Temptation to Build Ivory Towers

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June 9, 2019. Pentecost is the start of a new church year. Jim Bennett’s sermon today reminds us that we don’t need to build ivory towers or to elevate ourselves, so that we stand out in the presence of God. Instead, God comes to us in our everyday lives.


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So as they say the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak. Today we celebrate Pentecost. It is the birthday of the church. In the liturgical church year, it is the start of a new church year. And Pentecost is the third most important festival in the church year, behind Easter and Christmas. I suppose many of you may know that already, if you are active in the congregation. But if you were not here last Sunday to hear pastor Stephanie’s sermon, you missed an important prologue for today’s message. She preached about the ascension of Jesus on the last Sunday of the Easter season, where Jesus told his disciples that he must go away so that God could send his followers the Holy Spirit. He said to them, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with the power from on high.” And Pentecost, then, was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.


Today’s lesson in the book of Acts tells how that promise was fulfilled. It says when the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place, and suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared on them tongues of fire, distributed and resting 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. Yet many of us do not realize that when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, not only was it to fulfill what Jesus promised prior to his ascension, but Pentecost the event closed an important loop — a loop that’s depicted between our first and second lesson today: the story of the Tower of Babel depicted in the Book of Genesis, and what Paul recounts occurred at Pentecost, our second lesson today.


In our first lesson we’re introduced to the Rabble of Babel. And they were trying to make a name for themselves to build a tower to the top of the heavens. And as our reading points out, God’s response to them was, “Let us confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” And God scattered them abroad over the face of the Earth. And then at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ followers utterance to speak in other tongues, it says the visitors — the Medes, the Parthians, Elamites, residents of Pamphylia, and Egypt, and Cyrene, and Rome, and Libya, and Cretan, on and on — all heard the disciples speak in their own language. So the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost brought full circle God’s promise to reverse the Babel Rabble and give God’s people a counselor to lead them in faith. And the Holy Spirit has counseled God’s church for over 2000 years.


Now unfortunately, it has not necessarily made the Babel Rabble an extinct species. The temptation to build ivory towers and make a name for ourselves is ever-present. I recently read a story of a chance encounter between two men having coffee at a roadside diner somewhere here in the Midwest. Sitting at the counter, a traveler turned to the man next to him, who appeared to be a farmer, and asked, “You live around here?” “Sure do,” the farmer responded. “Right down the road apiece.” Looking to do some Texas bragging, the traveller asked, “How big’s your place?” The farmer responded, “About a hundred acres.” So the traveler said, “Let me tell you about my place out in Texas. I get in my truck early in the morning every morning, and it takes me all day to get to the other side of my spread. What do you think about that?” Well, the farmer shook his head understandably and said, “I know just what you mean. I had a truck like that once.”


We are all susceptible to the temptation to build our ivory towers, if not out of brick and mortar, then out of our professions, recognition, or accumulation of wealth. That Midwestern farmer was not impressed with the babble of that Texas traveler. God isn’t impressed with ours either. We can try to pervert our relationship with God and with others, to raise ourselves above mere human existence. And there is certainly a lot of babble going on in our world today. But let’s face it, we cannot all be geniuses as some purport. When we try to raise ourselves above it all, to set ourselves apart, we take ourselves out of relationship with God and out of relationship with others, and the result is often disunity, if not out set idolatry. But Pentecost reminds us that we don’t need to build those towers or to elevate ourselves so that we stand out in the presence of God. The Pentecost event tells us that God comes to us wherever we are. That Spirit of God, the mighty Counselor, descended as Jesus, ascended as he had promised. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church is born. We don’t have to go in search of God in the heavens. In good times and bad, God comes to us in our everyday lives.


Last Sunday, pastor Stephanie reminded us that the church’s season of Pentecost is the longest season in the church year. This year it’s going to be about 24 weeks. The length of the season was no accident. The church leaders that developed the liturgical calendar didn’t establish the length of Pentecost because they ran out of other things to celebrate. It was very purposeful. There’s plenty of work for the Holy Spirit to do during this time. Our gospel reading for today reminds us of some of the work of the Spirit. Our gospel lesson in John begins a series of five statements about the Holy Spirit. Two of those purposes are listed in today’s gospel. Jesus says the Counselor is the Spirit of Truth that dwells in you and will be in you. You know, we hear that promise as part of the celebration of baptism where it states in the liturgy: you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. It is a gift, an indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our development of faith. And then in verse 25, today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells his followers the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things and will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.


So not only does the Spirit indwell with us, but it is there to remind us of all the things that Jesus taught us. So in the weeks to come, in this long season of Pentecost, our lessons will remind us of all that Jesus taught his followers. Jesus never expected his followers, after the ascension, to be without guidance. Without the Holy Spirit to guide God’s church, could you imagine the church living to celebrate its 2000th birthday? That’s a lot of candles. There may still be a lot of babbling going on in our world by those who think themselves better than the rest, but the work of the church — the teachings of God’s word to alleviate hunger and need, of sharing our wealth and talents — they cannot be fulfilled from ivory towers.


God’s spirit binds us together with hope and promise. It keeps our feet on the ground. So happy birthday, and let us celebrate. Christ Lutheran Church has some exciting opportunities and some challenges in this coming year. Celebrate, and then let us get back to work and do God’s will.




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2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jim Bennett, Acts 2:1-21, Genesis 11:1-9, John 14:8-17, 25-27