Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the festival of Pentecost 5/23/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 11am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Pentecost Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s Old Testament and Epistle lessons. To read the Bible texts for the festival of Pentecost, click here.
The Tower of Babel is not half as impressive as it sounds. It didn’t require alien technology. They were burning clay to make bricks. And then they stacked those bricks as high as they could.
It isn’t nothing, of course. The Ziggurat pyramids of Mesopotamia are extraordinary feats of engineering. But they’re not beyond explanation. And God never went out of His way to halt their construction.
As for Babel, a tower “with its top in the heavens,” is still stuck to the earth. And in Hebrew, even the term, “heavens” is a common way of talking about the sky. So, when those people had done their very best, that tower was still so small that the LORD uses the language of condescension. He says He “came down” just to see it.
Those first Babylonians imagined that they were thinking big. But it was the opposite. Their imagination was about as small as God considered their tower to be.
His idea was to build something that went not upward, but outward. Not a building, but a people – a people who would fill the earth. Anybody can bake bricks. Get enough clay and enough time and enough people who don’t want to go anywhere, and you can build a tower too.
But this was never the plan. “Fill the earth,” God told Noah. With that He offered them something so big and so beautiful. But God’s vast grace and providence seemed so over-the-top; just too much. Better to build something they could manage. And so, Babel meant mankind’s expectations for itself were not too big, but too small.
And if the command to fill the world had been only for their own good, Maybe God would have let them stay and stagnate – have it their way. But it wasn’t only for them. To send God’s people into God’s world was also meant to benefit the world.
It’s one thing to fall short of God’s Law. Of this sin everyone is guilty without exception. What’s worst is saying no-thanks to God’s grace and providence.
So, if they would insist on being small-minded; if they would insist on being anti-grace; if they would refuse to fill the earth according to God’s blessing, then they will fill the earth according to God’s judgment. Which is what they did.
First, going forth from Babel’s ruins, and then again, and again throughout their history, as they were dispersed throughout the world.
Fast forward to this morning: and they’re back. They’re back because it has been 50 days since the Passover, and it’s time for the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. And on this particular Pentecost, they’re going to get another chance to receive God’s extravagant grace. And like a cup that’s been filled far too much this feast is just overflowing with it.
Consider that for God to get the Word out into the world, all He really had to do was send the Apostles, which He did. But He did so much more; because that’s what God does.
Luke lists representatives there at the feast from 12 separate regions. This replicates the complete number of the tribes of Israel, and the Apostles. This assembly signifies the whole earth; a point that is emphasized by the presence of Rome, the capital of an Empire that encompassed the known world.
He didn’t have to do that, but He did. And there’s more: God’s overflowing grace goes beyond bringing the world together in Jerusalem. It extends to the way He treats them when they get there.
It would have been sufficient to give them information – to put the necessary data into their ears and minds, so that they could carry it out. But just as God is more concerned with Wisdom than He is with mere knowledge, God goes out of His way to speak directly to their hearts.
This is what I mean: the pilgrims had traveled a long way to get to the holy city for Passover and Pentecost. And to do that effectively they had to be able to communicate.
Most of them probably didn’t speak Hebrew, even if it was used in the Temple. As Jews, it’s more likely that they would know Aramaic. But to get along in the empire, they certainly spoke Greek and/or Latin. That’s pretty much it.
In order to speak the Gospel to everyone there, it would have been enough to preach in two or three languages. The Apostles could have probably handled that themselves with no extra help. Pilate did it himself when he wrote the charge against Jesus: “The King of the Jews.”
But God is not interested in doing just enough. He didn’t need to send in a rushing wind. He was showing off, and why not?
And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” verses 6-8
God is not concerned with speaking only to their minds, but to their whole being. They are told the mighty works of God for their salvation in their own heart languages. But it wasn’t only God’s works that were proclaimed. These hearers were also told in words that cut to their hearts, what they had done. Our own reading stopped midway through the sermon, which continued:
This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it. Acts 2:23-24
Everyone there knew that they were complicit. Everyone there knew that they were guilty of this. But they all heard the Gospel as well. They knew what it meant that this Jesus, raised from the dead, is the Christ. It meant He is their Messiah, their Savior, and their Lord. It means that He had come to save them, even as He has come to save you.
On Pentecost, Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, just as He promised. And as those who heard the Word were doused with the waters of Holy Baptism, it was they who began to burn. Like the burnt bricks that built that sad tower so long ago, these new disciples, burning with the Holy Spirit, are scattered and dispersed into the world – not as they once were – according to God’s judgment, but according to God’s blessing. And because God sent them forth in this way, you have been set aflame also.
Again, God’s grace is in the forefront here. It might have been enough to merely forgive you your sins. But, as is His custom, God has gone above and beyond this. Jesus has taken your sin and given you His own righteousness in exchange: His own beauty, His own perfection, His keeping of the Law – it’s yours.
You are freed from the limited imaginations of your ancestors on the plains of Shinar. You don’t have to make a name for yourselves. You don’t have to ask those small, legalistic questions:
“How often do I have to come to church?”
“What percentage do I need to give? And is it gross or net?”
“How many times shall I forgive my brother?”
All of that is babel. It’s nonsense talk to Christians.
You are called to lives that echo God’s own extravagant and overwhelming grace. Because your love comes from the LORD who is infinite, you are called to love without limits. Because your God provides for all of your needs, you are called to lives reckless charity and generosity. Because your God is longsuffering, you are called to lives of enduring patience, because God has been most merciful to you, you are called to lives of mercy. And completely unlike Babel, this is far more beautiful and glorious than it sounds.