“The Promise of Pentecost”
May 15, 2016
We often tell stories and sing songs simply
for the sheer joy of it.
Through the stories that we tell and the
songs that we sing, we also seek to understand ourselves and our world—even in
the midst of wonder and unknowing. Sometimes with our stories and songs, we
even seek to change our world, it is hoped, for the better.
And at times we use stories and songs as
attempts to explain situations or conditions that have no explanation.
How did this
Why don’t we
understand each other?
This morning we heard a story about the
origin of different languages.
As is often the case in Genesis, God
seems to act in very human ways when dealing with humans, walking in the garden
in the cool of the evening and, here, coming down to check out how things are
going on this planet. How are these human beings getting along? What are they
And—what’s this?—a city and a tower
which mortals had built. God considers the work done by one common people with
one common language and using words that suggest almost fear or jealousy says:
“This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to
do will now be impossible for them.”
So God confuses their language and scatters
the people over the face of the earth.
Remember, this is not a historical
report. It is not the still uncertain conclusions of linguists or
anthropologists about the origin of language or the multiplicity of languages.
It is myth in the best sense of the word—telling a story and by doing that
attempting to better understand the ways of God and the ways of human beings. And
it is such a good story that we’ve been telling it for thousands of years.
The story of the Tower of Babel is a
story told by people who encountered other peoples, other tribes, other nations
each with their own different customs, different words, and even their own
different gods. Yet for all their differences there were those human constants
and similarities: hunger and thirst, music and dance, a desire to thrive and
prosper, a love of their land, and the hope for the well-being of their
children and their children’s children in that land—all human goods, and yet
the source of so much pain and conflict.
So this becomes not only a story about
the origin of language but also a story about the scattering of people.
“Babel,” a word that means “the gate of God,” is here connected to the Hebrew
word that we translate as “confuse.” God’s judgment confuses the people and
sends them out over the face of the earth. This is a story about the separation
of one nation from another. It is a story about the alienation of people who,
while of one divine origin, became many. It is a story of about the separation
from one another that we all know, about the alienation from the best in
ourselves, and our alienation from God.
That is to say, this is a story about
sin. And it continues to be our story as scattered, separated, and alienated
Still, those who told this story, those
who kept it in their sacred scriptures, those who knew the devastation and
destruction caused by this separation, this sin, always held to the hope that
this would change. They looked toward the time when the people of the world
would find some common ground, some unity. They hoped that all of us might know
once more our common status as those created in the very image of God, as the
children of the living God and the sisters and brothers of one another.
So they created songs like the psalm
that we shared this morning to reflect this hope.
Look. On the holy mountain of Zion stand
the city of Jerusalem. This city is not built by those who say: “Come let us
make bricks and build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the
heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” This is a city that needs not
strive for heaven for its very foundations are placed by the Holy One.
And listen! This psalm sings of the most
amazing thing: Rahab—that is the nation of Egypt—Rahab and Babel, yes that Babel,
Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia—people of enemy nations—these, the Psalmist says, these are all born in God’s holy city.
Imagine, as one Old Testament scholar does: “Large, overpowering mythically
evil empires, Egypt and Babylon, smaller threatening nations, Philistia and
Tyre, and the alien and far away people of Ethiopia” all have birthright
citizenship in Jerusalem. The glorious things spoken of this city are that “all
the world is included in this city and benefits from its blessings and the love
that God extends to it.”[i]
In this song, God is keeping a record of
births. Yes, once again God seems very human —or maybe this is another
reflection of the hope that we humans might sometimes act in ways that approach
the divine. God is keeping a record of births and announces of all people, all
nations: “This one is born here.” Jerusalem—the city of God—is the birthplace
of all people, the place were all may gather in peace, the place where all,
regardless of origin, are brought into the household of God.
This is a grace-filled announcement of
good news: the inclusion of all people into the love of God.
Should we be surprised, then, when we
hear Jesus, who was raised with songs like this, telling his followers: “Love
your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you.”
The early Christians used Zion as a way
of speaking about church as a home for those who followed in the way of Jesus
Christ. In the light of Psalm 87, such a home becomes a place of welcome for
I hope that you’re beginning to see the
significance of the Christian story of Pentecost and coming to a sense of why
we tell the stories and sing the songs that we do on this day. Tongues of fire,
rushing wind, all sorts of languages spoken and understood by all sorts of
people are used to draw our attention once more to what is happening in
People of many nations came to Jerusalem
fifty days after the Passover celebration for the festival that remembered the
giving of the Law to Moses. These Jewish people meet up with a group of the
followers of Jesus—also Jewish—who had stayed in Jerusalem after the
crucifixion and resurrection. They are waiting, as Jesus had told them to,
waiting to be clothed in power, as Jesus told them they would be.
People of many nations had come to worship
God and suddenly they hear the good news of God’s power and God’s love
announced in ways that they can understand—in their own languages.
The poet, W.H. Auden, says of this
event: “The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift
of tongues, but it might easily as well be called the gift of ears…As writers,
readers, human beings, we cannot speak or understand each other unless we are
first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to
bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility
Peter announces that the hope of the
Psalmist is being fulfilled. And by the gift of the Spirit the people hear and
understand. The curse of Babel is being reversed and God’s Spirit, the Spirit
of life, falls upon all people.
This is the beginning. From Jerusalem
the followers of Jesus will go out into all the earth with the message that God
loves all people, that God loves all creation. It is a new scattering, this
time for the sake of gathering people together. Quite often that message will
be obscured and hard to hear. But often enough it brings health, wisdom,
beauty, and courage to those who hear it. Often enough it brings power to the
powerless, freedom to the captive.
The hope of the Psalmist and the promise
of Pentecost are not complete. We know that.
Even today we build our cities and our
towers to make a name for ourselves. Even today I take such great delight when
from many places in this city I see the steeple of this church rising toward
Even today we know that nations and
races and people hold great animosity toward one another and are more than
ready to act with hostility. In our nation and around the world, many favor
building walls that would separate. In our nation and around the world, many
favor actions that would scatter the people abroad. Even today we hear reports of racial
hostility on the university campus and downtown. We are scattered, separated,
alienated, and we still look at one another with suspicion. Our speech is not
understood, nor do we understand the speech of others.
Recall God’s evaluation of Babel: “This
is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do
will now be impossible for them.” Rocketing into the heavens, communicating
instantly with people around the world in a myriad of languages, destroying our
planet—nothing is impossible for us.
Still we proclaim hope. Still we
So let me tell a story as a way of
understanding this city, where people
from many nations gather, as a way of perhaps seeing the way in which the
Spirit transforms this place and our lives—and as a way of glimpsing a hope of
Many days I get on the bus to ride into
work. The driver, an African-American greets people in English as they board. I
get on in what most people would think is a pretty “white” part of Iowa City,
but some of the passengers are speaking Chinese. A little further and people
board the bus speaking Spanish. Two women get on with veiled faces. They speak
a language I can’t identify and their voices mix with all the others.
By the time we cross the river the bus
is filled with the different sounds of people from North and South America,
from Africa and Europe and Asia. By the time we cross the river the bus is filled
with spirit. It is Pentecost each day as each one hears in his or her own
language. Each speaks as they are empowered. And we find a common if brief
unity on that bus as it takes us to labs and classrooms, businesses and
restaurants, even to this church—to places where we will use our different
gifts, our different skills for the good of this community, for the good of the
In some ways, I think, my story may have
no real moral—but I tell it, as we often tell stories, simply for the joy of
it, the joy of telling someone else of that multilingual song I hear on the
And in that song I hear Pentecost—the
promise that all people—all of us created in the image of God—with our individuality
and our diversity intact—all people will hear as they are able that they are
loved by God and charged with the care of this earth, our home. We celebrate
the promise of Pentecost in the church, but we in the church own neither the
promise nor the reality of Pentecost. God’s Spirit is given for all people in
all places with all languages. It is given as the Spirit of Life that empowers
Let us, then, live in that Spirit, in
that promise, with that hope—with ears to hear the good news of God’s love for
Johanna Bos, “Psalm 87,” Interpretation,
July 1997, pg. 285.