Genesis 11:1-9 / Acts 2:1-21 / John 14:23-31
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon for today is the last of seven in our series, “Lives Changed.” We’ve been looking through the book of Acts and digging into the lives of the characters there as we ask two questions: “How does the Holy Spirit change lives?” and “What do changed lives look like?” Whether you look at Paul or the Ephesian elders, at Lydia or Cornelius, at Matthias or today at the disciples and the people of Pentecost, you find that success in the early church isn’t so much about reports of thousands coming to faith or about great miracles that amaze. It has more to do with how the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing in order to make the things that were broken whole again, to bring clarity to those who are confused, and to let mercy and forgiveness flow where there is sin and strangeness.
Seven scenes for today as we see God change lives on the festival of Pentecost where we see the Spirit of God working to speak in words that people could hear.
Scene number one, where my friend shares with me about las paltas. It was four years ago, when one of my good friends, Katie Lane, came back from mission work in South America, she told me about many things, but one particularly meaningful thought for today. She told me that she’d never again eat an avocado. Not because she disliked the taste, not because she’d gotten sick, but because to her, they weren’t avocados; they were las paltas. To call them las paltas was to speak her language, to bring up everything that they meant to her in her time there. To understand what they meant to her, you would have to speak in the language of her heart
Scene number two, where my wife learns to speak my language. You see, I was doing the Poppa time thing with my bouncing baby boy, itty bitty Benjamin when Laura came home from work and asked me to start making a sauce for our dinner.
And here’s what you need to know: I need different directions than Laura. Directions I need are like the ones in a recipe book: I like to hear words like “Take a quarter cup of this…” or You’ll need two tablespoons of that.” Laura’s more of a “two generous scoops of this, a dash of that, the rest to taste”
And so she starts explaining: You just need to get this and that out, and you kind of eyeball it up, and I’m not sure how much of the other thing you should add, but you just add it, but not too much…” and I tell her, “Is it a quarter cup, or is it a tablespoon?” Are you taking scoops like a half-cup’s worth or like heaping teaspoon scoops?”
And it’s taken three – almost four – years of marriage for us to get this, but Laura, instead of shooting me a look like I was a knucklehead, just took a deep breath and started speaking in words I could understand.
Scene number 3, our Old Testament lesson, where success in the short-term would only lead to failure. The wickedness planted in the hearts of Adam and Eve had fully bloomed during the time of Noah, so God sent a flood and told Noah to start it all up again, but it wasn’t enough. God had washed the world once but that flood wasn’t enough to wipe men’s souls clean, and the people banded together under one language and put together all their resources to do whatever came out of their hearts, and that was to build a tower towards the heavens.
Now, know what that means. God had told them to spread out and they gathered themselves together. God had told them to start taking care of the ground, and they cared more to reach up for the heavens. God had told them to be like him, to be his hands and feet, his co-caretakers in the world, and they cared not to do God’s work but to be like God, to be gods themselves.
It’s not that God was worried they would overthrow him – have you ever wondered about that? He says, “And if they finish this, nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” That means, if they finish this, then they’ll believe that any vain conceit will fill the hole in their hearts. If they succeed here, then they’ll start down a path whose only end is destruction. Their success won’t be for their good. It will only lead to greater harm.
And so he makes their language match their hearts. They had confused the desires of their own hearts and now he confuses their language. He inflicts pain and suffering so they could be ready to hear him speak in a language they could understand. Have you ever experienced that?
Scene number 4, where disciples hear but they don’t hear. It’s Maundy Thursday, John 14. The disciples gather around Jesus asking the same confused questions and getting the same confusing answers. No doubt they believed that Jesus was the Christ, but they did not know what it meant for his kingdom to come or his will to be done. No doubt they believed with all their hearts they would never fall away, but they had not yet experienced the forgiveness that covers over even the multitude of their sins. No doubt they knew the right answers, but those answers hadn’t sunk deep down into the language of their hearts. It took the Father sending the Son. It took the Son sending the Spirit. It took the Spirit blowing wherever it would, afflicting and comforting, guiding and leading, to open hearts and minds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Scenes five and six. It’s been fifty days since the Passover Sabbath that we know as Holy Saturday and ten days since Jesus ascended into heaven. Scene number five happens when the disciples – not just the apostles but all 120 disciples – were waiting for the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. This was the Jewish feast celebrating how the people of Israel received the covenant on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Angel of Death passed over the children of Israel – on that day, the wind of the Spirit decided to blow with the words of the new covenant, and their house was filled with wind, their hair was filled with fire, and for a time God reversed the curse of the Tower of Babel.
Scene number six, where the disciples start speaking the same kind of message in all kinds of ways. The disciples start going outside and talking to all kinds of people who speak all kinds of languages. For some, this complicates matters. They start wondering, How are these men jabbering on? Are they already drunk? But for those that the Holy Spirit had prepared, this miracle wasn’t nearly as remarkable as the mighty works of God they spoke. The miracle of tongues played second fiddle to the story of how God had saved the world. The programs that they ran and the numbers they put up and the money they raked in and all that was flashy that day only served the greater good that the people of God got to be the people of God and do what the people of God do: preach the Gospel, break down barriers of sin and strangeness, and preach the same kind of message in any and every way they can.
Scene number seven, where a married couple gets it right. A newly married couple comes in scared because their marriage felt like it was blowing apart. They were screaming at each other. They were both hurt. They were lost and angry, so much so that they wouldn’t let the other person finish their sentences before they had something else to say. And it wasn’t my job to fix their conflict or to fix their marriage. In those hours, it was my job to help them hear what the other was actually saying. That he isn’t angry and selfish; he’s just never felt like he was smart or good enough to deserve her, and he needs to know she respects him and will stay by his side. She isn’t being nit-picky and judgmental; she’s scared that he didn’t think of her and wasn’t keeping her safe. And as much as they had tried, their real intentions were lost in a confusion of words. In order to hear, they needed to slow down and listen to what was really being said.
And with tears in their eyes, they listened to each other as if for the first time and heard again how beautiful the words of forgiveness sound.
How does the Holy Spirit change lives? The Holy Spirit changes lives in our readings by breaking down barriers. He changes lives by confronting us with our failure that comes from our own sin that leads to our own death so that he can shower us with the Gospel. He changes lives by adding frustration where we’d wish success, by guiding and preparing us in the least likely ways, but most of all, the Holy Spirit changes lives, time and time again, by working in the ways God’s promised to work – by the word, in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper – and doing it through his people, wherever they go, whatever they do, however they succeed, whenever they fail.
The kingdom of heaven is like a church spending a good deal of money to send youth down to a Youth Gathering to hear the same words they hear up here at our church for free. And yet, whether it’s the close quarters or the large crowds, whether it's the cool music or seeing their pastor brush his teeth, the Holy Spirit starts breaking down barriers so that they can hear the life-changing message of the Gospel as just that – life-changing.
The kingdom of heaven is like a husband and wife whose temptation is to run through their days only half-listening. And yet that have made a habit of looking each other in the eyes and listening to each other for what they’re actually saying.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town more interested in seeing what the Spirit is doing than keeping its programs going. More interested in walking with others in a life that looks like the Gospel than moving more butts in the pews. More interested in connecting with people however we may than preserving our own pride and culture. So they spend their days rejoicing in the Gospel, weeping at their sin and sins of others, and walking humbly with Jesus wherever he would go on his mission.
What do changed lives look like? They look about as different as different could be. They spring up in the most unlikely ways. Some travel together and some apart. Some grow fast and strong, others are more like watching corn grow. But one thing binds them: they have one Christ who saves them, one Holy Spirit who leads them, one Father who loves them, and one God who prepares all kinds of good for them in advance to do.
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