Today is Pentecost, commonly called the “birthday” of the church, the day we remember how God’s Spirit was poured out on the apostles, but let’s go ahead and be honest about something: it is difficult to understand the power of the Holy Spirit, or even describe what the Spirit is. It’s the person of the Trinity that, at least I suspect for many of us, presents the biggest challenge to our intellect. God the Father and God the Son are, for the most part, easier to grasp, even if belief in them is weak at times. But God the Holy Spirit? It’s often depicted as a bird. A bird can be seen…maybe even photographed…but never tamed. Or look at the Spirit’s other metaphors in Scripture: fire and wind. Neither of those can be touched, much less held. They don’t really have substance or volume, yet their presence can always be felt. And while they can at times be harnessed and channeled, they can never be fully controlled. I mean, who can control the wind?
This is how God’s Holy Spirit seems to function: it is energy, able to go anywhere, able to touch anyone, and, most importantly, able to bring about change. It’s the side of God that we find the most unpredictable, especially when we get in the habit of trying to predict God. It’s the aspect of God’s nature that reminds us most of God’s inherent inaccessibility, especially when we get in the habit of trying to access God. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who draws us in to the community of God’s people when we would rather make a name for ourselves.
|The ' Little' Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel, 1564)|
That, as it turns out, was the root problem at the Tower of Babel: humans wanted to make a name for themselves. The ancient Hebrews had this pre-historic tale tucked away in the early part of the book of Genesis that told about the time the human race tried its hardest to access God, to literally climb into the heavens to reach him. In direct defiance to God’s joyous command that they disperse after the flood and fill the earth, humans decide instead to band together and build a tower. Instead of fanning out with the Spirit’s power and trusting his promise wherever they went, humankind opts for clumping together in one place and, to symbolize their power, to build a tower up into the sky. It was all about making a name for themselves, rather than thankfully receiving the name God had given them.
The idea of “making a name for themselves” was as well-known technique in ancient architecture, which we know now from archaeology. The pyramid-like structures in Mesopotamia, where this tower story originated, were often constructed by the rulers who wished to be known forever. They would have the slaves inscribe the despots’ names in the brick and cylinder seals that were placed in the foundations of these towers. But like the toppled statue in Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” eventually the rulers would die and, like their temples, succumb to the sands of time. So much for making a name for themselves.
For ancient Israel, the story of what happened at the Tower of Babel helped explain several things, including the diversity of world languages and cultures, and the difficulties in human communication. Most of all, however, it illustrated how speech, as glorious a development as it was, was just another arena where sin could wreak its havoc. In other ancient religions’ pre-historic stories, diverse human languages came about, for example, as a result of a war between the gods in the cosmos. But for Israel and its one God—the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—it was a result of human selfishness and pride and our desire to use whatever means necessary to reach God on our own terms.
Eventually the whole scheme is undone when God causes everyone to start speaking gibberish. What had begun as a plan to consolidate human strength becomes an accident of confusion. All that’s left of Babel today is the term “babble,” a word that means incoherent speech.
We are no less familiar with the gifts and challenges of speech in our day: words can build people up and words can break people down. Language has the power to bring us together, just as it has the ability to alienate. In fact, I you think about it, speech and language are in the same category as fire and wind. Words have energy and power, but no volume or substance. And no one can hold a word or really harness its power once it’s been spoken, can they? But, by golly, a word can bring about change, can’t it?
So, altogether it really fits that on the Day of Pentecost, as the disciples are, once again, gathered into one place, speech becomes a conduit or catalyst for the work of the Holy Spirit. There is fire and there is wind—the traditional hallmarks of the Spirit’s presence—but there is also speech…loads of it, in all kinds of languages! But this time there is no babbling. Instead, it’s intelligible. Each of the foreigners gathered there is able to understand what the disciples are talking about in their own native tongue.
In ancient times, humans had striven to ascend to God by their own might. In the life and death of Jesus and then again at Pentecost, God descends to us in our weakness. At Babel and at countless times throughout history, humans had formed bricks to construct a grand but lifeless monument that eventually goes unfinished. Here at Pentecost, God uses people as living stones and assembles a temple which will finish his work of creation. Long ago, people and their languages were scattered out of their desire to make a name for themselves, and I presume we are still scattering, even as I speak. Now, by God’s grace, we are also being gathered back up through the only name we need ever to be concerned about: the name of the one who gives himself for the world.
Several years ago I was on on a trip to China with a group of seminarians where we witnessed to a Pentecost-like outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We had traveled to one of the most remote, interior locations in China. No roads were paved there, and some of the villages we visited still did not have electricity or running water. The churches in which we worshiped, which had been built decades before when the first missionaries had arrived, were very primitive and bore almost no resemblance to our grand buildings in the global west. We sat through hours of worship services spoken in tribal languages almost no one could translate accurately and which were accompanied by no organ or guitar or drum. We were served food that I couldn’t identify or name but which tasted, for the most part, fairly good.
|our group in Yunnan Province, China (January 2000)|
On the whole our group was feeling very tired and very foreign, as if God had, in fact, scattered us rich, Anglo-Saxon westerners to the end of the earth. I had started to focus on myself and my own fears and needs quite a bit during those long hours of incomprehensible worship in the un-air-conditioned heat when one little quartet—two middle-aged men and two middle-aged women—formed in the middle aisle and faced each other like a square. “What next strange custom am I going to have to endure now?” I remember thinking to myself. Then the leader of the group lifted his hand as if to direct a choir and when he dropped it, the four of them threw their heads back and began to sing, in perfect harmony,“Hal-lelujah! Hal-lelujah…!” Unbelieveably, and without a single hiccup, they then went on to finish the entire piece from Handel’s Messiah:
“And his name shall be cal-led, Wonderful Counselor! Almighty God!
The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!”
The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!”
Once again, there in that far-flung mud hut, we found ourselves drawn in by the name on earth that matters the most: the one who has been crucified and who is raised to bring all of God’s people into one communion. In spite of my boredom, in spite of my pride, in spite of my self-centeredness, the Spirit still managed to reach out and draw me in again. Like fire and wind, those words of gospel created a change in everyone who was there, and that same Holy Spirit desires to bring ever more into this God’s embrace, especially those who’ve never heard it before.
We look today at these young people on the front row, we look at their youthfulness and bright eyes, we look at these confirmands with their talents and their gifts just beginning to blossom and we are tempted to say: the world is yours, O child of God, go make a name for yourself! Of course, we want them to prosper, but if all they are to do is make a name for themselves, then it might end up turning out like Babel in the long run.
No, no, no. On this Pentecost, the Spirit teaches us to say to them—to say to everyone, in fact—don’t worry about your own name so much, but instead the name of the one who saves us.
Call on his name and go make his name known. Don’t waste too much energy building monuments that reach to the sky, that attempt to dominate the world or escape from it. Hold back on that desire to leave a mark that promotes your own self above all others’. Rather, build monuments of compassion and justice that have his name inscribed on every action, every prayer, and every word you speak. Those are the monuments that will last. Jesus himself says his disciples will be capable of greater works than he is. Ha-lle-lujah, my friends! Stand up, for God’s sake, and lend your voice to the quartet that draws the scattered world in.