More Than Fireworks
Over the years I have likened the Ascension to a large firecracker shot into the air trailed by a thin line of fire and Pentecost to the resulting explosion. But while those 10,000 sparks "ooh" and "aah" they don't even make it to the earth. Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit being sent by Jesus and He makes it all the way to earth and that's where the explosion happens, and it's more than fireworks.
The first thing He does is undo Babel. The Old Testament reading tells the story of Babel. How all the world after the Flood was of one langue and moved as one people. In their midst was the Promised Seed. The One who was to come crush the head of the Serpent. This was not a God-pleasing situation. Ever since Cain and Able, those who called on the name of the Lord were persecuted by those who relied on the strength of men. And men with no langue barriers can do about anything they want. Least that's what the Lord says: "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."
What was the this' they began to do? The direct opposite of what God had commanded. "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens; and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." No, these weren't primitive people who thought they could build a tower big enough to Jack and Beanstalk their way into heaven. When man, ancient or modern, wishes to make a name for themselves or honor a man they build spires, obelisks, towers. And working in concert they could make quite a monument to Man. So God came down, confused their languages, and forced them to scatter. Now it would be impossible for men to work in concert and do whatever they pleased, worship a god they could all agree on, do the projects they all thought to be the best. Now the Promised Seed of the Woman could be isolated from the fallen seed of man.
Babel is undone at Pentecost. You know the story: the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak different languages. Of course, modern man has also undone Babel too. Many smartphones have the ability to speak in just about any language you want. The United Nations long before cell phones was undoing Babel. But ask yourself, what has that wrought? What kinds of things does the United Nations agree on? Look at their track record in regard to unborn life. Look at how they advance the LGBTQ agenda. Look at the UN's Mediation Room. It has an altar at the center "dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms" (www.un.org/depts/dhl/dag/meditationroom.htm). What, did I think the altar of civil religion would be dedicated to the Holy Trinity? No, but this shows you the god men in concert can agree on: the one of 1,000 different names.
The Lord came down and destroyed the unity men had based on language. Pentecost undoes Babel, but not the way you think. Yes, at Pentecost the apostles spoke in languages they didn't know declaring God's mighty deeds: How He sent His only Son into the world as a Man to keep the Law perfectly that can only accuse and convict us, how this perfect Son had been handed over to death to pay for the sins of the world, how now repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be preached in His name to all nations. But they didn't all end up speaking the same langue. Their unity wasn't in a common langue, but a new union was created.
This new union was made possible by what virtually every Christian today believes to be impossible. The Epistle says, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." The Insert NIV is pretty good here: it's got the definite article correctly with "the apostles' teaching", "the fellowship," and "the breaking of bread", but it missed the definite article with "the prayers" and the fact that it's a plural. The early New Testament Church had agreement in doctrine, in fellowship, in liturgy the Breaking of Bread (Communion) and the prayers, and it was to continue in these. Romans 16 says those who teach contrary to Apostolic teaching are the ones causing "dissension and hinderances." 1 John 2 says those who depart from apostolic teaching, worship, or Communion show they are not one with the apostles.
This union carries on even into our day, and paradoxically it is handed down to us in a book written primarily in 2 dead languages Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. If it was handed down in languages that were still spoken and used today, it would be ever developing, changing. Then we would have things like this: "It took Christopher Wren 35 years to complete St. Paul's Cathedral in London. He waited breathlessly for Queen Anne's reaction. After being shown the entire structure she summed up her feelings for the architecture in three words: "'It is awful; it is amusing; it is artificial.'" Wren was very pleased because in 1710 awful meant 'awe-inspiring;' amusing meant 'amazing' and artificial meant 'artistic' (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 403-4). We know what every word means in those texts establishing fundamental points of doctrine. We can have union on "is means is"; virgin doesn't mean unmarried woman; create doesn't mean evolve; Christ died for all not some or most, and He sacrificed His body once for all and need not be offered day to day.
You know how a firework explodes into space and showers to the ground ineffectually? You know a microburst from a thunderstorm comes down to earth with devasting effect? That's more like the sending of the Spirit. Not only does He show that the curse of Babel can be undone, not only does He create a new union beyond nations, races, and languages, the Gospel tell us the Spirit's coming means the Devil is forever judged. Jesus says, the Spirit will convict the world in regard to sin, righteousness, and judgment. And He goes on to say, "in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world has (literally) forever been judged."
Actually, the Greek is better translated "ruler" instead of "prince." And that right there is bigger than any aerial explosion of fireworks because that's now how it looks or feels. Although it's been almost two millennia since the Devil told his lie that he can give the world to whomever he wills, although it's been almost 2,000 years since Jesus refused to take that bait and slew him with God's Word, we still believe that lie that he rules: After all who but the one Jesus says is a murderer from the beginning could lead a man to murder his longtime coworkers? Who but the one Jesus called the father of lies could tell these whoppers and be believed? That all the order in the universe is the product of chance, that male and female are fluid choices, and that men can define marriage anyway they please. Yet, Jesus says the ruler of this world, the murderer from the beginning, the father of lies has been forever judged.
This judging, however, is in the realm of the Spirit, but don't go drifting off to some invisible plain of reality. The Spirit's realm is apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the prayers. In this realm of the Spirit the truth is confessed that God is the creator of heaven and earth. In the realm of the Spirit, the Way, the Truth, and the Life rule through the apostolic teaching. In the realm of the Spirit forgiveness won by Christ's holy life and His innocent death rule not guilt. In the realm of the Spirit, Water is the Spirit's means to do the impossible. Drown your old sinful nature and create a new man righteous and holy. In the realm of the Spirit, this Bread is Jesus' Body and this Wine is His Blood. In the realm of the Spirit the ruler of this world stands forever condemned.
Wherever the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers is there is the Spirit's realm. That's why from earliest times the place where a church meets has been called a sanctuary; that's why there are no windows looking into the world because what is in here is not ruled by the prince of lies and murder who appears to rule out there; that's why from at least the 600's the Church has gathered on Pentecost and prayed the Collect asking that by the Spirit we might have a "right understanding" and might rejoice in the Spirit's "consolation."
Through all the wars, famine, epidemics and disasters, through all the new discoveries that some claimed overthrew the Bible's view of reality, God's people have prayed that through the Spirit operating in Apostolic Word and Sacraments they might nevertheless have a right understanding. The Devil, the World, and your own sinful nature say: You are to despair, give up, give in; all is lost. Your Jesus has indeed left you as orphans. The Devil rules the world as he claims and the world and your sinful nature agree. But the Spirit says in Psalm 131 that you don't have to wear yourself out trying to figure out things too wonderful for you. The Spirit says in Psalm 103 that the Lord rules overall. Jesus says not a sparrow falls without Him knowing and His will to save and console His people will be done.
Read the last chapter of Isaiah. You'll be startled where the book ends. Though it delivers Christ and Him crucified so clearly that Philip could preach forgiveness and bring Baptism to an Ethiopian official, that's not where Isaiah ends. He ends in hell, not for you, not for those in Christ, but for "those who rebelled against" the Lord. But then go back to verse 13: "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you;" If in the midst of the end of the world, the Lord assures us that He can and will comfort us, be assured that His Spirit can comfort you in everything and anything leading up to that. We with the Church for the past 13 centuries have been praying on this day that by the Holy Spirit we may rejoice in His consolation. You only rejoice in what you have, and you Have the Spirit of Consolation because Jesus promises He sent Him.
At a firework display, you want more, but after the finale that's it: no more booms, sparks, or showers. Pentecost is more than fireworks. It's going home from a fireworks show with them in your pocket. You didn't just experience something today; you were given something. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Day of Pentecost (20190609); Gen.11:1-9; Ac 2: 42-47; Jn. 15:26-16:4-11