More Able Than We are Wise
More Able Than We are Wise
June 3, 2018
So, let’s work our way back to Pentecost for a moment. You may remember from a couple of weeks ago that our ancestors in faith were gathered in an upper room, just sitting and waiting together. As I suggested before, one of the miracles of this day before anything else happened was that these people were willing to sit and be still and just try to stay open. That is hard work.
We should feel challenged to pause and ask ourselves what we do to stay open, ourselves. We all know what it is like to have our lives get so busy and full of noise that we can hardly hear ourselves think. What is it that quiets that noise? How is it that we deliberately and intentionally create times in a day or a week or a year when we slow ourselves down and find the quiet center? How loudly would God have to be yelling at us to get our attention?
Back to the story…So these people are in the Upper Room together, waiting and wondering, “What’s next?” And, as soon as “what’s next” started to unfold, they must have realized that the answer was, “Something totally unexpected!” Sometimes, having something totally unexpected sounds like it would be so great. And yet, it almost always throws us for a loop: “I would love to have something totally unexpected happen in my life…if I just had a little more chance to be prepared for the unexpected!” Right?
What the people do, and what I tried to help happen for us, was they make sense of the unexpected in terms of what they have experienced before. There is a loud rush of wind that moves through the room. I am confident that the first creation story of Genesis was so built into their experience that in that moment they must have thought, “My God! It’s the new creation!” There are tongues of fire that move through the room, with one hovering over each person. I am confident that they would have seen fire that burns but doesn’t consume things and they would have remembered Moses and the burning bush: “My God! Every one of us gets to be Moses this time!” These people would have been steeped in ancient stories that would have led them to recognize that for as unexpected as what was happening might have been, it was exactly what to expect when God was present.
Here’s the thing. There is a third Biblical connection that has to do with what unfolds next. People begin speaking in languages that they didn’t know how to speak. The Holy Spirit gives them the ability to do this.
Now, in the broadest sense, we can kind of skim the surface of this moment and miss the particular point. In general, most people who talk about the power of the Holy Spirit will talk about being empowered and enabled to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. I was exhausted and the Spirt renewed me. I was speechless and the Spirit helped me find the words. I needed to face something hard and the Spirt helped me to be braver than I otherwise ever would have been. That’s how the Spirit works, right? Well, ya…but what’s the deal with the languages? This seems pretty specific.
Other people hear this story and think that these people are speaking in tongues. The New Testament term for the phenomena was “glossololia.” You can turn to some obscure t.v. channel late and night and you’ll find an evangelist doing this. He’s not speaking French or German or Japanese. He’s speaking what sounds like gibberish. Then, someone interprets what they are saying. This practice goes all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity and has absolutely never been a part of my experience. The point is, though, that this is not what is happening on Pentecost. On Pentecost, people from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem and when those people hear the country “hicks” from Galilee speaking, what they hear are words in their own language about how amazing God is. This isn’t about speaking in tongues. This is about God helping the people overcome real language barriers.
Why does this matter? This matters because Pentecost not only points us to the new creation and to the chance for everyone to be Moses. Pentecost also recalls the story in Genesis about the Tower of Babel. You already heard that story this morning but I want to unpack its meaning together. In doing so, I want to shed a little more light on the Holy Spirit.
Lots of stories in Genesis are etiological stories, that is, they are stories that are meant to explain how things got to be the way that they are. (I think of the moment in grade school when we were supposed to write a story like this about how the giraffe got its long neck.) The story begins by telling us that there was a time when everyone on earth spoke the same language and had all the same words (which is sort of how you think a God who valued order over chaos would have made things.) The question the story wants to answer is, “Why are people spread out everywhere and why does everyone speak such different languages?”
As the story unfolds, everyone is migrating from the East together—all gathered up. All together—they decide to settle down in one place. Almost as soon as they do, someone has a bright idea: “Let’s make some bricks!” This may seem like the most boring development imaginable—unless you’ve spent your life trying to build things out of sticks and mud and random stones. If that is all you have ever done before—build crummy structures—the notion of a brick and mortar is an incredible technological breakthrough. Building something is so much easier and whatever it is that you build will be so much more stable! This is exactly where the people go: “Let’s build a city. Let’s build a huge tower. The possibilities are unlimited.!” Look at how amazing we are! Look at what we can do!
I remember a morning a number of years ago when Tracy turned on the Today Show and they announced that there was a new technology that was going to be introduced that morning that was going to change the world as we knew it! That got my attention! I couldn’t wait to find out! Until what they announced was… the Segway. Now, as far as I can tell, the only things that the Segway changed were how a handful of tourists get around downtown Chicago and how mall cops work their beats!
Forget that example though… Think of how the printing press changed things. How about the locomotive? How about the automobile? How about the cell phone? Human beings have made technological breakthrough after breakthrough, many of which have fundamentally changed the world. Imagine if two hundred years ago, a 737 had flown overhead. Imagine 100 years ago if a television had popped up in someone’s living room. Imagine if 30 years ago, someone had shown you a video of everyone walking around in downtown Chicago staring at a rectangular slab in their hands.
All of these breakthroughs add immensely to our lives or, otherwise, they would just be like the Segway and be marginal developments in our world. However, almost every technology carries a cost. Cars and industrialization bring pollution which, if you take science seriously, have fundamentally altered our environment. The wilderness area that I love to fish is full of copper deposits which people now want to mine so that the parts can be made for the new iPhone that I so need! We almost never see the consequences of our technological advances. We just see the promises. When we were playing Pong, no one would have ever guessed what a tension playing video games would be one day in so many marriages.
Our ancestors make bricks which would allow them to build cities and towers. To tell you the rest of the story that most of us don’t know, being able to make bricks also would make them slaves. This is what our ancestors in faith did for centuries of slavery in Egypt. They were the brick makers. Apparently, they were really good at this and this skill made it extra hard to think about letting those people go. (God knows that none of us have ever been enslaved by our technology, right? The good news is that my iPhone means that I have the freedom to go anywhere I want to go and be reachable. The bad news is that my iPhone means that I have the freedom to go anywhere and be reachable.)
So, our technology can help us do things we could never have done before. At the same time, it can have horrible consequences for our world and enslave us. Being capable of doing new things doesn’t by any means mean that we will be wise enough to know what to do. However, being capable of doing new things almost always means that we will lose perspective. We start to think that we are like gods. We start to think that we can do anything. We start to think, “Who needs God, anyway?”
So in the story of the Tower of Babel, God sees bricks but also sees big problems. God thinks, “I need to slow these people down. We need a speed bump or two.” So, God confuses everyone by giving people many different languages and by spreading those people all over the earth. Nothing good was going to come if people became too capable without somehow being wise…
Which takes us back to Pentecost. The Holy Spirit makes all things new. The Holy Spirit is available to everyone and there is a calling for every person to live. And in that Upper Room, the Babel story is reversed. Instead of confusing people and separating them from one another, the Holy Spirit brings people together and creates understanding between people. What binds those people together are words about God’s deeds of power. What connects us to one another is not the overblown pride over how we humans can do anything but the humble declaration in every language of God’s deeds of power.
When the Holy Spirit works through us, we don’t end up declaring, “Look at how amazing we are!” or “Look what I just did!” Instead, with real humility, we cry out, “My God, how great though art!”