1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then 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.’ 5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, ‘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. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
It’s graduation day at Texas A&M University, and everyone is going to get their diploma…except Jimmy, the beloved captain of the football team, the student body president, and the homecoming king. Jimmy just didn’t quite get enough credits to graduate on time, but he shows up to graduation anyhow, in his cap and gown, hoping for a miracle. When the other graduates see him come in, they stand up and begin to yell, “Let Jimmy graduate! Let Jimmy graduate!”
The president of A&M, feeling intense pressure and not wanting to look bad in front of all those parents, alumni, and (more importantly) big donors, invites Jimmy up to the stage and agrees to give him one final chance to prove himself. “Jimmy,” he says, I’m going to ask you one question, and if you give the correct answer, I’ll let you graduate. Jimmy agrees.
“If I have two cows on my ranch, Jimmy, and I buy two more at the state fair, how many cows total do I have in my herd?”
Jimmy thinks it over for awhile. The senior class waits anxiously on the edge of their seats. The parents, the alumni, and the donors begin to get restless. But finally, just when it seems hopeless, Jimmy looks up at the University president, and with no small amount of hesitation and doubt in his voice, he says, “Is it…do I have…four cows?”
And right at that moment, the entire Texas A&M senior class jumps to their feet and shouts in unison, “Give Jimmy another chance! Give Jimmy another chance!”
Today is Pentecost Sunday. In most congregations around the world today, you would probably hear sermons about how Pentecost is the birthday of the church–the anniversary of the day in Acts chapter 2, when the followers of Jesus receive the gift of Holy Spirit, begin to do miraculous things in their own right, and thus the Christian church is born. Happy Birthday to us, Happy Birthday to us, Happy Birthday dear church… Happy Birthday to us!
Not so fast.
I think (and have said many times before) there’s a better way to look at Pentecost, a better analogy than “birthday.”
Pentecost is “graduation day.”
On your birthday, the day when you were born, chances are you didn’t actually do a whole lot to prepare yourself for that moment (your mother did most of the hard work). On the other hand, anyone who has graduated from high school or college knows the amount of work, the years of dedication required to earn that diploma, that title.
Jesus’ disciples had been sitting at his feet for three long years, studying his teachings. They had followed him across the country watching him feed the hungry, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor. He even sent them out on short internships and field trips to practice what he had taught them. Finally, they had been through the intense final exam of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Then they said their goodbyes to their teacher and watched him ascend into heaven. So at Pentecost, they weren’t waiting to be born…they were ready to graduate and take on the world.
Likewise, for many years after you were born, you were helpless and had to be sheltered, protected from the dangers of the world by your parents, until you were ready. But at Pentecost, when the disciples are given their flaming diplomas by the Spirit of God, they are far from helpless–immediately we see them proclaiming the gospel, boldly, confidently, for all to hear. They abandon all shelter and protection, risking their very lives to carry God’s message into the world. Pentecost is not for helpless babies…it’s for trained and eager graduates!
There’s a very similar story in the Old Testament, although not on the surface, and not in the way it’s usually interpreted. The story of the Tower of Babel, is (in my opinion) often misunderstood. The usual way it’s taught is that mankind got too big for its britches, too full of itself, and out of great pride decided to build a tower into the heavens, in a misguided attempt to rival God himself. So God came down and punished them for this vanity, confusing their language so they’d never be able to do that again.
If that were true… why are there so many skyscrapers in most of the world’s largest cities today? Did God change his mind? And if God doesn’t want people to understand each other, he must really hate software like Rosetta Stone, Duo Lingo, and Google Translate.
No, I think the story of the tower of Babel is not, ultimately, a story about mankind’s sin and God’s punishment. If you read closely, never once does God actually condemn what the people of Babel are doing. In fact, he says this: “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.” That sounds like a compliment to me. Humanity has gone from scattered nomadic tribes barely surviving against the elements and against each other, to a cooperative civilization with bricks and mortar–that’s early technology! I think at this moment, God is proud of his creation.
But there is one problem, and this is where the story of Babel and the story of Pentecost converge: We read that the people of Babel came to the land of Shinar, and “settled” there. They want to make their tower, and a name for themselves because “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” They want to stick together. They want to stay put. They had forgotten God’s command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the whole earth.”
The same is true of the disciples. The last thing Jesus said to them before ascending into heaven was “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” And then we read in Acts 2:1, “When the day of Pentecost had come” (in other words, 50 whole days later), “they were all together in one place.”
In the Babel story and the Pentecost story, God sees that his people are ready, and God’s Spirit comes down from heaven to give them a gentle push out the door. Not long after I graduated from high school, my parents sold our house, moved to Austin, and bought a new house with one less room. It was a subtle hint.
But this “push” out the door is not just a message for the people of ancient Israel, the disciples of Jesus, or even the recent graduates among us. It’s a message for you and me today. Here’s what I mean:
Imagine if your son or daughter came home from college one day and told you, “Mom, Dad, I’ve decided I don’t need to actually graduate. I don’t need a career. I’m just going to stay in college for the rest of my life. You can afford that, right?”
And yet, how many of us in the church sit through countless sermons, countless Sunday school classes and bible studies over countless years…and we have yet to graduate? We have yet to go out into the world and actually DO the things we learned, to actually teach others what we have been taught; lead others as we have been led.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I do believe, passionately, in lifelong education. But not if it’s just an excuse to put things off–as in:
“I don’t really know the Bible well enough to teach it to anyone else.”
“I could never go on a mission trip–that’s not MY thing!”
“I can’t contribute my (fill in the blank here) time/money/skills to the church–I’m not ready yet. Maybe someday… later…”
Look out. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying these things, God might be about to knock down your tower, or torch your noggin with a little fire. What are you waiting for? A diploma?
When we observe Pentecost, we are celebrating the fact that God has looked down upon us from the heavens and said, “Look at them! They are ready, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. All they need is a little push.”
A mother was watching her son graduate from high school, and as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma, he stumbled and fell. He was a rather large young man, and so when he hit the floor of the makeshift wooden stage, he knocked a whole in the planks and fell through, disappearing completely. The mother, of course, was absolutely mortified. But the boy’s father, seeing her dismay, leaned over and calmly said, “Don’t worry, dear. It’s just a stage he’s going through.”
People of First Presbyterian Church, may the next stage of our journey together push each one of us onward, outward, and upward.
On this Pentecost Sunday, know that we have all graduated, we are all ready, and the world is waiting for the message that we bring.