The Gift of Pure Speech

Does anyone give credence any longer to the idea that God is Lord of heaven and earth?  Heaven perhaps.  But the earth appears to be wholly autonomous, on its own, devoid of any transcendent presence, power or value.  Among the peoples of the earth, none have special status, none seem chosen or elect.  None are exempt from conflict, tragedy and ultimate decay.  Pundits are heralding the demise of the “American era,” meaning the end of American hegemony in areas of finance, technology, education and military might.  The state of Israel is increasingly threatened by hostile neighbors, whose acquisition of nuclear weapons threatens the very existence of “the chosen people.”  Then again, nation upon nation is devastated by cosmic forces beyond imagination: a tsunami in Indonesia, a cyclone in Myanmar, an earthquake in China, while other parts of the world are suffering from drought, disease, hunger, fire and flood.  Add to this, state sponsored genocide, the international sex-trade, global warming, terrorism, “preemptive warfare,” and internecine fratricide, and the world seems out of control.  Certainly out of the control of God.  God, it seems, is not only silent; He is absent.  To some, He is dead; to others He is simply “missing in action.”  Tragically, He seems irrelevant, an unnecessary hypothesis in a world that is as self-explanatory as it is self-destructive, a world that has given up on hope, trust and belief in transcendent being, power and purpose.

Yet the Old Testament Scriptures proclaim again and again that God is Lord over heaven and earth, that He is the sovereign, universal ruler whose will determines the movement of nations, the patterns of nature, and the destiny of human beings.  According to the biblical witness, God elected the obscure people of Israel, liberated them from bondage in Egypt, and led them to settle in a land of abundance, “flowing with milk and honey.”  From “no people,” He made of them “His people,” a chosen race whose success or failure depends directly on their faithful obedience to the Covenant Lord.  Insofar as God’s people submit themselves to Him in love and service, He promises to establish them in an earthly paradise not only of material prosperity, but also of justice, righteousness, mercy and peace.  In the meantime, He offers to defend them against hostile aggression, to preserve them in times of trouble, and to lead them toward that final victory and final glory, when God will reign in Zion, and the whole world will recognize and honor the people of Israel as His beloved children.  Then the nations of the earth will lay down their arms and warfare will be no more.  Peace and prosperity will reign forever, as all peoples everywhere celebrate the glory and majesty of “the Holy One of Israel.”

These images were interpreted by early Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, as prophetic figures that speak of life beyond death.  When Christ, the eternal Son of God, returns to His creation at His “parousia” or “glorious Second Coming,” those who have lived and died in Him will rise from their tombs to share with Him in His resurrection and glorification.  Although their way will necessarily be the way of the Cross, of suffering and martyrdom, it is a way chosen and directed by God Himself.  He is and remains the Lord of history, whose invincible power and authority will destroy the lesser powers of sin, death and corruption, so that those who live and die “in Christ” might attain to the glory and joy of the Kingdom of heaven.

How do we reconcile these two images, that of a silent, impotent or absent God, as portrayed by today’s media, in public education, in government and in the marketplace, and that of the all-powerful, universal Ruler, the all-sovereign Lord, the Creator and Redeemer depicted in the Holy Scriptures?

The answer, perhaps, is given to us in a passage from the prophecy of Zephaniah, which constitutes another of the readings the Church prescribes for Great and Holy Saturday (Zeph 3:8-15).  “At that time,” says the Lord, – the time of judgment and ultimate vindication – “I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord.”

This passage abounds with the images of an all-powerful, triumphant God so familiar from other prophetic writings.  In the day of final vindication, called elsewhere “the Day of the Lord,” Israel’s God will “assemble kingdoms” for judgment.  Rulers of the earth will submit themselves and offer Him sacrificial gifts.  And those of Israel who have remained faithful to Him will be forgiven their sin, transformed into a people of truth and righteousness, and granted everlasting peace.  In that day, the speech of all peoples will be changed into “a pure speech,” so that they, with the faithful Remnant of Israel, might “call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord.”

To most of our contemporaries, this is sheer fantasy, a product of wishful thinking and vain hope.  In their experience, if God exists at all, then He has nothing to do with world affairs or natural calamities.  At most, He is restricted to dealing with personal, “spiritual” matters that preoccupy those who give Him credence. Any thought that He is truly Lord of heaven and earth is scorned as naïve, and those who express that thought are dismissed as “fundamentalists” or as simply deluded.

To early Christians, however, the promise to change human language of falsehood, blasphemy and condemnation into “a pure speech” could not help but evoke the image of Pentecost.  According to the ancient, primal myth of the Tower of Babel, human speech became divided and divisive as a result of human rebellion against God.  Rather than unite peoples of various nations and cultures, sinful pride produced separation and alienation, symbolized by diverse languages and the inability to communicate across political and ethnic frontiers.  On the day of Pentecost, all of that changed.  Fifty days after Christ’s resurrection and His first appearances to His followers, an event occurred that transformed the scattered and frightened disciples, both men and women, into living witnesses to their Lord’s victory over death and corruption.  From fear and confusion, they were led by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to a unified mission marked by such courage and conviction that vast numbers of them would die as martyrs.

By their preaching and the miraculous acts that accompanied it, they bore witness to the truth of the earliest kerygma or confession of faith: that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God who was crucified and buried, indeed rose out of death and is alive, living and working among His followers in order to bring healing and eternal salvation to all mankind.  Through the Spirit of Pentecost, Christ lives and reigns in the affairs of human beings, as He does in the invisible, transcendent realm of angelic beings and of the saints who have risen in Him to share in the glory of heaven.

Through that same Spirit God has granted His people “a pure speech,” a new language of communion and love, which addresses all peoples everywhere, calling them, inviting them, urging them to open their eyes, hearts and minds, to behold reality as it is, to perceive and celebrate the Lordship of God over every nation and in every individual life.

To many people, warfare, poverty and injustice, coupled with natural calamities, are enough to convince them that God is dead, absent or irrelevant.  Out of His apparent silence, however, there comes forth true speech.  There comes forth the Word of God, who continues, through every age and to all those who have ears to hear, to reveal the person and purpose of God the Father within all of creation.

God is and will forever remain the Lord of heaven and earth, the sovereign Ruler of His creation, both visible and invisible.  If some people are granted “a pure speech,” the speech made possible by the effusion of the Spirit at Pentecost, it is so that they, like the apostles before them, might continue to proclaim that very truth, as they offer their ceaseless worship to the Holy Trinity.

To the media, to governments, to titans of industry, and to most educators that witness may sound like a pipedream, pious rubbish, signifying nothing.  To those who have heard that “pure speech,” though, and have welcomed it as true, this Pentecostal language addresses their deepest need and their most fervent desire.