Sermon for Pentecost 2019 preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison
“You can be anything you want to be!” That’s what we sometimes say to children or young people about their future: “you can be anything you want to be.” Maybe someone has said it to you at some point in your life. “You can be anything you want to be,” and then we often add, “if you put your mind to it.”
And you can understand why someone would want to say that. You want to encourage a child, a teenager, or a young adult, not set their sights too low; to achieve all that they can achieve. And it’s especially important to offer that sort of encouragement, when by virtue of circumstances such as their gender, race or social standing, they are receiving a host of discouraging messages about their potential.
So, you can be anything you want to be. There are only two problems with that statement, the first of which is that it’s not true. If it was true I would have been a test-class cricketer, opening the batting for England. No amount of optimistic attitude, no application of my mind to it, no amount of practice, was ever going to overcome my lack of the essential God-given physical attributes of strength and hand-eye coordination that would make this possible. There are some things which are just meant not to be, and you need that dose of realism to put alongside optimism and ambition if you are to avoid unnecessary disappointment.
The second problem with, “you can be anything you want to be” is the more serious one. It’s ok to dream and to achieve, but what if you dream of being something that you should not be; what if you dream of doing things that should not be done? That takes us into a meditation upon the flawed human condition – one that we sometimes refer to with the word, “sin” – and it brings us to Genesis chapter eleven: the Tower of Babel.
The problem is not about aspiration as such. The problem is about some of the things to which human beings aspire. Some people today aspire to be jet pilots (another one that was never, never going to work out for me) or astronauts, or rock stars, or famous television personalities: no problem. Others, however, aspire to world domination, or to being criminal masterminds, or some more modest versions of being in charge so that you can lord it over others, or taking from others what you want for yourself. The people in Genesis eleven have those sorts of aspiration.
A nomadic people, coming from the east (11:2), they settled down, using the latest brick technology to build themselves a city. (11:3-4) But then human pride, mixed with anxiety takes hold: ‘let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ (11:4) And the way in which they decide to achieve this is by building a tower which will reach all the way up into the heavens. (11:4)
Rather than depend upon God or the gods to come to them, to give them what they needed to flourish in life, they were going to take matters into their own hands; to be the ones who spanned the gap and could move back and forth between heaven and earth at will. They were going to be in charge. They were going to be gods. And then, of course, they could be anything they wanted to be!
Now you can, if you wish, read this account of the aborted building project as an historical account of an event that took place. Alternatively, and I tend in this direction myself, you can read it as tale told to help people reflect on the human condition. We aspire to great things. Often, though, these aspirations are concerned only with our own benefit. And when we aspire to do things for our own benefit then those with whom we could cooperate to do these great things – build a new city, for example – are the very ones with whom we fall out. And in our competing aspirations we end up not even being able to talk to each other.
And what happens with individuals also occurs with groups of people. Some aspire to reach the heavens, to be above everyone else, to be gods in comparison to other puny beings. Here we are today, a short while after commemorating the D-Day landings. These were a pivotal event in the struggle to liberate people from Nazism, a humanly constructed ideology which attempted to dominate the world, with claims of racial greatness, and accompanying horrific mistreatment of those they disdained; of anyone who stood in their way.
D-Day was a moment of great reversal. A militaristic, murderous, machine, imbued with a character of racist superiority – we are like gods in comparison to those others – had flowed westward, but now was being pushed back; a moment worthy celebration and thanksgiving. And D-Day comes to my mind not just because of the timing – seventy-five years and a few days after the event – but because today is Pentecost Sunday. And Pentecost is a great day and a great moment of reversal. It’s about the reversal of that situation, that condition where human flaws turn great aspirations into aspirations to dominate others and benefit self.
At the conclusion of the Babel episode, we’re told, ‘the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.’ (11:9) In contrast, the day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, as recounted in Acts chapter two, is a day of gathering in from across the earth, and of God’s activity in all the earth. To begin with, the Eleven have gathered ‘all together in place’ when the Holy Spirit comes ‘from heaven [where the tower builders had aspired to go]’ It Spirit came ‘with a sound like a rush of violent wind.’ (2:1) And this fills the house where they are sitting. More notably, people were gathering in the city from all over the world which the tower-builders of Genesis eleven had been scattered across: ‘there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.’ (2:5)
It’s the great reversal. Previously, we humankind have been dragged down, held captive, by the selfish desires and aspirations of others and ourselves. Now, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who personified living and dying for others rather than for self, a great reversal is taking place. Competing self-interests led to a Babel-babble of discordant voices, confusion and suffering across the world. Now, Peter, declares, in these new and last days, as promised, God is pouring out God’s own Spirit upon the whole world; people are filled with – inspired by – visions and dreams.
Now you don’t need me to tell you that, even after Pentecost, the world is not yet perfect. In fact, it seems still to be filled with people and groups of people who have aspirations that are all about their self-interest and using others as a means to achieve their goals. Maybe, sometimes, we ourselves act in that way. Yes, Pentecost is a moment of great reversal and that’s another way in which it’s like a heavenly D-Day; a pivotal moment that points towards a good ending but is not the end itself. There was, after all, still a lot of suffering and struggle still to take place in Western Europe after June1944 and before liberation was achieved.
In this between-times, then, between the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the reconciliation by God of all things at the end time, we still need all the help we can get in struggling with the continuing reality and impact of self-centred aspirations of others and ourselves. We need God’s presence, God’s guidance, God’s support; we need to have Jesus with us, by our side, encouraging us. And that is what Pentecost is about; a pouring out of God’s Spirit of Jesus on all the earth – including us – to advocate for us and to us, to help us, to counsel us into attitudes and actions of love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23). For with the help of this Pentecost Spirit we can be anything God wants us to be.