A Sermon for Covenant
“Hear, Hear: The Boisterous Languages of Pentecost”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas
May 19, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
We are used to thinking of Pentecost as the gift of tongues: there were, after all tongues like fire that came to rest on the top of each of the heads of the disciples, licking their hair, forcing their eyes heavenward, opening their mouths and pouring forth foreign speech.
It is the kind of startling miracle we mostly only dream about on a Sunday every now and then. Most days, Sundays included, we’re not quite hopeful enough even to dream. We hardly expect the Spirit to swirl through here like a whirlwind. We do not think to ask: Might we ever worship in such a way that the reality of Presence tickles our arm hairs and heightens our senses and loosens our locked-tongues?
No matter about that just yet, we’ll get on later as to what to expect. For now, let’s revisit an age long, long ago, before Pentecost, before Peter, before Jesus, before Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.
A time when all the peoples of earth were huddled together in one place, still few enough to count in one day if you wished to take a census, still homogeneous enough to speak the same dialect from one to another. These were the people whom God had created, whom God loved, who lived on the large earth in one tiny corner where they set out to make one of the world’s first homes. They belonged to each other and they belonged to God, and they decided to build themselves a city of their belongingness, which made about as much sense as building always has. We build our homes, our churches, our gathering places to preserve and protect our familial custody of one another.
In the middle of this great city, the people began to build a great tower, a tower so high it was rumored it would reach the sky. It has been known rather infamously as the Tower of Babel and in Christian tradition, we’ve often been taught that the tall tower was bad. Bad because the people were prideful and wanted to reach up to God on their own, or they wanted to be as high as God, or they wanted to be powerful instead of God, etc.
But in Jewish tradition, the tower isn’t the focus. The tower was just a tower, and the people wanted it to be tall, as towers typically are. The story is really about the City of Babel, and the thing God sets out to correct is not so much their pride as their desire to stay huddled together and not be scattered. Their reason for building, in their very own words, is so that “we may not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” And so, says verse 8, what did God do but “scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city,” and verse 9, “God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
The reason God has to intervene when the people start building a city is not because the people were building a skyscraper but because they were building uniformity, that is to say, a false kind of unity. As Jewish interpreters note, the people build with manmade bricks, all the same size and shape, rather than using the native stone YHWH preferred, with its variety of natural sizes and shapes. There’s a Midrash quote that said, “When a person died, he was not mourned, but when a brick fell and broke everyone would weep.” In other words, homogeny was valued more than personhood. Sameness and stability and staying put were prized over diversity and creativity and exploration.
And, thus, God got involved and mixed things up quite thoroughly. God scattered the people and divided their languages, made it so they could not understand each other, and the unfinished city walls were abandoned as the people walked out of them and on into the far reaches of the earth. Was it God’s punishment or God’s push forward and outward? Either way, the people were scattered forever after and the scattering occurred at the hand of God.
Fast forward quite a bit later and some of the earth’s scattered people are gathered together, for there were, living in Jerusalem, God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. And God once again visited a city and decided to act in such a way that things would never quite be the same. Some have called Pentecost a “reversal” of the Tower of Babel’s scattering, but that really doesn’t describe it, does it?
If Babel was being reversed, wouldn’t you expect to hear, once again, one universal language? One universal language was already being perpetuated without God’s help, and that language was Greek. Probably most everyone in the crowd that day, whatever their native language, could speak Greek. But what happened when Spirit arrived was that the disciples began to speak, not Greek, but a variety of languages they had never spoke before, almost like the City of Babel all over again, only this time there was one significant difference.
In Genesis, the splintering of languages causes the people not to be able to understand, or to hear, one another. In Acts, the common language the disciples used to share splits into various languages, but it enables people all around to hear and understand the Gospel.
In other words, this isn’t really a miracle of tongues at all; it’s a miracle of ears. 5 times this passage references hearing or listening. Just like in the City of Babel, there is an explosion of languages where before everyone was more or less everyone was speaking the same language. Unlike the Tower of Babel, there is a miracle by which the people hear and understand one another in the very midst of their diversity.
Note that none of this is very orderly. The people are not suddenly transformed to think and talk all the same way; their own cultures and languages are not eradicated. The people do not end up stacked up neatly atop one another like a pile of identical bricks. In fact, the whole affair is messy and confusing enough that the apostles are accused of being drunk.
The coming of God is no tea party, no pageant of politeness. It is a collusion of cultures and wild party-mix of voices in which everyone suddenly hears and everyone forgets their manners. It is a noisy explosion of languages.
It’s important to note that not everyone has ears to hear, even on Pentecost. Some people will think you a mad fool, a drunk, a discontent, a rabble-rouser. It happened everywhere the Gospel was preached; it still happens every time the unlikely truth-teller opens her mouth and prophesies; it happens when young men see visions and old men dream dreams, everywhere the Spirit of the Lord is poured out and the wonders of the heavens show up as signs on earth, it feels to certain people like a chaos that needs to be contained, an upheaval that is destructive, as if blood and fire and billows of smoke were filling the earth, as if the sun had turned to darkness and the moon to blood, as if it were peril rather than Presence that had come upon us. Just think how alarming and disconcerting it would be if a fire and whirlwind swept through our space this morning. Would you worship or would you worry?
Maybe you did have a fire or a whirlwind of some sort sweep through your world this morning, this week, this year. I know I did. These are not the miracles we asked for sweetly bowed beside our beds, hands folded, eyes closed. These are the Spirit interruptions we’d just assume left us alone. Unless, of course, we can imagine just for a second that:
Even in the midst of this storm, God is here. God is, in all probability, most here, in the middle of the mess. Hear the swirling wind that threatens to undo you? It may just be the unraveling of your awakening, that cyclone. Feel the burn? It may just be the fire of your baptism, that pain.
Sometimes it is Spirit when it feels like upheaval. Sometimes it is Spirit when it sounds to all your friends like you are speaking a different language. Sometimes it is Spirit when the crowds think you must be intoxicated and out-of-control. Sometimes it is Spirit when they want to assail you and throw you in a prison, when they want to silence your voice, or misread your every word, it is because the Spirit is moving.
When God moves, mishearing occurs and hearing occurs. Sometimes you can’t separate the wheat from the chaff, the understanding from the misunderstanding, for years to come. Your best bet is to pray for ears, because it takes a certain kind of miracle if you want to hear the voice of God. It’s good to stop and evaluate your work: am I building a city of my own two hands that I can contain and control, or am I building the Kingdom of God, which has no walls? Am I living a Spirit-filled life that enables me to hear my neighbor, or do I speak only one boring language and expect everyone else to learn my vernacular? At Babel, God stirred up a lot of mishearing and at Pentecost God stirred up a lot of hearing, but there was some of both at each, because there are always human people involved which means nothing God does ever happens robotically.
But the Pentecost people are those who ride the wind, those who are open to fire, those who live on the edge, who explore past the city walls to discover God in foreign places, who do not shun the person with the different voice but rather lean in to listen close assuming that tongues like fire mean something holy.
May we be and become a Pentecost people, not those who weather storms but those who are transformed by them. May we experience the miracle of ears. May the range of languages fill us with joy at the presence of the Spirit. May we walk through this world intoxicated, or at least, a little bit tipsy, with the Love that cannot be contained. Amen.