Scattered by Sin, Gathered by God
Acts 2:1-41; Genesis 11:1-9; Ephesians 2:19-22
The Spirit creates the church and is at the center of God's work in his church. We must pay attention to the movement of the Spirit and follow where God is leading.
Sin confounds people's understanding of God and scatters them from their faith.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." What associations do you make with this phrase? Usually, when we hear this phrase, it is used to setup something dark and foreboding, an event that will have lasting and negative consequences. Similarly, in the Bible, darkness is used as an image for sin and lack of knowledge of God.
Genesis, the beginning of the story of God's work among and for his people, begins on a positive note, on a bright and sunny day, but quickly turns the page towards a dark and stormy night. The reason for this is sin--and the consequences of sin. We know the story--how God creates the world, culminating with the creation of human beings. He places them in a garden of perfection. But no sooner does this happen than sin creeps in, and Adam and Eve disobey God, leading to a worsening and worsening condition until even after the Flood, when human beings had occasion to start over afresh, sin has taken such a hold that violence, arrogance, and pride are the rule. Godliness is nowhere to be found.
Sin continues to stretch out in the Genesis story. Eventually we arrive at Genesis 11, and we see the people who began building their Tower in Babel following their own sinful desires in trying to pridefully attain glory for themselves at God's expense, building a tower to stretch high to the skies, to reach the very palace of God, perhaps to even take over the running of the world from God. After all, if we can tame God, if we can understand God, if we can know God by our construction, or even according to our own construction, what kind of gods are we? If God can be known like that, what kind of god is that? Where is the strength of that god? Where is the might and power of that god? It is in our own hands...in our own making.
Pride comes before a fall, we say...and sin scatters us, away from God, confusing our ability to even find him.
We all know the scenes of sin that follow, both in the Bible, and in our lives: For the nation of Israel, century after century of struggle, from the call of Abraham, who never quite gets it right, through the patriarchs, during the conquest, throughout the time of judges, and into the period of the kings, the exile and beyond. We know this pattern in our own lives, too: the struggle, the pride of not relinquishing our own wills to God's will because we know better, we want what we want, we don't believe God's way could possibly be the best way.
We struggle with our views towards others, with accepting those who are different than us, or who think differently than us; we struggle to help those in need without painting them with a broad brush of laziness; we snap at family members rather than extending them the same grace that was extended to us; we hold to lifeless traditions, our own Towers of Babel, rather than listening to the fresh leading of God.
So we wander through life, until either on our own, or with others, we begin to build a tower, a dark tower, during the dark and stormy period of our lives. We build this tower up, and up, and up...and the whole time, even though we think we are the ones doing the building, it is the tower that is controlling us, keeping us locked up in our sin, as we pridefully try to advance our way to God.
We need God to rescue to us, to destroy our tower of sin and disobedience, to take our away our pride, to show us that we are nothing without him but we are everything with him. As a song that was popular in my youth says, "You and me and God make 5." There is exponential growth when we turn to God, but turn we must, and abandon our old ways, we must.
Sin confuses us. It confounds us. But God brings clarity out of confusion. Where sin scatters, God gathers. He gathers us by his own Spirit.
God, through the gospel and his Spirit, bring clarity to confused people and gathers the scattered.
Our reading in Acts 2 began on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival. The Jewish people were gathered in Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book of Acts, we see the disciples gathered together, waiting for further instructions from Jesus who told them to wait for the "promise" from the Father. As they waited, they prayed. They waited expectantly. It was unclear to them what the promise was, but they waited. And on the Day of Pentecost, the promise was given.
The day started out like normal. The disciples were gathered together in one place. The only thing different than usual was the festival day. But then something very unusual happened. There was a sudden sound and a stunning visual. Things were happening that could only be described as metaphors. But it was a spiritual event. Something really happened. And suddenly, the apostles were preaching.
And the preaching sounded good! Everyone gathered heard a gospel message that called for a response. We know from later in this story that thousands responded to the message that day, resulting in thousands of baptisms for the forgiveness of sins.
But when we look at who heard the preaching, who it was who responded, we see something even more amazing than the thousands of conversions. We see Jewish people from many nations, perhaps even from "all" nations, gathered and hearing gospel preaching! And they heard the gospel preached in their own language!
Think about this...Jewish people from all nations gathered to hear the gospel...God's people who were scattered from Babel through the introduction of different languages...the long struggle of sin and pride...and now the gathering of God's scattered people through a common language given by God.
How was this common language achieved? How were a diverse people, united in ethnicity but divided by language, able to hear preaching in their own languages? How did God gather his people that were scattered by sin? He did all this through his Spirit.
After the demonstration of power, Acts reveals to us that the Spirit descended upon the apostles. They were filled with the Spirit and they began to preach. Their preaching was heard in other languages, but these were not scholars who spoke. These were not linguists or translators or experts in foreign languages. These were ordinary men, whose only claim to fame was that they were plucked out of their regular lives by Jesus and they began journeying with him. These were farmers and schoolteachers, office workers and factory workers, nurses and hospital staff. Yet by the power of God, by God's own Spirit, they preached in the language of others as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And it is the same Spirit, at the end of this story, that is given as a gift to those who are baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. This Spirit is the promise the disciples were told to wait for. It is the promise of God. It is the promise "for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
When Peter acknowledges the Spirit as the promise for all whom the Lord calls to himself, he is stating that the Spirit is the fulfillment of prophecy. The call from God is a call unto salvation and it is given by the Spirit. This is what the prophecy from Joel is about. The preaching was heard only by those who received it. To the rest, it sounded like babble. It sounded confused. And so they accused the apostles of being drunk.
But Peter said, "We are not drunk at all! This is the work of the Lord. This is what was spoken through prophecy." And he dug deep into the well of scriptural prophecy and spoke about the promise of God given to the prophet Joel, who spoke about the great outpouring of God's Spirit that would happen in the last days, where God, by his Spirit, would create a community of people for himself who would prophesy about him. The prophetic preaching would be so powerful that it would lead people to call upon the Lord's name. And in this calling is salvation. And in salvation is the Spirit. This is the promise, the promised Spirit, given to all who call upon and are called by the Lord.
So you have received the Spirit in your baptism, as have your children, all generations, and those who have been scattered by sin have been gathered by God through his Spirit. God gathers those who had once been scattered.
God dwells among his gathered people, who become a spiritual temple for him, not an idolatrous tower for themselves.
But what does this gathering look like? If our sin and scattering can be described as a tower, something that we build for ourselves against God, then God's gathering of us can be described as a temple. After all, a temple is one location where God chose to dwell among his people, the Israelites. And it's also the location he chooses to dwell among us.
In Ephesians 2:19-22, the apostle Paul describes the Spirit as building the church into a temple where God dwells. And he uses the same "scattering and gathering" language that we see in the Tower of Babel/Day of Pentecost stories: We are no longer strangers and aliens but are now fellow citizens. Here, the church is described as a building, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. This whole structure is growing into a holy temple for the Lord, and this structure, this temple, the church, will be the Lord's dwelling place...by his Spirit. So we see yet again the promise of the Spirit, indwelling us, dwelling among us, building us and shaping us to be the people and church God desires us to be.
We are God's building project, his building, his temple, where he dwells, growing his people into maturity.
What are the signs of God's dwelling among us?
But what are the signs of this maturity? How do we know we are being built up? How will we know that God is dwelling among us?
From the story of the Tower of Babel, we see that the presence of God among us brings the awareness of sin. God did not allow pride and arrogance to take hold. If we are at all self-aware and dependent on God, we can be sure that if we listen to him he will point out the pride and arrogance, the sin, that rests in our lives. Is your awareness of sin increasing? I am not asking about your feelings of guilt, for guilt is not an attitude of the Spirit. But if your awareness of sin is increasing, you can be assured that God's Spirit is dwelling among you.
From the Day of Pentecost story in Acts, we see that, combined with an increasing awareness of sin, as the opposite of guilt, God's dwelling among us by his Spirit will also lead to repentance from sin. As we become more aware of our sin, our pride, our arrogance, we will turn away from those things and turn to God, cling to him, in repentance. Just as the the people who heard Peter's sermon became aware of their own sin, they also realized that they needed to repent...and repent they did. Are you turning from sin in your life? Then know that God's Spirit is active in your life.
We also see, in Paul's description of the church in Ephesians 2:19-22, that the presence of the Spirit will lead to spiritual growth and maturity and unity in the church. Do you find your relationships with others in the church growing? Is your ability to overlook faults and flaws in others increasing? Are you more focused on God's work than on the church's traditions? These are all signs of God's activity in your life.
We can continue to discern these things...and discern we must, for God calls us not only to salvation but also to a life of obedience. Let us move from our towers of sin to the temple of God, letting him fill our lives, both individually and as the church. Let us look for his leading, to follow him at all times without excuse.
We find the Spirit's movement among us, both in our lives and in the life of the church, as we listen to God. It's in our listening that we find him. And it's in our following that we obey him. Let us live up to the call of God in our lives. Let us keep our focus on him, repenting from sin, growing in grace and maturity, and obeying the word of the Lord.