Pentecost 2020 (9am)

Pentecost 2020 (9am)

Theme: Pentecost 2020
Bible Reading: Acts 2:1-21
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
ONLINE – Sunday 31st May, 2020


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• Kids Handout for 31st May –

Offering Link –

A question to start with … (and I will explain why I am asking it in a moment).  Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel from the book of Genesis.  A classic Sunday School type story. 

In the comment section – can you write a one sentence summary of the tower of Babel (without looking it up).  Just from memory, tell me what you remember the story to be about.  GO. 

Now why I am asking about Babel on Pentecost Sunday?  Well, about three weeks ago, I was pondering what to preach on for Pentecost Sunday – which is hard.  I always get a bit nervous when I am preaching on significant occasions in the church calendar like Christmas or Pentecost because you have already heard so many sermon on this topic that what can I say that will be different or engaging or helpful.  So as I prayed on this, … in a way that I can really explain, I felt the Holy Spirit reminding me of something I heard a long time ago about the story of Babel from Genesis 11.   And as Pentecost is all about being open to the Spirit, I thought that I should follow this prompt and went back and read the story. 

You know the story?  Let’s have a read of some of the responses to see how you have remembered the story…

The people are wanting to be like God so they are trying to build a tower up to God, which displeases God and so God disrupts their efforts but mixing up their languages and thus scattering them all over the earth.  Decent summary? 

Only, that is not quite how the story goes.  It seems that the Sunday School version we remember is not quite what is in the text – and to understand Genesis 11, we have to do a quick skim through Genesis 1-10.

After God created the world and people – in God’s image – humankind seemed to have a bit of a problem in … doing what God suggested?  Think Adam and Eve in the garden or  Cain and Abel or the whole flooding the world incident. 

But God doesn’t give up on us and in chapter 9:1, God tries again and gives Noah the instructions … “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”  “Go”, God says, “you are my people and by spreading across the world you are furthering my love, my influence, my kingdom.” 

But along comes Genesis 11 and in the Babel story, someone has a different idea…

Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

Notice, first of all, they’re not setting out to build a tower, they’re setting out to build a city.  They don’t want to go up to be like God (that is the Sunday School version), they just don’t want to spread across the earth (like God commanded them to) and instead are want to stay put and build a city that will be so great that people won’t want to go anywhere else.  The story of Babel is about people building a city so that they WON’T be scattered over the face of the earth.

And here’s the crux of the problem. They were supposed to be exploring new possibilities and new places.  God had given them the mission to scatter over the face of the earth.  Not as a punishment but as something that would be good for them – so that they could keep exploring and growing and become the fullness of what God had always intended them to be.

You see, God wants us to grow and develop and embrace opportunities — that is what we have been talking about for the past 2 weeks – but the people of Babel wanted things to stay the same.  They were rejecting God’s mission of ongoing change and growth and choosing instead to stubbornly defend the ways things were.  Defending the way things are, at the expense of a better future – of God’s future, is the Sin of Babel.

According to the text, it is not the tower that God has a problem with … but how the people organised together to stand against God’s plan.  If the people together could build such as city and refuse to ever leave, then God’s intended plan for humanity would be thwarted.  One article I was reading on this suggested that … God needed a disruption to rebellion  and used the introduction of linguistic diversity into the human race to cause that.  If people could not understand each other … it would be hard to organise together against God.   Linguistic diversity would mean that there could be no single source of power, there will be a world of plurality and difference, and no one will ever be able to completely eradicate God’s plan for change and growth.

And that’s exactly what God does.  By introducing a diversity of languages – the project grinds to a halt, people go back to spreading and exploring, and humanity is scattered over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:9).  Just as God always intended.

Note that God doesn’t destroy their tower. God doesn’t forbid them from building new towers. God doesn’t even forbid them from building cities. God doesn’t show any indication of being furious with them, God just wants them to get back to the task at hand.

We could sum up the moral of Babel this: Will humanity continue to explore and grow, as God intended, or will they build power structures that defend the way things are, and resist the ongoing process of change? 

But how does this connect with Pentecost?

The disciples (as we have talked about over the past two weeks) we also given a mission … to go out, to spread the good news of Jesus and God’s love across the world!  In the chapters leading up to Pentecost (the ends of the gospels and the beginning of Acts) it is all that Jesus talks about: 

  • Matthew 28:19-20, Go into all the world and make disciples of all people
  • Mark 16:15, Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
  • Luke 24:47 – And repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in [Jesus] name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
  • Acts 1:8 – [Jesus said] But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

It is God’s command all over again … Change has come.  The old is gone, the new has come.  Now is the time to Go, spread this good news.  Continue to go and grow and my people.

And just like in Babel – In Acts chapter 2 God sends a disrupting force to help us in this task, to push us into action.  At Babel it was linguistic diversity … at Pentecost the disrupting force was the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes Pentecost is referred to as the “reversal” to the Babel story.  At Babel, the people couldn’t understand each other because of the different languages BUT at Pentecost the people despite having different languages, all understood the good news being proclaimed.

I had this picture in my head of what this might have been like and as you might have seen, I put out a request for some people saying that like from Acts in different languages “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! What does this mean?”

I was hoping for 6 or so to make this point … I ended up with 18 different languages from people in our congregation and the Melanesian Luto congregation.  So, after a lot of editing (and I apologise that don’t really get to see fullness of each translation) … here is my rendition of the reversal of Babel which happened at Pentecost…

Did that work?  What I hope to show was that on the day of Pentecost, the experience of Babel is symbolically reversed.  Where Babel marks the introduction of the confusion of different languages, Pentecost marks the beginning of a new unity, where everyone can understand each other.

But Pentecost doesn’t do this by eliminating all the diversity God introduced at Babel. Instead, it does this by equipping people to understand and appreciate that diversity.  

Let me say that again because this is a really important point … Pentecost doesn’t bring unity by eliminating diversity. Instead, it does this by equipping people to understand and appreciate that diversity.  God bring unity within diversity.   The brand-new Christians find that they can communicate in different languages and understand people from far different backgrounds.  Through the empowering of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost God brings about in us greater unity through—and not despite—our diversity. In partnership with God, we can learn to understand and appreciate each other’s differences, and be stronger for it.

And I think that this is a powerful message to hear in our current COVID19 situation.   It would be very easy for us to respond to the uncertainty of everything that has gone on, with the increased anxiousness about the unknown by  “bunkering down” … just try to get through this and get things back to the way they were … and then not have any more changes for a long time.

And you can see it in the news and especially on social media at the moment – with people passionately holding onto their opinions and ideas and lashing out against anyone who is different.  They surround themselves with people and Facebook groups that think like them and are totally closed minded to anything else.  They are bunkering down and refusing to explore or grow as people.

We can see groups of people refusing to listen to others who are different.  The events in Minnieapolis in the states right now – the racial tension and riots – are breaking my heart.  Both for the initial injustice regarding the death of George Floyd but also in way that people have been talking about this.

One person, quoting the words of Martin Luther King, said that the riots were not about thugs on the rampage but about people’s frustration at not being heard.  How can we help people in all our diversity to stop and listen and genuinely hear each other … even when we speak the same language.

Maybe this Pentecost, what the world needs most is to the miracle of being able to hear the wonder and love and compassion of God expressed to them by us, the people of God, in a language that they understand. 

I think that this Pentecost the Spirit is stirring us, just like it stirred the people at the first Pentecost – and even the people back at Babel – to not forget God’s mission … that we will continue to go and explore and grow as people.  I think that the Spirit is stirring us to not get stuck where we are, to not want things to remain the same or go back to how they were but rather to be exploring for the new opportunities and growth that arises out of a time like this.  I think the Holy Spirit is stirring us to be open to the diversity that is around us, to genuinely listen and learn from others and be surprised with the personal growth that this can bring.

If this sounds hard or scary … yes.  I am sure that Peter was feeling it too when he stood up to speak on that first Pentecost, but the thing we can learn from Peter is that he knew he could not do this on his own.  Peter at Pentecost (and all throughout the book of Acts) keep saying, “this is not us, this is the Holy Spirit working through us”.  It is what the prophet Joel talked about … God has given us the Holy Spirit – young and old – the Holy Spirit has come to everyone to help us, guide us, empower us, and lead us in God’s purposes. 

It is the same Spirit that empowered Peter that will help us embrace the diversity that is all around us and it is the spirit that gives us the strength to step out, to go, to explore and to grow as people and as followers of Jesus.

May we all be open to the Holy Spirit working in our lives today.  Amen.