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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 5/23

      Awhile ago, I started reading this book, Filled with the Spirit, in the hope that it would give me a better understanding of the Holy Spirit so I could write a better Pentecost sermon, because you know, we struggle with the Spirit.  We talk about it a lot; it is the third person of the Trinity; the Bible has many references to the work of the Spirit and people filled with the Spirit; you could say that the Holy Spirit is the main character in the book of Acts, speaking to or through people, providing instruction; the Spirit is the main force or energy behind most of what goes on in Acts and other parts of the Bible too.  Anyway, Pentecost is the church’s annual celebration of the Holy Spirit, but it was probably foolish of me to think that reading a book was going to help me talk more clearly about it.  It’s not a bad book, it’s pretty interesting actually, but still, for preaching it’s probably better to stay with the stories of the day and see where they take us.   

      The story of Pentecost tells of an event in the memory and tradition of the church.  It’s about an awesome moment when God’s own spirit surged into a group of believers gathered in Jerusalem to empower them for mission.  It was some of the earliest church fathers though, some of the earliest interpreters of the Bible, who first made a connection between the story of Pentecost and the Tower of Babel story which was today’s first reading.  They were the first to see a divine reversal of what happened at Babel in what happened in Jerusalem on that first day of Pentecost.   

      For example, at Babel, the one language was confused so that the people couldn’t understand each other; in Jerusalem many languages were heard but there was understanding despite the differences, understanding that all were talking about God’s deeds of power.  At Babel the people were scattered abroad over the face of the earth; in Jerusalem there was something of a gathering, in one place there were people from every nation under heaven.  The people of Babel tried to build a tower that would reach to heaven but on Pentecost the Spirit came down from heaven to earth.  At Babel God was displeased with self-serving human ego; in Jerusalem divine delight again became possible as the human spirit was renewed.  So I think the church fathers were right; the two events can be connected in all these ways and the reversals are quite clear. 

      The reasons for God’s displeasure in the Babel story are worthy of further consideration though.  The most common interpretation bases God’s displeasure on the desire of the people to “make a name for ourselves.”  It’s a version of idolatry as they have this desire to celebrate themselves and their own accomplishments rather than to celebrate and worship the Lord.  “Look at this tower that reaches to the heavens!  Isn’t it wonderful!  Aren’t we wonderful that we can build such things!”  The subsequent confusion of language and the scattering of the people is then viewed as punishment intended to make it more difficult to do the kinds of things that would lead to that kind of self absorbed idolatry.   

      But also consider the command in Genesis chapter one to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”  The people of Babel were afraid of being “scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth;” but such scattering, such filling of the earth is God’s will.  This “punishment” of scattering serves the will of God.  Part of God’s displeasure in this story has to do with the resistance of the people concerning his will for them.  They had become inward looking, focused on themselves, rather than looking outward, toward the wider world where God wanted them to be for the good of all people.   

      Babel had something of a fortress mentality; let’s stay here and construct for ourselves a world where we’re safe from all those others out there, those who are different from us.  God’s will however, was for them to be scattered amongst those very people, those beyond their tower fortress.  The people of Babel were after a certain kind of unity, a kind that is self-serving and exclusionary, but it wasn’t God’s kind of unity.  God’s unity is often messier than that; the work of the spirit is often messier than that. 

      In the Pentecost story, when the Spirit descended on those people gathered in Jerusalem the level of messiness and chaos in their world was increased, not decreased.  Wind and fire, multiple languages being spoken; were they drunk at nine in the morning?  What’s going on here?  Who’s in charge?  Peter stepped in to try to interpret the chaos but neither he nor anyone else could control what was going on.   

      The Spirit works in mysterious ways.  In the creation story the Spirit moved over the waters as order was brought to chaos, but on Pentecost, chaos is preferred over order, at least over the kind of order that the people of Babel were after.  “Which is it?” we want to say; order or chaos?  But the Spirit won’t give us an answer because it’s both.  On Pentecost though we have to consider the implication of the Spirit at work out of what appeared to be a pretty messy situation, again that wind and fire along with multiple voices and languages.  Remember it was out of this situation that the church began except it didn’t just begin it kind of exploded with thousands baptized and when you read through Acts it’s a fast moving story of collaboration and growth but there’s also opposition and conflict along the way, but the Spirit was at work accomplishing great things through it all.  The unity and uniformity sought at Babel were not the ticket; instead it was the chaos and messiness of Pentecost.  The Spirit can be at work in opposition and conflict.  It’s something I’ve thought about in light of Synod Assembly last week. 

      There were two resolutions presented that basically called for this synod, the Northern Great Lakes Synod, to stand in opposition to the actions taken at Churchwide Assembly last August regarding the ordination of same sex people in committed relationships.  Both of the resolutions were soundly defeated but not before a number of rather passionate speeches were made on both sides of the issue.  There clearly was disagreement among those at the assembly just as there is disagreement in every church over this.  For most of us, that disagreement makes us uncomfortable because there is a part of each of us that wants the same kind of uniformity that the people of Babel wanted; “Let’s built a tower for all us like minded people so we can keep the others out.” 

      After a bunch of us had spoken and in some cases, my case, lamenting the division that exists, Jon Magnuson got up and said, “This is great!  The Spirit’s at work here.  There’s something emerging here; we’re moving forward as a church and it’s great that people can stand up and have their say.” (or words to that effect anyway)  As I thought about it later, Jon could feel the wind and the fire, he could hear the voices of Pentecost.  He could see what was happening as a good thing, a Spirit filled thing; he could see the cacophony of passionate voices as a good thing, voices not to be silenced but listened to. He acknowledged the chaos and the pain that came with it, but better than most of us, he saw the Spirit on the move.  He brought a clarity to things that was very helpful to me anyway as I try to sort out what’s going on. 

      Part of Pentecost is about many voices; again it’s the undoing of Babel where they wanted to cling to just one voice.  Usually on Pentecost we think of these voices in terms of languages and in some churches where multiple languages are represented they have people read the Pentecost story or the gospel at the same time in those different languages.  What I think about today though, because it is an issue in the church, is not so much about voices speaking different languages but about different interpretive voices.  Within the ELCA there is not one correct interpretation of scripture; many voices and interpretations have been allowed and encouraged and that’s why we talk about things and disagree on some issues.  We welcome a variety of voices and I guess that means you could say that in that respect we are a Pentecostal church.  I never thought I’d claim that we are Pentecostal, but there you are.  Being Pentecostal in this way, welcoming and allowing those interpretive voices means things can get a bit chaotic and messy though, but that’s who we are. 

      There are those within the ELCA who would silence all voices but their own, apparently thinking that they have the once correct interpretation.  Silencing voices would provide a certain unity, but the Babel story is an indication that it’s not the kind of unity that God wants.   For that, the voices of interpretation must be heard.  That’s where the Spirit is at work.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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