reminder; no matter how amazing his teaching and preaching and healing; no matter how awesome his death and resurrection were, God – and Jesus – had a pretty good hunch we still wouldn’t get it right all of the time, even after Jesus showed us how to do it.
And even if, like Phillip in this morning’s Gospel, we can’t always see it or say it or wrap our brains around just who or what the Holy Spirit is in our life or for the world, it’s clear that – in the context of these Pentecost stories – God doesn’t give up on us. God never stops speaking. Like that dad in the video, God always hears and understands the wants, the needs and the longings of God’s people.
And that, to me, is what our lesson for Pentecost and the promise and gift of the Holy Spirit are all about this morning. God will go to any length, not only to share love with us, but so that we will share God’s love with the world – in whatever way we can manage.
The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the gift of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection and even the gift of the confused tongues and the scattering at Babel are examples of God’s willingness and ability to hear and understand the heart of God’s people, in hopes that we will, with God’s help, do the same.
And God speaks in the strangest ways still – in the promise of water at baptism and in the forgiveness of bread and wine during communion. Sometimes the message is clear in the words of a well-crafted sermon – we hope – or through a perfectly prayed prayer. Sometimes God’s message of love is just as clear through the messy presence of a loved one while we’re grieving; or through a stumbling confession and the gracious offering of forgiveness. Whatever the case, the message can seem inconceivable – that we are loved without condition; that even we are forgiven and that even they can be too; that this grace is ours as much as it is theirs; that God wants us as much as God wants them; that God so loved – and that God so loves – the whole wide world.
It’s all meant to bring joy and comfort and peace to the world – to the nations – to the Church, just the same – still fussing and fighting and screaming and pouting and trying too often to keep the good stuff to ourselves.
So let us believe that the promises of resurrection and new life are ours. Let us trust the sounds of grace among us – no matter how crazy and unbelievable or hard to explain that may be. And, let us hear the invitation from God to speak and share something new about our faith and God’s love for the sake of the world. It will bring joy and peace to the world around us. It is the promise of life lived under the influence of the Spirit. And it is the hope of God for all creation.