Pentecost: The Gift of Language

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lessons: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:23-31
Hymns: LSB 498, 497, 500, 503, 496

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

You have probably heard accounts of how ancient civilizations across the globe would repeat stories over and over as they sit around the fire in the evening, as they eat meals together, or as they travel together. Hunting, gathering, and raising children occupied much of their time. When there could be free time, it was often spent by retelling stories—accounts from the previous generation—accounts from many generations ago—accounts of the great things their forefathers did. Included in retelling many stories would be the telling of their religion and beliefs—instilling morals in the next generation, teaching their understanding of the faith, fashioning and molding their children to be like the parents.

It sounds like a wonderful way to live, without the distractions of technology, without the self-absorbed focus on the individual, and with making family and community priority.

Thousands of years ago, the whole world knew one language. They could tell the great works of God to the next generation. They could explain how God created the heavens and the earth in six days, simply by speaking. They could talk about how wonderful the Garden of Eden was and how drastically Adam and Eve’s sin changed everything. They could talk about the long lives of those who lived before the great flood during the days of Noah. They could recount how Enoch did not die but walked with God and was received into Heaven. They could speak of the work of Noah as he built the Ark and how the Flood changed everything. They could speak of how God graciously saved a remnant through the Ark. And, above all, they could speak of the promise of the Messiah, whom God would send to save His people from their many sins. Through the lineage of Noah, God would send His only-begotten Son to pay for the sins of the world through His sacrificial death.

To serve as a reminder of the coming Messiah and to give thanks to God for His mercies, the people would build altars and offer to God their sacrifices. The importance of these things was told and retold as the people engaged in them.

But one day, the people decided to use their building skills to make a tower to reach the heavens. Instead of praising God and extolling His name, they decided they wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted to show off their strength—their abilities—their knowledge. This tower, they figured, would prevent their people from being dispersed over the whole earth.

God, seeing all things and knowing all things, saw what they were building. Their singular language was proving to be damaging to themselves, for they would band together, use their collective skills and know-how, and use them for ways other than glorifying God.

So, God confused the people by changing their language. The multitude no longer spoke one language, but one would speak this new language and another would speak that new language. This made their progress in building the tower impossible. And so the people, unable to understand each other, scattered over the whole Earth.

The act of telling their story continued for generation after generation. Cultures across the globe tell of accounts of a great flood. Their stories do not agree, but they have their original in the Flood during the days of Noah. For example, Native Americans spoke of how God saved some people by way of a raven during the Flood.

This is no surprise, for ancient cultures told and retold the stories of their fathers and forefathers. The written accounts, though, would develop gradually. But among the Hebrew people, God preserved written accounts that would be passed on to Moses, who would complete the first five books of the Bible. And so we have accurate accounts of our world’s origins, the Fall of man into sin, the Flood, the promise given to Abraham, and so on. And these written accounts have been copied and presented to the generation to come for thousands of years. Ancient biblical manuscripts in the original Hebrew and Greek have been discovered and have been compared with modern copies of the Hebrew and Greek Bible. They don’t vary, but they match! The Scriptures are confirmed to be true, unlike the religious literature and oral traditions of other cultures.

God is not the God of division, but of unity. He is not the God of discord, but of order. And so, He sent His Son to set things aright, who now reigns at the right hand of the Father. Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. On this day, just 50 days after our Lord’s resurrection and just 10 days after our Lord’s ascension, the Holy Spirit came. He came on the Feast of Pentecost, which the Israelite people were commanded to observe in Jerusalem as a festival to give thanks to God for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. And so, God used an ancient feast day in the Old Testament to serve as the day in which the Holy Spirit would come. This makes sense, for the multitudes were gathered in Jerusalem. God demonstrated the coming of His Spirit through the tongues of fire, the rushing, mighty wind, and the people’s opportunity to hear the great works of God in their own language.

Barriers in language present challenges. But at Pentecost, God is removing these barriers so that many can hear the Word of Christ.

The advancements that we have enjoyed over the centuries, and especially this past century, have been amazing. How much further along would we be if the whole world spoke a single language?

But, as we learn from the Tower of Babel, God does not want us to glorify ourselves and our abilities. Instead, the glory goes to Him, for He made us and all creation.

We are to use our gift of language to keep on telling the story—the true account of our Lord Jesus Christ and His work to save us from our sin. We are to do as the people in ancient civilizations did—to speak and retell the wondrous accounts of our Lord to our children, our neighbors, and all who enter our homes and lives. We are to speak of the impressive miracles our Lord performed as He conducted His public ministry. We are to speak of His birth, His life, His crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, reign, and upcoming return for judgment. We are to speak of how He loved us and bore our sins in His body and shed His innocent Blood as the ransom payment for our sin. We are to speak of how God has reconciled us to Himself through His Son. We are to speak of these things, knowing they are of utmost importance. In fact, there’s no message more important in this life than to know of our Lord Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death in which He defeats Satan, takes away the world’s sin, and swallows up death in victory.

Sadly, this art of telling the Biblical narrative is diminishing. Instead of speaking these stories, we expect religious experts to do it for us. Parents expect the church’s Sunday School teachers to teach their own young. Christians are increasingly unwilling to confess the faith to others, for they figure the pastor should be the one to do all the confessing. Yet, it is impossible for the pastor to develop the same relationships and receive the same opportunities to confess the faith as fifty people sitting in the pew already have. Plaguing our society is the constant thirst for media—things that satisfy our innate cravings for new thrills, and greater exhilaration. Everyday conversation is now regarded as dull or boring, for speech cannot compete with well-choreographed media. A single man’s speech will not produce the same emotional excitement as watching all the action and hearing all the emotion-rousing music at an NFL football game.

But perhaps COVID-19 is teaching us something that we knew all along. Personal human speech and personal human interaction and personal human touch are all important. They are vital for our well-being. While they all may seem way too simple when compared to Internet media and TV broadcasts, they are what we need. Some speak of social distancing as our new normal. It will never be normal. For we thrive on human touch and human speech, not screens or media.

God Himself demonstrates this reality when He sent His Son in the flesh. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus became a Man and walked the face of the Earth, where He preached the Word and spent time with His people. God sends under-shepherds today, not to impress people by their smooth speech or skills in multimedia, but to preach the Word in season and out of season, and to be present among God’s people. The same Spirit who performed the wondrous works of God at Pentecost is at work in God’s servants today.

The God who confused languages at Babel brought people together in Jerusalem on Pentecost. And God continues to gather His people together to this day. For we do not have services in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or German; instead, we speak in the language of the people who live here. Our services are in English. A miracle of Pentecost today is that we hear God’s Word in our own language. We can speak His Word freely and hear it plainly.

So let us tell it to the next generation, let us speak of it continually to our neighbors and our children, when we sit in our homes, when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise (Deut. 6:6-9). We have great stories to tell—true stories by which God the Holy Spirit is at work to bring salvation to those who hear! Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified to take away our sin. He rose triumphantly to give us eternal life. We are reconciled to God our Father. Heaven is opened to us. Such great blessings which God communicates to us! Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen