May 27, 2007

Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-35
John 14:8-17, 25-27

“Wind and Fire”

WIND – – Blue, grey, white, invisible power. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the effects of the wind. A colourful kite rising high in the sky. A child’s pinwheel spinning furiously. A flag waving boldly.

Remember the sensation of a cool breeze on a hot day, fresh and invigorating, a welcome, cleansing presence.
Recall the experience of a stiff breeze in your face as you walk along the street or across a field. You feel strong as you walk into it. You feel powerful working against it.

Remember a wind that is too powerful: knocking you down, pulling down trees and overturning cars, blowing up dust and dirt that stings your eyes.

WIND is a powerful image for the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came upon the disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem, and the Book of Acts tells us that it came like a rush of wind. A powerful force that they could not mistake for their imaginations. It came rushing through the house where they were staying, blowing them all mightily into attention.

They’d been waiting there for something to happen. Jesus had asked them to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed with power from on high,” and there was no mistaking that this was what they were waiting for.

And then there was FIRE. FIRE – – another symbol of God’s presence. Just as a flame ignites a bright lantern, God’s Spirit ignites wishy-washy, easily frightened people into brave folks who will stand up to tell the world the good news. Just as a campfire or fireplace is a source of warmth and comfort on a cold night, God’s Spirit comforts us when people are treating us coldly. Just as a flame may be used to sterilize a needle when we remove a splinter, God’s Spirit works within us to clean out bad attitudes, ideas, and ways.

The Holy Spirit came upon the gathered disciples, the Church, on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came in the form of wind and fire, and empowered the followers of Jesus to become proclaimers of Jesus. It gave them the ability to go beyond being disciples of Jesus to become apostles of Jesus, telling the good news of God’s love to the world. In Wind and Fire, the Spirit gave them the wisdom to speak to people from all over the world, from many different countries and backgrounds and to be understood by them. It was a Spirit of communication.

But most of all, the Spirit gave them the ability to imagine big things. It gave them the opportunity to spread the news further than it had ever been spread before, into all the world. They probably had some reservations and some fears about the job Jesus had given them to preach the gospel. But the mighty wind and fire of the Spirit wiped all of that away, giving them the power to get out there sharing good news with their neighbours, not worrying about what anyone would think.

Every few years on Pentecost, the famous story of the Spirit’s out-pouring from the Book of Acts is paired with the one we heard today from Genesis 11 — the mythic story of the building of the Tower of Babel. The connection between the two stories is around language, of course. In a way, the stories are like mirror images of each other.

In the Babel story, the people of the earth all speak the same language. They work together to build themselves a city with a really tall tower, and to make a name for themselves. God has a look at what they’re doing, and worries about what else they might decide to do together. So God confuses their language and scatters the people throughout the earth. They have to stop building the city, and the place is called Babel (from the Hebrew word balal, meaning “to confuse”).

Then we jump to the early Christian Church. Even among the Jews who have come to Jerusalem for the harvest festival of Pentecost, we hear the long list of countries where the people are from and the many different languages that they speak. In this story, God’s action is not to confound and confuse the people so that they stop working together. Instead God sends the mighty power of the Spirit in wind and fire to gather them together and help them to understand one another. Instead of causing confusion, God sends the gift of clarity. The apostles are suddenly able to speak in all the languages of the people present. They are able to preach the Gospel in the languages of the people and so begin the mission of sharing the good news with all the people of the world.

There are two things that come to mind for me lately when I think about the story of Babel. The first is always the “Babel Fish” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a popular series of science fiction novels, and more recently a movie. The “babel fish” was a helpful little fish that you make use of by putting it in your ear. Then, when someone speaks to you in another language (whether human or alien) the fish kind of translates for you. It makes you hear them speaking in your own language. When I think about it, it’s not really a “babel fish” — it’s more like an “anti-babel fish” because it gets rid of the confusion and lets you hear what’s being said as if it was in your own language.

The other thing that comes to mind is the recent movie with the title “Babel.” The film doesn’t tell the Tower of Babel story, but it clearly demonstrates that the separation of Peoples and cultures that began so long ago continues still today. Fault lines run between nations, traditions, and religions, and they also splinter to divide communities, families, and marriages. A simple dispute between brothers can tear a rift in history, and a gesture of grace between strangers can make a difference too.

The stories told in the “Babel” movie are too complex and in many ways, too tragic, for me to share in a sermon — but the film tells four separate, but inter-connected stories, in four different countries and a variety of languages. The connections between the stories emphasize the fact that we do live in a global community. What happens in one place affects the lives of others both locally and further away.

But I think that the most powerful and disturbing part of the movie was the way that the people constantly misunderstood each other and the tragedy that resulted from the confusion. Sometimes it was about language. Sometimes it was about culture. Most of the time it was because someone wasn’t listening or someone else could not or would not communicate.

One interpretation would be to say that all our confusion and mis-communication, and division in the global community is because of God’s action in scattering us over the earth and confusing our language. In other words, we let God take the blame for our inability to communicate, for our failure to listen, for our lack of effort to learn about our neighbours and to find ways to live together in peace and harmony.

The Tower of Babel story is not, of course, written as history. It’s part of a collection of early mythic stories of the People of Israel. All the people of the earth building a giant tower that reaches up to heaven goes right along with talking serpents and God performing surgery to remove the rib of the first human. And I don’t point this out in order to dismiss the story, but rather to read it in the way it might have been intended to be read. And that might have been as a way of making sense of why there are so many people with different languages and cultures all over the earth. Why? Because when we all lived together and spoke the same language, we took advantage of that power and used it to glorify ourselves instead of God.

I guess it goes back to “The Fall” — another mythic story from Genesis — and one that reveals an important truth about our human nature. We are human, and being human means being imperfect, being sinful, often choosing our own benefit over others, often choosing our own glory over God’s. The tower builders were working together, but they were working towards self-promotion. They were working for the sake of looking important. They were investing their energy and their lives into a monument to their self-importance. And God could not let that continue.

It wasn’t too much earlier in Genesis that God had to wipe out most of humanity with a giant flood in order to rid the world of their evil and start over again. But God promised not to do that again. There had to be another way to get us on the right track, to get us paying attention to something other than ourselves and our silly schemes.

As Christians, we believe that God knew the way to reach out to fallen humanity and turn us towards God and God’s ways. And the way that God did that was through Jesus Christ, God himself coming to us as a human person. Jesus taught us about our loving Father in heaven. Jesus showed us how to love God, how to love our neighbours, and Jesus called us to follow him and his way.

It would be nice to say that now that Jesus has come everything has been set right, that everyone lives like Jesus, and all is well. Unfortunately, the tragedy and despair that are portrayed in the movie “Babel” are a reality for many people throughout the world. Greed and self-interest are human characteristics that run rampant, and people continue to struggle through life in the context of war, poverty, abuse, and marginalisation. So many people around the world and right next door have no idea that there is a God who loves them and who is calling them to live in love. So many people have never experienced the accepting, forgiving, and empowering love that we know in Jesus Christ.

At the Tower of Babel, God took away the people’s power when they worked together to build a monument to their self-importance. But when the apostles gathered in Jerusalem on the first Christian Pentecost, God gifted them with power from on high. God sent down the Holy Spirit to fill them and equip them to work together to accomplish God’s purposes — to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to all the people of the world.

The Babel story tells us something important about our human nature — we do think big. We do dream big. And we are capable, together, of accomplishing great things. Unfortunately, our sinfulness often leads us to work towards the kind of big things that bring us prestige, that win us accolades, that promote our own glory instead of God’s glory.

Today, we are invited to remember the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, and to celebrate that we are still the Church. The Spirit was poured out on the Church in power, and the Spirit abides with the Church still today. Wherever Christians gather to worship and praise God, wherever God’s Word is read and interpreted, wherever people gather in prayer, wherever people celebrate the sacraments, there the Spirit can be found. You can’t see it. It’s invisible, like the wind. But you can see what it does. You can see the effect that it has on God’s people. It is mighty and powerful. It is an inspirer. It is an encourager. It is a comforter. It is an empowerer.

It is true, what was spoken through the prophet Joel: that God has poured out the Spirit upon all flesh, and our sons and our daughters shall prophesy, and our young shall see visions, and our old shall dream dreams.

Let us rejoice and give thanks for the Spirit alive and at work in the Church and in our lives. Amen.