I am currently weighing a question in my mind, and I am not yet sure what the answer will be. The question is whether I should teach myself to read Syriac or not. Now many of you are aware that I am working on a book about the history of Confirmation in the western Church and Lutheranism. The goal is for the book to trace the development of Confirmation from the very beginning through the medieval period in the western Church, and then to follow its history in Lutheranism. I say the western Church because Confirmation is something that only developed in the west.
However, as I have worked with the material it has become clear that for a number of reasons – I won’t bore you with what they are – I will also need to include a treatment of early baptismal practice in the east – in particular, in Syria. In west Syria the language was Greek, so that is no problem. However in east Syria the language was Syriac. If Aramaic is a cousin of Hebrew, then Syriac is basically Aramaic written in a completely different alphabet and script. I know Aramaic so in theory, Syriac should not be all the difficult. But of course things can’t be that simple. There are in fact two different versions of Syriac – similar yet different enough that they are discussed and taught separately. So the question is whether it is worth all that work to learn Syriac. It would be helpful, but is it really necessary?
The many languages that exist today, and have existed during the history of the world, present challenges all the time. They are the cause of tremendous human effort and work. We see in the Old Testament lesson for the Feast of Pentecost that this problem has been caused by human pride. But at the same time, on the first Pentecost the speaking of many languages became a sign bearing witness to the answer God has provided for sin.
Our text from Genesis chapter eleven takes place after the flood and begins by telling us, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” The people were united by one language, and as they settled that had big plans. They said, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” We learn that they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Here was human ingenuity at work – the use of technology to solve problems. They may not have had stone, but by firing bricks that had a perfect substitute.
They had building materials. And they had a plan as they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” You’ll notice who is not mentioned here – God. He is clearly not on their mind. Instead the people are all about themselves. They are going to build a monument to their own ability and importance. In pride they are going to make a name for themselves.
This description strikes uncomfortably close to home. How often do you make plans and set goals that have no place for God? How often do you live in ways that demonstrate God is not on your mind? How often does pride guide your actions as you ignore God and his will?
God saw what they were doing and said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Created in the image of God to have dominion over creation, even after the Fall, man is still gifted. The problem is that we use those gifts in ways that ignore God. We act like we are God. You see this in all the ways that biotechnologies use aborted babies as the raw material for ever more daring projects.
So God said, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” There is very intentional irony here. God is described as having to “come down” to see their puny effort. He confused their language and dispersed them over the face of the earth.
The existence of the many languages in the world has been caused by sin. Yet on the day of Pentecost, the many languages became a sign of the fact that God has provided the answer to sin. We heard in the second reading, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Jesus had ordered the disciples to remain in Jerusalem. He instructed them to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” On Pentecost this baptism occurred, accompanied by the sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues as of fire on their heads.
It also resulted in the disciples speaking in other tongues. The text clearly indicates that these were foreign languages – the languages of the many faithful Jews from other parts of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world who had chosen to live in Jerusalem. Attracted by the sound they were amazed to find Galileans – not the most sophisticated people around - speaking in their own languages and telling about the mighty works of God.
Some attempted to dismiss the whole thing by saying that the disciples were drunk. But Peter responded, “For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’” Peter declared that this was an end time event. It was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words because God had poured out his Spirit.
Throughout the history of the Church, people have been drawn to focus on the mighty works of the Holy Spirit. And the problem is that they have often done so in ways that put all the attention on the signs and wonders, or on the Spirit himself. Yet Peter was absolutely clear that all the things happening on Pentecost were about Jesus.
He proclaimed that Jesus had been crucified – in fact the Jews listening to him had been complicit in this. However Peter announced, “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.” God had not allowed his holy One to see corruption. Instead Peter declared, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
You were complicit in Jesus’ death too. In fact, you caused Jesus’ death. It was because of your sin that Jesus was numbered with the transgressors and died on the cross. It was because of your sin that Jesus received God the Father’s judgment. But this was also God’s plan to give you forgiveness and salvation. It was God’s plan to defeat death and give you resurrection life.
Peter says that the outpouring of the Spirit demonstrates Jesus is the risen and exalted Lord. In Jesus’ ascension we see his exaltation. His ascension does not mean that Jesus has left us. Instead, he is closer than ever before. This is true because he has poured forth the Spirit on his Church. The Spirit is the continuing presence of the risen Lord everywhere at once! Today, Christians all over the world are gathering to hear Christ’s Word and receive his Sacrament. Some must do so in secrecy because of the threat of persecution. They do so using hundreds of languages. Yet through his Spirit, Jesus Christ is present with all of them giving them the forgiveness he won on the cross.
The Spirit is doing the same thing in our midst today. It is the Spirit poured out on Pentecost who has called you to the faith through the Gospel. He nourishes and strengthens you through Word and Sacrament to continue to live as the forgiven child of God.
As we think about the Spirit on Pentecost, we must never forget about what Jesus said to the disciples when he told them about the coming gift. He said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
You have received the Spirit through baptism. Blessed with the comfort of forgiveness and life, the Spirit now uses you to bear witness to Jesus. He doesn’t send you to all Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Instead, he sends you to Marion, Carterville, Herrin, Johnston City and Carbondale. He uses you to speak with the people you know about Jesus and the salvation found in him. This very speaking becomes the Spirit breathed means by which he uses the Gospel to call others to faith in Jesus.
So whom do you know in your life who does not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Whom do you know who has had some ties to the Church but no longer attends on Sunday? Whom do you know who are still members of this congregation, and yet have not been seen in this place for many weeks or months? You have received the Spirit so that you can be forgiven in Christ. You have received the Spirit to speak about Jesus to these people and to invite them to join you here in receiving his gifts.