When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. I’ve heard that expression used to describe how teachers can manipulate any text to fit their own theological agenda. I have to admit that the relationality of the Trinity is at the forefront of my mind in all things these days, and tends to be the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. However, I don’t think it was much of a stretch when I crafted this sermon for Pentecost this past weekend. Acts 2:1-21 speaks of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the name of the LORD, which I interpret as the Creator/First person.
This sermon is part of my ongoing process of connecting the social Trinity to spiritual formation in the suburban congregation.
Sermon: What Language Does God Speak?
Text: Acts 2:1-21
I want to begin today by asking a question. What language does God speak?
Think about that for a second. The Bible records many stories where people heard God speak. What language did he speak?
If you were to ask this question to the churches that I grew up in, many people might have said, “Well, that’s easy. God spoke King James English. Everybody knows that.” Thou which art and whithersoever thou goest.
That’s the language of the Bible, right?
Here’s an interesting thing about Christianity. It is the only major world religion that doesn’t make people learn the language of its founder. Did you know that?
Do you know what language Jesus spoke? Well, the New Testament was written in Greek, so he must have spoken Greek. Nope. OK, he was a Jewish man, so he must have spoken Hebrew. Nope.
Jesus spoke Aramaic.
The interesting thing is that none of the original scripture is written in Aramaic. In other words, every word that we have ever read about Jesus is a translation of the original message.
Language is an interesting thing. Language isn’t just about words. It is as much about culture and non-verbal cues and situational context as it is about letters on a page.
Take this for example. If I was talking to a woman who I sincerely admired and she was wearing a dress that I honestly thought looked good on her. If I said, “Nice!”
Now imagine the same dress on a big, hairy biker dude who lost a bet. If I said, “Nice!” How would you interpret my words?
Those are the same exact words, but the context completely changes the meaning.
Language is an interesting thing.
Why am I talking about this? Today is Pentecost. Today we see an amazing miracle of language. The Holy Spirit shows up in a powerful way. The disciples stand up in front of a crowd and talk about Jesus.
Now, this crowd was an interesting group of people. They were Jewish people, so they had that in common, but they were from every region of the Roman Empire. They were from “the ends of the Earth.” What does that mean? They all spoke different languages.
So, the disciples are standing up there, and then the miracle happens. Everyone in the crowd heard their words in their own language.
So, I ask the question again. What language does God speak? Each person heard the message in their own language.
People have been trying to explain this amazing event at Pentecost since the day it happened two thousand years ago.
One common interpretation is to think that Pentecost is the reversal of what happened way back in Genesis at the Tower of Babel, where God divided the people up into different languages.
I thought it would be interesting to go back to that story in Genesis look at that again.
One reason I thought that would be interesting is because this sermon is the end of the series that we started way back in September, in Genesis.
All year we have been looking at the theme “God with Us: Are we in step with God?”
By going back to this story, and seeing how it relates to Pentecost, it will give us a chance to review the whole story and bring some closure to our year.
I want to look at story two ways. There are two versions of how to interpret the story and tie it all together.
The first version goes like this.
In the beginning God was perfect. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit formed a perfect community. One day they decided to create the universe and humanity. They created them male and female and it was a perfect situation, and everyone was happy.
Then one day the man and woman disobeyed God. Sin entered into the picture and messed everything up. Humanity fell out of the perfect community of God and plunged into darkness, completely lost and separated from God.
The rest of history has been the attempt to bridge the gap between God and man.
In Genesis 11:4 we see the story of Babel. The humans multiplied and decided to build a city and a big tower that reached to Heaven. They said,
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
God looked down at this construction project and said, in verses 6-8,
“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”
In other words, God thought, “Oh no, if we don’t stop this, the humans will be like us, and then what will we do? We must zap them. We must curse them with multiple languages so they won’t be able to build a tower tall enough to reach us.”
Time went on and eventually God sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and bridge the gap of sin so that people could come back up to God the right way.
Then, at the day of Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit down to draw people from all corners of the earth, to reverse the scattering of Babel, to unite them into one group, and show them the ladder of Jesus that they could climb to escape the dark world and be united with God again.
The Holy Spirit showed us how, through Jesus, we could be with God.
That is pretty much how I always understood the story growing up.
Now, here is a different way of telling the story.
In the beginning God, the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life, three diverse persons living in dynamic relationship, created a diverse, vibrant universe, full of many wonderful creatures and complex ecosystems.
God created humanity in the midst of this complex diversity. It says, in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”
Humans were to go out and fill the earth. They were to scatter and be part of this complex and diverse earth. That’s why they were created.
Then we see the story of Babel. The people said let us build a city and a tower.
Think about this. Why do people build cities and towers? They build them to close themselves off and protect themselves from the scary things that are “out there.”
Then they said, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” They wanted to be the most important thing on the earth, and forgot about God, the giver and sustainer of life.
You see, the sin of Babel was twofold. (1) they did not fill the earth like God told them to, and (2) they were seeking their own name, and not the name of God.
Perhaps it was not that God was afraid of the humans building a tower that would rival God, but God was disappointed that the people were not fulfilling their purpose of creation. They weren’t scattering and they weren’t staying connected to God’s name. They had forgotten that God is the source of life. They were living a life of fear, isolation, and self-sufficiency.
So, when God scattered them and gave them multiple languages, God wasn’t punishing them. God was helping them to fulfill their original blessing.
You see, the diversity of language and culture in humanity is not a curse, it is a reflection of the beauty and complexity of who God is.
Jesus came to show us how to live a life that reaches out to all people in love, and does everything to bring glory to the Father, the giver of life.
When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost I want you to notice two things:
One, what language did the Spirit speak? Acts 2:8 says that each person heard the message in their own tongue. That is not a reversal of what God did at Babel. That is God reaching out to each person within that person’s native culture and language and meeting that person there.
Second, where did God bring the people? Did God bring the people all together to be reunited in one language and one culture, like they were before the Tower of Babel?
No. The people heard the message and took it back to their own countries, in their own language.
You see, God’s mission is not to form a single culture, but the mission is found in verse 21. “Everyone who calls on the name of The Lord will be saved.”
As human beings our natural tendency is to live life in fear.
We tend to build walls around ourselves. We like to gather with people who speak our own language and are safe, and we want to keep everyone else out. And, we tend to be self-serving and forget that God is the giver of life and it is God’s name that is to be praised, not ours.
The Jews were doing that in Jesus’ day. They had walled themselves off from the Gentiles and thought that the mission of God was to get people to come inside the walls of Israel in order to be saved.
Pentecost reminds us that God’s mission moves in the opposite direction. God is the giver of life and has created all things, and continues to create and sustain all things. The mission of God is not to get everyone to look and act exactly the same, but is to remember that it is God’s name that is to get the glory, not our own.
God calls us out of our self-serving and fearful ways into a life of generosity and trust in God, through Jesus, and in the Power of the Holy Spirit.
What language does God speak?
God speaks every language. God is with us, in every culture, and the mission is to bring every culture to call on God’s name, in their own language, so that God can get the glory in the entire earth, and be united in our dependency on God.
God is with us. God gathers us in this place around the body and blood of the crucified and risen Jesus, so that we can be scattered into the world to bring glory to God’s name with all people.
That is the Spirit of Pentecost.